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Tragedy of the Commons Explained

The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory that was proposed in 1833 by British writer William Forster Lloyd. As our world continues to globalize and environmental problems worsen, this theory is only becoming more relevant. But what is the tragedy of the commons?

The tragedy of the commons is when a public resource is depleted when people act in their own interest instead of prioritizing overall success. The simplest (and original) explanation of the tragedy of the commons is with cows grazing on a common field. If a field can support twenty cows, and there are four farmers, then each farmer can have five cows on the field. If one farmer decides to add a sixth cow to the field, they will make more money, but there will be too many cows on the field, so the grass won’t rejuvenate as well and the cows will get skinnier. This means that each farmer will make less money from each of their cows, worsening the overall productivity of the field. This won’t hurt the farmer who added the extra cow, since that cow can pick up the slack of the lower overall productivity, but the other farmers will suffer, since each of their cows is producing less. Because of this, the three other farmers will each add a cow to compensate for the money they lost, further worsening the productivity of the field. This creates an endless cycle where the farmers keep losing money because of their greediness.

While this was the originally proposed example of a tragedy of the commons, there are many more examples. A common example today is with air pollution. In this situation, clean air is the common resource. When corporations pollute the air to save money on operating costs, they are worsening air quality, thus reducing the amount of clean air for everyone.

Another example that is quietly plaguing the world is in aquifers. If water is pulled out of aquifers faster than it can be replenished, the water will be used up, to the detriment of everyone. Some current examples of this in the United States are in California’s Central Valley and the Great Plains. In California’s Central Valley, farmers are having to rely more and more on groundwater because of worsening droughts. This is doing some terrible things. Firstly, it is using up the vital groundwater. Groundwater used to be a backup water supply for when there was a mild winter. If farmers are now relying on it every year, they will have no backup supply when there is an especially bad drought. The overuse of groundwater is also causing parts of the Central Valley to sink. Since the water is being pulled out of the ground, the soil cannot be held up, allowing it to sink up to a foot per year. Some areas of the Central Valley have sunk about 20 feet in the past 65 years, including about 10 feet in the past 20 years. Also, as the ground sinks, the groundwater reservoir permanently loses space to hold water.

Another place where groundwater depletion is prominent is in the Ogallala Aquifer. It is the largest aquifer in the nation, and it resides under eight states in the Great Plains and provides water for the huge swaths of farmland in the region. To put into perspective the size

of the aquifer, if the water from the aquifer was spread across the US, it would cover all 50 states with around 1.5 feet of water. Over 90 percent of the water pumped from the aquifer is used to irrigate crops. It is currently being depleted annually at a volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers. If it was completely drained, it would take over 6,000 years to refill naturally. The American agriculture industry heavily relies on this water source, and if it isn’t properly managed in years to come, it could spell disaster for our food system. Groundwater has already dried up in some places, and if the aquifer completely drains, the production of $20 billion worth of food and fiber will be halted. Management of this resource is especially hard because it crosses so many state boundaries. All eight states that use the aquifer have to come to an agreement on how to manage it. Minimal action has been taken thus far to curb the emptying of this reservoir, but we have to work to preserve it before it is too late.

You can apply the tragedy of the commons to most of today’s environmental problems, which is why it is so important to understand this concept. The good thing about the tragedy of the commons is that humans can fix these situations if they cooperate. The lack of cooperation and communication was what caused these problems, so if we enforce regulations and agree to preserve what we have, we can save what would otherwise be destroyed.


Aquifer map credit: North Plains Groundwater Conservation District

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