Overcoming tragedy and rethinking for the environment

International Conference on Thinking
July 5 – 9, 2005

Humans face environmental challenges as never before, in many cases through our own deliberate actions. We didn’t intend this to be the result however. The environmental crises we now face stem fundamentally, I argue, from the way we perceive the environment. We act individually rather than collectively, we simply do not understand that environments can different and so call for different perceptions and experiences and we look for simplistic responses. We must change the ways we think about our environment, away from being exploitative, hostile and reductionist, as a prerequisite to changing the way we interact with our environment.

What does the environment mean to us?

How important is the environment to us? Close your eyes and let your mind wander – to your favourite place. Where do you go for a weekend break? Where is your favourite holiday destination? Where does your mind go to relive pleasant times or where you are looking forward to going?  What do you do there? How do you feel? Why do you like it so much?

Where is your place – is it in a tall silent forest, a broad alpine plateau, a tranquil reach of a river? Or is it a smart well-appointed restaurant in your home city, mixing with the beautiful people in an upmarket shopping mall, or perhaps you prefer a jazz band in a smoky music bar? I’ll wager it in the first group, the natural environment, rather than the second, the built environment.

The natural environment is extremely important to us, for more than the instrumental reasons of resource extraction to meet the needs of our species. The natural environment has a psychological and spiritual, appeal. Here we are, just after dawn in the third millennium, and we need our natural environments more than ever.

Now try to imagine what the natural environment will be like at the brink of the fourth millennium.  What will the world’s population be? It is over 6 billion now, how many billion then? And what fluctuations will there have been between now and then? How many people will have lived and died, and in dying – of what?

What will Australia’s population be, compared with the almost 20 million people we have now? Where will we go to satisfy our need for experiences in the natural environment? Melbourne now stretches from Sunbury, 35 km to the northwest to Frankston, 40 km to the south east, from Lilydale 35 km to the northeast to Werribee, 35 km to the south west. There’s not much natural environment there. Yet we are relatively well off when it comes to access to the natura environment. There have been just over 200 years of European colonisation, and our growth through this next millennium comes off a low base. Population densities in many parts of the world exert immense pressures on natural environments. If we wish to have natural environments for generations of humans to come, clearly citizens need to behave differently than they are doing now.

It’s not as though environmental problems arise through ignorance. Political and opinion polling shows that concern for the environment is widespread, yet these problems, whether unsustainable timber-harvesting, land-clearing, loss of biodiversity, global warming, land salination, etc. etc.  ad nauseum and almost infintum, increase.

Now look at the trends for large-scale environmental change. Globally, enhanced greenhouse gas emissions are having hardly-guessed-at consequences, Australia has a shocking record for recent mammal extinctions with some thirty species disappearing in the last 200 years. We have less than 1% of our original extensive grasslands in Victoria, and we could all probably cite some local environmental management issue that has stirred people where we live. We are degrading our environment as never before.

How did this come about?

I have three different analyses with which to regard our current environmental plight- each one a different way of looking at much the same issue, for, as my third analysis suggests, this is what we must start doing. And so I go to the first way of looking at why we are in the environmental cesspit, so to speak.

1. Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons

An American ecologist, Garret Hardin, in his celebrated paper The Tragedy of the Commons, argues as follows:

Picture a pasture open to all.  It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.  Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land.  Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality.  At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.  Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”  This utility has one negative and one positive component.

 1)   The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal.  Since the herdsman  receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

 2)   The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal.  Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.  And another; and another…But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. 

Therein is the tragedy.  Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited.  Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.  Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

I have an example of the tragedy of the commons from times a little more recent. I saw a home car detailing company (people who cut and polish the duco, blacken the tyres, vacuum the interior, etc) preparing to do their best on a yellow Mercedes. The car was sitting in a driveway, surrounded by the tools of the trade, a steam cleaner, an industrial vacuum cleaner and 5 litre containers of our most effective cleansers.

The detailer had, no doubt, quoted a price to do the job, including the costs for labour, materials and for use of the specialised equipment. The car owner would have accepted that price, possibly in anticipation of the increased value of the vehicle due its spanking new appearance.

