Tragedy of the Commons

The following essay was originally written Nov. 8, 2000, for my Grade 10 Science class. As a result, there may be a few logical and grammatical errors that can be attributed to youth; but because on the re-reading I discovered it had some entertainment value, I have decided to include it in this online collection, where it will soon be joined by some of its partners.

In class yesterday, we did an activity that illustrated something known as the "Tragedy of the Commons". What the tragedy of the commons is, is when there is a shared resources, such as water, trees, field, etc., among a community of people, more likely a large community, there will be one or two greedy people who take more than their portion, wrecking it for all for their own personal gain. This was illustrated when we had half the class share a pretend pasture, a commons, and they could put cows to graze upon it. If there were too many cows, some would die, and the pasture would be able to sustain fewer cows. As it turns out, two greedy people had no concern for this limit, and stuck all their cows on the field. The other members who shared in that field had to compensate by putting very few of their cows on the field. Later on, the entire pasture was wrecked when the same two people continued to put cows onto the pasture. As a counter-experiment, the other half had the same field, except that it was fenced, divided up between members. The over-all prooductivity of the field was lower, but the median wealth was higher, because people cared about their own field more, and were not given the opportunity to be greedy. This is the tragedy of the commons. It is when a few greedy people wreck a shared resource for everyone. This includes dumping mercury into Lake Ontario, which pollutes our drinking water, so that someone can avoid paying a large dumping fee. This includes a logging company cutting down a forest, at the expense of the surrounding farmland, which now receives less rain, less wind protection (against erosion), and more. But here is the question: does dividing an expanse among individuals increase productivity, even though the over-all productivity is lower?

I would have to answer yes, because people are much more careful with things that belong to themselves rather than things that belong to others. It seems strange for that to be, since the opposite is supposed to be true. One is supposed to be more careful with things that belong to others, since if it gets broken, they have to pay for it. However, in the tragedy of the commons, it isn't owned by someone else, it is owned by the person and many others. This means, that if one wrecks it, they have wrecked something that belongs to them, so they can't be sued or forced to pay. However, others also suffer, since the preson is not the sole owner. Also, when a resource is shared, it is much likely not to be regulated, conserved, etc. This all means it will run out faster, be destroyed faster, be milked to the last drop. When a resource is divided up, people can clearly see how much is theirs, and they started regulating and conserving, since they know that once its gone, so are they. If you destroy your own field, you suffer, and you suffer alone, or with the others who made that bad decision. There is no personal gain in milking your field to the last drop, when you are the sole owner, so people are more willing to conserve. Perhaps more wanting to conserve too. So, when a field is divided up, even though it is over-all less productive, there is no opportunity to be greedy, so the field is conserved.

However, there is a very simple way to regulate a commons. Simply put out a by-law stating a limit to its use. Rationing, perhaps it can be called. For instance, if a person has more than five cows on the field, that person is either exiled or executed, and their cows are burned. In our modern society, if a household uses more than 100 cubic metres of water a year, they pay $5,000 per cubic metre. If a logging company tricks the government into letting them clear-cut an entire forest, the company is dissolved and its assets are sold to re-plant the forest. Its a very simple rule of thumb. If you're greedy, then shouldn't you pay for it? This is how you make the commons work. It is for the best over-all productivity for the field, and it limits greed by regulation. Perhaps this idea won't be too popular, but why does it matter? We have the issue of saving this world on our hands, and are we just going to sit on them?

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