PEAKS ISLAND — Walking from our island house to the Peaks Island boat one morning, I counted five discarded face masks on the sidewalk. Another islander found 11 soda and beer cans during his bike ride on our beautiful backshore. Once at the ferry terminal in Portland, I encountered many people closer to strangers than 6 feet, and with no mask. A recent Associated Press article in the Press Herald described a motorcycle “rally” in Sturgis, South Dakota, with an expected 250,000 bikers descending upon a town of only 7,000 residents. We can only guess how many rallygoers were COVID spreaders, even though they might not even have known it.

I could cite many more examples of public behavior that is dangerous, ugly, unpleasant, probably thoughtless and certainly selfish.

What’s happened to caring about the community, about strangers who have to pick up the discarded masks or beer cans, or about those who may be stricken with COVID spread by a person who didn’t know they were a carrier but failed to take well-publicized precautions with a mask and distancing? Have we stopped caring for each other, or is it just the “other” who we don’t know or can’t identify?

To use more precise language, what’s happened to our commons? That’s a term rarely heard today, but it’s important. I believe it belongs front and center in our conversations. According to On the Commons, a nonprofit group that works to put the concept into practice:

“The commons is a new way to express a very old idea – that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all.

“The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.”

Garrett Hardin, in an influential 1968 article called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” describes an unfortunate world in which “individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action.” Isn’t this exactly what happens when tourists carelessly discard their face masks on our streets or toss their beer or soda cans by the side of the most scenic road on Peaks Island?

Hardin’s words characterize all the selfish actions I referenced above, as well as the dog walker who lets their dog defecate on the beautiful garden my wife has created and then fails to pick it up; the person who emerges from a restaurant bathroom, mask in hand, and coughs in my face; the lovers whose loud quarrel takes place right in front of our house at 2 a.m., and the tourist who tells nobody that they just received the results of the COVID test that they took the week before, and that the result was positive.

We all need to take care that our actions harm no one, and we need to actively protect the commons that gives us all safety, enjoyment, beauty and a good life. Respect for the commons enhances the well-being of all of us.

That respect can be more than just following accepted good practice. My office landlord covered our buildings’ roof with solar panels – a huge investment that may offer only limited financial benefit today, but that represents a significant step in slowing down the climate crisis. Eliminating much of the systemic racism in our society will increase enjoyment for all, and thus enhance our “commons.”

My message to those who let their face masks just fall on our island street: Please do your part to protect the commons that improves life for all of us – even before it’s legally required or laws are enforced.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.