Shared Environmental Resources

Environmental issues are at the forefront of our collective consciousness due to the heroic efforts of individuals such as Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, with programmes including A Life on Our Planet and his recent migration to Instagram, moving with the times! Organisations like Friends of the EarthClientEarth and WWF continue to bring vital information to our attention. In this Treemail, we revisit the topic of shared environmental resources.

The phrase ‘tragedy of the commons’ was first coined by the biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. It describes how shared environmental resources are overused and eventually depleted. Hardin compared ‘shared resources’ to a ‘common grazing pasture’, whereby individuals with rights to the pasture graze as many animals as possible, acting in self-interest for the greatest short-term personal gain. In time, the pasture is over grazed by the individuals and the shared resource is exhausted.


Here are a few real-world examples of the tragedy of the commons.

Grand Banks Fisheries

The Grand Banks are fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland. For centuries, explorers and fishermen described this area as home to an endless supply of cod. In the 1960s and 1970sadvances in fishing technology allowed individual fishermen to land huge catches of cod. By the 1990s, cod populations were so low in the Grand Banks that the fishing industry collapsed. It was too late for regulation and management, the cod stocks had been depleted beyond rescue, and some scientists doubt the Grand Banks ecosystem will ever recover.


Passenger Pigeons

When Europeans arrived in North Americapassenger pigeons migrated across the sky in their millions. As settlers migrated across the continent, they began to clear the forests that passenger pigeons inhabited and they also began to hunt the pigeons for food. In the mid-1800s, the settlers were catching, in nets, massive numbers of pigeons and selling them in cities as a food resource. By 1870, virtually all the passenger pigeons had been killed. Hunting passenger pigeons was licenced in the 1890s, but by that time, the passenger pigeon population couldn’t recover. The last known passenger pigeon (held in captivity at a zoo) died in 1914.

Ocean Garbage Gyres

The oceans are an excellent example of a shared resource. No single authority has the power to protect all the oceans. Instead, individual nations manage and protect their own coastal waters, whilst leaving the vast areas of shared common space vulnerable to use and abuse. Throughout the world’s oceans, garbage has begun to accumulate in the centre of circular currents, or gyres. This pollution, especially plasticsdegrade the ocean’s ecosystem and worryingly are entering the food chain.

sea pollution

Earth’s atmosphere

Earth’s atmosphere is another resource that everyone on the planet uses and abusesAir pollution and greenhouse gases, from industry and transportation, increasingly damage this shared resource. The atmosphere does offer some hope for a solution: More than once, international agreements have recognised the importance of taking care of the atmosphere. One example is the Kyoto Protocol, which attempted to bring nations together in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global climate warming. Multiple nations recognised that everyone had an interest in preserving this common resource for the future. They agreed to look beyond short-term gain and immediate self-interest to a sustainable future.

air pollution


Garret Hardin proposed two ways to avoid the tragedy:

  1. Assign ownership of the resource (eg. an aquifer) to the State, or
  2. Divide the resource into parcels (eg. as volumetric extraction entitlements from the aquifer) and assign the parcels to individuals as private or individual property.
    Elinor Ostrom suggested a third option, namely:
  3. Allocating ownership of the resource to a defined group of ‘commoners’ as common property.

All three approaches (government-based, market-based and community-based) should be considered carefully for each individual situation with the best solution often involving a ‘polycentric’ blend of all three approaches.

The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty ensures protection of the unique resource that is the Antarctic. It is a fundamental consideration in the planning and conduct of all activities in Antarctica. The Protocol on Environment Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (known as the Madrid Protocol), was adopted in 1991 and came into force in 1998; it provides comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.

The Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), established under the Madrid Protocol, provides advice and formulates recommendations for the implementation of the Protocol. The role of the CEP includes addressing ongoing environmental challenges from activities conducted before the Madrid Protocol entered into force, including the clean-up of past waste disposal sites and abandoned facilities.


The Way Ahead

The Kyoto Protocol affords some protection to the Earth’s atmosphere. The Antarctic Treaty affords comprehensive protection for Antarctica and seeks to clean up past use and misuse. Treaties must be signed and protocols must be implemented to protect shared resources of the land, sea and air.