Tragedy of the Commons: Important lessons for progress in post-pandemic world

While global warming and unpredictable human behaviour remain a risk, we can still manage to sail through these harsh times especially during the pandemic by putting in a little more effort.

When given a chance, humans exploit nature. This is what British economist William Foster Lloyd proposed in 1833. According to Lloyd, the selfishness of humans drives them to overuse shared environmental resources, which are also known as ‘commons’, for their short-term benefit, while ruining the system for everyone in long term.

Here’s the classic example: Imagine a common pasture being used by multiple cattle herders with 10 cattle per herder. The cows grazing on this pasture are satisfied. But each herder sees an opportunity to bring more cattle to his herd. If that happens, a point will come when the pasture will be overgrazed, leaving all the cows hungry.

In 1968, ecologist Gareth Hardin wrote an article called “The Tragedy of the Commons”, which highlighted Lloyd’s theory once again. Hardin believed that the self-interest of individuals leads to decisions that are not in favour of society and that humans are incapable of solving these issues on their own. For this, people need governments or privatization to save the common resources.

Canadian waters are famous for their seafood. There was a time when an abundant natural supply of cod was enough to satisfy all the fishermen. With the help of technological innovations in 1960, fishermen started catching more cod. This resulted in overfishing and by 1990, the fishing industry of Canada saw a historical downfall.

COVID-19 Spiiling Beans

Today we can find the tragedy of the commons in this pandemic. When governments imposed restrictions globally, people rushed towards supermarkets. They started hoarding food items, toilet papers, hand sanitisers and several other commodities. While many managed to get plentiful of supplies, others couldn’t get anything at all. And by the time retailers limited buying capacity of each individual, it was too late. The empty aisles of markets displayed nothing but the self-centred behaviour of humans.

People assumed if they won’t stock up in time, someone else will. It makes sense logically, but collectively it’s a miserable approach. Hoarding is just one of the tragedies. Let’s take another example of face masks: We wear masks to protect ourselves and protect others from us. This is a collective approach. If we stop using masks just because we feel uncomfortable and hurt our ears, it’ll be in our self-interest and eventually harm the greater cause.

Similarly, social distancing will prevent this infectious disease from widespread but staying indoors all the time isn’t easy. People want to come out of their homes for public gatherings. This is what happened in India back in March 2021, when a vast majority of people participated in public events like the IPL cricket tournament, Holi and Kumbh Mela event, and political rallies.

Despite the pandemic, all the restrictions were ignored, which in result gave birth to the horrific second wave of Covid-19 in India. The Indian Delta variant has now started affecting Pakistan, which may result in another series of lockdowns.

Environment Seeking Shelter

It is difficult to make sacrifices for others. Benefitting ourselves without even considering our fellow human beings has unfortunately become a part of our subconscious. We are involuntarily destroying the very planet we belong to.

The overfishing incident of Canada affected the life under the sea by killing the chances of sustainable breeding. Now, the oceans are being polluted. The governments have failed badly in regulating corporations for the safe disposal of commercial waste. For corporations, an easy way out is dumping all the waste in water and getting rid of it as early as possible. It is in their self-interest.

What they don’t realize is that these ill practices are making it impossible for species to live under such circumstances.

In 2004, United States FDA warned pregnant women to avoid predatory fish due to high levels of mercury found in them. Tuna and Bluefin are some of the most desirable delicacies globally, but they are full of toxins. Just because some metal or chemical factory decided to throw their waste in the sea for their short-term benefit, the fish got affected, which will now contaminate its consumers.

The amount of trash in oceans shows how ignorant we have become. Initially, it was plastic that would hurt marine life. But now the face masks are a greater risk. By mismanaging this situation, we have already caused an unwanted surge in marine pollution.

To save money, countries are using cheap fossil fuels, which are greenhouse emissions responsible for environmental pollution. The scariest part is that damage doesn’t stop here. These greenhouse emissions have started increasing our planet’s overall temperature triggering glaciers to meltdown and exacerbate Arctic life.

The Tragic State of Pakistan

Changa Manga is the world’s largest man-made forest in this world. However, in the early 2000s, with the help of black sheep among the government, the timber mafia deforested nearly sixty per cent of this place. It not only disturbed the wildlife but also left a question mark on Pakistan’s stance on dealing with global warming. Here, the forest was a common resource, which when left alone got abused by humans.

Let’s take a closer look at another example: Shortage of water is not a new issue in Pakistan.

It is always available in black markets but rarely for a common man. For this reason, bore wells were introduced to extract water from underground. Since water coming from bore wells is free of charge and taxes, people misuse and waste it. In short term, they benefit themselves using this open-access resource but wasting water is lowering the underground water levels. Plus, almost every household in Karachi has a bore well now, which means a time will come when the shortage of underground water will leave people dissatisfied. The tragedy of the commons can be seen here as people have started deepening their bore wells without thinking about its negative impact on the earth and its inhabitants.

Solution to End this Misery

Some experts deduce that only external intervention by governments can provide solutions to the tragedies of the commons. While regulating smaller acts such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance can be done by authorities, challenges of global warming remain unanswered by the conventional wisdom.

Where Lloyd and Hardin believed that people need guidance from authorities or else they will deplete the resources, an American economist named Elinor Ostrom rejected this theory and argued that Hardin’s ideology is based upon an imaginary world where humans don’t communicate with each other.

Ostrom travelled to different parts of the world to observe human behaviour. After conducting field studies backed by quantitative data, she concluded that humans are capable of self-governing their resources. In real life, when such a situation arises, individuals communicate and try to find solutions to avoid ecosystem collapse. According to Ostrom, over time, people develop their own set of rules and regulations to monitor the ecosystem and manage it accordingly. Ostrom disproved the idea of governance systems and privatization to save natural resources.

Incentivizing responsible citizens with rewards and punishing the irresponsible ones with penalties can maintain the equilibrium of this ecological system. Like corporations, senior community members can take leadership roles to ensure that everyone in the system follows the rules.

While dangers of global warming and unpredictable human behaviour remain a risk, we can still manage to sail through these harsh times by putting in little more effort. Of course, acknowledging the problem is the first step towards progress.

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