Until the cows come home

Some lovely Belted Galloways

Greta Thunberg set off this week to sail to New York to deliver a speech about climate change at the United Nations. People have attacked her for this. Not attacking why she is doing it or issues of climate change. They are attacking her for being a sixteen year old girl. Mature adults criticising a sixteen year old girl for being a young girl. What on Earth is going on here?

I remember being sixteen. I was utterly confused by the world. The crazy way society is organised, the sheer amount of plastic starting to appear in the supermarkets and simply how inefficiently the world was organised. This had already led to huge losses of forests and space for wildlife in the world. Surely, this is crazy, I thought, how is the world in general not aware of this and why aren’t things being done to sort these things out.

I could have devoted my life to raising awareness and getting these things sorted out. I didn’t because the messages as I was getting was that I was too young to understand and in any case my peer group in the farming community I grew up in thought my views were weird. I was the exception, I was the minority. I was also suffering from social anxiety, partly because I was different. However I can completely understand Greta’s position and thoroughly admire it. We really do live in a world where sixteen year olds can be right and fully educated adults can be wrong.

Nonetheless I became vegetarian and tried not to produce too much waste and kept voting for politicians who expressed a commitment to sorting out the environment and making society a little less crazy and kept talking about the issues. This isn’t enough, it’s a drop in the ocean, the actions of one strange person are not enough. To make big societal changes you have to grow a movement, find a way to get your message across clearly and fight and fight and fight until the cows come home.

One problem is that I grew up in a society that encouraged compromise: You have to behave a certain way to fit in, you have to dress a certain way, you need to do certain activities and not do others, you need to get a well-paying job and then if you do all these things you may be in a position of authority and then you can do something about it.

To get there or even just to get any job, you have to compromise for example by commuting, wasting the resources of 2 hours of car travel everyday or helping an organisation you don’t like. You have to buy plastic wrapped bananas, because you can’t afford the unwrapped bananas in the posh shop.

However this doesn’t work, it took me a long time to realise this. Firstly you end up twisting your personality into knots to try and act the “right” way, you can’t trust what you think and thus lose access to your natural abilities and do some very strange things. All these compromises stack up, you try to justify them all and and up with some very strange positions and being objective about any issue becomes more difficult. Secondly, all the authority figures aren’t doing anything useful and their ability to change things, even they really want to, is minimal.

There has been a growing awareness of these perils of conformity. Society in Wales and across Europe has become much more accepting of difference, whether it be sexuality, mental illness, race, religion, language &c. Fortunately it is now much easier to be a minority and be accepted. When I was young people people hid themselves so much more for fear of being “found out” and probably beaten up for it. BAME families had to be constantly demonstrating exceeding the highest moral standards to be accepted in society, whereas any lapses from white people were quickly ignored and forgotten about. To get to this better position took a lot of fighting, campaigning organisations, pride festivals and so on. We have started to live in a world where being in the privileged class is no longer a pass ob to a position of authority. It’s a lot less likely that by sheer luck you happen to be someone who matches the prevailing conventional personality and attitude traits so have some authority. People who cared about the environment were sidelined, fortunately that is becoming less the case.

Now that we live in a world where difference is much more in the open and that is much healthier. However  it has created a opposing reactionary force. A force that seems largely composed of those that were able to conform, that being in the privileged group no longer makes things easier for them and they don’t like it. This has created division and turned things into black and white issues. It seems that it’s no longer a question of how much of an issue climate change is, but rather that people that advocate much more needing to be done as the goodies/baddies and those that advocate not doing anything about it as baddies/goodies. The skill of being able to view arguments form the other side seems to be being lost. This ignores all the complexity inherent in the issue.

There just seems to be so much ignorance of the advantages privilege confers. Perhaps largely because if you are lucky enough to be privilege you don’t notice the advantages you have. In Wales, we are fortunate in that our history gives us an insight into both sided. Wales benefited hugely from being a part of the UK, as a country close to the heart of the British empire. Conversely Wales has also suffered from being a “England’s last colony”. Arguably the Welsh suffer both from the guilt of imperialism and the exploitation of a subjected people. As a Welsh white male I have benefited from being regarded as a member of the dominant group and suffered from being an outsider at the same time. Yet there must be a lot of people who don’t have this dichotomy or are even aware of it.

