The Divide

On Thursday last week Bristol Pound hosted a showing  of the film ‘The Divide,  based on the widely acclaimed book ‘The Spirit Level- why equality is better for everyone’ – by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

In what aims to be a completely fact-based study, The Spirit Level authors purport to demonstrate that nations, states and regions, which are most divided between rich and poor also score lowest on a whole set of measures of well-being. Some of the particular statistical analyses they present have attracted some criticism, but the overall argument appears to have been vindicated over time. Kate Pickett has summarised their findings like this:

it became clear that, as well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.[i]

Their thesis is that living in a highly polarised society does something to people, making them less satisfied with their own lives and tends, especially among poorer people, to feelings of inadequacy or alienation. Their appeal is for a much stronger collective culture with the proliferation of co-operatives and other similar initiatives. Free marketeers hate such talk, seeing it all as an inhibition of ‘freedom’ – meaning the freedom of the individual to do as they like. Others might comment that such individualistic freedom should, indeed must, be checked in any just society and it is pandering to such ‘freedom’ that has allowed these polarities between rich and poor to arise with their ensuing dis- ease in society.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said this in May 2014 to a conference in London:

Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long term dynamism of capitalism itself…

Here he points to social capital, the value embedded in the very structure of relationships in a society, as something that must be protected for the good of all.

The big question then arises as to How this can be achieved? Making change is not so easy in a society built around the free market and working to its rules. This is what I said in my forthcoming book Rise up with Wings like Eagles.

I believe that the heart of a new approach to economics can be found in one simple idea. That is that wherever we are in the world, we should attempt to localize those parts of the economy that can be localized. This sort of shift has the potential to engender really positive social and political effects and provide a new resilience, especially to poorer economies. It is also an absolute necessity in terms of action on climate change.[ii]

This is the deep reason why we set out to deliver a city-wide currency in the Bristol region and why a team of us are now working to create a food co-operative, called Real Economy, based on sourcing from local producers. Creating our own systems locally, allows us to embed a set of social and environmental aims into our projects and then test and monitor their ‘success’ against progress on these aims. This creates a quite different feel to the culture, gathering participants who share the intrinsic values of the community and so building community life across the city. In terms of scale, of course, these projects are tiny in comparison to the global problems they set out to address, but they may have the potential to give people a taste of something different and so prove ‘There is an alternative’. Then people can respond.

[i] Kate Pickett (2014)


[ii] From Chapter Six ‘Short-Sighted Economics’ in Rise up with Wings like Eagles – discover inner strength and wisdom to transform our relationship with the earth by Chris Sunderland (to be published by Earth Books in December 2016)


Rooted People 2 The people of Sims Hill Shared Harvest


vegIt was five years or so ago now that a community-supported agriculture project called Sim Hill Shared Harvest was launched based on some prime agricultural land within two miles of Bristol city centre. The community of people that set out on this project had worked together for more than two years to plan the venture, which was to be a ‘full on’ community working on a shared risk/shared harvest basis and growing food according to Permaculture principles. It has been a greatly enriching experience for me to have been part of this project from the start. There is much that could be said about the project, as a project, but here I would like to focus on the values that drew us together and which remain the essential energy that drive our commitment to make it work.

We are currently a community of around 90 households, many living very close the city centre. As in any community, we are a variety of people with diverse views and anything I say generally about the community needs to be qualified with the fact that it probably won’t apply to everybody.  Nevertheless, I think many of our members would share some values. For example, we may live in a city, but we care about the natural world and recognise that food needs to be grown in a way that works with natural systems. We see the strength in people working together to grow their food and taking some of the strain from the paid growers, who otherwise have to struggle through bad seasons, with tiny margins, going into debt and never emerging. And we also believe that healthy communities are diverse communities. As people of this City of Sanctuary, the Sims Hill community has a deliberately welcoming ethos. Many of us naturally empathise with asylum seekers and refugees and easily embrace initiatives to do with including alienated, or economically marginalised people.

The converse of this is also true. Many members recognise that there are deep and systemic problems in our current society of which climate change is a tragic symptom. Their membership of Sims Hill is an expression of a wider commitment to find new ways of living, more in harmony with the natural world and with one another. They believe that there is a better way of life to be found and want to demonstrate that.

I decided not to name particular people in this short piece, because Sims Hill is very much a community. There is no ‘one’ leader around whom it all ‘really’ revolves. There are many who contribute to its life. To my mind, the people of this community demonstrate most clearly, what I have termed, a ‘rooted’ spirituality while living in a city. They are people who long to connect with nature and to live in a better harmony with the natural world. They are connected to a place, in that they care about this patch of agricultural land from which their food comes. And they are looking to form a rich and diverse human community, deliberately including people who are in some way alienated from the dominant society.

Nature, place and people – this is what it means to be rooted.


Becoming ‘Rooted’ in the city


The idea of becoming ‘rooted’ is not a plea for any sort of return to a primitive existence, or a denial of science and technology, or even a denial of city living, which may be the most sustainable way of life for the large numbers of human beings currently on earth, but it is a recognition that we need to find ways of feeling and expressing this sense of being ‘rooted’ within the life of the modern city. So, we need to discover the natural world, even in this world of cars and tarmac and learn to cherish it with a sacred duty. We need to search for a deeper sense of human community and mutual responsibility for the natural world even within the diverse and creative dynamics of city life.

In my home city of Bristol we have a burgeoning underclass of people who are self-consciously looking for a new way of life, who prize ‘community’ in a broad and inclusive sense and actively seek harmony with the natural world. These are the ‘rooted’ people. Their spirituality is shaped by their search for a different way of life. They ‘believe’ another way is possible and are committed to try to live this out.

Cities have very similar dynamics all across the world. If we can crack what it means to live as a sustainable city region, we may have the answer to the global problem. And its heart may be in changing our attitude to the world around us. If we were to place a rediscovery of rootedness at the heart of our modern agenda, we would discover a multitude of new ways of relating to nature and to each other that were deeply enriching to our humanity, while encouraging a way of life in harmony with the earth.

I shall shortly be posting some examples of ‘rooted’ city people on this blog.

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