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A tragic kind of patriotism

October 8, 2018

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25, President Donald Trump drew a line around our country saying, “We reject the ideology of globalism” and in its place, “We embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” boasting in the next sentence that “We [America] have become the largest energy producer anywhere on the face of the Earth.”

The ideas that Trump proposes as his new and better concepts of patriotism are precisely the impulses of selfishness and greed that the world’s brightest minds and warmest hearts have worked since the Second World War to overcome, to ensure that we don’t create the conditions for another world war. Trump is asking us to turn our backs not only on science, not only on climate change and not only on human justice, but to turn our backs on our own history, to ignore what we know to be true.

It is the ultimate power grab — the power to impose your own ideas of truth on the world. This used to be the theme of bad movies and is now being advocated on the world stage by the president of our country.

Fifty years ago, the term “tragedy of the commons” was introduced into our vocabulary by the American philosophy professor Garrett Hardin. He pointed out that common resources like pastureland, forests or rivers will inevitably be overexploited unless there are effective rules to counter that natural tendency.

His work motivated the political scientist Elinor Ostrom to study successful cases of common ownership of pastures and forests and aquifers (her doctoral research was on a California groundwater district). She documented how societies around the world have solved local problems of resource conservation through collective rules enforced by political institutions and shared values.

It’s not rocket science; it’s social science. Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, yet even today the concept of “tragedy of the commons” is better known for the problem posed by Hardin than for the solutions found by Ostrom and her many colleagues.

It’s doubtful that Trump has heard of either the problem or the solutions, but it doesn’t matter. He operates from instinct, and facts, solutions and certainly history have no place in his M.O. That wouldn’t matter if Trump were just our crazy Uncle Donald, but when he speaks on behalf of what is still the most powerful nation on the planet, his ideas become tremendously important and dangerous.

The danger is to the mother of all common resources, our Mother Earth. Our planet is our commons; we all depend on her health, and we need rules and a rule-making institution (the U.N. and other international bodies) to avert tragedy. We need the cooperation of the whole community of nations.

Our country is now the bully in the global playpen, spewing more oil and coal and methane into the atmosphere because it is our patriotic Make-America-Great-Again right to do so, and there is money to be made, even as it kills the rest of the planet. By insisting on playing the ultimate pyramid scheme instead of joining the world community of nations to avert a common tragedy, Trump is playing his base, and his country, for suckers. Are we?

David Groenfeldt runs a Santa Fe nonprofit focusing on water ethics at www.waterculture.org and lives in Santa Fe.

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