From tragedy to joy on the commons: culture change through democratic ownership

By: ELENA BLACKMORE 20 August 2014

Democratic ownership doesn't just make society fairer, it brings out the best in all of us.

“Human beings show a broad spectrum of qualities, but it is the worst of these that are usually emphasised, and the result, too often, is to dishearten us, diminish our spirit.” – Howard Zinni

We produce things we don’t need from materials we can’t replenish that are destroying the natural resources that we do need. We are persuaded to buy these things by people we don’t trust, with money we earn through overwork that we are underpaid for, and borrowed from banks that undermine public infrastructure by avoiding their tax bills, to make impressions that won’t last on people we don’t like.ii The people we do like, and the things we enjoy doing, have likewise been co-opted by the market, portioned, packaged and priced: exercise (indoors) for £30 a month; a harmonious family (via fried chicken in a bucket) for £15; increasingly expensive technologies for facilitating any human interaction or outdoor experience.

Which is strange, because we don’t like destroying the planet, we wish society was less materialistic, and we know that money can’t buy us love.

This paradox can be at least partially explained by the psychology of identity. We often think of ourselves as fairly consistent beings. We describe ourselves in binaries – “He’s a generous person”; “I know I’m selfish”; “We’re not fussy” – when actually we’re pretty much everything, sometimes. What’s going on around us, what’s encouraged in the current moment, brings forth particular elements of our identity. As Louis C.K. so excellently describes, just as we are responsible and compassionate people outside of our cars; behind the wheel we are impatient, unsympathetic and enraged when mere minutes are added to our commute. We’re parents, football fans, children, shoppers, employers, friends; we respond differently when we’re reminded of these different aspects of our identity. For instance, experimental research shows that we become more materialistic when we think of ourselves as consumers than when we think of ourselves as citizens. Thinking about luxury consumer goods makes us more concerned with short-term self-interest, less willing to participate in civic action, and less environmentally-concerned. In other words – being a consumer makes us less of a citizen.

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