The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.

Rachel Carson

In the 1860’s an army surveyor was here and noted that the grass grew up to his horse’s shoulders,” he said. The archaeologist and I stood on a small bluff overlooking the Little Colorado River floodplain on the Navajo Reservation. Below, the dry, baked desert was spotted with sage, rabbitbrush, horses and sheep. Little grass was apparent.

Years later, when I read “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin, I remembered that moment. (Note that this concept was originally discussed in 1833 by the English economist William Forster Lloyd.) The premise is that if everyone had unlimited access to a resource, it would soon be consumed. Basically, self-interest trumps common interests.

The Navajo were forceably placed on a reservation and shifted to an agrarian lifestyle in an area short of water and long on hot, dry weather. Sheep and horse herds became the symbols of stature, but common ownership of the land hampered individual responsibility for it. Along with a changing climate and population growth, the predictable result was and is overgrazing.

This ‘tragedy’ is a common feature of discussions related to the use of public lands, whether they be public rights of way or federal grazing land. A major issue seems to be who gets to decide how the land is used or managed. Some people forget that, particularly in the west, all the land was federal land until a system was created to shift some of it to the states and private interests — both companies and individuals. The rules were set up for various types of use — commercial, recreation and public interest — specifically to avoid impairment of the land.

The stories of conflict over use of the land play out in literature and movies, from Shane to Chinatown and hundreds of others. Conflicting values and competing interests clash in a battle of good versus evil, or maybe just differences of opinion. It is also visible in zoning disputes and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation. We all want to use the land wisely, but we may have different values or perspectives on what the proper use is. Luckily, in this country, we have mechanisms for addressing the competing interests.

In college and as a civil engineer, I studied the evolving national attitudes and laws. For most of my career I rode wave after wave of environmental regulation. My jobs allowed me to see first-hand the need for strict environmental controls and the complexities of implementing them. For the first twenty years of my career, I felt that the goals of the “environmental activists”, industry and government were aligned, even if their methods diverged. I’m not pretending that the relationships were without contention, but it seemed to me that most of the differences were about implementation or degree. We didn’t argue about whether clean water was a good idea, but about how clean, and how and when to achieve that. Over the last twenty years, however, that fragile collaboration has fallen apart.

We aren’t even internally consistent about what we want. I’ve been in public meetings where activists decried mining while laden with gold jewelry. Others drove to many miles to meetings where they could rail against oil wells. In most places electric cars are fueled from coal-fired power plants. Hypocrisy is a part of human nature, but we need to learn to be a little more self-aware.

One of the prettiest trees in my neighborhood grew in the backyard of a home a few houses away from mine. It was a stupendous tree, beautifully shaped and quite tall. When the homeowner renovated her house, she discovered that the tree blocked the view from her new bedroom and had it cut down. Although it had a strong impact on me and my view, I had no influence over her decision. Enduring the impacts of other peoples ‘bad’ decisions is a part of living in a modern society.

In the U.S. that means we need to understand and participate in the mechanisms in place to make the decisions we can influence. Whether they be local, regional or national issues, we have processes for considering the issues and determining how the decision is made. Knowing the process, and how it can be influenced is critical to effective participation. The processes usually include information sharing and/or public participation leading to a decision by a designated entity. Since we live in a republic, the ability to influence some decisions rests with the democratic selection of who makes the decision. In an extreme example, the public doesn’t get to vote on going to war, but we do get to vote on the person that makes that decision (the president).

Aside from each of us promoting our own self-interests, one problem is that some of us want things to stay the same or go back to some idealized ‘better’ time. The world is changing around us and we need to get with it and try to understand what’s happening so we can make it happen in a way we can live with (literally). We need to take responsibility for society’s actions as well as our own.

After all, it’s our nature.

Additional reading: “The Tragedy of the Commons” Garrett Hardin, Science, 1968; Collapse, Jared Diamond

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