A new focus for strategic vision – The Sustainable City

It has all gone a bit blurry lately. We are no longer divided by left/right, up or down. And it leaves us feeling anxious. It feels like we are casting around for something to hope in. We used to hope in the nation.  Some recognised the significance of Europe, while others knew that the really important things could only be addressed globally. Yet each of these orders, Nation, Europe and World, are now in their own type of disarray, Nationalism is on the rise, but suffers from bigotry. Europe has become a spectator sport, while worldwide institutions like the United Nations are weak beyond credibility.

The causes are multiple. Technological advance has created a shifting, flexible work life for many, undermined neighbourhood and workplace organisations and threatens our own sense of identity and worth.  Guy Standing says that this new ‘precariat’  is an inevitable result of neoliberal economics and its associated competitive individualism. He foresaw in 2011 the ‘villainization of migrants’and the attractiveness of extremism as an inevitable result of these changes. In his eyes the mind of the precariat ‘feeds on fear and is motivated by fear’. Coupled with that we have the burgeoning rise in influence of the social media with the latest President elect of the United States now doing international diplomacy by Twitter and fake news  websites getting more hits than ‘true’ ones in a gossip-centred world where we all attract attention to ourselves by passing on the most shocking stories. Witness also the rise in searches based on the phrase ‘alt-right’, a term coined only in 2016, but attracting extraordinary interest around the time of the US election.  Whether these searches were out of support for the movement or fear of it, the statistics suggest fear is everywhere in some form or another. But then who should not be afraid?

It is easier to record this stuff today than to see a genuine antidote, but I would like to try to offer one. I think that we might helpfully focus on the sustainable city. More than 80% of the developed world now lives in an urban environment. Cities are exhilarating places to live and some, like my home town of Bristol, have a strong undercurrent of alternative-minded people who know that humans have to learn to live differently if we are to save ourselves from social and environmental catastrophe. We have literally hundreds of projects across the city that are radically new, exploring new types of association, like new currencies, food systems and ways of caring for people. How would it be if we combined in an alliance focused on building a sustainable city? I think it could be just what we need at this time. A city is big enough to be significant and small enough to relate to personally. If one city can learn to do it, then good practice could spread.

Is this the way forward? Is this an avenue for hope?

Chris Sunderland

PS I am pleased to report this week sees the publication of my book ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ by Earth Books. The third section of the book centres on strategies we can employ in working for a sustainable city. Here is an extract

…Yet this global demographic change towards living in cities presents us with a new possibility. We could see the city, or the ‘city region’ to be more precise, as the focus for global sustainability. In other words, if we could work out what a genuinely sustainable city looks like then we might have cracked the global problem. Cities could embark on a learning exercise, each exploring their own geographical and economic context, how sustainability might arise there and what they need to do by way of adaptation. The cities could learn from one another, taking examples of good practice from others, and so we could leverage our way across the world towards a sustainable way of life.

I would like to propose that the high-level strategic key to this process is a form of localization. This means that a city region looks to do for itself everything that it can do for itself. There are, of course, some aspects of life that are, in their very nature, so specialized that it would be daft for every city to do its own. This might include transport-vehicle manufacture, information technologies and the like. But there are many other systems that can and should be localized. In these cases localization does two things. It produces a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions and it strengthens human community life. The way that this might be achieved is through the employment of ‘change drivers’. Interventions in these particular areas have the potential to act throughout many systems of the city, connecting people and communities in new ways and changing our deepest perceptions about life. I recognize four key change drivers…

 

The new political landscape demands that we learn to manage our feelings

I was in Mainz recently and went to the Gutenberg museum to learn about the first printing press. It is an astonishingly simple machine and yet it changed the way that we think and the way we act in the world. The mass production of printed literature tapped into the restlessness of the 15th and 16th centuries and gave strength to the political and religious undercurrents that were to fatally undermine the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. The printing press also worked more subtly, by focussing our attention on the printed word as a means to express and share our thoughts clearly and carefully in the public realm and shifted our culture towards a more scientific and rational approach to the world.

