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.