29 December 2009

Tragedy of the Commons (No More)

Garrett Hardin introduced the concept of Tragedy of the Commons 40 years ago, but it is more relevant now than ever in light of the multiple challenges faced in the recent climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

"Fishing is a classic example of a tragedy of the commons problem. The fish are a common resource, so [from a business perspective] it makes sense to catch as many fish as you can. If you don't, someone else will. As a result, we run out of fish. Everyone makes a rational decision but in the end we all lose."1

Viewed from an economic perspective, "the individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers."2  Of course, the benefits gained by the individual are bittersweet as they lead to problems for the broader community from which that same individual cannot escape.

"Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase [his activity] without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."3

The problems caused by current climate are widely regarded to be among the hardest the world has ever had to confront in large part because they aren’t confined to a place that can be fenced off, nor can they be treated as a regional problem to be solved by a handful of nations.  Nor is there a clear technical solution that can be addressed by the natural sciences. Rather, the issue is so complex because it requires a complete rethinking of the two major concepts central to all tragedy of the commons situations: freedom and public administration. 


Collective temperance, especially if it is mutually agreed upon by the majority of people, has long been considered necessary to generate harmony in society. Temperance comes from understanding a problem and its consequences and voluntarily restraining from an action that may give benefits to the individual, but will harm the collectivity. So, raising consciousness that restricting one’s own freedom will lead to collective well-being seems to be one of the solutions to the tragedy of the commons. 

Mr. Hardin argues, however, that this apparent solution will never work.  Elaborating on the “Pathogenic Effects of Conscience”, he argues that “appealing to conscious creates a double-bind because people are asked to behave in a way that benefits the collective whole, but condemns them as simpletons who lose out while everybody else ignores their conscious and exploits the use of the commons.”4  In other words, if others are over-fishing or polluting, then why shouldn’t I?

“We are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest,’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers."5

Mr. Hardin was right to claim that people will not change their behavior through simple appeals to their conscious.  However, what Mr. Hardin did not comprehend is that people will change their behavior once they see how mutualism characterizes the relationship between the individual and the collectivity. In this light, the only benefit for the individual is that which provides maximum benefit for the collectivity. 

The philosophical foundation of this concept does not come from any political, economic or technical strand of thought.  Rather it originates in a deceptively simple phrase:
"O people of the world, ye are all the fruit of one tree and the leaves of one branch. Walk with perfect charity, concord, affection, and agreement.”6
Implications of this statement are profound:

The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world's population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. … In a letter addressed to Queen Victoria over a century ago, and employing an analogy that points to the one model holding convincing promise for the organization of a planetary society, Bahá'u'lláh compared the world to the human body. There is, indeed, no other model in phenomenal existence to which we can reasonably look. Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals, each one of whom is endowed with intelligence and will; nevertheless, the modes of operation that characterize man's biological nature illustrate fundamental principles of existence. Chief among these is that of unity in diversity. Paradoxically, it is precisely the wholeness and complexity of the order constituting the human body -- and the perfect integration into it of the body's cells -- that permit the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each of these component elements. No cell lives apart from the body, whether in contributing to its functioning or in deriving its share from the well-being of the whole. The physical well-being thus achieved finds its purpose in making possible the expression of human consciousness; that is to say, the purpose of biological development transcends the mere existence of the body and its parts.7

Human consciousness can only be expressed as a result of collective social harmony, not through empty appeals to a higher good. Freedom for a cell in a healthy human body has quite a different meaning than it does for somebody who considers overfishing or polluting rational behavior.  Freedom in a commons provides benefits for a collectivity working only within this context.

Public Administration

Because appeals to individual conscious aimed at changing people’s behavior have largely failed due to the lack of a proper philosophical foundation, it has been widely assumed that “the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.”8 Although this may be true in principal within nations able to legislate and enforce rule of law, it has proven false when dealing with climate change and other global issues basically because no effective form of international governance is in place.

Relative failure at the Copenhagen negotiations will directly lead to intolerable human suffering for far too many of the world’s citizens.  The fact that the present structure of international law is incapable of preventing such suffering is proof sufficient of its obsoleteness.  The current international political structure represents “but a passing phase in the process of human evolution -- a social evolution ‘that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.’" Increasingly frequent attempts at tackling global issues have caused a partial elimination of the national sovereignty of States and “accordingly, humankind appears to be moving towards the establishment of a world commonwealth consisting of: (a) a true world legislature; (b) a binding world tribunal; (c) an effective world executive.”9

Humankind is at present living at a special time -- a time of the incubation of a world commonwealth that has as its main purpose the safeguarding of the well-being of all humankind. Such a world commonwealth represents the next step in the evolution of civilization in general, and of international law in particular.10

“The formation of a future commonwealth will, first of all, require a profound consciousness of the indisputable interdependence of all the nations of the world and the oneness of humankind. Subsequently, a strong, universal animus will be required to act upon this consciousness in order to bring humanity to its next evolutionary stage.”11 The struggle to prevent further global warming, and mitigate its current effects provide a golden opportunity to deepen our understanding of the oneness of humankind and activate this universal animus.

The principle of the oneness of humankind calls for no less than the reconstruction ... of the whole civilized world and the recognition of the concept of world citizenship. This pivotal principle does not, however, ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnic origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world ... Its watchword is unity in diversity.12


“Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required [to properly deal with global issues] must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. It is in the opportunities afforded by this twofold process of change that a strategy of global development will find its purpose. At this crucial stage of history, that purpose must be to establish enduring foundations on which planetary civilization can gradually take shape.”13

"Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. 'The well-being of mankind,' Bahá'u'lláh writes, 'its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.'"14

In this way, freedom in a commons does not have to bring ruin to all.  In fact, properly exercising freedom as would a cell within a healthy body, for a commons that is administered as patrimony of the entire human race, should prevent further tragedy from taking place.
1. NPR story "Climate Change is Victim of 'Tragedy of the Commons'
2. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Abdu'l-Baha, A Traveller's Narrative, p. 42, quoting Baha'u'llah
7. Baha'i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind
8. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
9. Baha'i International Community, 1990 Feb 27, Protection of Minorities

10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Baha'i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind
14. Ibid.