Internet communications are now having a similarly radical effect on society. We are experiencing profound political unrest associated, this time, with a shake-up in the world of our feelings. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum have taken place in a world where feelings are being demonstrated and manipulated like never before. Adam Curtis’s new documentary ‘HyperNormalisation’ propounds the view that our public world is now a place of theatre. Absurd means of communication like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become a stage where we can all strut our stuff. These new media are disciplined by algorithms that mean we associate only with people who share our views, creating unbalanced and unchallenged perspectives, as the rewards of the stage encourage more and more extreme pronouncements in order to attract attention. Shock, horror, omg are the lifeblood of these media. It cannot therefore be surprising that we become obsessed with our own public image, and lost in a make believe world of politicians who naively say they can make it all right. It may also play a part in why we are failing to act on essential truths like climate science. Truth is a devalued currency on the stage. Presentation is all important. Witness the popularity of Boris, Nigel and Donald.

It is clear that we will not wind the clock back, or the printing press or the internet. We must learn to live with the realities of our power to communicate. And part of this must be becoming aware of the importance of the world of our feelings. Many of us are aware that dark forces have been released through recent political campaigning. We have taken the lid off things that have previously been suppressed, like the fear of the outsider. Some people are saying that we should have talked about our feelings about immigration more openly and been less quick to take sides. The liberal consensus can be something of a straitjacket. Likewise we were clearly not aware of the deep alienation that was setting in through economic inequality. The liberal elite blithely assumed we would ‘muddle through’ or ‘trickle down’ or some other vacuous metaphor. These processes have given rise to a culture that is now deeply fearful and the essential trust that binds our political community together is under threat. Moreover, and of no less importance, it seems that very few indeed seem to have heard the cries of the non-human world, which is proceeding hell-bent towards destruction as the earth warms and humans increase their territory by the day.

It is time for us to become mature in the realm of our feelings. Human beings are not as rational as we have claimed. The true measure of progress for human society may be, not Gross Domestic Product, but the development of shared empathy. Unless we can come to terms with our feelings and how to manage them well, then we do not deserve to flourish on earth.

Chris Sunderland is the author of ‘Rise Up with Wings like Eagles’ to be published on December 9th by Earth Books. This book argues that the earth is at a crucial moment in its life and that humans need to ‘feel our way’ towards the future if we are to find justice, well-being and harmony with the earth.

An extract from the introduction to Chapter Two:

In this chapter I am going to suggest that we no longer recognize the importance of feelings in our public life. This is not to say that we have become stoics or something, whereby we suppress feelings, but it is rather that we no longer acknowledge the importance of feelings in shaping our societies. The attempt to found society on science and reason alone has been doggedly pursued by academics and policymakers now for several hundred years, but it has led us down a very strange path whereby feelings and other associated deep-level motivations are seen as trivial compared to ideas. I will argue in this chapter that our emotions are still the most important factor in shaping human community life and need to be recognized as such.

 

Culture versus Consumerism – the new political reality

 

A consumer helping itself to my apples

A consumer helping itself to my apples

There is a sea-change happening in politics that is leaving many people bewildered. Why are people from the fringe like Trump, Sanders or even Corbyn, suddenly so attractive to people? The old centrist politics with Blairs, Browns, Clintons and Camerons no longer seems to cut the mustard. Is this just a moment of public boredom with the establishment politics or is it a reflection of something deeper regarding human culture? In this short essay I am going to explore the idea that we are currently responding to the culturally neutralising affect of treating all people, from every nation, as consumers. We do not like the bland high street. We do not like the impoverished language of our public life. We are longing for something richer, more in tune with our heritage and culture.

I want to begin with a shocking piece of research. Walter Bodmer and colleagues at Oxford concluded a ground breaking study[1] of the genetics of the UK last year. They looked at the genes of a set of rural people whose grandparents lived within 80 miles of each other. This selected out some of the most ‘settled’ people in the country. And they found something fascinating. These people showed clear genetic differences corresponding to the geographical ranges of the most ancient tribes of this land. Cornish people were still different from Devon people. The Welsh were clearly of Celtic type and those from North Wales different again. West Yorkshire people still showed a distinct genetic profile corresponding to the ancient tribe of ‘Elmet’ people in that area. The Southern Scots were similar, as expected, with Northern Ireland, while the people of the Orkneys were a race apart from anything on the mainland. They could even discern the genetic component of the so-called English part of Pembrokeshire. Most of the bulk of Central and Eastern England was of Saxon origin. These distinctions demonstrate scientifically that the cultural distinctions between different parts of the UK are written in our genes. Each of these areas at one time had their own language or dialect, their own established customs and laws and their own ways of thinking. And to some extent these differences were an expression of their genes.

