CC-02-02 The Common Tragedy of Consumerism

Individual Climate Responsibility and the Tragedy of the Commons

You Know It You Know It's Spring When...
Photo by Etienne Boucher (CC).

This is lesson four of six on climate change. 

Here are links to the other five:

Introduction and the Precautionary Principle:
Lesson 01-01, Lesson 01-02

Allocating Responsibility:
Lesson 02-01, Lesson 02-02

Agreements and Competing Values
Lesson 03-01, Lesson 03-02

INTRODUCTION

Actions that are rational on an individual level can have disastrous collective impacts if all members of a society adopt them. This tragedy of the commons describes the tendency to overuse public resources in the absence of rules governing access and allocation.

How can individuals act ethically with respect to climate change without sacrificing too much of their own wellbeing? Is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" sufficient to protect resources held in common? Should the costs of moving to a sustainable economy be borne directly by citizens through taxes, or passed on to them through the supply chain by the companies and retailers with which they do business?

INSTRUCTOR PREPARATION NEEDED

Familiarity with the arguments for and against personal carbon trading, carbon offsetting, and buying local. Familiarity with the classic tragedy of the commons arguments and how they relate to individual choices, responsibilities, and freedoms.

LESSON PLAN

In-Class Activities
Do: Discussion (60 minutes)
Does the pursuit of individual interests lead to effective climate change solutions, or must there be coordinated social management of the environment? Are the common remedies of buying local or offsetting carbon actually effective? Are other values sacrificed in the process? Would carbon trading on the person-to-person level be an onerous threat to individual freedom or the correct scale at which to administer reform?

Assignments to Be Completed in Advance (0-2+ hours)

Read: 
Adam Dean, "Local Produce vs. Global Trade," Policy Innovations (October 25, 2007)

Is buying local food and produce beneficial for the environment? If developing countries have a comparative advantage in certain agricultural products, wouldn't shipping food globally assist their development?

Saul Gomez, "Offsets, the Indulgences of Today?" Policy Innovations (August 24, 2007)

Carbon offsets are innovative new voluntary effort for reducing one's impact on the planet, but do these products do what they promise? Can offsets and renewable energy credits help finance development through the Kyoto Protocol?

Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science (December 13, 1968)

Garrett Hardin's seminal work on how self-interest alone can degrade the quality of resources held in common.

Listen:
Matt Prescott, "The CarbonLimited Story," Workshop for Ethics in Business (November 14, 2007)

Should society institute carbon accountability at the level of the individual consumer? This audio explores an experiment with personal carbon trading for transportation and home heating.

RELATED ETHICS QUESTIONS

A. Does Adam Smith's invisible hand function properly when it comes to resources held in common?

B. Can an enlightened social interest be more ethical and more practical than self-interest alone?

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Scott Barrett, "Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods," Workshop for Ethics in Business (October 5, 2007)

Solving climate change will benefit nearly everyone, yet there is collective inertia preventing action. Who are the actors and obstacles involved in solving this problem?

Timothy Savage, "Central versus Local: U.S. and China Face Mirror-Image Problems in Dealing With Climate Change," Policy Innovations (February 21, 2007)

Where should power be allocated to be the most effective at fighting climate change? Should policy start with city and local governments or be kept at the national level?

Read More: democracy, development, energy, environment, ethics, globalization, oil, trade, world economy

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