Environmental Law Lesson Plan:
TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS
- Show students the impacts that individuals can have on common resources;
- Understand and identify ways that individuals and governments can protect our common resources; and
- Gain awareness of environmental issues through a discussion of laws and hypothetical scenarios.
Understand the principle of the Tragedy of the Commons as articulated by Garrett Hardin;
Understand the difference between government regulation and private property; and
Identify instances where the Tragedy of the Commons could occur.
- 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.
- 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 Tragedy of the Commons
- Explain the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons to the students – see the page The Environment & Property Rights under the Tragedy of the Commons section.
- Students can also spend some time looking into Garret Hardin’s writing and work.
- Brainstorm examples of areas of the environment which may be affected by unregulated use of the commons. Some examples include the ocean and the air.
This should be relatively quick as more specific examples will be discussed in further detail after the game.
Start with the following game:
Tragedy of the Commons 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).
The rules are set out on a separate downloadable page: Tragedy of the Commons Game Rules
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 be that students are only allowed to take two fish each round (regulation) or one student is in charge of all the fish and decides how many fish each other student in the group gets to take (private property). 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.
Repeat the activity again before discussing the remaining 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 his or her 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 his or her 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?
- 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?
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 which prevents 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 or an action (an attempt to control individual behaviour). Instead, a carbon price is often described as being an incentive regulation which encourages a certain behaviour but does not mandate any action. See the page Two Theories – How to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons? under 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 COP meeting 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 COP meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
For more information on some of these events check out the AlbertaEnviroLaws 101 section on Climate Change and the page on International Law under the Fundamentals of Law section.
As an extra assignment, get the students to debate the pros and cons of privatizing our water.