Despite how human institutions and their respective activities are organized, carried out, and affect the resilience of the environment, dividing our global ecosystem into human and natural realms serves no purpose since the never-ending consequences of our presence are as ancient as they are pervasive.1 Accordingly, our social-environmental reciprocity is determined by: (1) cyclical dynamics (although most academic research is linear) with cumulative effects, lag periods, and outcome thresholds—both in time and space; (2) self-reinforcing feedback loops; (3) degrees of resilience to disturbance, (4) variability among the dimensions of time, space, and in cultural myths and perceptions, and (5) unintended outcomes due to the unpredictable novelty of change—legacies we pass forward to those who follow.2
Moreover, governing the commons becomes evermore difficult as the usufruct notion of sharing gives way increasingly to the claim of private ownership and exclusive use of real estate, which includes land and all the natural resources and permanent buildings on it. For example, a 2009 court battle over protecting wild populations of ocean-going Coho salmon (part of Nature’s commons) in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, as listed in the Endangered Species Act, included a series of lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of builders, farmers, and property-rights advocates to remove restrictions on development and agriculture that protect the salmon from extinction.3
Whereas the above paragraph deals with commercial attempts to manipulate the environment in a way that is harmful to a widely used component of the commons (Coho salmon) for personal profit, what happens when it is poor subsistence fishers who are depleting their own source of food and revenue? As it turns out, a study of Kenyan fishers suggests three basic outcomes: First, the number of fishers leaving the fishery as an occupation would increase as the magnitude of the decline in their catch increased. Second, fishers would be more likely to abandon fishing as a livelihood if they were from families with relatively abundant material means and a variety of occupations among family members—in other words, occupational diversification. And third, fishers from poor households would be less likely to give up fishing because they were unable to mobilize the necessary resources to overcome either disruptions to their lifestyle or chronic, low-income situations. Consequently, they would most likely remain in poverty.4 Either way, the commons is ecologically degraded. To me, this poses the question: Are we effectively making the commons more finite?
In The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin writes: “Population, as Malthus said, naturally tends to grow ‘geometrically,’ or, as we would now say, exponentially. In a finite world this means that the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease. Is ours a finite world? “5 I would answer “yes.” Our world is functionally finite as far as we humans are concerned for five reasons: (1) the money chase, (2) uncontrolled growth in the human population, (3) the transient nature of today’s human population, (4) urban sprawl, (5) pollution, and (6) gobal climate change.
THE MONEY CHASE
The competitive money chase is wreaking havoc with many of the Earth’s ecosystems. To illustrate, when I am unconscious of a material value, I am free of its psychological grip. But the instant I perceive a material value and anticipate possible material gain, I also perceive the psychological pain of potential loss.
The larger and more immediate the prospects for material gain, the greater the political power used to ensure and expedite exploitation, because not to exploit is perceived as losing an opportunity to someone else. And it is this notion of loss that I fight so hard to avoid. In this sense, it is more appropriate to think of resources as managing humans than of humans as managing resources.
Historically, then, any newly identified resource is inevitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction. Its overexploitation is based, first, on the perceived rights or entitlement of the discoverer to get their share before someone else does and, second, on the right or entitlement of the investor(s) to protect their economic investment. There is more to it than this, however, because the concept of a healthy capitalistic system is one that is ever growing, ever expanding, but such a system is not biologically sustainable. With renewable natural resources, such non-sustainable exploitation is a “ratchet effect,” where to ratchet means to constantly, albeit unevenly, increase the rate of exploitation of a resource.
The ratchet effect works as follows: During periods of relative economic stability, the rate of harvest of a given renewable resource, say timber or salmon, tends to stabilize at a level that economic theory predicts can be sustained through some scale of time. Such levels, however, are almost always excessive, because economists take existing unknown and unpredictable ecological variables and convert them, in theory at least, into known and predictable economic constants in order to better calculate the expected return on a given investment from a sustained harvest. Moreover, this economic maneuver requires the actual existence of an independent variable—a physical impossibility in any functional system.
Then comes a sequence of good years in the market, or in the availability of the resource, or both, and additional capital investments are encouraged in harvesting and processing because competitive economic growth is the root of capitalism. When conditions return to normal or even below normal, however, the industry, having over-invested, appeals to the government for help because substantial economic capital, and often jobs, are at stake. The government typically responds with direct or indirect subsidies, which only encourage continual over-harvesting.
The ratchet effect is thus caused by unrestrained economic investment to increase short-term yields in good times and strong opposition to losing those yields in bad times. This opposition to losing yields means there is great resistance to using a resource in a biologically sustainable manner because there is no predictability in yields and no guarantee of yield increases in the foreseeable future. In addition, our linear economic models of ever-increasing yield are built on the assumption that we can in fact have an economically sustained yield. This contrived concept fails in the face of the biological sustainability of a yield.
Then, because there is no mechanism in our linear economic models of ever-increasing yield that allows for the uncertainties of ecological cycles and variability or for the inevitable decreases in yield during bad times, the long-term outcome is a heavily subsidized industry. Such an industry continually over-harvests the resource on an artificially created, sustained-yield basis that is not biologically sustainable.
When the notion of sustainability arises in a resource conflict, the parties marshal all scientific data favorable to their respective positions as “good” science and discount all unfavorable data as “bad” or “flawed” science. These kinds of conflicts are thus the stage on which science is politicized, largely obfuscating its service to society.
Because the availability of choices dictates the amount of control we feel we have with respect to our sense of security, a potential loss of money is the breeding ground for environmental injustice. This is the kind of environmental injustice in which the present generation steals from all future generations by over-exploiting the commons rather than facing the uncertainty of giving up potential income.
There are important lessons in all of this. First, history indicates that a biologically sustainable use of any resource has never been achieved without first over-exploiting it, despite historical warnings and contemporary data. If history is correct, resource problems are not environmental problems but rather human ones that we have created many times, in many places, under a wide variety of social, political, and economic systems.
Second, the fundamental issues involving resources, the environment, and people are complex and process driven. The integrated knowledge of multiple disciplines is required to understand them. These underlying complexities of the physical and biological systems preclude a simplistic approach, such as that attempted through resource management—which in reality is attempted product management. In addition, the wide natural variability and the compounding, cumulative influence of continual human activity initially masks the long-term results of over-exploitation.
Third, as long as the uncertainty of continual change engenders fear and thus is viewed as a condition to be avoided, nothing will be resolved. However, once the novelty of change is accepted as an inevitable, open-ended, creative life process, most decision-making is simply common sense. For example, common sense dictates that one would favor actions having the greatest potential for long-term sustainability, as opposed to those with little or none.
Fourth, I believe that the seed of all destructive conflict is a perceived loss of choice over our own individual destinies, which we interpret as a threat to our personal survival. The sense of loss, which usually translates into a life-long fear of loss in some degree, originates in childhood as lessons from parents.6
UNCONTROLLED GROWTH IN THE HUMAN POPULATION
There are several factors that contribute to the burgeoning growth of our human population: (1) high birth rates among those segments of humanity in which male-dominated religions enslave women by denying them the right of reproductive choice, (2) the unmitigated abuse of women—such as the sex-slave trade throughout the world (including in the United States) and the violence of rape used in some countries (like Zimbabwe) as a weapon of political intimidation, (3) a higher survival rate among infants than in decades past, and (4) people in general live longer today than at any time in history. Granted, these factors are partly—but not wholly—responsible the growing per-capita demand for Earth’s natural resources. The increasing severity the situation is continually compounded by the wanton destruction of those same resources through the armed conflicts encircling the globe, as well as the emerging effects of climate change.7 If, therefore, humanity does not control its own population, Nature will—in ways most unpleasant, if what happens to other species that overpopulate their environment is any indication.
THE TRANSIENT NATURE OF TODAY’S HUMAN POPULATION
There are many reasons for the transient nature of today’s global population—everything from war-created refugees to job insecurity, illegal immigration from poor countries into wealthy ones, and, in times of prosperity, people working in one place but retiring to another, the super wealthy moving into favored places, thereby driving up the costs, which displaces the original residents, and finally, governments and corporations displacing indigenous people in order to exploit coved resources. What does this mean for the commons? It means chronically uneven exploitation of local resources, seasonal over-exploitation of local resources, or both.
