Tragedy of the Commons: Excessive Use of Finite Resources

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When talking about political ecology, we can find many theories to explain complex findings. According to Osborne, political ecology is not only limited on a local or national level, but it is focusing on environmental issues around the world. (Osborne, 2015, p. 67). The world is facing climate change and not only since yesterday or since Greta Thunberg has raised the awareness of this topic. It has considerably been changing over the last few years. Robbins unites political ecology into five dominant narratives: 1) the degradation and marginalization theory 2) the conservation and control thesis 3) the environmental conflict and exclusion thesis 4) the environmental subjects and identity thesis and 5) political objects and actors thesis. These different narratives aim to offer explanations of why environmental systems or social identities change. (Robbins, 2012, p. 21 - 23)

According to Robbins 'one of the first and most essential contributions to a contemporary political ecology is the common property theory'. (Robbins, 2012, p. 51) The framework of the common property theory includes the 'fisheries, forests, rangeland, genes, and other resources, like many of the environmental systems over which struggles occur'. (Robbins, 2012, p. 51) This means that these are part of the collective ownership structure in economies. (Robbins, 2012, p. 51)

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Common resources are natural resources that are not owned by the government nor by the private individual. This means there is no ownership established previously. Common resources are often referred to as open-access resources. Unlike public goods, common resources get depleted as more people use them and as people only have one incentive which is to consume as many of those (free) resources as possible since they provide a tangible benefit. (Kenton, 2018) Since there is no ownership over this specific resource, every individual has the right to use and consume the common resources without any regulations and restrictions. This often leads to what is called “the tragedy of the commons'. Under a tragedy of the commons, the common resource is often used and re-used which results in overconsumption of a specific commodity.

The “Tragedy of the Commons” was first mentioned in 1968 by Garret Hardin. It is referred to as the “[…] neglect of the well-being of the society in the pursuit of the personal gain. It is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming.” (Chappelow, 2019) Hardin illustrates the theory with an example of herders who gain individual benefits from letting their animals graze on a common field. The individual herder makes the rational and for him logical choice to increase the profit by adding livestock to the fields. However, due to the increase in the usage of the commons, there is an overall expense for every other individual herder since the field will be degraded. These costs have to be shared by all other herders. If every single herder would think in this (carelessly) way, the field would no longer be usable in the future and everyone would lose their own benefit. Ergo, we see that common resources are limited to a certain extent. Hardin sums it up by saying: ”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 the commons brings ruin to all.” (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244)

A particularly significant case that shows the “Tragedy of the Commons” in today’s world is the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Beef production in Brazil is based on the principle that commercially exploits indigenous people because it causes the deforestation of the Amazon. It is an example of the “Tragedy of the Commons” since “the commonly held land (Amazon forest) is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there.” (Anukwonke, 2015) People are acting rationally and individually but collectively cause a disaster. Human activities like logging or clearing the land for livestock to graze are responsible for the destruction of forests. “Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates.” (, 2019) The forest is the home of indigenous people where they gather food and hunt to make a living. As mentioned before and clearly pointed out by Robbins, forests are the common property of the Brazilian nation and not only of the government itself. 

The current Brazilian president Bolsonaro is able to implement rules on how to use the forest and therefore to facilitate the development of certain economic activities. Unfortunately, the state is serving and prioritizing the interest of capitalists which results in an antisocial system where indigenous people are expropriated in their rights of natural resources and the commons while being immediately drawn into market activities which are based on commercialization and capitalization. Seeking for individual benefits is accrued at the costs of the groups. Robbins confirms this by saying “[…] private gains might hold the social or ecological costs, and which held that collective use of resources tended inherently towards abuse and degradation.” (Robbins, 2012, p. 52) The cost of losing the Amazon rainforest is more widely distributed – as it affects the global population – than the benefits for those owning and using the Amazon forest for cattle ranching, for example. The environmental degradation due to the deforestation of the Amazon under these social, economic and ecological circumstances are high and might be “explained as tragic outcomes of failures in collective management”. (Robbins, 2012, p. 51)  

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