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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sustainability, the sound commons, and Garrett Hardin's tragedy

    I've written earlier about the soundscape as a commons, i.e. as a resource available to all creatures. Recall that according to the acoustic niche hypothesis, each animal species that communicates by sound does so within a niche in the soundscape, the result of evolutionary adaptation. The niche is marked by timbre, frequency, volume, repetition, time of day or night, etc. with the goal that individuals' signals be received by other species members unambiguously. Of course, they are also overheard by predators, to whom animals may give false signals. Obviously, this works best in a relatively stable ecosystem. Introduce disturbances, such as drastic changes in habitat, or frequent noise interference, and sound communication becomes difficult. Natural disturbances such as fire, human-made disturbances such as agricultural development in forested areas, or climate change, or noise pollution due to ocean vessels, wreak havoc with the soundscape and the acoustic niches available. Communication suffers and species health inevitably declines, due of course not only to the degradation in soundscape but to the ecosystem generally.
    For a century anthropological linguists have written about endangered languages, and comparative musicologists and ethnomuiscologists about endangered musics. As traditional cultures have become displaced or even in some cases gone extinct, or as they modernize and discard their older layers of music, various musical resources, such as instruments, genres, and the knowledge associated with them also have disappeared. This endangerment discourse moved from preservation to conservation to safeguarding to sustainability, gradually acknowledging the dynamism in living traditions. What's been missing is a framework for sustainability. I don't mean a particular type of sustainability, such as economic, environmental, musical, cultural, etc. What I'm getting at is a framework within which to view sustainability. It's not an adjective that modifies sustainability at issue here; it is the larger context within which sustainability rests. And that context, I believe, is commons, broadly understood as a resource commons where resources are not only material but also intellectual, ethical, and cultural, extending culture from humans to the higher vertebrates as well. Sustainability occurs, in other words, where the overriding principles are interconnectedness and mutuality, whether we are talking about an information commons, a fishery, a music culture, or chemical processes such as photosynthesis within an ecosystem. Commons defeats entropy.
    In thinking about commons once more, I returned to Garrett Hardin's seminal essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons" and discovered that I had not really remembered it carefully.[1] This influential essay, now 45 years old, is usually understood to argue against commons; but upon examination it turns out that is not what Hardin had in mind. His article opposed an unregulated commons, not commons per se. The unregulated commons is unsustainable; no "technical solution" (Hardin meant technology) can save it. But a managed commons is sustainable. What is his reasoning?
    In terms which were prescient, Hardin begins by stating that certain problems, such as continuous world population growth, do not admit of technological solutions. The planet's resources are finite, which means despite technological means of extracting more and more of them, population growth cannot in the long run be infinite. This contention prepares his discussion of commons, but readers usually ignore it (or forget it, as I did) and pass directly to his claim that individuals sharing a commons and always acting only in what they see as their personal best interest ultimately must exhaust its resources. And that is all most people take away from this influential essay. In the enormous literature produced in response to it, readers tend to forget that Hardin continues his commons argument in order to discredit the "invisible hand" doctrine of Adam Smith and other laissez-faire (today we would say neoliberal) capitalists. In other words, the tragedy of the commons gives the lie to Smith's claim that if everyone works in their personal best interest an invisible hand will see to it that the public will benefit as well. On the contrary, the public suffers; and ultimately the individuals who may profit at first also suffer as resources become exhausted even for them. For that reason, Hardin concludes, a regulated commons is best. 
    Hardin insisted that relying on individual restraint brought on by knowledge of the common good would not always suffice. His overriding concern was with population growth; wishing to limit this so as not to bring about a Malthusian conclusion, he acknowledged that individuals could scarcely be depended on to limit their number of offspring voluntarily. Regulation by law was the only answer. In China, of course, this is precisely what occurred; but in the West, it has been unthinkable to do anything but depend on individuals' sense of ethical responsibility. Take the discussion away from population growth, or "breeding" in Hardin's unfortunate phrase, and put it into carbon emissions and their effect on climate change, and we have the same argument that is being made today for carbon offsets, carbon taxes, and the like, to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide humans are putting into the atmosphere. We may also see the wisdom in Hardin's choice of the word "tragedy," even though we are loath to accept its implications. Hardin's essay, rightly read, helps us frame the sustainability discourse for music and culture as well as for population and energy.

[1] Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248.