After six years in Bolivia, I am back in The United States. It has raised many questions and made my sustainable and ethical inner book keeper busy. Especially when it comes to a central and perhaps the simplest and yet most important of all: of to have and/or not to have in life.
This question led me to good old Hemingway. Okay, not the most obvious choice if to speak of sustainable ambassadors. But, an interesting thought though is what would Papa have covered in times tangled up in between “fake news” and probiotic non-diary yogurts?
Most people connect Hemingway with his macho image, but reflecting on two of his mid -career novels, I (re)discovered a social side and description of what could be defined as highly relevant of today’s (un)sustainable situation in the world.
To have and have not is perhaps not among his masterpieces, but the general theme and message reveals a man left in a difficult situation of how to carry on his normal duties and to find alternatives for how to support his family after being deceived economically. In For whom the bells toll, one of Hemingway’s greatest novels, we follow a voluntary American fighting alongside the republicans during the Spanish civil war. A story packed with symbolic meanings about life and what to fight for - in life. Two stories illustrating people forced to face moral choices and choose a way to fight for survival and an idea. This could explain why Papa didn’t just get his Nobel prize out of the blue, and why he deserves a word or two to put some of his deeper thoughts into a sustainable light.
To Have Not
It is for sure, despite what stock markets and employment numbers show, that many people face a to have not issue in their daily life these days. Not all of their stories pave the way to the headlines. And even if they do, they no longer seem to have much attention or interest of the media or the people reading, or rather watching them. This even if they should have all the attention and emergency alarms possible to create wake up calls for politicians, media and all of us.
For instance, the British paper The Guardian some months ago revealed that people growing up in Oldham, North-Eastern England, in average can expect to lead a life 26 years shorter than their fellow citizen of Chelsea, London. Twenty-six! That is, to use a familiar term these days, a tremendously big gap and almost what is defined as a generation.
The same source, recently covered a story about how people from a small city in North Carolina, USA, have lost their local hospital due to state cuts and now have to travel 70 miles to get to the nearest hospital. It is not the only story of North Carolina, also recently struggling with inundated streets due to the Hurricane Florence. And nor is it the only story from a reality out there about how society and its people not any longer share the same values or can expect the same life as more privileged citizen. And for whom the bells are taking heavy tolls jingling and jangling very unpleasant have-not scenario sounds, every single day.
And not a big surprise if people in these or similar areas feel some kind of bitterness and anger.
A basic right or a heart- and budget breaking situation?
There have always been and always will be differences in between what class, segment or group in society you belong to. But, a great deal of that gap got flattened out many places around the globe after the second world war. Mainly caused by economic programs and growth by USA, but also due to the introduction of the welfare state. This especially in Northern Europe and the Scandinavian region, but also in other parts of the world like South America a new middle class became a solid recognizable term and a significant group of sizes in society. The new idea built on a basic thought of sharing the wealth and that everybody contributed by paying their tax to the state, so all young and old, weak and strong could benefit from it. And where the state, in return, secured its population a well and nice fare through life.
If I try to recall memories from my own childhood, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in an average middleclass family, most people had the same budget to cover the daily expenses as the neighbor or the relatives from school. Thanks to how taxation was prepared, and whether you were son of the butcher, teacher, manager or the local vicar, we were more a less in the same boat. We all more or less wore the same kind of clothes and ate the same kind of food. Or more importantly - at least we had the same access to the same kind of food or clothes. The major difference was to be found in the amount or quantity of each commodity purchased or if you preferred wine to beer or coffee over tea, for instance. And we all made our shopping and daily purchases in the same super market or at the same grocer.
The Retail Gap
Today, this picture has changed. Slowly, a new gap is - and has been for some while now, opening between people who have an economy to purchase whatever and wherever they want to, and those who have or cannot. A symptom of that appeared with the new kind of discount super markets 20-30 years ago. They naturally indulged many e.g. students or less privileged people to buy here due to lower prices. At the same time, it opened for a door to differentiation of quality standards for e.g. food, production and conditions for employees.
