Over this last week, from 22 June, there has been an excellent series of thought-provoking and necessary talks and discussions on BBC Radio on the theme of re-thinking, well, everything! The range of topics is huge;
“what could “normal” look like after the Covid-19 crisis? Rethink, a unique collaboration between BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and World Service will ask just that.”
“Profound topics will be picked up and pondered. Do we have a different understanding of what it means to live a good life? Has there been a refocus on who and what we value the most in society? We will have the opportunity to rethink all aspects of our lives: the way we travel will be scrutinised, the future role of sport discussed, how we assess individual health risks will be considered and even how coronavirus could change our ideas about intimacy.”
The contribution I would like to make to this timely discussion takes the form more of questions rather than statements of opinion, “policies” or positions. Open questions expand the mind to a range of possible solutions and to further questions and exploration, they allow wider involvement of people, ideas, perspectives, experiences. At a time of uncertainty and profound, challenging, change, we need to ask fundamental questions and make genuine changes that involve as many people as possible in making a change of course towards a healthier future. Opinions and positions tend to narrow down thinking and encourage defensiveness and aggression, which we are seeing a great deal of at present.
I may offer a little elaboration on some questions, below, but these are some suggested components of possible solutions. The reality is that no one person has a monopoly of useful ideas, those who believe they do tend to turn out to be dictators and demagogues and those who turn to them for all the answers are inevitably, eventually, disappointed.
1. How would our society look and feel if we value and reward the skills of caring, healing and supporting others’ well-being at least as well as the skills of managing or making money for others?
The COVID pandemic and earlier ministerial statements about “low-skilled” workers has brought to the fore the issue of the disgracefully poor pay and conditions of many people whose skills lie in caring, supporting well-being and health and other essential tasks and production. Widespread public expressions of appreciation for key workers and the National Health Service has been welcome and indicates a favourable atmosphere for change but it does not remedy a deep-rooted problem in our society.
Most of our organisations and institutions still resemble pyramids, the “workers” forming the base, numerous and low-paid, too frequently regarded as “low-skilled” or having low-value skills, and the “management” forming the upper layers, fewer and well- or highly-paid, regarded (or self-regarding) as having “high-level skills” and high value; without the base, the summit would collapse. Indeed, this “pyramid” conceptual model embodies a hierarchy of value that is not related to the actual interdependence of everybody in the organisation nor in wider society; in my experience I have seen no evidence of any greater levels of competence in the “upper” layers of organisations or government than at the “base”.
I propose inverting this model, indeed replacing it with that of a tree, where the front-line “producers” equate to the leaves and fruit, the “management” and “leadership” to the roots and trunk; all roles are necessary for a healthy tree and all parts need nourishment but the fruit is what is most highly valued, that’s why the tree was planted. “For healthy fruit, you need good roots but the roots are only there to grow the fruit”.
2. How would our society look and feel if all citizens had a home, as of right, rather than depending upon their ability to pay for it?
We have seen some commendable, if incomplete and temporary, measures taken to provide shelter and food to people who are homeless, in the last few months. The issues of insecurity of tenure, lack of availability of affordable housing (whether to rent or buy), empty second and investment homes, limited home building and lack of access to self-build options, etc, continue to grow and are at best tinkered with through policies chosen carefully not to rock the housing market boat. This is pushing increasing numbers of people, into desperate situations and may lead to very bad social consequences.
Solutions for this would need to enable movement, for all the reasons people have, and to maintain the availability of homes for the long-term, not just a temporary “hand-out” that just enlarges the pool of homes as investment opportunities. There is the question of the transition from a housing market, that relies upon shortage of supply and competition for its own existence and growth, to housing as a basic social infrastructure for all that is no longer subject to corrosive “market forces”. Some existing “industries” would become redundant but new ones would emerge, perhaps moving skills from selling land and property to entirely new areas of need.
Solving this problem requires questioning our concepts of “ownership” of land and property, it offers the possibility of liberating every citizen from the burden of insecurity that drains the creative and social potential of very many people and facilitating much wider participation in society, culture and the economy. There are precedents, such as the mass-construction of prefabricated homes for people made homeless by the Blitz, we can do this, it is a solvable problem. Whether we do so or not is a choice.
3. How would our society look and feel if all citizens had their basic needs provided by that society?
By basic needs I mean here: Safe shelter, sufficient warmth, safe clean water, access to enough food, access to medical/dental care, access to education and justice, enough clothing, opportunities to engage in social and cultural activity.
The UK Government’s Furlough scheme, along with moderately effective support for self-employed people and those who lost their jobs, has been an interesting step in this direction, or perhaps more accurately in the direction of a Universal Basic Income, which has been discussed increasingly widely in the last year or two. My own general view is, to repeat a point above, that it offers the possibility of liberating every citizen, especially those in undervalued and underpaid roles, from the struggle to meet basic needs that drains the creative and social potential of very many people and thereby could enable much wider participation in society, culture, education and the economy.
