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".