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 XII


E-an Zen, Reston, VA, A.R. Palmer, Boulder, CO & P.H. Reitan, Buffalo, NY

In this series of essays we have focused on key elements that comprise the issue of sustainability -- the central issue that faces humanity in the 21st century. It should be abundantly clear that to continue as if the world has unlimited resources to support an expanding economic system, and unlimited space for all life forms in addition to humans, is to invite the calamity of a ruined environment and exhaustion of many key resources, which would affect the ecosystem of which we are an integral part. Because we all share the global Commons of forests, agricultural lands, atmosphere and oceans, as well as more regional Commons (e.g. rivers, wetlands, wilderness areas), we will also all share the consequences of such a calamity (Hardin, 1968; Palmer, 2000).

Our future thus hangs in the balance. But we humans have one thing going for us: we are sentient and reasoning beings; we have the gifts of vision, of imagination, and of social structures that allow concerted action. Unlike other life forms that inhabit the Earth, we can choose to make a difference in our future. We can choose to change the focus of our value systems, and emphasize stewardship rather than exploitation of the global Commons. Even though each of us individually can only make a small contribution to the sustainability of the Earth as a habitat, in the aggregate humans can, through changed social values, significantly improve our collective prospect for an enduringly habitable world. To do that, however, we must agree on the needed changes in the ways we think and conduct our lives, and we must act on our resolutions on the basis of both enlightened self-interest and altruism (see Palmer, 2000; Zen, 2000; Fisher, 2000, also Meadows and others, 1992).

How to bring about the necessary changes? This series of articles has advocated that we and "our neighbors" should become aware of the major issues of sustainability, and think about them. The authors have tried to avoid advocating specific actions beyond the broad and obvious (reduce consumption, reduce rates of growth, etc.). Social changes, to be beneficial and sustainable, must be carefully considered and made, in our political system, by common consent. They should be reversible, lest things do not go as intended; they should probably be locally based, so as to improve communication among stakeholders and reduce the risk of failure through lack of understanding and support (see AtKisson, 1999; National Research Council, 1996).

Each of us probably can think of physical and policy changes that would bring closer to reality a program of sustainability. For such changes to work, however, we also need to make perceptual modifications, including changes in our personal value systems and challenges to our habits of thinking (see also Kates, 2000). The draft Charter from the International Secretariat of the Earth Charter Campaign (2000) contains a good summary of the issues involved. Here, we suggest a need to re-examine some of our entrenched values and attitudes, such as:

  • Economic growth as an innate virtue and as an adequate index of social health.
  • Indefinite extension of human life expectancy as a virtue even though it aggravates the population problem.
  • Conspicuous consumption, rather than frugality, as the socially desirable norm of behavior.
  • Equating "change" with "human progress", with its corollary that what humans can change, humans should change.
  • Equating a more opulent material life with an intrinsic improvement in the standard of living.
  • Assuming that science and technology are adequate to "fix the problem" for society, and that scientific knowledge is adequate by itself for understanding the complex human issues and the pathways to their solution.
  • Assuming that humans have a license to exploit and use the non-human world with little or no ethical restraint.

Wise home owners maintain their houses in such a way as to minimize the risk of fire and they do not wait until after their home is leveled by fire before buying a fire insurance policy. A faulty electrical system in a home may be a real fire hazard; repairing the system immediately may prevent a catastrophe. Working toward sustainability - preservation of the global ecosystems -- is analogous to reducing the fire hazard. For sustainability, however, the insurance policy is to prevent or mitigate damage rather than to indemnify victims after the damage.

A year ago, the world engaged in a large-scale exercise to verify compliance of computer codes with the Y2K turnover. The motivation was simple: to prevent a massive collapse of systems of electronic information, data storage, and services that people perceive as useful to their ways of living. Although the consequences of such a failure would be miniscule compared to the consequences of failing to achieve sustainability, stakeholders invested billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of U.S. dollar equivalents to ensure Y2K compliance, by and large willingly.

Choosing to pursue a sustainable future through stewardship of the global Commons will at times require us to give up some cherished ways of doing things and may be personally painful. Sustainable human societies, however, cannot be brought about through coercion, but through people seeing the need and willingly acting upon it. In our political system, this will mean having informed citizens who by their votes and their buying power will support courageous political and business leadership in this transformation (Ashby, 1993).

To be motivated to move toward new and sustainable patterns of behavior requires, first, recognition that the threats to the adequacy of resources and the health of ecosystems are real, and second, that the goals and aspirations of individuals and of societies can be moderated. Because sustainable human societies are inseparable from healthy Earth systems, humans must accord value to the non-human world as well. Science, environmental philosophies, and religions (Fisher, 2000), though different in many ways, can come together in support of stewardship of the Earth system. We need to seek out common ground and cultivate ways to work together toward this enterprise of global sustainability. Surely this work will constitute the most important insurance policy we could ever buy.


What other prescriptions can you find for the idea of a sustainable world, and what actions are implied by these other prescriptions? Check up on Internet sites for these alternatives, and discuss how they differ or agree with one another and with the ideas expressed in these articles.


Ask your students to put down, in their own words, what is meant by "sustainability". Can this state of affairs be accomplished within the scale of a town, a county, a State, or the United States alone? Discuss the need to enlist other members of the society and how to motivate them.


Ask your students to list the five things each of them considers essential for accomplishing global sustainability. What bearing each item has on that goal? Which of these things can be done by individuals, and which of them must be done in concert with others? How would one go about getting started?

References cited

Ashby, Eric, 1993, Foreword: Environmental dilemmas, ethics, and decisions: R.J. Berry, ed, London: Chapman & Hall, p.xiv-xxi.

AtKisson, Alan, 1999, Believing Cassandra: White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 236 p.International Secretariat of The Earth Charter Campaign, 2000, Earth Charter:

Fisher, G.W., 2000, Sustainable living: common ground for geology and theology: in Schneiderman, J.S., editor, The earth around us: New York, W.H. Freeman. p.99-111

Hardin, Garrett, 1968, The tragedy of the commons: Science, v. 162, p. 1243-1248.

Kates, R.W., 2000, Population and consumption: what we know, what we need to know: Environment, v. 42, no. 3, p. 10-19

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., and Randers, Jorgen, 1992, Beyond the limits: White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 300 p.National Research Council, 1996, Understanding risk: informing decisions in a democratic society: Washington DC, National Academy Press, 249 p.

Palmer, A. R., 2000, Engaging "My neighbor" in the issue of sustainability, Part I: What do we mean by the Global Commons?: GSA Today, v. 10, no. 1, p. 8.

Zen, E-an, 2000, Engaging "My neighbor" in the issue of sustainability, Part X: What do we mean by a sustainable world?: GSA Today, v. 10, no. 10, p. 40.

Photo Moon over Flatirons copyright by Peter Stelle

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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INVITATION BASIN is a community project actively seeking public participation. We appreciate all feedback and welcome comments, suggestions and contributions. To find out more about how you can be involved, click here.

BASIN is supported by the US EPA, the City of Boulder, WASH, BCWI and BCN
Home | Site Map | Glossary | Bibliography | Contributors
About BASIN | Attribution | Feedback | Search