What is the most important lesson we can learn from looking back over the last two millennia that we can apply in the early part of the new one? Could it be that although every country in the world is seeking to promote economic growth, it is both unsustainable and fundamentally flawed as a concept – for which reason we must adopt that level of resource-dependent lifestyle that is compatible with the planet’s capacity to support all its population roughly sharing that level? Or could the lesson be that, when the chips are down, self-interest is a far more potent motivator than altruism? After all, we seem prepared to forego very little of what we see as hard-earned improvements in our quality of life even when it is becoming apparent that that may lead to ecological disaster. Indeed, we seem to avoid enquiring or caring about what is going on lest it affect our dedication to pursuing hedonistic practices.
Although, in general, the wider public interest is the inspiration for proposed changes in policy, the main thrust of our reaction to hearing about them is to effectively set aside that interest and focus solely on evaluating the effect on our own situation. Examples are all too easy to cite. Our primary response to the Chancellor’s annual budget is, will it mean that we have less or more money to spend, and to local authority plans on traffic calming, will it make it less or more difficult to use our car?
Should we therefore admit that policies founded in the belief that the nurture of community spirit to achieve equitable objectives are likely to fail against the background of this human instinct motivated by self-interest and dedication to the gradus ad Parnassum towards seeking ever more to improve our own circumstances?
Whilst we may find it difficult to be as generous as we know we could be by putting our money in the deserving begging bowl, some comfort on this sad commentary on the human condition can be drawn from the fact we are reasonably happy to sanction government to do so on our behalf, perhaps because that leads to a fairer solution than one in which we would be giving, but others – the mean bastards – would not. Thus, there is a complementary instinct within us that reflects an awareness of the desirability of demonstrating that we are prepared to share what we have and to curb our selfishness. This no doubt accounts for the remarkable lack of opposition to concessions made to senior citizens in the form of subsidised fares, winter fuel payments or lowered entry charges to public places. Whilst it cannot necessarily be claimed to be totally altruistic – acts of charity do give the donor an internal glow – it does reflect scope for nurturing this other instinct.
It seems increasingly likely that the early years of the next century are going to reveal far less opportunity for ignoring the wider social and environmental consequences of our actions. What will distinguish it assuredly is the essentiality of our coming to terms with the finite nature of the planet and its resources, particularly fossil fuels. There is sufficient evidence to show that technology will not be able to deliver the degree of change that would allow the world’s population to adopt western lifestyles. In the face of moral imperatives and a politically realistic perspective that commands international support, thrift and economy (in its former sense) – and sharing as one of their obvious media – are likely to feature far more prominently in policies focused on achieving ecological equilibrium, with perhaps rationing as the only logical route to survival.
One small way that could fit in with a strategy to this end could be to find ways of helping people, especially those with limited practical and intellectual skills to know how to go about coping with the problems that come up at times in their daily lives and which can make them vulnerable to exploitation or ill-conceived or wasteful courses of action.
To a degree, the Citizens Advice Bureau can be seen to be the agency fulfilling this role. However, its primary aims are to ensure that people are aware of their rights and responsibilities and of the services available to them. Valuable though these are, they fail serve that wider purpose as comprehensively or effectively as could be envisaged in informing people what to do. The CAB is not an obvious locus for advice or ideas on a range of practical difficulties which arise as a function of the complex lifestyles that an increasing proportion of the population lead – especially older people living alone.
For instance, is there any alternative but to pay a call-out charge of £30, often much more, because I neither have the wherewithal nor knowledge of how to go about preventing my basin tap dripping. Is there any local resident who can tell me whether and what action needs to be taken if I see dampness on the ceiling which may be attributable to a one in 50 year freak weather event that does not justify major attention to the roof?
LETS provides a money-free method for people to exchange their skills or services. From this perspective, it can be seen as another mechanism which has been developed in recent years and which meets part of the strategy. But it is not geared to giving advice on options of what to do and the risks that each may entail. Another route for getting work done is to pay professional people. However, they wish to maintain high standards and minimise risk of recall and therefore tend to advocate courses of action that may exceed to a marked degree what, in all likelihood, they would consider sufficient for themselves. Contractors too tend to be motivated in a similar way. In both instances, financial gain may be a spur.
Could there be an intermediary role for some people, for instance retired professional people, not necessarily expert in the particular field on which advice is sought but with the breadth of imagination stemming from their own life’s experience who would be prepared to share their skills by offering independent and impartial advice on such matters and, in some circumstances, suggesting that there is no cause for concern? Local authorities could promote the setting up of these free services for the community, inviting volunteers, vetting them, and perhaps providing a base for their work, though much of it would of course take place in the homes of those in need of advice. The initiative could be called HELP?
Originally published in Social Dreams and Technological Nightmares (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.) 1999. (Tapping under-utilised professional advice and technical skills for application in local community.)