21 December 2009

Top 20 Albums of the '00 Decade

I distinctly remember sitting with my mother in our living room in Taipei in late 1979 listening to the top 40 songs countdown of the 1970's.  I was amazed at how great "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sounded at #2 and how truly awful it was that "You Light up My Life" beat it out for the #1 song of that decade.  That was back when pop songs still had some remnant of art in them, and the top 40 still had some meaning.

I have since realized how phenomenal the 1970's were for music and I have also since then loved looking over and listening to lists of top songs or albums for each passing decade.  So to commemorate another great decade in music, I decided to make my own list.

Bear in mind that I am not a rock mogul with a team of reviewers sifting through hundreds of albums issued over the past 10 years.  Putting this list together has actually made me realize just how much music I missed, as it has made my "Must Buy CD" list grow immensely.  I am sure this list will continue to grow and change as I get an opportunity to listen to albums on other people's lists. 

Here is it, enjoy and please comment!

20. D'Angelo - Voodoo

This album is just so smooth.   I could definitely do without the occasional dirty word, which is probably why there aren't more rap albums on this list, but they can be overlooked to get at the heart of this great effort.

19. John Legend - Get Uplifted

A very apropos title indeed!  Uplifting, joyful, soulful and often danceable.  Highly recommended. The highlight is "I Can Change".

18. Nikka Costa - Pebble to a Pearl

This is a solid effort all the way through. Earthy, funky, jazzy and amazingly soulful, this veteran singer has outdone even herself.  The highlight is the enigmatic "Bullets in the Sky". 

17. Decemberists - The Crane Wife

Gorgeous and lush.  Intelligent lyrics, a great story. The only remnant of prog rock on this list and worth every minute.

16. Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica

This album mixes experimental sounds with pop quite attractively. Beautiful and challenging through and through. 

15. The National - Boxer

A beautifully contemplative album. Everything here is rich - the voice, the jangly guitar, horns and the piano. I can't bring myself to not synch it to my Ipod despite having listened to it far too many times.  It may take a few listens to grow on you, but it will. The highlight here is "Start a War".

14. Beth Orton - Daybreaker

Contemplative and thoroughly pleasing.  This album is just full of great songs, one after the other.  Again, nothing rocks here as anybody familiar with her work will tell you, and that is just fine with me.  This is a very personal record fueled by the passing of her mother. This is the best folk music the '00 decade has to offer.  The highlight here is "Paris Train".

13. Minus the Bear - Menos el Oso

I have to quote Mark Prindle to give you a good idea about this album:  "An absolute 10, Menos El Oso features the band's strongest production, most memorable melodies, most diverse guitarwork and most passable synth lines yet. The axemen are of course still all over the 'interplay' tip, but instead of relying on the old "tapping vs. arpeggiating" gag, they're coming up with strange, bizarre chord conglomerations and note combinations, then mixing them with weird rhythmic guitar noises -- backwards high-pitched 'fweets!,' speed-manipulated call-and-response licks, insanely high plucked passages that sound like electronic pulses, sick bendy chords created either by tremelo bar abuse or infinite delay silliness, purposely ugly too-high-on-the-neck picking of palm-muted strings and lots of just odd-sounding guitar sounds created by fiddling around with the knobs on the delay pedal. This isn't random fooling around though; these are extremely smart and disciplined guitarists manipulating their equipment to compose and perfect sad, dark songs that sound unlike any you've ever heard before."

A collection of fantastic songs. The highlight here is "Hooray".

12. Bloc Party - Silent Alarm

This is a brilliant debut album from these British post-punk, indie rock band.  This is fast and funky, and so innovative that many were saying this this album really reinvented the rock sound from the ground up. Worth every minute.

11. Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior

I just can't understand why this is not on any of the top albums of the decade lists I have read so far. As always, the writing is impeccable as is his guitar work.  "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" is the most scathing and intelligent commentary on the war in Iraq from any artist.  Literate and challenging, this adds to his legendary collection of albums.

10. New Pornographers - Mass Romantic

The name of the band and the cover of this album are meant to throw off the light of heart, not to represent the music.  I am usually not much of a power pop fan, but this is the best power pop album ever issued bar none.  This music is just really fun and catchy and just gives me faith in pop music again, not that any of these songs would ever get played on a pop radio station, heaven forbid! The highlight here is "Mass Romantic".

9. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

This is such a revolutionary sound that it just can't be adequately explained in words.  This isn't exactly electronic music because it is so melodious, but it isn't exactly rock either.  This has a lot of base, a lot of beat and most of all an absolutely incredible use of vocal harmonies, not seen since "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys so many years ago.  They go 'round and 'round and the sound just engulfs you completely until you lose track of time and become one with the sound. An absolute masterpiece.  The highlight here is "Bluish".

8. Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

Unlike anything you have heard before, this album will make you laugh and sit up and think.  This has rap and dance influences, not to mention just about any other genre you can think of, all wrapped into a brilliantly warped package.  The highlight here is one of the top 5 songs of the decade: "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?" 

7. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Whispy, simply folkish, graceful and fun, this is an excellent listen.  Consistently great, this deserves a place on all of the end of the decade lists without any doubt. 

