ESG and Climate Risk Experts' Articles

The Reemergence of Tyranny of Small Decisions- Collapse of Marine Ecosystem

  • The tyranny of small decisions leads to undesirable outcomes when individual choices prioritize self-interest over the common good.
  • The cumulative effects of human activities harm marine ecosystems, deplete resources, and disrupt ecological balance.
  • Examples include the degradation of marine habitats due to acoustic habitat degradation, plastic pollution, overfishing, and shift in water consumption patterns.
  • Effective governance, raising awareness, enforcing regulations, encouraging community collaboration, investing in research, and establishing monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to promote sustainable decision-making.

Oceans are a storehouse of a variety of services ranging from serving as the source of food, pharmaceuticals, and climate change regulation to being the largest carbon sinks and livelihoods.

However, human actions have severely impacted the overall health of the oceans. The following incidents illustrate the dire consequences we are creating for our future.

“A recent incident on January 12 shook Tiruchendar beach in Tamil Nadu as 250 baleen whales and 30 carcasses were tragically discovered stranded in shallow waters.” Adding to this distress, Puri Beach in Odisha witnessed the lifeless bodies of 150 olive ridley turtles.

Such distressing events serve as stark reminders of the grave consequences of marine habitat degradation that cannot be ignored.According to Aristotle, the care for a common resource diminishes as more people share it. Individuals often prioritize their interests and overlook the common good unless they are directly impacted. Economist Alfred E. Kahn introduced the concept of the “Tyranny of small decisions” in 1966, highlighting how rational choices can result in the irreversible destruction of desired alternatives.

The decline of the railway system in the 1950s in Ithaca, New York exemplifies this phenomenon. Despite its reliability, people chose alternative cars, buses, and flights, causing the railway’s closure due to declining usage and revenue. Unintentionally, commuters contributed to the loss of a vital transportation option for adverse weather conditions. These choices, while individually rational, failed to align with the community’s long-term interests. The tyranny of small decisions extends beyond economics, impacting areas such as environmental degradation, politics, and health outcomes.

Natural resources like food, coal, and water are shared by everyone, yet no one protects them. Unfortunately, these resources are often left vulnerable to exploitation and degradation.

In a 1968 paper, environmentalist Garrett Hardin introduced the analogy of the commons to depict the escalating pressures on finite resources resulting from increasing human populations at national and global levels jeopardizing sustainability. He illustrated this phenomenon using the analogy of sheep grazing land, emphasizing the contrasting outcomes between private and communal management. While private grazing lands are carefully maintained to preserve their value and the health of the herd, communal grazing lands suffer from overpopulation as all herdsmen exploit the shared resources. Hardin argued that the tragedy of the commons is an inevitable consequence driven by individual gains, leading to detrimental outcomes for all involved.

This phenomenon was termed as “Tragedy of Commons” which states that individuals exploit shared resources outweighing demand over supply subsequently leading to overconsumption and the depletion of resources.

Currently, the protection of commons has become a challenge, not just locally but at national and international levels. As humans rush toward their self-interest, the path to ruin looms ahead. The interplay of human activities and climate-related factors has intensified the occurrence of catastrophic events, which are highly undesirable and have far-reaching consequences.

"Immediate attention must be given to addressing and mitigating the underlying causes of these occurrences and finding sustainable solutions to ensure the preservation and equitable distribution of these vital resources. "

To address and mitigate the repercussions stemming from seemingly insignificant choices, let us delve into several instances exemplifying the concept known as the tyranny of decision.

Examples of Tyranny of Decisions

Increasing acoustic habitat degradation is an example of the tyranny of small decisions due to the cumulative impact of individual actions that harm the marine environment. Sound travels at a faster speed underwater than air, and hence it is used for communication for mating, foraging (detecting prey), and locating objects to navigate easily. Lately, ocean noise levels have been rising at a rate of 0.55 db per year. This phenomenon is termed Acoustic habitat degradation which refers to the negative alteration of soundscapes in natural habitats, primarily caused by human activities such as noise pollution. Rising anthropogenic activities for individual gains are the driving factors for degradation-

  1. Underwater noise from shipping vessels has increased substantially in recent years due to global trade growth for economic profits.
  2. Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas reserves through seismic surveys. Seismic air-gun arrays are used to create intense sound waves that penetrate the seabed, allowing researchers to map subsurface structures.
  3. Recreational activities, such as boating and water sports, including motorized watercraft which are also used for fishing to generate income are major contributors.

Individually, the decision to operate a motorized watercraft, conduct seismic surveys, or increase shipping activities may not be seen as significant. However, the cumulative effect of these actions results in a degradation of the underwater soundscape, negatively affecting marine organisms’ ability to thrive and maintain healthy populations with a resultant altered ecosystem. The ever-increasing noise from human activities leads to noise pollution which impedes acoustic communication owing to auditory masking, where one sound interferes with the perception of another sound. It may lead to reduced auditory sensitivity owing to physiological damage to the epithelial membrane of auditory systems in marine animals. It has the potential to impact their mating behavior, and navigational capabilities with diminished defense capabilities in predator-prey interactions.

