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Issue 269
November/December 2011
Wellbeing

Undercurrents

The Great Reskilling
by &
Photograph copyright Andrew Simms

Photograph copyright Andrew Simms

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Green Books

The Great Reskilling

To grow, gather, preserve and cook; to repair, reuse, recycle and mend. Going back to making (and making do) heralds a return to higher levels of purpose and thus wellbeing. Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts report.

If it's new, it must be good. A simplification, but that's modernism - easily put and immensely powerful. Dare to find fault in the latest offerings of technology or consumer culture, and people will think you want to live in a cave, not to mention forcing others to shiver in the dark and cold with you. Stand against whatever carries the mantle of modernity - motorways, high-rise tower blocks, hypermarkets, industrial farming, the airport or the shopping mall - and you become an enemy of progress.

The accusation is repeated so often that environmentalists end up censoring themselves, worried about appearing to stand for a world drained of novelty and pleasure. Exhortations on the benefits of living simply, and phrases such as 'less is more' fell out of fashion in fear that the whiff of austerity might ruin the consumer party.

Scared of its own shadow, the green 'in-crowd' took to preaching green consumerism. Yet, by internalising the criticism of their opponents, did environmentalists concede too much? Was confidence lost to the point whereby we became blind to the real, deep, rich human benefits of living differently?

When it comes to consumer issues, the green agenda has been distilled for decades. Instead of a 'throwaway' society (in every sense of the word), we know we should repair, reduce, reuse and recycle.

Ecological economist Herman Daly puts it rather more eloquently, stating that the economy of the future needs to be a "subtle and complex economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing, frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economics of better, not bigger."

Unambiguously, this describes a shift from a consumer society to more of a 'producer society'. It suggests a world in which we roll back the gradual deskilling of society and the impoverishment of work. Something is wrong when it takes a celebrity chef to remind us how to boil an egg, or a television makeover programme to remind us how to paint a wall.

Erich Fromm wrote, in To Have or to Be: "Everything one owned was [once] cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility. Buying was 'keep-it' buying." To extend the life of an object, the owner would know how to polish, adjust, oil and repair it. With the advent of disposability, built-in obsolescence, the introduction of constant upgrades (very similar to obsolescence) and mass advertising, the market learned to earn more money by persuading people to throw things away. It came between the individual and the household and the human bonding and satisfaction that came from being able to make, gift, share and repair everyday items, and objects both beautiful and useful, as William Morris would have it.

But the tide is turning. Economic necessity and a rejection of impoverished consumerism are making reskilling the rage. Apart from deeper, more lasting satisfaction, learning new crafts and skills not only equips us for a world in transition, but also helps us connect to it. Understanding how to work with materials, from textiles to metal, wood and words, replaces old-style consumer materialism based on fleeting engagement, rapid boredom, dissatisfaction and quick disposal with a different kind of materialism.

Using skills to make, do and mend brings engagement, allows expression and encourages growth through learning. It extends and helps both the doer and the done to endure. Action supersedes the short-lived and ultimately disappointing 'sugar highs' of passive consumerism.

A world in which we all hold a wider range of practical skills leaves us less at the mercy of disposable goods and built-in obsolescence, and more in a position to shape and fashion the world around us in satisfying ways.

The attractiveness of a 'great reskilling' has been taken up by the Transition Town movement. Having "lost many of the basic skills taken for granted by every previous generation - to grow, gather, preserve and cook local and seasonal food; to repair clothes and household goods; to make and mend rather than throw away", they propose that we relearn these skills "to prepare for an energy-scarce and relocalised future". Courses on offer range from how to make your own radio programme to how to build your own house.

Such approaches offer some obvious environmental benefits, but they also suggest a different way of being in the world. And it is here, perhaps, that the environmental movement has been too shy of what it has to offer. The evidence suggests that doing more and passively consuming less is the difference between a 99p processed meat burger and a meal lovingly prepared with fresh ingredients for friends.

In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett quotes the American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, who wrote during the birth of modern consumerism and at the height of an industrial mechanisation built on the division of labour. Mills recognised both the value of skilled 'craft' work, and the broader implications of losing it:

"The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker's mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally, family, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence and experiment in craft labor."

Sennett himself comments: "The slowness of craft time serves as a source of satisfaction; practice beds in, making the skill one's own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination - which the push for quick results cannot. Mature means long; one takes lasting ownership of the skill."

Brian Perkins renovates old bicycles. He specialises in Moultons: small-wheeled revolutions in cycling that began in the 1960s (one revolution, at least, that endured from that tumultuous decade). The designer of the bicycle, Alex Moulton, was also the engineer behind the suspension system on the Mini. Moulton was a self-confessed 'petrol head'. He loved big, thirsty cars like the discontinued Alvis marque, that look like country houses on wheels. But when the Suez crisis struck, he glimpsed a petrol-dry future and used his skills to reinvent the bicycle with small wheels and built-in suspension. Something clever about the physics of small wheels means they accelerate fast from traffic lights, leaving the bigger, more macho bikes indignantly behind. Several cycling speed records were set on Moultons. Bicycle sales had been falling for years, but the launch of the Moulton was a turning point. Sales have edged up ever since.

