Why Disasters Happen And What Can We Do

Disasters plagued the year 2016. Last October 4, Hurricane Matthews plowed through Haiti with 145 miles per hour winds. The event took more than 500 lives. This Category 5 storm pushed to US days later and left 43 dead bodies and marred communities. The Ecuador earthquake in April 16 leveled houses, schools, and vital infrastructures. It claimed around 700 people. More than 30 countries were also affected by one of the strongest El Nino pattern in the last 20 years, causing heavily depleted water tables and damaged agricultural resources. Until today, millions of farmers are still feeling its enduring effects. Well, we can also include a huge man-made disaster in the mix. The war in Syria displaced around 430,000 people in 2016. In total, almost 5 million Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

For the longest time, I looked at disasters as events solely determined by environmental pressures. It is even popularly regarded as an “act of God” or “fate.” I can still remember one of my high school classmates saying that the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004, killing around 160,000 people, was a way of “cleaning” the immoralities of this world. I encountered similar comments on the landfall of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, killing around 6,400 people and displacing 4,000,000 others. It is not surprising that stories about catastrophic events can be found in religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran, and even great Sanskrit epics. This kind of perception, even though disconcerting, shows how the general public frame discussions related to disaster.

In the domain of stale discourse, we are demanded ask critical questions. “What is disaster?” “What is to be done?”

I think we can initiate a sounder analysis by defining what disaster is. In the academe, a disaster is now generally understood as (1) an event and (2) a process that overwhelms the capacity of vulnerable social group, economic activity, or infrastructure to resist and recover. This definition is popularized by Anthony Oliver-Smith in his essay Anthropology and the Political Economy of Disaster. It is a substantial leap from the popular approach on disaster, as environmentally-determined events, because this kind of framing factors the social vulnerabilities of people. Historically, these vulnerabilities are rooted in the subordination within a certain population. Simply speaking, disaster is both a product of environmental and social pressures. Thus, it can be better understood when analyzed at the intersection of society, technology, and environment. This definition, of course, calls for the dissolution of dichotomies like “society-environment” or “culture-nature.” These divides are parts of a larger socio-environmental totality. They actively interact. For historian Greg Bankoff, it is actually the mutualism of the two (society and environment) that lies an understanding of vulnerability and its application in revealing both the multifaceted nature of disaster, its historical roots and political context. Political economy will serve as an important analytic tool in understanding disaster. It helps us position events within the “normal” order of things. Society generates its own form of vulnerability, while political economic approach sees disaster as something that is socially constructed as well a natural phenomenon.

The case of storm surge caused by Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines last 2013, can be used as a case for this topic. Tacloban is considered a highly urbanized first class city in the Philippines. It is the provincial capital of Leyte and has an estimated population of 242,089 as of 2015 census. It is referred to as the most populous city in the Eastern Visayas. The issue of poverty and corruption has always been associated to Philippines national and local politics. In the first semester of 2012, poverty incidence in this country was recorded at 27.9 percent. During the same period in 2015, it was estimated at 26.3 percent. It means that more than 26 million of Filipinos remain poor. And 12 million Filipinos live in extreme poverty, a categorization based on their inability to feed household members. In the Philippines, a person is not considered poor if he/she earns more than 2 dollars a day! Travesty. (Yet, the narrative of trickle-down economics has been endlessly paraded by politicians during election campaigns.)

Haiyan is one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall in recorded history. It is a Category 5 typhoon with maximum sustained winds reaching 315 kph and with gusts up to 379 kph. The extent of its damage was reported to be around 36 billion pesos (717,775,200 US dollars). It destroyed roughly 550,000 houses and damaged 600,000 others. In just a day, it displaced almost 4,000,000 people. Haiyan heavily affected communities located at the coastal zones of Tacloban. The barrage of storm surge virtually flattened local communities. Government officials later disclosed that most of the affected communities were positioned within hazard zones. Majority of those affected are included in the State-defined poverty matrix. As pictured by the local media, the word “storm surge” never existed, and was never viewed a threat, until Haiyan.

