A bridge you could never use…

I have been obsessed with the BBC’s Human Planet series lately. In this episode on ‘Rivers’, people in Meghalaya, India care for a system of living bridges made of vines that span the rivers of their region:

So what are the economic incentives to work on a bridge that will take more than just one person’s lifetime to complete? A bridge that the builder could never use or even see completed!

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2 thoughts on “A bridge you could never use…

  1. So cool.

    Isn’t there a story in the bible about an old man who benevolently plants a fig tree for the next generation, even though it will never bear fruit for him? I recall being taught in Sunday school that the (definitive) moral of the story was “think of others first.”

    Here’s my more nuanced hypothesis to your question on personal incentives to build the bridge. I am assuming that the bridge builder is part of a fairly stable community; most people are born and die in or near the same relatively small village. In this context, it makes sense for him to invest in the community, which he is doing through the bridge. The real worth for him is that he is seen as a mensch in the community. Everyone knows he is the one building the bridge, and they thank him, are kind to him, invite him for dinner because he’s a good guy, etc.. He will put in a bunch of free work on the bridge, but will be richly rewarded with friends, pleasant conversations, and status.

    Its interesting to note that economic theory, which until recently tended to view everything through a monetized lens, developed during the period in English history where stable community were quickly falling apart, as people moved from rural villages to industrializing cities. In a transient city where people are constantly moving neighborhoods, changing jobs, leaving to work at a factory in a different city, etc. and there’s no social continuity, investments for the public good won’t yield the same social dividend. Imagine if that guy tried to build a similar bridge in Dhaka; no one would thank him in 20 years, because he may have moved to Calcutta for work, of moved neighborhoods in Dhaka, and everyone else will be elsewhere too.

    Of course, people form small communities within the city, and in those realms you see people doing more seemingly altruistic acts, because they know they will be recognized for it.

    What do you think of this idea?

  2. I forgot the other part of my argument: in the absence of a stable community to recognize one’s “goodness” through acts like building a tree bridge, wealth and job status become the proxies for communicating “goodness.”

    This makes sense. In the village our bridge building is recognized as a industrious, beneficial guy to the community through his free work to the public good, which is communicated to everyone else through word of mouth in a small village.

    In a transient, large city where people’s backgrounds are unknown, our bridge building is recognized as an industrious, beneficial guy to everyone else through how much money he has, since industrious, beneficial guys tend to make more money than lazy or unhelpful people.

    This is simplistic, but I think there’s truth to the basic idea.

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