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My social media feeds have almost been flooded by posts like the above about agriculture being unfairly attacked for the contribution of methane from ruminants to climate change [I don’t know how they got to these figures, would question them, I’ve included them for illustrative purposes]. This is largely because I know a number of small family farmers who are worried about their future. Methane is ‘bad’ as it’s a terrible greenhouse gas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any, we all fart. There is evidence that suggests than grass fed cows produce a lot less methane than grain fed cows, which small farms specialise in. So the ‘all the cows are bad’ rhetoric is overly simplistic. It’s getting worse as small farms are going to the wall as they can’t compete on price with cross-subsided big [unsustainable] ag’.

On the other hand I also see the posts of the type ‘Everyone should go vegan’. Again this is overly simplistic. Maximum sustainability includes some farm animals. Also in sustainability terms having meat from a local animal is better sustainability wise than shipping something from the other side of the world where it’s grown with stupid amounts of fertiliser on heavily degraded soil.

The sustainability answer lies somewhere in the middle, where nothing gets banned, there is just some things humanity needs to do a lot less of. The problem is that measured arguments don’t get a full hearing and drowned out by the simple messages that resonate with people: ‘Eating animals is natural’ ‘Veganism will save the planet’ ‘Welsh is a dead language’ ‘Let’s take back control’.

Such easy slogans are easily debunked and have long been debunked, yet still they somehow persist. Humans eating animals is natural and has been done since pre-history, but modern intensive agriculture of the last hundred years is not ‘natural’ by any definition. Reducing land devoted to growing food will help the environment and will probably improve many people’s diets, but won’t by itself save the planet. I think reducing average meat consumption in the Western world to something like 10% of current consumption is something like this part of the answer, but it’s how we do it that matters, not the headline figure.  Os mae’r iaith cymraeg wedi marw sut medra i sgwennu hwn [If the Welsh language is dead how am i able to write this?]Greater localised democratic control to reduce negative impacts of large scale global solutions is a way forward, this was the phrase that arguably won the Brexit referendum in the UK. Yet no-one has yet suggested any democratic or constitutional reforms for after the UK leaving the EU that will achieve this.

I’ve written before about how Brexit is divisive and lumped people into being Leavers or Remainers. The ‘Take Back Control’ phrase was more about a general despair with the crazy world we live in  (remember my second paragraph), for traditional values and communities where everyone could relate to each other (apart from the outsiders who know how to keep quiet) because the actual Brexiteers are against electoral reform (perversely in my view). I think there is also an element of wanting life to be simpler, more traditional and this view is most heavily supported by those losing privilege; the white, heterosexual, conservative older generations who did what they were told.

Maybe there is simply a frustration as people who have sacrificed parts of themselves to conform, put up with plastic and long commutes to try to get some control over their lives. Was all this personal sacrifice for nothing? I share this feeling as someone who overly tried to conform and still do to some extent to stay in employment. It could simply be that this young girl comes along who isn’t compromising. She’s travelling the world without using an aeroplane and has become an authority and has helped raise awareness and put pressure on those with power, by not compromising. This kind of breaks the conformist contract, many Western cultures have, that the feeling is she doesn’t deserve influence as she hasn’t done all the horrible compromising, so shouldn’t have a voice. The ability to conform is highly valued and gives people solace. However, she is right in my view, as I was at 16 and we all need to get over ourselves and not criticise people for being right, but instead support them and help build momentum behind sorting out the horrible mess our economy and society is in. We need to unshackle ourselves from our personal hangups to enable humanity to make it to the next century until the cows come home.

Greta Thunberg on her way to America

#Llangennech School

I did say I was going to write about why supporting Welsh independence wasn’t  nationalism. However I’ve constantly seen this issue flare up on my media feeds over the last few weeks. Really it’s merely a storm in a tea cup. Yet the whole furore is kind of a case study of how discussion of events becomes ugly very quickly these days, with many wild accusations flying around, even arguments about motives for appealing for calm! Both sides of the argument accuse the other side of being nationalists, whether ‘Welsh nationalist’ or ‘British nationalist’

IActually there is an interesting discussion to be had about this topic. The difficulty is that a reasoned argument is buried quite deeply beneath the froth of opinionated voices.

Briefly the situation as I see it is that there is a Welsh government policy to increase provision of education in the Welsh language and have bilingual schools as this has educational benefits. There is also the option to be educated solely in the English language in Wales too. The school on Llangennech is currently dual stream, there are two cohorts of pupils, one being educated bilingually and one in English. The local council have decided to phase out the English stream and make the school a full Welsh medium school, when the current English cohort have progressed to high school.

The complaint seems to be that those families wishing to educate their child in English will have to apply to schools a few miles outside the village and these schools may have to expand. Of course it is usual in any community to resist change that makes life more inconvenient for people in those situations. This is just local news. However it has kind of erupted into mainstream mass media.