Factors that we can attribute in this disaster…

1. Poor urban planning and lack of basic social services such as quality housing (infrastructural vulnerability).

2. Communities and leaders lack adequate knowledge on storm surge caused by super typhoons (informational vulnerability).

3. Huge chasm of socio-economic inequality and issues of misspent public money (economic vulnerability).

4. Disjoint between local government officials and national government officials (political vulnerability)

These are major structural conditions and vulnerabilities that enable disaster. In addition, a major problem that is also observable is how government officials and agencies approach disaster as a socio-environmental problem. They design programs and policies focused on disaster mitigation, not prevention. This is an outdated framing that lacks long-term vision and sustainability. Again, disaster is a process and an event. We need to assess and address the overlapping vulnerabilities, created by maladaptive social processes, in order to avoid or reduce the impact of environmental stress. We also need to understand why there are sub-population more affected within a larger society. It highlights the question, ‘what makes them more vulnerable than others?’

Final Thoughts…

Environmental pressures will only increase under the shroud of global climate change. That’s for certain. We are currently experiencing the strongest storms, longest droughts, and hottest global temperatures. We need to build (both literally and figuratively) better communities that are resilient to the challenges of times.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

Animals Make Us Human

The Internet loves cats and dogs! That’s no-brainer. Do a quick search on Youtube and you’ll easily spot a clip of a cat chasing a perpetual moving laser pointer! And let me guess. That video has more than a hundred thousand views, right? Silly humans. Well, it shows our fascination over pets. But aside from the fact that they are cute and fluffy, our close social proximity to cats and dogs can be traced to our shared history of co-evolution. Roughly 13,000 to 30,000 years ago, humans started to domesticate animals. In Darwinian evolution, this process is called artificial selection. And it started way before the internet, the smartphones, the Apollo mission, and the Industrial Revolution! And what was the first animal that we domesticated? The dog.

Scientists cannot still identify the exact time when humans started to treat dogs as pets, but it is certain that canine domestication was widespread. In 2008, a 31,700-year-old dog bones were excavated in Belgium. It is considered as our earliest domesticated canine. Prehistoric dog skeletons have also been discovered across Asia, Europe, Western Russia, and Australia. But how did this happen? Well, it is probable that canine domestication started from a purely serendipitous process. Some researchers hypothesized that there were wolves that would go close to early human settlements while looking for food. They were possibly attracted to the garbage and food waste produced by humans. Wolves that were bold enough to approach humans, yet not aggressive enough to rip their hands, got fed. This stage of “self-domestication” by wolves was pivotal for us to breed them for hunting, standing guard, and herding (and later, becoming cute life forms).

This piece talks about how humans figure to the life of animals and vice-versa. The title is based on a work of a popular animal scientist Temple Grandin. In 2009, she published a book titled Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Grandin is currently one of the most celebrated animal advocate and animal behavior expert in the world. Her own experience with autism and knowledge on animal science helped her understand how animals think, act, and feel. The work is an enthralling exploration on how animals ‘see’ their world. Her ultimate goal is to teach people how to give pets the best and happiest life. She argues that physical need is just a part of the total animal welfare. More than food and shelter, animals need a well-conditioned mental health. According to Grandin, the best way to create good living conditions for any animal is “to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain.” In doing so, the environment where they live should activate positive emotions and avoid negative emotions any more than necessary. By achieving a balance core emotion system, pets will have lesser behavioral problems. For example, it is almost always better to give animals freedom to act naturally. It is because their normal functions (e.g. walking, running, sniffing the ground) are closely connected to satisfy their emotions (being happy, for instance). If you can’t give them the freedom to act naturally, you should design activities that will trigger their positive emotions. Grandin posits that emotion should be the primary concern, not the behavior.

But what about the value of animals to the life of man? How do they figure to our humanity? Listed here are three examples of human-animal interrelations that show the importance of animals to the worldviews of people.

