Tragedy of the Commons

We have spent a lot of time on the road, traveling from one place to another. Most of this travel is spent going between Dhaka and Mymensingh, and although this is only 120km / 75 miles, it has taken us up to 8 hours! The highway along this stretch has been under construction for the past several years, and after a disastrous few years, the army finally took over the project and the highway expansion is almost complete. Now the delays between Dhaka and Mymensingh aren’t due to the poor condition of the road, but from the traffic as one tries to leave or enter Dhaka.

Quotes 36 Unfortunately, one of the first things that people notice when visiting Bangladesh is the pollution. Like many modern cities, Dhaka has a large industrial sector and this is clearly visible when traveling out of the city. Most prominent of these industries is the ready-made-garment (RMG) industry, which was established here in the late 1970s. Although many people have heard about the poor safety conditions in many of these factories, the RMG industry has helped to provide millions of jobs for the poor (mostly women) and is a major pillar to Bangladesh’s economy.

Lining the highway are large factories, and in the mornings it is very common to see thousands of people flooding the streets as they make their way to start their shift. Around these factories it is also easy to see the negative side effects of the garment industries, with piles of waste material and blacked waterways from chemical byproducts dumped in. To some, the smell can be overwhelming. After having made this journey many time, I have become somewhat calloused by the normality of these practices, but there are times where I catch myself cringing.

One of these cringe moments was when I came across a recent photo essay in the Guardian called The river runs black – pollution from Bangladesh’s tanneries, which visually highlights the extent of the pollution behind the sights of the main road. Yet as bad as things are here, Bangladesh isn’t even in the top 20 list of world polluters in which the US is ranked second, and Canada ninth – along with other countries like (1) China, (4) India, (5) Russia, (6) Japan, (7) Germany, (8) South Korea, (13) the United Kingdom, (16) Australia, … (EDGAR: Trends in global CO2 emissions: 2014 report).

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Mymensingh is a much smaller town then Dhaka, but it has a reputation for being dirty. When it rains, the open sewers that shoulder our street overflow onto the road. People also dump their garbage on the road for it to be picked up and taken to the outskirts of the town where it is burned by the roadside. Last year we took a long bike ride out of Mymensingh and we passed by the garbage dump as we made our way to a village. In the midst of burning piles of garbage were people sorting through it looking for items that can be sold, and children playing. Almost immediately after passing the dump, we were surrounded by fertile farmlands and tall trees.

Ironically, the ‘undeveloped’ rural areas are clean and unpolluted. This contrast for me has emphasized the importance of looking at the full impact of well-intentioned interventions because there is a risk that the good accomplished can come at a very high price. Determining what price we are willing to pay is challenging, but what makes things even more complicated is determining the true cost of our actions.

Quotes 37During the industrial revolution, many cities in the ‘West’ were habitually covered by thick black smog from the coal burning factories that were the driving force behind industrialization. Many of these factories also employed children as they were cheap and effective workers, and some industries also built their competitive advantage from the free labour of slaves. There was a heavy price paid for the comfort and wealth that many of us enjoy today.

Most buildings in Bangladesh are constructed out of bricks and cement, but the office that we work at in Mymensingh primarily uses wood. Over time, the thinner internal walls have now become susceptible to ui poka (a local termite). These bugs have also spread to the bookshelves, and have now destroyed many books. Unfortunately, Erin became the latest victim of the ui poka this past month when she came to tidy up her office after being away this summer. I have been told that the ui poka are actually blind; therefore, in looking out for their own self-interest, the ‘blind’ actions of the ui poka cause so much destruction to others.

In economics there is a famous analogy that illustrates the consequences of blindly acting in our own self-interest. The Tragedy of the Commons was used to illustrate the effects of un-regulated cattle grazing on common land. In the pursuit of maximizing personal gain, individual farmers have the incentive to keep increasing the number of cattle grazing on common land, thus depleting the land’s ability to support cattle for everyone in the long run.

The concept of the commons is now used to describe other resources like the atmosphere and oceans. Since the industrial revolution, humans have greatly altered the world to better suit our needs, and this has greatly impacted the Earth’s ecosystem. In fact, some scientists are now using the term Anthropocene – which comes from the Greek anthropo meaning ‘human’ and cene meaning ‘new’ – to describe the current geological era. As a result of our interventions, natural resources have been depleted and carbon emissions into the atmosphere have greatly increased.

