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.

1 comment:

  1. I've edited this comment due to an offline discussion with Pam:

    Thanks for sharing the Elliot/Atkinson article. I have been interested at how little the Guardian addresses peak oil stuff in their editorials and in the paper in general. I have seen it reported in the economic stuff due to the fact that peak oil affects the decisions of other organizations, which is an improvement in comparison with news organizations that don't even go so far; but to me peak oil awareness seems to be clearly missing when the editors write opinion pieces. Perhaps I have missed the ones that show this, since I don't often read the paper; or perhaps what I perceive there has substance, and there is a recognition on the part of the editors that accepting peak oil as real would change everything about the conventional view of "the future", and they are not prepared to go there yet.

    Anyway, I have been thinking perhaps we are closer to seeing Greer's 'Green Wizards' model than the mass changes envisioned by the 'Transition' model. Greer seems to have been looking hard at what the industrial nations have actually been doing since the 1970s, and concluding that what is needed is committed individuals conserving skills that will make a huge different to the future. Hence his Cultural Conservers Foundation, and so on. That seems different than what I have heard from folks in the Transition movement, who I think are envisioning some kind of mass involvement from other humans?