How Animals Shape Worldviews (Making Us Human)

1. Fighting Cocks in the Balinese Culture — In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published an ethnography titled Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. This essay is part of his most influential work in the social science titled The Interpretations of Culture. In this study, Geertz explored the symbolic meanings attached to cock and cockfighting among the locals of Bali, Indonesia. He discovered that cocks traditionally signify masculinity and power in the villages of Bali. That is why during cockfight, winningest cocks are associated to successful and prestigious individuals or leaders. Betting process and norms on cockfighting can also be used to examine the social divides and political tensions of the community. There are unspoken but widely understood rules such as “you can’t bet against your relatives” or “village members will automatically group together when playing with outsiders”. These customs simply show the symbolic value of cock and cockfighting among Balinese.

2. Reindeer Hunting Among the Cree – In the thick woodlands of northeastern Canada hunts the Cree people. They are native hunters-gatherers that target different game animals but focus mainly on reindeers. Social anthropologist Tim Ingold observed (see his book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill) that when Cree hunters pursue reindeer in the woods, there comes a point when reindeer suddenly stops, turns its head and stares at the hunters directly. Instead of running, reindeers usually do this strange thing when aware of others’ presence. Biologists have concluded that this behavior is an adaptive mechanism so that reindeers can escape from their natural predator, wolves. During pack hunt, wolves will stop on their tracks the moment the reindeer stops running. The same thing also happens; the reindeer will stop and look at its pursuer squarely. But this is only a preparation for their next run. Since the reindeer will initiate the breaking of that stalemate, it will have a slight advantage over the wolves. Thus, a healthy adult deer can usually outrun wolf packs. This biological adaption against wolves, however, goes favorable for human hunters. When a reindeer stops, hunters can easily shoot using their projectile weapons.

Cree hunters cognize this phenomenon differently than Western science. That critical point when the deer stares at them during the pursuit is read by Cree hunters as a message of self-sacrifice. They feel that the animal “offers itself up, quite intentionally and in a spirit of good-will or even love towards the hunter.” For Ingold, this is fascinating because killing doesn’t simply appear as “termination of life but as an act that is critical to its regeneration.” Situated within the Cree worldview, the reindeer feeds the community to survive.

3. Honeyguides and the Yao tribesmen. Southeast Africa is widely known for its ecological affluence. One interesting story about this place is the commensal relation of a wild bird species called honeyguides (Indicator indicator) and an indigenous group called the Yao. Despite their obvious biological difference, these two species developed a call-system for communication. Yao people are known gatherers of honey. The problem, however, is that beehives are usually hidden at the top of tall tress, safely camouflaged among branches. This makes the tracking of hives fairly difficult. This is when honeyguides help the Yao tribesmen. Since they can easily scout above high branches, looking for hives is easy for these birds.

To inform the Yao gatherers, honeyguides will make a signature chirp, and will swoop from one tree to another until reaching the hive. Years of close interaction trained the gatherers to discern the said bird sound. They can also ask help from nearby honeyguides by performing a unique birdcall, handed for countless generations. Yao gatherers will be in-charge of getting the hive when they get into the location. After extracting the honey, the birds will then feast on the remaining beeswax and grubs. On their own, honeyguides can’t open beehives. It’s a win-win scenario for all. Hmm, except the bees.

Final Thoughts…

There are moments when people realize that humanity has always been enmeshed to a larger web of life. Our existence is not only of our own but an organ of a greater ecological dynamics. From our ‘everyday cats and dogs’ to ‘our not-so-everyday wild birds like honeyguides,’ the story of human-animal relation has gone a long way. Cross-species camaraderie is not an overnight phenomenon. On the contrary, it will always be a work-in-progress. This may be a reminder that animals make us human.

The Consequences of Dehumanizing Muslims and Mexicans in America

Let’s face it – the main focus of President Donald Trump’s administration is blocking the United States from minorities that the president considers dangerous. That’s what the news has been buzzing about for a long time already, even during Trump’s presidential campaign.

The result? Obviously, steps have been taken since Trump’s official declaration as president to issue an Executive Order which aims to close the country from seven major Muslim countries. All of these racket just because of the petty assumption that blocking Muslim visitors would lead to the end of terrorism. Unfortunately, the University of Pennsylvania presented a research about the effects contrary to what Trump is fighting for.

The Research

The journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin published a recent study titled “Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization.” Dehumanization refers to dissociating positive human traits from a group of people. The study specifically discusses Americans dehumanizing Mexican and Muslim immigrants. The social experiment was done during the U.S. Republican Primaries in 2016. Also, the research includes consequences of dehumanizing minorities.

Now, let’s find out how the social experiment was done. The researchers presented the diagram called “Ascent of Man” to American subjects. This diagram is known to represent the theory of evolution. The participants must associate groups of people to a certain icon on the diagram. The icons range from the ape to the modern human. What’s alarming is this: The result shows that most Americans associate Mexicans and Muslims with the developing ape-like man. Americans, on the other hand, are placed on the fully developed man.

In addition, the researchers noticed that Americans who dehumanized Mexicans and Muslims are displaying disturbing acts such as giving threats to these groups. Dehumanization can also mean Americans not having sympathy for Mexicans and Muslims, even campaigning for stricter surveillance, limited immigration opportunities and deportation for these minorities.

The immense support of the American subjects for Trump during the social experiment just gives an unhealthy perspective on the new president’s administration – that America is now reigned by dehumanizers.

The Consequences

The researchers found out that the Muslims and Latinos themselves are aware about dehumanization towards their groups. They believed that this could lead to violent actions. They also included that Muslims, once they feel more and more victimized by dehumanization, would most likely become unsupportive in America’s counterterrorism campaign.

Dehumanization is a whole new level of being disliked or discriminated. Hence, it produces more hate from the victimized groups which leads to violence. For example, Americans felt dehumanized by Iranians in the past. So, they didn’t resort to the Iran Nuclear deal. Instead, they preferred war.

When groups of people become aggressive due to dehumanization, they would continue with violence because they feel their actions are justified. Since dehumanization also means not being civilized, then they would do the exact same thing. It’s like giving “a dose of their own medicine” but in a whole new level.

Final Thoughts

Dehumanization is a vicious cycle. It is unhealthy and cruel. I hope it’s not too late to change this perception from most Americans. Disastrous consequences would emerge if these Americans would continue giving a blind eye.

Culture For Dummies

It’s culture!

Films, books, paintings, operas, museums, ancestral homes, antiques – things that people mundanely associate to culture. India’s annual Festival of Colors (Holi), for instance, reminds us of the vividness of Eastern cultural landscape. The same thing goes when we experience the enthralling lights of Broadway. There’s a sense of intimate allure, yet hauntingly distant. We imagine culture as an exotic, romantic, and fashionable existence out there, far away. But it’s not.

Culture is one of the most ambiguous terms in the English language. In 2014, Merriam-Webster announced ‘culture’ as the Word of Year. They explained that this word saw the highest spike in terms of lookups on their site. “Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. We live in a world where the use and abuse culture is widespread. With this in mind, we need to ask, “What is culture?” In his classic work titled Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, anthropologist Edward Tylor defined this concept as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society.” This definition is considered as the most popular (and quoted) anthropological conceptualization of this word. The word was originally derived from the archaic Latin colere which means to ‘to tend, to inhabit, to till, to worship.’

Culture is a central but contested concept in anthropology and sociology. It covers a complex range of social realities and phenomena transmitted by means of social learning. It gives people an array of cognitive tools for them to make sense of their world. And unlike the general assumption that it is ‘far away’, culture is actually unfolding right in front of our eyes. It is not always romantic and exotic; but it is practical, repetitive, and a guide to our every day humanity. It is not solely about music, or fashion, or taste, but an intricate combination of all these components weaved together to create multitudes of daily habits and practices. To better understand this point, Conrad Kottak (author of Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology) posits that we can examine culture using a number attributes.

Attributes of Culture

1. It is learned. The way children absorb culture is dependent on humans’ biological capacity to learn complex thought. Most of the time, culture is learned unconsciously. Cultural knowledge is transmitted through observation and performance. It is usually passed from one generation to another, a rigid social process called enculturation.

Like Homo sapiens, other animals have the capacity to learn. For example, we can teach our dogs to do a trick or two. Wolves can learn hunting strategies by watching and tagging with other pack members. There are even group of chimpanzees capable of using simple tools to hunt their prey. These are social animals that learn from other members of the group or their environment. And the capacity to learn is important for them to survive. But cultural learning is radically different since it requires the ability of decoding/encoding symbols (signs that have no necessary connection to the things they signify). Humans can learn things despite the absence of actual experience. Students can learn the life of Adolf Hitler even though some were just born twenty years ago! This is possible because we have universe of symbols embedded in our culture. And we retrieve this information whenever necessary. It points us to the next attribute – that culture is fundamentally symbolic.

2. It is symbolic. This implies that social meanings are encoded into symbols such as words, signs, actions, events, objects, etcetera. Symbols are usually linguistic. But there are tons of nonverbal symbols around us. We think of countries when we see flags. Diamond is a symbol of wealth. A double arch may signify a particular fast food chain for many of us. Or we picture a clothing brand when looking at a bold check logo. We can efficiently transfer knowledge to a wider public because of our ability to encode and understand symbols.

(Centuries from now, future archaeologists may study the symbolic value of Star Wars franchise by analyzing artifacts like DVDs and merchandise. Who knows?!)

3. It is shared. An individual cannot simply claim that he/she have his/her own culture. Culture frames individuals as members of groups, sharing, producing, and reproducing practices and meanings together. Ever heard of the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”? It reminds us that behaviors and practices are simply parts of a larger whole – a communitas. Shared ideals, beliefs, values, and memories glue people of the same group. And enculturation makes people closer by providing similar experiences and worldviews.

4. It is all-encompassing. This means that all people are “cultured!” There’s a time in history when the term “culture” can only be associated to individuals with education, sophistication, high socio-economic pedigree, and those who can appreciate arts and letters. That’s just elitism talking! Culture encompasses people and the triviality of life. It includes pop culture, hip hop, and heavy metal music! It is more than the expected refinement – of partaking wine and cheese. Culture is about the grueling monotonous routines that we see unworthy of serious analysis.

5. It can be adaptive (or maladaptive). For 150,000 years, humans survived because we have biological and cultural ways of coping with environmental pressures. Moreover, social and cultural means of adaptation has only increased during the course of human evolution. It is seamlessly embodied by the survival of populations in extreme environmental conditions such as the freezing domains of Siberia and the arid ecology of Kalahari Desert.

The Viliui Sakha of Northeast Siberia is a good example on the resiliency of local communities. They are pastoralists and horticulturalists, well-accustomed to the cold climatic condition of the area. Come winter, the temperature drops to -50 to -60 degrees (they call this hard climate). During its peak, flying birds would usually freeze and die. And whey they spit, it will freeze before hitting the ground. Even though the place is almost freezing all throughout the year, they can still store enough food stuff because they understand what resources they should acquire, use, and maximize during a particular period. In addition, their local knowledge on sowing hides for clothing protects them from the desolate icy winds of Siberia. Winter is a territory of comfort for the Sakha. In this case, culture is a central tool kit to their survival.

Final Thoughts…

I think it is high time for people to recognize the nuances of culture as a conceptual tool. It may be complex but never impossible. Exploring the diversity of culture is a journey in understanding perspectives and voices. In a rapidly globalizing world, culture will eventually serve as bridge in understanding local narratives.

Exploring the Digital Age Acculturation

In her book titled When Old Technologies Were New (1988), Carolyn Marvin mentioned that “new technologies will bring every individual… into immediate and effortless communication with every other, practically obliterate political geography, and make free trade universal.” A seemingly prophetic line, indeed. People around the world are now closer than ever. What made this transformation possible? And what are the cultural implications of a more connected global landscape?

