Here’s how a tragedy of the commons starts. Take one shared resource, like a field, fresh water, fish in a river. Now take one or more individuals who, acting out of self-interest, abuse or deplete that shared resource — even though a bigger picture view would show that a barren field, polluted water, and empty rivers aren’t good for any of us.
To grossly oversimplify for a minute, you could say that many of our environmental issues stem from a tragedy of the commons — a difficulty in acting for the greater, long term good when there is an option for immediate personal gain. As biological creatures, it’s a totally normal and understandable difficulty. Having to consider the good of the species and the planet isn’t something we evolved to do.
However, it’s a problem. And the problem escalates because of a very human idea about fairness. Once one person starts taking advantage, it’s hard for the rest of us not to think, “Well, s/he’s not playing by the rules. Why should I?” My neighbor drives his truck down to the laundry room at the end of the parking area. Why should I walk in the rain (uphill, both ways) to the market instead of drive?
Feeling that the people around us aren’t doing their bit often makes us a bit curmudgeonly in our own green efforts. Why should we have to give up X when our neighbors/friends do/have [insert high impact choice, possession, activity]? Is my reduced impact being swallowed up by my troglodyte neighbor’s self-centered, environmentally disastrous consumerism?
It’s enough to make us reach for our favorite remaining eco-sin in a froth of self-righteous indignation. But that’s just it: it’s an attitude thing, and it doesn’t help anything. I’ve come up with four green mantras that help me ignore those unhelpful feelings of self-martyrdom and keep plugging away.
- Going green is not about self-martyrdom or sacrifice. Martyrdom may have been a good short-term strategy for the Catholic saints, but misery is not sustainable in the long term. We have enough resources for what we need — and what we really love.
- It is about doing the right thing, and making changes based on better information and a greater sense of responsibility as an earthling. Most of the changes we make have no immediate, obvious impact, much as we’d like to be able to save the planet by cutting our shower short by five minutes. But they’re still the right thing to do, and that matters.
- I am responsible for my impact. The fact that my truck-driving, bottled water glugging neighbor has a larger impact than I do does not give me an excuse not to reduce mine. Even as a childfree, vegetarian, not-particularly-materialistic citizen of the developed world, I will never be low impact. There will always be room for improvement.
- Green is an attitude, not a checklist. I try to consider, “What is the impact of this action on the planet?” in most of my daily decisions and actions. I accept that other people will choose to make other changes and compromises than I do based on different knowledge, priorities, and experiences.
Does it bother you when you see neighbors or friends leading high impact lives? What keeps you going when you see someone zip by in a Hummer?
Photo by Chad Kainz