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Saving the Commons: It Can’t Just Be Policy

August 18, 2017 | By Lara Fishbane

I was a vegan for eleven months. During those eleven months, I was not miserable, but not entirely happy either. I abstained from eating some of my favorite foods. I found it hard to navigate eating out with friends. My energy levels dipped, and running, something I had done consistently for years, became increasingly difficult. But I was saving the planet, I told myself. Whenever I resented my choice to be vegan, I would think about a graphic put out by The Economist showing how quickly global fish stocks were collapsing from over-fishing. I would remind myself of the extent to which animal agriculture contributes to greenhouse gasses or clean water scarcity or land exploitation. And yet, I still stopped being vegan.

The reason I stopped was simple: It didn’t seem to matter. I would make the vegan choice at a restaurant, but watch friends leave behind half a burger or pick around chicken. I saw waiters carry back plates of uneaten animal products to a kitchen where the salmon I didn’t order would end up in the trash. I would watch the yogurt and milk I abstained from buying expire and be cleared from supermarket shelves. Why should I sacrifice if no good comes from it?

This—in short—is the tragedy of the commons. There are so many people acting in their own self-interest that it makes individual efforts for the common good futile (and if not futile, then at least seem it). And, consequently, the tragedy of the commons underlies almost all social problems.

Well-intending people become the gentrifiers in gentrifying neighborhoods when they choose to live in low-income communities because that’s where affordable housing is. They contribute to school segregation when they pull their kids out of the local school system to send them to better private schools. They contribute to climate change each time they turn on their car or use plastic straws or run their clothes through the dryer. They support human trafficking when they buy shrimp or cheap clothing or palm oil without checking first where it’s sourced.

But, writing “they” is disingenuous. Because it isn’t they. It’s me. It’s us. We contribute to gentrification and school segregation and climate change. We contribute to systems that we theoretically don’t support, and it’s important to acknowledge our role in them instead of trying to shift the blame.

On an environmental justice trip to Kentucky last March, I became increasingly aware of the hypocrisy in my own belief system. In fighting for coal mines to be shut down, I was asking for people in Harlan to give up the only decent paying jobs in the area, a cornerstone of their culture. I, meanwhile, only make sacrifices for the environment within reasonable convenience. I recycle because I have easy access to recycling bins, eat vegetarian because I can afford it, and bike to work when I have the energy for it. Though none of this means that we shouldn’t be shutting down coal mines, it does mean that we all have a lot of work and internal reckoning to do.

I have also been told, though, that you can only ever worry as much as your influence is big. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time and energy agonizing over change you can’t actually effect. And that’s what addressing tragedy-of-the-commons-type problems as an individual feels like: too big a problem and too small an influence. But recognizing a problem as a tragedy of the commons also doesn’t mean we should just give up. So what should do we do?

I have always thought that I would be happy to go vegan if everyone in the world signed a contract where we all agreed to be vegans. Though I understand that everyone in the world isn’t going to sign onto this contract, the point is that it creates a system wherein individual efforts matter and are therefore incentivized. Policy and law have always served as this contract. They prevent us from speeding through red lights on our way to work or stealing from our neighbors.

But, policy isn’t a panacea; all it does is set the floor. It keeps us from being our worst selves, and doesn’t push us to be better. It’s on us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. And that’s hard to hear because it isn’t easy to follow through on; because it won’t always feel like we’re solving something. It means opting for the vegan option even when meat goes to waste. It means turning down the higher paying job for the right one even when someone else will inevitably fill the gap. It means being honest with ourselves: both in where our moral lines lie and where we fall short of them. It means buying into the truism that change starts with the self. Because once we know the line we’re pushing towards, we can push others to arrive there with us. And maybe policy will change, or maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll be reaching for something better in our own microcosm.

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