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We can make a difference to environment

This coming Tuesday, April 22, we will once again celebrate Earth Day. While this is a difficult time for many of us as the economy slows down and war drags on, the first Earth Day occurred during difficult times as well. It began April 22, 1970, due in large part to the activities of Sen. Gaylord Nelson. It was a time of war for us in Vietnam and a time of great unrest and social change back here at home. However, they felt compelled to move forward because the stakes were so high.

Unfortunately, while some progress has been made over the years, the prospects for our global environment look even bleaker today than they did more than 35 years ago. While they worried about air and water pollution, we face serious problems such as the greenhouse effect and potential sea-level rise, things that had yet to be considered by most of society in 1970.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an article on what he called the 'Tragedy of the Commons,' which was an old idea from the early 1800s. In it, Hardin pointed out that resources may be like cows on a commons, a pasture shared by all. In his scenario, every person living next to the commons put out a cow for the summer, and when it returned in the fall, it was healthy and large. Each person then independently decided to put out two cows the following year, since this year's cow had grown so large.

However, when the two cows returned home in the fall, they were small and sickly, and their combined weight did not even come close to the weight of the first single cow. How could this have happened? The answer is that one cow was no problem for the commons to support, but when everyone on the commons sent out two cows, the ecosystem could not support them all and it failed, leading to the reduced size and health of the cows that year.

Now you may say, hey, wait a minute, Chris, what do mythical commons and cows have to do with me and my lifestyle?

Well, the connection is this. We engage in similar behavior every day, and yet we probably don't even realize it. Substitute cars for cows and our atmosphere for the commons. Now when one of us cranks up the ignition in the morning and our vehicle roars into life, spewing exhaust out into the air, it really isn't making that much of a difference in terms of local air quality or the greenhouse effect. But when large numbers of us all do it in unison, it makes a huge difference, across the region, the country and the world.

This is how so much environmental damage occurs, slowly and quietly in small amounts, but the cumulative effect is tremendous. Now in this era of social, political and environmental problems it is easy to say, you know what, I just can't deal with this. It is just too big of a problem, and I can't do anything about it anyway. After all, I am just one small person in a sea of over 6.3 billion.

I understand that feeling, and I have felt that way many times myself. But then I remember an old saying from an anonymous person: If you think you can or you think you can't, you are right.

So let's reject despair and turn the 'Tragedy of the Commons' on its head. Let's make an effort to make things a little better each day, each month and each year. How, you may ask? Turn off lights we don't need in our homes and turn down the heating or the cooling system. Walk to work or school two or three times a month. If you can't walk to those places, how about riding a bus or taking MAX? Use the new lower-energy light bulbs in your home and reusable grocery bags at the store.

These are just a few of the many potential ideas that are out there, but if we all do these small things together we will make things better. In fact, you may not know it, but we already are doing some of this. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, our country was recycling at a rate of only 6.4 percent in 1960. By 1990 the rate was 16.2 percent, and in 2005 it was up to 32 percent! According to Metro, while we had a slight drop between 2005 and 2006, our overall regional recycling rate went from 48 percent in 1999 to 56 percent in 2006! So you see, we have done it, and we can continue to do it, if we try.

We can even make a difference in bigger issues, like supporting international agreements to reduce greenhouse gasses. How? Write letters to Congress and the president, or better yet, send them an e-mail or call their office. Of course, voting is also a good idea, and the ballot comes right to your house in Oregon.

So please don't give in to despair or apathy. Let's hang in there and do as the Native Americans suggest. Make the world better for people seven, 14 and 21 generations into the future. Happy Earth Day!

Christopher Gorsek, Ph.D., is the geography department head at Mt. Hood Community College. He lives in Troutdale with his wife and two children.