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Tragic, as we may call it. The resources that we are so dependent on are reducing day by day. We started with a full stock of clean air, water and fossil fuels and now we are here worrying about whether the future generations will have enough left for them. Natural resources are limited in quantity and when everyone uses them for their individual benefit, it leads to their depletion and finally complete exhaustion. This leads to an economic problem called The Tragedy of Commons. The tragedy that every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from using a shared resource leading to overuse of the said resource thereby neglecting the benefit of the society in general. This idea of maximizing individual benefit over that of the society is inherent in human nature, it leads to overwhelming demand in comparison to the available supply. This leads to the resource in question to be unavailable in the society. Individuals acting rationally will try to increase their own consumption; however, the dilemma arises when as a society they would not want the resources to get exhausted. Garrett Hardin developed the concept of the tragedy of commons declaring that as human populations increased the pressure on the finite resources at both global and local resources would be higher leading to overexploitation and ruin. He used the example of grazing land which was unable to sustain an ever-increasing population of animals. Just like the animals, overuse and overexploitation of available resources by the ever-increasing human population leads to the Tragedy of commons. (Investopedia)

 Is the Tragedy of Commons real? Examples from around us

The concept is very real and can be associated with various environmental problems that the world is facing right now. The first and the foremost example of the tragedy are the fisheries that are increasingly facing a reduction in the fish population. These include the Grand Banks fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland, the fisherman in this region thought that the fisheries had an indefinite amount of cod fish. Then there were significant advancements in the fishing technology which allowed the fisherman to catch a greater amount of cod fish, leading to intense competition between the fisherman and thus massive reduction in the fish population. By 1990, the population of cod fish reduced to such lower levels that the fisheries collapsed.

Over-farming on the highly fertile banks of the Mississippi River led to the development of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. Farmers over fertilized the farms near the river and its tributaries, the fertilizer was then washed down by the rainwater into the river thereby contaminating the river and making it unsustainable to handle any other forms of life. Hence it is called ‘the dead zone’. On an international level the problem arises when collectively, the international community wants to reduce the greenhouse emissions and pollution, reverse deforestation and slow down the depletion of the ozone layer. However, individually each country wants to exploit as many natural resources as it can in order to produce the cheapest and globally best-selling products. The factories are to be run cheaply, at extremely low costs and reap as many economic benefits as possible. This may lead to countries being extremely economically successful but it will leave the society as a whole facing the consequences of the combined economic damage.

Groundwater is a resource shared by everyone beyond and borders and social demarcations. Any pollution or contamination of one portion of the groundwater has long-lasting effects on the entire belt. Also, individual pumping of too much groundwater leads to depletion of the resources. Eventually everyone starts pumping too much and the groundwater level diminishes.

Added to these examples is another more relevant phenomena that we go through on a daily basis. Almost all cities in India face severe traffic congestion on a regular basis. Roads are a public good, available to all, for use and exploitation alike. The tragedy of traffic congestion that we all face every day consequently causing us to be late to work, facing the wrath of our superiors is a result of this. You might leave your house thinking that one extra car on the road may not really cause a congestion, that being true, if everyone leaves their houses around the same time with the same though then it leads to excessive traffic on the roads. Therefore, the roads being the common resource are being exploited by individuals for their own benefit i.e reaching work on time. However, it so happens that as a result of this belief there is traffic on the roads and everyone is late for work.

The atmosphere of the Earth is another resource shared by everyone. It comes free of any cost, so nobody is responsible for its exploitation or maybe all of us are. Green house emissions and other sources of pollution have been consistently damaging the atmosphere and rendering it unfit for survival. While each individual contribution may not be significant, together it accumulates to a great amount of pollution and damage. This causes a welfare loss to the society as a whole

The association with climate change

 According to Hardin “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” Globally, climate change is the biggest Tragedy of the Commons. Nations functioning on their individual interest overexploit the available resources and then complain about the collective damage to the environment. Despite the existing threat of climate change, nations have failed to take action or find a solution to the problem. Excuses related to costs and responsibilities of the problem have always been used and the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has progressively increased due to the activities of these countries.

Climate change is considered the greatest market failure that the world has ever seen, externalities and market failure are more often than not associated with climate change. The reason behind excessive carbon and greenhouse emissions is considered to be the fact that the perpetrators do not have to pay the full cost of the damage cost. Just as each resource is shared, the costs are also to be shared amongst all the users of the resource. The Paris 2015 agreement within the United Nations Framework is considered to be a huge step in dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance. It requires each country to set a specific target for reducing emissions by a specific date and limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius. The Kyoto Protocol signed earlier was the first step in the direction of finding a solution to the climate problem. (Patt, 2017)

 According to reports in the Wired UK, Climate Change will get a lot worse before it gets better. A paper by a team of mathematicians uses the game theory explains this idea. It implies that there will be a marked increase in sea level and killer heatwaves before the governments decide to act about it, the solution will be derived using the concept of the tragedy of commons. Implying that a resource is as free to use as it is free to abuse. (Highfield, 2018)

The population of our world is continually increasing and is exhausting the stock of natural resources thereby increasing the intensity of the commons problem. The usual solution to the commons problem is to establish private property rights on the resources except this becomes really difficult to establish on the international frontier. There exists a possibility of completely redefining the structure of nation states and then further redefining international governments. Hardin argued that the ever-increasing nature of the population implies that the commons problem has no technical solution and is inevitable.


Investopedia. Tragedy of Commons. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/tragedy-of-the-commons.asp

Patt,A. (December 2017). Beyond the tragedy of the commons: Reframing effective climate change governance

Highfield, R. (July 6, 2018). Climate Change will get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Retrieved from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/climate-change-prediction-game-theory-tragedy-of-commons

Image Credit:New Security Beat

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Written By Shazia Azmat Fatima Rehman

Economics student at Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University.

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