6. TV on the Radio - Dear Science,

TVOTR is one of the most creative and exciting bands making music today.  I really enjoyed "Return to Cookie Mountain" but this is more accessible and better.  It is a dark album, with multi-layer production and heavy, polyrhythmic beats.  The horn section adds real grit to the mix. The lyrics are beautiful too, but I keep going back to this album because the songs are incredibly catchy. People categorize this as indie rock just because it can't fit into any other category; it bends genres better than any other this decade.  The highlight here is "Red Dress".

5. Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Ignore the messenger, and a good portion of the message and just get caught up in the music and the stunning vocal delivery.  This is an absolutely brilliant soul album from start to finish like none other released this decade. Soul, that is, with a punk attitude.  It has such an authentic sound, both because Winehouse understands the genre perfectly and because she writes from the hip.  "Back to Black" is a perfect example, and the highlight here.

4. Arcade Fire - Funeral

This is pretty much on top of everybody's end of the decade lists for a very good reason. I have read reviews about this album that I haven't seen for anything since "Sgt. Pepper", basically saying that it is a perfect album.  One commentary that really caught my attention was that it was really the last attempt by an indie rock band to make a cohesive album in the traditional sense of a thematic story line that connects the effort like a book.  One reviewer describes this music as "near-cinematic, folk-influenced chamber pop" which gives an accurate idea of how this sounds.

Apart from all of the hype, this is an undeniably a great album.  Every song builds up to an emotional crescendo that is focused on enjoying life, and encouraging listeners to waste no time in following their dreams.

3. Radiohead - Kid A

Abandoning straight ahead rock to create panoramic electronic soundscapes threw all fans for a loop, until we got it.  This is an absolutely sublime opening to the new century, foreshadowing the direction rock will probably take over the next few decades.  This is deliberate, often eerie, pulsating and utterly creative.  There is no better vocal delivery on any album this decade as Mr. Yorke's vocals perfectly enhance the music.  The highlight here is one of the best songs ever: "The National Anthem".

2. Erykah Badu - Mama's Gun

I cannot get enough of this album.  Topping the list of albums released in a new genre called Nusoul, this is just about as soulful, jazzy and funky as albums come. Most of the disc is smooth soul with Badu's voice just rolling over delicate rhythms, luring you into her personal space she creates through the music.  The highlight here is "Bag Lady".

1. Los Lobos - The Town & the City

The album from this decade that I keep going back to is The Town and the City by Los Lobos. I was turned on to this through a review by Dave Marsh in the Rock Rap Confidential who said that it is a harrowing first-hand account of illegal immigration. It is impeccably arranged, features lyrics that are as authentic as they are poetic (hold on, hold on to every breath, and if I make it to the sunlight, I'll do it all over again) and is firmly grounded in the best roots rock tradition. I am eternally amazed that these guys aren't much more widely known than they are.  The highlight here is "The Town".

17 October 2009

Complacency Kills

Mountains Beyond Mountains, the quest of Dr. Paul Farmer to cure the world has given me a deeper understanding of the following quote from the writings of Baha'u'llah:

"The whole duty of man in this Day is to attain that share of the flood of grace which God poureth forth for him. Let none, therefore, consider the largeness or smallness of the receptacle. The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man's hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure." (Gleanings, p. 8)

Dr. Farmer is someone who benefits from not considering the size of his receptacle. Rather he informs his entire life with what he calls O for the P, option for the poor, disregarding all of the barriers people like me set up for ourselves either by considering that we know the size of our receptacle or making excuses for not pushing ourselves to discover the limits of our capacities. The first is the cause of complacency and the second its consequence.

Dr. Farmer is an American doctor who dedicates all of his considerable talent to providing high-quality health care to those who most need it in Haiti. His field work contributes to constant research and publishing about the connections between poverty and disease and how public health policy marginalizes the poorest groups throughout the world. These challenges to the status quo have led to significant contributions to making world-wide public health policy more comprehensive and inclusive. His home though, remains with those who work in his clinic in rural Haiti even as many policy makers clamor for him to leave the field to direct policy efforts from first world offices.

I think this account has moved me so much because I believe that I am like Dr. Farmer in that I have the drive and mission to "attain that share of the flood of grace which God poureth forth...". However, deep in the recesses of my mind, in moments of private meditation, I know that I am not using my capacities to the fullest. I usually assuage my guilt pains by believing that I have to work to support my family and so I do my best to make sure my work does not deviate too far from my life-work, my vocation. Have I created this work - vocation dualism to justify my own mediocrity? Further, I am complacent with sporadic and slow spiritual growth when I could be more disciplined with my prayers, my character and my service projects. I have even been complacent with the spiritual education of my children, which seems to come from the venomous clutches of apathy.

Looking at how focused Dr. Farmer is makes me feel like I have made an option for badminton, or for twittering instead of for education for the poor, my true life-work. My blog is such a hodgepodge of do-goodiness that it gives the impression that my life-work is being an overall good person, which does not sit well with me. It all just seems so pathetic from this perspective.

I have become increasingly intolerant of mediocrity and of the parasitic nature of the great majority of human endeavor in which people just move with the current, washing from one pointless activity to the next. Motivated by increasingly fruitless and short-term prizes like wealth, public recognition or just getting by, people lose site of what matters. However, I am just as guilty as the next guy. Reading this book has made that ever so evident and has increased my intolerance of my own mediocrity.

I am determined to focus this healthy intolerance towards productive action that will give me the sense of achievement that I find in Dr. Farmer's work. I have specific service-oriented educational projects that need to be revived and expanded. However, some questions remain:

What have I achieved and why can't I find significance in this as easily as I can in Dr. Farmer's achievements? What exactly will give me the feeling of achievement I am looking for? Is it fair compare myself with Dr. Farmer? How can I learn to focus myself and my actions as he does? Or is that amount of focus incompatible with my roles of father and husband?

