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5.1 The Tragedy of the Commons

4 min readjanuary 1, 2023

Jenni MacLean

Jenni MacLean


AP Environmental Science ♻️

252 resources
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5.1: The Tragedy of the Commons 🎭

The Tragedy of the Commons 🎭signifies a situation in which a common good is shared by several people (or, in this class, species). In the paper by Garrett Hardin (1968) that explains this phenomenon, he explains that participants in this resource sharing will take more and more of the resource given that it serves their cause. In his article, Hardin used the example of field open to herders or farmers, in which the addition of animals directly leads to increases in profit. This overuse of resources leads to overgrazing, which ultimately destroys the pasture for all herders. When thinking about this in an environmental sense, we will see that people will continue practicing certain habits believing that, on a global scale, their actions have no consequences. This leads to many examples of the tragedy where a resource is depleted or destroyed because of overuse for one's gain. Examples of
  • Oceans - Polluting the water or over-harvesting the biomass. Overfishing and insufficient endangered species protection efforts.
  • Air - Adding pollutants by continuing to contribute to emissions.
  • Freshwater - Using or redirecting it as well as polluting it.
  • Game animals for hunting - Over-farming or overhunting; killing off more than a population's birth rate can adequately compensate for.
  • Bureau of Land Management Land - Common land which can be used in ways that damage the environment surrounding it (off-road vehicles, pollutants)
  • National parks - Land set aside for public enjoyment experiencing environmental damage and overuse.
Ways to regulate people's actions: 
  • Laws:👮 Rules and regulations limit how people access a commons so that it is still available for everyone to use. For example, dividing a plot of land into solo plots which gives people equal access to land as a resource.
  • Privatization:🔐 People are much more likely to take care of their own property. The purchase rights of land and ability to maintain it may regulate environmental damages.
  • Education or Peer and community Pressure:📓 Letting people know how their actions impact others and teach them about preserving a commons. 
Scenarios of Commons
This concept can be applied to any common good; let's look at a few examples and apply the regulations to solve the degradation of the commons.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-3AmbPU9qZBhS.jpg?alt=media&token=e6b10ae6-6b60-474d-b616-8374f39e2e6a

Image Courtesy of Pixaby

Halloween Candy 🍬: A bowl full of Halloween candy left outside is a common good; everyone owns and has access to it. It's not stealing to take one or even all of it to yourself because the person who left it intended for people to take it. So, taking the entire bowl of candy increases your gain by a lot and only mildly hurts the people who come after you and find the bowl empty. This is the idea that if it's not going to significantly hurt anyone, it's worth the gain. 
  • Laws: 👮 To preserve the candy bowl, a lawmaker places a candy guard next to the bowl and passes a law where only one piece of candy per citizen is legal.
  • Privatization: 🔐 The candy bowl disappears and everyone is instead assigned a random piece. While there is no bowl, citizens may exchange their candy with others or make other arrangements if they want to have access to different varieties.
  • Education or Peer and Community Pressure: 📓 People become sick of all the candy being gone and hold a campaign and fundraiser to preserve them.
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-dQBBT0fU3lwS.webp?alt=media&token=b0de3e48-0f5e-4c27-b7f2-c54128a4988b

Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Ocean Fishing 🎣: International waters are unowned, without any environmental regulations. They are also, naturally, full of unique, different, and many kinds of fish. If you go fishing, you can take what is only necessary for your household/person/meal, or you can take what you can catch for profit. Your contribution to the ocean depletion in that one trip will be, in all, minimal (if you don't take the fish, the next boat behind you will).
  • Laws:👮 Fishing quotas based on species and number are developed and reinforced. Marine preserves are identified for their importance in the reproduction of marine species and protection. 
  • Privatization: 🔐 The majority of the ocean cannot be privatized. In general, 200 miles of water around each country is owned by that country, allowing each country to protect its shoreline. Otherwise, international waters are difficult to divide this way.
  • Education for Peer and Community Pressure: 📓 A kid's science fair project shows the devastating effects of overfishing and provides an important flier which lists facts and ways to cut down consumption.
Here is another example of a tragedy of the commons. Can you identify laws, privatization, and education strategies for preserving the commons?
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-30ZrfSyMJDCw.jpg?alt=media&token=3bbd4e1f-9cf5-4c5f-95e7-6df418cebede

Image Courtesy of Pixaby

City Bus 🚌: While riding on the city bus, you are tempted to graffiti on the back of the seat. You enjoy the experience and decide the small downside to others is worth your gain. The following person who must sit there is mildly upset about the graffiti but not specifically harmed. You would never graffiti that person’s living room chair because that would damage their personal property and cause them extreme unhappiness, but the city bus belongs to everyone and is a different story. 
  • Laws: 👮 
  • Privatization: 🔐
  • Education for Peer and Community Pressure: 📓
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🏜Unit 1 – The Living World: Ecosystems
🐠Unit 2 – The Living World: Biodiversity
👪Unit 3 – Populations
🌏Unit 4 – Earth Systems & Resources
🏖Unit 5 – Land & Water Use
⚡️Unit 6 – Energy Resources & Consumption
💨Unit 7 – Atmospheric Pollution
♻️Unit 8 – Aquatic & Terrestrial Pollution
🔥Unit 9 – Global Change
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