Toward a stewardship of the Global Commons:

engaging “my neighbor” in the issue of sustainability

By members of the Critical Issues Committee, Geological Society of America

Part I


A. R. Palmer, Institute for Cambrian Studies, Boulder, CO.


In old English law, the common (or commons) was a tract of ground shared by residents of a village, but belonging to no-one.It might be grazing grounds, or the village square, but it was property held in common for the good of all. 


Sustaining human civilization on Earth at acceptable levels requires recognition of the place of human beings in the “web of life” and the role human beings play in modifying the world on which we live and the natural systems which maintain the Biosphere of which human beings are just a part.  We must take individual personal responsibility for the Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Lithosphere and Biosphere – the Global Commons – that we all share.

Throughout human history, we let the noxious gases and particles from our cooking, heating, industrial activities, and, more recently, our various modes of transportation and delivery of goods drift away on the wind, without really considering what happened to these materials downwind from us.  How much responsibility do we bear for acid rain, persistent smog, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and disturbances of the stratospheric ozone layer?


We have mined water from underground as if the supply was inexhaustible.  We have discharged our industrial effluents and our sewage, into streams or lakes, or into the ground, with little thought to the consequences.  Some results are dramatic drops in the level of the water table under many key agricultural areas and cities, ground water and surface water no longer safe to drink by humans, and diminished or destroyed fisheries.  Even as we deplete our potable water, the population in those areas of depletion continues to increase, further straining an exhaustible resource.


We have plowed the ground and heavily fertilized and/or irrigated our crops, realizing short-term gain, but not readily recognizing the long-term losses.  Some results are soil erosion with accompanying loss of soil depth, nitrification of lakes and streams adjacent to farmland, and loss of formerly productive agricultural land by salinization of soils.

We have cut forests for fuel and timber, and to create pastures or cropland.  We have further altered the landscape by expanding cities and industries, or by building dams to augment our water needs, supply power for our homes and factories, or control floods that might wash away our structures.  We have overfished our rivers, lakes and oceans, and overhunted many of our game animals.  We have introduced foreign animals or plants into new areas where they have no natural controls on their spread.  We have, as human beings, disrupted ecological systems that have existed in balance with their surroundings for millennia. 


We must constantly remind ourselves that we are an interdependent component of those ecosystems that form the complex web of life on this planet.  We each have a responsibility to be aware of our dependence on the successful function of all components of the Global Commons for the future well-being of humanity. 


Suggestions for illustrating the concept of the Global Commons.

DEMONSTRATION 1:  One way to drive home the concept of the limited atmosphere capable of supporting life on Earth is to take the common classroom globe (often about 40 cm in diameter) and ask students to calculate the distance represented by one millimeter (about 30 km).  Most people live below an elevation of 5 km (about 15,000 feet).  Have the students discover that the portion of the atmosphere upon which the existence of human, plant and other animal life depends– the Biosphere – is about the thickness of a sheet of paper.


DEMONSTRATION 2:  One way to make the point about over-pumping an aquifer would be to develop a siphon at one end of a small aquarium filled with water-saturated sand where you can control water input at the other end to be less than the rate the water is siphoned off.  The level of saturated sand will drop as withdrawal exceeds supply.  With the same setup, pollution can be simulated by a fluorescent dye that could be introduced into the supply end and later detected in water coming out of the siphon.


DEMONSTRATION 3:  How much of our food comes from irrigated farmland susceptible to salinization?  Salinization can be effectively demonstrated by evaporating the tap water normally used for watering plants, or local well water if available, in a shallow dish and noting the accumulated residue.  Successive additions of more water to be evaporated in the same container will demonstrate a buildup of deposits.  How deep is the productive soil in your area?  If surface soil loss is only 1 mm per year, how long will that productive soil last?  How is the soil replenished?  At what rate? 


DEMONSTRATION 4:  Obtain an aerial photograph of your area, or check the landscape on your next airplane flight, note how much of the landscape has been affected by human activities, and what was the nature of those activities.  Consider what the area might have looked like before human development and then consider the cumulative effect of this ongoing development on natural ecosystems and regional environmental processes.

Return to Introduction
Guidelines to Sustainability Literacy Part I: Stewardship of the Commons
Part II: Understanding Deep Time
Part III: Doubling Time
Part IV: Sustainability and Resources
Part V: The Connectedness of Everything
Part VI: Ecological Footprint and Carrying Capacity
Part VII: Spaceship Earth: There's No Place Left to Go
Part VIII: Part of the Global Ecosystem
Part IX: We Live in a World of Change
Part X: What Do We Mean by Sustainable World?
Part XI: Cultural Context of Sustainability
Part XII: We Have The Option of Choice

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