A Look at Undergraduate Research: Tragedy of the Commons & Climate Change

This post is part of a series that profiles the faculty-undergraduate research partnerships offered through the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning. To learn more, please contact the Center at citl@bu.edu.

R. S. Deese and Morgan AshurianCGS Social Sciences Lecturer R. Sam Deese is writing a book that tackles philosophical and political questions around climate change. CGS student Morgan Ashurian (CGS’17, CAS’19) is providing some valuable research help along the way.

Deese’s book, Climate Change and the Frontiers of Democracy (Springer, coming in 2017), looks at an economic theory called the “tragedy of the commons.” It’s a quandary most of us can understand: if you have a common resource, like land, and everyone surrounding that resource is unregulated in their ability to use it, people will pursue their short-term self-interest and take as much of the resource as they can. In the end, the resource will be destroyed.

Deese’s book traces this idea from its originators, William Forster Lloyd and Garrett Hardin, then examines how it applies to the problem of climate change today. It’s in every country’s self-interest to have a strong economy, industry, and the cheapest energy possible—says Deese—but pursuing that self-interest is disastrous for the planet as a whole. As a solution, Deese argues for the creation of more democratic institutions on a global scale, with the ultimate aim of creating a world parliament that would be directly accountable to voters.

As a research assistant, Ashurian is the first reader for the chapters that Deese writes. She helps to convert his citations to APA format and gives her thoughts on how to clarify the concepts. “Morgan is absolutely excellent as an assistant on this,” Deese says, adding that she’s “very perceptive when she reads the chapters and has great ideas and suggestions. … It’s helpful for me to know what’s clear and what could be clearer.”

Ashurian says the project intrigued her because of her interests in philosophy and political science. Now she’s learned how the Cold War and space exploration prompted people to see the environment in a different way. She’s thought about steps the international community can take to collaborate on issues of global climate change. The research has even prompted Ashurian to consider a study abroad program focused on countries working together to solve international issues—issues like global climate change.

Ashurian appreciates that the project allows her to think about an issue from both the philosophical and political science perspectives: “So many of the issues of global climate change have to do with the people that are in charge of different countries, the decisions that they make and the moral outlooks of people. Philosophy is just the understanding of the ethical viewpoint, and political science is about looking at this modern issue from an international and political standpoint.”

Thanks to the CGS Undergraduate Research Experience program through the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning, Ashurian is able to get a stipend for her research work. Deese said her help is a “wonderful resource” and he’s grateful to CITL for making it possible: “It’s one of the wonderful things about CGS that ambitious and enterprising undergrads can do this kind of work with faculty.”