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Individualism - a tragedy of the commons?

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Our Loops of learning conversations in March and April have been focussed around understanding the causes and impacts of individualism.

The reasons to choose individualism as a conversation starter, is that it gives us a vantage point in to our social, economic, political, legal, environmental and technological systems that leads to insights about their interconnectedness.

Individualism itself is a societal philosophy that emphasizes the importance of individual liberty, self-reliance and personal responsibility. Its roots can be traced back to the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, which valued reason, logic, and critical thinking.

Thinkers such as John Locke and Mary Wollstonecraft emphasised the important of the individual (in Mary's case women) and their rights. These ideas, among others, influenced the development of modern democracy and individual rights.

It is this movement of individualism, where individuals are free to pursue their own economic interests and benefit from their own labour that has become the bedrock of Western Capitalism.

There are, of course, pros and cons to the focus on individual rights, but it's been a trend that continues to have a profound impact on the development of modern society and Western political systems.

Our current newsfeeds are full of examples where individualism has clearly created significant challenges for any management of common good. The right to bear arms is a dramatic playing out of individualism in the United States. As at the writing of this article there have been more than 131 mass shootings this year alone (source: in America.

The debate for individual rights to carry guns, over the common good of reducing deaths due to guns is raging and continues to veer in favour of individuals.

In our Loops of Learning articles and conversations we will consider the impacts of individualism, including the role it plays in shaping societial systems. It's not an 'anti-individualism' stance, just a curious exploration.

Our conversations search for leverage points that offer opportunities to balance individual rights with collective social welfare or environmental good.

In many of our Loops of Learning conversations there has been a sense of inevitable catastrophy as we continue down the current path of human behaviour. The sense is that we need to shift things quickly if we want to avoid tragedy.

From a Systems Thinking lens, it's about considering the Tragedy of the Commons and understanding how we might influence society to uphold individual rights while protecting our education systems, health systems and environmental systems.

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