There are many ideas that can be drawn from a study like this and not all of them are helpful. I am fascinated that the roots of our ancient cultures can still be traced to the areas in which the people originally settled. I am also interested in the possibility that some aspects of these cultures remain in our subconscious and contribute to our sense of feeling at home in the world. One key aspect of a culture in which we feel at home would be our ability to understand and trust the behaviour of those around us. Cultural breakdown is most fundamentally an issue of trust.

Now it is clear from the work of Bodmer’s team that the UK is multicultural at its heart. The recent migration of people is not special. We are pretty much all immigrants. It also obvious that this country has a long history of cultural assimilation. At first there were many bloody battles concerning the settlement of these lands. A shared faith helped to make peace, for example, as the various groups of Saxon invaders were converted under Augustine of Canterbury. This peace was formative in the very development of Englishness.[2] The world of minsters as centres of learning, agriculture and trade eventually gave way to towns and cities as the new cultural melting pot, where contact with diverse cultures from around the world brought new commodities and an enriched social experience. Such was the process of settlement in a nutshell.

So it is that throughout the history of this land we have managed to hold an implicit tension between a comforting sense of our cultural roots and the challenge and enrichment that comes from contact with other cultures. Yet it is also clear that these tensions can, under certain circumstances, lead to social unrest.

It should be no surprise that we are currently experiencing tensions around immigration. For years now we have acted as if local cultures did not exist. We have tried to treat human beings the same the world over by focusing on a new and degrading description of humanity as ‘consumers’. People have resisted that, of course, and the cultural meltdown that it promotes. Those in rural areas have demonstrated suspicion about ‘incomers’ who adversely affect their ‘way of life’, while immigrants moving into cities have tended to move into particular areas where they can protect and express at least some of their originating culture.

It is also true that the great promises of consumerism have failed us. The expected ‘trickle down’ of wealth from rich to poor has not occurred. Some areas, like London and the South East, are extraordinarily well off in comparison to other places and polarised societies are deeply unsettling[3]. Coupled with this, the lifestyle of the consumer is now widely recognised as meaningless with resultant negative effects on our mental health. These are the sort of conditions in which a cultural backlash might be expected to manifest itself, with a concomitant distrust of the establishment.  And this is precisely what our current crop of politicians seems to fail to understand.

The Brexiteers are a case in point. They are currently caught on the horns of a dilemma. Many of them are arguing for ‘free trade’ with Europe and the rest of the world. This is to play into the consumerist world view with all its problems. But, at the same time, they want to recognise the need to curb immigration, because the public want this. How can these two things be reconciled? The EU tells us that they can’t. You can have one or the other. Let’s watch to see how this tension plays out. One can only hope that our politicians become more able to express why people are forcing the issue about immigration. In the terms of this essay it has two prime causes:

  • The dominant and degrading paradigm of consumerism does not address our deepest needs and values.
  • We value culture, history and tradition as part of a complex system of trust that makes up our society.

In response to being treated as consumers, our people are now unwilling to accommodate the change and challenge of cultural integration. We are seeking comfort through recourse to an originating culture, even if this is romanticised.  As a result there is a tendency to identify and oppose recent incomers. Dangerous romanticists among us talk of ‘making Britain great again’ in an appeal to a mythical cultural solidarity and this resonates with our pervasive cultural unease. The process is dark and dangerous.

Many of us sense this danger, but we may not understand that it can be positively remedied only by recognising the positive role that culture plays in our lives, in our sense of identity and our sense of home. We should celebrate our histories in all their complexity, honour our ancestors, convey their wisdom and seek to live well. We will never be reduced to some economic formula. We are citizens, all of us, and must be treated with respect.

 

[1] Ewen Callaway Nature News 18 March 2015 UK mapped out by genetic ancestry http://www.nature.com/news/uk-mapped-out-by-genetic-ancestry-1.17136

[2] Peter Ackroyd in the History of England Vol 1 Foundations comments on the world of Augustine saying, ‘England, as we understand it today was created by the Christian Church’.

[3] Wilkinson R and Pickett K The Spirit Level 2009

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