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Finding curbs we must accept is no easy task

How dear do we hold our freedoms? I value the concept of living in a democracy where we can conduct our lives without an authority dictating what we must think or say, where we must or must not live, where we can pursue a lifestyle or way to make a living, and where we may or may not travel.

But I don't like being at the beach where a boom box invades my space. Nor do I like my driveway (and lungs?) becoming gritty with black fly-ash from the nearby energy plant.

Twenty years ago, Garrett Hardin challenged my faith in human nature. In his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, he discussed the effects on common living space when people exercise freedom without restraints. Hardin advocated Mutually Agreed-Upon Coercion as the only workable solution to curbing excesses or ecological problems. His focus was over-population, but his thesis applies to any form of pollution.

I believed that humans had enough social conscience that, when we saw how our excesses were infringing on others, we would voluntarily curb them.

As I contribute more than my share of auto exhaust (more than 115,000 miles on my '85 car) and enjoy other indulgences of a comfortable life, Hardin's words needle my conscience.

Hardin claimed that neither voluntary means nor educational efforts would work to curb "polluters." He maintained that there were enough breeders without a conscience that, over several generations, they would overwhelm and self-select into oblivion those who, because of conscience, would limit their breeding. He and Paul Ehrlich and many other environmentalists warned of our lemming-like plunge toward the precipice.

In 20 years of observing our social and ecological problems escalate, I have to concede that Hardin's philosophy may be prophetic. Where is the self-curbing responsibility that I thought would guarantee mutual coexistence?

Modern society in the industrialized part of the world has brought a proliferation of technological marvels in science, communication, transportation, education, entertainment, etc. Truly miraculous! We rejoice in our freedoms to enjoy these.

When flame-retardant children's pajamas (found to be toxic, so they were prohibited for sale in the United States) were exported to foreign markets; when U.S.-outlawed pesticides are sold abroad (and their toxic-laden produce shipped back); when developing nations become the dumping ground for much of the radioactive or toxic waste NIMBYed (Not In My Back Yard) in the United States, is this a part of the perks of "freedom"?

What will happen to our environment when the developing nations acquire our level of consumption and industrial capacity? Where will they export their waste?

As with our teens, the joy and freedom of access to the key to the family car carries a balancing weight of responsibility not to abuse the privilege.

In a world with no boundaries, it is increasingly evident to me that we need to heed Garrett Hardin's call. We need to have multiple and ongoing forums to develop a consensus for curbing our excesses _ and the will or incentive to follow those curbs.

Legislated environmental regulations are a good start, but they are constantly being undermined by powerful corporate interests. Can we wait another 20 years to set serious limits? And who is going to set them?

If the curbs for our unsociable behavior are mutually agreed upon, we at least have to be a part of the process for setting those limits. Where do decision-makers discuss these life-important issues? The U.S. "model" is far from exemplary. This administration is adamantly opposed to population control. Industry's No. 1 priority is its profit margin. Legislation is strongly influenced by corporate PAC dictates. Public interest groups have far less clout in demanding stringent regulations; the dumped-upon have even less.

Since the United States consumes far more than its proportionate share of the world's resources, reason suggests that the United States has the larger share of responsibility for curbing our numbers of consumers and our amount of pollution. The people who bear the burden of our excesses (both in the United States and the exploited developing countries) have no say about supporting our lifestyle.

I am willing to use my bicycle for some of my errands. Are you? But don't take away my car keys. . . . Well, could we talk about it some time?

Patricia T. Birnie recently moved to St. Petersburg from Columbia, Md. She is coordinator of the Tampa Bay branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and a member of the national board. She lives in St. Petersburg.