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close this bookEnvironmental Education in the Schools (Peace Corps, 1993)
close this folderActivities, activities and more activities
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentUsing the senses
View the documentAdopt-a-tree
View the documentDuplication
View the documentMusic/rap/dance/drama
View the documentGarbage shuffle
View the documentThe rain forest revue
View the documentThe all new water review
View the documentOriginal skit
View the documentBotswana adaptation
View the documentA conservation drama - Trouble in Tikonkowo
View the documentThe awful eight
View the documentRole plays and other simulations
View the documentThe commons dilemma
View the documentKey mangrove: A system in conflict
View the documentChange in a mangrove ecosystem
View the documentKey mangrove: A conflict of interests
View the documentPoints of view
View the documentMining on the moon
View the documentMining on the moon: Part 1
View the documentMining on the moon: Part 2
View the documentThe reading and writing connection
View the documentFolk stories
View the documentSelected quotes
View the documentA heated controversy
View the documentA heated controversy: Part 1
View the documentA heated controversy: Part 2
View the documentAn environmental education tool - The creative journal
View the documentCubatao: New life in the Valley of Death
View the documentA letter from the village health worker - Clean water for elemit
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View the documentPoetry trail activity sheet
View the documentCartoons, fantasy, and creative
View the documentThe rare scare
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View the documentOur watery world
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View the documentHow do polyps build reefs?
View the documentInvestigations and experiments
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View the documentAcid demonstrations: Part I
View the documentAcid demonstrations: Part II
View the documentAcid test follow-up
View the documentHow can an oil spill be cleaned up?
View the documentThe case for case studies
View the documentAre we creating deserts? - The Sahel famine
View the documentStudent information - Famine in the Sahel: A case study
View the documentDesertification
View the documentSustainable development
View the documentDefining sustainable development: Part 1
View the documentDefining sustainable development: Part 2
View the documentCase study: United States: Part 3
View the documentCase study: Thailand: Part 4
View the documentCase study: Tanzania: Part 5
View the documentMoral dilemmas
View the documentThe flying foxes of Samoa
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View the documentScenario: Harry Carter's grain company: Part 1
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View the documentBranching out: Bat math
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View the documentWe can all be experts
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View the documentRaters of the planet ECO
View the documentLiven up your classroom
View the documentA web on the wall
View the documentBuilding the bulletin board
View the documentMembers of the web
View the documentA look at four food chains
View the documentThe interdisciplinary connection
View the documentPollution pathways
View the documentTracking the radiation (day 2- day 10)
View the documentPollution pathways (A)
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View the documentSizing up reserves
View the documentSizing up reserves (A)
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View the documentTechnology challenges
View the documentAdditional challenges (developed for the South Pacific)
View the documentThe ''good'' bacteria controversy
View the documentTaking action for the planet

The commons dilemma

Demonstrate how increased population places a strain on natural resources. Describe the outcomes of a self-interest strategy vs. a cooperative strategy for managing renewable resources. Explain how our stewardship of a resource can help to prevent us from exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth.

Intermediate, advanced

Science, social studies

Two pounds of peanuts in the shell, one large bowl for every four students.

The interrelated problem of population growth and dwindling resources is illustrated in this demonstration of the "commons dilemma." Christened by Garrett Hardin, the commons dilemma is derived from The Tragedy of the Commons written by William Forester Lloyd in 1833. The commons described by Lloyd is a pasture open to all. Herdsmen bring cattle to the commons to graze. Over time, each herdsman seeks to maximize his economic gam and adds cattle to his herd. The positive component, the increased profit, is realized by the individual herdsman. The negative component, the resultant overgrazing, is shared by all who use the commons. As each seeks to maximize his gain, the commons resource declines until overgrazing leads to its destruction. The dilemma: self interest vs. cooperation or maximizing individual gain vs. cooperative stewardship of a resource.

In this simulation, your students will have an opportunity to demonstrate their response as consumers of a resource in a commons. The commons, a large bowl, represents the sea and the resource, fish, are represented by peanuts or some other material.

Introduce the demonstration with a discussion of the ground rules, supplying only the information needed to get students started. The dilemma and a discussion of the various strategies should surface at the outcome of the activity. Divide students into groups of four and give each a bowl with 16 "fish."


1. The object of the game is to harvest as many fish as possible from the sea.

2. At carrying capacity, there are 16 fish (peanuts) in this sea (bowl). For every four fish each student harvests, he/she will receive one point. The more fish you harvest, the more points you will receive.

3. When the game begins, you may harvest all of the fish, some of the fish, or none.

4. You will have four twenty-second trials in which to harvest fish. You will be notified when to start and stop each trial.

5. If fish remain in the sea after each trial, a new fish will be added for each one remaining. If there are four fish left, four more will be added. But for each new trial, the total number of fish in the sea cannot be more than the carrying capacity of 16 fish.

Repeat the demonstration with eight students in each group to simulate population growth. Keep all other factors constant.

(Reprinted from Living Lightly on the Planet-Volume 1, Schlitz Audubon Society)


* What were the maximum number of points achieved by an individual? Any group?

* Why were fish only replaced if some remained in the bowl after each trial? (Simulates natural conditions; if all fish are harvested, no additional fish will be born.)

* What happens when members of a group do not use a cooperative strategy?

* What was the best strategy for harvesting from this commons (Eight from each trial.)

* Stewardship of a resource is demonstrated when we use a cooperative strategy that shows concern for a resource. Name some other resources that require our stewardship.

* How will continued population growth affect our stewardship of the Earth's resources?

Note: This demonstration was adapted from a study done by Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria. Gifford found that groups of children tend to cooperate or fail to cooperate, but not to cooperate partially. Cooperation increased with age, but there was a decline in quality of resource management from age 14 to 16.


There is not universal agreement on whether population control is a desirable goal. Economist Julian Simon from the University of Illinois sees the prospects for population growth in a positive light. He views the contribution of additional people to the human race as increasing the human capacity to discover new resources and increase productivity.

"In the long run, the most important economic effect on population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth...."

-Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource

Present Simon's point of view and let students debate the issue. For further reading on this point of view, see Simon and Kahn in the reference section of Living Lightly on the Planet.

Explore the "Tragedy of the Commons" being carried out by the exploitation of whales. The commons analogy is particularly poignant in this case as the economic interest of the whaling industry prevails over the long-term stewardship of these magnificent animals.


"Individually, each of us can do only a little. Together, we can save the world."

-Denis Hayes, Founder, Earth Day

Is there a commons dilemma to be resolved in your community? A commons is any publicly owned or shared resource, such as a forest preserve, an aquatic area, or the air we breathe. A dilemma results when population growth places pressure on the commons through overuse or misuse of a resource, causing the resource to become threatened or damaged. For instance, as population in an area grows, the addition of each car creates more air pollution, and the air quality for everyone declines. More people also means more public use of parks which often results in overuse of trails, more litter, and more pollution of waterways.

Have students select a local commons issue to investigate. Some dilemmas might revolve around the following situations: a decline in fish populations due to over harvesting; additional use of motorboats and other recreational equipment in a local aquatic area resulting in noise and/or water pollution; or destruction of trails in a local park due to increased usage by the public.

Once students have identified the problem and collected data, they should determine which laws exist to protect the resource they are investigating. Then use the guidelines provided in the introduction to try and solve the problems. The question of how to balance use with conservation of a resource is the central issue of a commons dilemma.