The Erosion of Trust

bird of preyWhat is it that explains the changes that are sweeping through global politics? Is it a resurgent nationalism? Or a reaction against inequality? Are people fed up with political correctness or has the whole political establishment lost the respect of the people?

All these things are explanations of a sort, but none of them, in my view, really bottoms out the problem or gives us an adequate purchase on the necessary remedy. I think that the deepest and most powerful explanation of our current condition is that we are experiencing a breakdown of trust.

It is something of a tragedy that, at this point in time, very few of us appreciate the importance of trust in human society. Trust is the very basis of all co-operation, yet we do not understand how it is built or how it is maintained. And, for that reason, we do not recognise when it is being eroded.

Trust is expressed as our willingness to work together with others. It is the beating heart of every organisation, both political and otherwise, on the planet. Yet trust is a ‘feeling’ word. It is an inner disposition and it is also very fragile, taking years to build, yet capable of destruction in an instant. Feelings are not recognised as a mainstay of societies such as ours, which prides itself on being rational. We have been taught to rise above our ‘passions’ into the abstract world of rational thought. Only thereby, it was said, could we find solid foundations for our common life.

It was in keeping with such dogma that we created theories about economic exchange with promises that wealth would ‘trickle down’ to the poorest. Yet now we face the brute fact that just eight men control more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population put together. It is hardly surprising then that our basic trust is being strained.

Evidence for the breakdown of trust is now all around us. It can be seen in the rising intolerance and suspicion of refugees, immigrants and minorities in general. In a healthy society a common empathy prevails, which can embrace the stranger and feels their humanity. But, as trust erodes, so fear rises and, with it comes a terrible tendency to dehumanise and scapegoat the ‘other’. It can also be seen in the erosion of respect for institutions and the ‘truth’ of their pronouncements. People become willing to disbelieve the evidence of science regarding climate change, for instance, and instead embrace conspiracy theories about scientific institutions. Likewise, they turn away from the political ‘establishment’ with a sense that it is failing, while proving all too willing to pin their hopes on a new powerful figure who promises to fix things.

These are the things that we are experiencing, are they not? Yet do we understand the challenge they represent? The challenge is nothing less than the rebuilding of a culture, which has to begin where all culture begins, with some honest storytelling and some hard listening.

This theme of cultural renewal will be continued in this blog.

More on the nature of society as a trust can be found in ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ by Chris Sunderland, published by Earth Books 2016

Slow news is the answer to a global bully

langleypondsmAs Donald Trump is inaugurated this week, we might do well to reflect on what sort of a person is being appointed to the US presidency. His behaviour is typical of the bully. He holds his audience in thrall by making brash and boastful statements about his power. He is going to make America great again. He will build a wall. He will sort it out. He will fix it. Anyone opposing him is belittled, not on the basis of their argument, but their power. Power is the only language a bully understands. They are failing or a failure. They are over-rated. Likewise, threats are made. Lock her up. And then threats are undone. I did not mean that. That is no longer my priority. It will be a fence. The important thing for the bully is not constancy, integrity or trust, but to keep people guessing, hanging on your every word.

And there is an antidote to this. It is to be more considered about life, not firing from the hip but becoming more reflective.

Nicholas Carr in this book The Shallows showed how the real danger of our internet age was that we would live life on the surface without adequate in depth consideration. The Trump phenomenon shows that his warnings appear to be absolutely on the button. So many of us are now news junkies, sampling news in one form or another, throughout each day. And such habits are fed by the shock/horror newsfeed dripping from Trump’s twitter finger.

Those who are familiar with this blog site will know that I am convinced of the need for a deeper reflection on society. It is only as we hold in our minds and our hearts the big challenges of humanity in terms of our unbridled economic system and our destruction of the earth that we will put in place effective strategies in response.

Ministers and the media are actively thinking how to counteract fake news. The BBC are going to beef up their fact check facilities and they BBC have noticed the need for ‘slow news’, working up more big picture coverage in historical context. (Guardian 12 BBC sets up team to debunk fake news – Jan Jasper Jackson)

One of the interesting products of such a development would be that slow news would, to some degree, limit the impact of the bully. No longer would we ‘hang’ on their words. Instead we would look for consistency and truth in their pronouncements. This would surely be a good thing.

Chris Sunderland
Author of Rise up with Wings like Eagles  published by Earth Books December 2016.

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…


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