Prosperity: a successful, flourishing, or thriving condition, especially in financial respects; good fortune.
It can seem kind of anachronistic to talk about prosperity these days. Despite talks of economic ‘recovery’ the reality for many people remains something more akin to an antonym of prosperity; hardship. Last Thursday I went to a conference with the title Rethinking Prosperity: Experiments in Local Economics which brought together local government and civil society to address the issue of the current economic climate and its apparent ‘recovery’, which the conference blurb suggested “offers little to the disadvantaged areas of the North”. It was hosted by Manchester University’s CRESC (Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that rather than a harangue of the government and what it’s not doing, this conference was about what both local governments and civil society are already doing to recover on their own terms and it felt very exciting to be there.
I arrived (as usual) a flustered and sweaty mess, having cycled from my morning English class to the inner-city neighbourhood of Ancoats with its looming, abandoned mills, the gravestones of Manchester’s industrial past. One of the mills, the Bridge 5 Mill, has been converted as part of the MERCI (Manchester Environmental Resource Centre initiative) project, which was where my conference was hosted. It was an impressive building, opened in 2001, converted from a silk mill to one of Manchester’s most sustainable buildings and now the home of numerous environmental organisations as well as offering an educational community space.
When I entered, there was a guy in a suit talking about economics, the lift closed behind me “doors closing” echoed around the room and everyone turned to look. In my mum’s red sequin jumper and my high viz cycle jacket, I felt slightly out-of-place. I’m more of a workshop person myself and I find it pretty heavy-going these days to have information spoon fed to me, especially when it’s loaded with technical jargon. I sat at the back, rustling my sesame cracker bars awkwardly.
Taking a look around the room, I realized how judgmental I was being, there was a real mix of people from lots of different backgrounds, a lot of them looking equally baffled. At the end of the talk we were to discuss what we thought of the talk so far with the people in our vicinity. I felt well out of my depth; economics, supply chains and procurement aren’t really my area of expertise. At the end of the chat there was an opportunity to ask the speakers some questions, and I was relieved to hear a question that resonated with me a little more, “How do you engage those at the bottom of the heap?”
The speakers suggested that one of the challenges they were coming up against was the fragmentation of current initiatives. There are a lot of people starting a lot of different projects, having success which could be amplified if there was a stronger network between different enterprises. As Del Goddard, Cabinet Member for Business and Regeneration said in his lecture “you need a broker, a storyteller to help join up the story” when referring to the small businesses in a community. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a broker being compared to a storyteller before, but maybe he does have a point about the disparity of things at the moment. One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been exploring Manchester’s social change networks is that there is a lot going on all over the city. Community gardens in every neighbourhood, creative pop-up cafes, occupations of old buildings, eco-houses and movements to tackle all kinds of social problems. There’s a list of some (not all) of what’s going on in the city here: http://www.merci.org.uk/drupal/actionmanchester.
It really got me thinking about the question what are the dynamics of social change? I couldn’t help but think that it definitely can’t be a bad thing that all these little things are emerging. Due to globalization and the internet we have a tendency to dismiss ‘little’ things as ineffective and almost a bit twee, as they seem quite meagre in their scope compared to the big international corporate giants. But look where a lot of those companies have got us: in a bit of a pickle, not just on an economic scale but also on an environmental scale and on a worker rights scale. Now I’m not saying “bring down all big businesses!” and “start the revolution!” because they may still have something to offer us, I haven’t made my mind up about that yet and there were certainly some interesting possibilities discussed at the conference. However, what is undeniable is that something new in some form or other has to emerge and perhaps that new is already peeping through with these small and seemingly erratic enterprises and movements. Just because something doesn’t have a unified label doesn’t mean that it isn’t in some sense unified. Just because the common goal or aim hasn’t been explicitly articulated in a board meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a common objective. The “new” is already here it would seem, only it’s much more subtle than it has been in previous years. That is not to say, , that we shouldn’t be working together and that we should be off doing our own things. We would be much more ineffective if we were working separately, rather what I’m suggesting is that there already is a network developing, but that it doesn’t necessarily need a big label for it to have any widespread effect. It’s developing in a more organic way, by watching and copying and well….just doing stuff; it’s the quiet revolution.
We’ve heard a lot about revolution lately, with Russell Brand’s controversial interview with Jeremy Paxman. I think we’ve passed the time when revolution means beheading the Queen or burning the Houses of Parliament, we wouldn’t want to have to throw away our Golden Jubilee dining set after all. I’m not so sure that not voting will change all that much either, it’s just another excuse for us to finger-point and give a reason why things aren’t going all that well for us and thereby mitigate the problem. Those lyrics from the Pink Floyd song spring to mind “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. We’re often quite good as a nation at recognizing a problem and we do like a good moan, but maybe it’s time to start taking some real action. In the words of Rob Hopkins, the Founder of the Transition Movement “We are the cavalry….no one is coming riding to the rescue of you or your community” (from The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 2013, p.36).
In one of my 1YT Skype chats we talked about the topic of the “old” and the “new” and whether our projects were reflecting one or the other and we got to the idea of Overton’s window. This is the idea that in order for change to happen at a political level, there has to be some indication from the general public for politicians that public consciousness is changing. Take for example The Occupy Movement last year which highlighted on a really big scale the idea of the 99% and inequality. I’ve noticed since then a lot more people than before accepting that inequality exists and that the banks are out of order and I’ve also noticed a lot more people and groups coming out of the woodworks with creative ideas about their work and their economy, or at the very least getting involved with those movements. Perhaps (God willing) political change will be soon to follow. I certainly felt quite hopeful about this on a local scale, hearing that councils are investing more in their local communities as the government hands more responsibility over to local constituencies and local councils have to generate more of their own income.
Either way, at the very least on a local level I reckon things both have to and are changing, whether politics can keep up with that or not is for it to decide. The most inspiring speaker of the day for me was a guy called Vincent Walsh from The Biospheric Foundation based in Salford. His resounding words were, “sustainability is dead” and “resilience is the future”. He emphasized the need to change the way we view our cities, not as a “technosphere” as he called it but a “biosphere”. With 50% of the world’s population living on 2.8% of the world’s land mass, combined with a growing population, cities are important. This project looks at how we can make cities more productive places, particularly looking at their 3D potential. For Vincent, there is no waste, only nutrients being sent around a circuit. The problem is that at the moment we don’t have a particularly efficient circuit and this foundation is doing agricultural research to investigate how we can change that in an underprivileged area of Salford. Majorly inspiring.
Could this be the make-up of the new revolution? I think so, along with a new notion of prosperity. A lot of people shy away from the environmental movement as it seems to evoke images of a sort of puritanical abstinence, like you’re having something taken away from you. It’s kind of natural that people on a big scale aren’t going to be drawn in by that, humans tend towards progress and prosperity. I don’t think this is the direction of the new environmental or economic movement. Prosperity is still important, what is necessary is to adjust our ideas of what prosperity means. Does it mean having access to every channel on the TV, having more than one car per household and everything else that comes along with that worldview? Maybe not. It also shouldn’t mean living in a shed in the woods, it’s just different that’s all. What is needed is what the conference called for, a rethink of prosperity, adjusted to a world and a society that is being depleted in terms of it’s physical and emotional resources. So I invite you to join the new revolution and start thinking about what prosperity means for you.
To finish, here’s a simple and short video that looks at a different idea of prosperity, focusing on “changing the rules of the game” and “the way we can win”: