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Introspection is out, and outrospection is in. Philosopher and author Roman Krznaric explains how we can help drive social change by stepping outside ourselves.
How can you tell a real optimist? One with a permanent lock on the bright side of life? The only real optimist I know up close and personal is my tractor. She is a Massey Ferguson 135, made in 1964, with many hours of farm work under her cam belt. Despite losing pieces of her anatomy, such as part of her exhaust, one headlight, part of her radiator grille, she is in a permanent good mood.
She tells me so every day through her dials. Her fuel gauge always points to FULL, even though the tank may contain only a cupful. Her oil pressure gauge is always pointing to the best pressure, though she leaks oil everywhere and she must be deluded. Her gauge indicating whether the battery is charging always says Yes - I check it just after I find the battery is as flat as a joke on rendition by Jack Straw.
My tractor apart, real optimists are usually found today amongst those with an axe to grind, notably neo-liberals and those who deny that man-made climate change is occurring. A brass-bound optimist cropped up in The Guardian the other, writing a piece about how a world with 10 billion people is going to be just fine, with “more than enough food” and resources to go round. His name is Danny Dorling. In the course of quite a long piece in the paper, he managed to advance his thesis without any mention of climate change. Currently, the world has 7 billion people and can’t feed many of them, and of course we are losing topsoil and the ability to produce food at some rate. Climate change is making matters much worse.
Dorling’s optimism is akin to launching a liner for a winter journey through the North Atlantic without taking icebergs into account.
FACT: Danny Dorling is the great-great-grandson of the captain of the Titanic, Edward John Smith.
CORRECTION. The above statement has been found to be untrue. My defence is that it seemed more likely to be true than untrue. If Dorling has a mad-optimist gene in his system, which he must have, who the hell else did he get it from?
Wandering around a friend’s vegetable garden is usually one of the rich pleasures of life and it is a good resilience practice. You look and you learn, often picking up tips which become very useful. Occasionally, the wander is spoiled by either competitiveness or by angst, as you become sunk in gloom at seeing how his or her runner beans are doing compared to yours. I had an allotment in South London for many years, up on the side of a Dulwich hillside. One could pause from digging and see the whole extraordinary panorama of London spread out below one. My pleasure in growing for the family kitchen was only marred by visits from some neighbouring allotment holders who would amble up to make mildly mocking remarks about my veg. For example: “Those leeks, mind they don’t get stuck between your teeth.”
A wander with The Surgeon is free of such needling. The Surgeon is not a competitive man and given to generous praise or sympathetic commiseration, as he showed this week looking at some of my early potatoes. I have learned a lot from the Surgeon’s kitchen garden. He is a convert to the no-dig system, whereby narrow beds are covered with a lot of compost and black sheeting over winter, to be lightly forked over in the spring. And he is on the way to converting me. No-dig is a good idea when soon one can’t dig.
I received a severe shock recently. I had to change my mobile phone, my BlackBerry breaking up. My new phone is a Samsung, much too clever in many ways. But it has one useful attribute: it suggests three possible next words when one is texting. Often, its suggestions include just the very word one is looking for and no further typing is needed. Just one click. However, the Samsung has made a gross faux pas and continues to do so. When I sign off a text with Jeremy, Samsung suggests my next word will be Clarkson! So most of my texts end with me being reminded that the lantern-jawed, Thatcher-doting motor maniac is still out there, on the loose, extolling inane gas-guzzlers, tearing up hillsides and going to right-wing funerals. A jet of acid is loosed on my ulcer with each text. I can’t take much more.
But I did laugh aloud this week, coming across a remark by Erik Satie on first presenting his composition Socrate to an audience: “Those who do not understand it are asked to assume an attitude of embarrassment and inferiority.” The attitude of the modernists in one quote, and it was funny.
For resilience in communities, our village fete last weekend was good value. This Herefordshire village has a population of perhaps 80, and pretty well the full set of inhabitants turned up, starting with a three week old baby and ending with a batch of nonagenarians. The fete is invaluable in getting this scattered village to come together . The village that plays together, stays together - and although there are some stalwart prayers in Church of St Leonard, the prayers are outnumbered by the players.
