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The Tragedy of the (Water) Commons
Debaere, Peter Technical Note GEM-0174 / Published December 16, 2019 / 3 pages.
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When left unattended, natural resources tend to inch toward depletion, overuse, spoilage, or pollution. Common pastures get overgrazed; lakes are overfished; rivers are polluted, and so on. In the case of water, some may wonder how overuse or depletion is possible, as water is a renewable natural resource. In spite of this, depletion and overuse can occur in a practical sense and on a local level. The reasons for this overuse are often related to the "tragedy of the commons," a situation where individual users of a common resource pursue their self-interest without coordination and thus behave collectively in ways that are not optimal for the resource as a whole. This note explores the concept of the tragedy of the commons in relation to water, considering especially the implications of water's status as an unprotected open-access resource.


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  • Overview

    When left unattended, natural resources tend to inch toward depletion, overuse, spoilage, or pollution. Common pastures get overgrazed; lakes are overfished; rivers are polluted, and so on. In the case of water, some may wonder how overuse or depletion is possible, as water is a renewable natural resource. In spite of this, depletion and overuse can occur in a practical sense and on a local level. The reasons for this overuse are often related to the "tragedy of the commons," a situation where individual users of a common resource pursue their self-interest without coordination and thus behave collectively in ways that are not optimal for the resource as a whole. This note explores the concept of the tragedy of the commons in relation to water, considering especially the implications of water's status as an unprotected open-access resource.

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