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The Earth is made up of large, connected systems.

As we discussed in the introduction, human activity is changing many of these systems - especially those involving the surface of the planet the atmosphere, oceans, forests and ecosystems. For each of these systems, take a moment to think of and describe a way in which you believe the system has been degraded or otherwise negatively effected by human activity. Make a note of your answers well come back to them at the end of this lecture.
Francolaria / Flickr

There are of course many answers. For example, you may have said that the atmosphere is being polluted by greenhouse gases or smog, or that surface lights have obscured the stars in the night sky. Forests have been logged, prevented from going through natural forest fire cycles, and suffered introduced species, such as the emerald ash borer. Oceans have suffered over-fishing, plastic pollution and run-off from farms. Ecosystems have been transformed by human land use, while some species have even become extinct. If we wish to live sustainably, we must solve these problems. This seems hard, as it is a long list of problems but while the details change, there is often an underlying principle that each of these problems have in common.

Karol M. / Flickr

Is there some kind of general hidden mechanism that explains all these different problems? If we find a general cause, maybe we can find a general solution.

Wakx / Flickr

There is a unifying model, or concept, that can help us understand many of the environmental problems that we face. This concept was first described by Garrett Hardin in 1968 and is known as the Tragedy of the Commons .

Fabio Veronesi / Flickr

In this case, commons means a shared area open to all. An early example would be a common grazing area. No one herdsman owned the land, but all the herdsman shared the land and its resource fodder for their livestock.
BazzaDaRambler / Flickr

The tragedy refers to the inevitable destruction of the resource, in this case, overgrazing will cause all the grass to be eaten, so that it will not recover, and wind and rain will remove the commons topsoil, degrading it from lush rangeland to a barren expanse. It is a central part of this concept that this destruction is inevitable. If overgrazing is the result of too many animals too many sheep, goats, cattle, reindeer or anything else subsisting off a finite plot of land, why might overgrazing be inevitable?

Ian Mackinnon / Flickr

Lets illustrate this tragedy sequence with a simple model.

Consider a single common pasture.

Jonathan Tomkins

If it is overgrazed, the pasture will become steadily more degraded, as the cattle eat the grass faster than it can grow. If the pasture is denuded of grass, it is vulnerable to topsoil loss when conditions are unusually dry or wet.

If the top soil is lost, the grass will never recover, and no cattle will be supported in the future.

As a group, the farmers do not want to overgraze the commons.

The individual incentive is different, however. Its in each farmers own interest to graze as many cattle as possible, as that will increase the amount of meat and milk produced. For a subsistence farmer, every additional cow could really help by making the difference between having well-fed and mal-nourished children, for example.

And if one of your neighbors grazes three cattle and you have only have two, it would only be fair to add to your herd even if your other neighbor has only one cow.

Each extra cow degrades the resource, but this degradation is shared.

If fifty farmers have a total of 100 cows on the commons , adding a single cow will increase your productivity by 50% (from 2 to 3 milk producers), but the commons is only 1% more utilized (from 100 cows to 101). So for every individual farmer, its well worth adding livestock.

Its especially well worth doing, as all the other farmers have the same incentive so think the same way and take the same action.

If you do nothing, the commons will still be degraded, and your long-term future is still bleak.

Kay Ledbetter / Flickr

Kay Ledbetter / Flickr

The Tragedy of the Commons concept is now used metaphorically to describe many Earth systems.

The Tragedy refers to the inevitably of the destruction of the natural system, and the Commons refers to any shared resource that is open to all. So the Tragedy of the Commons claims that if a resource is open for use by anyone, it will be destroyed.

NASA

Examples of Commons include the atmosphere we all share the same air oceans theyre all connected, and owned by no one and many forests.
Adwriter / Flickr

Global fisheries are perhaps the strongest evidence that the Tragedy of the Commons concept has some validity. The oceans are a shared resource with many individual fisherman but if too many fish are extracted, the fishery collapses there are not enough mature fish left to repopulate. The Tragedy of the Commons would predict that fisherman would increase their catches past the sustainable limit. It is in the interests of each individual fisher to catch as many fish as possible but when all fishers maximize their own catch by purchasing more and bigger boats rates of extraction can exceed rates of repopulation.
John Wallace / Flickr

This has been observed in fisheries all around the world. As an example, here is catch data from the northwest Atlantic. Notice how the development of improved fishing techniques and the expansion in the fishing fleet in the 50s and 60s led to an increased catch, at first, until overfishing devastated the supply. The decline in the cod catch is stark only a tiny fraction of fish is taken from this region compared to half a century ago.

And this pattern is repeated everywhere. Note on this graph that the number of over-exploited or collapsed fisheries (orange and red portions of the graph) have increased from almost nothing to around half of all fisheries. The northwest Atlantic cod fishery is an example of a collapsed fishery. The other half are currently fully exploited. The overfished and collapsed fisheries are clearly bad for the fish and their ecosystem, but theyre also a disaster for coastal communities the rational actions of individual have created a collective disaster, devastating the livelihoods of millions and destroyed valuable resources.

Greenhouse gas warming of the atmosphere by fossil fuels can also be thought of as a Tragedy of the Commons . In this case, using fossil fuels has a private benefit individual countries and people gain the use of cheap energy, while the carbon dioxide produced pollutes the common resource of the atmosphere.

So individual users gain all of the benefit but experience only an infinitesimal part of the cost. Collectively, however, the atmosphere is degraded. Does this mean that there is no hope in preventing largescale climate change, just as we have been unable to prevent the collapse of fisheries? Perhaps but we will examine potential solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons in the next lecture.

EnvironmentBlog / Flickr