The real Tragedy of the Commons
As MPs return to Parliament, and in the wake of an economic orthodoxy overhaul, Polly Lord examines the ‘tragedy of the commons’ phenomenon – arguing that the real tragedy lies in the assumptions made at Westminster and the failure to tap into the potential of our communities.
The tragedy of the commons theorises that individuals who have access to a common resource will act in their own interest and deplete that resource to nothing. This hyper-individualised worldview promotes short term benefits at the cost of other members of the community, including future generations. Particularly used to describe environmental damage, this simple theory has explained societal patterns from why consumers buy fast fashion items to why people continue to use water during drought.
The problem is that it’s not accurate.
Of course people act with self-interest, but society is more nuanced than the tragedy of the commons suggests. We have previously examined the influence of Elinor Ostrom on community power, and her empirical research into shared grazing pastures and water sources demonstrated the self-governance models that can exist outside of the state and market models, to show another, community-led, way.
We can reset the paradigm. We can move away from hyper-individualised accounts of people ‘out for themselves’ and work on creating the societal conditions for a community led approach.
Hyper-individualism misses out on the rich tapestry of community connections and togetherness, which binds people around place and improves our individual and collective wellbeing. We are individuals, but we do not exist in a vacuum. And while Ostrom herself noted there are certain societal conditions to enable a community led approach – it is not an empirical fact that people will always act to the detriment of others. There IS such a thing as society.
There must be benefits to individuals for them to act, but those benefits do not need to be at the cost of others. People can and do share. They share their phone numbers with neighbours at a time of national crisis; they share their enthusiasm and energy at a time of national celebration; and they share their biscuits, tea, and memories at a time of national mourning. From the residents of Lawrence Weston (Bristol) to communities in Tolworth (Kingston-on-Thames), there are multiple examples of people coming together when enabled to do so. This collective need to come together can be considered a rational choice, but it is not a preference for hyper-individualism.
Understanding that those who are most invested in their areas will be most invested in outcomes, politicians of all stripes can work with their communities to tease out that potential.
And herein lies the real tragedy of the Commons: the simplistic, often binary, way that current politics operates. Westminster itself is deeply divided, both across and within parties, producing inconsistencies of position and questions of direction. Within this world, politicians live under tensions and trade-offs, with complex policy distilled into brief options which do not – cannot – capture the multiple impacts and opportunities within society. The populist narrative has grown through the past decade’s constant electioneering, normalising mottos and slogans as policy positions and continually drawing (and redrawing) battle lines between society. This undersells the story of our neighbourhoods.
Localist approaches recognise the talent and untapped potential within our communities. Understanding that those who are most invested in their areas will be most invested in outcomes, politicians of all stripes can work with their communities to tease out that potential. To step away from the divisive rhetoric at Westminster, and to listen to, work with, and support communities to flourish across their local area together. To “level up” community power. To see community “growth”, from the bottom up.
We can reset the paradigm. We can move away from hyper-individualised accounts of people ‘out for themselves’ and work on creating the societal conditions for a community led approach. We can trust in the people and in turn, reimagine our relationship with the Commons, based on mutual respect. We can make politics altogether less tragic; we just need more heroes and fewer villains in our story.
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