The resilience emerged in the phlegmatic manner with which various raffle results were greeted. First, a husband won a bottle, then in the same draw, his wife did the same, then another member of the same family. The odds on this happening must have been long. Villagers only laughed. For sheer communal insouciance, the Big Raffle took the biscuit. I had just been moaning that in 20 years I had never won so much as a carton of Cadbury’s Roses. I was then asked to draw the winning ticket - from a great pile of tickets in a bin, much stirred and shook about. I put my hand in -- and the name on the winning ticket was my daughter Rachel. I was deeply embarrassed. Did the villagers revolt - or demand a rerun? Did they shout FIX! No, the village in its good humour and cohesion thought it was a just big joke. Rachel immediately donated her £100 prize to the Busoga Trust for its wells in Uganda.
This year the fete was held the week after the Hay Festival, perhaps as a bet that the weather would be better once the heavens realised that there were no metropolitans about meriting a good soaking. The gamble came off - perfect weather. In truth, much of the 2013 Festival had decent sunny days. One of the final events I attended was devoted to the brilliant war novel The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a machine gunner in the Iraq war, superbly interviewed by local writer Jenny Valentine. It’s not often you go to a Festival session in which the writer applauds the interlocutor. Another session had Dan Smith talking about the new edition of his The State of The World Atlas, that rich compendium of where-we-are-now data. Much of the info was sobering…many more people, much more drawing down of the earth’s resources, ghastly poverty with many in the world’s fifteen poorest countries living on less than $1.25 a day. There was some good cheer: there are more democracies about, 48 % of the world live in democracies, up from 43% in 2008. Smith showed a cartoon of a snail with a protest placard doing a victory sign - good things can happen slowly.
The really chilling stuff I found lay in the stats on inequality - and one audience reaction to them and in the way we are pushing at the earth’s boundaries and as Dan Smith characterised it “our most, more and never before path.” Inequality? Well, Dan Smith showed that a huge percentage of the world’s wealth is owned by 0.000016 per cent of its people. Interestingly, a man stood up to ask – what was wrong with inequality? Why assume that equal worlds are better worlds? Not a wholly foolish question perhaps, but would it have been asked a few decades ago, before Thatcher and Blair made hogging it respectable?
A good festival though - especially the green sessions.
It’s been a fertile couple of weeks for climate change controversy. I was delighted to hear Ed Davey, the Lib Dem minister at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, lay into the media and others for giving respectability to the idea that the climate change deniers have a case. He was right to stick to the BBC for putting him on Radio 4 with Nigel Lawson, the free-market financier/ex-minister and denier, saying to the BBC that the sceptics should not be given equal time in the name of balance.
The deniers were well characterised by Peter Forbes recently, reviewing Burning Issue in The Guardian recently. He equated the sceptics to the Church of Rome who took three centuries before getting round to admitting that Galileo was right. The sceptics are as dogged and stubborn, but their scepticism was more dangerous that Rome’s - and we don’t have the time.
I must praise also Will Hutton, in his column in The Observer on Sunday. He wrote perceptively: “What fires the sceptics’ passionate opposition is that preventing global warming will become the rationale for an extension of public initiative and government action, which by definition must be bad. Therefore, the science must be wrong.
“It is a wholesale inversion of the liberal society. The importance of limiting the state, reducing the scope of law and maximising individual choice with no compensating responsibilities defines how science should become interpreted and understood, even if it indubitably proves global weather patterns are changing.”
The Surgeon is in good form, his shoulder mending, I am glad to report. He made an observation the other day which has stuck with me: “Each generation says that the wildlife was much richer in its childhood. That’s because we have been in a process of continual decline in variety and species and numbers for centuries.” Obvious enough when one thinks of it, but insightful too. So our children will tell their children of extra-ordinary phenomena - such as swifts screaming over the rooftops, and bumblebees pollinating bean plants and white butterflies troubling the cabbages. Well, we should enjoy all the more what we have, while we have it –and fight the harder to keep it. As The Surgeon would say.
