Tragedy of the commons

ND Abi Sankari and VC Padmanaban from Department of Biotechnology, Kamaraj College of Engineering & Technology, Virudhunagar, TN write on the massive exploitation of natural resources which is threatening the commons and environment...

Tragedy of the commons

ND Abi Sankari and VC Padmanaban from Department of Biotechnology, Kamaraj College of Engineering & Technology, Virudhunagar, TN write on the massive exploitation of natural resources which is threatening the commons and environment…


“For that we care only if we own, we could not own the commons” – People might mess up commons with commoners. Commoners are the total population of the world (including noble people) who use the commons i.e. all the resources in the universe. The remorseless and ruthless usage of the commons by the commoners is the tragedy of the commons.

Hardin has proposed that the tragedy of the commons is due to the exponentially growing population. As he says, population comes under the category of “no technical solution problem”. Just because there is an explosion in population, no one could insist someone to die and no one would be ready to die. If a family of four has a bowl of porridge for dinner then it is natural that all the four has to share it among themselves depending on their need. By this, I mean a youngest of that family might not need a maximum share, but at the same time she/he definitely needs a share. We could not say that the head of the family, who worked all the day, could have the whole bowl and the rest of the family has to starve all the night. But, that particular can have a maximum share.

Hence, sharing is important even amongst the family, so we can now say how significant sharing is, when it comes to the universe? At the same time, it has to satisfy the needs, because it is not apt to provide an umbrella to a person, who is starving and food to a person, who is running on the raining street. Thus, everyone has some needs in this universe. The tragedy of the commons mushrooms when everyone uses the commons more than they need i.e. exploiting the commons. Human beings are the ones doing such exploitations. For instance, a dog eat whatever it gets, lives wherever it could sleep. It won’t demand for a gourmet and sumptuous meal to eat and a cozy cushion to sleep. Whereas, a dog tamed by man gets all these luxuries. To say sarcastically man has the power to make impossible into possible. Can man, a single species, use and severely exploit the earth’s resources which we share with billions of other plant and animal species? I agree with all the points that are quoted by Hardin. This essay deals about the things that I wish to put forth.

Indian population has reached 1.25 billion and the global population has reached 7.125 billion as of 2013. Among Indians 0.64 billion are male and 0.60 billion are female. Globally 3.61 billion are male and 3.55 billion are female. Meaning, these numbers of competitors are there in this world to use the commons and the saddest part is that most of them are unready to share and they want everything for themselves. Everyone is thinking as though they own this world, hence they don’t care for polluting this heavenly environment. I’m wondering, why all of us are spoiling the only shelter we have in this universe. Do we believe that there would be an alternative that science would find in future?

The air, the land and the water bodies are commons. We dare to pollute it. Air is to breathe and we don’t care about polluting it unless we are going to carry an oxygen cylinder on our back. The Bhopal gas tragedy explicitly shows how reckless we commoners are. It is a perfect example for the air, water and land pollution. The life taking 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas from a Union Carbide’s Bhopal pesticide plant was released and immediately killed at least 3,800 people and causing significant morbidity and premature death for many thousands more. The polluted air has provided asthma, physical deformities at birth, abortions and memory loss to the commoners.

An American reporter says, water contamination is worsening as chemicals leach through soil into the aquifer. That article also states “Poisoned Water Haunts Bhopal 25 Years after Chemical Accident”. There are reports that more than 350 tonnes of toxic waste are still scattered around the site and continue to pollute the soil and groundwater in the area which leads to cancer, congenital defects, immunity problems and many other conditions. People were even warned about eating locally grown vegetables as many plants showed signs of genetic damage. Such recklessness can be avoided in future, if the penalties for such activities are severe. Government should revise the rules once in few years. If the fine amount is 10 times the amount than treating the discharges from an industry, then every industry would treat its disposals and discharge.

As an aftermath of these pollutions, it is not raining during rainy seasons. We are directly affecting the commons and it is indirectly affecting us. If the commons are treated as of their respect, then it might repair the climate.

Trees are the next commons that provide us pure air to breathe, healthy fruits to eat and safe shelter to live i.e. the basic amenities of life. In spite of its value, a race among human was started to exploit it resulting in deforestation. The noble people rather than needing shelter needed lavish wooden furniture. To make it, wood logs of great value are required. The forest had good logs leading to its depletion. The pity forests explored its own destroyal, due to its aesthetic value.