How would we afford this? How would this be funded for the long term? Creative ideas are needed, for sure, including discussion about the relationship and respective obligations of citizen to state and society. We would need to look again at how we value and reward skills and work, how we define what it is to be “productive”, agree the scope of what we mean by “basic needs”, agree a definition of what is required to be a qualifying “citizen”, and more.
4. How would our society look and feel if all citizens had full access to the law and justice, regardless of ability to pay for it?
This is increasingly denied people, through a combination of obscure and complex language in framing our laws that requires specialists to translate it, maintaining and raising the cost of access by the “gatekeepers” ( the legal professions ) and the continuing withdrawal of support for citizens to get their services without the financial means.
I believe we need to begin, immediately, drafting new and redrafting old legislation in such a way that an average school-leaver can realistically, with a little effort, understand effectively those laws; certainly those relating to most aspects of daily life (I acknowledge there has been some progress on this). In addition, we should make greater use of Artificial Intelligence and computing power to make all of our laws freely accessible and comprehensible, so that people are freed from complete dependence upon specialists to interpret those laws. We should be enabling anybody to defend themselves in court with a realistic chance of success, should they so choose.
5. How would our society look and feel if transport infrastructure and building developments were designed to make it safe and easy for our children* to use them, independently, by walking, cycling and using public transport?
During this Lockdown period, we have seen a massive and welcome surge in cycling in the UK, to the point where cycle shops have run out of stock; I am still unable to get replacements for some basic worn parts on my own bike! This has come about through the Governments of all UK nations explicitly encouraging cycling as one of the approved forms of exercise, good weather and, above all, wonderfully peaceful and quiet roads. There has been much positive comment on this and discussion on how this upturn in healthy activity and travel might be maintained.
I am involved in campaigning for safe, direct, coherent and convenient walking and cycling infrastructure and this “child test” is something I raise often when talking to local government representatives at meetings – “would you, and elected council members, be happy for your children to use this on their own?” The responses I have had to asking this question have usually been silence.
I see many examples of poor and incomplete, often dangerous, design that few parents are happy to use themselves, let alone allow their children to do so – the situation in the Netherlands now is a good example of the opposite, where people of all ages and abilities can and do travel actively on coherent, complete and safe cycling and walking networks.
We need a shift in priorities and the design process from movement of motor vehicles to the movement of people; design first for people of all ages and abilities walking, cycling/ using mobility aids, public and commercial transport. When that is complete, then for the needs of people in private motorised vehicles. We should design out the need for people to own private motor vehicles, for our individual, social and environmental health.
(*By children I mean here an average 12-year-old.)
6. How would our society look and feel if our prisons were transformed to become places of education and healing?
Can we transform our ancient collective desire to wreak revenge and suffering on those who break laws and do real harm? So far this has been an approach that mostly fails both to re-form or even deter people who commit offences and do harm to others. There have been many attempts to change prison systems to make them more constructive, perhaps re-constructive, and ultimately useful institutions but there seems to be a consistent failure of political courage and will to see this through in a coherent way, certainly in the UK system.
There are some who must be confined and kept out of wider society because they are fixed on harmful attitudes and behaviours but most offenders can return to society and should be able to do so having dealt with some of the causes of their offending, the causes of the choices they made. It seems that most prisons make the problems worse, leaving us all the worse off in the long term.
7. How would our society look and feel if we decide to “live well with less” instead of “live well for less”*?
If we continue what many seem to have discovered for themselves during the Lockdown, that we can be happier with less consumption, that there are more important things than “stuff”, what might be the longer term implications for our society? How might we change what we do to enable everybody to enjoy equal opportunities to participate fully in a vibrant and creative society? How much are all these things interrelated?
(* – the latter is the Sainsbury’s slogan: https://about.sainsburys.co.uk/about-us/live-well-for-less I am neither endorsing nor criticising them here, it just captures the idea neatly.)
David Lammy MP, in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign (which I support fully), demanded recently that the Government cease prevaricating and simply put into action, now, the many recommendations and findings of previous inquiries and commissions; he is right. [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53049586]
There are also many other changes that we need to make in society, the UK and worldwide, which is currently on a very bad trajectory indeed. A lot of people have begun to realise and experience on a small scale some of these necessary changes in the last few months. Some changes need to happen now, others need some deliberation and the involvement of all citizens in shaping the change.
We have a great opportunity in this period of adversity and time for reflection to change course, to bring about a society that is not just “sustainable” but that is likely to be enduring, through becoming fairer, enabling all citizens to realise more of their potential, reducing our destructive consumption of resources and replacing it with “circular” models of resource production and use; a society more likely to enable most people to experience enduring happiness and fulfilment – isn’t that the whole reason for being here?
Keep well, ask questions, re-think..