It’s all connected

Greening the Commons


As comedian Dave Barry quipped, anyone who doesn’t believe all things are connected has never attempted home repairs. 

We dive into a seemingly minor project only to discover a bolt rusted in place; the faucet suspected of dripping is connected to the pipe behind a wall, which is the source of the leak. Soon jackhammers are required to break through the brick wall that turned out to be weight-bearing. Who knew? And why care, anyway?

We chuckle at the familiar trajectory — things going from bad to worse. Chalk up another one for Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

Still, we attempt to fix something in the environment with less understanding of the complex interactive dance of the natural world than of basic plumbing.

History is filled with stories of attempted fixes, only to discover unforeseen consequences. Remember bringing rabbits into Australia, ignoring their capacity to reproduce where bunnies have no natural enemies? 

Today it’s antibiotics. For decades, they’ve been needlessly prescribed for colds and flu and given to animals crowded in feed lots and factory farms to prevent infections. Rapidly reproducing bacteria live on an evolutionary fast track, so germs that survive treatment with one antibiotic quickly learn to resist others.

Folklore tells of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, hoping to stop a troublesome broom by cutting it in half, instead created more brooms that knew how to multiply, divide and increase. 

Similarly, manufacturers added bacterial killing power to soaps, wipes, garbage bags and diaper pail liners, helping to create super health-threatening bugs like MRSA. Escaping sewage treatment, virulent E-coli strains, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides and industrial chemicals seep into the food chain and onto our plates. 

Malformed fish and frogs; declining honeybee populations; toxic oysters and contaminated clams; genital malformations in males; dead orcas washing ashore so laced with chemicals that they’re treated as hazardous waste all trace back to various chemicals released into the water.

For natives of Australia’s outback, perhaps the most egregious crime one can commit is to foul a water hole. Where water sources can be more than a day’s journey apart, making water unavailable has life-or-death consequences for those who arrive later. Caring for a community’s commons is everyone’s moral responsibility.

‘Tragedy of Commons’

“Commons” describes any shared resource, from desert water holes to public spaces to national park lands. A “tragedy of the commons” occurs when individuals, ignoring what they learned in kindergarten, act only from self-interest and take more than their share.

The world’s water, the supplies for the future, are being withdrawn and polluted by mining, industry and the demands of growing populations. The tragedy already is playing out in various places around the world.

Acting selfishly, heedless of future generations, appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. After all, Australian Aborigines — and countless other indigenous cultures — have shared resources in various ways for thousands of years.

Modern biologists find evidence that we have evolved from sharing and have an innate sense of what’s fair by examining the behavior of children too young to have been taught ideas of fairness. (See “Survival of the Nicest,” in the Spring 2013 Yes Magazine.) Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, advises generosity to top tier companies that want to get the most from their employees and help their employees get the most out of their jobs.

New models, based on time-honored ways of sharing resources and caring for one another, offer ways to begin thinking beyond competition and techno-fixes. We are all in this together, hurtling through space on this planet we call Earth.

We’re all enveloped in the same ocean of air, sharing a small, ever-recycling supply of fresh water. Every day the sun bathes us with enough energy to power our needs a gazillion times. 

On the Olympic Peninsula, water is currently abundant — providing an opportunity to thoughtfully share this resource and avoid becoming another example of the tragedy of the commons.

Perhaps Earth Day this year will mark the beginning of a new era of caring for each other and for this planet which is the source of all we have and the only home we know.


Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and North Coast Writers. Reach her at or e-mail