Here it is instructive to consider communities of birds in a given area as ornithologists think of them. First, there is the resident community, which is that group of birds inhabiting the area to which they have a strong sense of fidelity all year. In order to stay throughout the year, year after year, they must be able to meet all of their ongoing requirements for food, shelter, water, space, and privacy. These requirements become most acutely focused during the time of nesting, when young are reared, and during harsh winter weather.
Then there are the summer visitors, which overwinter in the southern latitudes and fly north to rear their young. They arrive in time to build their nests, and in so doing must fit in with the yearlong residents without competing severely for food, shelter, water, and space—especially space and privacy for nesting. If competition were too severe, the resident community would decline and perhaps perish through over-exploitation of the habitat by summer visitors, which have no lasting commitment to a particular habitat.
There are also winter visitors that spend the summer in northern latitudes, where they rear their young, and fly south in the autumn to overwinter in the same area as the yearlong residents, but after the summer visitors have left. They too must fit in with the yearlong residents without severely competing with them for food, water, shelter, space, and privacy during times of harsh weather and periodic scarcities of food. Here, too, the resident community would decline and perhaps perish if over-exploitation of the habitat through competition were too severe. And like the summer visitors, winter visitors are not committed to a particular habitat but use the best of two different habitats (summer and winter).
On top of all this are the migrants that come through in spring and autumn on their way to and from their summer-nesting grounds and winter-feeding grounds. They pause just long enough to rest and replenish their dwindling reserves of body fat by using local resources of food, water, shelter, and space, to which they have only the passing fidelity necessary to sustain them on their long journey.
The crux of the issue is the carrying capacity of the habitat for the yearlong resident community. If the resources of food, water, shelter, space, and privacy are sufficient to accommodate the yearlong resident community as well as the seasonal visitors and migrants, then all is well. If not, then each bird in addition to the yearlong residents in effect causes the area of land and its resources to shrink per resident bird. This, in turn, stimulates competition, which under circumstances of plenty would not exist. If, however, such competition causes the habitat to be overused and decline in quality, the ones who suffer the most are the yearlong residents for whom the habitat is their sole means of livelihood.
Here I might anticipate your question concerning what a resident bird community has to do with a resident human community. It has to do with a statement made by Wendell Berry, that a true community can extend itself beyond the local, but only if it does so metaphorically.8 This means that if the resident community is rendered non-sustainable by outside influences, such as people from other areas over-harvesting local crops of mushrooms or large absentee corporations clear-cutting forests to the detriment of local water catchments, then the trust embodied in the continuity of a community’s history is shattered, as is the self-reinforcing feedback loop of mutual well-being between the land and the people.
Another, subtler way outside influence can destroy community is transients in its population, where transient means “passing with time.” In a small town in Idaho, where I asked people how they felt about the fairly large number of employees of the U.S. Forest Service living in their community, they replied that they tried not to get to know them.
When asked if they avoided getting to know the folks from the Forest Service because they were transients who felt no sense of place within the community, the answer was only partly in the affirmative. They said it was mainly because it was just too painful to become friends with Forest Service employees and learn to trust them, only to have them leave in two or three years. That kind of continual loss was too much like perpetual grieving for the death of friends and was more than the community could abide.9 (Las Vegas, Nevada, had such a transient population in the two years I lived there that the phone company printed a huge, entirely new phone book every six months.)
When a community loses (for whatever reason) the cohesive glue of trust embedded in its fundamental values, it loses its identity and is set adrift on the ever-increasing sea of visionless competition both within and without, where “growth or die” becomes the economic motto driving the cultural system.
Such visionless competition inevitably rings the death knell of community and its sense of being a “cultural commons,” and is an open door to absentee developers, who further destroy the once-held sense of being a cultural commons. Developers come in three basic categories: local residents, immigrant residents, and absentee. Nevertheless, developers—and especially absentee developers—work very hard to disallow people’s “emotions” to count as a reason to prevent a coveted piece of land from becoming a housing development or a shopping mall.
