I’ve just finished my first weekend training Green Steps – it was tough, but rewarding, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about delivering long presentations and engaging with a group. I drew a couple of major things out of the weekend – neither concept is new to me, but I’d never considered them so thoroughly! One is that, when delivering any presentation, the speaker needs to have the narrative and take-home messages foremost in their mind, to make sure the audience ‘gets it’. The second is a firmer understanding of the inter-relatedness of our production systems, which ultimately means that we, as consumers, are effectively responsible for the lion’s share of exploitation of the environment.
I plan to flesh out my thoughts on these issues in future blog posts, but for now, I’ll try to summarise what was probably the concept which started me on the track of properly considering the impact of people on the environment. It’s called the Tragedy of the Commons. Here’s how it goes:
When a number of people have access to a free (or very cheap) common resource, the rational thing for each individual to do is use as much of the resource as they can. Garrett Hardin, the author of the original 1968 article, used the metaphor of farmers running cows on a common pasture. Each farmer can add more cows to the pasture. The pasture can support a good number of cows, but over a certain point, it will start to be damaged, which will be a problem for all the farmers.
From the perspective of an individual farmer, they can either add a cow (thereby gaining more revenue) and maybe the pasture will suffer some degradation, or not add a cow (and get no revenue). The rational thing to do, for each farmer, is run as many cows as possible. However, if all the farmers act this way, the pasture will be trampled, the cows will die and the farmers will lose their resources.
I encountered this idea in a course on the Global Environment in the first year of my Environmental Science degree, and I was struck by just how widely applicable it is; it seems that in any situation where there is a desirable and accessible common resource, exploitation is difficult to avoid without regulation. Potential solutions include ‘enlightened self-interest’ (in other words, if the farmers become aware that exploitation will eventually hurt them and everyone else, they may, as a group, stop adding cows to the pasture) or intervention by an authority to regulate the resource use. Certainly, we see the effects of the Tragedy of the Commons when we look at natural systems planetwide; the challenge of the coming century will be to help as many people as possible to understand the problems we, as a race, are causing, and further, to facilitate cultural and technological change that can enhance our quality of life while decreasing our exploitation of our planet.