Tuesday, March 04, 2008

We need 'wartime spirit' to fight climate change and build a greener society

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Interesting to see that Prince Charles has likened the fight against climate change to fighting a war, and not for the first time (see here and here). All the way back in 1989 I made a very similar point in a chapter of the book 'Something About Bristol' (Redcliffe Press), after taking part in a Bristol Evening Post writing competition to mark the publication locally of the fiftieth book about Bristol. I've copied my chapter 'Wartime Spirit, without war' below. I could write something very similar today. Problems of: rapid and inappropriate development; how to deal with history; apathy, cynicism and materialism; division and inequality; local community breakdown and lack of self-determination; industries shutting down and using people; poverty; housing everyone; pollution and traffic congestion; happiness and the quality of life, are still very much with us about 20 yrs on. And I'm still here arguing for reconciliation: between society and economy and our environment; between people within and across communities here and around the world. I'm sure you will spot the references to a few things that certainly have changed though...

Wartime spirit, without war (from 'Something About Bristol', 1989)

Bristol is a city steeped in history. There are many developments which are rapidly changing its face, like its fast growing influence as a financial centre, that also bring frustratingly difficult problems. So while historic achievements, people and events should not be dismissed, history should not bind us. To adapt to accelerating change we should all look forward, but learn from the past.

During wartime and deprivation great comradeship existed. Now apathy, cynicism and materialism are surely destroying more than all the bombs that have fallen on Bristol. Indeed we may be bound by history. Divisions between black and white, rich and poor, are evident. People are physically separated by a road system which ignores community life.

The community spirit and friendliness found in the St Philips Marsh area up to its break-up in the late 1950s gives us much to emulate. The closeness is needed, without the poverty, clannish suspicion of outsiders and the sexism of the times. Perhaps we need wartime spirit without war.

Elements found in the old St Philips Marsh – the shops in every street, local small businesses and self-employed chimney sweeps, blacksmiths, wet fish sellers – should be recreated. The principle of self-contained, but not isolated communities, with local people providing themselves with goods and services, is good.

Working and living environments have changed. We now have fairly clean, though not perfect, drinking water whereas in the 12th century when Bristol was a major wine port the poor quality of the water was cited as a reason for drinking wine! In St Philips developing industry brought jobs, housing and so people. Industry also brought its foul smells, river pollution and noise. Indeed, eventually the people were squeezed out, used then disposed, by growing industry.

The community there was crushed. Future Bristol must have industry to meet people’s needs not people that service industry, only to be moved ‘out of town’.

Housing in Bristol has moved from the contrast of huge, plush Victorian places with small, cramped and basic utility housing, to council estates and flats sadly lacking in open space. The plush housing is still there, the housing problems are different, if not worse, people now at the mercy of ‘mysterious’ market forces. Lack of self determination in local areas, or even lack of any say at all, needs putting right. This would avoid the breakdown of communities and shed light on the needs and problems of areas, like housing and open space needs.

To this day Bristol’s notorious but profitable role in the slave trade (white slavery since the time of the Norman conquest, then later black slavery up to the 1800s) influences the view many have of the present, even the future. People said that slavery was intimately entwined with the economy of Bristol. Indeed, much money was involved but slavery was abolished. Bristol’s present South African trade links via the port are profitable too. Will this last as slavery did?

Bristol’s economy has been served by people. Sherry, tobacco and chocolate firms run by God-fearing families employed thousands and still do. The wealth divisions evident from history still exist today. Compare house prices North and South of the river. Wealthy merchants had the legal advice and protection of Latchams, Montague and Niblett, Britain’s longest surviving law firm. They bought jewels from Bristol Bridge and sent for fresh meat from Temple Gate. Brooks dyed ostrich feathers for Bristol ladies. Exploitation today has some historic roots, even if different situations are involved.

Bristol’s future economy should be built on the theme of reconciliation. Small firms, with work self-contained and flexible, would reconcile material needs with creative needs if local people produced for their own needs. A strong element of worker and community control with local reinvestment and recirculation of resources is the more just and equal Bristol I want. Elements of this future can be found in the past but never all the required features.

Reconciliation of the need for economic activity and a clean and pleasant environment to live in is a must. Pollution from industry in St Philips Marsh in the past and at Avonmouth today shows that ecological concerns have still to be considered of primary importance.

Cars in today’s Bristol bring pollution, stress and disfigurement to historic buildings like St Mary Redcliffe Church. Who today wants this magnificent building encircled by crowded, hostile roads? Do we want to go on hearing of ‘lots of traffic chaos due to temporary lights at Whitchurch Lane. Wells Road and Bath Road very busy and flowing slowly’ on local radio every day.

Its not for reasons of nostalgia that I like the idea of trams, or something like them, returning to Bristol. The Metro idea is a good one. If properly planned with local people it will provide a great service. It should be integrated with a bus and rail system. Park-and-ride schemes, more cycle-ways and more pedestrian-only should prosper too. The car rules many lives, when we should rule the car.

Future Bristol will I hope reconcile people with each other and their surroundings. Its people will be aware of Bristol as a whole from within their own diverse self-reliant communities. Bristol’s interdependence within Britain and the World should be recognised. People will, I hope, be happier and use leisure wisely. Others, too, will enjoy the quality of Bristol, historic city.