For ages, our safety, security and prosperity meant mining - literally and figuratively - the resources around us.
Our impact on the commons - our oceans, our atmosphere, biodiversity, and other complex global systems - was rarely noticed. For many, damaging something like our atmosphere was simply too abstract.
Most simply didn’t care because changes didn’t touch their daily lives. But we have the technology to show how it does so now. We know that the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is growing steadily. We know that our oceans are heating up, killing coral reefs, and that currents of plastic debris flow around the planet. We know that we’ve fished and hunted untold numbers of species to extinction, and destroyed habitats of countless more.
We know all this, but there is a certain inertia that we can’t seem to shake. There is no longer the excuse that we are ignorant of our individual impact, yet still many find it difficult to care. Why?
We tend to have a natural upper limit on what we can care about both in proximity and time: a care horizon. We care about things that are close to us. We worry about the safety and security of our family and community, about paying bills, about making ends meet. Even though we are aware of great global problems, it is difficult to motivate people to tackle issues outside their care horizon.
The answer to the tragedy of the commons is the answer to how we bring it within this horizon. We are smart enough, and have resources aplenty to solve our problems. We need the will and motivation - personal and political - to do it. For that to happen, we need to make an appeal within the care horizon.
Take our atmosphere. Few people personally relate to carbon dioxide emissions. But billions live in cities where they can see, smell and taste horrendous smog. Around 7 million die from air pollution every year. Nobody likes dirty air. So they let their politicians know. And governments hustle to fix it.
In China, for example, hundreds of millions have been brought out of poverty, but the people now endure a scary amount of air pollution as a result. They have made clear that they have had enough, and the government is now working hard to solve the problem.
And here lies the trick: by ridding ourselves of air pollution, we are ridding ourselves of countless greenhouse gases and pollutants that are contributing to climate change. Broad-based appeals to protect nature, especially in countries where exploiting the environment is an easy - and often the only - source of income, is ineffective. If you were struggling to feed your family, would you think twice about cutting down protected trees?
We need to prove that protecting the environment is profitable and in everyone’s best interests. We can do this by holding up successful examples. In parts of coastal Kenya, fishermen have traditionally cut down mangrove forests to make boats. With the advent of carbon markets, some of them are now being paid tens of thousands of dollars a year simply to protect mangrove ecosystems along the shore. They have found another way to make their boats. And as mangroves come back, so do fish stocks, helping their core business, and restoring the marine ecosystem as well.
By appealing to the immediacy of the fishermen’s financial needs, multiple ecosystems are being saved and rejuvenated. The care horizon also obliges us to speak to people who are outside the environmental echo chamber. As environmentalists, we spend far too much time preaching to the converted. If we can’t make protecting the environment a kitchen conversation from Kansas to Kazakhstan, then we are failing. We should be speaking a language that people understand, and connect with.
None of this is to say that broader approaches are not needed or are ineffective. Very much the opposite. Not every problem can easily be brought close to people. But we can make fast progress where problems can be brought within the care horizon. Nobody wants their story to be a tragedy. If we personalise the tragedy of the commons, we ensure that people will personally work towards a happily-ever-after.
By Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment