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Posts Tagged ‘tragedy of the commons’

The Great Barrier Reef: a tragedy in the making

Australia held a general election on 2 July 2016. The Liberal/National coalition narrowly won in the House of Representatives, gaining a substantially reduced majority of 77 of the 150 seats, to Labor’s 68 and other parties’ 5 seats. One campaign issue for all parties was the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, which is seen as an environmental disaster. Each party had proposals for tackling the problem and we examine some of them here.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. As the BBC’s iWonder guide states:

One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef contains some 900 islands and 3000 smaller reefs. It is larger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, home to around 10% of the world’s marine fish, over 200 bird species and countless other animals, including turtles and dolphins.

But this iconic Reef system is facing unprecedented threats. Together with governments, scientists are playing a key role in the battle to preserve this vulnerable ecosystem before it’s too late.

The Reef is 2300km long. In the northern third, around half of the coral is dead. Few tourists see this, as they tend to dive in the southern third, which, being cooler, is less affected.

The bleaching and destruction of coral reefs has a number of causes. These include: rising water temperatures, generally from global warming and more extreme El Niño events (rising warm waters that periodically spread across the Pacific); pollution, including that from coal mining, industrial effluent and run-off of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and sediment from farming, leading to acidification of waters; more frequent and more violent cyclones; rapidly expanding numbers of coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish; and over fishing of some species of fish, leading to knock-on effects on ecosystems.

The Barrier Reef and the oceans and atmosphere around it can be regarded as a common resource. The warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, and the destruction of the reef and the wildlife on it, are examples of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. With no-one owning these resources, they are likely to be overused and abused. Put another way, these activities cause negative externalities, which do not appear as costs to the polluters and despoilers, but are still costs to all who treasure the reef. And, from a non-human perspective, it is a cost to the planet and its biodiversity. What is in the private interests of the abusers is not in the social or environmental interest.

The Australian government had sought to downplay the extent of the problem, afraid of deterring tourists – a valuable source of revenue – and under pressure from the coal and farming industries. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the election, the destruction of the Reef and what to do about it became a major debating point between the parties.

The Coalition government has pledged A$1bn for a new Reef fund, which will be dedicated to tackling climate change and water quality.

The fund will also help coastal sewage treatment plants to reduce ocean outfalls with efficient pumps, biogas electricity generation and next-generation waste water treatment. Improving water quality will enhance the Reef’s resilience to climate change, coral bleaching and outbreaks of the destructive crown of thorns starfish.

But how much difference the fund can make with the money it will have is not clear.

The Labor Party pledged to follow every recommendation in the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce’s Final Report, released in May, and to pass laws to prevent farm pollution flowing into the waters around the Reef and to have a more rapid shift towards renewable energy.

The Green Party goes the furthest. In addition to the Labor Party’s proposals, it wants to impose taxes on coal firms equal to the cost of the damage they are causing. The tax revenues would be paid into a multi-billion dollar fund. This would then be spent on measures to rescue the Reef, invest in clean energy projects, stop damaging industrial development, improve farm management and stop polluted run-off into the Reef catchment area by investing in water systems.

Promises at the time of an election are all well and good. Just how much will be done by the re-elected Coalition government remains to be seen.

Interactive Videos and presentations
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: an Interactive Journey, Atlantic Productions, David Attenborough (2015)
Global Warming – the greatest market failure Prezi, Yvonne Cheng (5/12/12)

The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare The Guardian, Michael Slezak (7/6/16)
The Guardian view on the Great Barrier Reef: the crisis they prefer to downplay The Guardian (7/6/16)
Fight to save Great Barrier Reef could cost billions, secret government modelling estimates ABC News, Mark Willacy (2/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef: government must choose which parts to save, says expert The Guardian, Joshua Robertson (8/7/16)
This election, what hope is there for the Great Barrier Reef? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (1/7/16)
Coalition will protect Great Barrier Reef with $1bn fund, says PM The Guardian, Gareth Hutchens (12/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef election explainer: how do the parties compare? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (2/6/16)
Five things we can do right now to save the Great Barrier Reef The Guardian, John Pandolfi (13/6/16)
We’ve scored the parties on the Reef My Sunshine Coast, Australian Marine Conservation Society (29/6/16)
Our Most Iconic Places Are Under Dire Threat From Climate Change Huffington Post, Nick Visser (26/5/16)
There are bright spots among the world’s coral reefs – the challenge is to learn from them The Conversation, Australia, Joshua Cinner (21/7/16)


  1. Explain what is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons. Is all pollution damage an example of this?
  2. What can the Australian government do to internalise the external costs to the Great Barrier Reef from (a) farming; (b) mining; (c) global warming?
  3. Why is it difficult to reach international agreement on tackling climte change? What insights can game theory provide for understanding the difficulties?
  4. What are the recommendations in the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce? What mix of tools does it suggest?
  5. What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of taxation, laws and regulations, public investment, education and international negotiation as policy instruments to protect the Reef?
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Valuing natural capital

In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)

There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.