If only we lived in a perfect world. Having education in two languages does present challenges, particularly in rural areas. The problem is that small schools are being closed due to budget cuts, with children having to travel further and further to get to school anyway. In reality the educational problems in rural areas are far greater than those faced in the more populous Llanelli area. So, when primary schools are split by medium of education depending on parental choice these distances can further increase, which is detrimental to education.

From my perspective having gone to school in Mid Wales, these Llangennech families are lucky in that they have a school on their doorstep and have the choice of alternative schools within a few miles if they want an alternative. Such things get forgotten in the heat of these arguments.

Because of the rural nature of much of Wales, sometimes dual stream high schools is the only sensible option as the next school may be 30 miles or more away. However there is an argument that dual stream schools are detrimental at a primary level (5 to 11 years old). Detrimental, because one cohort are being taught in Welsh and for children from English speaking homes language immersion is important for the children to develop skills and confidence in the Welsh language, especially where there is little or no Welsh spoken in their homes. It is also detrimental to the English cohort who will be surrounded by a language they are not being taught the skills to be  able to use that language. So, from an educational perspective ending dual stream primary schools makes sense.

The educational matter doesn’t get discussed, the process of finding solutions to challenges. Instead we have a media frenzy where one side gets accused of being anti-English and the other side accused of being anti-Welsh. Whereby people are allegedly forced to speak Welsh or forced to speak English. No-one is forcing anyone to do anything, can we not all just get along with each other and find solutions that work for everybody? It would seem not.

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What incensed me was an article in this weeks Western Mail (the supposed ‘national’ newspaper of Wales). The article reported that someone had slashed  a cars tyres in Llangennech, perhaps as a consequence of the heated discussions. However the article featured a picture of two ladies holding a Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh  Language Society) banner in support of the councils decision. The point is simply having Cymdeithas yr Iaith associated with tyre slashing, suggests that they are responsible for the tyre slashing without a shred of evidence. This false connections just inflame the debate, rather than report what is going on. The newspaper have since apologised, but the damage is already done. The ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ that the modern mass media thrive on. We live in the world where if you repeat the same lie often enough, large numbers of people who don’t dig any deeper begin to accept it as fact.  We see this sort of thing going on the mass media and in social media, all the time, its just sickening. We are living in a post-truth world.

It just seems a part of all these division the mass media seem to relish stirring up. We have the Brexit divisions, everything seems us and them, so when you are somewhere in the middle and just want a practical workable solution, your voice is discounted,  it is unsettling and just seems quite quite mad. I am neither  for or against EU membership, I am not a fluent Welsh speaker (yet), nor am I completely disconnected from the Welsh language. If you’re not binary, you somehow don’t count. Well, we all count!

It’s this debates never truly end thing. There is a tendency to make things binary by going back to first principles, whether it’s the re-awake the language debate or the EU debate. Hence so much energy is spent re-hashing old arguments that there seems very little space left for: Ok, there is a broad consensus, how do we make it work and where do we go from here? This applies both to education and Brexit.

There is evidence to suggest that children in Welsh medium education, from non-Welsh speaking homes do have a tendency to struggle. Such children should be identified and given extra support and by and large they are but some do fall through the cracks, which is where the wider community can and should help. This is what pressure should be put on, not on attacking the existence of the supposed ‘other side’. These children can be supported by the Welsh speaking community and as part of that the English speaking community can help the Welsh speaking community.

Sometimes in some circumstances, like when a child from an English speaking home doesn’t receive the support for schooling in Welsh, the best option for that child is an English medium education and that option should be available just as readily as a bilingual education. Generally in most of Wales, the nearest school is an English medium school. What is desired is the option of bilingual or English medium schooling to be accessible wherever the child lives in Wales.

It is entirely possible for everyone to work together for mutual benefit. It’s called society, where we all have the time and space to develop new ideas, increase efficiency and grow our economy. We do not have to go through deciding which side we are on and then struggle to fit in because hardly anyone   actually fits in with a rigid interpretation of that sides philosophy. What is important is the children’s education, giving them the skills to succeed in the world, not to be pawns in someone else’s pointless battle.

This is Wales, some of us speak Welsh, if you don’t like it, get over it, no-ones forcing you to stay, yet of course you are welcome to stay if you wish to!

Outside ‘One size fits all’

If this blog has a theme, it concerns the issues surrounding being an outsider; being a member of a minority in society. The world seems to be bound by the idea that ‘one size fits all’ as an efficient way of running society, but, what happens when the ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, what happens to the misfits. Often misfits struggle with not fitting in and as I used to do think that the problem lies within us as an individual. However, as I have learned, misfits can resolve the problem of being a misfit by accepting who they are, be comfortable of being in a minority, that if people have a problem with them then that is an issue for the other person, not themselves, that it is an issue that doesn’t need resolving. People can ‘not fit’ in many ways such as, physically, psychological type, sexuality or cultural background.

