Lesson Plan – Managing our Environmental Resources

Environmental Law Lesson Plan:



  • Show students the impacts that individuals, government, and companies can have on common resources;
  • Understand and identify ways that we can better protect our common property; and
  • Gain awareness of environmental issues through a discussion of laws and hypothetical scenarios.

Knowledge Objectives

  • Understand and critique the principle of the Tragedy of the Commons;
  • Understand the differences between government regulation, private property, and community management; and
  • Identify instances where the mismanagement of resources could occur.

Skills Objectives

  • Better analyze an ‘on the ground’ hypothetical situation to identify environmental laws that may be triggered;
  • Better able to form and express opinions as to why environmental laws are necessary; and
  • Better able to develop persuasive legal arguments and orally advocate an opinion or point of view.

Attitude Objectives

  • Become more inspired to think about the environmental consequences of various actions; and
  • Understand that law is created through many ways including advocacy and civil debate.


An Introduction to the Tragedy of the Commons

  1. Explain the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons to the students. Make sure to identify that this is just one way of understanding resource management.
  2. Watch this video on Elinor Ostrom’s version of this principle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=305&v=BDEAgmklNyE&feature=emb_title
  3. Brainstorm examples of areas of the environment which may be affected by unregulated or mismanaged use of the commons. Some examples could include the ocean and the atmosphere. This should be relatively quick as more specific examples will be discussed in further detail after the game.

Start with the following game:

Divide students into groups of four or five and place 20 goldfish on each desk. Ask the students not to touch the goldfish yet! Tell the students the following game rules (you may want to display the rules in the classroom).


    •  Each group of students represents a small fishing village and the students are fishers who are supporting their families. Each village surrounds a lake with fish in it that can be eaten or sold.
    • This game will be played in five rounds; each round represents a year. Each year the students go fishing. Each student must collect at least one fish each round in order to feed him or herself.
      • No fish: you and your family starve and you are out of the game.
      • One fish: you survive but your family starves.
      • Two fish: your family survives.
      • More than two fish: You can sell them for a profit.
    • At the end of the year the fish repopulate. This means that the instructor will double the amount of fish that are left in the lake at the end of each round. • There will be five years consisting of ‘fishing’ and ‘repopulating’. Those students who have the most fish at the end of the activity will have the most profit and therefore ‘win’.
    • If anyone starves (i.e. do not collect at least one fish) then they have died and cannot fish the next year.
    • No talking is allowed during the activity.

After you have played an entire game of five rounds, ask students the following questions.

Did anyone survive? What was effective? Students will survive if everyone in their group takes no more than their fair share. If even one group member takes more than three fish it can have detrimental consequences for the entire group.

What was challenging? Students often get caught up in taking many fish in order to have as much profit as possible. This creates a challenge for other students, who can get frustrated as they try to take a sustainable amount of fish while their group members take more.

What could have been done to make sure everyone survived for the full five years? Rules could be put in place. This could mean that students are only allowed to take two fish each round or one student is in charge of all the fish and decides how many fish each other student in the group gets to take . Ask students if they would be willing to abide by such rules. If students can quickly agree on a rule that would be binding on everyone, write it down on the board and announce that it is in place from now on.

Play another round and then ask the next rounds of questions.

Did more people survive the second game? Why or why not? Hopefully more people survived but the survival of the group can hinge on a single group member taking more than their fair share.

Did anyone take more than two or three fish each round? Why or why not? Even though students know how to make sure everyone survives for the full five years, often the desire to make the most profit is stronger.

Did anyone sacrifice their fish for the common good? Why or why not?

Who does society reward in this type of scenario, the person who takes the most fish or the person who is aware of the common good?

Are there any local examples of this happening?

Make a note with the students that this is a good example of Elinor Ostrom’s theory in practice. The students, a small group, made decisions on which rules would work best for them and then put them into action.

  • Connect with the Chemical Valley example in the section Toxins & Waste: Canadian Case Studies. In that case, the approvals required for new development did not involve a cumulative effects assessment. This meant that in the Chemical Valley, each new development was approved as though it was entering a pristine airshed rather than an airshed that had already been polluted by numerous other polluters. Is this a modern day example of the tragedy of the commons? How can this be solved? 
  • Make a note that in this case both government regulation and private property did not prevent the problem of dangerous air pollution.
Students can look up the air quality policy that was agreed upon (Environmental Registry of Ontario, “Cumulative effects assessment in air approvals” (26 April 2018) Government of Ontario online: https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/013-1680) and can discuss the pros and cons of using policy versus legislation and regulation.
  • GHG emissions: Is the carbon tax an example of that regulation that could limit the effects of the tragedy of the commons? Describe the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act and discuss how it is designed to limit the emissions of GHGs through a carbon price. Discuss how this is different than an approval (as seen in the Chemical Valley example). An approval is an example of command and control regulation – a ban or semi-ban on an action (an attempt to control individual behaviour). A carbon price, on the other hand, encourages a certain behaviour but does not mandate any action. See the page How should we manage our environmental resources? under the Managing our Environmental Resources: A Modern take on the Tragedy of the Commons section on the Alberta Environmental Laws 101 website.

Here are some key international milestones on air pollution prevention:

1968: The UN Biosphere Conference is held, where global environmental problems (including air pollution) are discussed by experts from around the world for the first time.

1979: The Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution is adopted to help regulate air pollution.

1987: 24 nations sign the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase out CFCs.

1987: The Brundtland Report (Our Common Future) is published.

1992: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change sets goals for industrial countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

1992: Most countries adopt Agenda 21, a blueprint for sustainable development.

1997: The Kyoto Protocol is established at a Conference of the Parties meeting under the framework of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

2003: Europe gives carbon dioxide a market value in the EU.

2015: 195 countries sign the Paris Agreement at a Conference of the Parties meeting under the framework of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

For more information on some of these events check out the section on Climate Change and the page on International Law under the Fundamentals of Environmental Law section.

As an extra assignment, get the students to debate the pros and cons of privatizing water.