The Commons and the Conscience

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

As you may already know, in my last two posts, I have been thinking about ways for people to change their way of thinking about our relationship to the natural world.  Once again, as Philip Loring wrote, we are not intrinsically at odds with nature even though many other great minds have paved the way for us to have this type of attitude.  In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Loring mentioned the late Garrett Hardin, a professor of biology at University of California, Santa Barbara who published the influential “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968.  The tragedy of the commons is an elaborate metaphor and philosophy Hardin uses to demonstrate how we humans are exhausting the earth and to suggest how we can, either for the better or worse of our personal freedoms, make a big change.  Ultimately, this is our own choice.

So, what are these “commons” that Hardin is speaking of?  Imagine the commons as an enormous stretch of open farmland.  A farmer may start out putting a small herd of cows (their own personal resource) onto this vast pasture (a resource that must be shared).  This person will eventually come to realize that they will benefit from adding more cows to their herd.  As they add the animals one by one, they will have more meat and milk for themselves or cows to sell or trade for other resources.  How will adding just a small amount of cows, or even just one more cow to the herd make a real impact?  An impact is made because this particular farmer is not the only one expanding their herd.  If every farmer puts just one more cow out into the pasture while only thinking about how they will benefit from the animal, the pasture will inevitably become too crowded.

Many problems will come along with this overcrowding.  Since this pasture is a shared public resource, all cows and all farmers will be affected.  The pasture will become overgrazed, so all people will not have an equal chance to use the land and expand their own herds.  Such farmers will be pushed out of the land and given less opportunity to support themselves because there is simply not enough space.  Now, let’s step back and look at how this harms the natural world and not just the humans.  If the cows eat up all of the grass in the pasture, the land is destroyed and cannot replenish itself quickly enough to sustain the cows.  Our overzealous actions in this scenario cause a domino effect that will only hurt us in the end by depleting our personal property and supplies of important resources.  (This is just my own, as brief as possible interpretation of this metaphor!  Read “Tragedy of the Commons” in full at http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html)

This is how an important topic of debate today falls into place—the issue of how such a small percentage of people seemingly end up with a large percentage of wealth, resources and opportunities.  Hardin explains how many other currently relevant topics are affected by the idea of the commons as well.  We think that if we choose to do whatever we want with land because we own it or if we have many children because we can currently afford to support them, it is not anyone’s business to interfere.  The truth, Hardin fears, is that we do not think of the long-term consequences of our own choices or how they will impact future generations.  According to him, the solutions to human actions that deplete the earth (like pollution and overpopulation) are to either take personal accountability for our actions out of our own free will or governmental measures may have to be put into place to ensure a better future for humans and non-human living things alike.

This second option surely seems bleak to many people.  It brings to mind many questions like, who can tell us how many children we can have, how much land we can own and whether or not we destroy that land if we so choose?  Why does this matter to anyone else if these things are our own?  It matters because our choices always have consequences—if not on ourselves, then on future generations, on those less fortunate than ourselves and on all of those voiceless but nonetheless, breathing and living things in this world.  This is where the shift in thinking that Loring writes of comes into play.  Aspects of Hardin’s view seem like an ominous vision of the world to come, but things do not need to go that far.  We do not need to fear the loss of our freedoms if we can learn to adapt to living in a more sustainable way.  We need to realize that small actions do make a difference and can add up to a way of life that helps us exist more harmoniously with our world, each other and even our own consciences.

For more real world examples of the tragedy of the commons, check out http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/ten-reallife-examples-of-the-tragedy-of-the-common.html.

Advertisements

The Good Yet to be Done

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

Last week, I wrote a post inspired by the ideas of Philip Loring in his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World.” As a quick refresher, the article centers around the idea that we humans have long thought of ourselves as naturally at odds with the environment and all living non-human things. Why shouldn’t we think this way, when so many writings, teachings and experiences of the past have left us believing that we cannot thrive as a species without harming the natural world?

This is the type of thinking that this article is trying to help us to correct. Loring presents several writers, leaders and pieces of literature that have left us feeling like we are doing more harm than good in this world (see the article at http://ensia.com/voices/its-time-for-a-new-story-of-humanitys-place-in-the-world/ for specific examples). Loring points out the flaws in that logic, and so, once again, I want to present another piece of writing to support the idea that while we have done our damage, there is still so much good yet to be done.

Since we need to move ourselves away from old ideas, I think it is important to look at familiar and much-loved works from new perspectives. I wrote about “The Road Not Taken” last week as it is a poem that is a favorite of or at least familiar to so many of us. Now, I want to introduce you to a song I have loved for quite some time from a band that has been one of my favorites for the past ten years or so. The verses of “The Good Left Undone” by Rise Against immediately came to mind for this post because I have seen a lot of arguments for why the lyrics of this song, like “The Road Not Taken,” shouldn’t be taken at face value and should be instead used to think about making an important personal decision, like walking away from a loved one. I always thought of the lyrics in a more literal sense, and I think other people could learn a few things from considering them differently! I should note here too that this band is known for their commentary on political and social issues, so I think looking for a double meaning is appropriate. The lyrics are as follows:

In fields where nothing grew but weeds
I found a flower at my feet
Bending there in my direction

I wrapped a hand around its stem
And pulled until the roots gave in
Finding there what I’ve been missing
And I know

So I tell myself, tell myself, it’s wrong
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you, I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore, where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

Inside my hands these petals browned
Dried up fallen to the ground
But it was already too late now

I pushed my fingers through the earth
Returned this flower to the dirt
So it could live, I walked away now but I know

Not a day goes by when I don’t feel this burn
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

All because of you
All because of you

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
Inside these arms of yours

All because of you I believe in angels
Not the kind with wings no, not the kind with halos
The kind that bring you home
When home becomes a strange place
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

One of the first things that jumps out at me is the fact that the song starts with “in fields where nothing grew but weeds,” as if to say that beautiful, useful or even life-changing things like that single little flower that gets plucked are rare; everything else is unattractive, disposable or detrimental. The flower gets forcefully picked in what seems like a selfish act, because don’t we all need to collect the best and brightest things for ourselves before they catch anyone else’s eye? There is something a bit off with all of this! We need to find a way to shift our thinking to appreciate and care for everything that appears as “weeds.” We cannot covet and hoard only the best things for ourselves, leaving castoffs for everyone and everything else as well as creating a lot of waste in the process. If we continue to do so, the conditions for inequality are created, pushing us as humans to desperate measures for survival, as Loring describes. When we are pushed to our limits just to get by, the natural world suffers too.

Luckily, by the next verse, a shift in thinking occurs. The flower is returned to the soil, but the problem is that it was only replanted because it was dying. A clear mistake was made, but what is important is that this person now knows better for the next time. They realize that what they did is wrong, and I think the repetition of the lyrics “I felt the cold rain of the coming storm” symbolizes that this person has had the realization that if actions like theirs are repeated, there will be harmful consequences for both humans and nature on a larger scale. The uprooting and replanting of the single flower in this song is a seemingly simple action. It is true that we cannot undo many of our past actions this simply, if at all. However, not making a change because we think it will be too difficult will keep us at odds at nature, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Changing our ways of thinking, finding new ways to thrive and keeping the earth alive and well for all living things will not be easy, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done and that the small actions like the metaphorical one of this song don’t add up. This action makes a powerful statement that the little things that we are all capable of do count. All the little things add up to something bigger than ourselves, and we can all be the kind of angel without wings or a halo who shouts out to the rest of the world to make a difference.