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Since we've been deprived of the commons, we've been forced to compete more aggressively, which has led us to get caught up in the perverse wheel of consumerism and - a seeming paradox - to mistreat the goods on which our survival depends.

In the 14th century, when the Black Death decimated the population, it strengthened the bargaining power of peasants. Revolts occurred, and in many countries, serfdom was abolished, and the land was farmed more communally, respectfully, and democratically. Of course, this didn't please the rulers of the time. They viewed the loss of privileges with fear. As soon as a few years had passed and the situation was restored, there was, of course, a violent reaction: the land enclosures. Many lands were no longer common property but were fenced, restricted, and divided among the nobles.

These land enclosures made possible the original accumulation at the end of the Middle Ages and thus the beginning of capitalism. A large part of the population, which no longer had a guaranteed livelihood, was forced to sell its labor. And we're still in this spiral. Without idealizing the past, there's no doubt that we must return to more democratic and redistributive management of the commons.

In the late 1960s, an essay entitled The Tragedy of the Commons caused a stir throughout the Western world. It sparked a wide-ranging debate that continues to this day. However, some of the conclusions of the author - Garrett Hardin - are pretty conclusive:

"The pursuit of maximum individual utility in the short run benefits no one in the long run" or "Many individuals acting rationally in their own self-interest may ultimately destroy a common and limited resource." The selfishness of the individual is clearly influenced by the influence of group control.

Suppose this recent phase of neoliberal capitalism and the logic of the market and the invisible hand has shown anything. In that case, the private property ends up in hands with fewer direct ties to their own property. A Luxembourg investment fund might own the public utility network of a sub-Saharan African country or a stake in all the major companies in another country and thus determine public policy. This leads to something undeniable: aloofness. If you have no contact with the asset in question and care little about what state it's in, the only thing that matters to you then, is that it yields direct profit, and probably in the short term.

So, it was first with the feudal system and later with the enclosures and estates of the nobles: By taking away the property of those who cared for and depended on the land, the land became just another resource and thus lost much of its value. If you have 100 pieces of land, you won't care what condition one of them is in, and you may even squeeze it so much in the short term that it becomes unprofitable.

But if the land depends on your well-being, on feeding your family, you're likely to defend and care for it with much more interest, concern, and passion.

This is where our next protagonist comes in: the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom. Her work definitively discarded many of the ideas underlying the "tragedy of the commons" mentality - so fertile in the 1980s for later neoliberalism. Instead, Elinor advocated eight basic principles as mechanisms for avoiding the tragedy of the commons without resorting to excessive hierarchical regulation:

1) Establish clear group boundaries.

2) Adapt the rules for using the commons to local needs and conditions.

3) Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in changing them.

4) Ensure that outside agencies respect the rights of community members.

5) Develop a system for community members to monitor each other's behavior.

6) Use graduated sanctions for those who break the rules.

7) Provide accessible and inexpensive ways to resolve disputes.

8) Develop accountability for the management of shared resources at various levels, from the lowest level to the entire networked system.

All these basic principles show that we shouldn't generalize the management of the commons. And ways to manage it collectively are suggested. In fact, some compelling lessons have been proven in other areas of science:

If members of a group manage to work together, 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's not by competition, or not only, but primarily by cooperation. This change in perception is fundamental to stopping the destruction of our own environment.

According to Margulis, the development of globalization has made us a group. Therefore, this world system is obliged to cooperate: the issues of health or climate change make this clear. Either we cooperate to survive, or we'll all pay for the consequences, even if some will initially pay less than others.

Managing the Commons in the most balanced way possible is a matter of survival, as anthropologist Jason Hickel analyzes in his latest book, Less is More, How Degrowth Will Save the World: once a certain level of per capita income is reached, it will not only bring no benefit but statistically will lead to lower life expectancy or "well-being." And this is logical: look at countries like the United States, where the per capita income is very high, but also inequality and competition. This generate a state of much greater dissatisfaction 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 - like Costa Rica - even have a higher life expectancy than the United States of America.

And talking about Costa Rica, they have a management of the commons that is considered one of the most environmentally friendly on the planet. Basically, it's logical: competition and growth at the highest levels also mean increasing pressure on ecosystems. Therefore, an increase in per capita income or GDP at a certain level doesn't necessarily mean a direct improvement in the quality of life, but the opposite, it increases the pressure on individuals and ecosystems.

However, to close the circle, the commons must help provide the subsistence level that guarantees a decent quality of life.

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

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

June 21, 2021 — Juan Bordera

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