Toward a stewardship of the Global Commons:
engaging “my neighbor” in the issue of sustainability
members of the Critical Issues Committee, Geological Society of America
WE HAVE THE OPTION OF CHOICE:
THE FUTURE IS UP TO US
E-an Zen, Reston, VA, A.R. Palmer, Boulder, CO &
P.H. Reitan, Buffalo, NY
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
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
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
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?
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: http://www.earthcharter.org/draft/charter.htm
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