Tragedy of the study of the tragedy of the commons

2014_7.14_620wWith the summer heat comes an uptick of articles about the continuing, perhaps accelerating, breakdown of our social fabric. Whether it’s the arrest of children’s parents for letting them play alone outside or for camping with them, or the absurdity of drinking bottled water, the cracks in what we like to call civilization are growing wider. The public good has gotten so muddied that we are left to argue over semantics: whether a headline was too hyped or a date was cited incorrectly. Or we turn it over to the sociologists to tell us what we’re missing and what it all means.

There’s more to this than the decline of community, as Charles Eisenstein succinctly points out in this essay. He cites our inclination to surrender to authority, our need for control, our obsession with safety, and tendency to self-preservation. He laments the inevitable slide from avoidance of danger and uncertainty to the prison of “consequence-free zones” like video games. All of this is to the detriment of creativity, play, exploration, and risk-taking—everything we so desperately need in order to navigate this threshold time between stories.

Sociologist Brené Brown points out that, without setbacks and failures—and, therefore, risk and even danger—it’s impossible for children to have the experiences of uncertainty that go to building up self-confidence and determination. The research shows, counter to what we might think, that failure increases confidence and willingness to take further risks. All the effort that seems to be going into protecting kids from any adversity is absolutely the last thing they (and we) need.

I wonder if we’re doing more research on these things because we have less of them in our actual experience. It’s like a taxonomy of extinct species. Yesterday, I skimmed through a Facebook argument about whether the “Eastern Puma” is a) an actual, official species, and b) actually, officially extinct, according to a press release by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In this argument, people took firm positions on right and wrong, completely missing the point that yet another species is extinct. One guy claimed the animal was declared extinct in the 1930s, not yesterday. Another said the date was actually 2011. The first said that, in Canada, this is not an official species, so how can it be extinct? The besieged original poster diligently went through every comment to reply, and just scrolling through them, I felt the fatigue of pointlessness.

Why argue over something that’s already dead and gone? The post’s original intent was to suggest a lovely way to mourn the loss, which certainly has its place: whenever the extinction occurred, it’s a tragedy. But childhood is not (yet) extinct, despite being very different from how many of us remember our own childhoods. Likewise, the commons is not yet dead, although it’s certainly frittering away bit by bit. My writer friend, Diane Finlayson, remarks:

“There is NO social contract anymore. There aren’t even public water fountains anywhere except in airports and malls. There used to be water fountains around the city. . . all gone. And waste receptacles are few and far between and of course public phones are long gone. All these shifts signal that ‘the public’ is unable to take appropriate care of anything that’s left out (including our children) because only the poorest roughest elements should use these bits of infrastructure so the Officials have had to remove them. GOOD people (i.e. people with means) can get their own commodities (bottled water, cell phones, leave the trash in the car because they don’t have to ride the bus). And the children have house to be sheltered in away from the riff-raff. If they are left out that must signal a lack of responsibility of the ‘owners’ of those commodities.”

Bottled water is the poster child for the tragedy of the commons. This article makes the most persuasive case for not drinking it that I’ve seen. It’s a simple choice between thinking holistically about local resources and supporting multinational corporations that care only about the bottom line, not about people or the planet.

My son, 13, has mostly been driven places and participated in adult-created and supervised activities. The past two weeks, with lots of time on his hands, he has been hesitant to range more widely than usual to places that are easy to access with a bit of extra walking. We did have a possible breakthrough yesterday, when he thought that, with a couple of friends, it might be safe to walk through our village center to the pool.

His two main objections were telling: “That ramp [from the main street bridge down to the pool] is where the drug dealers hang out.” And, “A kid on the way to the french-fry shop got mugged after school last month.” This is the perception of our world from a 13-year-old, and we live in a (relatively) safe, affluent community. Was I wrong or negligent to tell him that if he sees any drug dealers to tell them he’s allergic and no thank you? I resist admitting that he must be driven everywhere—especially around my own neighborhood.

Some of this is a case of perception-is-reality. He hears things. He lives in a city that had riots last month, and that continues to have terrible disparities between haves and have nots. As a parent, I walk on the edge of being responsible and wanting my son to experience life fully—including encountering adversity–so he will grow up to live a rich life of service and meaning. I have to admit that I read those articles about CPS coming for “lax” parents with a touch of that highway-accident fascination. I may even indulge in thinking that would never happen to us. But, of course, we live in the same world, so anything is possible.

Sure, the world is a dangerous place. Yes, material wealth and technology allow us to stay well insulated from it most of the time. And yet our world is a world of consequences. Any story that tells us we can avoid them is a story of separation, and I want no part in that. Even in its broken, contradictory, crazy-making state, I’m willing to embrace it with both arms. Starting with reading no more of those articles. Enough, already. Time to go outside and live.

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