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Saving Fish and Teaching Economics

Students from Smoky Hill High School in Colorado’s Cherry Creek School District competed last year in the World Affairs Challenge sponsored by the University of Denver. In this annual competition, students from the Denver area present a problem and a solution in a fifteen-minute presentation that involves some drama. The Smoky Hill students’ presentation was entitled, “Saving the Fish in the World’s Oceans,” a play written in the style of children’s author Dr. Seuss (Theodor S. Geisel). Marc Johnson, the teacher who advised the group, shared some thoughts about the experience with us.

PERC Reports: Tell us how “Saving the Fish in the World’s Oceans” developed.
Johnson: Each year the university identifies an issue that has international implications. Last year it was water. The twelve students I worked with chose the topic of the dwindling fish populations in the world’s oceans. They were an incredibly competitive bunch and they recognized that to win the competition their content must be sound and carefully researched and that the presentation should be entertaining and creative . . . hence, the play written in the spirit of a Dr. Seuss story.

PR: Tell me about the students.
Johnson: This particular effort was strictly extracurricular and voluntary. I teach economics, but only one of the students had studied economics with me. Nine of the twelve had taken American history with me in the past. Nine were seniors, three were juniors.

PR: Can you summarize the storyline briefly?
Johnson: Through their research, the students became convinced that the diminishing fish populations in the world’s oceans are indeed a tragedy of the commons. They concluded that, ultimately, there are three approaches to solving the problem:

  • Moral suasion (heartfelt appeals to fishermen to restrain their fishing for the greater good);
  • Regulation (externally imposed rules on fishing with accompanying penalties for violations); or
  • The establishment of private property rights.


Through a bedtime story told to a little girl, they created a fictitious land (the world) which had a really big lake (the oceans). Scenery included a kiddie swimming pool with paper fish, which the fishermen began pulling out . . . and, as they did so, the numbers of fish dwindled ever more.

Initial attempts at moral suasion (by a rather shrill character in green leotards with a big “E” on his chest, named “Enviro Man”) were insufficient to solve the problem. Next, regulation (by a rather stuffy character in a three-piece suit, with tape measure, magnifying glass, and scale, named “Global Alliance Man”) ultimately led to black markets and a continuing depletion of the lake’s fish.

Finally, the hero (“Private Property Rights Man”) rescued the day by establishing individual transferable quotas (ITQs) similar to the successful real-world experiments in New Zealand and Iceland.

PR: Where did you learn about the tragedy of the commons?
Johnson: I first encountered the tragedy of the commons about fifteen years ago in a geography course for teachers at the Center for Teaching International Relations at Denver University. But I had no clever or effective way to deliver it to students. Then, about four years ago, the Colorado Council on Economic Education offered a course on “Economics and the Environment.” A guest presenter, Don Wentworth [PERC’s Director of Environmental Education], demonstrated an ingenious way to present the concept through a simulation with paper clips (representing fish) on an overhead projector. I was hooked. I’ve used it in geography classes when we probe into habitat destruction in Sub-Saharan Africa (causing the loss of elephants and rhinos), the threat of species extinction of North American bison, and, yes, fish populations. I also include it in an environmental unit in my economics classes.

PR: Tell us how the play developed.
Johnson: After the students settled on the topic of fish in the world’s oceans, I presented to the group the simulation of the tragedy of the commons. I could instantly see the light bulbs switch on. They then proceeded to do research. We met once a week for two months.

The students consulted a wide range of sources (I believe not only in the economic marketplace, but in the marketplace of ideas as well). They read National Geographic articles, consulted Web sites of environmental groups, used Donald Leal’s PERC publication on “Homesteading the World’s Oceans,” and consulted a cover story in the Economist. I was really impressed with the quality of their research and their objective pursuit of effective solutions.

Once they had completed all their research, an executive committee met to do the creative grunt work. Their charge was to write an imaginative and entertaining play with a Dr. Seuss rhyme scheme while still dealing with a serious problem in a sophisticated and thorough way. (Steve Abbott, now at Beloit College, Dan Corren, now at Penn State, and Eric Shoup, now at Baylor, deserve authorship credit.)

PR: What parts did the students like best?
Johnson: They loved acting the play out and hamming it up. They got a big charge out of the over-the-top characters, Enviro Man and Global Alliance Man. (I suggested to them that someone might take offense at their characterizations, but they were adamant.) They were assured that the combination of solid research, compelling solutions, a creative script, and superior theatrics would win them the competition.

PR: Since you teach economics, I’m sure you see environmental issues as a way of conveying economic concepts. But economics should also expand our understanding of environmental issues. Do you feel this happens as well?
Johnson: I believe strongly in economic education, because economics has such a unique and valuable way of looking at the world. In my opinion, once people truly grasp the fundamentals of scarcity, choice, and cost, and understand the crucial role of incentives in shaping behavior, these become embedded in their thinking. They will analyze issues (including environmental issues) in a different way.

All of us teachers emphasize what we’re familiar and comfortable with. As teachers are exposed to the economic way of thinking, many find it so compelling that it seeps into their teaching and ultimately is infused into their geography, history, and government classes.

PR: The students presented the play at a World Affairs Challenge. How did that go?
Johnson: The students were well prepared and they performed their play with panache (I’m admittedly biased). Unfortunately for them, one member of the panel of three judges didn’t appreciate their perspective. A terse note accompanied her low score: “Establishing private property rights and relying on markets just is not a realistic solution.” To compete among the top teams requires top scores from all judges, so they were done. C’est la vie!

PR: Do you think the judge misunderstood the problem?
Johnson: My students were convinced that they knew more than the judge who berated them. They yearned for the opportunity to defend their position and even got a little testy over it. For logistical reasons, however, students didn’t have the opportunity to converse with the judges. They were disappointed about the competition, but a sour grapes attitude, I lectured, is unbecoming. I tried my best to convince them that in the larger scheme of things, the knowledge they acquired, the perspective they gained, and the skills they honed throughout the experience were worth every ounce of their effort. I think they were all smart and mature enough to realize that.

Marc A. Johnson is social studies department coordinator and a teacher at Smoky Hill High School in Cherry Creek School District outside Denver. He can be reached at The students’ play will be incorporated into a series of lessons called Fish Tales by Donald R. Wentworth, to be published by PERC.

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