The Tragedy Of The Mental Commons
The Tragedy Of The Mental Commons
By Kevin Arnold / adbusters.org
Jan 22, 2011

Driving to the airport to pick up a friend, I stop at a red light. My eyes wander to a bus-stop bench across the intersection. 'Norma Whitfield - Your Real-Estate Connection.' Wham. Before I even have time to react, the advertisement has entered my mind and lodged itself between the folds of my thoughts. Another chunk of my mental landscape, grabbed without consent. There was nothing special about this ad. Every bench in the city is festooned with a marketing message, and my eyes have passed over thousands, possibly millions, like it before. Yet this time it stood out, somehow starker than the rest. Some balance inside me had tipped, and I suddenly felt saturated. My mental landscape had been overgrazed. 

Thirty-five years ago, Garret Hardin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, authored a ground-breaking article in the journal Science that introduced an idea: the tragedy of the commons. Our survival was at stake, he argued, if we failed to open our eyes and realize that Earth's physical resources were finite. Treating them as a free-for-all was no longer acceptable if we wanted to reduce human suffering and prolong our existence on this planet. 

To illustrate the tragedy, he used the example of 14th-century common land. 'Picture a pasture open to all,' he wrote. 'It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.' When a herder adds a cow to the pasture, he reaps the benefit of a larger herd. Meanwhile, the cost of the animal - the damage done to the pasture - is divided among all the herdsmen. 

This continues until, finally, the herders reach a delicate point: as the pasture becomes overgrazed, each new animal threatens the well-being of the entire herd. 'At this point,' Hardin argues, 'the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.' 

For me, the advertisement on the bus-stop bench felt like that tragic breach. We continue to share a commons today - a commons of the mind. It's a mental environment, shaped by everything from cultural cues to the physical space that surrounds us. At every level this mental commons is cluttered and commercialized. Millions of data points and marketing messages threaten to 'overgraze' our attention. Our mind is their pasture. 

'Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,' said Hardin. As pessimistic as this view is, we have proved him right. Since he penned this warning, humanity has spread to every corner of the globe: we've scoured the land, razed the forests, emptied the seas and dirtied the rivers in the selfish interest of progress. Now, just as we begin to grasp our impact on the physical commons, the tragedy has begun to replay itself in an even more fragile realm. The assault on the mental environment has become an ever greater threat to our survival: we are losing our capacity to focus, to think, to find common ground, to communicate and come to agreement. We are losing the mental clarity to deal with the crises that we have created. 

An exaggeration, you say. Not quite. The staggering rise of anxiety and attention deficit disorders, depression, suicide, workplace violence and addiction is now a staple story of our news media. Less familiar is the concern rippling through the marketing industry itself. The herders are getting nervous: 'Marketers are going through a difficult period right now,' declares one company's website. 'Channel proliferation, attention span reduction and marketing overload are creating an increasingly cynical consumer audience who are each subjected to over one million marketing messages per year (or over 3,000 per day). 'If you're not interesting me now then you can forget later,' is becoming their mantra.' In a desperate attempt to free our mindspace, we are simply tuning out of everything around us. The UK marketing trade magazine Campaign did a study in 1998 that found that 52 percent of consumers were flipping channels during commercials. 

Even the so-called 'well-adjusted' among us are feeling the pressure. The effects may be subtle - a slight anxiety, a cynical attitude, a wave of fear - but this makes them all the more insidious. You see a can of Coke in a movie, and you stop following the plot to deconstruct Coke's marketing strategy and determine that you've just been subjected to paid product placement. You see a kid in a bandana loitering in a convenience store parking lot, and a flood of mental images and messages warns you that he may be a gang member. Instead of working, you check your email every 10 minutes in need of new information, fresh stimulus. You notice that you can't speak or listen for more than a minute anymore. Your mental environment is wearing thin. 

Is it too late to reclaim our mental commons? It wasn't long ago that our mindspace was still comparatively clean. I can remember - and I'm only 30 - when bus benches were only for sitting on, when the wall above the urinal was just an expanse of white tile, when a fashion magazine was lighter than a phone book. I remember when you could let your mind wander as you filled your car with gas, instead of staring at a tiny billboard on the nozzle. When the attendant would say, 'Thank you, have a nice day,' instead of pushing an Esso Extra card on you. Would it be that hard to get it back? 

The question, as Hardin noted, is one of freedom. 'When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so.' We must decide whose freedom is more important: the bank robber's or the banker's; the marketer's or our own. We need to grasp the idea of the mental commons, and realize that it, too, can succumb to an all-too-human tragedy. Putting more cows out to pasture isn't helping anyone.

4.5 ·
6
Trending Today
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 7,954 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 7,389 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Trump Is a Symptom of a Sickness That Is Raging All Across The World
1 min · 5,652 views today · This is why we are here. And this is what we need to remember. 
Baraka (1992)
97 min · 5,485 views today · Featuring no conventional narrative, this film presents footage of people, places and things from around the world. From chaotic cities to barren wilderness, the movie takes...
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Bracing for Trump's Anti-Worker, Corporate Agenda
Colin Jenkins · 3,291 views today · Rich people don’t have to have a life-and-death relationship with the truth and its questions; they can ignore the truth and still thrive materially. I am not surprised many...
The Myth of Romantic Love May Be Ruining Your Health
Susanne Vosmer · 2,776 views today · Romantic love in Western societies is often portrayed in a stereotypical way: two yearning halves, who search for each other to find their complete, original state. Few find...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,559 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Prophecy Delivered! Martin Luther King Jr. and the Death of Democracy
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou · 2,355 views today · “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Democracy is dead. It...
Trump: The Illusion of Change
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 2,305 views today · “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.” — Wendell Berry
What Is My Activism Really About? to Love, Serve and Remember
Tim Hjersted · 2,204 views today · I have made a promise to this world that I will carry with me to my last days. It is my vow to lessen the suffering of the world while I am here - it is to ensure that every...
Why I Think This World Should End
4 min · 2,006 views today · Sorry if this offends you. - Prince Ea
Thoughts on the Eve of the Trump Regime
Mark Corske · 1,839 views today · A blend of dread, disgust, rage, and despair for the future, all in a state of shocked disbelief—if you feel something like this facing the Trump regime’s ascent to power...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 1,606 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 1,189 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 711 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 668 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 606 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Living Through an Age of Unraveling: Reflections as We Enter 2017
Martin Winiecki · 509 views today · “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller
Looking Forward to the Day That Nationalism Is as Reviled as Racism
Tim Hjersted · 478 views today · Nationalism is a form of geographical racism that makes some lives matter more than others, and explicitly justifies that logic without apology. While today, not even lying...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 440 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Tragedy Of The Mental Commons