Technological achievements when it comes to transportation, though very significant, is just but a speck of this radical social transformation. During the last five decades, the advancement that truly shaped the image of our global landscape is our communication system – the Internet, to be more precise. As of the moment, almost all of us have an available access to telecommunication devices for fast and reliable connection. In numbers, China is currently leading the chart on world’s highest Internet users with 721,434,547 active users as of June 2016. This is followed by India (with 462,124,989 users) and United States (with 286,942,362 users). We are living in a world wherein human populations are greatly enmeshed. This connection grows staggeringly fast each day. With this context, I think it is apt to state that the Internet is currently shaping a new type of acculturation where personal culture contact is absent but transfer and exchange of cultural traits still happen. Anthropologist Conrad Kottak defines acculturation as “the exchange of cultural features that results when groups have continuous firsthand contact. With acculturation, parts of the culture change, but each group remains distinct.”

Whether acculturation is facilitated by coercion and force is still contested. Acculturation is, most of the time, between dominant and submissive culture. It actually entails a two-way process of change though many researches focus on the adjustments and adaptations by minority groups to dominant mainstream groups. Interestingly, the dawn of digital age is starting to transcend the textbook definition of acculturation. Traditionally, continuous firsthand culture contact is a prerequisite for acculturation to take place. Digital realm, however, enables people to connect and continuously contact other people (firsthand) even though they are physically distant. This is when the cyberspace comes in. Basically, Internet is a dynamic and evolving system of global network that connects millions of computers through the use of standard Internet protocol suite. An article written by Jonathan Strickland (Who Owns the Internet?) contains a very unorthodox presentation on how Internet protocol works:

“Imagine you’re in a room full of people from different countries, and everyone only speaks his or her native language. In order to communicate, you’d have to come up with a standard set of rules and vocabulary. That’s what makes the Internet so remarkable: It’s a system that lets different computer networks communicate with each other using a standardized set of rules. Without rules, these computer networks wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other.”

Internet protocol suite, the standardized set of rules, enables computer of different “Internet Protocol” IP addresses (the identity and location of your computer) to communicate across networks. We can create a network through a router – a hardware that connects one computer to another. The router, then, fires transmission signals to satellites that will then distribute the message and the connection to other existing networks around the world. We have now a global system of network. And the connection is growing ridiculously fast!

Live video calling between individual is already possible. Discussions at chat rooms and forum websites do exist. It is as if Internet has the ability to devoid the geographical boundaries of different people and let them have personal contact in just few mouse clicks. The phenomenon is fascinating because firsthand contacts between different cultures are actually happening without one physically meeting the other. For example, a Korean national that uses the Internet can easily converse and discuss with a German national even though they are thousands of miles apart. They can share their ideas, experiences, and even culture as they immerse in this virtual society. It is apparent that the physical contact is absent in this kind of transaction but the idea of passing cultural knowledge and traits to other individuals or groups (especially those who are not members of one’s society) thrive and continually occur. The firsthand contact of different people through the Internet, in a way, has bypassed the platform of physical space.

In addition, circulation of digital media suddenly became active because of the Internet. People can watch, share and download films, songs, pictures, and books. Mass-production of digital information is right before our eyes. These are material cultures that carry cultural traits from the society where it has originated.

We should also be aware that Internet is not a homogeneous entity. Inside this cyberspace, are thousands of social clusters with varied interests and goals. This is important because different sections of the Internet also contain different cultural dynamics and rites of passage. Some websites accommodate people who are interested in news, while other are created to facilitate easier philosophical or scientific discussions. Some are developed to archive tons of information (like Wikipedia) while there are also websites that serve as carnal haven for those who consume pornographic video. Websites vary when it comes to cultural structure and their members vary from wide-ranging demography to focused target population. In a way, Internet is composed of virtual social organizations that we can call electronic tribes. Here, people continually reproduce electronic culture, and also inevitably incorporate it in their personal lives.

Final Thoughts…

Internet is making a mark in the human history. Still, I cannot deny the obvious limits of Internet. Behind the mists and magic of the Internet lies an older and stronger order whose relevance remains inescapable. Groups that do not have access to Internet are less affected by what I am calling “digital acculturation”. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the world population still do not have access to Internet. Virtual scoiety, though promises freedom within cyberspace, ironically generates social stratification. However, this does not mean that we should stop using the Internet. On the contrary, I think we are placed in the right position to explore the limitations of this technology. And we are still starting.

Long live the Internet!