Overcoming complacency seems to require being present at all times to what matters and how to achieve that, cutting out all distractions. I don't know how large my spiritual receptacle is, but I aim to fill it far more than I have up to now.

14 October 2009

Ecological Disasters I See on my way to Work (for Blog Action Day)

A Photo Post for Blog Action Day
Guayaquil, Ecuador

On the days that I take the bus to work, I am confronted with a crude ecological reality. The following pictures that I took this week are a clear expression of a profound self - earth duality that permeates Ecuadorian culture. All of the following pictures were taken at the bus stops or from the bus itself.

Here are some pictures of the second bus stop.

The next two pictures show how agriculture is practiced with a cut and burn mentality. This hillside was once a tropical dry forest and now it has been burned to the ground to prepare it for sowing crops.

The following pictures show how dead trees are left standing for years and years in the divide between highway lanes.

This crooked picture shows where all of the landfill for the area comes from to the detriment of this beautiful mountain.

This landfill-covered area was a beautiful swamp up until about 6 months ago. Now all of those plants and animals that love the water are gone.

Why were these beautiful trees treated this way? I can't even imagine.

This is a particular favorite. It is a lone surviving ceibos tree just out of reach of the bulldozers that raze the forest to the ground. Its days are surely numbered.

This last picture demonstrates another kind of ecological disaster. Just beyond the road you can appreciate a hillside packed full of houses. The trees, other plants and animals been replaced by houses and concrete. People wonder why violence is more prevalent in areas such as these but looking at it from this perspective makes it clear that it is like a chicken farm where they put many chickens in small cages. They start pecking at one another because they are so stressed and cannot perform their normal biological functions. Forcing people to live so close to one another is an ecological disaster in a broader sense of the term some call human ecology.

To finish, I recommend reading these other posts in this blog about ecology and global warming:

Waste caused by "democratic" elections
Dangerous UV levels over Ecuador
Non-existence of the concept of waste in nature (a story)
Carbon credit offset project in Ecuador
Is the revolution green or spiritual?
Rethinking the Purpose of Cows
Call to Action: Compost for Life
THE Personal Lifestyle Choice (diet and meat consumption)
Pathogenic Organisms (global warming)
True Beauty (garbage and the Wartville Wizard)

01 August 2009

Intercourse Analogies both Spiritual and Sexual

[THE SABBATH BRIDE by Janet and Emmanuel Snitkovsky]

An enlightening talk I recently heard about the nature of the soul helped me make a connection that I had long sought after between two most mysterious aspects of life. It is often said that sexual intercourse has a mystical beauty beyond the act itself. However much this may be true, it seems that this beauty serves best as an analogy to give us insights into the truly mystical and beautiful intercourse the soul enters into upon searching for meaning and transcendence.

In this material world anything that grows organically begins its existence as a seed. The seed germinates, eventually matures into an adult plant and there comes a time in the life of this tree when it must give its fruit. When this happens, it has fulfilled itself because its ultimate purpose is to produce its own seed. However, a tree cannot produce another tree by itself, it needs to be pollinated from an external source in the same way that a woman cannot reproduce by herself. She needs to have a relationship with a male in order to conceive a child.

The soul functions in much the same way. Acting as a female it eventually reaches a state of maturity in which it too seeks to fulfill itself by producing its own fruit. It can turn wherever it likes to be fertilized, although it will only work with its own spiritual species. It enters into intimacy with the influences of the Manifestation of God (the Prophets and Founders of the great Religions) and opens itself to the power of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah (the Manifestation of God for this time). In this way it establishes mystical, spiritual intercourse with these forces which are then released within to impregnate it.

What is the child that is conceived from this mystical intercourse? It is the spirit of faith. This spirit of faith owes its existence to the Manifestation of God and to the soul itself, just as a parent. Here are some quotes to help define the spirit of faith:

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul; and these two names -- the human spirit and the rational soul -- designate one thing. This spirit ... embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings. But the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, polished, and brilliant, is still in need of light. Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets.1

This is the fruit of the tree of creation - to be freed from the darkness of the planet in order to enter the worlds of light. This is the object of existence; this is the fruit of the tree of humanity.

It is the power which makes the earthly man heavenly, and the imperfect man perfect. It makes the impure to be pure, the silent eloquent; it purifies and sanctifies those made captive by carnal desires; it makes the ignorant wise.

All spiritual realities have a counterpart in the material world which is why studying nature can be so illuminating. For example, comprehending the the difference in station between animals and humans gives us insights into the difference between humans and the Manifestation of God. Understanding the process through which we nourish our bodies gives us valuable insights into the nature of prayer. Grasping the transitory nature of the embryo gives us valuable insights into the journey of the soul through this life and into the next.

If we do not study nature with this frame of reference, though, we run the danger of appreciating the lesser beauty in and of itself thus missing the analogy that gives us insights into transcendence. This is where our society has gone wrong. We are incessantly taught through all types of mass media that sexual relationships are the real prize we are after, the golden fruit that satisfies our deepest desires. Jumping from one golden fruit to the next, as is all too often the custom, is not a justification of our media's message but rather an indication that people are seeking meaning in the symbolic fruit and not in the fruit itself.

The union created between partners through the sexual act is analogous to the union our soul yearns for with the Manifestation of God in the same way that the vastness of the ocean is a mere symbol of the truly breathtaking depth of wisdom and beauty contained in the Holy Books of all great religions.

Spiritual intercourse with the Manifestation of God shows us a door to true freedom, to our maturity and fulfillment both as an individual and as a society. This is the golden fruit.


1. Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 316
2. Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 121
3. Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 144

21 June 2009

Searching for Truth

The events over the past week in Iran have caused great commotion within me. Even though I am on the other side of the world it was thrilling to participate in the first few days of community building after the announcement of the fraudulent election results. Twitter allowed thousands of us to go beyond informing through our blogs, or protesting at the nearest Iranian embassy to feel that we could directly contribute to the networking and mobilizing necessary to build a movement around people inside and outside of Iran who were not willing to swallow such a lie.

Many people criticize Twitter because there are so many false leads and false identities, making it difficult to find the truth and to move forward. This is true, but the alternative is watching television which is more often than not one big ideological commercial. Watching something that never even intends to find the truth is far more humiliating than taking a small portion of people-generated messages with a grain of salt.

The beauty of the Twitter generated movement, at least in this case, is that it is driven by an innate desire to know the truth and to contribute towards its establishment. I am teaching a class about this very subject now and I am encountering university students who do not want to know what they are really eating, who do not want to know that we were created inherently noble and not sinners and who do not want to know that service to others brings true happiness. However, these people are increasingly falling into the minority because a growing number of us are no longer willing to be fed lies and manipulated.

I would like to share a quote about this subject that goes to the heart of the current revolution in social media:

"The greatest cause of bereavement and disheartening in the world of humanity is ignorance based upon blind imitation. ...Man is not intended to see through the eyes of another, hear through another's ears nor comprehend with another's brain. Each human creature has individual endowment, power and responsibility in the creative plan of God." - Abdu'l-Baha.

The following video provides a brilliant analysis of how social media is taking center stage in our collective desire to know the truth. Power is truly derived from the grassroots, and social media are increasingly allowing for this power base to broaden and deepen. We build networks because we care that the truth be told. The Internet is constantly evolving to respond to our need to show how important this issue is for a unified and just world. It allows us to collaborate and to learn from each other, possibly the most fundamental step we can take to continue human evolution.

Murder with Impunity

Everybody should watch this video to understand the situation of Iran's largest religious minority, the Baha'i Faith. Although this persecution has intensified since the 1979 revolution, it has been continually carried out for over 150 years. It has taken all possible forms and its only boundaries are set by a thin veil of shame generated by constant U.N. resolutions of condemnation.

This video is the winner of a recent video contest about the plight of the Baha'is in Iran.

27 April 2009

A Total Waste of Everything

Yesterday I sat at a voting table receiving ballots for Ecuador's latest elections. This was the first time that foreign residents were asked to sit at tables and were allowed to vote, so it was all new for me and many others. I know this may sound pre-historic to many of you, but I actually debated whether to vote or not. All of the incumbents were overwhelming favorites and the media teams up with parties to smear, defame and otherwise debunk all other candidates. It is so childish that it makes me want to give democracy a swift kick towards its long overdue upgrade so that it follows along with humanity's constant evolution.

However this is not a rant about democracy. No, this is an ecological rant. You see, people had to elect so many candidates that they were given six different ballots to fill out. Two of them had over 200 candidates each from which people had to elect 14 and 17 of them respectively, each ballot a meter long. I did a little experiment and put all of the ballots end to end and they measured over three meters in length! A ballot package was prepared for each of the 10,529,765 eligible voters, which means that a whopping (approx) 31,589,295 meters of colored paper was printed and used for the ballots!

That is not all. We had to count the 147 votes left at our table and put the results in the minutes. We had to fill in rough drafts and then double copies of the results from each ballot and then fill in summary reports of each. To make a long story short, I counted the papers and there were over 300 sheets for each polling station meant to receive 200 voters. We counted votes and filled in these minutes for 5 full hours!

So, if we add another half meter of paper to each eligible voter, this comes out to 36.854.177.5 meters of colored paper printed for one day of democracy in a banana republic! Just to have some fun with these numbers, that is 92% of the circumference of the earth, or merely 3220 kilometers short of circuling the entire world!

So, in the end we exercised our right to vote. And we wasted a lot of time, money, resources and trees! Democracy needs to evolve now!

10 April 2009

Creating a Social Business

I am starting up a business selling granola that I make. I have thought about this quite a bit and although it started as a response to a need to compliment our falling salaries, I really want it to have some sort of social purpose. The world is largely as it is because people like me have felt the need to make more money and have started profit maximizing businesses (PMB's) irregardless if that meant underpaying or cheating employees, damaging the environment, producing low quality products or using deceptive advertising. By publicly selling shares in the company they have even created a legal obligation to maximize profits for the shareholders.

Of course there have been noble attempts to assuage the guilt some feel for having done this by creating foundations that push corporate social responsibility (CSR), especially when educated consumers avoid patronizing companies that harm society. Unfortunately CSR is an inadequate response to this problem because in the end the company must turn a specific profit: this is the bottom line and any socially responsible action will never amount to more than window-dressing.

So, I'd like my granola selling business to be what Muhammad Yunus calls a
social business. In short, it is a business with the explicit objective of creating "social benefits for those whose lives it touches." It is cause driven instead of profit driven. As a business it should earn a profit, although any surplus is reinvested in the business to be "passed on to the target group of beneficiaries in such forms as lower prices, better service, and greater accessibility." Turning a profit also assures sustainability for the pursuit of long term social goals.

As I see it, then, I have basically two options:

1. Compete in the luxury market and channel a percentage of earnings to an NGO that works to truly alleviate poverty. I am on the board of directors of a Grameen replica credit and loan cooperative (La Cooperativa DeTodas) and the money my business would send their way would be used as loans for poor women to start or strengthen their small businesses.

2. Target the granola to these same low-income women and their children and together with some yogurt producing friends of mine, offer nutritious, filling and cheap breakfast and school lunch food.