The consequences I have observed when long-time residents are forbidden to express their emotions concerning the aesthetics and “feel” of their community and its surroundings are: (1) stealing choice and self-determining government from the people who live in the area of the proposed development; (2) giving preference to residential developers, an increasing number of whom are absentee, even from out of state; (3) forcing local people to accept absentee interests; (4) limiting—even undermining—the scope of a local people’s potential self-determined vision for sustainable community development within the context of their own landscape, especially for the desired future condition of their landscape; and (5) curtailing—or even eliminating—the ability of local people to actively mourn for the continuing loss of their quality of life and their sense of place as outside choices are forced upon them, often by people who will not have to live with the consequences of their imposed actions.
The whole purpose of choice is for local people to guide the sustainable development of their own community within the mutually sustainable context of their landscape by collectively selecting the self-imposed social constraints necessary to fulfill their vision. After all, the local people and their children must reap the consequences of any decisions that are made. To limit their choices is to force someone else’s consequences upon them, often at a great and increasingly negative long-term cost, first socially and then environmentally.
When preferential treatment is given to residential developers, including absentee developers, local people are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to planning for long-term community sustainability within the context of a finite landscape. While the focus of sustainable community development is long term, the interests of residential developers are strictly short term, which usually counteracts long-term planning based on long-term environmental consequences. Furthermore, it is exceedingly unlikely that absentee residential developers are going to have a vested interest in the long-term welfare of the community once they have made their money. So, long after the residential developer has gone, the community is left to deal with the environmental errors, which effectively slaughters the quality of human relationships for the benefit of developers. But emotions, the force behind relationships, are based on personal and collective values, which are the heart and soul of a community as a cultural commons.10
The above circumstances call to mind a quote by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, “The history of almost every civilization furnishes examples of geographical expansion coinciding with deterioration in quality.”11 I can vouch for the accuracy of Toynbee’s observation—having watched it played out unabated in my own hometown from the end of World War II until the present day.
The landscape around my hometown was friendly when I was a little boy in the early 1940s. Fields and forest surrounded the town, and swift forest streams that fed meandering valley rivers. I was free in those early days to wander over hill and dale without running into a no-trespassing sign on every gate and seemingly every other fence post.
The code of the day was to leave open any gate that was open and to close any gate after passing through it that was closed. It was also understood that one was free to cross a farmer’s property as long as one respected the property by walking around planted fields rather than through them. If I asked permission, I could wander, hunt, fish, and trap almost anywhere I wished.
Much of the Coast Range and most of the Cascade Range of Oregon that I knew as a youth were covered with unbroken, ancient forest and clear, cold streams from which it was safe to drink. Although the streams were still filled with trout and salmon, the forests and mountain meadows were already devoid of wolf and grizzly bear.
In the valley that embraced my hometown, the farmers’ fields were small and friendly, surrounded by fencerows sporting shrubs and trees, including apples and pears that proffered delicious fruit, each in its season. In spring, summer, and autumn, the fencerows were alive with the colors of flowers and butterflies and the songs of birds. They harbored woodrats and rabbits, pheasants and deer, squirrels and red valley foxes. The air was clean, the sunshine bright and safe, and the drinking water among the sweetest and purest in the world.
When World War II came along, the seeds of change were sown with respect to community. The war effort pushed mass production to new levels and brought the impersonalization of humans killing humans to the fore with such labeling on cartons containing weapons as “mine, one, anti-personnel,” which indicated that the person the weapon was meant to kill was simply a military abstraction.
Although World War II eventually drew to a close, the impersonalization of mass production carried over into the postwar boom years. Gone was the simple wisdom of building communities and neighborhoods within communities for people within landscapes of natural beauty. The simple wisdom that had worked so well in the past was replaced by the strategies of massive wartime production developed in defense factories.
Towns, including mine, started to sprawl rapidly in largely unplanned ways. Cookie-cutter houses were concentrated in developments that were isolated from everything else dealing with community.
Speed rather, than care, began creeping into the building trade, and I watched as houses sprang up in blocks and lines and circles, built for speculation. As speculation crept into the housing market, speed, sameness, and clustering became marks of efficiency and greater profit, setting the tone for the future—a tone reflected in the night sky as the once brilliant stars of the Milky Way disappeared into a seemingly eternal mask of light pollution.
