Friday, December 12, 2008


I had a meeting the other day with my friend Linda who has been asked by the local Shire Council to come up with some ideas to help address some of the intractable unemployment and poverty in several communities in our district. Now it occurs to me that in times of change, it's people with the least to lose who are often in the best position to try something new. Yes I know, those at the bottom of the heap often have major personal issues which prevent them functioning very well, and sometimes these dysfunctions become generational and are handed on as a culture of failure. How else can you explain how some parts of our district have been mired in poverty seemingly forever?

All the same, I also know how those of us whose lives generally run smoothly tend to get stuck in our rut and can find a changed reality difficult to accept, let alone coming up with responses to take advantage of it. That's natural — we humans are innately conservative. Those of us who do experience major disjunctions in our lives often are often disabled by them for some time, sometimes permanently. But sometimes we learn things we never expected, and humility can be one lesson. We learn how even the most confident and seemingly solid personality can crumble, and we get some inkling of how well those who perhaps we have looked down on in the past deal with things day to day which we might find overwhelming even for a brief period.

This is why I am wary of the habit of seeing society being divided into winners and losers, or victims and perpetrators. Life deals us a hand of cards and we must play them as best we can. Which is my roundabout way of coming to the point: opportunity is most present in times of change or threat. And those most open to opportunity are those not imprisoned by their prior investments, be it social, financial or mental. So I see this initiative by the Council as a great opportunity to kick-start some new thinking about our local economy, at a time when big change is coming for us all whether we are ready or not.

Now as a battled-scarred small business person of long standing, I'm under no illusions as to the success rate of innovative ideas, especially in a time of flux and possibly with participants with little prior experience. So my idea is that ideas and talk are cheap and provide the seed stock if you like, general skills are universally useful, and specific projects should involve more of a journey of discovery and learning than any dependency for measurable success on a definite final outcome. If ideas are planted, what does it matter if they take some time to mature and sprout? And if the skills needed to carry them out have already been learned, away we go.

What ideas do I have in mind for projects? For a start I think every town should have a community garden, for all kinds of reasons. First, food is going to get more expensive and many if not most of us will get used to the idea of growing at least some of our own. Second, for people suffering some degree of social isolation, working on their own plot in a community garden is a very healthy and helpful thing. Thirdly, you get top quality fresh produce. And fourthly, you do it in an environment where help and advice is close at hand.

Linda and I thought metal and wood-working skills are always good things to learn. And it occurred to me that traditional boat-building is a great one for a number of reasons. First, it teaches a high degree of wood-working skill. Second, the materials, wood, nails and a bit of other metal and paint are relatively cheap. Third, anyone can do it. And finally you get something at the end which is beautiful, useful and marketable. And while we've had a great excursion into building boats with all sorts of exotic, high-tech high-performance materials, boats built in the traditional way will almost certainly come back as the most common type in the future when we become more dependent on local resources for manufacture. It's also relevant that one of the target communities for the Council's scheme is Port Welshpool, where as a kid I remember on several occasions visiting Charley Norling with my Dad, when Charley was building a new fishing boat for himself next to his house.

Linda and I discussed lots of similar things, and I'm sure all of you could contribute quite a few more ideas (please do!). I will keep posting any new information (and your suggestions) about this scheme as it comes to hand.

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