The Hay Festival site this year has a few new grace notes for which its visitors must be deeply grateful. On the principle that nourishing and watering the bodies of the multitudes is at least as important as stimulating their minds, there are new feeding stations, not least a Tapas bar run by real Spaniards who serve up patatas bravas and pimientos de Padron unlike any others outside the Iberian Peninsula. There are also new coffee bars. The ice cream on site comes, as ever, from sheep’s milk, via the Shepherd’s company, who also run the most popular café in Hay Town. Shepherd’s is so enlightened that it has only the Guardian for free in the café. Want to read the Murdoch press? Go out and pay for it. Last weekend, there were huge ice cream queues as people cooled off from the sun.
The biggest crowds in 2013 seem to be drawn to the comedians, notably Dara O’Briain and Lee Mack, and the musicians, such as Noah and the Whale and Christy Moore, though some writers, usually TV-connected draw in crowds.
My most memorable Hay event some years ago illustrated this TV principle. It was the launch of a biography by Peter Falk, the battered rain-coated star of the long-running TV series Colombo, a haven of viewing for anyone who has had to turn to afternoon TV and gets pleasure from seeing the rich get their come-uppance. Falk’s biography And Just One More Thing.. was not especially expected to draw the crowds, but in the event every Colombo nut from all over Britain came to Hay and demonstrated the factor that makes festivals such as Hay big successes. People just come to see celebrities in the flesh.
When Peter Falk wandered onto the Hay stage, a thousand people stood up and yelled. Falk was visibly taken aback. The first question from the audience he fielded came from a fan who said: “I just want to say what a privilege it is to be breathing the same airspace as you.”. Falk had the presence of mind to respond: “Could you please repeat that question much, much louder? I didn’t quite catch it.”
Yet the Hay Festival does much unflashy and very valuable work. Notable this year have been a series of workshops sponsored by a company called Landmarc which describes itself as “the international provider of choice for integrated training and infrastructure solutions.” I am not sure what this means, but there you are. Landmarc’s workshops all had themes, such as developing the survival skills for a resilient future, a big issue if ever there was one.
The workshop I attended was entitled Creating a Net Positive Countryside - which meant essentially how do we create resilient eco-systems in the countryside.
There were large tables in the tent and the audience was invited to stop skulking in the back rows and sit at the tables and think up ideas. Landmarc has put aside £100,000 , to be invested in the 100 brightest ideas to come up from such sessions in the UK.
Landmarc speakers gave examples: one was Ten Jars, a project to get every schoolchild in Wales to grow from seed the contents of ten jars, to give away or sell. Another project was more fundamental: how to get people to stop wiping their backsides with wet wipes, which clog up sewage systems, being made of slow-rotting cloth.
At my own table, I found my fellow thinkers were much younger and more alert than I was. I found myself mumbling: “I have really come here for the free coffee”. But collectively we put our heads together.
At the end of a limited time, each table had to explain its best idea. One table suggested soil testing kits for each school in Wales, to teach pupils the importance of getting soil acidity right.
I thought our table’s idea was cleverer: we would develop an app which would allow every supermarket or farmer or horticulturalist to get in touch with their local food banks to deliver surplus food before it went off. Our table was praised by the co-ordinator.
Flushed with pride, I left the tent in search of patatas bravas and pimientos de Padron. While eating, I opened my Guardian and read a long article about food banks struggling to meet growing demand. Towards the end of the piece, I read that a not-for-profit outfit named Food AWARE ( their capitals) has a business model which tries to establish regular and sustainable supplies from supermarkets and farmers for local food banks. Our new idea turned to be not-new in the space of thirty minutes.
There’s nothing new under the sun, indeed - nor under the softly falling rain of the Welsh borders.
We're excited about the release of the new documentary 'The Spirit Level' based on the fantastic book of the same name. If you are concerned about building a resilient society, then this is a must watch. You can pre-buy your copy at http://www.thespiritleveldocumentary.com . Every penny goes into the production. Catch a glimpse of the trailer: