Bottling it

Posted on October 25, 2011


As we await the outcome of the latest European summit, many of us are increasingly wondering what will happen should bailouts fail to save Greece….and Italy…..and Portugal….and….

The news on Greece is so bad that commentators almost do not need to point out that the austerity measures tied to the current bailout package are sending the country backwards rather than helping it to climb out of its economic woes.  Debt to GDP is increasing because the economy is shrinking so dramatically.  The impact on the average Greek is something we should all study  because it will surely act as a telescope into the future.

So the question for most of us is how and what do we do when we are faced with no jobs, no income, and possibly no home.  I know I mocked the One Show asking this very same question not three weeks ago and before I have to eat humble pie, I thought I should reframe this question into something that is perhaps a little more meaningful, at least for me.

I had a fascinating conversation over a very late dinner with an Australian colleague last week.  She is one of those who sit in the somewhat uncomfortable and challenging position of advising big corporations from the inside on how to improve their sustainability performance. I admire this woman greatly because she has made a real and measurable difference to the sustainability performance of the particular sector in which she works.   Her take on the current crisis is manifold but she made the point that we need to get used to it, because let’s face it: it’s the new normal.

The new normal as she put it, is all about the singular disappearance the excessive wealth and consumption that we experienced in the early part of this decade (at least by ‘we’ she meant those of us who were lucky enough to be in affluent households living in the west).

My feeling is that the new normal is the best we can hope for, and the worst is far more dire but also a distinct possibility.  But either way, how do we prepare?  I have talked about this with lots of people but still am left with the question: prepare how?  There is one thing which is about stacking the larder, or getting a more secure job and there is another thing entirely other which is about being mentally and emotionally prepared.

This time really is a place and space where we will be morphing into something that we are not now.  Our own expectations of ourselves and our families, our communities and society at large will and must begin to change.  We will begin to change our shape as western affluent consumers who have been able to afford to visit every country on Earth and  in the process, be spectators to the world’s slings and arrows.  I expect that we will morph into people that ‘do’ again.  Not just people that ‘consume’.  I expect that the connections which had become casual will once more become critical: those proximal connections with neighbours, the transactional connections with fellow sellers and buyers, the familial connections may become make or break as we form support blocs.  What happens to our friendship connections in this new map?  Do we try to cluster together, or do we see less of them because we are each concerned with making our lives work within our communities.

This space I think is quite different to the ‘mend and make do’ culture that is emerging right now amongst us.  Why?  because right now we have the choice to embrace the slightly romantic notion of making our own soap.  When we have no choice, will it still seem so romantic?  I am also genuinely conflicted about the collective impact of choosing not to spend money (which at the moment is the last thing Governments want us individuals to do) as opposed to having to find the wherewithal to grow our own vegetables, bottle some fruit, keep some chickens and turn our own hair into useful knitted numbers for hoisting our loofahs.

I come at this question with a slight advantage over most: I lived on a self-sufficient farm for a good portion of my childhood years and it was a very, very tough existence.  Unlike slick television portrayals, there is never precisely the right number of baskets, or bricks, or paper, or blocks of wood when you need them.  Things go wrong, they break, animals die, and lots of time is spent feeling completely down-trodden and defeated.  My family’s experience was at a time when the world was racing towards the consumerist age we know so well, so to be without a television and new clothes was not such a shock.  What will it be like for so many who wouldn’t know a cow from a crow and who do not know the first thing about growing a pumpkin?

Building our collective resilience is an urgent task that needs doing before the sun goes down.