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A Common Tragedy: Why We Don’t Care Much About Mass Animal Deaths

Hundreds of birds are falling from the sky and thousands of fish are washing up on shores around the world. Is it due to fireworks? Global warming? Armageddon? No one really knows what’s causing the deaths of fish and fowl. It’s strange. What is stranger still is the lack of concern shown by the average person. Sure, scientists are perplexed and religious scholars are poring over their good books for an explanation, but the man on the street is nonplussed. There would be a much different reaction if it was a mass die off of puppies and kittens. Remember in 2007 when tainted Chinese pet food caused kidney failure in thousands of pets? People were sure worried about that.

The reason the public is not up in arms and there is no Congressional investigation of the situation is because no one owns the fish and birds. They represent no one’s assets or pets. This is a classic example of the Common Pool Problems, also known as the Tragedy of the Commons.

When property rights are absent or unclear there is no incentive to take care of the resource. We all have experienced the Common Pool Problem whenever we go to a party and there is a limited supply of really good guacamole. People will plant themselves by the bowl and eat it up quickly. Latecomers to the party are out of luck. The problem is the same for migratory birds, fish and wild animals. If no one owns them, no one will care about them that much and they will be over harvested.

The ultimate common pool is the earth’s atmosphere. This is why policy makers are having such a hard time coming to grips with global climate change. Developed countries say “sure we’ll cut back on carbon emissions if you will,” and developing countries say “wait a minute, you got us into this in the first place!” Meanwhile the seas rise and our world is inexorably changed.

Teresa Laughlin is a professor of economics at Palomar College