It’s My Right
by Andrew Gottlieb, Executive Director
We are fortunate to live in a country with a broad and commonly accepted set of rights that protect us all from government overreach and oppression. The rights to free speech, free association, and freedom of religion, among others, are fundamental underpinnings of individual liberty. Along with the innate ability to exercise individual rights comes a responsibility to behave responsibly as a member of society. That largely self-regulated balance has served us all well over the years. Of late, though, it strikes me that the individual's willingness to balance judicious exercise of individual rights in balance with the needs of others is diminishing.
I hear it all the time: “It’s my right to do that!” with the “that” in this case being fertilizing a lawn down to the water's edge, using a leaf blower, or spraying pesticides all over the landscape. Just because something falls within your right to do it doesn’t mean you are compelled to do it. Your rights are not commandments passed down from on high. Nowhere is it written that thou must use Styrofoam packages, gas powered leaf blowers, Roundup, and maintain a putting green for a lawn right to the water's edge. Exercising a right, and to what extent, involves a choice and a balancing of needs of the individual with the needs of others. We all accept that one is not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded theater; that is one example of the concept I am trying to convey.
What seems to be losing ground is the idea of the individual moderating their behavior toward a common interest. Maybe you are within your right to not recycle, but other than proving some point, what good does that do? The answer is none, but well heck, you exercised your rights. The same can be said about a myriad of other environmental issues. You can deal with weeds on your path by living with them, hand pulling them, using soap, salt, and vinegar or by spraying Roundup. Even though spraying poison in your yard is your right, it’s a bad thing to do.
How is it that becoming educated and making a better choice has become to be seen as a bad thing that erodes rather than strengthens your right to make a choice? I don’t have an answer, but know that the path we are on will lead us to more ecological and societal destruction. Look back the Tragedy of the Commons, written in 1833, for early guidance on what happens when the individual fails to limit resource consumption to preserve the resource for shared uses. Don’t feel like reading 19th century economic essays? Fair enough. Instead, go look for herring on their spring runs this week. Maybe you will find some, but probably not. Or go brave the winds and try to catch cod. Maybe you will get one, but not many. These two fish species are almost gone because, among other things, too many people exercised their rights in ways that depleted the stocks and damaged critical habitats. It is an old story with which we are very familiar and apparently not yet inclined to change as a society.
We have a lot of problems in society that require collective action to solve. I still think we can rise to the occasion, but to do so we need to make a commitment to both educating ourselves on better stewardship practices and making the choice to implement them. A little less exertion of individual rights to their fullest extent to prove a point will go a long way to making it better for us all, you included.