“The concept of the tragedy of the commons can be used to explain the effects of human behaviour on the natural environment.” Discuss this statement, using relevant research and theories from social psychology. The behaviour of the individual often tends to be selfishly orientated. He or she would pursue their own interests in order to increase their selfish gains in the short run. However in the long run, it is their own actions which will ultimately lead to their own detriment, along with the rest of the community. When this behavioural characteristic is considered in an environmental context, we realise that many of the problems which threaten the state of the natural environment, and therefore of future human existence, arise from this simple but malignant social trap. By the time the costs of self interest behaviours become salient, it is almost always too late to reverse the damage done.
“The Tragedy of the Commons” (sometimes referred to as the “commons dilemma” in a broader sense) was a concept introduced by ecologist Garett Hardin (1968)i to illustrate the resource dilemma, and also the conflict between self-interest and collective interest. The name was derived from centrally located public pastures in old English villages called the “commons”, where villagers could freely graze their cows, or other livestock. Imagine one hundred villagers sharing a common pasture which is sufficient enough for the grazing of 100 cows. If all the villagers cooperate, the pasture would be optimally used. But non-cooperation – such as is each villager attempt to graze as many as their own livestock as possible – would inevitably result in overgrazing of the pasture, and the commons would become nothing but a sad, grassless and muddy field.
Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. (Hardin, 1968) Of course, the “commons” is not limited to the definition of a grazing pasture. It can be applied in its much broader sense to many of the environmental problems we have today: a metaphor for any resource that is shared and limited such as fish stocks, forests (woodlands, rainforests), and oil (since the focus of this essay is on the effect of human behaviours on the natural environment).
There are many real life examples which parallel the story of the commons. In 2002, for instance, European scientists proposed a ban on cod fishing in the North Sea when it became apparent that there is a real threat of the depletion of the fish stock due to exhaustive fishingiii. This was due in part of the traditional fish and chip shop industry in the UK which is hugely popular in the countryiv.
On a much more individual level, people litter the streets while keeping their homes clean, whalers exploit whale stocks in the seas in fear of competition from others, car users use petro-diesel instead of more environmentally friendly sources of fuel, we deplete natural resources because the immediate personal benefits far out weigh seemingly inconsequential costs. All these action have something in common: people similarly believe that their individual contribution to pollution and the deteriorating state of the environment is trivial while their collective contribution is phenomenal.
The basic background concept for these attitudes is that people’s behaviour tends to be goal-directed, whether they are cooperating, or are in competition. To explain this, the elements of the commons dilemma have been isolated in laboratory games by social psychologists. The games expose how anybody, benevolent or not, can become socially trapped in mutually destructive behaviourv.
In Edney J.’s Nuts game (1979)vi American participants where sat around a bowl with 10 metal nuts. The goal of the game is to accumulate as many nuts as possible. They were allowed to take as many as they want any time they want, and the number of nuts remaining in the bowl would double every 10 seconds. Ideally, the nuts should be left in the bowl to double over and over, in order to produce a larger sum of nuts to be shared among all the participants. But unless the participants where given time to discuss cooperation, each were more likely to grab as many nuts as they can within the first 10 seconds, for fear of competition from others. Thus, the nuts in the bowls where never given the chance to replenish. This is the case with renewable resources in the environment: renewable resources are only renewable if they are given the chance to regenerate.