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On Global Commons

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Consider the following thought experiment: you reside in a tiny village and depend on the local fish pond for sustenance. You share the pond with three other villagers. The pond starts off with a dozen fish, and the fish breed. Each night, one baby will be added for every two adult fish. So, in order to maximise your supply of food, how many fish should you capture each day? Take a moment to consider it. Assume that juvenile fish reach maturity instantly and that the pond begins at full capacity and disregard variables such as the sexes of the fish you collect. The answer? One, and it's not just you. The greatest approach to maximise the food supply for every villager is for each fisherman to take only one fish every day. This is how mathematics works. If each villager takes one fish, there will be eight fish remaining over night. Each pair of fish produces one offspring, and the pond will be refilled with twelve fish the next day. If more than one is taken, the number of reproductive couples decreases and the population cannot recover. The lake will eventually be devoid of fish, leaving all four residents to starve. This fish pond exemplifies the classic problem known as the tragedy of the commons.

In 1833, economist William Forster Lloyd first characterised the phenomena in a paper discussing the overgrazing of livestock on village common spaces. More than a century later, ecologist Garrett Hardin reintroduced the term to describe what occurs when a large number of persons share a finite resource, such as grazing land, fishing grounds, living space, or even pure air. Hardin claimed that these scenarios put short-term self-interest against the collective good, and ultimately end badly for everyone, resulting in overgrazing, overfishing, overpopulation, pollution, and other social and environmental problems.

A critical analysis of the global south's relationship to global commons and international law might consider how these legal frameworks have historically disadvantaged countries in the global south. For example, international law has often privileged the interests of wealthier, industrialized countries over those of poorer, developing countries. This can be seen in the way that international trade agreements have been negotiated, as well as in the way that the global commons have been managed. In the case of the global commons, poorer countries may have less ability to participate in the development of international law and may be less able to assert their interests in the management of these resources. This can lead to an unequal distribution of the benefits of the global commons and can contribute to ongoing global inequalities. It is important for international law to be more inclusive and to take into account the needs and interests of all nations, including those in the global south, in order to ensure a more just and equitable global system.

The main aspect of a tragedy of the commons is that it provides an opportunity for an individual to benefit him or herself while spreading out any bad repercussions throughout the greater group. To illustrate this, let's return to our fish pond. Each fisherman is determined to catch as many fish for himself as possible. In the meantime, any drop in fish reproduction affects the entire town. A fisherman will conclude that it is in his best advantage to take one additional fish or two or three in order to avoid losing out to his neighbours. Unfortunately, this is the same conclusion reached by the other fisherman, and that's the tragedy. Short-term optimization of the self is not ideal for anyone in the long run.

This is a simplistic example, but the tragedy of the commons also occurs in more sophisticated real-world systems. The misuse of antibiotics has resulted in short-term improvements in cattle output and the treatment of common diseases, but it has also led to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which pose a threat to the entire community.

A coal-fired power station generates inexpensive electricity for its clients and money for its owners. These short-term advantages are beneficial, but the pollution caused by mining and burning coal spreads throughout the entire atmosphere and persists for thousands of years. There are further instances. Littering, water shortages, deforestation, traffic congestion, and even the purchasing of bottled water are all environmental issues. However, human society has demonstrated that it is capable of something spectacular. We establish social contracts, and communal agreements, elect governments, and enact laws. All of this is done to protect our communal selves from our individual inclinations. It is not simple, and we surely do not succeed nearly always. However, if we recall Hardin's lesson, we may continue to solve these issues as we have demonstrated in the past. When the tragedy of the commons applies, what is good for everyone is also good for each individual.



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