This is the first of a series of monthly reflections by Jonathan Rae, Head of Schumacher College, on the future of the College as we celebrate our 25th anniversary.
Schumacher College was founded a quarter of a century ago on the belief that we are at a crucial turning point for humanity and the living planet. This was true in 1991 and ever more so now. The precipitous speed of change means we now have the ability to destroy a multitude of options for forthcoming generations and for life more broadly. Equally, we have the potential to dramatically improve well-being for humanity and all life across the planet. Which way we go will depend on how we relate to each other and to the natural world.
In countries around the world societies are questioning their identity, no longer well nourished by their roots and many angry with rising inequalities, with democracies often tied and trivialised, and a politics fanning the flames of nationalism and corrosive populism. For the first time in the post-war era, democracy is in retreat - eroding or being banished. The trend is alarming and the UK is not immune. Here as elsewhere the ruptures have exploited deeper and longer dislocations across our political economies and cultures.
The UK referendum decision to leave Europe seems to bear
s witness to this rising tide of anger and disenfranchisement. The skewed distribution of the benefits (and costs) of globalisation, free trade and technology is a leading reason for this. The social contract between the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ has faltered. The last ten years is the longest period of flat or declining real incomes for low and middle income earners across the UK since the mid-19th Century. Parallel to this and feeding the anxiety and anger are the worsening ecological and environmental instabilities that are directly impacting more on the same populations than on the better off; not to mention the impacts for future generations or the intrinsic rights of species in decline. Similar trends in income, and of course ecology and environment, are global.
We need to be prepared for the consequences of this – a crisis in democracy and rising nationalism, autocracy and failed states, and the implications these pose to freedom, peace and social justice as well as to ecological and environmental regeneration. Compounding this is the dawning of the 4th Industrial Revolution with disruptive technologies and the shift from labour to capital. Lower and middle incomes professions are already feeling the pain across multiple sectors with trends steepening. The looming scale and nature of this shift is unprecedented, casting shadows over swathes of employment though, on a more positive note, raising the value of creativity, social intelligence and intuition. While the opportunities for the growth of artesian economies are predicted, these are fewer than the dystopian scenarios. The future of livelihoods - of right livelihoods - is more alive today than it has been for generations.
So what do we share and where do we belong? A major theme in UK culture ties our identity more to America than to Europe. Culture, in Middle English, meant a placed tilled, and comes from Latin cultura – to inhabit, to care for, to plough – to inhabit a place sufficiently, to be responsible for, to respond to it, to attend to it. To bring shared meaning back we will have to dig deep in that soil of common culture to grasp where we come from and who we are. In so doing we will nourish and bring boldness to those values most of us share across communities, countries and continents for the common good of society, humanity and all life.
Common is a compound adjective made up of kol meaning together, and muni meaning exchange, and is also the origins for the Latin munia meaning duty. We hold this world in common as we do our societies. Places, with people always passing, grow a common history, common body of events, languages, music, and gestures – assimilating fresh voices and new times. We are bound by the fact that we are all migrants to these lands from across the ages and by the stories we retell and re-imagine from the rich soils we hold in common and for which we are all responsible for, no matter from where we think we come. As the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore (1913) recognised, hospitality is the first virtue of civilisation, without it nothing else grows.
The prevailing narrative of the post war era of the rational and self-interested economic ‘(wo)man’, has too often suffocated our hunger for the common interest. Humans evolve driven both by self-interest and by altruism – we are a social species - we are social animals. Altruism derives from a sense of feeling part of something larger than ourselves, of being in service to our commons – our society, our land, our humanity and all life. With some few exceptions, each of us continually balance self-interest with altruism, and for many the dynamic is the source of our most inspiring art, culture and generosity. We do well to pay attention to this for when a vacuum occurs, darker forces that both tie and divide peoples have room to grow.
Humanity has always lived in unprecedented times; exponential growth will do that. We have always moved in part to accommodate this expansion. Humanity has grown by 5 billion in the past 65 years building on the back of a 2 billion increase in the preceding centuries (1600 – 1950) with much of the latter spurred on by mass migration from Europe across the globe.
Such growth in the global population and economy has been driven by science and technology, and the hubris that blind faith in these can, and has, conjured. We have been way too narrow in our understanding of what inspires individuals, communities and societies; and we have been woefully naïve about how life helps maintain the conditions for life here on Earth. Humans neither dominate nor steward nature as our hubris would have us believe, but instead what we actually do is participate in nature, society and community. As Thomas Berry observed “the world is not so much a collection of objects as a community of subjects”.
The original question is how do we relate to each other and the natural world, and grow our culture avoiding hubris, while nurturing our individual purpose and participating in the common good. Humanity has never been challenged to do this on a global scale and in such riotous times, but this is now the ask. We need fresh thinking and practice as Albert Einstein recognised – “the significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”.
At Schumacher College and the Dartington Hall Trust, we are experimenting with living and learning for the challenges of a new time, where these deeper questions on life and purpose are encouraged, where bio-cultural identity and diversity are sources of wisdom, and where livelihoods are nurtured and life celebrated. We know history is messy and the future will be too. We also know that we do not have the answers but that they are being co-created through convening participation in discussion and practice. For us that is a participation with full attention, full love, a fullness of being and a full offer of oneself to one’s actions. As W.E. Du Bois, an American social reformer and political activist wrote in his last message before death – “one thing alone I charge you: as you live, believe in life”; I can think of no better guiding motto to guide my steps.
The next blog will turn to Living and Learning for People, Place and Planet - Networking Worldwide