Of course I could do both as they don't seem mutually exclusive. Maybe I could start with option 1 and develop option 2 as circumstances permit.

So, I would like to do some crowdsourcing here. What do you all think? Which option is better? How should I set this up so that I don't lose track of the social goals while complimenting my income? Ideas are welcome!

A Very Bad Night

Last Wednesday I woke up with a man standing over me swearing, thrusting a screwdriver into my left eye and covering my mouth. Now, a couple of days later, the rope marks have disappeared from my wrists and ankles although my right thumb still lacks all sensation. Later they tied my wife up too, thrusting cloth into our mouths and leaving us helpless. After we were sure they had left I was able to call our oldest son so he could get a knife and cut us loose. I didn't want to do that as he will probably never dispel that memory from his mind, but there was no other way. It is truly miraculous that none of our three children woke up during the whole episode as God only knows what the thieves would have done to a screaming child.

As you all can imagine, we are totally shocked. We live in a closed housing development and this is the first break-in since it was built four years ago. We are sure they targeted our house thinking that an American must have lots of money or jewels. They were wrong of course but they made a pretty good haul, taking our computers, ipods, cameras, dvd players and even clothes.

Since then we have been running around doing all of the legal work and patronizing the security industry more than I would like to. Getting the police and the legal authorities to do their job is almost as costly as losing our stuff, but if we don't do all of this we will have no hope of ever bringing these guys to justice.

Speaking of the thieves, they were pretty ignorant. Of course, they got what they came for, which requires at least some brains, but they did not know what our credit or debit cards were used for, nor what the portable dvd player my wife had could do. They asked many questions that you would not expect a thief to ask. They also asked for our forgiveness, and explained that the crisis has really hit them hard and how they felt really bad about buglarizing our home. Haha, apparently not bad enough!

I had a pillow over my head the whole time, so I could not see the guys. My wife gave them a full tour of the house. She was very, very valient and mature the whole time they were there.I still can't decide if my decision to not resist the thieves was intelligent or cowardly, or both. Not resisting gave the thieves liberty to do what they wished with my wife and children, which made this choice excruciatingly difficult. But, I hoped that it would considerably raise the possibility that they would leave us all unharmed. It worked out that way, but that doesn't relieve my feelings of cowardliness.

Our oldest son commented out of the blue that at least this happened to us and not to our neighbors because the thieves might have hurt them. He named each of the kids that live near us and stressed how awful that would have been for them. He is such a special kid, and this type of thing really brings it out in him.

Even though this was really traumatic for us, I'd like to put it in perspective. That very evening I was writing in this blog and I noticed some news on my twitter feed that only now can I begin to understand. Apparently just the previous evening a mob attacked six Baha'i homes in the town of Showranyiah, Egypt, burning them all and forcing the Baha'is to flee. Click
here to see more details. Although we lost many valuabe things, we were able to wake our children up the next morning and continue with our lives. Those Egyptian Baha'is have to remake their lives completely and continue living in fear. My heart goes out for them.

02 April 2009

The Joys of Twittering

This is a twitter joke, for the twitter folk. If you don't get it, then you should begin twittering soon.

I have just started twittering but I am amazed by this new tool. I had heard that it helps get news out quicker than any other medium during disasters and now I see why. It is an instant network as opposed to a facebook-type network.

My tech-savvy friend Vahid disdains twitter as a source of incoherent and superficial noise. Much of it is, but you can ignore this if you choose and participate in its more interesting aspects. Here are just a few:

Crowdsourcing - Twitter has started leading this important trend. Similar processes include a recent nation-wide town hall meeting-style conference on YouTube in which people vote for the questions to ask the President. Decision-making is going horizontal and it is only a matter of time before this practice radically improves our political processes and structures.

Human-processed searches - Searching on twitter will produce human generated results from real people gathering the best information from their lives and from the Internet. Google is cool, but a twitter search guarantees fascinating, updated and personalized results.

Taking part in Discourse - Taking part in a discourse on a specific topic, like micro-finance, social action, public health or any other requires being in communication with those who are at the forefront of their field, acting on what we learn from them and contributing our two cents worth to building specific knowledge. Staying abreast of the solutions found to local problems and the processes used to arrive at those solutions keep one in the mix. Of course, blogs have filled this niche beautifully for several years now, and because as any blogger knows it isn't easy to get people to comment on your blog, I see twitter as an essential compliment to these. It is a more agile, faster and synthesized version of blogs that, when combined with them, raises their value considerably. Sites like twitterfall can be customized to your exact needs to follow and take part in any discourse you choose.

Micro-blogging - My blog tends to be kind of ... em deep. Yeah, but that doesn't mean that everything I want to share fits into this category. Twitter gives me a platform to share important thoughts and events that I don't want to make into full blog posts. They are quick, short and effective at getting your point across. They are easy to answer and re-post and really get you in closer contact with those who are moving and shaking in your fields of interest.

Teaching - Learning - As an educator I am amazed at some of the ideas of fellow teachers who are using twitter in the classroom, and the results they are getting. Any tool a teacher can use to enhance learning is very welcome, and this is proving to be one of the best. If you doubt what I am saying, check this resource out. I will be using these soon in my classrooms!

These five good reasons to check twitter out point to the fact that twitter is opening the future to us in a variety of ways. There are many more reasons to start twittering, like small business networking, that I am sure others have explained much better than I ever could. In sum, if you don't like the superficial noise on twitter, then don't follow those who generate it! There are thousands of other fish in the sea! If you want to know more, click here.

Scroll down a bit or click here to check out my twitter feed and don't be shy to get your feet wet!