With the stage set by the postwar housing industry, things began to change noticeably as corporate depersonalization commenced its insidious growth into the heart of community. Shopping malls were connected by roads, which became bigger, straighter, faster, and increasingly went through prime agricultural land. Then came larger and larger subdivisions with cheaper and cheaper ticky-tacky tract housing, some of which was constructed in floodplains or on unstable soils.
Centralization had arrived on the landscape as it had earlier in corporations. Driving on superhighways became a necessity, and with it came pollution of air and water, which increased with every extra mile that had to be driven and every additional automobile on the road. The gentle motion and relaxed pace of the traditional street gave way to ever-increasing speed. As author Jean Chesneaux observed: “The street as an art of life is disappearing in favour of traffic arteries. People drive through them on the way to somewhere else.” There is no word in the English language with a positive connotation for going slowly or lingering on streets as a way to participate in community.
People started losing their sense of connection with one another in a familiar face-to-face community as hubs of centralized activity within the growing urban sprawl increasingly altered the landscape within and surrounding my hometown. And so, the sense of community I grew up with in the 1940s and early 1950s began falling apart. A sense of place—of a familiar, friendly community, where everyone left their homes and cars unlocked—gave way to a sense of location, as more and more people became transients, who arrived to chase the dollar and who disappeared when a bigger dollar loomed elsewhere on the horizon.
By the time I was a teenager, it had become necessary to lock the doors to our house and car, and no trespassing signs proliferated across the landscape. A sense of distrust had begun its insidious invasion throughout the once-closely knit human bonds of mutual caring that in days gone by had characterized my hometown.
Outside of town, the forests were being cut at an exponential rate, including the town’s water catchment, endangering such species as the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. The forested streams, where as a lad I drank of their sweet water and caught native cutthroat trout, now have waters unsafe to drink. Clear-cut hillsides began eroding as forests were converted to economic tree farms. Gone are most of the great native trout and the wild salmon that graced the streams from which I drank. Gone are the great flocks of band-tailed pigeons that once greeted me in forest and fen. Gone are the elk and bear that I used to see within ten miles of my house. Gone is the forest of centuries. In its place are acres of comparatively lifeless, economic tree farms, some of which may live but a little longer than I.
At the same time, I watched helplessly as the small, protected fields of the personable family farms increasingly gave way to larger and larger naked, homogeneous fields of corporate-style farms, where fence rows were cleared to maximize the amount of tillable soil, to squeeze the last penny from every field. With the loss of habitat along each fencerow, the bird song of the valley was diminished in like measure, as was the habitat for other creatures wild and free.
Gone are the fencerows with their rich, fallow strips of grasses and herbs, of shrubs and trees, which interlaced the valley in such beautiful patterns of flower and leaf with the changing seasons—the nectar corridors for native pollinators. Gone are the burrowing owls from the quiet secluded fields I once knew. Gone is the liquid melody of the meadowlark I so often heard as a boy. Gone is the fencerow trill of the towhee. Gone are the song sparrows, Bewick’s wrens, yellow warblers, and MacGillivary’s warblers. Gone are the dusky-footed woodrat nests, the Beechy ground squirrels, and the cottontail rabbits.
Today, compared with the time of my youth, the valley’s floor offers little in the way of habitat, other than a great, depersonalized, open expanse of naked fields in winter and a monotonous sameness under the sun of summer, super highways, and sprawling towns. And everywhere around my hometown, housing developments—with the accompanying noise of automobiles, lawn mowers, and leaf blowers—are still encroaching ever farther into what was used to be a landscape wherein Nature held uncontested sway and thus filled it in spring, summer, and autumn with the colors of flowers and butterflies and the songs of birds.12
The money chase, with all of its ramifications, is adding pollution worldwide, which is putting something deleterious into the global commons, rather than taking something out. Pollutants entrained in the currents of air as they circumnavigate the globe, are negatively affecting the quality of the sunlight that reaches Earth and thus having harmful effects on the totality of the commons. These atmospheric pollutants are capable of a phenomenon known as long-distance transport, which simply means that they can travel great distances from their sources on air currents, such as the so-called “Arctic haze” that covers the top of the world in spring. The Arctic haze has been traced to forest fires raging in southern Siberia (Lake Baikal area) and agricultural burning in Kazakhstan (southern Russia).13
However, rain and snow scrub many pollutants from the air and deposit them in the soil and open waters, where they begin the journey to the oceans of the world. Acid rain is illustrative because it has long been recognized as a pollution problem in Europe, where statues and gargoyles that once proudly adorned city streets and plazas and guarded centenarian buildings have had their faces dissolved over recent decades. The statues that I remember seeing as a boy, in perfect form and feature, today are often-unrecognizable relics of a past era because acid rain has eaten away the marble much as leprosy eats away the flesh.
