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A sustainable world: Tragedy of the commons - David Marinelli

The second in a series of five articles on sustainability

Excessive emissions are affecting the sun’s radiation, changing the balance in the biosphere – the balance that has so far allowed human activity to take place. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

Excessive emissions are affecting the sun’s radiation, changing the balance in the biosphere – the balance that has so far allowed human activity to take place. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

We should start laying the foundations for a more ecologically sound and collaborative society and economy. In her book Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth outlines how humanity’s “just and safe place” lies between the planet’s ‘ecological ceiling’ and the humanity’s ‘social foundations’. This would be a win-win situation for humans, all other species and our shared habitat, the earth.

This economic model also very cleverly displays where we are overshooting on the earth’s ability to sustain humanity and life in general and also highlights where we are falling short of providing well-being for people in different countries or globally.

Raworth has laid the foundations for a 21st century economic model that is not dogmatic and is dynamic enough to adapt to the needs and environments of different regions while also meeting the challenges of change over time.

My take is that Raworth achieves this by shifting the focus away from the up or down cycles of growth and de-growth to the concept of balance.

Politicians and business advertising have sold us the mirage of perpetual economic growth. I find that perpetual growth cannot be possible in a world with finite resources where we only take out and put nothing back in. Advertising is constantly and pervasively proposing to us that by buying something more we are transforming ourselves, thereby getting closer to our life aspirations... and yet although we all own many things, we are nowhere close to being happy or satisfied, except perhaps momentarily.

Our strategy for the attainment of meaning and some level of contentment via acquisitions is deeply flawed. The flaw is systemic. We all really know that life’s aspirations cannot be achieved solely by spending money and yet we persist.

As growth is a ratio based on comparing output from time to time, and output is the result of production, we will now take the broadest possible view of the production of output and name the single ultimate source of all our supply chains – the sun, centre of our solar system.

We have the earth powered by energy from the sun. Within the earth we have societies of beings (species), one of these societies being human. All species share the ‘commons’ that are important to provide for the needs of each species according to its particular social order.

The real danger here is ‘artificial stupidity’ and not ‘artificial intelligence’

The commons is a term used in economics to describe the open ecosystems that are shared by entire communities. In today’s world we can equate the commons to the biosphere. The biosphere is the sum total of all the ecosystems or the zone that sustains life on Earth. Just to state the obvious, the biosphere fuels our activity and our economies – there is no economy or even life outside this space.

All commons must be managed. History has amply shown that what is not managed for the benefit of all is exploited and degraded to the point of extinction by opportunists. The management of the commons should be a collaborative enterprise between the State, the households and business. The rules in place to manage the commons must be understood, be equitable and have purpose as only a common purpose and understanding (not coercion) motivates people to follow rules. The economy needs a purpose; business should be given purpose; wealth should have purpose. Without purpose to guide our actions we are a rogue species and it would have been better for life on earth had we never existed.

We should remain acutely aware that all life on Earth takes place in the biosphere. This is a closed system that has been and continues to be powered by the sun. What happens within the biosphere is therefore fundamental to economic output. A marginal increase or decrease in the one single input into this system, which is the radiation from the sun, changes everything.

Human activity is now affecting the incoming sun’s radiation with hugely excessive greenhouse emissions, thereby changing the balance in the biosphere, the balance that so far has allowed human activity to take place. One of the reasons why climate change is such a concern for business is that it can and will severely disrupt supply chains and cause havoc to economies and private businesses alike. Remember that nature does not need people.  We are disrupting all the elements that keep the biosphere in balance by taking more out than we are putting in. In pre-human times nature was a net contributor to the life-giving qualities of the biosphere. Humans (you and me) on the other hand take all and put nothing back. We are viciously attacking our own life support system by considering all that is not human to be raw materials to be used for the production of everything and anything.

The decrease in forest destruction reflects the scarcity of forests and not an improvement in human behaviour.The decrease in forest destruction reflects the scarcity of forests and not an improvement in human behaviour.

We have behaved selfishly in this way ever since we stood upright on two legs 300,000 years ago. We did not know our place then, 12,000 generations ago, and we still do not know our place now. This is quite revealing for a species that pretends to be so clever. We now also think that we can imbue machines with intelligence. This is quite rich considering our track record. The real danger here is ‘artificial stupidity’ and not ‘artificial intelligence’.

We may have already reached the point of no return. Seven billion of us, growing to 10 billion by 2050, pillaging the biosphere relentlessly with our lifestyle demanding to have more and more of everything, may have already gone over the line. It is not really the number of people that is the problem – it is what we believe and the way we behave. Garret Hardin, the US ecologist, coined the phrase ‘the tragedy of the commons’ in 1968 and warned that “The inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy” and that “Ruin is the destination towards which all men run, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom (exploitation) of the commons.”

We may not succeed to reverse this human wave of pollution and destruction but we sure as hell have to try like our grandchildren’s lives depended on it, because they do. No life-giving biosphere, no life support system. No life support system, no life.

So, taking the cue from the words of Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle, “If you like to live, listen up.” Only human arrogance born of ignorance could imagine that we could outdo the very life giving forces that have given birth to our species in the first place.

David Marinelli is a researcher on human ecology and sustainability.

www.davidmarinelli.net

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