Controlling human impact on the global environment

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Illustration by Alisia Gruendel/The Daily Campus

The global economy has grown to a point where human activities of extraction and consumption of natural resources exceed the rate at which Earth can regenerate those resources. Added pressures on global energy, food and water by mankind’s dependency on finite natural resources coupled with unsustainable consumption behaviors may lead to a depletion of these resources.  

There are over 7 billion people in the world and roughly 3 trillion trees. What is the harm then? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, to sustain Earth’s inhabitants, water requirements will need to increase by 57%, the energy sector must generate 40% more than what is produced currently and food systems will need to expand productive cultivation by 70%.  

Human consumption levels are increasing rapidly, but the related harms are difficult for the average person. Society encourages recycling and clean energy, and most people do their part in aligning to that. Most people also realize that it is in their best interests to avoid destructive short-term behavior of selfish individuals and put in place regulations to punish those individuals. However, because people don’t quite understand the scale of consumption, and impacts on our planet, the “cheaters” don’t get punished. Those “cheaters” become powerful through the higher wealth of resources and set society’s norms. 

Game theory can help understand how humans interact with the environment by conveying an individual’s costs and benefits. Let’s consider how public resources are viewed through The Tragedy of the Commons. A village has a communal pasture where the residents can let their livestock graze. Since this pasture is unregulated, a person will benefit most if they put more animals in the pasture. Each person benefits by grazing more life stock in the short term and this will ruin the pasture. The United Nations reports that 80% of the world’s fish stocks for which assessment information is available are reported as fully exploited or overexploited.  

Most global resources are unregulated, but the human population is large enough to make these global resources functionally finite.  

The immediate solution that comes to mind is to limit the number of people who could use the commons, and the intensity at which users could graze livestock. However, to some people, the benefits of cheating by sneaking into the pasture or paying off authorities can outweigh costs. Think of poachers who hunt off season or rare animals, or corporations that dump toxic waste despite regulations. The goal is to minimize the number of cheaters compared to those willing to cooperate. With populations increasing, the number of cheaters is also increasing, creating an escalating environmental problem. 

Cheaters cannot be completely gotten rid of- a man who has the ability to feed a starving family given that he poaches a rhinoceros will not be afraid of the costs. Governments will behave in a similar way — they will go to war to make sure there will be a continued source of oil, or other natural resources. In the fight to protect Earth’s natural resources, people must work in a cooperative effort to minimize the number of cheaters. Regulations to control resource use need to be developed that take into account the costs of excessive resource use to the society as a whole, and the potential benefits to cheaters. In addition to regulation people need to be educated to identify “cheaters.”  

There are various ways in which the environment is harmed, and unethical practices that take advantage of “public” resources, such as those which result in harm to the ozone layer, should not be tolerated by the public. The atmosphere is subject to the tragedy of the commons, and since the perceived benefits exceed the long-term costs, massive rates of fossil fuel use to sustain the lifestyle of people will continue increasing. There are various free online courses available to college students such as Global Environmental Management and Air Pollution – a Global Threat to our Health. We will be the next generation of decision makers in society, and it is important for us to learn the true facts of our current situation to best care for our planet.  

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