The American environmentalist Gary Snyder defines a commons as “the contract a people make with their local natural system.” This relationship is generally codified in a set of rules about how to use nearby land that no one, and therefore everyone, owns.
This was something that rarely came to mind as I grew up. To risk ascribing my own experience to others, I don’t think most people dwell on the topic as much as it deserves. I spent my childhood using the West and unaware of other people who were equally entitled to it but who lacked the resources to enjoy it. I saw others in similar positions — my family and friends — do the same. I now see corporations, powerful people, and those with privilege thoughtlessly using resources that should be set aside as common goods on the front pages of newspapers every day.
My use was intimate. I was not among the wealthy in the financial sense — I lived in a mobile home park in which my parents rented a double-wide trailer. My Dad worked harder than most people running a construction company that specialized in laying concrete. But I enjoyed a certain privilege most people in the world, who increasingly live in cities, don’t. I grew up in Colorado’s Grand Valley, where an abundance of public land managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management allowed people to do much of what they wanted on it without thinking about any broader implication, any social or environmental cost to their actions.
On top of this proximity to the vast public wealth hidden throughout the West, I was white and a man and free of the fear and lack of purchase to explore that burdens many people who don’t fit into my demographic. I didn’t know anything about the idea of a “commons,” even though I played and reaped in them. It was just a series of places onto which I unintentionally wrote my life, then burned the pages. I never pondered the relationship — the contract — Snyder so intentionally insinuated into his definition. It was all very ephemeral, and I took it for granted.
That underappreciation is reflected in the thinness of my memories about places. I don’t remember much from my childhood, but that my older sister would sometimes take me swimming in the Roaring Fork River where we’d brave the rapids with no floatation device. I’d pick chokecherries from the thicket near the river for my Mom to can into jelly. I buried a deceased pet guinea pig in the compost that accumulated on the floor of that thicket. I corralled garter snakes in nearby grassy fields. But these are all simple flashes with little meaning and only a loose connection to place. I probably examined things much more closely than I can remember, but I never jotted them down in a notebook or kept them in my heart. They were interactions of coincidence and convenience, nothing more, and I have no way to know if the snakes became depressed or whether the chokecherry brambles are still there. I do not know what has become of that trailer park.
But I remember hearing Dad complain now and then that his hunting grounds were being rolled under condominium developments. Shopping and strip malls started springing up in our city, Glenwood Springs. This was a fraught thing for Dad because while he lamented the loss of habitat in which he practiced a pastime, the developments supplied his income. That was in the late 1990s, but the trend continues to this day. In the last two years, the city rebuilt the Glenwood Avenue bridge across the Colorado River at the end of the Glenwood Canyon in what the Colorado Department of Transportation calls the “largest infrastructure project on the Western Slope in 25 years.”
Maybe now it’s complete. The town announced in summer, 2019, it is the seventh American municipality to become “carbon neutral.” There are segue tours in the mountain trails, paragliding, whitewater rafting, hot springs frequented by hippies and European backpackers — a chic outdoors wonderland. But even that image represents a paving over of land we, as humans, feel we can use freely. We’re actively wresting it from the guiding hands of natural laws, changing it because the world was made for us, and we know how to rearrange things. But too late, having for centuries been warned by wise men and economic theorists, we’re realizing that story places us at perilous odds with the earth, which is threatening to stop sustaining our way of life — or outright kill many of us off.
Glenwood Springs’ generous accomplishment, for all its appeal and pomp, has come only after silver miners drove Ute Indians from the Roaring Fork Valley, bereaving the natural local systems of vital librarians steeped in true mountain life. Their ancestors paved it over with asphalt and mountain bluegrass sod, insinuated a ski industry, and established a fossil fuel trade after the silver became too onerous an extract. Hunter S. Thompson fired countless lead slugs into the soil at Woody Creek. White people poured in and changed the place.
What has happened in the Roaring Fork and Grand valleys on the Western Slope of Colorado is popularly expressed in the “tragedy of the commons,” a phrase ecologist Garrett Hardin coined in the 1960s in a famous Science magazine article. The term evokes an economic concept that thinkers had worn threadbare since the eighteenth century: too many humans in a given area will cause an ecological collapse, precipitating a drop in their numbers, creating the undulations similar to those seen in natural ecosystems between populations of predator and prey.
To show this, Hardin used an example I’ll loosely paraphrase: A given parcel of land, which functions as a closed loop, is available for a numerically unimportant but static number of ranchers to use as they see fit. The parcel contains only the resources to sustain a certain number of cattle. If each rancher continues in good faith and the limit is not exceeded, the ecosystem will remain in stasis. But imagine one rancher wants to pay for any special expense and ponders introducing another head. The rancher recognizes that in doing so, she will exceed the land’s potential. But she will make more money by having two slightly malnourished cows vice one healthy cow. Her immediate individual interests outweigh her responsibilities to any contract with the natural system. The rest of the ranchers will simply suffer, paying the price of this one rancher’s overuse. But operating in a free commons, the ranchers soon realize nothing stops them from doing the same as the first rancher. A contract is, after all, only as strong as the actors’ commitment to it. As cattle flood the parcel, the ecosystem becomes too stressed, and the resource pool collapses.
Hardin’s fantastical land parcel was conjured for simplicity’s sake, but there are many real-world instances of this. From the Dust Bowl to the premature emptying of a refrigerator shared by two well-intentioned college roommates and a gluttonous third, resource pool collapse is often predicated on human greed. Sometimes, only a few fortunate individuals or corporations have the financial wherewithal to exploit a given commons, and, driven wild with lust for mammon, they mine a place dry. Either way, a commons can only supply so much.
Many an economist had trodden similar ground before Hardin. One of the most influential characters in the history of this exploration was Sir Thomas Malthus, a morose British cleric and intellectual. He conceived of what later came to be known as the Malthusian Theory of Population, which identifies two incompatible types of economic growth. The first is human population growth. This type of growth occurs exponentially — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. The second type, food growth, by contrast occurs arithmetically — 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc. Because the former dramatically outpaces the latter, it is inevitable on a given plot of land that the resource pool will collapse as people reproduce.
Following this logic, Malthus identified two categories of checks that will activate to bring the population back into harmony with the food economy. With the first, a robust food supply fuels a population boom, which decimates the food crop and causes a famine; a significant percentage of the population starves to death, allowing the crop to return; the cycle starts over again. To prevent the natural checks, humans are free to engage in intentional ones. The most optimistic thing about Malthus was his ability to think humans can commit to the greater good. Recognizing resource scarcity, he writes, poor people will artificially limit the size of their families. This is an element of Snyder’s contract. But in neither scenario do humans get to keep exponentially reproducing over a prolonged period.
Note: This is part of my master’s thesis, which I’m slowly dissecting and publishing here.