Quotes 38Unlike meteoric impacts that have greatly altered the world’s climate in the past, human activity is now responsible for rising global temperatures, and this will be the focus of the upcoming United Nations World Climate Summit in Paris from November 30th to December 11th where world leaders will discuss measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis also released an encyclical on climate change and the environment, in which he calls us to act now so that we leave a better world for future generations. Amongst things like encouraging us to shift to greener energy, Pope Francis also challenges the values behind our actions, as seen in our society’s need for excessive and unsustainable consumerism.

Having a background in industrial design, I know full well the impact our designs have on society. If we design a product that cannot disassemble easily, how can we expect consumers to recycle it properly at the end of the product’s use? Working in development now, I also know that our work can be shortsighted. If we teach farmers unsustainable agricultural practices so they can increase their income now, how can we expect them to sustain their gains?

The products and systems we design greatly influence the behavior of individuals, but inversely the behavior of individuals can also impact the designs of products and systems. This requires us to act now. Musician and poet Micah Bournes phrases it well when he says:

I am not the future, I am not history. 
I exist in perpetual nowness. 
Rebuking the ghosts of old sins and future fears.
(Micah Bournes, I Am Not The Future).

Canada just had a historic Federal election, and Erin and I were able to participate by voting from Bangladesh. But filling out a ballot is not the only way to vote. We vote through our actions. In an era where our behavior is monitored by things like social media or our purchases, the cumulative actions of individuals map trends that reveal where our society is headed and how leaders in corporations and the government should act. So our actions, today, matter.

Our actions today can show that we will not ignore the hard lessons from the past by simply tolerating their implications on our future. Our actions today can show we demand new systems that are responsible and accountable. Our actions today can help people improve their present without compromising their future. Our actions today can prevent the global temperature from rising above 2°C from the pre-industrial era. Our actions today can show we care more about people then projects. Our actions today can shape the values of our society. Our actions today can show that we are able to share the commons for the good of everyone. Our actions today can show we are good stewards of this world God has shared with us.

Bangladesh would experience peace and unity. The security situation here has now become very complicated with targeted attacks on the police, army, religious minorities, other sects of Islam, and secular intellectuals.
2. We would experience safety as we travel back and forth, and our upcoming meetings and conferences would be fruitful.
3. We would have a great time when Nishant’s mother comes to visit us.

Nishant, (Erin and Eli)

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Check out the full album at: October 2015

Ui Poka are a local white ant-like termite that like to eat soft woods and paper. Here you can see them busy moving around on an interior wall at our office.

Here is the full poem that I quoted from in the blog; the words are quite thought provoking.

He was pushing 60, at least. 
So impressed with my poetry he looked me in the face and raved, 
“You, are the future.” 
I appreciate the sentiment but that is not a compliment because I may 
be young but I, am not the future. I am not the future, Sir, any more than you are the 
past. You are, wrinkly with a receding hairline yes but the muscle, in your chest beats 
and burns just like mine and we are both alive, in the present. I’ve spent far too many 
yesterdays stressing on what I might become tomorrow, while you’ve wasted timeless 
afternoons reminiscing on who you once were but neither of those people are us. 

We are not anything but what we are now. 
My faith of last week does not please God today. 
My future riches does not cancel this poverty. 
My former strength does not heal present weakness. 
My soon-coming failure does not diminish current victory. 

I am not the future, I am not history. 
I exist in perpetual nowness. 
Rebuking the ghosts of old sins and future fears. 

I am nothing but here, and now. 
And if I don’t like that me, then I must change here, and now. 
And if I can’t change that me then I must pray here, and now, 
that God allow this present step to land a new man. 
By the grace of God I am what I am. 

I am young, you are old we are both but a breath 
any second my inhale will be as your ex. 
So let’s celebrate this moment in eternity when God saw 
us fit to be brothers in the now. 

And I know you meant well, dear sweet balding wrinkly faced Sir, 
but I hope you understand how much you’re worth, 
for you are not the past, 
and I am not the future.


One thought on “Tragedy of the Commons

  1. thank you, Nishant for your keen observations and moving reflections! My love to you, Erin and Eli who is positively glowing with happiness as all the lovely photos attest to! prayers for you and all flying in from Canada… Susan Morgan

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