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Agoraphobia: Reaction to the true tragedy of the commons? 02/12/2011

Posted by ALT in Historical Context, Philosophy/Spirituality.
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Economists describe a theoretical “tragedy of the commons” as the supposed tendency individual humans have to exploit commonly held resources until they are all used up (so selfish!).  As usual, economists’ opinions of humans are pretty low.

"Yup, that's a typical human all right."

Really, this theory is historically dishonest; there are numerous examples of societies peacefully and agreeably maintaining common resources (such as a grazing area for cattle) but only a few of the common resources being eaten up by selfishness – and most occur after the advent of industrialization (and are brought about not by the commoners, but by an oppulent business class).

No, the true disappearance of the commons was precipitated by the industrial revolution.  Common lands once open to all were “enclosed,” ie fenced in, to push peasant workers away from rural agriculture and towards urban centers where their labor could be utilized in factories.  It began in Britain (fearless leader of the industrial revolution that it was) and then continued on in any other place that chose, or was forced, to follow their “shining example.”

A little closer to home, you can look at the invention of barbed wire and the great enclosing of the West as the last step in deleting the tradition of commonly held land that the Native peoples of this continent had been carrying on for centuries.

Thus the great process of isolation and individuation (brought about in part by the Industrial Revolution) –what I call the true tragedy of the commons– began.

Now to be in a public space, such as a coffeeshop or a town plaza, buying something (anything!) is a necessary first step — it justifies your existence in a private, consumerism-driven place.  What are the consequences for the mental health of people who no longer have a common place to just be, without feeling compelled to buy anything?

In pre-industrial societies, common land between houses and workshops existed automatically — so it was never neccessary to make a point of it… But in a society with cars and trucks, the common land which can play an effective social role in knitting people together no longer happens automatically.  Those streets which carry cars and trucks at more than crawling speeds, definitely do not function as common land… The common land has two specific social functions.  First, the land makes it possible for people to feel comfortable outside their buildings and their private territory, and therefore allows them to feel connected to the larger social system–though not necessarily to any specific neighbor.  And second, common land acts as a meeting place for people…

The common land between buildings may have a deeper psychological function, which remains important, even when people have no relation to their neighbors.  In order to portray this function, imagine that your house is separated from the city by a gaping chasm, and that you have to pass across this chasm every time you leave your house, or enter it.  The house would be disturbingly isolated; and you, in the house, would be isolated from society, merely by this physical fact.  In psychological terms, we believe that a building without common land in front of it is as isolated from society as if it had just such a chasm there.

There is a new emotional disorder — a type of agoraphobia — making its appearance in today’s cities.  Victims of this disorder are afraid to go out of their houses for any reason… We speculate… that this disorder may be reinforced by the absence of common land, by an enviornment in which people feel they have no ‘right’ to be outside their own front doors.  If this is so, agoraphobia would be the most concrete manifestation of the breakdown of common land. 

(from A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, p 337-338)


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