Tuesday, 14 September 2010

La-la land - a philosophical aside

I've been in la-la land for the past ten days or so. A low level flu that doesn't go away - but just leaves me tired, sleeping, dreaming, thinking, cancelling all non-urgent appointments and only dealing with extremely urgent deadlines. Actually it's quite nice to slow down a bit - though I'm falling behind with my attendance at Dutch classes and may well have to cancel a visit to Bonn. (How could one not want to go to a city that translates as 'good'.)

It has given me time to think quite a bit about the value of the work that I do t make the world a better place. I do the best I can - working with words and ideas to change people's minds. Yet what does it take to change people's minds? I have a long standing friend who has made the transition from being an environmentalist to being a therapist. He finds (to paraphrase him correctly, I hope)that giving one person a way of finding their path in life is more important (and more satisfying) than any amount of environmental legislation. And I tend to agree - but how many generations is that going to take???? Have we got that long ??

It's not so much a personal existential crisis -more one of asking what 40 years of the aid, development and environmental 'industries' have achieved. In some respects a lot of positive changes have been made - in other respects the problems get worse. Eighteen months ago I did a week's whistle-stop tour of about a dozen development NGOs in the UK. They ranged from Oxfam (the 'Tesco' of UK charities- with a branch on every high street and an impressive HQ in the city where it started as a back street charity) to two man operations working out of rented offices. I was impressed by the diversity and commitment of all those involved in these projects: helping war torn communities in Sudan build new structures for their agriculture, or drought or flood/drought afflicted communities in Malawi to adapt to the rapid effects of global climate change. Yet I was a little depressed by the fact that they are essentially in competition with each other for funding from DfID, other donors and the general public.

These thoughts have been precipitated by the Guardian opening a really promising web site discussing progress towards the MDGs and development discourses in the large. I think the discussions here will be worth following over the coming weeks. Most of the work I do is related to the MDGs (directly or indirectly) and I am wondering if we are getting closer - or if they are even the right targets...

There are many millions of people on this planet who want to change the dysfunctional, possibly suicidal, path of development the humanity race is currently on. But we don't know how to. Should we focus on raising funds for global charities? Should we offer succour to the less fortunate in our own communities? Should we demand political change? All viable paths of action. I clearly remember reading an article by Laurie Taylor (I think) in the New Statesman in the early 1980s in which he explained how he changed from being a social worker to a sociologist (to paraphrase him) "I kept fishing bodies out of the canal- eventually i wanted to start finding out why they kept falling in'. It helped lead me away from the 'conservation' movement and towards green politics. But I am unsure if green politics has all the answers.

One can recite endless statistics about the number of hungry children, refugees, raped war victims, etc. in the world. Important though that knowledge is it can also be very dis-empowering. It might lead us to stop buying soy products, Kenyan green beans or to renew our mobile phones less frequently than before. But these actions are still quite small. We in the west are fortunate enough to live at the top of the 'food chain', but it still doesn't make most of us (me included) truly happy, content or at peace with ourselves. So how can we increase our own personal (and gross national) happiness? We (in the northern hemisphere) are, in one respect, the blessed, free (largely) from fear of random imprisonment or torture, of hunger, of natural calamity and all the other evils that afflict so many people. Yet loneliness, despair, self -abuse (and abuse of others) are still rife in our societies. Absence of hunger, fear, pain or need doesn't seem to make us any happier. Which leads me to ask what good is this good fortune if we can't use it to good effect?

If this blog touches something please forward it to to interested friends/colleagues. Its not meant as a closed shop - think this could open some useful discussions amongst lobbyists, activists and others..:-)


Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Nick, I've mulled this one over for several days, coming back to it occasionally. My first reaction was to say not to give up your idealism. I always figure that, because the world gets generally better over the decades rather than decaying to something worse, idealism must make a difference.

Then I found myself thinking about the current state of public discourse, where so much seems to be about preserving what you have in your own bubble and holding the rest of the world at arm's length. I can't remember an earlier point in my lifetime where people seem so ill-disposed towards extending a hand or working for the common good. But, then again, that's why the world needs anyone who will.

Today, I was thinking that we're both suffering a bit of pre-autumn malaise. It does feel like we work hard to little effect sometime, that the difference is hard to measure, and there's not as much time or energy left as when we started. But II think a day off may cure that.

So, full circle: you're doing the right things in a good cause. Don't give it up.

Textual Healer said...

Thanks for the support. Its not like I'm 'giving up' - more that it seems like going 'through the motions'. It pays my bills (but not much more).

Dave Hampton said...

Exactly: it pays the bills, but little else.

For myself, I've pushed all of my available investment of time and money onto the table behind my two projects. If they don't go, then I need to retreat back to working for someone else. At the moment, though,they both seem to finally be catching tinder. I believe they are both worthwhile projects, good use of my skills / potential to make the world better. Hopefully my idealism also works out.