‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’ wrote David Henry Thoreau in 1846 while living in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts.
He went there to live alone on the shores of Walden Pond to seek ‘the essential facts of life’ and to learn to ‘eliminate the unnecessary details – material and spiritual – that intrude upon our happiness.’
Nearly 170 years later, for all our material, medical, nutritional, engineering and numerous other advancements, how much closer have we come to realising that goal of happiness?
Surely we should be close to attaining it by now, by 2015 and if not, then why not? We have had material riches in abundance, affordable food, free education and health care, a free country in which to work and play and a beautiful natural environment as a backdrop to our lives.
Why as a society do we increasingly struggle with depression, obesity, fear of losing our jobs, rising income inequality, the inability to keep our homes warm, the debt from our education hanging over us for decades or the choice of an apprenticeship or job offering insufficient income to make ends meet? Why do we face a future of uncertainty over our pensions, and the changing of our climate?
Why, because in part, we have chosen past political leaders based on a narrow, manipulated worldview. Our world (natural, social, technological and economic) and our understanding of it, is changing at an accelerating rate and as a species we don’t embrace change – we resist and seek the comfort of the status quo.
Now, more than ever before we need political leaders who can lead. We need to take the long view – resist the siren call of last quarter’s GDP figures, or this month’s A&E waiting times on which to base policy.
We need to consider everyone and everything in all decisions. Bring back a working, participatory democracy and move forward with vision, hope and enthusiasm. Our collective environmental angst needs to be addressed with real progress – we need to waste less, and live more lightly on this earth.
The solutions will not involve us all living in the woods – Thoreau’s sojourn was only ever a temporary interlude for reflection. It lies with us deciding what is important in our lives – family, community, and voluntary endeavour, looking after one another and working cooperatively.
It means building efficient, truly affordable homes, creating space for sustainable and healthier means of travel, caring for and respecting the elderly.
We now have the technology to generate all of our energy needs renewably and stop insisting on the need to squeeze more fossil fuels from the earth, causing political instability and fear and resulting in further climate and other chaos.
We need to properly value nature, not reduce her to a line on a balance sheet, but be inspired by her beauty, diversity and resilience – protect her and in turn she will help us.
We need to carve out a new politics to support us in this endeavour. We won’t turn the corner tomorrow, but we can start by making a difference today. We can build the momentum to turn from desperation, to become the change we want to see.