Seeing Earth as a Commons


By Dale Olen  

Seeing Earth as a living being helps us appreciate the notion of the “commons.”  The term “commons” has shown up with force in environmental circles when Garrett Hardin published the article “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968.   The Commons were viewed as specific resources of Earth that no single person owned.  They were public areas or “owned” by the community.  All the citizens had a right to access the commons. 

Hardin used grazing land as his example.  As long as all the ranchers in the area allowed a specific number of cattle to graze on the commons, the land could be sustained and continually used by the participant ranchers.  But if Joe the Rancher put one more steer onto the pasture, and Tom the Rancher added two more, and so on, eventually the commons would be useless as a feeding site for all the ranchers’ cattle.  The growth-oriented ranchers would destroy the commons.

(Just a note about “The Tragedy of the Commons” idea of Garrett Hardin: According to many commons’ theorists today, Hardin was not describing a commons. “A commons consists of a community with rules, social norms, and accepted practices for managing a shared resource. Hardin was describing a free-for-all in which there is no community, no rules, no communication, and no punishment of ‘free riders’—in truth, something more akin to a free market,” according to David Bollier, in Yes Magazine, Summer, 2014.)

Most commons have boundaries.  What lies inside the boundaries belongs to all the people and other living things that share according to their need the resources within the commons.  The city park is a commons, belonging to the citizens and visitors to the city.  All can share the park benches, the tennis courts, the trails, the beauty of flower gardens and greens.  A bus is a more limited commons.  A home is a commons for the dad, mom, kids and cats.  For many married couples, their checkbook is a commons.  Tragedy strikes that commons when one takes large amounts of money from the “joint account” to cover his/her online gambling debts.

Pushing the notion of the commons outward, Earth itself presents as the great commons.  Some people suggest the ultimate commons is our Universe.  But let’s stay with Earth as commons.  No one owns it, not even we humans.  But “we” includes every living thing, from the leaf-cutter ant to the tadpole in the swamp, to the African lion, to us.   We all belong to our Earth-home and share the resources of our commons. 

Specifically, the essential resources we share are water, air, land, and the sun’s energy.  There is only so much fresh water, clean air, nutrient-ladened land and forests out there.  The sun, for the next seven billion years may be limitless, but everything else has finite boundaries.  When we take a drink of water, relax in a tub filled to the brim with hot water, and soak our lawn every summer day, it is good to think “commons.”  We are dipping our straw into Earth’s reservoir of fresh water, water that needs to satisfy seven billion people and millions of other species of thirsty plants and animals around the world. 

Forests and trees are a commons.  Professor Naline Nadkarni from Evergreen State University in Washington figured out with the help of NASA that there were approximately 400 billion trees on Earth.  She divided that by the number of people on the planet, and determined that each of us has about 60 trees.  Do we create a tragedy of the commons by using more than our share?  Sixty may sound like a pretty big number until you see with wide-angle eyes.  You might notice Japan using 20 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks a year, and China using 450 billion pairs a year.

Then you look around and start counting all the tree-based materials used by humans around the Earth: baby cribs, baseball bats, barrels, books, blocks, benches, crutches, coffee filters, guitars, grocery bags, pencils, pine oil, beds, billboards, buttons, candy wrappers, chewing gum, cork, crayons, egg cartons, fruit pie filling, kites, linoleum, luggage, paper, ping pong balls, chopsticks (especially the disposable kind), rubber, tambourines, telephone books, tires, toilet paper, turpentine, xylophones and yo-yos (the wooden kind).[i]   The forest commons may, indeed, be becoming a tragedy.

Only so much clean air layers the crust of Earth, yet so much is needed by all of us sharing our air commons.  Every time I drive my car, turn on a light switch, fly an airplane, turn on my air conditioner, I am taking some of that air out of the commons by inserting carbon dioxide, nitrogen, mercury, and all their gang members into that freshness.  We deplete the commons, both by excessive taking from it (seven western states draining the Colorado River every year so the southern most states and Mexico often have little or no water in summer) and by dumping waste into it.

Three miles from my former house looms Omega Hills, a landfill begun 35 years ago storing every sort of toxic waste imaginable.  The hill has grown yearly, first to two hills, then three, and now we have our own Wisconsin mountain range of waste.  At least in this case we are trying to contain the waste to a specific area of the commons.  But think of all the waste that daily gets tossed into the general commons — the polluted run-off that ends up in our rivers and lakes; the fecal-coliform of humans and other animals that runs free in the streams of much of the world and into the sewers of part of the world.  Think of all the cars running around the world.  After the turn of the century there were over 625 million cars churning out CO2 in every corner of the planet.  By 2030 that number will double to 1.2 billion cars.  That’s a lot of rubber, metal, plastic, and pollutants invading our commons.

We cannot leave our reflection on the waste in the commons without seeing the cigarette butts and water bottles strewn across our waters, beaches, and streets.  In a single day over four million pounds of trash is collected from U.S. coasts.  Nearly a third of it is cigarette butts.  870,000 cigarette butts are tossed into streets in the U.S. every month.  Most of those wash down the storm sewers and must be cleaned out of the water supply by the local sewage treatment plants.

Unfortunately, most of our human trash ends up in our greatest Earth commons, the oceans.  In the broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean we find the largest landfill in the world — millions of pounds of trash, settling in a subtropical gyre (a spiraling, slow-moving current, undisturbed by ships and fishing boats).  Ninety per cent of all that trash is plastic.  The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.[ii]  We share the ocean commons with a great variety of marine life, who suffer the consequences of our thoughtless dumping.  Fish, large and small, sea turtles, double-crested cormorants, and Antarctic fur seals fall victim to the plastic islands they mistaken for food.  The tragedy of the commons plays itself out for these creatures due to our human difficulty of seeing Earth as a commons rather than private property owned and controlled for the use of the human race.

(Pictures are of Croatia, a most beautiful country, filled with commons)

[i] National Public Radio. Robert Krulwich interview with Professor Nalini Nalkarni, Evergreen State University, Washington, November 13, 2008.

[ii] Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, Michelle Allsapp, Adam Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston. A Greenpeace Report done for the UN Environment Program.


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