Daily Archives: 04/27/2006

A River No Longer Runs Through It

Dry RiverbedI read this interesting interview with author Fred Pearce yesterday and it really opened my eyes. Mr. Pearce released When the Rivers Run Dry this year, and I need to read this book. I’ve heard time and again how fresh water is becoming a scarce commodity, but I had no idea how bad it’s become. I knew the Colorado River was essentially used up by the thirsty Southwest, but I didn’t know the Rio Grande also runs dry 700 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The litany of rivers sucked dry is frightening; the Indus in Pakistan, the Yellow River in China, and the Nile River in Egypt is a trickle when it reaches the Mediterranean. Water is a looming crisis, and it looks like another case of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Earth Week: Hope For The Future

Guam EPA Earth Week 2006 - Logo from CJ Santiago of GW High School
One final thing with the Earth Week logo: There is hope for the future. It seems like the submersion of New Orleans really brought the idea of global warming to the forefront for many people. Coupled with the obscene rise in gasoline prices, a new sense of environmental urgency is appearing. In the 35 years since the first Earth Day, considerable strides have been taken in cleaning the air, water and protecting endangered species.

So let’s celebrate those eco-heroes with bright ideas and simple solutions for helping to reduce, reuse and recycle our natural resources and protect what’s left of the natural world.

Sure there is lots left to do, but the future does not look so bleak as I sometimes paint it. My brother Gary pointed out that my post on sustainable fisheries was a classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons, and he was absolutely correct. The idea is that unrestricted access to a natural resource ultimately dooms the resource because over-exploitation benefits the individual while the costs are distributed to the many.

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 interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

Aristotle noted this phenomena, it was obvious in English cow pastures in 1833 and it is still apparent today with the overfishing of the ocean. What is needed is government regulation and oversight of these commons. Enforceable laws and fines for those that abuse the common good are the only viable option for preserving what’s left and preventing a complete collapse. Perhaps people will spontaneously realize that protecting these natural resources is ultimately in their best interest, but millennia of human history indicate that we will rapaciously consume all available resources without some form of coercion or punishment to force us. Government regulation and coercion might be objectionable to the libertarian, but it is preferable to ruin and collapse.

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, as authoritative a report on the condition of the planet as I could find on the internet, describes several scenarios that await the planet. Each seems possible, and none are particularly dystopian visions.

  • The Global Orchestration approach is defined as socially conscious globalization, one in which we emphasize equity, economic growth, and public goods, reacting to ecosystem problems when they reach critical stages.
  • Order from Strength represents a regionalized approach, in which our emphasis is on security and economic growth, again reacting to ecosystem problems only as they arise.
  • Adapting Mosaic is also a regionalized approach, but one that emphasizes proactive management of ecosystems, local adaptation, and flexible governance.
  • TechnoGarden is a globalized approach with an emphasis on green technology and a proactive approach to managing ecosystems.

I can’t say any of these possible futures looks like a utopia. Each has solutions and problems to our current crises in land, development and resources. I’d suggest those interested in these things read the Millennium Ecosystem Assessments, and perhaps take the time to explore EARTHscope, an interactive series of simulations developed by the Buckminster Fuller Institute.