Reflections 13th March

Photo by NIKOLAOS AXELIS on Unsplash

On my Mind

Reflecting on things this week has been difficult. Finding the quiet time and space has been hard work with so much dissonance finding its way into my thoughts, and triggered by the simplest of things.

I’ve long had a habit of waking up to “Farming Today” on Radio 4 – I find it a remarkable “Island of Sanity” to start the day, listening to how people who grow things talk about their challenges and how they approach them. There is something about farming timescales that makes much more sense than the short term sensationalism that follows on the seven o’clock news. At the moment, that news is like fingernails down a blackboard, such is the concentrated stream of insanity that pours forth.

As is often the case, this maelstrom of confusion was brought firmly into focus by a passing comment in a group conversation on Friday. Karen Brosnan talked of the “bank of social capital” we are all part of, and with a quiet thud, everything settled for a while.

“And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, with Ate by his side come hot from hell, shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war; That this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men, groaning for burial.

Julius Caesar. William Shakespeare Act 3

This cartoon comes from “Punch” Magazine, on 17th June 1876, on the eve of war in the Balkans.

In the nearly one hundred and fifty years since then we’ve had two world wars, a cold war, and now Ukraine. Running alongside we’ve had Russian Revolution, Glasnost, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the disappearance of Glasnost, the creation of the oligarchs, the legitimacy implied by the domestication of their wealth in London, and an assumption of the end of history.

For an intelligent species, we don’t appear to catch on too quickly.

Social Capital

Definition: A set of shared values that allows individuals to work together in a group to effectively achieve a common purpose.

It seems that our ability to communicate at scale- the foundation of social capital – has evolved far faster than our politics, but instead of being used to create a bank of productive social capital, has been weaponised by a few and just adds to the fog of war. The Russians are told one thing, we are told another, and social media explodes with reaction and speculation not reflection. Where we need statesmanship (or more probably, stateswomanship), we get easy ego driven populism.

The reason that “social capital” resonated so strongly with me on Friday was that I was on a call with a group of eight people who have been meeting every Friday for over two years. A mixed bunch of people mostly within Europe (including UK!) who have nothing in common from a work point of view, have never met together in person, and have no goal other than to be part of an “island of sanity” helping each other see the world through each other’s eyes. One of the results is huge social capital.

One of the group is Latvian, and as such is far closer to the reality of the action than the rest of us, geographically, culturally and experientially. He sees things from a different perspective, and social capital allows that to sit in the space between us without judgement.

Russia is the biggest country in the world. It has very limited access to year round useable ports. It is surrounded by Nato countries, and sees that increasing. It has enormous resources, capabilities and talents that struggle to find an outlet. When you have a caged bear, it needs exercising, not exorcising.

Back to building social capital. I have spent time in Russia. the Kremlin is probably the most impressive and beautiful palace I have ever seen. The Russians I have worked with have been some of the warmest hearted, full of life people I have ever met.

We don’t have a problem with Russians, we have a problem with a tiny, tiny percentage of Russians, but when that percentage is an effective dictatorship, that’s a problem.

The reality is we have been complicit in letting the situation get to where it has through a short term obsession with monetising any opportunity that appears without taking the time, or listening to the voices of the long term.

We find ourselves in a place where, to quote from Theodore Roosevelt at a time not dissimilar to now, “we must do what we can, with what we’ve got, where we are”

Those of us, the vast majority far from those remote islands of power can do two things. Firstly, we can reach out to those displaced,and help in whatever way we can, and secondly, we can talk. With those we know and those we don’t in order to see the world through their eyes. We have the technology and if we use it intelligently, we can create small Islands of Sanity. It’s not enough, but it’s not nothing.

If we wait for governments, it will be too late. If we act as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, and it might just be in time.’

“From What Is to What If” by Rob Hopkins

I find that small groups on Zoom, free from managed algorithms and advertisements, make great pop up islands. Just sharing what we see, what we wonder, and what are doing. Somehere in them, a comment like Karen’s makes itself known, and sets a small course correction on what will do with what we’ve got, where we are.

It doesn’t have to be much, but it does have to be something.

Inspiring me this week.

Margaret Wheatley has been talking of Islands of Sanity for years.

Daniel Kahneman with Micheal Mauboussin talking on big data and intuition. I’m reflecting though that as impressive as this is, it’s the time we spend where there is no data that allows us to see more clearly about what matters.

Views from Everywhere. Philosophy is one of the most influential tools we have, as long as we put it into practice and not let it languish in academia. This is a good article from Aeon Magazine, and food for thought.

A Quotation that has been sitting with me this week.

“The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbours, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.”

Seneca on priorities in “on Leisure”
Readable Medium Article

A Closing Thought.

One of the other observations in the conversation on Friday was “when did Ukraine become a neighbour?

I suspect the formation of the European Union had a lot to do with it. Maps and borders are abstractions, but create a sense of community. The formation of EU was, and remains a noble project doing what it can with what it’s got and the UK is, in my view, poorer in every sense on the outside of it.

Go well.

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