But what about the price we have paid, to both the owner and the detailer? That the residues, oils, detergents and solvents, have passed down the drain and into the environment, which, after all, is collectively ours, means that we are accepting, knowingly or otherwise, the costs for disposal of these effluents. The alternative is that the detailer would contain all the wastes produced in performing the task, and use some environmentally-appropriate but relatively expensive means of disposing of them. That this is not done and that we all share a degraded environment as a result effectively means that we are subsidising the whole operation.

The cost borne by each member of the community is infinitesimally small and is rarely evident, except on days of high pollution or when a combination of natural factors make such things apparent. Yet that cost is assuredly there. There are myriad examples all around, from diesel exhaust gases from a trucking operator’s fleet, a cat owner’s animal free at night to prey on our bird population, a dog owner’s cherished pet defecating daily on the local nature strips and our open fires on chill winter nights.

In order to act in our own interests, we can be in direct conflict with the common interest. The problems for environments arise through the mismatch of an individual’s interest with the collective interest. Economic rationalism has hardly helped. When we lived in the commons, we were all members of the community, sharing its benefits equally. The belief that the unfettered market is the best means to distribute resources has seen the sell off of the commons to those in the community with the wealthy to purchase a share or shares. Consider the privatisation of Australia’s major Telco, Telstra. It was government owned and it generated a great surplus each year which was returned to government into consolidated revenue and disbursed across the whole community in the annual budget appropriations. Since it has been privatised, only the share-holders receive a dividend, shareholder value is increased by trimming staff and services, jobs are lost

That is the basis of our economic system, the focus on private capital and the shift for individuals in acting collectively as community members to acting individually as shareholders. We too often regard the purpose of the environment is to satisfy human needs, for both current and future generations to invoke a little of that oxymoron, ecologically sustainable development. There’s some more thinking to do – how can we reconcile continuous and therefore infinite growth within a finite world?

And now yet some more thinking, for I’d like to suggest a different way to think about these things.

2. Possessing understanding

The second analysis is based on the relationship we Australians have with our natural environment.  A local academic, David Tacey, a senior lecturer in English and Australian Literature at La Trobe University approaches the distorted relationship we have with the environment from a spiritual perspective. I have taken the following lines from his book, Edge of the Sacred:

We can urge each other to care more about the environment, but until we have revised our sense of identity to include the natural world, our best intentions may be in vain.

The coastal fringe represented safety, the known, the civilised parts, and the interior was viewed as barren, scary, unknown. It was either not spoken about at all (an area of cultural silence) or it was viewed with a good deal of distaste as a place of death and disintegration  ..  the dead centre.

Tacey uses a heading Landscape as spiritual laboratory for the following passage:

But Australian landscape is like the unconscious itself: if you respect it and realise the ego can never hope to assimilate, conquer, or transform it, you are allowed to survive. That is and must be our way ..

To continue this line of argument, Patrick White, in his celebrated novel Voss, explores this same theme – the suspicion felt by Europeans towards the country they had come to inhabit.

Everyone is still afraid, or most of us, of this country, and will not say it. We are not yet possessed of understanding.

Our system of land tenure is based upon English common law, our farming practices are those of the temperate Northern hemisphere, even our most loved city gardens are formal European gardens planted in the 19th century.  We European’s relationship with the natural environment continues problematic, we make it into a ‘Europeland’, we romanticise it and we also demonise – we are certainly not yet ‘possessed of understanding’. If we do venture into Australia’s interior, it is very much bristling with technology, and doing the outback trip is part of the Aussie urban tradition.

We can think of the symptoms – environmental degradation – as due to the cause of a fundamental dissociation from environments, that we see environments from an instrumental perspective only, that it’s there for us, to meet human needs, to conquer and subdue. We don’t understand it, we are not part of it.


