The Isle of Eigg and the possibilities of building a new economy

An economist explains what one small island in the UK can tell us about the failings of our economy and how to fix them.

Brian Gardner and Ben Cormack fit solar thermal water heaters onto the roof of a cottage on the island of Eigg, Inner Hebrides, Scotland
Brian Gardner (right) and Ben Cormack fit solar thermal water heaters onto the roof of a cottage on the island of Eigg, Inner Hebrides, Scotland on May 28, 2014 [Paul Hackett/Reuters]

In 1997, the inhabitants of the tiny Hebridean Isle of Eigg finally succeeded in taking collective control of their island. Tensions had been running high for years: everything from the islanders’ homes to their jobs to their electricity supply depended on the whims of the wealthy businessman who owned it. Sick of putting up with crumbling buildings while he took rich friends for picnics and jaunts in his Rolls Royce, they launched what today would be called a crowdfunder, and eventually raised enough money to buy him out.

Today, Eigg is thriving. A community housing association has refurbished the islanders’ homes and made rents more affordable. The island is 95 percent powered by community-owned renewables, giving islanders 24-hour electricity for the first time. The landscape, previously scarred by damaging spruce tree plantations, has been restored. There is even a community-owned broadband network. Decisions about the island’s future are made democratically by the trust that owns it on behalf of all who live there.

The story of Eigg gives me hope, not just because it shows that change is possible – but because it has deep truths to teach us about what is wrong with our economy and how we can put it right. The power of the global 1 percent is, first and foremost, the power of the landlord.

Today’s economic elite do not generally earn their wealth by producing useful things: They are gatekeepers who extract wealth from others by controlling the resources they rely on, just as landlords extract rent by controlling land and property. Global energy companies control natural resources. Banks control the money supply. Tech giants control our data, as well as the platforms on which we share it.

This means that, like the islanders of Eigg, we can address many of the crises we face by taking control of these assets together for the common good. We can take control of our homes through public housing and community land trusts, pioneered in the US and now found in UK cities from London to Liverpool. We can take control of our energy through city energy supply firms and community wind and solar generation, inspired by Germany and Denmark’s renewable revolution. We can take control of our money supply through public and cooperative banks that support their local communities with affordable credit – a model that works across the world, from India to France. We can demand shared ownership of our data rather than handing it over to corporations, as Barcelona’s pioneering city government has started doing.

Because all of these models take wealth extraction out of the equation, they can give us more affordable access to the necessities of life: warm homes, clean energy, loans to see us through hard times.

But they also give us something deeper: a sense of greater control over our lives, the ability to participate in decisions that affect us. This matters in a world where feelings of alienation and disempowerment are fueling the rise of a racist far right.

A new vision of economic citizenship must be squarely opposed to these politics – defined by your belonging to the community and not the country of your birth. Rather than seeking to regain control by building walls and slamming shut borders, we must build new forms of global solidarity that expand the space for democracy – for instance, by shutting down the tax-avoidance networks and speculative flows of capital that wreck national economies.

Taking collective control of our economy also means we can reorient it towards the things we actually care about: lives and livelihoods, not just GDP and profits.

The pandemic has thrown these issues into stark relief. We can now see who the real “essential workers” are: nurses, bin men and shop assistants, not hedge fund managers and advertising executives. In countries like mine, where social safety nets have been so badly vandalised that sick people cannot afford to stay at home, we are discovering that protecting everyone benefits us all. Our minds are being focused on the relationships that matter: the friends and family we are separated from, and the kindness of neighbours who are helping each other through.

Polling shows that eight out of 10 Britons want the government to prioritise human wellbeing over economic growth. Yet as I write this, the UK is easing lockdown only for activities where money changes hands. You can now invite a cleaner into your home, but not your mother.

In some ways, this is unsurprising. Our current economic system is a bit like a bicycle: it has to keep moving, or it falls over. But the effects of lockdown should be a warning: the ecological emergency means that we simply cannot continue to rely on an ever-expanding economy to give us all a good life. Instead, by finding new ways to provide for our needs collectively, we can reduce our dependence on this extractive and destructive money-circulation machine.

These are dark days. But in such times, we need a vision for a better future as a light to guide us out. Just as a better society was built from the rubble of World War II, so we must learn the lessons of this global crisis and build something better in its wake.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.