changing the world from cumbria

Last Sunday I sat with six professors who were discussing how ‘to change the world.’ They included Central European dissident, a computer specialist, and a seventy-five year old French communist.  At times they seemed hardly conscious of each other, and the words they used were puzzling (the Frenchmen for example liked to talk about ‘the happiness of dissatisfaction’). But it was also moving. At least they were trying to answer the question.

For most of us, most of the time, the world is too complicated. We don’t understand how a microscopic speck of liquid can transform in less than nine months into something, like us, with rigid bones, hair, and fingernails. We don’t understand what an element is, let alone quivering quarks: which have a place without time, and a time without place. And that’s before you get onto Norway’s European policy, or Chinese trade. Or whether we have free will. Which is one reason, perhaps, why we prefer to concentrate on our particular job and our own family. But these professors had the confidence to debate world change, and not in the comforting slogans of a self-help book. They knew a lot, spoke well about philosophy, psychology and history; and they had ideas about human  nature.

Their conclusions, however, were not cheering. All agreed that something very important was missing. For the Frenchman the problem is that we are too obedient – our democracies are not real – they are simply a theatre, behind which all the decisions are taken by a small elite. We have forgotten how to be happy. The American said that the problem was that we are atheists. We have lost a sense of the sacred. The psychologist said that we have become manic; and lost our sense of balance.  The computer specialist said that we treat our society as a ‘bug’ which can be fixed; and we have lost humility. Everyone agreed that we have become lonelier and more obsessed with money. The person who had a solution was the Frenchman. He said we will only become happy through revolution, and the pursuit of communism. No-one else agreed. But no-one had much alternative.

They may have missed something.  They were correct that the modern world makes individuals more isolated, and that many have retreated to a space that does not stretch much beyond the office or the front door. But the problem is not that a powerful secret elite is in charge; the problem is that no-one is in charge. Politicians, journalists, civil servants, farmers, bishops – even, difficult though it is to believe, bankers –  feel they can alter very little about the world. Instead society is set in an immovable – if slightly wobbly – jelly, of conventions, regulations, and procedures that makes change feel almost impossible. Our problem is not that we are oppressed, it is that all of us – right to the top – are increasingly inert.

The solution may be to rediscover the energies of the local. If Cumbrians do not generally seem powerless, it is because they are often changing or protecting their surroundings. We have groups taking on projects which in other parts of the country would be the monopoly of state specialists. It is not just that we have parishes challenging central decisions on a cycle path, or on winter gritting, and if they don’t like the answer, doing it themselves. We also have some of the very first villages in the country buying and running their own co-operative pubs and breweries, setting up their own independent planning policy, design their own fibre-optic cable networks. And we are moving into specialist areas of education (where we have a record number of schools going independent), housing (some of the country’s first community land trusts) and health (we have the only community-owned ambulance in the country).

We normally see this as something forced on us – just a way of getting a job done. But we underestimate how much the process of organising in order to change or protect an area is good for us as people. Why? Because I think the Frenchman may be right that we are happiest, as
humans, when we are dissatisfied, and when we not only want something to change, but become personally involved in making that change. It is not only that working alongside your neighbours is less lonely; it is that driving a project for which you are not paid, and which benefits other people, brings dignity. And building something in your neighbourhood – a hall, a school, an affordable housing estate, or even something as intangible as a planning policy, or a broadband network – brings pride – gives you a communal achievement you can see and live alongside.

Our challenge is to make such local action a bridge into participating in much larger struggles, and choices: to move from action to ideas, and put bolder ideas into action. We have not yet gone from simply supporting a school, or a community hospital, or a housing scheme, into debating the future of education, community health care, or our local architecture. We have not combined our different brains and energies in order to define what we would like our civilisation to be. But I suspect that the local is the best place from which to do such things: to understand not only what dissatisfies us about the modern world, but also to decide what we would like that world to be. I should have told the French professor that – perhaps – you could change the world from Cumbria.

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