3. Complexity and a reductionist science

Here’s yet another way to think about these issues for our environment. My third analysis concerns Western science itself, with its reductionist approach that sees complex and interconnected phenomena reduced to myriad smaller parts for understanding. We respond to one subset of the environment and inevitably generate a problem elsewhere. Rabbits, deliberately introduced to satisfy the nostalgia of the European settlers last century, quickly multiplied to threaten the viability of many agricultural enterprises. Indeed, many of Australia’s destructive ‘animal weeds’ were the self-congratulatory work of the late 18th century Acclimatisation Society, which set out to make familiar a land that was so different to the one from which they came

We are still at it though. We have a mixed record in experimenting in biological control. Cane toads were brought to Australia in the 1930s to control cane beetles which were infesting sugar cane, itself introduced as an agricultural crop.  Cane toads are simply eating everything as they spread across northern Australia, now reaching the Kimberley region of western Australia. How many frog and reptile species will become extinct through our thinking that food chains are separate from food webs?

I contrast this with an indigenous cosmology, that sees all things as inherently inter-related, with humans as an integral part, no greater or lesser, of the environment.

Here is what I mean. The following passage is taken from a poem Laying Down by Bill Neidje:

Listen carefully this, you can hear me.
I’m telling you because earth just like mother
And father or brother of you.
That tree same thing.
Your body, my body I suppose,
I’m same as you … anyone.

And from another poem Tree:

Earth … exactly like your father or brother or mother
Because you got to go to earth,
You got to be come to earth,
Your bone … because your blood in this earth here.
Tree same thing.

In this indigenous world, reducing the environment to a series of molehills just isn’t possible. The environment, and human interactions with it, just is! The problem with a reductionist ‘mountains to molehills’ approach is that the complexity of ecosystems, and the consequences of human interactions for biodiversity, even the physical environment itself, is denied. Sometimes environmental issues are indeed mountains.

The simplifications we make to assist understanding shouldn’t be confused with the environment itself. When confronted with an environmental issue, we apply a scientific analysis that starts with a measure of various biological or biochemical indicators, proceeds to the constructions of various models, we tinker with a variable here and another there and then we implement some amelioration strategy.

From my high school physics I recall the two quite different models, the wave model and the particle model, that assist us in understanding the behaviour of light. Neither tells us what light is, but we can appreciate the behaviour of light from these two almost contradictory models. Similarly, I suspect that there is no one right way to analyse human interactions with all things environmental. These are complex issues which require examination from many perspectives for as detailed picture as possible to be constructed, and in any response we make, we must be prepared to be wrong.

For a response to have the best chance of being appropriate, it needs to be based on the most complete understanding possible, generated through viewing issues from as many perspectives as possible. Granted these are complex issues, but we deal with complex issues every day.

These thoughts merge in my current work with Waterkeepers Australia, an organisation formed to support community group across Australia that are caring for and protecting their waterways. Community groups that are members of Waterkeepers Australia comprise part of the international alliance of 137 waterkeepers, most in the US, but also in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Bolivia, UK and the Czech Republic. Waterkeepers Australia provides communities with support in infrastructure (Are they incorporated? Is their board well-constructed? Are they insured for their range of activities?), with access to the knowledge they need to be effective advocates for their waterway and with skills to do the job.

Water falling from the clouds has always been considered to be part of the commons. But when it falls onto private property and fills a farmer’s dams, it can be used for agricultural and other purposes that generate a private income for the farmer. It is no longer part of the commons. If it is allowed to run off into a creek or river or collect in a reservoir, it remains part of the commons. It can be sold by the relevant government managing authority, acting in the interests of the community, or if privatised, by a corporation acting on behalf of its shareholders. So is water an element of our commons? Answer – not necessarily.

Are we possessed of understanding in our thinking and in our use of water? There is certainly evidence to be found that indicates against this proposition.  Jason Alexander, a Board Member of Land and Water Australia, remarked in a recent speech that there were three fundamentals in natural resource management in Australia –  Bush burns, droughts happen and flood plains are for floods. So why do we still farm land where the entirely natural yet highly irregular patterns of rainfall suggest we should never have gone there in the first place? The irrigation that allowed the desert to bloom in horticultural and viticultural oases such as Victoria’s Sunraysia and New South Wales’s Murrumbidgee Irrigation District has certainly brought about great productivity, but at what environmental cost? Salinity has damaged 2.5 million hectares of land nationally, as reported in Land and Water Australia’s 2001  National Land and Water Audit. And from the report on salinity by the Victorian Auditor General,   .. “official estimates put the direct cost of salinity in Victoria currently at $50 million per year. Independent reviews predict that the annual cost of salinity due to lost agricultural production will increase to between $77 million and $166 million by 2050.”