21 March 2009

Biology of the Spirit

My first reaction to the above phrase, I admit, was rejection. It seems that my mind naturally selects duality over unity to conserve some semblance of convenience and order. Fortunately, my spirit kicked in at this point to redirect my mind towards unity even if this step led into murky waters.

The interview with this title turned out to be much more challenging and rewarding than I had initially imagined. Sherwin Nuland, interviewed on Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, shares his ideas about the relationship between the body and the human spirit from his perspective as a clinical surgeon. Bear with me on the following quotes from the interview as they are powerful:

"Notwithstanding the tragedies that humankind has visited on itself individually and collectively, and the havoc we have wreaked on our planet, we have become endowed nevertheless with a transcendent quality that expands generation upon generation, overcoming even our tendency to self-destruction. That quality, which I call spirit, has permeated our civilization and created the moral and aesthetic nutriment by which we are sustained.

As I define it, the human spirit is a quality of human life, the result of living, nature-driven forces of discovery and creativeness; the human spirit is a quality that Homo sapiens by trial and error gradually found within itself over the course of millennia and bequeathed to each succeeding generation, fashioning it and refashioning it — strengthened ever anew — from the organic structure into which our species evolved so many thousands of years ago. It lives while we live; it dies while we die. It is neither soul nor shade. It is the essence of human life.

There is a word that the neuroscientists use when talking about why a certain series of circuits or group of circuits in the brain is activated. The word is value. There are pathways of the brain that have survival value. So when a stimulus comes in and the brain has 50,000 different ways of responding to it, some of those are useful for survival and some of those will either prevent survival or mar survival, and the human brain, in classical evolutionary pattern, will pick the one that is healthiest, that gives greatest pleasure. What gives greater pleasure than a spiritual sense? So I think of this as natural selection in a form, in an emotional form, and I think it is almost like choice because when you're talking about selection in the brain, there are processes of choice. The brain has a way of evaluating what is best for the organism. And what is best for the organism is not just survival and reproduction but beauty, but an aesthetic sense.

The human spirit can be the high road to the fulfillment of my greatest hopes, but it can be the grim pathway to my self-destruction. Either way, it is the transcendent product of my body and its wisdom and of the most complex structure on the human planet, the three pounds of human brain."

I can imagine that many of you are reacting similarly to how I reacted when I first listened to this. Dr. Nuland anticipates this and responds by speaking of the origin of human spirit in this way:

"So if all Homo sapiens share it, one of two things has to be true: either God gave it to everybody, or it's a universal within our — on some level of awareness or it's in our DNA or something of this. I choose to think it's biological."

Concluding this discussion by recognizing that this whole matter boils down to a personal choice about the origin of the human spirit would miss the point entirely and would be too simplistic given the challenging issues Dr. Nuland raises. For example, what is the role of natural selection in the emergence of our spiritual capacities? What role does the brain play in this process? Is the brain's natural inclination toward beauty the prime mover behind both material and spiritual evolution?

To begin answering these questions the following quote by 'Abdu'l-Baha beautifully explains the brain's relationship with the our spirit:

"The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul; and these two names -- the human spirit and the rational soul -- designate one thing. But the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun's rays are the essential necessity of the sun."

The brain decides to express spiritual capacities built by our spirit. This expression and the confirmations received upon doing it, refine and mature the spirit providing further impetus for the brain to continue on this path. As beauty is found on this path the spirit and the mind cooperate to feel the joy of approaching it. This is natural selection and can also be seen as an essential interaction between religion and nature.

"[T]he Bahá'í concept of the world is at its core both organic and evolutionary. Nature and religion are defined in virtually identical terms in the Bahá'í Writings as 'the essential connection' inherent in 'the realities of things.' So the two 'books' (of nature and revelation) and are both inextricable parts of a single evolutionary story which begins with the first primitive cell and culminates with the emergence of global consciousness."

Even though we may not agree with Dr. Nuland on the origin of the human spirit and how its special relationship with the human body began, his assertion that "the human spirit is a quality that Homo sapiens by trial and error gradually found within itself", that its growth process is so intertwined with the evolving mind that they are like tree and fruit to each other, provides us with powerful evidence that religion and science are much less distinguishable than we had previously imagined.


All quotes taken from:

1. Biology of the Spirit , Inverview of Dr. Nuland on Speaking of Faith
2. Perspective: Crossing the divide between science and religion: a view on evolution

28 February 2009

In the Toaster

The Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency recently issued a report stating that Colombia, Ecuador and Peru receive the highest Ultra Violet (UV) dose on the planet. This may not cause too much surprise among those who know that UV levels are highest in the tropics where the Ozone layer continues to be depleted at approximately 4% per decade. Just for the curious, the ozone hole formed over the poles and for a while the destruction rate was higher than in the tropics, but it seems to be decreasing now.

The World Health Organization came up with the following Global Solar UV Index (UVI) to alert population centers when UV levels become dangerous:

UV Index Description Media Graphic Color Recommended Protection
0–2 No danger to the average person Green Wear sunglasses; use sunscreen if there is snow on the ground, which reflects UV radiation, or if you have particularly fair skin.
3–5 Little risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure Yellow Wear sunglasses and use sunscreen, cover the body with clothing and a hat, and seek shade around midday when the sun is most intense.
6–7 High risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure Orange Wear sunglasses and use sunscreen having SPF 15 or higher, cover the body with sun protective clothing and a wide-brim hat, and reduce time in the sun from two hours before to three hours after solar noon (roughly 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM during summer in zones that observe daylight saving time).
8–10 Very high risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure Red Wear sunscreen, a shirt, sunglasses, and a hat. Do not stay out in the sun for too long.
11+ Extreme risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure Violet Take all precautions, including: wear sunglasses and use sunscreen, cover the body with a long-sleeve shirt and trousers, wear a very broad hat, and avoid the sun from two hours before to three hours after solar noon.