Plastics in Marine Ecosystems

"Approximately 80% of marine litter consists of plastic, with over 6.5 million tons of plastic making its way into the ocean each year. Daily, a staggering 15,343 tons of waste is dumped into the South Asian seas, originating from 60 major cities in India. The annual generation of municipal plastic waste amounts to approximately 55 million tons, according to the Central Pollution Board. Out of this total, only 37% is recycled, while the remaining portion is not properly accounted for."

What has led us to this troubling situation?

The primary source of marine litter can be attributed to land-based factors, including tire abrasion, runoff from human settlements, and the discharge of wastewater from households, which contains synthetic textile fibers and detergent microparticles. Unfortunately, even sewage treatment plants are unable to completely filter out these microplastics, leading to their release into the ocean.

Moreover, Plastics find their way into the marine ecosystem through various means, including inadequate waste disposal practices, the illegal discharge of industrial waste, lost fishing nets, the release of plastic pollutants by cruise ships, and the abrasion of paints or varnish from vessels. However, the issue of plastics in our marine ecosystem goes beyond just littering. Once present in the marine environment, these plastics enter the food chain and pose a threat to organisms through entanglement and ingestion.

"The pervasive usage of plastics in various aspects of our daily lives, such as consumer goods packaging and inexpensive fishing equipment, has played a significant role in exacerbating this problem. Additionally, the extensive trading activities in India, accounting for 95% of volume and 68% of value, contribute significantly to the issue. It is worth noting that India's extensive coastline, with approximately 14.2% of the country's population residing there, is home to around 420 million people."

Plastics have significantly impacted the marine ecosystem, exemplifying the tyranny of small decisions. 

Despite government regulations, the general population has not fully embraced waste management protocols due to inadequate education and awareness about plastic pollution, compounded by a lack of effective governance.

Unless national waste management systems are expanded and land-based waste is properly recycled, the problem of plastic pollution in the marine environment will persist and worsen. This situation exemplifies the tyranny of decisions, as the cumulative impact of individual choices and the lack of effective governance contribute to the growing issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.

Disruptive Fishing Practices and Exploitation- A Growing Threat

Overfishing serves yet another prime example of the tyranny of small decisions within the tragedy of the commons. The widespread consequences of overexploitation of marine species, such as population depletion and ecosystem

-level changes, highlighting the severity of the issue. Contributing to this problem are various factors, including unreported fishing practices, inadequate protection of marine areas, insufficient monitoring of industrial fishing fleets, and limited understanding of fish species and their population dynamics. The challenge lies in assessing the true extent of overfishing, as historical data on natural abundance has been lost, leading to a shifting baseline.

Each decision by fishermen and fishing companies, based on their immediate self-interest to maximize catches by utilizing destructive practices like bottom trawling and dredging may appear insignificant, yet their cumulative impact disrupts ecosystems and depletes fish populations.

"In the pursuit of short-term economic incentives and the need to meet the global demand for seafood which sustains around 3 billion people as their primary protein source, individual fishermen and companies aim to maximize their catch with the industrial fishing industry resorting to destructive practices like bottom trawling, blast fishing, and dredging. "

These methods not only damage seafloor habitats such as seagrass meadows, coral reefs, and algal beds but also disrupt ecosystems as fish populations decline, stocks become unsustainable, increasing the risk of extinction, disrupting ecosystems, harming the food chain, and jeopardizing the fishing industry’s long-term sustainability. Such practices also lead to the problem of bycatch, unintentionally catching and removing significant populations of non-target species that could have served as food for other species.

Overfishing is a problem that has two major impacts: it harms the livelihoods of local fishermen and results in significant financial and ecological losses due to bycatch.

When fish populations decline, fishermen earn less money. As a result, they seek technological advancements to maximize their profits. However, these advancements often involve more destructive fishing techniques, creating a vicious cycle of increased fishing and bycatches.

"“Neither the Fisheries department nor the Coast Guard provides any guidance to the fishermen. The turtles die after encountering the propeller of the trawlers.” "

Not only that overfishing endangers species’ survival but it also results in the abandonment of fishing gear, known as ghost gear, comprising up to 10% of marine plastic waste. Irresponsible disposal of these nets further endangers marine mammals and reptiles like whales, dolphins, and turtles, entangling and suffocating them.

Lack of effective governance and regulation exacerbates the problem. Insufficient monitoring and enforcement allow overfishing practices to persist, as there are minimal consequences for exceeding quotas or employing destructive fishing techniques. The absence of coordinated management and conservation measures further reinforces the tragedy of the commons, as each actor acts in their self-interest without considering the broader consequences. This collective result of individual actions showcases the detrimental effects that arise from the tyranny of small decisions, ultimately depleting fish populations and causing ecological damage.

Impact of Increasing Water Consumption

Increasing water consumption can be seen as an example of the tyranny of small decisions due to the collective impact of individual choices on water resources.