Rethinking the Tragedy of the Commons: Revisiting the Dilemma of Global Climate Crisis

In the field economics and ecological studies, there is a remarkably influential parable that illustrates how humanity is bound to face demise due to innate and inflated selfishness. The setting of this story is a shared grassy pasture named the Commons. The villagers’ main livelihood is the grazing of their cows in this field. Since it is a finite space, the Commons can only support as much as a hundred cows. One hundred farmers each bring a single cow, and they all enjoyed the sense of collective spirit. To begin with, the resource is good and free! But each farmer will eventually realize, “If only I can bring another cow. That will instantly double my income and will only place a one percent strain on the Commons. That is a freaking great deal!” However, all villagers will start to bring an extra cow because that is the logical step forward. With this scenario, two hundred cows will overgraze the Commons. The ecological equilibrium of this grassy pasture will suffer. The cows will all die. And the villagers will all starve to death. A pretty dark fairy tale material right there, I guess!

This parable is based on Garrett Hardin’s enduring essay titled “Tragedy of the Common,” published in Science magazine in 1968. The underlying assumption? That we, human beings, are biologically wired to follow our selfish personal interests. It highlights the epitome of individualism by arguing that humans will follow their interests more than common goals. Atlas Shrugged 2.0! And the moral of the narrative? That there is a need to cooperate or everyone loses. In the real world, we can draw parallel situations wherein humans who persevere for the common good are far lesser and lose out in the struggle of existence over the more self-serving ones. This eventually leads to intensive resource over exploitation and the tragedies of failed cooperation.

In the global landscape, the burgeoning climate change, a phenomenon with anthropogenic cause, is heavily attributed to the self-serving decisions of our exploitation-driven global politics (a politico-economy of the wealthy few). Many academic studies already showed that significant increases of potent greenhouse gasses are results of human activity. Ironically, we continue to pump more into the atmosphere. 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded.

As hopeless and cold this story gets, I believe it also needs a critical rereading. So we ask, is it possible to avoid this tragedy? Yes. But first, we need to explicate why Hardin’s position needs a rethink. Despite his erudite reflection on the relationship of human nature and shared-resource system (like the Commons or Earth), Hardin’s vision lacks a sense of human history. His monolith portrayal of people as selfish social creatures definitely lacks our long history of survival due to cooperation and collective struggle. Prior to the emergence of complex societies with clearly-defined social hierarchy, humans followed egalitarian systems wherein consensus and common goals are of great importance. Many hunting-gathering communities, for instance, follow that each hunter’s success belonged to all the group members. The symbol of collectivism is exemplified by the distribution of animal meat after their hunt. Intended or not, this practice allows for an equally distributed resources which leads to a system of social-leveling that eliminates inequality. Many of these hunting-gathering communities existed for more than 80,000 years. And each of the members will acquire a sense of collective responsibility because all of them benefit from it.

In this case, individualism is a relatively new construct vis-à-vis the long history of mankind. To conclude that humans are not capable of producing systems that will redress environmental concerns simply undermines human creativity. In response to Hardin’s perspective, political scientist Elinor Ostrom (a recipient of Nobel Prize in Economic Science for her work on the management of common-pool resources) argued that environmental crisis can be prevented if we learn to self-organize around common interests. Ostrom’s researches on American lobster fisheries, community irrigation schemes in Spain, Nepalese forest management, consistently show that sustainable and productive environment can be achieved by following a combination of principles.

Elinor Ostrom’s Principles for Managing the Commons

  1. Delineate obvious group boundaries.
  2. Match rules main use of general goods to local needs and circumstances.
  3. Guarantee that those affected by the rules can take part in modifying the policies.
  4. Ensure the rule-making privileges of the community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Expand a scheme, conceded out by neighbourhood members for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Employ graduated sanction for law violators.
  7. Grant available, low-cost means for argument resolutions.
  8. Make accountability for governing the common assets in nested tiers from the least level up to the whole unified system.

Contrary to the general expectation that government authorities and market are the key institutions that can guide common resources, Ostrom asserted that localized systems and rules are actually the most effective answer to the dilemma of environmental crisis. It is the people that should seize self-organization because they best understand their problems, needs, and goals.

