Individualism runs rampant. The lonely century, that’s how the 21st century will soon go down in the books. A connected and community-based society, how does that actually feel?
Independence and individualism increasingly go far beyond being able to stand on your own two feet. We are experiencing extreme forms, even in cities like Amsterdam. Never before have there been so many people living alone in the city, club life is on the wane and there is still no alternative to the vanished community life of the church.
We know the consequences: loneliness and the stress and depression it causes are a social problem. The health of our population is at stake. But not only that, individualism is also convenient for powerful corporations and free-market thinkers, who have little to fear from isolated individuals; strong communities and neighbourhoods can provide a counter-power.
Many people and initiatives are rediscovering community life in various forms and reactivating the commons. Cooperatives, for example, turn food or energy into common property again and work together to make the organisations run. Collective responsibility requires collaboration and connection and chips away at the power of elites and big companies.
From consumer to multi-faceted citizen
Happiness seems for sale and consumers are society’s protagonists. Aren’t we also friends, parents, citizens and neighbors? A society that recognizes people’s multiple roles looks different.
In advertisements, in politics, in business, we are bombarded with it everywhere: we are consumers, and the more we buy, the better.
That this is a limited – and potentially damaging – view of being human, we now understand better and better. Being human means so much more, and depending on the context, we jump from one role to another. To our family we are parent, brother or sister; in the city we are friend, neighbour or neighbour; to the government we are citizen, voter or protester; and to society we are producer, steward, maker and, ultimately, consumer.
Capitalism is ingrained in contemporary culture; it’s in our heads. Ask anyone about their goals and you will get answers like: see my family more, read more, play more sports, spend time on social work. But our attention is diverted.
What would happen if we could keep the focus? If we would have the (financial) room to do so?
Would we work less? Would we commit ourselves to the neighbourhood or to social initiative? Would we take better care of each other?
Whether it’s oil, soil or AI, value extraction is and accumulation is the essence of capitalism. We can reject this system by working on practices of care and regeneration.
Capitalism and value-extraction lead to ‘sacrifice zones’, which are completely deprived of their value, such as dried-up lakes or polluted soils where nothing will grow anymore, or entirely commercialised cities and exploited communities.
The opposite is regeneration, which means nothing more than picking the fruit while allowing new fruit to grow. It means sharing in the value of the land, city or community while ensuring that this value continues to exist in the future.
Regeneration has its origins in ecology: taking care of the soil and preventing it from depletion. Nowadays, the idea has broadened and refers to caring in a general sense: caring for the living world, the cultural heritage and our fellow human beings, both now and in the future.
In the current economic system there is no place for regenerative practices. This is mainly due to the idea that man exists outside the living world, or is superior to it. But in reality we are part of it and cannot survive without thriving ecosystems.
The commons can help: it brings man, community and the living world back together in self-organised social-ecological systems.
From RELENTless growth
More and more people agree: endless economic growth is at odds with a sustainable and meaningful existence. Thriving, however, we can do forever, socially, culturally, and ecologically.
In the 1950s, economist Simon Kuznets drew a graph that looked like an inverted U, which illustrated his hypothesis that economic growth would eventually lead to economic equality. The ‘Kuznets curve’ captured the imagination of policymakers and politicians, while Kuznets himself warned of the model’s lack of reliability.
Seventy years later, our society is still in the grip of growth, with all its consequences. But there is a social movement towards well-being and prosperity, and towards ‘de-growth’ and sufficiency. This is desperately needed, because Mother Earth’s resources and resilience are not endless.
We must firmly anchor the economy in the social and ecological context. Some call it a donut economy, others a wellbeing economy and still others a solidarity economy. The commons are a practical expression of this: they bring communities and the living world together in self-organised systems with minimal dependence on the market. Here various kinds of value are produced, maintained and shared: social, cultural and ecological. Often without the need for a price tag.