Water Conservation and the Commons Dilemma

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

The Commons Dilemma was first discussed in 1968. To set the stage, a society was envisioned where all members were able to use its common pasture area for grazing a limited number of their own cattle. The “dilemma” occurs because there is a positive income advantage for an individual member of this society to graze more than the limited number agreed upon. If only a few do this, the impact is minimal. However, human self-interest leads to more and more members grazing more and more cattle until the pasture is over-grazed and the system collapses. The “commons dilemma” is also referred to as the “tragedy of the commons” because it is very hard to get people to think about the general “good” to society rather than their own personal “good.”

This topic has been studied by psychologists for a half-century and there is an excellent article on PsychWiki. However, the bottom-line seems to be that most people tend to act in their own best interest unless there is a good, strong reason not to. We can try to modify how people feel about water conservation but there is no easy way to ensure that the changed-feelings will lead to meaningful water conservation.

In my last blog article, “We Don’t Have a Water Crisis,” I made the point that water was so cheap that most people do not believe that conservation is necessary. In the above discussion, I’m suggesting that many people will leave water conservation to others even if they believe there is a limited amount of water. The simple solution continues to be “raising the price of water.”

These concepts are discussed at length in an article titled,  The California Water Crisis: Policing vs. Pricing? by Kathryn Shelton and Richard B. McKenzie which can be found at the following link:


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