The Tragedy of the Commons





The Tragedy of the Commons

By Will Baker

We made our way north towards Sloop Island, which lies a mile west of the Charlotte Ferry landing. My father and I had set off four hours earlier; we pulled our thirty-foot sailboat away from the dock at around nine-thirty that morning and we were now moving north up the broad lake.

It was a beautiful day; winds were out of the north east at about fifteen knots with two foot swells, the temperature was in the mid seventies and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The boat was sailing well and my dad and I were enjoying each other’s company- it had been nearly a year since we had sailed together and as we powered through the water we reminisced.

Our last time out we had seen some weather. Lake Champlain is a large lake-over a hundred miles long from north to south and as evidenced by the many shipwrecks that have occurred over the years, when the lake gets worked up she can be a handful. That day she was, and since we had a schedule to meet (the boat was due at a shipyard for haul-out 27 miles up the lake) we put on our foul weather gear and got the job done. But now as we romped across the lake, past Split Rock with its lighthouse and over to Converse Bay on the Vermont side, just sailing for the sake of sailing, we looked at each other and laughed out of joy and for the sheer pleasure with which we were experiencing the day. "It’s rough but someone has to do it," remarked my father.

We sailed northward and the Charlotte/Essex ferry lanes came into view. We watched the ferryboats in the distance crossing the lake, and as we did so we sailed on towards Sloop Island, which seemed to be growing progressively larger. We came upon a regatta of boats out of Point Bay who were sailing hard, racing for summer bragging rights. For a time we fell in with them, not able to resist the desire to take a few turns with them. With the exception of our steady northward movement our sail was deliberate in its aimlessness.

Sloop Island is a curious place. It’s nothing more than an outcropping of rock, studded with trees and low scrub that rises out of the lake where it begins to broaden just south of Shelburne Point. It is the site of one of the Lake’s more famous shipwrecks, a nineteenth century commercial sailing vessel that went down in a gale, and it marks the entrance to the small bay that hosts the ferry landing on the Vermont side. The story has it that during the War of 1812 the American Navy bombarded the island, which, in the fog they mistook for a British sloop; hence its name-although my daughter would tell you that the island is really shaped like a big dog.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in the story: what can happen when one gets too comfortable with one’s certitude.

As we sailed along, blissed out by the scenery; the magnificent lake framed by the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains to the east it occurred to me that this huge lake and the mountains to either side with the Champlain Valley in between is a fragile thing. In eighteenth century England a phrase was coined: the tragedy of the commons. This referred to what occurred on common (read: public) grazing areas where folks put their animals out to pasture without regard for the other. It seems that there was little incentive for folks to practice conservation or land management because the perception was others would benefit without contributing to the effort. As a result, a tragedy occurred on this common land, a tragedy that is talked about by conservationists to this very day.

It seems to me that in the face of seemingly limitless land or water, or air for that matter, we can become certain that our actions will have little consequence. Yet the evidence would suggest that perhaps they do. Add to this dynamic the day to day priorities of our age and it is easy for one to forget that we are part and parcel to a living system. Perhaps we are almost like our forefathers, firing away at that sloop in the fog, only later to discover our error.

In quiet moments I can sometimes imagine a modern day tragedy of the commons; a heavily burdened earth, struggling under the weight of our actions. Where we’ve broken the earth so that nothing will grow, where darkness falls, as dark as the snow.


 (Essay Collection)






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