Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Tragedy of the Commons

Of course, my point of view about education is a bit...skewed at this time, but... whatever. I came across the following article on while doing research for items similar to "no-win situation" in trying to find a title for the screenplay I'm currently writing. After reading this, I got the gut feeling that there is a distinct connection between Hardin's article (flawed as it might be) and the current state of public education. I propose to open debate on the issue.



The tragedy of the commons is a metaphor used to illustrate the conflict for resources between individual interests and the common good. The term was coined and popularized by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 Science article "The Tragedy of the Commons". While the original article was primarily concerned with human population growth, Hardin also focused on the use of resources such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Hardin used a hypothetical example of English Commons, shared plots of grassland used in the past by all livestock farmers in a village. Each farmer keeps adding more livestock to graze on the Commons, because it costs him nothing to do so. In a few years, the soil is depleted by overgrazing, the Commons becomes unusable, and the village perishes. (Hardin actually misunderstood how commons were managed in England and elsewhere — see below for details — but this does not detract from the significance of his argument, which pertains to truly open-access commons such as the sea and the atmosphere.)

The cause of any tragedy of the commons is that when individuals use a public good, they do not bear the entire cost of their actions. If each seeks to maximize individual utility, he ignores the costs borne by others. This is an example of an externality. The best (non-cooperative) short-term strategy for an individual is to try to exploit more than his share of public resources. Assuming a majority of individuals follow this strategy, the theory goes, the public resource gets overexploited.

The tragedy of the commons is a source of intense controversy, precisely because it is unclear whether individuals will or will not always follow the overexploitation strategy in any given situation, and especially because Hardin had a very poor understanding of how traditional commons were managed. Experiments have indicated that individuals do tend to behave in this way, when the common is unregulated, but historically, most commons have been regulated by communities, and the more use-pressure a common is under, the more heavily regulated its use would be. Hardin's misunderstanding of the traditions of commonland and resource management, however, has been widely influential and has caused a great deal of trouble for those who wish to advocate regulated communal land use, as opposed to enclosure and privatisation (which has historically been associated with the alienation of resources from poorer people).

Hardin begins his essay with a discussion of the concept of a "commons", which he draws largely from the history of common land use in England, and other parts of North Western Europe. However, these historical commons to which he refers were not public land and most were not open to the access of all — the public at large had very limited rights (e.g. passing drovers could lease grazing for "thistle rent"). Only those locals who were also "commoners" had access to a bundle of rights; each commoner then had an interest in his own rights, but the common itself was not property.

Under many modern understandings of property, e.g. in the USA, the bundles of rights would not have been "property" either, since they could not be traded or otherwise disposed of. However these commoner's rights applied in a medieval culture which did recognise inalienable property (e.g. entailed inheritances), so under this system the bundles of rights were considered property.

In a traditional English village these rights provided commoners with rights of grazing, gathering fuel wood non-destructively "by hook or by crook", etc. (the form "commons" is plural, and refers to the whole group of commons subject to these effects).

Consider an area used for grazing (among other purposes — it could be "Lammas Land", used for private crops in season) that can support 50 cattle indefinitely, a population of 25 peasant householders who keep cattle among a range of subsistence activities, and that each peasant can advantageously graze and profit from 2 cattle indefinitely. By grazing one extra cow, a peasant can make roughly 1/2 extra "profit" at a "cost" of only 1/50. Thus each peasant is logically tempted to keep adding cattle beyond the capacity of the common to sustain them all optimally. Where the grazing area could sustain 50 cattle indefinitely, this increased grazing load could diminish or even destroy the ability of the land to sustain any cattle, at least until it has recovered. (A tragedy of the commons can occur even without complete and permanent destruction of a resource; such activites as overfishing can indeed lead to this.)
Though this metaphor is not an accurate description of how the system worked during most of its history, it serves here for purposes of illustration.

Historically, most English commons were reserved for their own commoners, whose use was restricted in various ways according to local custom. In reponse to overgrazing, for example, a common would be "stinted", that is, a limit would be put on the number of animals each commoner was allowed to graze. This stint might be related to the ownership of a commonable cottage, or to the amount of land owned in the open fields. These regulations were responsive to demographic and economic pressure; rather than let the commons be degraded, access was usually restricted even further. By the time of parliamentary enclosure, in many manors in southern England few labourers and poorer people held common grazing rights; enclosure, however, did have an impact on smaller landholders who supported their farming through use of common grazing and other resources. While historians continue to debate the significance and impact of enclosure on small landholders and labouring people in England, they agree that there is no evidence that commonland use was itself unsustainable.

Modern Equivalents - The contribution of each person is minute but summed over all people these actions degrade the resource. Modern equivalents include:

Uncontrolled population growth
Depleting biodiversity
Burning of fossil fuels
Pollution of waterways and the atmosphere
Logging of forests.
Overfishing of the oceans
Private vehicles jamming public roadways.
Tossing of trash out of automobile windows (littering)
Noise pollution
E-mail spamming
Light pollution

Possible solutions to the 'tragedy' - The tragedy of the commons can be seen as a collective prisoner's dilemma. Individuals within a group have two options: cooperate with the group or defect from the group. Cooperation happens when individuals agree to protect a common resource to avoid the tragedy. By cooperating, every individual agrees not to seek more than his share. Defection happens when an individual decides to use more than his share of a public resource.

Game theory shows that individuals benefit from defecting in the prisoner's dilemma (even though both would be better off if both cooperated than if both defected), unless there is some individual cost to defecting. In the iterated prisoner's dilemma, retaliation for past defection can make cooperation the best choice even for a selfish individual. Similarly, far-sighted groups that impose some sort of sanction on members that overexploit a resouce can make over-exploitation unprofitable. This is trickier for larger groups.

Articulating solutions to the tragedy of the commons is therefore one of the main problems of political philosophy. Many such solutions involve enforcement of conservation measures by an authority, which may be an outside agency or selected by the resource users themselves, who agree to cooperate to conserve the resource. Another frequently-proposed solution is to convert each common into private property, giving the owner of each an incentive to enforce its sustainability. Effectively, this is what took place in the English "Enclosure of the Commons"; this case highlights the effects of hidden wealth transfer in privatization, if no or inadequate matching compensation occurs. Moreover, as demonstrated by recent conflicts over logging, snow cover and water resources in the Upper Rio Grande watershed, there are questions about whether individual ownership does provide an incentive to enforce its sustainability, particularly if the property is not looked on as a long term investment. Increasingly, many agrarian studies scholars advocate studying traditional commons management systems, to understand how common resources can be protected without alienating those whose livelyhoods depend upon them.

A popular solution to the problem is also the "Coasian" one, where the individuals using the commons make payments to one another in exchange for not overusing the resource.

In Hardin's essay, he proposed that the solution to the problem of overpopulation must be based on "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" and result in "relinquishing the freedom to breed." Hardin discussed this topic further in a 1979 book, Managing the Commons, co-written with John A. Baden.

National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is basically a contest. One second into November 1st you begin writing. Write your heart out for one month, the goal being to have a 50,000 word novel completed by November 30th. I can't imagine any of us having the time, and yet.... To learn how NaNoWriMo works in ten easy steps go here.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Reflection / Focus

I hope everyone made it home from Twin Falls OK. Ric, we missed you and hope your back gets better soon.

My first thought upon awakening at Sue's house, right after "I really should brush my teeth," was this: These amazing Buzzwhoops really are a part of my life. We have gone so far beyond "people who took a class together." We are opening our lives and our homes to one another. We take care of fellow fellows. "WE" aren't going away!

I am still reflecting on the accomplishments of the day. The agenda went to hell, what else is new? I feel like we tightened our focus on future interests and responsibilities. I know I did, anyway. At the end of the Summer Institute I was so caught up in hanging on to the BSWP vision that my hand flew up to volunteer for too many diverse initiative support positions. Now I think I know what I am really going to do.

I am working with the Recruiting/Interviewing group. I am so excited and humbled to think that I will have some part in putting together the next BSWP group. I cannot imagine a finer group than our own, but that's me and that's my perspective being connected to all of you. Each group will be different from us, and diverse within itself, but my hope is that next year's group of teachers will discover the same synergy and yes, magic, that we have experienced together. I so appreciate Jeff's reminder that it is now time to reach out to others and grow the project.

The task is to propagate, but not replicate. Hey, this is kind of like parenthood! We cannot hope to give the future Boise State Writing Project groups our very same experiences. They will not know our quotes or share our memories. They will have their own. We will support them in their endeavors and they will carry with them a piece of BSWP 05 DNA into our common future and the futures of our students.

