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What is a Common Resource?

A common resource is a natural or man-made asset, like forests, fisheries, or clean air, shared by many but not owned by any single entity. Its open access can lead to overuse, known as the tragedy of the commons. How we manage these resources impacts sustainability. What steps can we take to ensure their preservation for future generations? Continue reading to find out.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A common resource is a resource readily accessible to all members of the public who wish to obtain benefits from it. Some examples are natural, like forests, rivers, and lakes. Others are made by humans, as in the case of irrigation canals and reservoirs. With a common resource, limiting availability would be difficult and members of the public theoretically can enjoy unrestricted use. Such resources are vulnerable to overuse, a concern sometimes addressed with legislation and other steps designed to protect common resources.

A big problem with common resources is that greed on the part of individuals can ruin the resource for the community. In an example using public pasturelands, if one farmer chooses to pasture more animals than his fair share, they will deplete the pasture, harming everyone's livestock. On the other hand, if a sustainable number of livestock can be determined and the people who share the land agree to limit their livestock to this number, everyone can enjoy the common resource, in addition to preserving it for future generations.

The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The river is a heavily exploited common water resource.
The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The river is a heavily exploited common water resource.

In a situation known as the tragedy of the commons, common resources are destroyed by acts of greed or a poor understanding of the limitations of that resource. People may take too much water from a river, for example, not realizing that they are basing their usage on water levels from flood years. In a situation known as the free rider problem, some people use more than their fair share of a common resource and everyone suffers because their over-exploitation of the resource diminishes the amount available to the community.

Greed can lead to destruction of resources, as in overfishing.
Greed can lead to destruction of resources, as in overfishing.

Humans have been taking advantage of common resources for thousands of years and numerous studies have been conducted to learn more about how people interact with common resources. To this day, arguments among different groups over resource usage can be very contentious, as seen among nations with disputed resources along shared borders. The Colorado River in the United States, for example, is a heavily exploited common resource disputed by multiple states, as well as Mexico. All of the claimants to the river's water rely on it, forcing them to negotiate a fair division of its contents.

If too many animals are left to one pasture, the resources of that pasture can be depleted.
If too many animals are left to one pasture, the resources of that pasture can be depleted.

Privatization of common resources is also a topic of concern in some areas of the world. While some resources are protected for use by members of the public, others may be purchased by private firms. People who previously enjoyed a resource for free or at low cost may resent having to pay for it, and privatization can limit access to the wealthiest individuals.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon173405

I constructed a compound wall near by irrigation canal. now the departments asked me to remove it. let me know how many meters i should leave from the canal to construct my compound wall?

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    • The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The river is a heavily exploited common water resource.
      By: Andy
      The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The river is a heavily exploited common water resource.
    • Greed can lead to destruction of resources, as in overfishing.
      By: Jan Kranendonk
      Greed can lead to destruction of resources, as in overfishing.
    • If too many animals are left to one pasture, the resources of that pasture can be depleted.
      By: Kseniya Abramova
      If too many animals are left to one pasture, the resources of that pasture can be depleted.
    • A common resource is readily accessible to all members of the public who wish to obtain benefits from it.
      By: Massimo Cattaneo
      A common resource is readily accessible to all members of the public who wish to obtain benefits from it.