The “tragedy of the commons” has become a metaphor for the overuse and degradation of our planet’s resources. The example starts with a common plot of grazing land for domesticated animals. As everyone leads their livestock to graze there (since everyone shares the grazing land in common), the result is the depletion of the grass due to overgrazing. This story creates a microcosmic and easily digestible illustration of what we are doing on the planet with our collective resources. “Ultimately, overgrazing will cause the pasture’s food production to collapse” (Withgott & Brennan, 2009, p. 5). If we continue to use resources in our world without restraint, our global society could also collapse. The research that shows that the inhabitants of Easter Island degraded their resources by chopping down all of the trees in their ecosystem, beginning a downward spiral and effectively destroying biodiversity, demonstrates on a small-scale what we are in the process of doing globally. Will global society society face a similar demise?
One thing that I do, that causes environmental degradation in two different ways, is that I use electricity to heat my home, run my computers & technology, stove, water heater, and lights. The electricity itself is produced by Xcel energy and they have a coal-burning power plant downtown, near the Mississippi River. This plant pollutes the air and water as it burns fossil fuels to produce electricity. If this type of air pollution continues without restraint, then we may run out of good, clean air to breath and respiratory illness could become a pandemic. Also, the circuit boards and other components that make up the technology that I use with electricity are made up of petroleum-based plastics and other materials that are being depleted rapidly, not to mention gallons of water that are used in the production of these devices and computers. If we use up all of the oil in the ground, it can’t be replaced for millennia and damage could be done to our planet’s structure by draining all of the oil out from under the surface. If we drain the aquifers, we may also endanger our survival since water is essential for life. There already are the beginnings of water wars in some areas of the globe.
This is linked to the tragedy of the commons since water is a common resource, as is the air. If we deplete our potable water and poison our air, we have degraded our resources. Regarding the shared resources that are at risk, Miller & Spoolman (2010) wrote that “we are environmentally degrading many openly shared renewable resources” (p. 9). Oil is another resource that the globe has in common, and if we use it all up, we will be left with none for the foreseeable future. Such circumstances would reduce the quality of life for our children.
One way to lessen the impact of my use of electricity is to use less electricity by only turning on a light if necessary, turning the water heater temperature down to less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and turning down the heat while wearing a sweater in the house. I could also install solar panels and tie them in to my electric system so that I could offset some of the coal emissions from Xcel energy. For every kilowatt hour that solar panels produce, one less kilowatt hour is being purchased from a dirty, coal-fired power plant. One more small solution would be to purchase LED light bulbs for all of my fixtures.
Another thing that I do that causes degradation is use paper products. I use paper on a daily basis, some of my food comes in cardboard packaging, and I use wood for repairs and enhancements to my home. This is related to the tragedy of the commons, since trees are scattered across the globe and we all share and benefit from the existence of an abundance of trees. Trees enhance aesthetics, air quality, and provide habitat for wildlife and us. If all of the trees were cut down, our future would be in peril.
I could use less paper by doing more communication and note-taking on a computer (but then would use more electricity). I could buy more fresh food from farmers markets, which would have little or no packaging and would reduce the carbon footprint since it would be grown locally and not shipped in from far away. I could also buy in bulk from the local co-op since that sort of purchasing would use less cardboard. The bulk food section usually has corn-based plastic to fill with food. I could even use composite wood products in household projects, instead of wood, in order to reduce the amount of trees that are cut down in the forests. There are even brands of sustainably grown timber that can be purchased as Miller & Spoolman (2010) mention, “certification of sustainably grown timber and of sustainably grown forest products can help consumers play their part” (p. 188). Recycling and using recycled paper products can be another part of reducing my impact on our planet’s resources.
We all share this world and its rich, diverse flora and fauna. If we all use whatever we want as much as we want, we will have nothing left. We must practice sustainability in all of our practices and choices in order to leave the planet better than we found it. “If we cannot forge sustainable solutions to our problems, then the resulting societal collapse will be global” (Withgott & Brennan, 2009, p. 7).
Miller, G., & Spoolman, S. (2010). Environmental Science. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.
Withgott, J., & Brennan, S. (2009). Essential Environment: The Science Behind the Stories. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.