Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Earth Spinnings

Each week my girls attend separate sessions of a wonderful, engaging, beautifully-taught music class. Last week, while seated in my criss-cross-apple-sauce lap, Eleanor started wiggling, and reached up behind her to pull my ear close to her mouth. Expecting to hear "Mama, I have to go potty," I was amazed by what she uttered instead: "Mama, which direction is the earth turning right now?"

You see, Eleanor recently experienced a paradigm shift involving the earth's relation to the sun. She used to think-- as would any reasonable 3 or 4 year old, or any reasonable person, if you ask me-- that the sun got out of bed in the East, spent the day lollygagging around the sky, and then tucked itself into bed in the West, after giving the moon its wake-up call. This all changed recently when Eleanor's probing questions lead her down the path of scientific discovery, culminating in this understanding: "So you mean the sun actually holds very still, like this," she said, balling her hand up and holding it in the air, "and the earth moves around the sun like this," she continued, her earth-fist soaring around the sun-fist. "Hmm," she concluded in an upbeat voice, shaking her head affirmatively, as if to say, "well, that makes perfect sense."

But, as is often the case with Eleanor, after running the hypothesis through her brain, like a stone tossing around in a rock-polisher, it came out shiny, hard, and somewhat final. And then she began to consider its implications. Hence the question--worthy of absorbing her concentration--that was pleading to be answered during music class.

I understand that. Since law school, I have been fascinated, and sometimes a little obsessed, by the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons. You can visit Wikipedia for a thorough explanation,, but this is the basic version that I learned: A Tragedy of the Commons occurs when people put individual gain over the common good, and ultimately exploit a resource and spoil it for all. Examples abound, but here's the first one I learned: Suppose female salmon were worth twice as much as males when caught. What would happen? Fishers would focus their efforts on catching female salmon, and eventually the salmon population would decline because females are essential for reproduction. It would take the cooperation of all or most of the fishers-- agreeing to take only the male salmon, and leave the female salmon to repopulate, despite the lower financial profit-- to save the salmon in the long term. Simple enough.

But its application is widespread. Look around you! Tragedy of the Commons is everywhere! Do you see the person in the SOV-SUV (single-occupancy-vehicle-sport-utility-vehicle) whiz by while you wait and wait-- for the second bus, because the first bus was full-- in the rain, for goodness sake, after walking your kids to daycare with two in a double-stroller and one in a backpack--earnestly doing your part to reduce emissions? Tragedy of the Commons! At work, do your meetings start late because you're the only one consciencious enough to arrive on time? Tragedy of the Commons! Are you an NFL star who refuses to take Human Growth Hormones, but find yourself getting bashed about by those who imbibe because they know they won't be tested? Tragedy of the Commons! In all of these situations, those who selfishly look out for #1 are rewarded-- with convenience (driving), time-saving (arriving late to meeting), and a stronger body (performance-enhancing drugs), while those who act for the common good come out wet, late, frustrated, robbed of precious time, bruised, and outperformed.

These are the things that have been tossing about in my brain, sometimes with front-loader efficiency, other times with more waste than the water-guzzling washing machine from your first apartment. I especially think about the Tragedies since recently experiencing an environmental awakening that spurred many household and lifestyle changes (including much more bus-riding, resulting in the not-so-hypothetical, uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow example above). I am obsessed with finding the solution: what is the cure to the Tragedy of the Commons, and more specifically, the current environmental crisis of global warming?

It came to me the other day. Not the solution itself, but at least a snappy name for it. And insofar as language shapes beliefs, and beliefs inspire action, I think this is a good start! The solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is (please make the do-do-do-do noise of a trumpet announcing the arrival of the royalty, the way that Eleanor does when she shows off an impressive art project she's been working on): The Victory of the Commons. This victory will come when we put aside personal gain-- which, in this day and age, usually comes in the form of money or convenience-- and act for the good of all people. I realize that folks aren't likely to do this on their own. So I, for one, will be using my handy #2 pencil on Tuesday, November 7th, to elect officials who support policies that make it expensive and inconvenient for us to maintain our NBA-meets-Godzilla-shoe-sized carbon footprint (, and give us incentives to check ourselves into detox for oil addicts. I hope that you will, too.

Then maybe, for a while, I can turn my thoughts to other important things. Like figuring out in which direction the Earth is rotating right now.


KarenP said...

Hey, Allison,
It's good to see you post again. I bookmarked your site a while ago after Alicia pointed me your way. I've loved reading your entries,and this one was no exception.

I just came across a wonderful wordless children's book that illustrates the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons perfectly. It's called Why? by Nikolai Popov. Very powerful book, yet simple enough for children to grasp. I read it (looked at/discussed it?) with Anneka last week and she really got it. I'm sure Eleanor would too.

Here's a link:

Karen (Alicia's friend from PDX)

Alicia said...

Hi Sis.

I love Karen's response (Hi Karen, I miss you). Sometimes it's hard for adults to change our behavior, but we do have the power to shape the attitudes and behavior of our children. It's our responsibility to teach them to understand their interdependence on others rather than their entitlement to more than others. We recently adopted a policy in our house in which the one who demands to be first has to wait to be last. I truly believe that our own behavior and attitudes change as we examine them in the light of how to raise our children.