Act: Inspiration

The tragedy is not having common goods

July 22, 2021

Since we were dispossessed of the commons we have been forced to compete more aggressively, which has led us to fall into the perverse wheel of consumerism and, in an apparent paradox, to end up mistreating the goods on which our very survival depends.

In the 14th century, as the Black Death depleted the population, it increased the bargaining power of farmers. Revolts broke out and, in many countries, serfdom was ended and the land began to be managed more communally, respectfully and democratically. This obviously did not sit too well with the Powers that be (TPTB) at the time. They viewed the loss of privileges with fear. As soon as a few years had passed and the situation was restored, of course, there was a forceful response: the land enclosures. Many lands ceased to be shared property and were enclosed, demarcated and divided among the nobility.

These land enclosures made possible the original accumulation at the end of the Middle Ages, and with it the beginning of Capitalism. A large part of the population, no longer having a basic and guaranteed resource of subsistence, was much more obliged to sell its labour power. And we are still in this spiral. Without idealising the past at all, there is no doubt that we need to recover a more democratic and redistributive management of the commons.

In the late 1960s, an essay called The Tragedy of the Commons resonated throughout the Western world and generated a wide-ranging debate that is still alive today. However, some of the conclusions of the author – Garrett Hardin – are quite conclusive:

“seeking maximum individual benefit in the short term, benefits no one in the long term” or “many individuals acting rationally in their own self-interest may ultimately destroy a shared and limited resource”. The selfishness of individuals is clearly affected by the influence of group control.

If this latest stage of neoliberal capitalism and the logic of the market and the invisible hand has manifested anything, it is that private property ends up in hands with fewer and fewer direct ties to their own possessions.  A Luxembourg investment fund may own the public utilities network of a sub-Saharan African country or a percentage of all major companies in another country, conditioning its public policies. This causes something very obvious: detachment. If you have no contact with the asset in question, and you are little affected by what state it is in, the only thing that matters to you is that it generates direct profit, and probably in the short term.

This is what happened with the feudal regime first, and with the enclosures and possessions of the nobles later: by taking away the possession of the land from those who cared for it and depended on it, the land was just another resource and therefore lost a lot of value. If you have 100 pieces of land, you will not care what state one of them is in, and you may even squeeze it so much in the short term that it becomes unprofitable.

If, on the other hand, that land depends on your well-being, on feeding your family, you will probably defend it and take care of it with much more interest, concern and passion.

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This is where our next protagonist comes in: the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom. With her work, many of the ideas underlying the “tragedy of the commons” mentality – which was so fertile for later neoliberalism in the 1980s – were definitively dismissed. Elinor advocated 8 basic principles as mechanisms to avoid the tragedy of the commons without resorting to excessive hierarchical regulation:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match the rules governing the use of the commons to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Ensure that external authorities respect the regulatory rights of community members.
  5. Develop a system for community members to monitor the behaviour of other members.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for those who violate the rules.
  7. Provide accessible and low-cost ways of resolving disputes.
  8. Develop accountability for governing the common resource at layered levels, from the lowest level to the entire interconnected system.

All these basic principles demonstrate that we should not generalise about the management of the commons. And it proposes ways to manage  them collaboratively. In fact, there are some compelling lessons that have been proven in other fields of science:

when members of a group manage to collaborate, the group in question becomes a higher-level organism.

This idea was first proposed by biologist Lynn Margulis to explain how early organisms evolved from symbiotic associations of bacteria. That is, not by competition, or not only, but above all by cooperation. This perceptual change is fundamental to stop destroying our own environment.

Following Margulis, after the development of globalisation we have become a group, a World-System, which is therefore obliged to cooperate: the issues of health or climate change make this clear.  Either we cooperate to survive, or we will all pay for the consequences, even if, in the first instance, some will pay less than others.

Recovering as much as possible the management of the commons in a balanced way is a question of survival that the anthropologist Jason Hickel analyses in his latest book “Less is More, How Degrowth Will Save the World”: once a certain level of per capita income has been reached, adding more not only does not benefit but statistically translates into lower life expectancy or lower “wellbeing”. And this is logical: countries such as the United States, where per capita income is very high but so is inequality and competition, generate a state of much greater unhappiness than in other countries where health and education are guaranteed by the management of the commons. This means that countries with a much lower per capita income – such as Costa Rica – have even higher life expectancy than the United States of America.

And all of this, in the case of Costa Rica, with a management of the commons that is considered one of the most environmentally friendly on the planet. Basically, it is logical: competing and growing at the highest possible level means also increasing pressure on ecosystems. Thus, at a given level of per capita income or GDP, an increase not only does not necessarily mean a direct improvement in the quality of life, but the opposite, as it puts more pressure on individuals and ecosystems.

However, in order to close the circle, the commons must be that which helps to provide the minimum subsistence that guarantees a decent quality of life.

If our destiny is common, our politics must also be common.


Teaser photo credit: Cows on Selsley Common. With so much land to roam on, these cows have chosen to find pasture perilously close to the B4066. Cattle grids placed a strategic locations prevent the cattle from straying from the commonland. By Sharon Loxton, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Juan Bordera Romá

Juan Bordera Romá is a screenwriter and journalist. He has worked on documentary, series, theater, radio and television projects. Has written for the main Spanish media such as CTXT, ElDiario, ElSalto or Público. Degrowth activist in Extinction Rebellion and the Transition Network.

Tags: building resilient societies, reclaiming the commons, the commons