Is nurturing communities as simple as uniting around a common purpose?
Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews, the founders of The New Ism, are practising social distancing at home in Edinburgh and London respectively: we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss how this time of change and reflection could be harnessed to create a New Ism when all this is over. As members of different generations, we have different experiences and perspectives, but share a desire to create a new way forward.
Alex: Hi Mel, we concluded our last blog on community with the thought that perhaps a common purpose is the key to creating stronger communities. As our societies have become increasingly individualistic, and we all pursue our own individual purpose, the idea of community has slowly disintegrated. Two major exceptions that we noted have been major sporting events like the Olympics, and the current coronavirus pandemic – both times, communities have united behind a common purpose. Do you think this is an idea that we could take forward into a new ism?
Mel: Yes, defining what we mean by community is crucial as part of a New Ism: I agree about finding a purpose that we can all get behind. I think the whole issue of climate change or the decaying environment is one area, but the challenge here is that this issue is continuous and long-term. The Olympics is on for just two weeks – we can get ourselves united and up for that. Hopefully the pandemic will be short term as well and will end within months. People would agree that we need to deal with climate change as a top priority, but how do we make this purpose something tangible where we can celebrate success in the short term?
Alex: Yes that’s a really good point – I think having an end goal in sight, something that we can celebrate together, is crucial. Perhaps the climate crisis can be broken down into achievable goals – more people commuting on bicycles, counting bees together, cutting the number flights we take as a society, for example. Then, when a target is achieved, there is some form of celebration, as if it were the Olympics or another finite event.
Mel: Overall the climate discussion needs to change completely. At the moment, some people are demonstrating and others are predicting doom; these are both legitimate actions but they don’t necessarily come up with clear solutions. We need to change the whole issue into something which is very positive, and we need to create targets. Something like, ‘in our town we are aiming to have no cars at all driving around; we will either cycle or walk, our individual health and our collective wellbeing will improve greatly, and the town will become more sustainable. This is something we will all sign up for and be very proud of when we achieve it.’ It is about having ambition and creating a sense of ownership for everyone.
Alex: That’s exactly the kind of thing I meant – something tangible and more attainable. ‘Stopping climate change’ is so huge that regular people like you and I can’t really imagine being able to play any part in it, but ‘not driving to school or the shops’ is much more achievable at an individual level and success can easily be measured by the amount of cars on the roads, by how clean the air is and by the level of heart disease, for example. And, of course, if all the towns and villages in the UK did the same, the impact on carbon emissions would be dramatic.
Mel: Everyone needs to see how they will benefit. Someone might say that it is much easier to drive a car than cycle. That person might be very negative about the idea of not driving a car. What we all have to do is ‘sell’ the concept, so that individuals can understand the benefit to themselves and, beyond that, start to see how they can input positively to the wider community. Done properly, there could be a serious impact in communities, but it does mean that people must buy into the overall purpose. We need to bring the issue of climate change down from a global level into issues around the local community – I think people will find that much easier to buy into.
Alex: Yes – and if there is more momentum at the community level, that will put pressure on governments but also on organisations and institutions to implement changes at a higher level, for example switching to green energy or taxing polluting companies. That two-pronged attack will allow us to start seeing real progress towards carbon neutrality.
I think over the course of the last few ‘conversation-blogs’ we have done, we have unveiled some really interesting insights into how we can create more harmonious communities and societies, and that’s now starting to encompass how we can start to fight climate change together. All these issues are so interwoven with one another, it’s exciting to see how implementing changes in one area could have positive consequences in another.
Mel: Yes, what’s that expression again: is it ‘think global, act local’? We have to be aware of what is happening globally – we are all impacted by what is going on in an interconnected world, whether we like it or not. However, we can make significant changes locally which, when taken together, can make bigger changes across the world possible. Is that what you mean?
Alex: Yes it is – but also that issues such as improving communities and combating climate change are more interlinked than they seem at first glance. I guess I’m optimistic that, once we start to try and ‘fix’ one area, another area might also start to be ‘fixed’ as an unintended but happy consequence.