Coooooooooooooooooool. G'night all.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Teaching and Learning

Teaching and Learning

He asked, “How many years will you continue to teach?”

“Until I have nothing left to learn,” I replied.

A few days ago, while introducing my first-period ninth graders to Sandra Cisneros’ wonderful book, The House on Mango Street, we were discussing how the wonderful language of the book evokes sensual images of what “home” really means. In particular we were discussing the short description Esperanza gives of everyone’s hair. She describes her mother’s hair as smelling “…like home baked bread.” As I read and discussed these words with my students, I found myself being swept away on the wings of my own memories.

I grew up in a small Nebraska farm town in the home of my grandparents. My grandmother baked bread every Saturday evening. The warm kitchen filled with wonderful smells of yeast, flour, cinnamon, safety and love.

Saturday night was also when the town’s kids went to the Delmar theater for movies; usually a double-feature with cartoons, newsreel, and sometimes a serial between. Fifty cents provided a night’s entertainment for a twelve or thirteen year old boy, popcorn and orange soda included. When the movie let out, usually around eleven, my friends and I would walk to my back door. Don, Mike, Glenn, sometimes others, all knew what to expect. As we came down the alley behind our house, you could smell the “bakery” well before we turned into my yard. My grandparents were almost always asleep by this time and the bread and rolls for Sunday dinner and the coming week were covered with towels, but on the table there always sat a pan of buttery cinnamon rolls, sometimes with nuts, left for my friends and I to savor. It was a ritual of a childhood that few if any kids enjoy now days. In warmer weather, with glasses of cold milk in hand, we would take the pan of rolls out to the backyard picnic table. In the winter we gathered around the old metal table in the kitchen. We talked about the movies we had just seen, the plans we had for the coming week, the girls we all had crushes on. We talked quietly so as not to awaken my grandparents or the neighbors. By midnight, my friends had headed for home and I headed for bed.

With my students, I shared these remembrances, all awakened by a description of a mother’s hair, and as I spoke I could feel tears welling up behind my eyes, just as I do now. I didn’t cry visibily, but I think the students knew that I was speaking from a place other than my everyday English teacher role. They were quiet, and they asked quiet questions. I think they understood the power of words to move someone to emotional response. That was my goal.

The students were not the only ones learning that day. I too was learning to explore, through language, the depths of memory and heart and to use these explorations to my student’s and my advantage. Not a day goes by that I don’t learn in my classroom, most often from my students. We give as we receive. We teach as we learn. Those who can't learn, have nothing useful to teach. May I always have a desire to learn.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

It's been a long time

Been a long while since I posted, or anyone else for that matter. I hope everyone is up and running. We've just finished our first full week and I'm off to a good start with three ninth grade English classes and two classes of 10th tech writing. The name of the latter is misleading as this is a 'basic' English class for students who are struggling with the ISATs.

After our great summer I spent a week in Caldwell at a symposium on Native American authors. It was very good and I plan to work some of that material into my ninth grade curriculum.

I've introduced my learning contracts to my students and most are signing up for A's or B's. I'm pleased so far.

The weekend before my scheduled return to school my remaining older brother was killed in an auto accident. While my colleagues were getting their rooms ready and sitting through all of that scintillating professional development, I was in Chicago for his funeral. Everything changes, nothing stays the same. We are sure only of the moment.

I am looking forward to seeing all of you in Twin for the ICTE and our BSWP gathering. Keep us posted on your school year and your progress.

Don't forget about Over The Crevasse, our online writing group. So far the only post has come from K.C



I maintain a couple of other blogs and a classroom web page as well. You can check them out, although I'm a bit behind on the classroom thing. I hope to address that this weekend.
The Endless Faculty Meeting
Reflections on Teaching and Learning
Mr. D's Bulletin Board

Friday, July 29, 2005

N.D. Man Wins Annual Bad-Writing Contest

"N.D. Man Wins Annual Bad-Writing Contest
- By GARANCE BURKE, Associated Press Writer
Thursday, July 28, 2005

(07-28) 10:38 PDT SAN FRANCISCO, (AP) --

A man who compared a woman's anatomy to a carburetor won an annual contest that celebrates the worst writing in the English language.

