Escaping the Tragedy of the Commons: Environmental Cooperation in the Caspian Sea

Matteo Villa


The Caspian Sea has been experiencing major changes as bordering countries increase utilization levels of it in their quest for economic development and prosperity. Population growth and a rise in average income are having a direct impact on per capita resource consumption as monitoring agencies constantly report that the Caspian is “undergoing increasing anthropogenic pressure”.1 Since at least almost half a century ago, scholars have drawn attention to how human factors such as increasing demand for natural resources could determine local, regional and global environmental change.

Hosting many common-pool resources, resources which are finite and happen to be shared among self-interested rational actors, the Caspian Sea runs the risk of being overexploited. Overexploitation can arise not only as a consequence of conscious decisions taken by single riparian countries, but also due to the unintentional interactive effect of their collective behavior in a competitive environment: an emergent phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons”.

After a brief overview of the literature on the tragedy of the commons, which overwhelmingly focuses on intra-national actors, this essay will attempt to extend a similar reasoning to the international, transboundary case of the Caspian. It will assess the extent to which the international version of the tragedy of the commons has had an impact on the Caspian Sea environment, and [1]

overview the effectiveness of international institutional arrangements that have already been put into place to protect Caspian resources - either by restoring them, regulating their use, or adopting mitigation and adaptation plans for human societies affected by such changes.

A brief, specific section will be devoted to climate change and its possible effects on the region. The earth’s climate is possibly the single best example of a global public good which requires cooperation between all world actors (or at least the main greenhouse gas emitters), thus hugely exceeding the capacities of the institutions designed to foster cooperation among Caspian riparian states alone.

  • [1] A.G. Kostianoy et al., “Complex Monitoring of Oil Pollution in the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas”, Proceedings of the ESA Envisat Symposium, 2007, p. 5.
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