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Public Policy Failures

Political Scientist Focuses on the Role of the Individual

February 17, 2009

Justin Tucker

How do the actions of individuals affect global warming? To illustrate, Justin Tucker, assistant professor of political science, uses the example of the “Tragedy of the Commons” developed by Garrett Hardin in 1968.

For example, consider the grazing of cattle. Without some sort of controls, the fields could easily become overgrazed, putting all cattle owners at risk. To prevent this from happening, cattle owners need to agree on how many cows each owner will allow to graze.

“Now consider that one owner may want to graze just one more cow than the limit,” Tucker explained. “One cow probably isn’t going to make much difference. But what if every owner wanted to graze just one more cow? Now problems can develop. There has to be an incentive for everyone to play for the benefit of the community — or the commons — even if that means an individual loss. The benefit is that each person can graze their cattle, knowing that there will be enough. Maybe not as much as they’d like…but there will be enough.”

Countries and institutions operate in a similar fashion. Through negotiated agreement, all stakeholders are invited to participate and there is oversight through sharing and self-regulation. If someone breaks the rules, punishment is applied.

“Individuals ask, ‘Why should I change my behavior?’” Tucker told his audience on campus at the Feb. 5 National Teach-In on Global Warming. “The answer is that while there may be some slight, initial discomfort, everyone, including yourself, will benefit in the long run.”

(Download Tucker's presentation here)

For questions about Tucker’s presentation, contact the professor at

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