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Sharing doesn’t make any sense. Why share, when you can take for yourself? If ‘survival of the fittest’ is the way animals evolve, shouldn’t animals aim to become fitter than others? Take all the resources, hoard them, never share, become the strongest, and live happily. Seems logical.

In my laboratory, I have 1000 fish. They are called guppies, small grey fish with a couple of bright spots. When I throw a pinch of fish flakes into an aquarium they all rush to it and start munching. My guppies don’t share. As far as they know, they’ll never run out of food. Unfortunately, their brothers and sisters from the wild can’t say the same.

In the wild, guppies often feed on algae. If a school of fish eats through all the algae in a pond too quickly, algae won’t regrow, putting the whole population at risk. This is called the ‘tragedy of the commons’. When individuals try to become ‘the fittest’ by taking as many resources as they can, they might cause trouble for the whole group, including themselves. Luckily, some animals have evolved ways to avoid the problem of the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

If I come to a pizza party and quickly grab all the pizza boxes to take home, I will probably hear some people complain with at least a few mean words about me. Someone might even come up to try and stop the pizza robbery! In this case, punishing the individual that is too selfish can overcome ‘tragedy of the commons’.

Other ways to prevent the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is to set up some rules that everyone needs to follow. For example, two neighbouring farmers who let their cows graze on the same field will very quickly run out of fresh grass. Perhaps they should agree on how many animals can graze at a time, leaving room for grass to regrow.

You’ll have the chance to explore the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ with your friends through Arludo’s game Treasure Tragedy. In his game, students play as pirates trying to share treasure amongst each other. Each pirate can take as much as they want, but what is left over for the group doubles in size each time – meaning that a lot of gold can be there if no one takes any. But which pirate doesn’t love gold?!?

As students play, they’ll encounter the problems I mentioned above, and will need to figure out ways to solve them. By making decisions in a game, students learn about ways to resolve tragedy of the commons and how its related to economics and science.

Learning about tragedy of the commons is invaluable for students as it helps them understand the impact of their actions on the environment and society. Let’s encourage bright minds to develop responsible and sustainable habits for the betterment of the world.

Written by Ivan Vinogradov

Ivan is a behavioural biologist at the Australian National University designing IQ tests for animals to better understand their intelligence. He is a science communicator and tutor and is passionate about creating engaging educational experiences.