Bringing back people power

Through collective ownership, together we can take back control of our resources, and in turn our lives and communities, argues Matt Mellen

Contemporary capitalism has resulted in a concentration of wealth and power at the top of multi-national corporations and in the hands of a few ultra-influential individuals.

Decisions about the fundamentals of how we live, eat and power our homes are often made in boardrooms many miles from where we live – quite possibly in another country.

Combined with this, the market uncertainties presented by both the spluttering global economy and politicians’ diverse attitudes to resource constraints contribute to a feeling of being increasingly buffeted by mysterious forces beyond our control.

If we are concerned with price rises, to whom do we voice our concerns? Only a sadomasochist would give it a go via an energy company’s ‘customer service helpline.’

Do we have to accept whatever price the market throws at us? Are we just cogs in a giant economic machine?

New approaches to ownership suggest that there are ways people can consolidate their position, get a better deal and build up resilience to future shocks in terms of the availability and affordability of resources.

The key may lie in actually buying a stake and co-owning infrastructure assets that previously have been considered the domain of governments and large companies.

By using new, online, collaborative platforms and pooling resources, people are getting a better deal on everything from energy bills, access to cars and loans.

More than this, the communities that come together to buy key assets and access a better price for services then find that not only do they pay less, they get some control back and become empowered to make important decisions locally. Anecdotal evidence suggests this both rejuvenates a sense of real democracy and enhances their lives.

When a village is presented with plans for a wind turbine to be built in the fields behind the school, people can react angrily. They may express fears that it will be ugly, kill birds or hypnotise drivers into thinking they are in a plane. Part of this reaction could be a gut reaction to their turf being messed. It is another case of decisions being made remotely, without their consent and affecting their lives.

There are an increasing number of accounts of enthusiasm replacing anger when local renewable energy assets are owned by and benefit the local community. Imagine a situation where villagers collaboratively finance the construction of a wind turbine. Not only do they get cheaper electricity, they also get a quarterly dividend from surplus electricity sold back to the grid. Energy ceases to be abstract and mysterious. It is real, linked to the rotating blade over yonder and the entire household is better motivated to understand it and use it wisely.

Other benefits are less easy to quantify but perhaps even more important. The community is more resilient. This means that should there be, for example, a war in the Middle East and market energy rates soar, this village can stay powered.

The organisational process of community ownership is itself of value. It feels good to come together and find solutions to shared challenges.

What’s next? Neighbourhoods might investigate crowdfunding a community space or opt to save the local post office. Perhaps shared funds could turn part of the village recreation ground into a shared allotment space? Or could a locally run car club reduce the total numbers of cars in the neighborhood, freeing space for a weekly farmers’ market?

When we rebel against the notion that we are powerless individuals, we can see an opportunity: by linking together, we can do better.