[A reconstruction of what I wanted to say, and what I actually did say, at the launch of the book ‘No Picnic’ on 27th May 2014. Hardcopies of the book and commentaries – including this one – are available by PayPalling £5 to email@example.com]
I’ve just left a University meeting where someone made an impassioned protest about the number of duties academics have. They were still despairing about the amount of work we’re asked to do, as I left to get to my bike so I could cycle here.
On the way I passed a new development of luxury student flats named “impact”. A cruel pun on the need to justify research, I wondered?
I work as an experimental psychologist, and so, as I rolled down the hill, my thoughts returned to the research that occupies so much of my time, research I’ve been doing on learning and learning curves.
But as I arrived at to No Picnic these thoughts also fell away and I turned to think about failure.
You see, I was originally part of the Furnace Park project. In the book, Matt says some kind words about me not being able to continue being involved because I had a newborn daughter. And it’s true, I do have a daughter and that does fill up your time. But the truth is that it wasn’t just that which meant that I dropped out of the project. Really it was a question of priorities. I was focused on my research on learning curves, about writing grants and publishing papers, with a limited amount of work time. Furnace Park just…fell off the edge of the things I could do.
So I was thinking about my failure to be involved, and about the instrumentalism – the need for results – which structured my time so that I decided I couldn’t afford to be involved.
And instrumentalism turned my thoughts to my first academic job. You see I’m a recovering social psychologist, and my first job after my PhD was on a project looking at brownfield land. Brownfield land is previously used land, like Furnace Park. Previously used land can be polluted, but possible harm from that pollution is always a risk, rather than a certainty, and people think about risks in funny ways – hence my involvement as a psychologist.
One thing we looked at was who the public trusted to tell them about risk. Was it the media, local government, pressure groups or scientists? We found that the expertise of the person giving the information was nearly irrelevant – people trusted information from people they thought were on their side, regardless of whether they were qualified to judge the risks.
One day, as part of this project, I was on a site visit to a housing estate which had been built on or near polluted land. The residents of the estate were understandably upset when they discovered the extent of the pollution and were pressing for a clean-up – a clean-up of great expense and uncertain efficacy. I was being driven around the site by the chief planning officer at the local council.
“They say to me, Tom,”, he said, “they say to me ‘how much is a human life worth, eh? How much is a human life worth?'”
“What I don’t tell them is that according to us it is exactly four hundred and seventy five thousand pounds”
Another thing I learnt from that project is that it is a myth that brownfield sites are barren and greenfield sites are always more important to protect because of the richness of the habitat. As you can see from places like Furnace Park, although left unused – often because unused – brownfield sites can become vibrant ecologies.
Thinking of this turned my mind to something Vaclav Havel once said. He was a Czech dissident in the days of the Soviet Union. He wrote samizdat – typed and illicitly copied essays which were clandestinely circulated. In those days you had to know the right people get hold of his writing (perhaps like the No Picnic book). In the 90s I could buy his writings in a book. Now you can find them all on the internet.
In one of his essays Havel writes about the value of art which isn’t aligned with the objectives of the state – purposeless culture. He says that, like the ecologies of the natural world, these ecologies of culture must be conserved and cultivated. You never know, he argued, where the thing you need most is going to come from. You never know when you’ll need to draw on the resources and wisdom stored in such a niche.
I couldn’t find that passage flicking through my copy of “Living in Truth” however.
Another passage that stuck in my mind concerns Havel’s writing on what he called the Post Totalitarian System. These, he said, were societies, both East and West, where the need for direct repression has passed. Here, he said, every person’s attention was kept nailed to floor of their self-interest. Control was maintained by material comforts, and the fear of sticking out.
I couldn’t find that passage either. Perhaps it is in his “Letters to Olga”
Instead, I found this passage, from his essay “Politics and Conscience”:
“As all I have said suggests, it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché”
And that is the end of my meander in thought from the University, to learning, to instrumentalism, to ecology, to dissident publishing, and so to No Picnic. The book reminded me of the importance of spaces outside of the narrow instrumentalism that rules so much of my life, and it is a true testimony to a particular place, at a particular moment, with particular people. I look forward to reading it again.