You know you’re supposed to put your cart into a designated area in the parking lot, but you’d rather not take the effort since you’re in a hurry. And after all, one cart doesn’t make a difference! However, if we all take this mindset, soon the parking lot is impossible to park in, carts are slamming into cars, and businesses are raising prices to pay for all of the broken carts.
Tragedy Of The Commons
This is an example of the situation known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
In “The Tragedy Of The Commons,” there is a public resource that is unregulated. To keep this resource useful, people must make some sort of personal sacrifice. However, there’s no immediate reward for making this sacrifice and there’s no immediate punishment for not making the sacrifice.
People simply use the resource without making the sacrifice and once enough people make this choice, the resource becomes useless.
The original example was a common grassy field where people could let their cattle graze. Naturally, you would want to take advantage of this free resource, however you must also hold back and allow the grass to regrow. The tragedy is that too few people make this sacrifice, resulting in a destroyed public field.
I love this problem because it:
- sets up a moral dilemma.
- is an authentic problem that relates easily to classroom issues.
- introduces classroom expectations of students.
- integrates with the tools of depth and complexity and the content imperatives.
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A quick search for tragedy of the commons activities leads to several fun choices.
The most common involves goldfish crackers and a straw (pdf). Students in groups pretend that they are fishing.
Students must take one fish, but may take more and sell their excess. At the end of each round, the number of fish remaining doubles (representing reproduction).
Naturally, groups that “over-fish” and go for the quick reward will quickly run out of fish and starve whereas groups that choose a moderate number of fish each round will sustain themselves for life.
What interests me most is the discussion students have after this activity. Plus you can take these ideas and abstract them to deal with other parallel situations.
Questions To Ask
- What patterns occurred while you were fishing?
- What ethical problem did your group have to overcome?
- Create a system of rules to keep the fish from going extinct.
- Does your system promote rewards or punishment? Which do you think is better?
- Identify a classroom situation that parallels this fishing problem.
Apply To Your Classroom
Our classrooms are full of their own “Tragedies Of The Commons.” Some include:
- using up the tissues
- losing or drying out classroom markers
- wasting sheets of paper
- breaking or losing playground equipment
Invite your student to work together to set up systems to “solve” these tragedies. You’ll be developing leaders, problem solvers, and better citizens.
- Simple wikipedia to get the gist.
- Wikipedia for a lot more info.
- A Science Journal article
- A fun fish activity that I based this off of.
Photo by alexanderdrachmann