Natural capital
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.

Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.

Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?

On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:

Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.

But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.

Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:

Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “

One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.

Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.

Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:

It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.

The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.

Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)

Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature


  1. How would you define natural capital?
  2. What are ecosystem services?
  3. Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
  4. How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
  5. How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
  6. What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
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A modern tragedy of the commons

In many parts of the world, life in the oceans is dying out. The term ‘dead zones’ is used to describe seas that are devoid of marine life. And these zones are growing in size and number.

It’s not just the decline in fish and other marine species that’s worrying environmentalists and many others; it’s a growth in rubbish. Part of this is caused by natural disasters, such as the 2011 Tsunami in Japan that washed huge amounts of debris into the Pacific Ocean. But much of it is caused by rubbish carried down rivers and into the seas, or rubbish jettisoned from ships. The problem is particularly acute in areas of the oceans where currents circulate the rubbish into huge rubbish dumps. There are two such areas either side of Hawaii in the Pacific. Both are vast.

The first article below tells the tale of Newcastle (Australia) yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. He completed the 2013 Melbourne to Osaka double handed yacht race earlier this year as skipper of his yacht Funnelweb and then went on to bring the yacht home to Australia via America and race the famous Trans-Pac Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii along the way.

Exactly 10 years before, when [he] had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.

“There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice,” Macfadyen recalled. But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two. No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.

After reaching Osaka in Japan, they sailed on to San Francisco via Hawaii.

“After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.”

“I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.”

In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.

As economists, you should readily understand that here we have a case of over-exploited common resources – a Tragedy of the Commons of epic proportions. One ship’s rubbish may make a tiny difference, but when the cost of dumping is near zero and when the oceans are not policed, what is rational for a single ship becomes a disaster when repeated tens of thousands of times by other ships

Again, overfishing is the result of seemingly rational behaviour by crews of individual fishing boats. But as Economics (8th edition) points out on pages 328–30:

Common resources are not owned but are available free of charge to anyone. Examples include the air we breathe and the oceans for fishing. Like public goods, they are non-excludable. For example, fishing boats can take as many fish as they are able from the open seas. There is no ‘owner’ of the fish to stop them. As long as there are plentiful stocks of fish, there is no problem.

But as more people fish the seas, so fish stocks are likely to run down. This is where common resources differ from public goods. There is rivalry. One person’s use of a common resource diminishes the amount available for others. This result is an overuse of common resources. This is why fish stocks in many parts of the world are severely depleted, why virgin forests are disappearing (cut down for timber or firewood), why many roads are so congested and why the atmosphere is becoming so polluted (being used as a common ‘dump’ for emissions). In each case, a resource that is freely available is overused. This has become known as the tragedy of the commons.

… When I use a common resource, I am reducing the amount available for others. I am imposing a cost on other people: an external cost. If I am motivated purely by self-interest, I will not take these external costs into account.

Try doing some research to find out just what has been happening to the state of the oceans in recent years.

The ocean is broken Newcastle Herald (Australia), Greg Ray (18/10/13)
Our Planet Is Exploding With Ocean Dead Zones Business Insider, Dina Spector (26/6/13)
Health of oceans ‘declining fast’ BBC News, Roger Harrabin (3/10/13)
Chaos in the Oceans Huffington Post, Evaggelos Vallianatos (14/10/13)
Ocean Health Suffers from Overfishing, Index Finds Live Science, TechMedia, Douglas Main (16/10/13)

Dead zone (ecology) Wikipedia
Common Fisheries Policy Wikipedia
Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy Fisheries DG, European Commission
Ocean Health Index OHI


  1. How does a common resource differ from a public good?
  2. What is the equilibrium use of a common resource? Demonstrate this with a diagram.
  3. What is the socially efficient use of a common resource such as a fishing ground?
  4. In what ways have modern ‘industrial’ methods of fishing compounded the problem of the overuse of fishing grounds?
  5. What criteria, other than social efficiency, could be used to determine the optimal use of a common resource?
  6. Explain how the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU works. Are there any lessons that can be learned by other groups of countries from the experience of the CFP?
  7. Are there any ‘good news’ stories about the state of any of the oceans? If so, to what extent are they the result of deliberate human action?
  8. To what extent is the Internet a common resource?
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Is there something fishy going on?

It’s a relatively common dish to see on a menu at a restaurant: mackerel. This particular fish has been promoted as a healthy and sustainable dish, but now its sustainability is coming into question and the Marine Conservation Society has taken it off its ‘fish to eat’ list. My brother Hugh is a marine biologist and often comments on which fish we should be avoiding due to sustainability issues (especially given how much I like fish!) So, how is this an economics issue?

There a couple of key things to pick out here. Firstly, with the conservationists’ warning of this issue of unsustainability, they have been asking consumers to reduce the amount of mackerel they buy. This will naturally have an impact on fisherman. If consumers do listen to the conservationists and hence reduce their demand for mackerel, we could see a fall in the price of this fish and a reduction in the fishermen’s turnover. It could be that we see a switch in consumption to other more sustainable fish, especially if we see some form of intervention.

