As various governments grapple with assuming responsibility for the devastation in the Amazon, Americans are also forced to address our own “tragedy of the commons”. Do public lands exist to serve the government and society, or does the government exist to protect such lands?
“The Amazon is ours,” Brazilian president Bolsonaro told journalists. Regardless of whose it is, the Amazon Rainforest is burning, and it has been for weeks. But how did it come to this? According to the Washington Post, humanity is directly responsible for all three of the fires’ main causes: deforestation, cattle ranching or soy production, and droughts made more severe by climate change and deforestation.
Though those flames may seem far-off, the destruction of the Amazon carries devastating consequences on an international scale. Called the “lungs of the world”, the Amazon absorbs 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide and produces gigantic amounts of oxygen. What makes things worse is the fact that instead of devoting all available resources to stop the blaze, Bolsonaro is attempting to convince the public that the fires were started maliciously by those who oppose him. He recently told reporters that, “There are images of the entire Amazon. How can that be? Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires. That is my feeling.”
In contrast to the Brazilian government’s hesitance to take ownership or action over the fires, France and the G7 Summit pledged $20 million in aid to Brazil, which Bolsonaro initially refused. Nations which are situated oceans away from the flames felt a distinct responsibility to act and to aid. This sparks the question of public lands, which are government-managed lands open to public use. When nobody in particular owns the space, who is accountable for it? What does society gain by protecting such lands?
The fires in the Amazon are far from the only “tragedy of the commons” being grappled with today. The idea of a “tragedy of the commons” refers to all the value lost when no party in particular is directly responsible for maintaining property, but all parties have equal access to it. For example, a rancher who owns his own portion of fields will certainly maintain that land well and strategize where and when to let his livestock graze in order to get the best possible use out of that land. Yet if that same field were to be public property and anyone could let their livestock graze there, it is highly unlikely that someone would take responsibility and make sure that the land was cared for properly. A great deal of the devastation in the Amazon could have been avoided were powerful individuals and entities less concerned with bickering over who was responsible, and more concerned with acting immediately. On a smaller scale, the United States is experiencing much the same situation when it comes to public lands.
For example, accountability for Bears Ears National Monument has traded hands repeatedly throughout the Obama and Trump administrations. A sacred area for certain Native American tribes, its use for mining, grazing, and energy development has been hotly contested. The debate over the proper use of the land — agriculture, oil, recreation, or worship — remains unsettled and raises the question — does this land exist to serve society and its governing powers? Or do such powers exist to protect these lands?
No matter where you stand on such issues, every individual is responsible to match their personal practices with prioritizing the greater good. Seek out the public lands near you. Know their history, the resources they have to offer, and the cost of using them in particular ways. Determine what lies within your power. Make conscious decisions. Do your part to preserve that which is important to you and to your society, whether or not it is technically your responsibility.
The Amazon Rainforest lies thousands of miles away. Your contributions to put out those flames may be miniscule, but recognize that the same issue, while different on the surface, exists within our own borders.