Saturday, 7 June 2008

Energy Descent and the care and Support of Vulnerable People - Some preliminary thoughts

Health and Social Care

The aging population in industrial countries will be put under the hardest pressure of this change - and self care and care of the elderly will become a major political economic issue as arrangements for pensions collapse in a savings wipe out at the same time that state funding is drying up. While the older population has personal knowledge of wartime and post-war austerity measures this group is now the old elderly and often far too frail to bring their experience to bear in practical engagement. Nevertheless to a degree this group can be given a respected social role sharing their experience of living in a make do and mend world - as suggested in the Honour the Elders notion in the Transition Initiatives. Some of the 'young elderly' may be able, in the early stages of this process, through downshifting and early retirement, to contribute to the organisation of new local economic arrangements and may even embrace and pioneer alternative lifestyles and subsistence arrangements.

For the ‘older elderly’ the situation is more challenging. A major portion of health and care costs are in the last year of life - in Germany it is one third - current moves towards easier euthanasia in several countries should be judged in that light and will be a serious challenge to health and social services when budgets are tight.

Single vulnerable people

The ability of any individual to survive in times of difficulty is powerfully determined by the amount of social capital they possess. Major life style changes to meet more needs close to home, with less energy and within the local economy, will not be possible for individuals to achieve alone. While some individuals are well connected into supportive social networks there are many who are not. In recent years there have been major increases in the number of single person households; in the 2001 census of 21.7 million households in the UK 30% were single persons - 6.5 million. 3.1million of these were one pensioner - 75% being women. 3.4 million are under pension age - 60% are men and 40% women. Single parent households will also need considerable support - there being 2.3 million single mother households in the UK - not to mention all those other households where one person is a full time carer for another chronically sick or disabled person who may not have the time to grow their own vegetables or insulating their house.

Socio-ecological self help and support arrangements for single individuals extending to those who are more vulnerable will become vital initiatives if society is to retain any traces of 'civility'.

More generally the trend to single people living alone will need to be reversed. Anyone trying to do a personal carbon calculation will notice that if they live on their own their energy and carbon usage is much higher - for example, they are not sharing the heat in a room - and a bed!

Public health difficulties

For the public authorities at the most local level the evolving difficulties, peaking periodically in specific emergencies, could take the form of a succession of public health crises - encompassing both physical and mental health. Large numbers of people will continue to require health and social care - at the same time as local health services are finding it difficult to get the money to pay the salaries and wages of their workers and the big centralised hospital complexes, that use masses of energy and energy intensive technologies, will be in difficulties.

Depending on the speed and manner in which the crisis develops large numbers of people may be suffering under chronically worrying debt burdens and a sort of culture shock when they find that their anticipated secure futures, with all their plans, have become ever more unrealisable so that anxiety, depression and breakdown will be widespread.

On the practical day to day level, an occasional and then more frequent breakdown of grid electricity and gas supply could undermine the ability of populations to maintain basic hygiene and keep warm, fed and watered. Bed bugs, fleas and lice could become a more serious issue bringing with them typhoid and other diseases. Unemployment and disorientation would have stress consequences that weaken resistance to the new diseases that are now emerging ('ecodemics' like avian influenza, lymes disease, SARS, West Nile Fever etc) plus the geographical spread of diseases as a result of climate change. It can therefore be expected that community health services will be forced to try to play a major role in organising local level community support networks and basic shared facilities for basic needs.

Education and Children's needs

Schools and other educational establishments, plus child care will also have a major role in community organisation at a local level - for training children and older people in skills appropriate to the 'new domestication' - gardening, cooking, manual skills, metal work, woodworking, energy numeracy and literacy etc. They also have resources in their buildings and grounds to be used - e.g. Land for growing, kitchens, workrooms, meeting halls, showers and changing rooms (important for the hygiene of children in a society under stress) etc. The schools will have a lot to do - a recent article in the Observer pointed out that in the UK only 8% of households cook from basic ingredients every day... but teachers would be facing these tasks while, like health workers, finding if increasingly difficult to make ends meet themselves.

Community leaders

As the central institutions of the state prove more and more unable to help, people at a local level will be thrown back on their own resources. What then happens within an individual community will depend on the community leaders who emerge. This is why it is so important that local authorities and health agencies work together with the Transition Towns movement. These will need to be clear about what is happening and have the connections and networks to draw together initiatives to recycle and rebuild local community arrangements around basic needs, food production, health and hygiene and energy. Existing councils may be able to facilitate this, with the right guidance and vision. Some new community leaders may be workers from health, education, community and voluntary sectors - who may pioneer the new economy partly out of self interest as they find the state unable to guarantee their jobs and pay.