Then what about our appreciation of the complexity of water management in Australia? Our cities, where over 80% of the Australian population lives, face mounting water restrictions. In June 2005, Sydney’s Warrangamba Dam was 36% full, Melbourne’s storages were at 45% capacity while Perth’s were down to 25%. What responses are raised to this rather crucial issue? David Barnett, leader of the Liberal party in Western Australia went into their recent election with a policy for a “catheter from the Kimberley’, a pipeline of some 4000 km to bring fresh water from the state’s far north west to supplement Perth’s profligate water consumption.  Mike Archer, Professor of Science at one of Sydney’s universities, floats the idea of giant “medusa bags”, giant sacks of fresh-water towed from Queensland’s wet tropics behind ships down to Sydney. For an increase in inland agriculture, Richard Pratt, a tycoon from the recycling industry, was promoting the concept of tunneling through eastern Australia’s Great Dividing Range, so that the water in rivers flowing to the sea could be used in inland irrigation schemes. The more complex issues involved in reducing water consumption, making greater use of grey water and then treating it for reuse are ignored in favour of simplistic responses

Thinking about responses to the tragedy

We can find the Tragedy of the Commons in many manifestation. Here is another. I am an elderly person living alone and I derive all the private benefits of the puss purring on my lap. My bird-loving neighbours each suffer a slightly reduced community pleasure in the now slightly reduced bird population. The commons is now the avifauna, and an individual’s benefit comes at the community’s cost. Aggregate the national population of cats, and consider their effect on our birdlife and you’ll see what bird-lovers would consider to be a real tragedy.

What can we do about it?

To overcome the tragedy of the commons, we can legislate. You will be fined and/or imprisoned if you have two cows, or you don’t control your cat. Legislation isn’t always successful though and I cannot think of too many laws where there is universal compliance. We can impose sanctions or give incentives. Heavy fines will be given to owners of cats found prowling at night, or the benefit of the second cow will be taxed at 200%, for example. When it comes to avoiding sanctions or gathering unearned incentives, from the earliest bean counters with abacus in hand through to the bevy of accountants in smart tax-minimisation schemes at work today, this is no guarantee of success either.

I am enough of an optimist to think that education is our best response. Self-interested individuals, aware that their success is dependent on their community’s success, hold the answer. We must revel in complexity rather than fear it, we must know, at a fundamental level, that we are but one element of an interdependent natural world, not apart and above. We have to rebuild our sense of community, and promote thoughts and actions which regenerate a sense of interpersonal responsibility. We treat better those we know and love.

On the issue of water, Waterkeepers Australia is one community renewal and capacity-building response. Another is the Watermark Australia project, which engages small groups of community members in roundtable discussions designed to increase understanding, and to involve members of the groups in community-based management decisions about water issues.  We need many more such opportunities for communities to engage with the issues that concern them.

And above all, we need to get back into the natural environment – to spend more time in those places we thought about at the start of this journey. Suspicion of and discomfort in the environment, eloquently described in Voss which is set in 1845, and in Edge of the Sacred, which is contemporary, leads to our lack of appreciation and respect for our environments. We disallow other cultural interpretations of environments so the dominant western reductionist view prevails – we mine sacred sites, we graze hard-hoofed cattle in alpine meadows and bogs (until just last month) and we look at mangroves and see drainage channels and residential canal developments. It starts with our young. For generations raised on bedtime stories of hobby-hahs, witches and warlocks, boogy men, drop bears and other things that go more than just bump in the dark, positive attitudes towards natural environments will take time and deliberate actions on our part to develop. We must start thinking how.


Hardin, Garrett, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science Vol 162, pp 1243 – 1248, 13 December, 1968

Tacey, David J., Edge of the Sacred – Transformation in Australia, Harper Collins, 1995

White, Patrick, Voss, Penguin, 1957

Neidje, Bill,  Story about feeling, Magabala Books, Broome, 1989

Victorian Auditor General’s Office, Managing Victoria’s growing salinity problem, Melbourne, 13 June 2001