As regular readers will now, I’ve been using the title of this blog as an excuse to ponder the kind of social changes we’re going through, and what it will mean for the most vulnerable in society.
I’ve been reading a fascinating article about a Greek island, and how it’s been affected by the economic collapse in that country. I suspect that we’ve got further hardships to come here in the UK, so I was left wondering whether it might have any lessons for us in the near future.
The article describes the island of Samos, and it’s clearly been hit hard.
Evidence of the crisis, the lack of jobs and the absence of money in people’s pockets is everywhere. In the two major towns of the island, Vathi and Karlovassi, approximately a quarter of the shops are now closed. Most of those that remain open are offering such discounts that we assume it is a matter of time before they shut too.
A friend who has a tourist shop in Vathi thinks at least another six shops will close by Christmas, with more to follow soon after. In our village we have two tavernas – and they only survive because their owners take no income. What income can you take from only selling a few Greek coffees and some beer and ouzo in the evening?
It’s an island where public services are being shredded, businesses are closing, and ‘For Sale’ signs are everywhere. This has led to some dramatic changes to their way of life.
But it is the overwhelming sense of the people here that whilst things are hard and getting harder, at least it is better than Athens, or life in any of the other major cities. Why? Principally because on the islands and in the countryside most people here have access to or own land. Land means gardens and hence food. So just as the for sale signs proliferate, so do the number of vegetable plots.
There are scraps of land in our village which for years were neglected and overgrown but are now cleared and planted. At the beginning of September it was virtually impossible to find seed potatoes for sale. I suspect that the landscape is changing in many villages all over Greece as more and more land is cleared and workers with no waged work turn to self-cultivation and food production. We know of many families in Ambelos who now have chickens, goats, rabbits as well as vegetable gardens in their endeavour to survive. (I would suggest that tracking the sales of rabbit and chicken food would give a vivid sense of these developments.)
People seem not only to be returning to agriculture, but also retreating from money.
Sami from Agios Konstantinos told me last week that she has arranged to get a turkey for Christmas in return for wood and olive oil. Maria, who teaches art classes to kids, now receives ‘stuff’ (food, olive oil, wine, wood) in lieu of a class fee. As cash retreats, systems built on traditional village practices are emerging once more.
In other words, this is a modern Western economy reverting to subsistence and barter. Something that must be almost unprecedented in recent history.
The article also describes people falling back on extended family networks in order to cooperate for survival. These seems to be helping ensure the survival of vulnerable people such as refugees or people with physical or mental health problems.
So, that’s what’s happening in a small, agrarian community, but what of the cities?
We are constantly receiving information on exciting developments in Athens, Thessaloniki and Patras, where neighbourhoods, groups and activists are developing free medical centres, community cafes and restaurants, clothing and food exchanges, transport co-ops, squats and occupations, organising boycotts, refusing to pay transport fares and so on. There is nothing like this on Samos as yet, although a clothing exchange has just started where you can pick up clothes for free. Who knows where all this will lead – but without doubt we on Samos could do with some initiatives to lift our spirits and to bring us together.
Funnily enough, I’ve noticed some similar developments in my own city. Just recently in my neighbourhood a music, poetry and social club aimed at young people on the dole has been organised. The sort of community arts initiatives that used to be the preserve of the bourgeois and bohemian are increasingly being organised by unemployed graduates who simply don’t have anything else to do.
I recently reviewed Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth for this blog. Jackson emphasised a lot of the survival strategies described in this article – growing your own food, setting up community networks – and pointed out that these methods not only keep people alive but can also provide a sense of reward and belonging. Interestingly enough, some of the people interviewed on Samos seem to agree about that.
I don’t want to over-romanticise what’s happening in places like Samos. The journalist points out that suicide rates have jumped 40% in Greece (something that has ugly echoes over here). He also points to worrying signs of a resurgence in political extremism, with some people becoming nostalgic for the old military junta.
I don’t think the current economic crisis is going to be a couple of years hardship followed by a return to the old consumerist spending spree. I think in the medium term we’ll be challenged by resource scarcity, particularly peak oil. In the longer term is the spectre of climate change, which could be potentially catastrophic.
Perhaps this report from Samos gives us an indication of what the Not So Big Society will look like. A society where some find safety and reward in simple, less consumerist lifestyles, and where some will be driven to despair as their world collapses around them. Where some will flock to mutual support networks in order to help each other out, and where others will flock to groups like the English Defence League.
I’ve mentioned this before, but a few weeks after the August riots, I was chatting about the current changes with somebody from the Transition Network, and she made a comment that stuck in my head.
“It’ll cause some people to go out and loot, and some people to go out on the street with brooms.”
The more I think about it, the more I think that’s a very apt analogy.