Taking More Than Our Share

The desire to use the environment to maximize our personal benefit at the expense of other people’s use of the environment is known as the tragedy of the commons. Senator Cory Booker focuses on the idea behind the tragedy of the commons in his book United and examines what has taken place in his home state New Jersey. Summing up the idea, Booker wrote, “The impulse to take more than you share seems rational, but in reality the consequences can be catastrophic. The unchecked cumulative effect of selfish actions is the loss of the commons—which is, in turn, an immeasurable opportunity lost for generations to come.”

Two big challenges when thinking about our environment have to do with the time scale of the environment and the size of the environment. Our individual actions seem so insignificant in such large and open landscapes as mountain ranges and oceans, but when our actions are combined with the behaviors of millions and billions of people, the human impact is immense. Our environment also experiences changes on time scales in the thousands and millions of years, a time span so large it is difficult for humans to understand. Geological processes take a long time and occur at steady rates of small change. When we combine the vastness of nature with the time scale of geological change, our human minds end up failing to accurately understand, estimate, and predict the dangers of our actions, and that in part leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Our actions now, because the environment operates on such slow time scales, will have lasting impacts on the planet. This means that when we think of our decisions and our use of natural resources today, we must have in mind not just our own benefit, or the benefits of our children, but true impact of our decisions for generations to come. Humans can understand cycles, changes, and impacts that take place on a two to three generation scales, thinking about how our grandparents impact our lives, but it is hard to think more than 100 years down the road and to think about generations that could be impacted by our decisions 500 to 1,000 years from now. The land we use today and the things we put in our oceans today, could shape the lives and futures for people far out from where we are today.

Ultimately, when I think of Booker’s quote I don’t think of a blind conservation of all resources or thwarting capitalism to avoid damaging our planet. Instead, I try to think about my relation to nature. Do I try to take as much as I can in any given situation, even if it is not going to help me? There have been plenty of times that I have eaten more than I needed, only to regret my decisions as I waddled back to my car with a stomach ache. I have had an opportunity to have something for free, and I have taken far more than I needed or could even use, only to have the rest of what I took clutter my house and take up space.

From what I have seen, I don’t have to be a hippie or focus so much on conservationism that I lose all faith in capitalism to protect the planet. I can host a community clean-up and offer prizes for those who participate. I can drive in a more economic way, using less gas, saving my brakes and tires, and prolonging the life of my vehicle, saving money but still doing something that participates in the economy and uses resources. I can focus on recycling, and try to make purchases that limit my plastic use, and none of these decisions take away from my participating in capitalism or make me a stand-offish hippie. They are just small actions, but I know that when combined with the small actions of millions of others, make a large difference.

Preservation of Our Environment

Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.

 

Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.

 

The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.

Magnetoreception

James Nestor talks about the incredible abilities of marine animals in his book Deep, and he compares humans, our evolutionary past, and our physical limits to those of marine mammals and other ocean life.  When speaking about diving to incredible depths and perceiving the world he refers to sharks, “Sharks, which can dive below six hundred and fifty feet, and much deeper, rely on senses beyond the ones we know.  Among them is magneto reception, an attunement to the magnetic impulses of the Earth’s molten core.  Research suggests that humans have this ability and likely used it to navigate across the oceans and trackless deserts for thousands of years.”  Nestor explains that at 600 feet below the surface the pressure exerted by the ocean is about twenty times grater than the atmospheric pressure at the surface.  This is the absolute limit of the human body, but other animals, whales and sharks for example, are able to survive these depths.

 

What this section speaks to me about is the incredible diversity in life on our planet. With conservation it is important that we do not force society into blocking projects and developments that may be crucial for societal advances on the basis of preserving natural harmony, but at the same time, seeing the incredible adaptations among all forms of life is inspiring and could unlock new potentials for humanity.  An adaption that leads sharks to be able to navigate by magnetic senses may not directly correlate to human advancement, but understanding that living organisms can adapt these senses may provide a spark of motivation for someone in the future. The possible breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology are a strong base for expanding education and research of marine life, and that life must be protected through conservation in order for our continued research.  Unfortunately fun discoveries and potential discoveries that could help humanity cannot be considered always more important than a growing and improving society.  Individuals living along the coast rely on shipping, and forcing ports to close by changing shipping lanes so that we can better preserve and save a species of shark to study magnetorecption might not always be the best way to think of conservation.

 

Aside from conservation, what I am constantly reminded of when I read passages that deal with animal senses that seem alien when compared to human abilities, is that we truly do not know everything of our world.  I have come to understand that it is ok to not know everything about the world. It is difficult, but necessary for us to accept that we can not be 100 percent aware of everything around us or everything that influences us.  It is tempting after years of academic work to adopt the idea that one knows everything, can sense everything, and understands their perceptions of the world, but it is a fallacy.  We cannot perceive the world based on our perception of magnetic fields, and keeping that in mind helps us remember that we cannot sense and be aware of all the forces acting on our lives.  I have become comfortable with the idea that there are things that are hidden from me due to my lack of physical senses and mental perspectives.  That comfort helped me to understand that no matter how much I study something or think I know something, there are always different views and ideas that I cannot see which may hide information from me.  Knowing this allows me to listen to others and try to gain more perspectives.  I may not gain a new sense like magnetoreception, but knowing that it exists reminds me to be open.