The Tragedy of the Commons

On June 30, 1864, the Civil War was entering it’s 4th year when President Abraham Lincoln sat down to approve a truly unprecedented piece of legislation: the Yosemite Grant Act, establishing the Yosemite Valley as a public park free from private development. Lincoln would never set eyes on the valley, but by signing the Yosemite Grant he created the USA’s first protected wilderness area which many people consider as the birth of the National Parks System. 

President Lincoln and many future presidents and Congresspeople realized a powerful fact: some things are more valuable than dollars and cents. They believed that if places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite were given to private ownership, their natural beauty and value would be destroyed. That’s why they set them apart as common places, for the benefit of the public instead of the interests of a few private owners. 

Half Dome by Watkins

Half Dome, 1861. This photo (and others) taken by Carleton Watkins would be Lincoln's only images of Yosemite Valley

However, there’s a big problem with public spaces- it’s a problem that's been around since there were people, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. When everybody shares ownership of something, nobody really cares for it. You can see this in plenty of places, from dirty public toilets to litter-filled parks to initials scratched into a tree trunk. It seems that inevitably when everyone owns a resource, that resource gets abused. This problem is called the Tragedy of the Commons.

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

Imagine a wide open field full of sheep. The field has enough grass and water to feed 100 sheep, and four shepherds have their herds in the field - each with 25 sheep. At this rate, the field can keep the sheep fed and happy forever. One day, one of the shepherds (call him Gary) decides to put 25 more sheep on the field. This is good for Gary because he now has 50 sheep and that means he’s twice as well-off as he was before.

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There’s a problem though. The field has more sheep on it than it can handle now, and that’s not good. Soon, the grass stops growing and the field starts to get dead and muddy. One by one, all the sheep start to get sick and the shepherds all have to leave the field. One person (Gary) tried to get ahead, but in the process, they destroyed the common resource that was supporting them and everyone else. In the end, everyone is worse off.

Here’s a simple definition of the tragedy of the commons: Shared resources are destroyed because the short-term benefit of overusing them is more attractive than the long-term benefit of conserving them. This principle isn’t just about sheep either. We see its effects in the world every day.

The Tragedy of the Commons Today

Nearly every resource is affected by the tragedy of the commons. Here are just a few examples:

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  • Overfishing: The World Wildlife Foundation reports that nearly 1/3 of the world’s fishing waters are at their biological limit. This means that there’s a serious risk of harm to the fishing industry which affects the entire world. The main cause of overfishing is illegal fishing, which is a classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons: a few people acting for personal gain are damaging a resource (the ocean) that belongs to all of us.

  • Air pollution: Like all kinds of pollution, air pollution is an example of the Tragedy of the Commons but air pollution has the most direct effect on each of us today. Through carbon, sulfur, and greenhouse gas emissions, people are contributing to air pollution every day. Once harmful gases are in the air though, they can blow all the way across the world. In this sense, the actions of just a few people can cause damage to the entire world’s atmosphere.

There are plenty of other examples that take place on a much smaller scale. For instance, camping repeatedly on the same site can make it muddy, rocky, and unusable for future campers. Leaving trash and litter behind hurts animals and plants in the area. With enough litter, common areas like parks and wildlife centers are damaged beyond repair.

A Personal Story (and the inspiration for this article)

Some of our early product pictures, taken in a popular hammock area on campus.

At my school, Baylor University in Waco Texas, there was part of the main plaza where students went hammocking. The area was full of trees, so it was full of hammocks whenever the sun was out. (We shot many of our early product photos in this area). These trees were strong enough to hold 10 or 20 hammocks a week, but the area had hundreds of hammocks in it at all hours of the day.

Over the years, the trees started to get damaged until one day, several of them died and the hammocks had to go somewhere else from then on. Now, it wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular, but the result was the same. The campus center had been a place for everyone to hammock, but we all overused it and soon enough, it was gone. 

Why Does This Matter?

The problem really boils down to a question of now vs. later. On the earth today there’s plenty of resources to support everyone, but if those resources are overused there might not be enough for anyone in the future. We are fully capable of sustaining ourselves, but we’re also capable of doing a lot of damage to ourselves. In the long term, conserving our resources is one of the most important things we can do. We only have one Earth, and we need to be careful to protect it because it’s the only home we have.

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So What Can I Do About It?

Conserving the world’s resources is a big job, but there are small things you can do every day to make a major difference. 

  1. Reuse and Recycle: Instead of throwing things away, look for creative ways to reuse them. This is a great way to extend an item’s life, reduce strain on the environment, and save a little money too.
  2. Support sustainable companies: As a customer, you have a lot of power over the companies you shop from. You can make a big difference by supporting companies with sustainable practices.
  3. Leave No Trace: When you’re out in nature, make it your goal to leave everything the way it was (or better). Keep an eye out for any damage you or other people cause, and do what you can to eliminate it.

What other ways can we be more sustainable? Let us know in the comments! Also, you can follow us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we’re doing to make Octopus a sustainable company and visit our partner, the National Forest Foundation to support their conservation work too!.

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