Written by Rachel Overby, ESLLC 2016-2017
The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates an important message for humanity about our resource use. More specifically, a message about our resource use over a long period of time rather than a few days or weeks. The definition of this phenomenon can be summed up as one or a few groups of people choosing to forego overall sustainability for the sake of a few people or a few years. It is one of the main drivers of climate change and resource exploitation. Its effects are country-wide and global rather than at the small scale of a few farmers or a few miners, although they can definitely be felt there as well.
Over centuries, decisions made that reflect the Tragedy of the Commons to harvest more and more resources past their ability to recover has had visible and negative effects on the environment. These are extremely present in the huge decline and extinction of species both on land and in the ocean. The World Wildlife Fund lists the Bengal Tiger, Sea Lion, and Green Turtle as threatened species (1), and the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, and Moa are all extinct through clearly identifiable occurrences of the tragedy of the commons. Yet despite the extreme relevance of the Tragedy to both marine and terrestrial ecosystems, conservationists tend to put more of a focus on preserving, conserving, and restoring terrestrial ecosystems rather than marine ecosystems. This may be due to difficulties in allocating waters to countries, international cooperation to even begin discussing allocating those waters, ineffective management techniques, and a general lack of ability to comprehend that marine ecosystems are very much significant in world sustainability even though they may seem to be more ‘out of sight, out of mind’ than they are ‘here and present.’
Although data may suggest otherwise, marine ecosystems have a particular need for protection, since they are essential for resources and simply for their natural beauty. Yet only .5% of marine areas were officially protected in 2008 (2), compared with a higher number of terrestrial areas. The number has grown to .8% marine protected areas (3) by 2016, but a clear pattern has been shown: in the past, considerably less attention has been devoted to conserving marine areas than to terrestrial areas. In recent news, however, a marine protected area might change the gap for the better. During the month of October 2016, the Ross Sea and other areas surrounding a section of Antarctica’s coast won the title for the “world’s largest” marine protected area. Spanning a total area of about 598,000 nautical miles, this new Marine Protected Area is intended to have a staggering and positive effect on Antarctica’s fish population-especially since by law no fishing is allowed inside 432,000 nautical miles of it (4). Immediate benefits to Ross are not entirely certain to happen, but with the new protection, the area should be able to recover in great amounts in the meantime. How successful this area will be is entirely dependent on management effectiveness: if the restrictions work, then Ross sea stands a chance at a good recovery rate. If they do not, then it will be no more beneficial to the environment than not having one at all.
- Chape, Stuart, Mark Spalding, and Martin Jenkins. The world’s protected areas: status, values and prospects in the 21st century. Univ de Castilla La Mancha, 2008.