Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Britain - a de-developing country?

On Sunday, I took advantage of one sunny day in the midst of rain, went out and picked my redcurrants, and have been making jelly. This is one small practical skill - I wasn't taught it at home when I was a child, but anyone can follow instructions in a book (or on the web).

When I said in my Swarthmore Lecture
Everyone needs to learn how to grow food, how make, mend and fix things. Between us, as extended families, networks of friends and local groups, we need to take back all the hand-skills that the modern world has ‘outsourced’ to mass production.
I didn't have in mind only the more common 'sustainability' ideas, but also hard-nosed economic issues. This is why one of the Good Lives courses offered at Woodbrooke this year was designed to follow up this theme - our 'preparing for new skills' course [in reality, that included some very old skills!] to be offered in August was the subject of an earlier guest post here, by Liz Perks.

Alas, we've had to cancel the course for lack of enough bookings - it needed a goodly number to create a real skills exchange, in addition to some pre-planned inputs. Perhaps it was too expensive for people in these straitened times (a week-long course, it was twice the cost of a weekend). Perhaps people aren't yet ready to take this aspect of life on board in a serious way. Here's the list of some of the skills we hoped to be able to learn/teach during the week (and we invited people booking to add their own ideas):
Starting a food project
Making clothes
Sprouting seeds
Using a slide rule or log tables
Mending clothes
Making soap
Making a hay box
Cooking with a hay box
Spinning with a drop spindle
Sprouting seeds
One-pot cooking
Using a storm (Kelly) kettle and cook-set
Germinating seeds
Container vegetable gardening
Entertaining ourselves without electricity
Felting recycled woollens
Square foot (vegetable) gardening
Keeping bees
Ham radio
Pottery without a kiln
Basket making
Making a compost toilet
Making remedies and medicines from herbs
Assembling a useful collection of hand tools
Starting a LETS scheme
Starting an alternative local currency
Starting a Transition group
Making a gravity-fed water filter
Fitting a rain diverter/water butt
Using a hand-cranked sewing machine
Using a treadle sewing machine
Making paper boxes
Making carrier bags out of newspapers
Seed saving
Mending a bicycle tyre puncture
Maintaining a bicycle
Remaking old garments into new clothes
Weaving all sorts of useful and beautiful baskets

But do we yet really believe that we need these skills in our communities? Or are we sleep-walking into a future for which we are deeply unprepared?

Larry Elliott, the Guardian's Economics Editor, has a new book out: Going South: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014, by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson (available in paperback and on Kindle). He argues that Britain will soon have a developing (or, more accurately, a de-developing) economy.

In a recent Guardian article, based on the book, he wrote:
A developing economy – or strictly, in the case of the UK, a de-developing economy – exhibits certain features. It cannot find work for all its young people, and contains a large number of unemployed graduates, traditionally a major source of social tension. Despite this, it imports workers from abroad to fill the gaps left by its own dysfunctional education system, and it supplies beer money, in the form of cash benefits, to its hard-to-employ native workers. Its economic policies lack clarity: on tax, on inflation, on public expenditure. It is particularly vulnerable to price movements in major world commodities. Above all, and perhaps in summary of these symptoms, it is weak, dependent on outsiders for finance, skilled workers and energy supplies.

The UK accounts for just 3% of the goods exported globally, down from 4.4% at the turn of the millennium, and is a net importer of industrial products, food and energy. Put simply, it used to be a great manufacturing nation but is one no longer. . . by 2040, and perhaps sooner, the UK will have dropped out of the list of the 10 biggest economies in the world.

The danger is not that we will lose our place in some global club or other. Such an outcome may dent the pride of our leaders as they are denied a place in a prestigious venue, but would be of little concern to ordinary people. The genuine worry is that we will endure falling real living standards – actually get worse off.

To which I want to add: of course we're all going to get worse off. Larry Elliott fails to factor all the other sustainability issues into his economic narrative. We're going to need all these practical skills - some local Transition groups are doing something about this, but this leaves out most people.

Start acquiring these skills now - for yourself, to teach your children and grandchildren, and to share with your community. If you're the kind of practical person who can already do all these kinds of things, start sharing your skills with others.

The Transition Quaker blog has a recent post related to this: an account of the economics discussion that took place at Britain Yearly Meeting in May this year; and the Sheffield Quakers blog has further comments and ideas arising from that.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Who are these banksters?

About an hour after publishing last week's post, I was listening to the evening news on the way home as the first reports were coming through about the Libor scandal that has now led to Bob Diamond stepping down from Barclays. So not only have the banks been reckless, they've been fraudulent.

At the same time, there were reports of another fraud perpetrated primarily against small businesses: they would only be able to borrow money if they agreed to purchase a complex financial instrument that would 'protect' them against rises in interest rates. But the sting in the tail was that the banks themselves were betting on interest rates actually falling and were making money out of those bets; meanwhile these 'insurance' polices charged hefty premiums to the customers when the rates fell. This has been enough to bankrupt some small and family businesses.

This has all given rise to some new words - 'banksters' came first, though I'm not sure when it first appeared. More recently a verb, 'to be bankered'. But who are the people behind all this, beyond the public faces like Fred Goodwin or Bob Diamond?

One attempt to reveal the hidden world of investment bankers comes in the film Margin Call  starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and others. It's about the 36 hours leading up to the collapse of - effectively - Lehman Brothers in 2008. It's an independent film that's done well at the box office and the Awards. This might be thought surprising, given that it deals with the obscurities of leveraged investments, sub-prime mortgages, derivatives trading . . . and so on.

We see the trading floors and the boardroom, the technicalities and the human stories. We see the traders, the risk managers, the lawyers, the maths whizz-kids, the management, the security staff . . . and one cleaner. There are goodies and baddies, and we get some of the technical stuff explained to us. But the drama is essentially a human drama.

The two bits you may have seen in trailers show Jeremy Irons, playing the chief executive of the bank concerned. In one exerpt he's saying that the imminent collapse will leave the company holding a 'large bucket of excrement'. In the other he's explaining to one of the managers that 'It's just money. It's made up. It's bits of paper with pictures on so we don't have to kill each other to get something to eat.'

The human stories play out amid the financial collapse that's about to engulf the world's markets, and as the endgame starts, it becomes clear that even the good guys have their price. They can all be bought because, if they refuse, the company will sell them down the river. They're all in thrall to money, and to the lifestyle it buys; even those who agonise, who have a conscience about it all, in the end sell their soul to the system.

It's worth seeing - 110 minutes well spent. It doesn't seem to be available on UK-format DVD yet, but it can be watched on any hardware that will play a US-format DVD, it can be streamed online, and it's currently in some independent cinemas.

But it's really important not to end up just feeling bemused, angry, dwarfed or disempowered by it all - what can ordinary people do?

One thing we can do is consider our own banking habits. The banks that run our current accounts, savings and credit cards aren't investment banks (or 'casino banks' as they're being called in some quarters), but most of them engage in investment (or 'casino') banking. That's what lies behind the political discussion about forcing either separation or ring-fencing between the high-street and investment arms of the banks.

There is a growing movement to persuade us to take our money and our custom away from these banks. Move Your Money offers information, advice and assistance to help us move our money to more ethical banks, mutual building societies, credit uninons, or community development finance institutions. As was quoted in an Editorial in The Guardian (talking about pensions), research shows that 'by and large human beings are not very good at this financial stuff' (aside, says the paper's leader writer, from the minority that has the talent for cleaning up) - but we can get good some small parts of it, like more ethical banking.