The Consequences and Effects of Tragedy of the Commons

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“An overpopulated world, a system of the commons leads to ruin....Even if an individual fully perceives the ultimate consequences of his actions he is most unlikely to act in any other way, for he cannot count on the restraint his conscience might dictate being matched by a similar restraint on the part of all others.” — Garrett Hardin, Carrying Capacity as an Ethical Concept (1967)

Open Access Resources

Open Access resource otherwise known as Res nullius property resources is a resource with no ownership or legal authority to restrict access to the natural resources. Open access resources are rivalrous, divisible and non-excludable resources. Non excludable implies to the resources that can be exploited by anybody while Divisibility means the resources exploited by one group subtracts it from the resource availability of the other groups. (Tietenberg, 2012).The exploitation of resources was based on first-come, first-served premise. Furthermore, since anyone can access the resources at anytime it may give rise to the phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons.

This can be further outlined by recollecting the outcome of an American Bison. In the olden days, American bison was abundant in United States, thus there was an open access to hunting. Frontier natives could without much of an effort get whatever they required from hunting the Bison. In the absence of scarcity, abundance was not jeopardized by open access hunting. However, as the years passed by, the numbers of hunters was amplified owing to the rapid demands for bison. In the long run, within the sight of unlimited demands, open access caused the individual hunters, without exclusive rights to overexploit the resources and the bison was not able to produce its yield fast enough to support them all. Consequently, scarcity turned into a factor for them. Furthermore, boundless access destroyed the incentive to conserve the Bison, since hunter taking advantage of an open-access resource would not have a reason to conserve because of the potential economic benefits derived from the animal product. As a result of excessive harvest and the loss of habitat the Great Plains bison herds nearly became extinct. (Tietenberg, 2012). This is a negative externality and a case of issues associated with open access resources.

Common Pool Resources

Likewise, common-pool resources are shared resources which are distinguished by non exclusivity and divisibility. Common-pool resource (CPR) is a resource which comprises of both natural and man-made resource. Property rights may exist for common-pool resources however it is cost intensive to put into effect so they are not commonly practiced. In other words, common pool resource is a resource that are easily accessible to all the consumers and to which accessibility can only be limited at an extremely high cost. The greatest concern of common pool resources are fisheries, forests and irrigation systems. (Santos, 2013)

A common-pool resource characteristically consists of a core resource such as water or fisheries which permits a restricted amount of extractable fringe units with the goal that the resources are secured in order for its constant exploitation. Since common-pool resources are divisible, the resources are susceptible to problems of overuse, pollution, and destruction unless limit access are enforced. Furthermore, commercially exploited resources can be exhausted to the point of extinction if it exceeds the carrying capacity thus common-pool resources are vulnerable to “Tragedy of the commons.” (Basurto, 2020) As indicated by Elinor Ostrom, she expressed that the vast majority of the common pool resources all through the world are administered by common property regimes which are based on self-management by a local community.

For instance: the case of Harbor Gangs of Maine. The Maine lobster fishery is one scenario where the local people have assisted on reducing the access to overexploitation with some impressive measures. The locals set their territories that mark the boundaries between fishing zones. Predominantly, in close proximity to the off-shore islands, these areas tend to be entirely harvested by close-knit, firmly constrained by groups of harvesters. These “gangs” limit access to their area by a scope of strategies. Needless to say, few strategies ends up being compelling, by covert and illegal means, such as the act of slicing the lines to lobster traps owned by new competitor, thereby rendering the traps irreversible.

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Additionally, it was found that in every period of the year, the pounds of lobster ensnared per trap and the size of those lobsters were more prominent in defended zones. Not only did the bigger number of pounds bring about more economic benefits, but also the bigger lobsters got significantly higher price for each pound. Casual courses of action were effective in such case, in view of the fact that the Maine lobster stock is likewise ensured by guidelines restricting the size of lobsters that can be taken (forcing both least and greatest sizes) and precluding the harvest of egg-bearing female lobsters. There are also other examples of community co-management which offers empowering evidence for the sustainability of the existing resources. (Acheson, 2003)

One such example is the Chilean abalone (a kind of snail called 'loco') is Chile's most significant and valuable fishery. Local fishers started coordinating in 1988 to manage a 2 miles of coastline. Today, the co-management plan includes 700 co-managed zones, 20,000 high quality fishers, and 2,500 miles of coastline. They found out that community based management is effective to sustain the resources as well as to ensure the source of revenue for the fishing communities. (Acheson, 2003)

Garrett Hardin an ecologist (1915–2003) in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” he asserted complex environmental problems are the consequence of our incapability to decide between the short-term individual benefit versus the long-term environmental sustainability. The “commons” as he referred in the title of his essay are those portions of our environment which are readily accessible to every individual yet for which not a single being takes responsibility and liability to resources such as the air, water, wildlife, forests, and fisheries. (Tietenberg, 2012)

He compared shared resources to a common grazing pasture; in this scenario, let’s say there is a common pasture land that herder uses for their cows to graze. Nobody owns it, thus anyone can come and graze their livestock here. It allows for the grazing to be just at or below the carrying capacity. In the case of overgrazing, however, the pasture become more prone to erosion, grasses won’t be able to grow fast enough to support them all, the field may decline in productivity, lowering the carrying capacity and eventually yield less benefit to its users. Even so, knowing the consequences, the herder prefers for the greatest short-term personal gain by adding more cows in the field, until they use up all the grass in the pasture while the damage of the degraded field is shared by the entire group.

One familiar incident of Tragedy of common can be related to the collapse of Easter Island. The collapse of the Easter Island civilization can be explained by the phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons”. Easter Island was well known to be community that destroyed themselves by overexploitation of its own resources. Easter Island is situated in the Pacific Ocean. The island is most famously known for stone headed monumental statues called Moai. At some point in 1200 ad, it was inhabited by Rapa nui. Initially, before the tragedy, the island was abundantly forested. However, due to rapid growth of population, people of Easter Island chopped down acres of trees, exposed the soil of nutrients and hunted varieties of animal species to extinction.

By 1650, there was a major deforestation, unhealthy farming practices and overhunting taking place which eventually exhausted critical resources causing soil erosion and deterioration of the land as a result the population began to diminish, alongside the island’s terrestrial biodiversity. By the time Easter Island’s people came into realization it was already too late. As the year passed by the population had dwindled to a mere 700 people. The shared environmental resources were overused and eventually exhausted which caused the phenomenon popularly known as the “Tragedy of common”

Similarly, we can relate it to the worldwide climate change crisis. In the present day scenario, our shared resource is the atmosphere, and we are repeating the past by doing what the people of Easter Island did hundreds of years ago to their own territory. In light of our thirst for non-renewable resources such as the fossil fuels, we are overexploiting the resources which results in high emission of CO2 that is polluting and reducing the shared atmosphere. We keep on exploiting the earth for its carbon-rich fossil fuels while discharging the toxics into the atmosphere to boost our “perceived” living standard without even considering the impact it would have on the atmosphere. In other words, long-term environmental stability is being overweighed by short term individual benefits. Thus, without any immediate remedies and comprehensive reforms, the end of human civilization becomes a significantly more possible situation.

Perhaps this is the moment to start pondering about carbon-use efficiency. Making carbon emission as obvious and unambiguous as possible is fundamental to alert end users on their contribution towards climate change. We as a whole get month to month service charges which show vitality use, regardless of whether it be power, petroleum gas, oil, and so forth. Why not have extra details for carbon discharges with a related charge? The end consumer would be penalized relatively to the extent of their carbon footprint.


In a nutshell, the world needs viable laws and guidelines to forestall the degradation of our worldwide common resources. We must promote a keen sense towards stewardship, for the sustainability of our planet. Different prospects incorporate state-property systems where the government possesses and controls the property, for instance, Parks and forests are much of the time claimed and oversaw by the government. Furthermore, the genuine catastrophe of Easter Island offers us valuable insights into human actions and individual responsibility as a purpose. It provides us unmistakable evidence of the results related with resource overexploitation and natural devastation. It gives us a strident glimpse at what could be our own kind of destiny. Above all it fills in as a source of inspiration to change our ways before it's past the point of no return. Notwithstanding the points of interest, it would be in the consumers’ best interest to lessen the amount of carbon footprint. Consequently, instead of the “tragedy of the commons” it may become the “fortune of the commons”.


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