With skill, greased fingers and patience, Brian keeps the older models on the road. He's not like a museum restorer, cautiously and precisely recreating originals. He brilliantly remakes them, not pedantically but true to the spirit. Some people think the Moulton is a shopping bike until they see one float past effortlessly. Then they look confused. To perform his craft, Brian has collected spare parts - lots of them - over two decades. "Have you ever watched candyfloss being made?" he asks. "The spun sugar winds up in a mass on the stick, seemingly from nowhere, until it becomes enormous. At first you're delighted - until you try to deal with it. Old bike parts are a lot like that."

Sometimes Brian sounds like a barefoot doctor running a field clinic for those who cannot afford to pay, in a country where the health service has been starved of cash and equipment. He gives a fairly accurate description of the state of the green economy:

"Bicycles don't usually reject a transplant, so I feel compelled to save things for future use. And old bikes are cheap, because they are generally unwanted. For compact storage, collected machines are always reduced to their discrete components and gobbled up by the collection of cardboard boxes, margarine tubs, sauce jars and biscuit tins. It all comes in useful sooner or later. When you enjoy tinkering with old bikes, the value that even small things have makes you lavish disproportionate care and attention upon them."

At other times, the act of renovation comes across as if he were navigating a path through appreciative reverie of the tangible world, all wide-eyed curiosity and meditation: "I knew there was a biscuit tin somewhere with a good selection of beautifully made clamps that could be polished to a sparkling finish. Or were they in an ice-cream tub? That rang a bell. Or perhaps it contained bells? I just wasn't sure," he says.

One thing is sure: if the great transition to a low-carbon, high-wellbeing future is to happen, it will arrive riding a bicycle. As H.G. Wells wrote: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race."

It is intoxicating to see a society slowly remembering that it can make and repair for itself many day-to-day objects and feel good about doing so. More people are making and mending their own clothes, with a 500% rise in the sale of sewing machines seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. Haberdashery sales from the cooperatively owned John Lewis store rose by 30%. The list of knitting clubs is getting longer and there is a vast (and active) network of guilds and societies.

The Nottingham Craft Mafia is a network of amateur craftspeople who meet up to exchange skills and support. The group offers classes, social events and even a regular knitting circle. It's open to craftspeople at all levels. The Craft Mafia network started in Austin, Texas and there are groups in the UK from Manchester to Glasgow.

Not the mafia, but a gentle, wise matriarch of sorts, June Simms (mother of Andrew) retrained as a textile artist after raising three children and when her career as a theatre nurse, hospital ward sister and midwife came to an end. The way that she developed a unique mixed-media style, rooted in but greatly evolved from traditional embroidery techniques, demonstrates how it is possible to grow at any age through the creative expression allowed by the mastery of a craft.

As she gave a class at a venue called The School of Life in a series of talks called Practitioners' Parlour, an audience of women less than half her age sat rapt by the infinite possibilities of combining thread, silk, paint and even cast-off industrial materials used to waterproof buildings that, treated properly, lend extraordinary properties to textile art.

"The greatness of a craft", wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "consists firstly in how it brings comradeship to men." Again, such an intuitive insight from a writer appears to be well underwritten. One of the many revelations from the rapidly growing field of neuroscience is that mutual cooperation is associated with enhanced neuronal responses in reward areas of the brain. This tends to suggest that social cooperation is intrinsically rewarding.

For his book Together, Henry Hemmings carried out a nationwide survey of small groups, many of which were craft-based. He came across groups ranging from Knitting Hill and the Hadleigh Bobbin Lace-Making Class to allotment associations all over the country and the East London Advanced Motorcyclists.

It's easy to underestimate even something as seemingly prosaic as motorcycle maintenance. University of Chicago academic Matthew Crawford found it so fulfilling that he wrote a whole book about it with the glorious title The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. Not only did he find intrinsic personal satisfaction from his work, but he also found that his mechanical craft gave him membership of an appreciative community: "I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic. This effort connects me to others, in particular to those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at." Passing on knowledge directly evokes the relationship between the skilled and the apprentice, teacher and student: what Crawford calls "a kind of philosophic friendship, the sort that is natural between teacher and student: a community of those who desire to know". Lifelong learning - the natural complement to a society relying more on mutual aid - also has multiple benefits: enhancing an individual's self-esteem, encouraging the development of social networks and a more active life.

Everywhere, it seems, people are beginning to make and do and get involved. In short, a human response to the failure of markets is producing the opposite of the depressing phenomenon described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: the market's atomisation of family and community life and the withering of communal groups.

As Shakespeare wrote, "The joy's soul lies in the doing."

This article is adapted from Andrew Simms' forthcoming book Cancel the Apocalypse (to be published in 2012).

Andrew Simms is an author, activist, associate editor of Resurgence and Fellow of nef (the new economics foundation). Ruth Potts is a founder of Bread, Print & Roses.

For more information: www.nottinghamcraftmafia.co.uk

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