People Together

A boy sits at a table with a pen in his hand, looking frustrated and upset.

Often these days I find myself wondering, “What will I do if everything falls apart?” And by everything, I mean society. The world. The environment. It’s not hard to imagine. We’re surrounded by tales, both real and fictional, of war, environmental catastrophe, pandemic, zombie invasion. The most recent time my mind went off in that direction was while watching the film Leave the World Behind, but I could substitute this example with many others – from the news and from film/TV.

tl;dr It takes me a little while below to get to the point. If you’re in a rush, I’m asking for examples of ways in which people work together and collaborate for the common good. Add yours in the comments! My latest story is here.

I expect our family are not the only one that has had jokey conversations about where we would go to escape an impending apocalypse. One of my best friends jokily suggested a few years ago that I would not be invited to her well-defended self-sufficient stronghold, because I’m only a computer programmer – and the skills I have will be no use for growing veg or fixing leaky roof tiles.

But here’s the thing. Leave the World Behind contains a cynical analysis not unusual in productions of this kind. One of the characters, facing a vaguely-defined end-of-civilisation scenario, tries to encourage cooperation and prevent a violent stand-off with a neighbour. But this character is portrayed as living in a dream world. It’s every family group for themselves. Look after your own and don’t trust anyone else.

I found myself, as I often do, wondering where my family and I might go where we could be safe. What resources do we have in our small family unit that we might make use of if we could no longer trust anyone else to help us? And the film drove home the idea that if the shit hits the fan, we’ll all be alone. And I thought, well that’s it then. Not a unique or original thought, but if that’s what happens when everything falls apart, humanity really is doomed.

Many people think humanity is doomed. Because they don’t think that, as a global group, we have enough capacity to help each other when things go badly wrong. And things do go badly wrong, and they will, even if we can’t predict the scale or the frequency or any future collapse(s).

That was my first thought. That I couldn’t count on other people to help me and my loved ones in times of disaster. This is, of course, why people build bunkers and stockpile weapons and non-perishable goods. And yeah, maybe that’ll last you a while. But what will you do when your neighbours come knocking? Is survival even worth it, if that’s the cost?

But there was a second thought on the heels of the first one. That the only way we can survive large-scale catastrophes is if we focus on how all of us will survive instead of how me and my loved ones will survive. And even if all this is only in my fevered imagination for now (I haven’t started building a bunker), wouldn’t it be better if I directed that imagination towards collective solutions rather than individual ones?

My eldest son steadying my youngest son on the ice rink, when he was about to fall.

Because no, I’m not literally planning for a doomsday scenario. But I’m thinking about it. And I’m not the only one. And the more I feel hopeless about it, and the more I’m convinced that our communities, at global, national, local or small neighbourhood level, have no real capacity or desire to help one another in times of crisis, then the more likely my daily life and mental health will suffer. And the less likely I am to collaborate with other people in small day-to-day ways. And the more likely I am to become atomised, suspicious and lonely. And the less likely I and everyone else are to find collective solutions when the shit really does hit the fan. And therefore the less likely it is that any of us will survive whatever major upheavals we face in the coming years or decades.

Where am I going with all this? Good question.

  • My first thought was, “We’re all doomed. It’s every person for themselves.”
  • My second thought was, “If that’s true, then we really are doomed. But if collaborative collective solutions are possible, they’re the only way we’ll survive.”
  • My third thought was, “Of course they’re bloody possible.”

We might have messed up this planet, we might face corrupt and dysfunctional governments all over the world. We might be killing each other left right and centre, but as well as all that, we are cooperating with each other. We are helping each other, daily, in big ways and small ways. And if we weren’t, we wouldn’t still be here.

I started thinking about all the collaborative initiatives I’ve witnessed and been involved in, that I am witnessing, that I am involved in.

Those who don’t know me well might be surprised to learn that I default towards individual solutions rather than collective ones. Peopling is hard for me. I find most humans unpredictable, and groups of strangers stressful. Social interaction is draining. Any time I spend with other people has to be balanced with time alone.

And yet despite all that, I’ve learnt that I need collaboration, I need other people, and when I consider my own needs as well as others, I get a huge amount from working collaboratively. From only the last couple of years, I can list several examples. They were all life-affirming, inspirational, heartwarming. They made me feel better. And thinking about them gives me hope, that maybe we’re not doomed after all. I’m going to list them below and I’m going to come back here to talk about them, one at a time.

Luce, Sal, Cynthia and me - celebrating the fun we had together at Hack Manchester

But given the title of this post is “People Together” and the whole point of this idea is to focus on ways in which we are not atomised and we can and do work together, it seems like a no-brainer that I should somehow open this up and get other people involved. It’s still a half-formed idea. I’m not sure how this works. I know I have a tendency to over-complicate things and the best way to get started on anything is to keep it simple, so for now I’ll just say this:

  • The world is a scary place, and it’s tempting to believe that we’re all fundamentally alone.
  • It’s not true. We aren’t.
  • But it’s easy to forget that and to feel despair, and the more we believe we’re alone, the more we’ll behave as though we are. We won’t look to each other for help, and we won’t consider helping one another when it’s needed.
  • And stories are powerful.
  • So let’s remind each other that we’re not alone. Let’s tell each other stories of all the great things we do together.

In the first instance, and to keep things simple, those stories can be comments on this post. But I’d like, in the near future, to elevate each comment into a post of its own. I’m looking for a way of creating some kind of collaborative site where people can easily post stories. There are many ways I might do that – if you have ideas on how you can help, please let me know.

Below are quick descriptions of my examples. I’ll aim to come back and expand on each one separately, and I might add more as they come to me:

  • The Sale Sings community choir, which I joined in 2023. More here.
  • The intentional farming community I visited last year.
  • The Awamu Together music festival, which I performed at in 2023 and will perform at again in 2024 (although sadly 2024 will be the last such event).
  • The Samman Technical Coaching Society, of which I am a member (“Samman” is Swedish for “together”).
  • The ensemble collaborative working technique which I’ve been privileged to teach many people in 2023, and will continue to teach in 2024 (‘Ensemble” is French for “together”).
  • Small online communities. I have several of these that I contribute to regularly. One of them has been around for over 20 years and they’re all a source of succour, where people care about and support one another through all of life’s travails.
  • The free eight-week Menopause and Mindfulness group I attended this winter in a local community centre
  • The free storytime session I now lead for local children once a month in a local community centre
  • All the many conferences I spend time talking at, but in particular community-focused “open space” / “unconference” events such as SoCraTes UK.
  • Organisations I have taught for such as Code First Girls and Coding Black Females.

Sale Sings community choir members, all dressed up for our Christmas gig, smiling and waving.

PS I deliberately haven’t mentioned any specific politics or religion. Maybe that’s a cop-out, I dunno. For what it’s worth I’m not religious and my politics are left of centre, but that’s not the point. I used to sing in a gospel choir and I know religion can be a powerful positive force. In this context I make no assumptions, positive or negative, about those who share my politics or those who don’t. The point of this is that we tell each other uplifting inspirational stories of all the good things we can do together, to help one another and make things better.

(PPS This is a cross-post. The same post is also on my Medium blog.)

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