In case of increasing water consumption, individuals make daily decisions such as watering lawns, taking long showers, or leaving taps running, without considering the larger implications. Individually, these actions may appear minor. The cumulative effect of these individual decisions can strain water resources, especially in regions already facing water scarcity or limited supply. As per the 2018 Niti Aayog report, “600 crore face extreme water stress meaning- 2,00,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. Reports like these highlight the dire need to assess the consequences of human activities on the water crisis knocking on our doors.

As India undergoes infrastructure expansion and development, water consumption is expected to rise significantly. This includes the construction of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, as well as the development of irrigation systems for agriculture. The cumulative effect of individual decisions to construct and utilize these infrastructures driven by population growth, urbanization, and changes in consumption patterns, can lead to water shortages, depletion of aquifers, and ecological imbalances

"On the other hand, the agricultural sector, which accounts for a substantial portion of water consumption in India, is experiencing a surge in water demands. Water- Intensive Crops such as rice, wheat, and sugarcane make up 90% of the country's crop production. The collective decision to cultivate these water-intensive crops contributes to increased water consumption."

As one of the leading crop producers globally, the country’s reliance on irrigation has grown over time. It is projected that water usage for irrigation in India will rise by 68.5 trillion liters between 2000 and 2025, putting strain on available water resources and risking the overexploitation of these vital resources.

"As disposable income and urbanization rise, consumption patterns shift towards water-intensive products like meat, poultry, and lifestyle goods. These individual choices collectively contribute to higher water consumption. "

India’s domestic demand for food grain is projected to increase from 178 MM mt in 2000 to 241 MM mt in 2050, with agricultural exports have been tripled from $5.6 billion in 2000 to $18.1 billion in 2014. Additionally, there is an increase in annual per capita consumption of water-intensive products such as poultry meat, eggs, cotton, and milk. Chicken and milk production is expected to grow at compound annual growth rates (CAGR) of 3% and 4% respectively between 2000 and 2020.

Road Ahead

Before individuals’ habits wreck our economy and utilities, it’s crucial to sustainably manage freshwater and marine resources at the grassroots level.

"The UDA framework proposed by Maritime Research Centre, Pune has been consolidated into horizontal and vertical constructs with four stakeholders: blue economy, maritime security, environmental regulators, and science and technology. "

Horizontal construction delineates assets to stakeholders in terms of technology and capacity building. The Vertical level represents the hierarchy starting from identifying water risks and extracting data to propose sustainable strategies to be incorporated by policymakers in regulatory frameworks. The framework’s pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts across the four stakeholders within the nations and at the regional level will ensure efficient utilization of the available resources to focus on local site-specific R&D to build indigenous capabilities. With its nuanced approach and user-interactive nature, it can address and help communities to overcome a set of water challenges.

For sustainable management of water, effective governance with relevant stakeholder engagement and active community engagement seems quintessential. The following are the broad opportunities-

  • Raise awareness:  Prioritize raising awareness about the concept of tyranny of decisions such as water consumption, pollution, and its potential consequences like water shortage, fostering a culture that values long-term thinking and considers the broader consequences of individual choices. This can be done through educational campaigns, workshops, and public discussions. UDA framework’s Outreach strategy focuses primarily on conducting workshops and seminars to create underwater domain awareness of freshwater resources.
  • Implement effective regulations: Enforce effective regulations that discourage short-sighted decision-making and promote sustainable practices. This can include setting limits on resource consumption, implementing penalties for harmful actions, and promoting responsible resource management.
  • Encourage collaboration and cooperation: Foster a sense of collective responsibility and encourage collaboration among individuals, communities, academia, and industries. This can involve creating platforms for dialogue, promoting shared decision-making processes, and encouraging cooperation to achieve common goals.
  • Invest in research and innovation: Allocate resources to research and development initiatives focused on sustainable practices and technologies. This can lead to the discovery of alternative solutions and approaches that minimize the negative impact of individual decisions on collective well-being.
  • Establish monitoring and evaluation mechanisms: Establish robust monitoring and evaluation systems like water reporting frameworks as part of Environmental, social, and governance schemes to track the impact of individual decisions such as industrial water usage, discharge, and withdrawal on the collective outcome. This can help identify trends, assess the effectiveness of implemented measures, and make necessary adjustments to ensure sustainable decision-making.

These measures, when implemented along with the UDA framework, can contribute to the sustainable management of water resources and address challenges associated with the tyranny of decisions.

Aradhya Kapoor, MRC Fellow

About Author

Aradhya is a dedicated member of the communications and advocacy team at the Maritime Research Centre (MRC) in Pune. With a strong educational background, she completed her post-graduation in Life Sciences at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Her expertise and passion lie in effectively communicating scientific knowledge and research findings to a wider audience. Aradhya’s role at MRC involves promoting awareness about marine conservation issues and advocating for sustainable practices. Through her work, she strives to bridge the gap between scientific research and public understanding, contributing to the conservation and preservation of our marine ecosystems.

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