I have suggested that everyone is in a minority in some aspect of their lives. If an individual only has a small number of things that don’t fit, this is perhaps the state of the majority. It is fairly easy to compensate for for a small number of aspects by compromising or counterbalancing for the issues economically or by lifestyle choices. Then there are extreme cases where people struggle to fit in so much they fail to live happy productive lives.

It is important to note that being an outsider isn’t a choice, it is something one finds themselves saddled with. For example, I’m 6’2″ tall, I had no choice, but I have to live in a world of chairs and tables that are too low and too small, a clear example of how ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t work, perhaps it should  be ‘one size fits most people, sorry if you are in the minority who doesn’t fit’. If you are designing a bus, a train, a plane, a theatre, a workplace, then part of the brief will be to deliver to a budget, so one size of seating makes sense economically. However there should be means by which the short and the tall can resolve this. For example, one can obtain a taller bigger chair and put bricks under the desk to raise it’s height. such adaptations have a price and perhaps the misfit should shoulder the associated costs. This works and is fair if everyone else has to make similar costly adaptations elsewhere in their lives. however in a global world of increasing standardisation, more and more people are left dealing with a world that doesn’t fit for them. you can only compromise so much, until it gets to the point that the individual suffers too much and is overly burdened with the costs of fitting in.

Politically, the failure of ‘one size fits all’ can be a problem too on a much bigger scale. In the UK we have had right wing government for over 30 years. As a centrist, I have been perplexed by why people keep electing them, as the the number of people who benefit from their policies dwindles. The theory Ive adopted is that right wing and left wing people are fundamentally different types psychologically. Political parties formed to serve these two predominant types.

The right wing ideal is a state of competition, where people engage in a competition and strive to win, the rewards of winning being status and economic wealth. If someone isn’t in the top half, they should try harder and be helped to do better in the competition.

The left wing ideal is a state on cooperation, where people work together to achieve benefits for society rather than the individual, the benefits being a sense of usefulness in a  society where things improve. Those who try and take more than their share are shunned.

I have previously argued that neither of these doctrines is perfect and certainly not perfect for all. You end up with left wingers in competitions that spend all their effort helping other players and right wingers refusing to play as a team and seek individual glory; both doctrines require compromise for the good of the team. Or to put it another way lefties have improving society as their goal and if competition helps then that is fair enough, for righties competition is the goal and if society improves as a by-product then that is good.Then you have introverts and extroverts who operate in different ways and don’t understand each other. Such an analysis helps me understand why I am a left-leaning centrist or Social Democrat. Lefties, operate in a market driven world as a compromise and often work for social goals in their spare time as compensation.

Often when I consider political issues, I try and revert the situation to a pre-industrial rural village society. Genetically, this is how humans evolved and how natural communities operate. Each community has individual with a range of traits, the interaction between individuals contribute to the net benefit of the community as a whole. At such a scale being an outsider is usually less of a problem, The carpenter can make a larger or smaller chair. Individuals find their place in society and the rest of society knows that individual, their strengths and weaknesses, individual naturally drift to roles (jobs) that suit them and adapt the roles to suit there needs. There is time and space to listen and work with individual needs in close knit communities, to make things of more than one size. So, when you have a post-industrial society, the individual struggles to find their place, particularly if they are an outsider, larger societies are too big to adapt for them. Indeed how the economy works tends to suit such groups as the extroverts, the right-wingers, the urban populations, whichever groups become dominate by the artificiality of directions in human society. At such a level it is harder for the outsiders to be as economically valuable, the ‘one size’ fits fewer and fewer people and society fragments.

This direction of society towards conformity, to tryannies of an ever decreasing majority is arguably becoming less efficient. Biological communities survive when biodiversity is high, these enables the community to adapt, for minority traits to solve crises. A community with only one dominant trait can be wiped out, when the environment changes. In terms of human society, non-dominant solutions arising from diversity are perhaps becoming less able to implemented as dominant views become entrenched. Often instead of being listened too, minority views are considered ‘awkward squad’.

All this compromise of lifestyle by individuals makes them less efficient workers. As more people become less efficient, the whole economy becomes less efficient. This seems to be borne out by data suggesting that the productivity of UK workers is in decline. My point is that compromise is important but too much compromise causes less economic efficiency and prosperity.