In this regard, socially cohesive responses to major collective shocks can also be a positive as people work together and develop mutual support and solidarity which may draws in and support isolated people. However there has to be a common orientation to what is happening for this to occur and a common purpose in regard to what must be done which gives some sense of hope and direction towards a liveable future. This collective purpose will need to be organised in and through local institutions where people gather together and which they trust.

Crime and Policing

However, there is no guarantee that people will come together around considered and rational community spirited responses to the ecological/energy crisis in a co-operative relationship. While people must band together if they are to survive, the new associations may take the form of criminal gangs, sects with odd and extreme religious and/or political views - or vigilante self defence organisations. Gangs and vigilante groups are most likely to arise where the public authorities and governing elites appear powerless, or even act in a way that exploits people's vulnerability for their own ends as the crisis evolves.

The greater intensity of dependency of people on each other at a local level could easily evolve into a loss of privacy and personal space as well as a pressure for loyalty and conformity characteristic of extended families, clans and sects – which might easily develop collective secrets as attempts to protect themselves against the authorities, compete against one another and/or exploited by groups seeking to channel mass frustration at scapegoats whose expropriation or expulsion/ethnic cleansing will be held up as a solution for all ills. Criminality may be a serious problem getting a new economy up and running - e.g. crop thefts from community gardens....

This is a description of a transition to a sort of feudalism – communities in thrall to strong men or mafias who thrive in the crisis – with other finding protection in enclosed communities held together by faith ideas.

On the other hand one should be aware that many of the current trends towards increased criminality will be thrown into reverse. There will be an increased need for skilled manual labour and therefore more respected and paying social roles for the currently disaffected young people who currently cannot find a place in an office and professional focused culture. The progressive erosion of globalisations long distance communications systems may also erode some of the channels through which illegal drugs travel.

Culture, the arts and Leisure services

As has been argued by David Fleming the future must also have some culture to it - some celebration, fun and something for which life would be worth living. This will be a task that local authority leisure services departments will need to look at. This has been a very doom and gloom scenario but if that is all that is on offer then there is little hope of any new sustainable social and economic arrangements emerging without crisis occurring first. In fact, the social and economic arrangements to replace the high energy economy are likely to have many positive features which the current society is lacking. Much of the current tension in some urban areas is the result of the loss of manual employment and the devalued status of what manual employment remains. That can be expected to change as skilled manual workers will be important to rebuilding the future. There will be plenty of reason to bring currently isolated and lonely people together and no lack of practical common purposes in the simple things of life - cooking, eating, growing, repairing and building together. While the transition will be painful the simpler arrangements that eventually replace our existing economic and social arrangements may at least lack some of the horrendous complication, the stresses and performance pressures of an accelerating 24 hour society.....As I've found myself, gardening with friends is much preferable to sitting in front of a computer screen and chasing targets.

Also on a positive note it is worth pointing out that irrespective of people’s belief systems they will have to eat, drink, keep warm and clean – so those people who provide a practical leadership at a local level, providing genuine practical solutions to these problems will exert an attractive force. If they prove able to construct coherent networks of project activities that genuinely support people they will find themselves very influential. That means sticking to the fundamentals at a local level. In this regard I think that recent authors in Permaculture Magazine, reviewing the various videos and literature about ‘Peak Oil’ have it right when they say:

“One of the things that struck me (on watching a video about peak oil) was that for all those people campaigning against globalisation, their time would be better spent beginning to put in place what will be needed after globalisation’s inevitable demise. Why campaign against something that will inevitably collapse, and soon? Building the sustainable, low energy yet abundant future offered by permaculture is imperative, and the alternatives too grim to contemplate.”(Rob Hopkins)

“Forget about saving the world. The world is bent on self destruction and we can’t stop it. Trying is a waste of time. What we can and must save is the knowledge that will be so essential afterwards. We must keep alive traditional skills which are now despised and being rapidly forgotten. We must also develop new skills, using the best of modern technology and design science. We must preserve as much of the vanishing biodiversity of the planet as we can, in order to rebuild as healthy a future as possible after the crash.” ((Patrick Whitefield)

1 comment:

Derek Wall said...

I enjoyed listening to David Fleming immensely at yesterday's climate forum, if you can go to one of his workshops, he is very thought provoking and fun.

must link to your blog which looks important....

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