The problem with managing shared resources is illustrated well by a theory often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”. It assumes that people use a common resource in a way that maximizes their benefit, not the benefit of the whole community, which eventually leaves the source depleted – a situation where everyone loses. The analogy that is used the most involves a common piece of land, where a number of farmers graze their cattle. Increasing the number of animals in one’s herd will benefit an individual, as they can earn more. However, if the farmers follow such a strategy, eventually there will be too many cattle for the plot to sustain and the grass on it will be wiped out. In the end, every farmer will be worse off than they would have been, had they not strived to maximize the individual profit.
While this theory finds confirmation in real-life examples, that include overfishing, deforestation, overcrowding that harms national parks and perhaps most importantly, air pollution and climate change, it can be interpreted in ways that do not benefit the discourse on these problems and their potential solutions.
Individual responsibility for climate change
The man behind the idea of “the tragedy of the commons”, professor Garrett Hardin also argued that the driving force behind the phenomenon is overpopulation – too many ‘users’ of a resource. This way of thinking may, however, lead to a situation, where, in the context of climate change too much blame is attributed to individual actions. This can have a number of negative consequences, even though a sustainable lifestyle on a personal level obviously has a great positive value. Firstly, the attention is turned away from the more impactful actions and policies of larger entities such as corporations or states. Secondly, people may display a defensive reaction that when confronted with blame and attempts to shame them for their actions – it may hinder any positive change or even lead to the attitude of denial.
To give a good idea of what needs to change in the economy to prevent the depletion of our shared resources, the tragedy of the commons should not be seen as demonstrating the problem on a level of an individual. It should be interpreted on the scale of the whole system – depleting of a given resource does not result from the greed of every single person, but from the lack of sufficient institutional management. Entities, such as businesses, institutions or governments that naturally strive for a maximized profit since they operate within a growth-dependent economy – this is who the farmers from the analogy should represent.
The individual responsibility and the responsibility of large entities are interconnected
Presented in this way, the tragedy of the commons reveals that the economy and way of conducting business that are based on growth have “locked us up” with a particular set of choices concerning our individual behaviors. For example, due to the way in which consumer goods are distributed, completely waste-free grocery shopping is probably possible, but very difficult – certain kinds of products are almost impossible to obtain if you do not want to purchase a plastic container as an extra. Therefore, it is challenging to radically reduce waste on an individual level as it requires time, attention and thorough planning. Most people naturally opt for convenience or simply are in need of particular goods.
This can change with engagement from above – for example in more and more chain shops, there are pilot tests of distributors that fill reusable containers with brand-name products. You can pour your favorite washing detergent into your own bottle and be charged for the amount taken. Given the choice between this sustainable and convenient way of buying goods and the ‘traditional’ way that leads to the depletion of natural resources, the majority of consumers would decide not to strain the environment, especially if the packaged items were more expensive.
Similarly to this example, more responsibility needs to be placed on the side of businesses in other sectors of the economy. Reducing the environmental footprint now will, of course, generate costs and may lead to slower growth, but if companies and governments do not do this now, the result will be huge economic losses in the future due to the increasing resource scarcity. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that under ‘business as usual’ scenario, the global GDP may decrease by 33 trillion USD, which is over twice as much as the GDP of China. However, if the issues of greenhouse gas emissions are tackled, the fall may be mitigated to be ‘only’ 21 trillion USD. Entities not caring for the common interest may, therefore, cost the world economy 12 trillion USD.
Due to the depleting resources, we may lose access to many goods and services we depend on today. Water scarcity may become a problem for more and more communities. The number of people breathing polluted air may rise, even though it is very high already (according to the estimates nine out of ten people are affected by air pollution). Just as in the analogy, everyone – individuals, businesses, and countries will end up worse off.
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