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We didn’t have any riots at Alvecote Wood, but we all watched them on TV. Since then there has been a great deal of theory floating around as to why they happened, and a lot of unpleasant language too, full of hate.
So how could people want to destroy their own neighbourhoods, and take stuff from shops?
First of all, there is stuff. People from all walks of life are brought up with the mindset that stuff is what they should have, is what will make them happy, and is what they are in some way entitled to. The way in which people acquire stuff varies. Some people work hard to get money to pay for stuff. Others make money by illegal means, such as dealing drugs. Others steal stuff directly, or steal the money to buy it. Yet others acquire money without working for it, using the money markets which have long since ceased to be the means of raising money to back a business.
And along with the imperative to get more stuff comes the feeling that your stuff must be better than anybody else’s, and thus there is an element of competition: you are entitled to have more, better stuff than anybody else. And of course, when you don’t you are disappointed, and tempted to use slightly less than honest means to acquire it: fiddling expenses, short-selling on stock markets, scamming people by e-mail, shoplifting, picking pockets. They all amount to the same thing: needing to have more and better stuff than anybody else, and using any means at your disposal to get it.
Then there is language. The language that has been used in recent days is that of tribalism: gangs, chavs, looters, thugs on the one hand, and out-of-touch Etonian toffs on the other. None of these terms is helpful. None is healing. None is constructive. Tribalism manifests itself in many ways in society: supporting or joining a sports club is one way of expressing the need to belong to a group, or tribe, but there are others, one of which is joining a gang, or the Masons, or any number of other organisations with reputations for good, or bad. But in joining, and becoming more connected with, one group of people, everybody else in some way becomes an “outsider”. We all do this. We all have our own social circle, but it is easy to see in some situations how outsiders can become isolated, hated and reviled. Gangs hate other gangs, gangs all hate the police, working people hate those on benefits; there is hate between ethnic groups, between different religions, between residents and immigrants, between the haves and have-nots. And with hate comes blame: other people, or groups of people, are to blame for the fact that we can’t get better stuff – we hate people who have more stuff than us, while despising those with less. Disadvantage is an excuse for stealing because it is everybody’s right to have more stuff.
So, we become disconnected from each other and ceased to care about each other. Blame is contagious. Everybody wants more at the expense of everybody else.
But of course we haven’t just become disconnected from each other, we have become disconnected from stuff too. And this is the heart of the problem. We get stuff without understanding where it comes from, and even more importantly, we get stuff without any consequence other than, perhaps, having to part with some money. Stuff has become almost effort-free. We no longer know where our food comes from, our clothes come from, how our homes are built, where our electricity comes from. Traders on the stock markets no longer invest in companies and then see how they perform: investments are now bets on the future value of something without actually owning anything, or money changing hands, or anybody having an interest in seeing the people behind ventures succeed. Disconnection from each other, and from where stuff comes from, is a fundamental problem, so how do we start to tackle it?
Well, the woods are a great place to start (I bet you were wondering when I’d get round to mentioning woods!). In the woods you have almost everything you need to live. You have materials to make a shelter or home. You have materials to make fire and cook. You have materials to hunt your supper. You have food available to forage. Everything you do has a consequence: if you cut down too much wood one year, you won’t have enough the next, if you harvest too much of one thing it won’t set seed and won’t be there next year, if you kill too many rabbits one year, you won’t have enough left to eat the next, if you fail to save seed from your plants, you won’t have a harvest next year. Nature’s cycles are obvious and apparent, something from which we are now completely divorced in our quest for stuff.
Getting back to the woods and the land is key: learning where things come from, how they are made, how we ensure there is enough for next year, and years to come; learning about ecology, how living things mesh together in complex inter-dependent webs; learning about where food comes from and how it gets to where we buy it; learning about how clothing is made. It is not just children who need to learn this – everybody needs to see nature in a new light, and by doing so, will see each other in a new light too. We are part of nature, and by wanting stuff at the expense of everybody, and everything else, we are ultimately destroying our means of acquiring that same stuff that we scramble to get. Everybody, from all backgrounds, and all walks of life needs to understand this. We don’t all have to grow food, or live on the land, or become hunter-gatherers again. But learning to live by our own efforts, and see the consequences of our actions is vital.
Change won’t happen overnight. But if we all grew a bit, just a bit, of our own food, and if we all had the chance to learn in a natural environment, then maybe, just maybe, change will happen. Forest Schools, the Access to Farms initiative, Outward Bounds courses, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, Scouts, Guides, city farms, community food-growing schemes, school farms and gardens all have a part to play and everybody needs to have the opportunity to participate in these initiatives. Connecting to nature, and through that to each other. Then, maybe, we can stop hating each other, no matter how much, or how little stuff we have, and start to care about each other, and start to care about nature too.