Tragedy of the Commons

Environmental problems derive from many different sources, but effective environmental sustainability is ultimately dependent on mentality and ideology. If people do not view something as being detrimental to themselves or something that they care about, they will not likely prevent it from occurring. People might also not understand that something introduces hazards to the environment, so they might believe that their actions are perfectly acceptable. A great deal of environmental degradation has occurred through what is known as “the tragedy of the commons”.

The phrase, the tragedy of the commons, was initially worded by William Forster Lloyd in the Nineteenth Century, but popularized by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The commons refers to the different shared resources that we use for energy, food, and other purposes. For an individual or a single organization, it is completely acceptable take as much from and use as much of the commons as desired, but if a large amount of people do this, it will be depleted in an unsustainable way. A common example of this is through a large field of grass that is shared by several farmers. Each farmer is entitled to graze sheep as much as he wants, since a single one cannot do close to enough damage to deplete the entire resource. Unfortunately, if all farmers graze their sheep, which they likely will, as they alone cannot harvest all of the grass, the resource will be depleted beyond the point of no return, thus creating a “tragedy”.

Hardin’s assessment draws from “An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Thomas Malthus. Malthus discussed a fear of overpopulation and depletion of resources coming from the fact that population increases exponentially, while resources only increase linearly. While there has not been a complete destruction of resources, some commons have been depleted and damaged due to continuous use by different parties. Today, with the Earth population at a swelling 7.2 billion, the shared commons of the ocean, the atmosphere, and the land are suffering from pollution and resource use.

From this issue, it is clear that environmental management has its problems at the individual level. Even if people and corporations are environmentally conscious and attempt to reduce their effects on the commons, they can still pollute and use resources to amounts that would not lead to any damage just from their doing but would be detrimental if performed by many. This is where things like legislation and standards can help to prevent any more unnecessary damage. By introducing guidelines that promote efficiency along with environmental sustainability, standards-developing organizations can contribute to proper environmental care at the individual level. ISO 14001:2015: Environmental management systems - Requirements with guidance for use is a great example of this, since it promotes conformity for careful environmental interaction.
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