“The earth doesn't belong to us, we belong to the earth.” - Chief Seattle
The earth is what we all have in common. Beyond land governance or the issue of who owns and controls earth is the issue of lack of sustainability initiatives, biodiversity protection, social justice, climate change mitigation, and long-term food security and sovereignty.
Who owns the Commons?
Urban common is a relatively new term that broadly consists of urban resources shared by the members of the society. Like the term suggests, these are resources commonly held and hence no one should/can claim ownership over them. If no one can own it, then who is responsible for the maintenance and betterment of it?
Commons are of several categories, but the most impactful in today’s world is the earth’s natural resources. The current situation is leading us on a path where these commons are beings exploited, poorly maintained or are inappropriately used. Air, water and land are among the most modified or contaminated commons by humankind. The use and consumption of these resources are accepted by individuals as rights based on superficial ownership. However, when it comes to refinement, replenishment or protection, individuals tend to ignore it until a point of no return or an apparent doom.
The tragedy of the commons
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” - Native American proverbs
The tragedy of the commons is a problem in economics that occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain. This leads to over-consumption and ultimately depletion of the common resource.
The tragedy of commons examples:
Traffic Congestion: Traffic is one of India’s biggest predicaments. Nearly 78% of air pollution is caused by vehicular pollutants. In cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkota and Bangalore, Traffic congestion contributes to more than 6 times the number of pollutants due to slower speeds.
As more people decide that roads and highways are the fastest way to travel to work, more cars end up on the roads, ultimately slowing down traffic and polluting the air.
Deforesting: For years, woodlands have been chopped down to make way for civilization to grow. Forests are cut for commercial purposes and/ or replaced with cash crops to financially benefit a group. This has led to habitat loss that has endangered the ecosystem.
Water scarcity/ Flooding: In most cities in India, the most prevalent tragedy among all is water-related. We see cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai go from having water scarcity to being flooded with just a few rain showers. Rains have gotten harsher and the cities infrastructure cannot handle the ever-growing issue.
"Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” - Sir David Attenborough
Why doesn't anyone do something about it?
It is now evident human interventions are what has led to the downfall of our environment. However, when it comes to solutions that can help slow this process, the common public is still hesitant in making changes. The general perception being, “Doesn’t bother me now, hence need not worry”. Most people acknowledge climate change, but a very small percentage of them try to bring a change.
Investing in the betterment of commons has a good ‘Return of investment’ but is only evident after a relatively long period. Most investments today are based on personal and immediate benefits. The fact that this may benefit and help others in the society and not only the individual investing is one of the reasons why nobody is investing. The plight here is if everyone only exploits and no one helps replenish, in time, no one can benefit out of it. “Well, then the government must invest in it”. Yes, the government does. Several urban schemes and policies are to help with the betterment of these commons on a macro scale. These may or may not benefit everybody
When scaled down to a micro/ society level, these interventions may or may not have an impact. In my opinion, it should be the responsibility of the factions who have over time exploited and benefitted from these commons, to now invest in the replenishment and betterment of them. “But why should I invest while my neighbour benefits?”We must understand our communal responsibility as a privileged society is to give back to the very nature that it has been exploiting. One needs to start somewhere. If no one initiates with the fear of being the only one investing, then we are only pacing towards the inevitable doom.
Who do you think is responsible for this planet?