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Climate Education Series: Tragedy of the Commons-Misusing the Natural Resources that Belong to All of Us

Updated: Mar 3

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic problem, when people consume and overuse a common resource, to the expense, and detriment of other people. Because the resource is a shared resource, it is difficult to stop people from consuming, or overconsuming it. Think of all of the resources we share on this Earth.

The Commons The commons can include the atmosphere, various bodies of water, groundwater aquifers, our public parks, public roads, and our forests. Air is a resource we all need and use. The challenge is when we pollute and add particles or release harmful gases to the air.  Air pollution and the greenhouse gases we know about, that come from both industrial processes, how we move around, how we manage our cities and homes, even how we consume, have damaged this shared resource. What solutions exist to better manage this resource? There are several international agreements including the Paris Agreement or the Paris Climate Accords, requiring nations across the world to recognize the impact of greenhouse gases, and to reduce emissions of these gases to slow down global warming.

Air Pollution and its Impact Think about how air pollution, or quality of air has impacted your family, friends, people in your community? When we pollute the air, the problem is not one that is localized, or one that just impacts the people where the pollution first occurs. Eventually, it becomes a city wide, national, and global problem, as we see with greenhouse gas emissions. These greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to a global warming effect, as these gases end up trapping the heat from solar radiation, that normally would escape into space.

Ocean Pollution The oceans and other bodies of water are another shared resource. From the pollution and degradation of the oceans due to industrial and farm-based effluents, to overfishing and harm to fish populations, the overuse and abuse of this resource, has implications for people located closest to these bodies of water, and ultimately to the rest of the world, as the pollution spreads and marine populations dwindle to the point of extinction.

The destruction of ocean ecosystems because of waste, particularly plastic pollutants, will affect humans as these plastics end up cycling through marine life that ingest these plastics, and to humans through the food chain. With most of the ocean considered common property, it is difficult for any one nation to manage and regulate how this resource is used. While each nation will protect the ocean resources along its coastlines, the shared common space beyond national control becomes vulnerable to pollution by people and various industries. (Investopedia, 2020)

Furthermore, marine biodiversity and ecosystems are increasingly threatened by ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide absorption, as well as oil spills. From transporting and burning fossil fuels, human activity is inadvertently harming this shared resource. Marine birds, mammals, fish, shellfish, breeding grounds, and other coastal habitats are all impacted in various ways by oil spills.

Public Roads and GHGs Public roads are a common property shared by people each and every day. We use these roads to travel to and from school, to get to work, to get around our cities. With increased car ownership, and use of these public roads to move around, our roads have not only become congested, but we are creating air pollutants through idling and releasing greenhouse gas emissions through the combustion of fossil fuels. If we transition to green vehicles, we will still need to carefully consider how to address traffic and congestion on our public roads, and the health impacts, as well as lost time from travel on these packed roads.

Deforestation Our forests are a common resource that provide a number of outstanding benefits. Aside from providing materials, food and fuel, our forests act as carbon storage systems, improve soil and water conservation, regulate temperature extremes, enable water and air purification, and support wildlife as well as their habitats. In many parts of the world, dense rainforests are not clearly owned by any one entity, and as such are not protected well. When we destroy this common resource for other human development activities, we are in fact harming ourselves and our world.

The Tragedy of the Commons The Tragedy of the Commons occurs when it is not possible to control anyone or everyone, from using a resource. Individuals then overconsume these resources to the detriment of other individuals. By adopting this attitude and without the ability to control resource usage, we have damaged our atmosphere, sources of water, overused and limited the supply of water from groundwater aquifers, filled our public parks and common spaces with waste, impacted our air quality through the overuse of public roads, and impacted our atmosphere and natural cycles, through deforestation.

Assignment 10: In this assignment, students will conduct research to understand the relevant issues associated with the Tragedy of the Commons, as well as impact of overuse of the commons. Begin the activity by explaining what is meant by the commons, and why the notion of Tragedy of the Commons first emerged. Discuss examples of shared resources with the class. Then share the story of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, depending on the maturity of the class, to further explain the concept. Ask students to think of their own examples of overuse of the commons.

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