Common ownership, or a right to common use, describes how citizens of the world have shared rights to freely use the planet’s resources such as the oceans and the air. Yet while access to the resource is shared by all, the benefit of using it goes to the individual user. And if a user chooses to misuse the resource, the consequences get disbursed to the entire community.
It is this imbalance between common use or ownership of a resource, and private benefit from the resource that leads to a “tragedy of the commons”. Because of this imbalance individuals do not have to pay the full cost of what they use.
Misuse of the commons is not necessarily caused by greed, but by individuals acting in their own self-interest.
Many environmental issues are commons issues. Generally we all have access to the sun, the air, the oceans and the soil. The earth provides us freely with many ecosystem services that make our lives possible.
There are three ways of dealing with a tragedy of the commons problem: call to conscience, coercion, and privatization. Each of these three approaches has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, avoiding the tragedy of the commons does not necessarily avoid a tragedy for the individual if the individual acts against their own best interest.
Dealing with a huge problem like climate change will probably require some form of each of a call to conscience, coercion, and privatization. Both “cap and trade” and “carbon tax” are examples of creative solutions that employ the privatization technique.
If you want a printer-friendly version of this module, you can find it here in a Microsoft Word document. This printer-friendly version should be used only to review, as it does not contain any of the interactive material, and only a skeletal version of problems solved in the module.
Copyright University of Maryland, 2007
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