Positively, it meant access to more commodities at lower prices, but it was also followed up by a sad, primitive presentation of cheap produced items in dull tasteless designs. It also meant an acceptance of fast produced food and an opening for an industry which became less sustainable and based on speed, mass consumption, huge quantities. And, not to forget products processed and manufactured with less nutritious value than before.
Luckily it also saw the beginning of another development where delicatessen shops and chains like Whole Foods pulled in the other direction trying to lift the bar when it came to quality, origin and climate friendly ways of doing business. But, also at a cost. This development has caused if you do not have a good solid income you will have to think twice when you go shopping. Especially if you want to keep a lifestyle which includes buying organic and sustainable grown commodities on a daily base.
To Have Access
Well, one thing is to have or have not a budget for good quality food. Another is general access to basic and fundamental institutions like school, health care and general civic rights.
I think it is relevant to look at our lives both from a personal perspective and what we ourselves can do to make our lives and society better. This hand in hand with the surrounding society ready to give a helping hand, so to speak. We might have different views and we might lead different lives, but at the end of the day it is in the interest of all if the basic conditions of our co-existence are more or less equal.
Besides food on the table, and real food with the right amount of nutrition, access to basic conditions like health care, education and a free press is also essential. These categories are basic, highly valued and also relatively easy accessible in e.g. Scandinavia. Still. They are having a hard time, but they are holding fast. If you really confront the majority of Danes on such matters, people will still defend the welfare model. And on top of that, there is a dialogue and discussion between the political parties regarding these areas, but also other issues, however ridiculous politics in this area also at times might have become.
A Farewell to Welfare?
This is totally different in e.g. USA. Health care and education are institutions almost dependent on money and payments directly from the citizen only. At the end of the day it means if you for some reason don’t have the money or simply unfortunate or unlucky in life you can’t get or only limited access to these services.
Despite any logical or just well positioned points, it seems many Americans are not willing to discuss exactly issues like health or a theme like gun control. Or, the discussion would often take its core points and reasoning from old historic agreements like the Constitution and its amendments made some hundred years ago. In Bolivia, I often heard the same reasoning by referring to one of many laws, especially by the government. That kind of argumentation you would seldom hear in Denmark. A discussion would normally take its off spring from points and reasoning built on both current situations and historical knowledge, but rarely with a referral to the constitution.
This becomes a problem when you every year witness more and more Americans face situations of not having or having a very limited access to basic institutions. If you are not able to discuss, analyze or reflect on life threatening or life limiting conditions from actual situations, well, where are we then. Especially when it is obvious that the current system e.g. health care does not work for a great part of the population. The same works or rather does not work for pivotal institutions dealing with education and climate matters.
The welfare model may not be ideal or perfect, but I think it is far more stable and fair way to head, both for each one of us and for the state and community in which we live.
Recently I participated in a nice open table dinner at Book& Books, Miami. An event where strangers shared ideas, views and a nice menu in the very centre of the busy down town. Miami.
So, let’s open the bottle of dialogue, real discussion based on current facts and situations and see what do we have at our disposal.
We still have our voices, our vote our reasoning. More than ever it is of greatest importance that we use this and listen, but also take a stand when something is definitely wrong. And a lot is wrong and heading in a very dangerous direction these days. So, here it would be relevant not to forget to mention the right or opportunity to vote. Where elections in the Scandinavian region typically have turnouts of 80% or more voters only around 50% of the population at the latest US election.participated.
Finally we must not forget that we also have a lot of promising ideas and initiatives blossoming and color our communities, some of these described in earlier of my blogs and especially in the sustainable sphere. Green energy, organic food and loads of life affirming action is the way and has already changed neighborhoods, cities and the way countries and its administrations think and plan for the future.
I don’t know if Hemingway would have said all this. But, I think it is of great importance, not only in the US but everywhere to get inspired and open the book of life again and read from scratch. To have or have not is not only about money. It is definitely also about having access to the most valuable things and prevent the bells from too many unwelcoming strokes in our lives.