A common access resource is one that is non-excludable but rivalrous: anyone can access it and use it but doing so reduces the benefits the resource can provide to others in society. Common examples are pastureland that is shared by cattlemen, fish in the open ocean and the atmosphere itself, which the more it is used as a sink for toxic air pollutants, the worse human health becomes.
In the American West, examples of common access resources abound, leading to several tragedies of the commons, the problems arising from individuals over-using a common resource for their own gain at the expense of others in society whose ability to benefit from the resource is diminished.
Lately farms have been popping up deep in the Arizona desert. Not because there is lots of water in the desert, which of course, there is not; rather because the water that lies under the desert floor is not managed by anyone and is a pure common access resource. Anyone is allowed to use as much of it as they want without any regulations regarding its use!
The story below from Marketplace sheds some more light on this story.
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This week we’ve been exploring the issues of common access resources and how they give rise to a market failure. The video below illustrates the tragedy of the commons in Indonesia’s fish populations.
The high demand for fresh seafood from Southern China and Hong Kong create demand for Indonesia’s reef fish species. Over the last decade, the fish stocks around the more populated Western islands of the archipelago have all but disappeared, so today fishermen have brought their unsustainable methods to the Eastern islands of Indonesia, using dynamite and cyanide to stun fish, which are then caught live and rapidly transported to the markets in China for consumption. According to some estimates, Indonesia’s fish stocks are declining by 30% per year, a rate at which they will be depleted within the next decade.
This poses several problems for both the consumers and producers of fresh fish. For the Chinese consumers, the increasing scarcity of fish in the next decade will mean rising prices and, eventually, the death of the market altogether. For Indonesian fishermen, the outcome is more dire; a loss of their livelihood as the fish stocks dry up.
This raises the question: Why do fisherman continue to use these unsustainable methods? Of course, in a competitive market with thousands of fisherman, if one individual chooses to fish using sustainable methods (using hook and line, for example), he risks catching fewer fish than the competition using cyanide and dynamite. Fewer fish mean less income and a lower standard of living. The rational thing for each individual fisherman, therefore, is to catch fish using the most productive method available. The tragedy of this is that the highest yielding methods are unsustainable, as the story explains, and before long the fish will be exploited to extinction.
The organization profiled in the video is using education to encourage fisherman to use sustainable methods to catch fish. Unfortunately, I fear this will not be enough to save the wild fish stock of Indonesia. The Indonesian government must intervene in the market to enforce strict catch limits, perhaps employing a permit scheme that would allow fishermen to buy and sell permits to catch a strictly controlled quantity of fish during a fishing season.
As it stands, however, Indonesia’s dwindling fish stocks demonstrate yet another example of the tragedy of the commons. Without clear property rights or management by a government, the common resource of Indonesia’s reef fish will continue to be exploited unsustainably, leaving future fishing communities with fewer sources of income and future consumers with less variety of fish to consume and enjoy. The resource is over-exploited today, to the gain of today’s consumers and fisherman, at the expense of future generations.