• Eugene McGarrell

The Comedy of the Commons

This is not a Marxist manifesto...

The context in which we are born is a strong predictor of the wealth we will acquire, the god we will associate with and the political values we will espouse. Many of us who have done well in our careers will point to our hard work in school, in University and in our chosen profession. If I can prosper through hard work then people in low paid work, or unemployed or homeless only have themselves to blame, right?


The privilege I’ve enjoyed as a white, straight, christian (actually atheist, but went to church as a kid so close enough), male has opened doors for me right from day 1. As a son of immigrants living in Yorkshire in the 1970s I soon learned to emphasise my Englishness in school and reject my Irish (IRA were very busy in the 1970s) and Spanish heritage if I wanted to avoid the physical and verbal bullying reserved for anyone different.

Being English wasn’t enough for a Yorkshire schoolyard. I had to be a certain brand of christian for that school and I had to acquire a broad Yorkshire accent to at least demonstrate some likelihood that I was in some way related to Geoffrey Boycott. Having lived in the south of England for 11 years prior that was a challenge that I had no choice in having to accept.

So, like many of us in Australia, we have acquired privilege either through heritage (luck) or in some cases by adopting the characteristics of privilege. We enjoy the reinforcement of the messages in our echo chambers, continue to vote for the continuation of the status quo (with some form of tax relief) and remark why people living on the streets begging for coin just don’t get off their ar$3$ and get a job like the rest of us.

The economy we know, and, in some cases, love has emerged over several hundreds of years. The concept of what was commonly owned by all began to erode once Henry VIII had the idea that land could be owned by the few and worked by the many (simplistic recounting of history). The land no longer belonged to us all. The wealth created by the land was earned by the privileged while the workers earned barely enough to sustain them and their families.

The concept of the commons is not a new one. The current economic narrative will tell the tale of the “tragedy of the commons”.

According to Wikipedia:

“The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users, by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The theory originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a "common") in Great Britain and Ireland”

This narrative reinforces the need for ownership and regulation of all our natural and technological resources from land, rivers, roads through to money, the internet and even ideas. But of course, those who own the land, who regulate the banks and who patent ideas create wealth for themselves.

But the tragedy of the commons is being played out on a macro scale. The 1 % of the world population that own 99% of the world’s wealth are not only rich, they are powerful and influential.

Despite clear scientific evidence of global environmental degradation, we continue to see government policies and economic levers that continue to take riches from the earth, continue to exploit cheap labour and continue to dump waste in land fill, our oceans and atmosphere. The global financial crisis should have been a wake-up call for governments and banks, but little has changed. The wealthy do not want to give away their potential to earn more wealth, their influence on the world or the power in their board rooms.

Governments will continue to get re-elected on the back of funding from the wealthy. Where is the incentive to change the system? But if we don’t change the system, we will continue to see the gap grow between the poor and the rich, we will continue to see plastic in our oceans, and we will continue to breath the pollution in our air. Social unrest coupled with environmental crises including droughts, bush fires, rising oceans and famine will not end well.

It’s laughable to think we can keep on taking from the finite resource of our planet without consequences. Have we learned nothing?

And then I come across a TED Talk by Kate Raworth and I learn that there is a way that we could design our economy that uses and regenerates resources as well as distributes wealth. The wealth that already belongs to us and the wealth that comes from collective contribution. Her book Doughnut Economics provides an accessible and actionable approach to a new way.

A way that is neither “left” or “right”. A way that considers the whole economic, social, health and environmental system as one interconnected context.

There are several emerging “commoning” activities in Australia and other jurisdictions. People are coming together to share resources for the benefit of the community. These activities include community gardens, street libraries, micro-economies, volunteering time banking and open source technology. There is an emerging shift in the consciousness of people to re-connect with their neighbours, to be mindful of what they buy and to make smart environmental choices.

But this emerging movement will only go so far without government support. Government policy needs to be interconnected. The economy, the environment, the social issues and the health of the people are not separate issues. They form part of the same common whole. The tragedy is that most governments refuse to see the opportunity to create a new system. The irony is that we keep putting the same people in charge.

We need to pop the bubble that keeps us “safe” from the reality of the future. We need to act collectively to make the change for future generations.

Let’s not let the last laugh be on us.

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