Dan McKay, a computer analyst at Microsoft Great Plains in Fargo, N.D., bested thousands of entrants from North Pole, Alaska to Manchester, England to triumph Wednesday in San Jose State University's annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

'As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire,' he wrote, comparing a woman's breasts to 'small knurled caps of the oil dampeners.'" Read More

The Bulwer-Lytton contest is named after the author of the 1830 novel, Paul Clifford which begins,"It was a dark and stormy night." You can read all of the winner here-- The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, "Where WWW Means Wretched Writers Welcome."

You might also wish to check out this collections of "Bad Sex Writing" award winners.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Amassing a Treasury of Photography - New York Times

"Amassing a Treasury of Photography

Published: July 20, 2005

Correction Appended

In 1999 two proud powerhouses of photography - the George Eastman House in Rochester and the International Center of Photography in Midtown - began to acknowledge that they needed each other.

More specifically, officials at the Eastman House - the world's oldest photography museum, with more than 400,000 photos and negatives, dating back to the invention of the medium - felt that they needed a New York City presence. And the International Center, a younger institution with a smaller collection, wanted access to Eastman's vast holdings, which include work by Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

The collaboration resulted in several joint exhibitions, including 'Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes,' still on display at the center, and a show that ended earlier this year of the striking photographs of New Orleans prostitutes from the early 1900's by E. J. Bellocq, images that were drawn roughly half from Eastman and half from the center.

But now both institutions are at work on an ambitious project to create one of the largest freely accessible databases of masterwork photography anywhere on the Web, a venture that will bring their collections to much greater public notice and provide an immense resource for photography aficionados, both scholars and amateurs.

The Web site -, now active only as a test "Read More Good news for teachers as this wil make available for free use in the classroom many famous photos.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Poetry Video: Poems that Playback

If you are interested in stirring some interest in 'spoken word' poetry among your students you might find this video useful You can download the various parts to your computer or play the whole thing directly from the web as streaming video. In either case you need the latest version of Realplayer to view it. If you don't have it, you can go here. (Make sure you get the free one and not the trial of the fancier one which wil cost you money.)

This is some great stuff and might turn on some kids.


More on Halls of Yearning

I was mistaken about the authors of The Halls of Yearning being professors at SF State. They were at Cal State Long Beach. The idea that they were young, hippy types is accurate and evident in some of the more self-indulgent portions of the book. Primarily, they are criticizing higher ed, however their criticisms ring true for public education today and are echoed by contemporary critics like Donald Graves and Alfie Kohn. Here are some more quotes:

In an elitist educational setting, the superiors get turned off too. They keep busy moving the wheels of the unit producing machines, but they are seldom involved in any exciting relationships or pursuits.

Passivity is written all over the standard classroom and all over the faces of of those who feel obligated to be in it. How could learning possibly be encapsulated within such dull walls, in such short and arbitrary intervals, with such a predominance of disinterested people?

Some of the authors' thoughts on writing:

When there is a writing project, no matter how much "interest" the student has expressed in the subject, chances are overwhelming he'll avoid writing it as long as possible....How could it be otherwise when every time you write something from the earliest grade, you get it back with a grade, with the mistakes clearly indicated? The corrections and errors almost always loom larger than anything else on papers you get back in School.

It is not possible to make people write things under duress and fear of punishment for years and expect to produce a healthy enjoyment of written expression.

The only way people will start to enjoy writing and write well, is to be free, in a stimulating environment, to write what they want to about what they want to. I've seen beautiful , thoughtful poetry written privately by students who hate every written project in school aand think of thmeselves as poor writers.

Grades make writing distasteful because whenever you write something for school, you put yourself on trial. You are under threat. Grades kill learning by making people fear their "mistakes" in schooling generally, not just in writing.

More on grades later. Just a note about acquiring a copy of the book should you desire to do so.
It is long out of print but through Amazon I found several sources. Most of these are copies published by Canfield in 1971. They are used and cheap. I've also. seen it on e-Bay.

I have a first edition pubished in Long Beach in 1969 (self-published I think) It is stapled and has a cover with original art by the authors. Appears to have been run off on a copier. It is in condition VF (like New) and I found one just like it listed in a used book store in Seattle for $30. Not bad for a book that sold new for $1.25.