Final Thoughts…

Of course, global concerns are far more complicated. But I think it is remarkable that different agreements and protocols to reduce carbon emissions are being pursued up there. More than 80 mega-cities across the globe are already arranging climate action. Recently, 195 countries linked to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) forwarded Accord de Paris (The Paris Agreement) which hopes to deal with greenhouse gases emissions and to improve community resiliency under climate change.

Surely, the movements and efforts are still developing. It is not perfect, that is for certain. National initiatives and commitment also need to improve to address global climate crisis. But what is fascinating is the progress of environmental consciousness, not only in the global arena but also in the local level. Regional and local efforts show that societies can create systems and mechanisms (which are independent from international agreements) directed to address a globally common issue. And the world is closely watching, now more than ever. After all, the villagers grazing the cows are not as dumb as we expected them to be.

Why Terrorists Exist: It’s Not about Religion and Politics

Some people would say that terrorists are religious nuts. Some even believe that terrorists want to rule the world. Surprisingly, everything about that is false. That’s why it is unfair that certain communities are discriminated just because some of their people resort to terrorism. The real motivation of terrorists may surprise you.

The Study

Jessica Stern is the Pardee School of Global Studies’ research professor. According to Boston University, she managed to study the psyche of a terrorist who is imprisoned in Sweden. In August 2012, her whole probe reached six hours. Turns out, the terrorist’s main drive is not about ethnic beliefs – he just loved to kill people.

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Stern eventually wrote case studies about her encounters with many different terrorists. In April 2014, one of her studies was published in the journal titled “Behavioral Sciences & the Law.” She actually has been focusing on this kind of study for at least 20 years now. She successfully talked with extremist cults in the US, terrorists in Gaza, Lebanon, Indonesia, Pakistan and Israel, and India’s Hindu extremists.

The Reasons

Stern concluded that out of the many causes, drives and motivations she heard from the terrorists she interviewed, none of those exactly fit religion and political views. Some answers were interesting and unexpected.

Violent Household

Terrorists have bad childhood experiences. Some of those cases don’t necessarily refer to violence in the place they grew up in. Some terrorists can still remember clearly how their parents beat them up when they were still kids.


Now, here’s where general violence enters the picture. Many terrorists were traumatized as children by the horrors they saw in war-ridden countries. Their trauma develops into activism, and support or tolerance for violence.


Extremists love the excitement they get in terrorizing people. They love the adrenaline when things get risky.

Peer Pressure

This may sound petty, but some terrorists actually joined extremist groups to follow their friends. Some were probably pressured or blackmailed. Meanwhile, some just didn’t want the idea of ending friendships. Creating violence together seemed like a fun activity for them.


Some reasons are close enough to prove that religious differences cause terrorism. But, the root is much deeper than that. Some terrorists want to live in a world where there is only good and evil. They don’t want to deal with people who can be good or bad in some instances, which is a normal thing for humans. Some groups promise that notion using a certain religion. So, they easily gained terrorist recruits.

Source of Income

This is probably the saddest of all. Some terrorists are just plain desperate. In poor countries, terrorism becomes a job.


Most terrorists suffered injustice their whole lives. So, to feed themselves with the idea of justice, they terrorize the general population under the regime they loathe.


Stern considered humiliation as the risk factor for terrorists, especially the founders of extremist groups. According to her, one Kashmiri militant founded a terrorist group because he hated how the West overpowered Muslims. But, the hate is not mainly focused on western countries. Terrorists are humiliated that they are part of the world’s minority. In exact words, the terrorist group founder said: “Our ego hurts.”

Final Thoughts

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Interviewing terrorists is definitely not easy, according to Stern. The world-renowned researcher said that she must leave all of her personal opinions about terrorists before interviews. That’s why her research studies are so successful. Stern understood the pain and psyche of terrorists. The worst things they do come from the worst things they have seen and experienced growing up. Understanding terrorists’ motivations, drives and reasons can affect greatly on how to stop terrorism in the long run.