Another area concerning economics is the idea of over-fishing. For years, there have been disputes over who has the rights to these fish stocks. In the past, the Faroe Isles and Iceland have increased their quotas significantly, as mackerel appear to have migrated to their shores, contributing to this question of sustainability. Iceland and the Faroe Isles have ‘unilaterally agreed their quotas … as they are not governed by the common fisheries policy’.

The question is: when fisherman catch one additional mackerel, what are they considering? Do they think about the private benefit to them (or their company) or do they consider the external cost imposed on others? Whenever one fish is taken from the sea, there is one less fish available for other fishermen.

This leads to over-consumption of fish and contributes towards the well-documented depletion of fish stocks and ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, if account is not taken of the external cost imposed on other fishermen.

The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries. Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.

There are hopes that an international policy on quotas can be agreed to ensure mackerel levels return to or remain at a sustainable level. However, at present no progress has been made. Until some form of an agreement is reached, fishermen around Iceland and the Faroe Isles will continue to battle against the conservationists. The following articles consider this fishy topic.

Mackerel taken off conservationists’ ‘fish-to-eat’ list The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (22/1/13)
Warning over mackerel stocks Scottish Herald (22/1/13)
Fishing quota talks begin amid ongoing disputes and finger-pointing The Scotsman, Fran Urquhart (14/1/13)
Mackerel no longer an ethical choice because of over-fishing The Telegraph, Louise Gray (22/1/13)
Ths fishy tale of macro-mismanagement The Guardian, Annalisa Barbieri (22/1/13)
You can still eat mackerel – just make sure it’s British The Telegraph, Louise Gray (22/1/13)
Dispute means mackerel is no longer fish of the day BBC News, Matt McGrath (22/1/13)
Mackerel struck off sustainable fish list Associated Press (22/1/13)


  1. Why are quotas set by the EU for fishing? Who do they apply to?
  2. Why is there an externality from fishing?
  3. What is the Tragedy of the Commons? Using a diagram with average and marginal revenue product and average and marginal cost illustrate the market equilibrium and the social optimum. Why are they different?
  4. Following on from question 3, what does this suggest about the role of governments?
  5. If the conservationists’ request regarding buying less mackerel is successful, what impact might this have on fishermen and fisheries?
  6. If consumers do switch to buying other fish, what would happen to the equilibrium in the mackerel market and in the market for other fish? Think about this question in terms of general equilibrium analysis.
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Surviving troubled waters

In times of recession, some companies can do well, even in industries where there are supply problems. One such example is Pacific Andes, a Hong Kong based frozen seafood firm. Many fishing companies have found times tough in an era of dwindling fish stocks and fishing quotas imposed by governments anxious to preserve stocks. The following article looks at Pacific Andes and how it has managed to prosper despite supply challenges and the global recession.

Casting a wide net The Standard (Hong Kong) (24/8/09)

Details of overfishing in the UK can be found at: EyeOverFishing
The site provides a “map of the UK fisheries system, the problems with it, and solutions that are possible today”.


  1. To what extent can the concept of income elasticity of demand be used to help explain why Pacific Andes has managed to prosper during the recession?
  2. What specific business strategies has Pacific Andes adopted and why?
  3. Why, if overfishing is to the detriment of the fishing indsutry, do fishing fleets still overfish many parts of the oceans? Explain why this is an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’.
  4. What would you understand by an ‘optimum level of fishing’ for a particular type of fish in a particular part of the oceans? Explore whether the concept of a ‘social optimum’ in this context is the same as an ‘environmental optimum’?
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Tragedy of the commons – or glory?

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ refers to the overuse of common land. If people can freely graze their animals on such land and have no responsibility for maintaining it, then the land will be overused and everyone will suffer. The problem is that the benefit of using the land occurs to the individual whereas the cost is collectively incurred.

There are many modern examples of the tragedy of the commons and the articles below look at some of them. Perhaps surprisingly, not all cases of the use of common resources end in tragedy; some common resources are used sustainably. A more thorough analysis must involve deeper questions of human motivation and behaviour.

IT’s tragedy of the commons Datamation (IT Management) (8/4/09)
The Tragedy of the Commons TechFlash (7/4/09)
Encarta’s failure is no tragedy Guardian (7/4/09)
How Self-Interest Destroyed The Economy The Huffington Post (23/3/09)
What does The Pirate Bay ruling mean for the web? Telegraph (17/4/09)
Tragedy of the Commons The Manila Times (23/3/09)


  1. Explain how the tragedy of the commons arises and give some examples other than common grazing land.
  2. How and why does the tragedy of the commons occur in information technology? Consider the benefits and costs of the ‘fix’ to the problem advocated in the first linked article.
  3. Does the case of Wikipedia (see the third linked article) disprove the proposition that common resources will be overused?
  4. To what extent is free access to content (music, newspapers, videos, books, etc.) a tragedy of the commons? Is the only solution to devise an effective charging model that rewards content creators?
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