The Parallel Economy of the Commons

It is an article of faith among economists that a resource without a private property regime is destined for overuse. Yet on Bali, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, that is not the case. For centuries rice farmers there have coordinated their use of scarce water through social networks built on the innate human capacity to manage such resources in a cooperative manner.1

The system is based on what anthropologists have called “water temples,” which enfold the water sharing within a context of traditional Balinese religion. But actually the networks function through a form of bottom- up cooperation in which the temples provide a venue through which producers can coordinate their water use. Modern computer analysis has found that the resulting allocation is close to ideal in terms of the productivity of the farms. It defeats pests naturally and uses the available water to maximum effect.2


Good Bye Night Sky

There was a time, a few days ago in human history, really, when people spent a lot of time looking at the sky at night.   To read Greek mythology, and Shakespeare’s plays, one might guess that people were as familiar with the constellations, as they are with corporate brands today. Or close at least.   Of course, it was possible back then to see the sky at night.  As David Owen pointed out in a recent New Yorker piece (August 20th), in Galileo’s day – about 400 years ago –people thought the Milky Way was a continuous ooze, so densely packed were the heavens to the naked eye.

Today we can see only a fraction of what was easily visible back then.  We are enclosed in a visual cocoon, and the cause is not just the smog and fumes that fill the sky.  Even more it is the light.  “Today a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building on a cloudless night,” Owen writes, would see “less than one percent of what Galileo would have been able to see.” We emit so much illumination – if that’s the word – down here below, that we have lost the capacity to see above.


Our Neglected Wealth

For a preview of the next big turn of the political wheel, we might consider a drama that is unfolding in the realm of computers and the World Wide Web.

For years, tech gurus touted the Web as a new frontier of freedom. Yet something very different has occurred. Fences and toll booths are going up all over. Marketers collect dossiers on us without our knowledge. Ads assault us at every click. The push increasingly is not to liberate information, but rather to contrive new ways to make us pay for it.