Acid rain is not confined to European cities, however. It is also found in forest and fen, in highland and lowland. There, too, it is destroying the essence of life as it joins league with other forms of industrial/technological pollution, where it contributes to a phenomenon the Germans call Waldsterben, which translates to “the dying forest.” (If you want more detailed information on Waldsterben, see “Sustainable Forestry.”14)
The dying forest syndrome is not exclusively the property of Europe; every industrial country, including the United States and Canada, owns it. Called forest dieback in the United States, it manifests primarily along the eastern seaboard, where declining growth rates and the progressive demise of red spruce and other species of trees, particularly at high elevations, are attributed to atmospheric pollution, of which acid deposition is one of the most widespread components.15 Here, a primary human source of the precursors to acid deposition is coal-fired power plants, which account for about one third of the nitrogen oxides and about two thirds of the sulfur dioxide produced each year in the United States.16
A lesser-known case of pollution being washed from the atmosphere by rain occurs in the severely fouled air of southern China, where the nitrogen emissions are not only accruing rapidly but also increasingly being deposited in the subtropical-forests of this warm and humid region. Long-term, high-nitrogen deposition causes elevated leaching in both young coniferous forests and old broadleaf forests, although it is most pronounced in the old forest, where growth is negligible. In fact, the availability of nitrogen even exceeds its biotic demand in the young, aggressively growing forests during the rainy season (March to August). In any case, the increased leaching of nitrogen during the rainy season, especially in the old, broadleaf forest, further augments evidence that it is at least partly hydrologically driven.17
Clearly, we humans directly affect the atmosphere and both directly and indirectly affect the soil and water—the litho-hydrosphere. However, although the spread of point-source pollution is scientifically predictable, its path of dissemination is not necessarily intuitive. If, for example, we choose to clean the world’s air, we will automatically cleanse the soil and water to some extent because airborne pollutants will no longer exist to be extracted by rain and snow. If we then choose to treat the soil in a way that allows us to grow what we desire without the use of artificial chemicals (and if we stop using the soil as a dumping ground for toxic wastes and avoid overly intensive agriculture), the soil can once again purify water by filtering it. If we then discontinue dumping toxic effluents into the ditches, streams, rivers, estuaries, and oceans, they too can begin to cleanse themselves and regain some of their former health. That said, it’s unlikely the oceans will ever fully regain their previous condition.
With clean and healthy air, soil, and water, we can also have clear, safe sunlight with which to power the Earth. Clean air is the absolute bottom line for social-environmental sustainability and, therefore, long-term human survival within a global commons of excellent quality and high functional integrity. With the eventual repair of the ozone shield, we can enjoy a more benign—and perhaps predictable—climate than we now have. In addition, effective population control can tailor human society to fit within the world’s biophysical carrying capacity.
GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
Regardless of the initial cause of the changing global climate, it is having myriad deleterious effects on life as we know it, such as the often-mentioned, dramatically visible glacial melting. However, some effects of a warming climate are less apparent. One experimental grassland study is illustrative: plant communities with one, three, and nine species were tested for the effects of a warming climate. The production of vegetative biomass decreased both aboveground (by 29 percent) and belowground (by 25 percent) due to the negative effects of the prevailing increase in summer heat and drought stress. Moreover, the data suggest that a warming climate and the associated drying out of the soil could reduce primary production in many temperate grasslands, a condition that could not necessarily be mitigated by efforts to maintain or increase species richness.18
© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.