How climate change is like a bowl of goldfish

Image result for goldfish crackers

For our kids who accept the reality of climate change it can be really frustrating and hard to understand when they see other people continuing to go about “business as usual”.  Just like it helps to be able to identify emotions (that is the first step in moving beyond an emotional response to a problem), it can also be helpful to identify or put a name on a behavior.  By better understanding a behavior and why it happens we can start to figure out how to stop it and change to a more adaptive behavior.  In this case, what is at least partly behind the problem of human caused climate change is something called “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  Basically, the Tragedy of the Commons states that in cases where everyone shares the same resource (like fish in the sea, clean air, or our climate) people can easily slip into a mindset where they work to benefit themselves while spreading out the detrimental cost across everyone.  The long term, end result of this is  loss for the whole group.

If you can around up 5 or 6 friends and/ or family, you can do this little game to see how it works:

you will need about 40 small pieces of something (hardware nuts, poker chips, m&ms, goldfish etc) and about 30 minutes.

1. Put 18-20 pieces of your resource in a bowl in the center of the group.  Tell the group the following rules:

  1. NO TALKING  (or Communicating in any way).
  2. You can take as many pieces as you like but you must use a spoon to get it
  3. At the end of the first 20 second around player will earn 25 cents for every 3 pieces of the “resource” that they have
  4. Also, at the end of the first 20 second round the resource will “reproduce”.  For every 1 piece of resource left in the playing area you will add one more.  But never more then the original 18-20– that is the carrying capasity or max number the pond can support.

2. Count to three and let round one begin- time the group for 20 seconds. YOU MIGHT HAVE TO REMIND THEM OF THE NO TALKING RULE. At the end of the round count up everyone’s take and pay out the money.

3.  Chances are the group used up all the resources already so move on to the discussion questions.  But, if you have that rare group that left some resource to reproduce, add one “fish” for each remaining “fish” (to represent the resource reproducing– but never more then the 18-20 fish you started with).

4. Continue for a few rounds or until the group uses all the resource.

DISCUSSION:  How did it go?  Were you able to have “fish” at the end of each round?  Did you sustain the population of 18 fish?  Why or Why not? What did the experience feel like?  Were participants worried about getting their share?  Did they feel like it was fair?  Why or Why not?

Here is a good TED-ED Video about the “Tragedy of the Commons and Climate Change”


OK, so first lets all acknowledged our feelings regarding this news: Are you and your kids frustrated? maybe a little disappointed in mankind? Yeah, I know I am.  But there is good news too, because humans are able to overcome the Tragedy of the Commons. The TED video touched on it a little, but in addition when communities discuss VALUES along with solutions they are able to make big progress in making wise decisions about resources.

So, Let give it another go.  Grab your goldfish and your 5-6 friends and family member, but this time start out by talking about what you value: Is it important that everyone get the same number of goldfish?  Do we value having fish left in the pond? How many?

Then discuss what this means in the real world?  What do you and your kids value when it comes to the environment? When it comes to how we treat other people?  There is no one right answer to these questions.

Next think about what this means for discussions outside your immediate family.  My suggestion? Start climate change discussions by talking about values rather than facts about climate, or even solution.  Start with shared values and then move to solutions and facts from there.

Also, you can head over to the References page if you want more information about the “Tragedy of the Commons”.




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