“Most of the people living on [earth] were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn’t the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. “ Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.
Social change is tricky. It’s never easy to stop a runaway train. It’s far easier to simply go along for the ride than to attempt to slow down and contemplate steering, especially when steering involves building an entirely new set of rails – nothing less than a radical restructure of the world we live in.
Society progresses so fast that there is rarely, if ever, a chance to stop and plan the next steps. Any attempt to do so is rapidly overtaken by the frenetic pace of technological change. We don’t have a good mechanism for sitting back and taking stock of where we are now, or where we will be in 5 years’ time, let alone where we should be, or how we can get there. I am convinced, though, that it’s something we really need to talk about.
I suspect I am not alone in feeling that we have lost our way on countless fundamental aspects of our lives. There are plenty of lobby groups on everything from climate change to urban development, yet there is no coherent force trying to forge a new way forward. It would be lovely to think that we could, as a society, use evidence based, rational planning strategies to try and correct even some of the problems we are facing, yet it feels as though evidence gets buried under a sea of small green pieces of paper – which demand so much more attention than they deserve.
It is surely the role of governments to think of the welfare of their nations as a whole, for the benefit of both current and future generations. Planning for sustainable, livable, bearable futures should be fundamental to their operations – no other organization has such far reaching access both to the data and the means of implementation of significant change.
And make no mistake, we do need significant change. We need to rehumanise our lives, and by that I mean bring ourselves back to the things that sustain us as fundamentally social animals. The very social structures that have contributed to the rise of mankind are rapidly being lost in our haste to progress. We need to get back into our streets – to walk to the local shops (which means there need to be local shops), play in the local park and get to know our neighbours.
We need to get out of our cars and back in touch with the world. I have lost count of the number of people who assume I can’t ride my bike if it’s raining – we seem to have decided that rain is toxic. Sure, these days that’s not quite as far from the truth as I’d like, but it is possible to be out in the rain and survive (and we have remarkable devices like raincoats and umbrellas that can keep off the rain – the things technology can do these days, eh??). It is even possible to walk the streets at night without being mugged, raped or murdered, despite what you see on the news.
We need to get real about the connection between ourselves, our food, and the natural world. We need to stop throwing away perfectly edible bananas because they are a funny shape, or precisely the wrong shade of yellow. (More than 100,000 tonnes of bananas in Queensland alone are trashed each year, simply because they are not aesthetically pleasing.) Our connection with nature, seasons and growing cycles needs to be restored. We need to reject homogeneity and recognize the value of diversity – even if it means embracing humorously shaped vegetables. We need to grow more of our own food and stop demanding strawberries in winter.
We need to stop thinking that reality tv is real, that twitter is communication, and that important conversations should be had via email.
Governments can foster this kind of change by changing planning laws to favour local developments over large scale hubs. By fostering public transport infrastructure at the expense of freeways. By making our streets pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and by changing laws to favour them. By investing in public health and education.
This is not the kind of big ticket bribe that buys votes. It is not the kind of corporate-pleasing announcement that brings funding to the party coffers. But it is the kind of far-sighted, positive strategy that invests in our future well-being, and that of our children. What government will be brave enough?