Also due to explosion in population, people needed land to build a house for them to live in. We started cutting off the trees and used the terrestrial land. There is a cycle between (Carbon Dioxide) CO2 producers such as cars and CO2 consumers such as plants. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tonnes of carbon worldwide as of 1995. Currently, there are very few forests to hold CO2. When a tree is cut, 8 saplings have to be planted to balance. But it isn’t followed when trees are cut for extending roads. The number tags that are hammered on the trees would shorten its life span. But we do, because who cares for the commons?

Government has to allocate the number of people to live in, in an area to make a welfare state. The number tags hammering should be terminated. Afforestation and deforestation should be followed strictly. The green cover of our college is nearly 30 acres. The Department of Biotechnology in our college is conducting an awareness programme every year through Bodhgaya (a science camp) to common public and school students by planting saplings.

Ocean and its creatures are the other heavenly commons that nature has gifted us. The major causes of loss of marine biodiversity are, over-fishing and bycatch; hunting mammals, birds, turtles; toxic chemicals and nutrient pollution; habitat destruction; the human-assisted transport; removal of coral reefs and the increased ultra-violet radiation due to ozone layer depletion. Global fish stocks are exploited or depleted to such an extent that without urgent measures we may be the last generation to catch food from the oceans.

According to a United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. To end the tragedy of commons, fishermen should be given responsibility over the fish they hunt. It should be in the form of individual tradable catch shares of the quotas.

Environmental destruction is largely caused by the rich. But, the worst sufferers of environmental destruction are the poor. Even where nature is being ‘recreated’, as in afforestation, it is being transformed away from the needs of the poor and towards those of the rich. A welfare state is the one in which everyone has equity. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty in 2013 is less than half of what it was in 1990. Yet today, 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world). The 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services and 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5.

From the above data, it is evident that a set of people are depleting the commons and the commoners are experiencing poverty, the pain. Poverty leads to the malnutrition. 1 in 3 of the world’s malnourished children lives in India. About 50 percent of all childhood deaths are attributed to malnutrition. In malnutrition, Madhya Pradesh records the highest rate (55 percent) and Kerala records the lowest (27 percent). Using the commons are the rich and the sufferers are the poor. Limiting the access to use the commons is a good way.

Earlier, people used to exchange commodities depending on their need. Now, money for commodity is being in practice. We are ready to do anything for money, as it determines the value of commodity. The commons like water, other species and even air (oxygen during emergency at hospitals) are bought for money. We, selfish giants are not even ready to share the commons then how come would we share the money we possess. If commodity for commodity comes into practice, then we might know the value of commons.

Vandalism, the destruction of public properties is followed across the world. By the name commons, it is understood that it is common for all. But, people are destroying the commons as though they possess it. While travelling by a public transport, people get bored of sitting simply so, they make graffiti, tare the seat covers and throw litters. Sometimes it exceeds the limit. If there is a controversy between two political groups and if the public supports a particular group then the other group dares to stone the common properties like buses and other vehicles. Political supporters burning public transport for their frustration is highly unfair. This kind of action must be avoided by the public. If the people behind this are punished severely, then this would not happen in future. No one in this world has the right to destroy the commons. Everyone should know this ethics. It would be far better, if ethics to use commons is added as a subject to learn in our Indian educational system.

People might be wondering why days before it was easy to cure tuberculosis (TB) and why people are sentenced to death when they are affected by tuberculosis at present. It is because, when days passed by, the micro-organism that caused tuberculosis increased its capability of resistance to all the drugs we invented. Earlier, we set fire to get rid of mosquitoes. Then we used sprays, mats, coils and liquid vaporisers one after the other. Now, we are using everything in an advanced version, still we could not get rid of it. Meaning, we are making the species of the earth more virulent by our science and technology. Instead of finding drugs to kill antigens, we could strengthen our immune system. Likewise, it is better to mend our fault instead of finding a technical solution. Because by depleting the commons, the miserable population of mankind is depleting itself. Saving what we have is easier than producing. How are we going to produce, when we don’t know how to save? Even though we produce, we have to save that too.

(The views expressed in the article are authors’ own)

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