Gross National Diversity

19.30, Tuesday 19 May 2020

There’s a spot in the forest near where I grew up which is a clearing in the woods. There’s no undergrowth. No bracken. The ground is flat and made up of grass, like a lawn. It feels inhabited but empty. Haunted.

My mum knew a guy who was an old forester, and he told her about this clearing. It’s a clear, flat lawn because travellers lived there for years and years. The travellers were farm workers, and they made their seasonal home there.

From what I understand, these were English travellers, not Irish travellers or Romany travellers. Is/was there a separate group of English travellers? To my shame, these aren’t communities I know.

Then came the 1980s. This is how I heard the story: Thatcher had something against the travellers. There was a big push on primary school education. It was mandatory, and you had to register for one school, and to be able to register you had to have a fixed dwelling. And so the travellers were re-homed into local houses and were travellers no more.

There’s a new government Pick for Britain campaign to recruit agriculture workers: normally workers from countries like Romania and Bulgaria come to help the harvest, but only around a third of them are here. (The website itself crashed about a minute after being announced.)

Replacing fruit and veg pickers with new workers is unlikely to be easy. It’s not just long hours and acquired skills (I couldn’t eyeball two apples and say with certainty which to pick and which to leave), it’s also lifestyle:

These jobs simply wouldn’t work for many people. They’re located in specific regions, generally far from major towns and transport links. For those who don’t drive or live in those areas, that means finding accommodation. Some farms provide this for seasonal workers … It’s also not free, so people already paying rent or a mortgage on their home would be paying twice.

What could go wrong? Not enough workers, fruit and veg not picked, lack of food on shop shelves.

So in losing the travellers in the 1980s, it feels like our society has lost resilience.

I think often of archetype/stereotype characters in a kind of imagined, pre-industrial, pastoral England.

The blacksmith. Taciturn. Each rare word carrying meaning and weight, like each strike of hammer on the iron goes where it means to go. Is it the mind that is attracted to the material, or the material that makes the mind?

The gossiping baker. Well, at the centre of the village, gatekeeping the communal oven, why wouldn’t they be?

The shepherd. Not speaking, or at least not in human language, for days on end.

The wise old woman – the witch. Why not? I know a physical therapist whose skills and approach are so far beyond anything else I’ve encountered that it only makes sense to understand her as a witch.

The monk.

I think today we’d call most of these neuroatypical. Maybe not the baker.

But they weren’t atypical anything before. They were part of the mix.

Imagine we’d lost, somehow, the shepherds and the monks. Could the explosion of technology and coding from the 1960s-2000s have happened? I don’t think so. Deep code requires a peculiar mental stance. And by “lost” I mean made invisible somehow: disenfranchised; made poor; removed from opportunity.

There are terms around like energy security or food security.

But I wonder about neurodiversity resilience – the pool of people who are potentially especially adapted to a new vital skill. Three minutes in a virtual reality headset has left me on the floor in a cold sweat and sick to my stomach for five times as long. Imagine the future economy requires VR. Do we have a community immune to motion sickness and able to speak quaternions as their native tongue? I’ve got a cousin who can see 3D like I can’t even imagine.

And lifestyle resilience. We suddenly need travelling workers for farms. If not for picking fruit and veg, then for pick and pack in Amazon warehouses. Do we have a nomadic community who knows how to travel successfully, a community which is keeping these habits and this knowledge alive, people we can learn from? What is the next lifestyle we’ll need to radically adopt and expand?

Could there be, like Bhutan’s famous Gross National Happiness, a measure like Gross National Diversity, some kind of number to quantify - and defend - the pool of cultural and neurological difference and depth that, in strange times, we can draw for our resilience and our strength?

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