As you can see, level 11 represents an extreme risk to skin cancer and eye damage from UV radiation exposure. For this reason, the current levels in Guayaquil and Quito are downright scary: Over the past month, the UV index (UVI) has been up to 14 in Guayaquil and up to 24 in Quito! If 11 represents extreme risk, then 24 means you are in the toaster.

A 2005 IPCC summary of ozone issues observed that observations and model calculations suggest that the global average amount of ozone depletion has now approximately stabilized. This is great for the polar regions, but the Montreal Protocol seems to be too little too late for Ecuador.

My family spent this last week at the beach, and despite liberally lathering ourselves with sun block, we are all burned in one place or another. This usually wouldn't bother me too much, but I just checked the UV levels for today , at it was 13.6, and as you can imagine we did not take all precautions as the graph recommends.

I don't buy Styrofoam, spray cans or ammonia and I use as little air conditioning and electricity as possible. There are more actions individuals can take to help reduce ozone layer depletion , so I encourage you all to think about your friends in the tropics and do your part to help save our skin!

24 February 2009

The Sesame Street Sermon

Did you know that the BBC did not buy the rights to broadcast Sesame Street in the 1970's because they thought that is was too moralist, telling kids how to think and act? My kids and I read Sesame Street books and watch their podcasts and programs all of the time and I have only felt grateful that healthy ideas are introduced to my kids in such an enjoyable way. The concepts promoted by the furry friends - appreciation for diversity, honesty, sharing, caring for others, kindness to animals, etc... - aren't exactly controversial, but there are those who believe that children will best become mature, healthy members of society by exposing them to a wide variety of content and ideas so they can build the cultural constructs that best suit themselves and those near to them. Showing children a message - even if it is about the concepts mentioned above - closes their minds, makes them judgmental, impedes their capacity to think freely and make sound decisions.

This same mentality reigns at my University where teachers are encouraged not to present content in courses like "Society and the Role of the Individual" in which students are supposed to contemplate relationships between the individual and the collective whole. Rather, teachers should lead students to become more reflective and informed of historical tendencies, theories and future possibilities.

It is difficult to disagree that cultural sermonizing requires ignoring that the learner has the capacity to make healthy decisions. If we really believe in capacity building and learner autonomy, then learners need to make their own decisions, especially ones that involve moral dilemmas. However, the opposite of sermonizing requires believing that there is no right or wrong beyond what benefits the learner at the particular moment in time that he or she is confronted with a moral dilemma. This moral relativism is one of the main philosophical foundations of our current global society of individuals and institutions that act uncannily like cancerous cells, boosting selfish aims at the expense of most others. The mantra of doing whatever you want as long as it doesn't harm others is precisely the cancer that is devouring the entire organism, cancer and all.

To begin resolving this issue, it must first be established that moral neutrality, the very concept upon which defenders of this laissez faire attitude towards education pride themselves, is illusory. Eliminating content in the name of a neutral process is in itself a moral decision with clear moral consequences. When graduates of this educational system don’t see enough wrong with opulence and misery living side by side to do anything about it, when they elevate both white and blue collar thieves to hero status, when they create “needs” within children even though they clearly cause irreparable physical or emotional damage, then the moral neutrality that justifies their actions becomes an exact opposite and an equally damaging approach as sermonizing.

This dichotomy is further resolved by defining the purpose of education beyond preparing individuals for successful insertion into the current job market. If most jobs aim exclusively towards increasing profit margin, defined in narrow economic terms, then directing education to provide students with the necessary tools to compete within this context only serves to legitimate it. Even if these tools are otherwise desirable traits and skills - creativity, administrative and investigative capacity, entrepreneurial leadership, etc… - the end towards which they are used strips them of any worth they might otherwise have. We can, rather, define our purpose for educating as building capacity for youth to become protagonists of their own community development, considering individuals and institutions as vital and interdependent actors within the community.

Of course, taking this path requires having the courage to face the daunting and inherently subjective task of defining development. Addressing faulty assumptions that the global development enterprise has had about such fundamental concepts as “the nature of man, the purpose of individual and collective life, the meaning of participation, the goal of development and the role of knowledge in social transformation” so that they serve an educational process that “empowers individuals and communities to engage in the generation and application of knowledge as protagonists in a materially and spiritually prosperous world civilization” requires taking a clear stand on such issues.

Further, although there are pedagogical advantages to providing the proper tools and context for learners to discover knowledge and thus take ownership of the decisions they make, there is no reason we should expect individual learners to rediscover all of the painful lessons humanity has slowly learned throughout its existence. Beyond those mentioned in the previous paragraph, one of these great lessons is that education should seek to channel the powers of the human soul into humble service to humanity, both on professional and personal levels. This is the primary context within which the individual may develop the necessary qualities and capabilities to become a protagonist in his or her spiritual and intellectual growth and thus contribute towards the transformation of society.

These and related lessons point us towards what we can call a pedagogy of moral empowerment. It is an approach that has emerged from an action-research process conducted by FUNDAEC in an effort to provide world-class tutorial secondary education that truly builds local capacity to generate prosperity. This process began in Colombia and later spread throughout most of the world.

In the end it is our individual and collective sense of justice that provides meaning for every action we undertake, whether that action is meant to be as objective as possible, or whether it is deliberately subjective. It is also this sense of justice that will enable us to establish the foundations upon which the oneness of humanity will ultimately be established. Although they don’t go too deep into the broader issues mentioned here, our furry friends at Sesame Street provide a good head start for all children in their search for justice, which will provide meaning and guidance in such a confusing world.


All quotes taken from "Preparation for Social Action: Education for Development"