I’ve just come back from Strasbourg where I was at the Living on the Edge conference at the Council of Europe. This was part of the Edgeryders programme which explores issues of younger generations, education and employment in the Europe that we know is in crisis. It was fascinating and great to meet people I’ve connected with on the edgeryders online platform. This platform is moderated in an incredibly amiable way so that everything you share is appreciated and amplified, and links are made to the thoughts and experiences of other members. It’s like a slow sustained speed dating session online. Also it’s a collaborative learning platform, with particular enquiries on reinventing education, making a living and so on. But meeting people in real life, and in the offices of the heart of Europe was something else.
The conference was fairly formal because of the involvement of some politicians and the use of the Council building. The formats meant that only the confident or the prepared spoke much and the debate skipped around a little. However, there’s an unconference called edgecamp following now which is taking the debates and making tools for transition, which might have some impact on policy, perhaps.
I say perhaps. Did this project feel like a CSR exercise for the Council of Europe? Did it feel more of a research exercise than an opportunity for young people to affect policy? Some might say yes. My feelings lie more on the side of ‘grateful but in general fearful’. It was clear that this felt comparatively radical, and is surely a unique effort to bring young people together from across Europe, to meet policymakers and to open the debate to anyone online. Where we couldn’t find common ground there are still ways we can use the platform to contest and explore issues with each other. We may even feel empowered to address some of the politicians we met more directly, and we should.
This unique pooling meant that there was a good deal of divergence, with several variants of position held by different edgeryders and a much stronger distinction between all the edgeryders and the politicians/officials. I personally felt uncomfortable when the politicians referred to us as a tribe, as ‘you Edgeryders’ as I would have preferred to be referred to as a colleague on a more equal and individuated basis. (The badges calling us all experts were a nice touch though.) I was a little perturbed by the Chair of the Committee for Youth & Sport (an MP from near Glasgow) saying that we were too utopian and an elite self-selecting group. He was probably picking up on our demographics, that there was a skew to people older than the ‘youth with no prospects’ target. He said we mustn’t forget that the majority of disadvantaged young people are out on football terraces xenophobically kicking the hell out of each other. I think he felt that, ironically, we were out of touch, that he was closer to the real issues of his constituents and that we were talking at a far too abstract and educated level. This was an expression of two political viewpoints simmering away, each perceiving the other to be less concerned with social justice:
Social democracy: If you don’t give people jobs, houses and cheap energy too many people will suffer and there will be social unrest.
Indignants: Yes we need the means to survive but not if it involves privatisation and loss of freedoms. If you give people jobs and houses but in the process destroy green space, deplete nature and worsen climate change, that means billions of people dying and maybe all of us. We can’t rely on you to change so we’re doing it ourselves and hope you will follow.
The vocal majority of edgeryders were in the latter group and the majority of politicians and some Council officials were in the first group. I think there will need to be a great deal more conversation to bottom out what we each mean and find common ground. In my breakout session on Caring for the Commons, the Council wanted to know how to shift to a more Commons culture without harming equalities, especially the long-fought-for rights to own property and the need to grant such rights to migrants. Our solutions were to increase cultural education for stewardship and to protect equalities by protecting the Commons, by shifting property laws and the financial system from favouring those already with excessive capital and more strongly forging inalienable human rights which don’t revolve round ownership.
I’d like to see the Edgeryders platform evolve to reflect more strongly the solutions that emerged. I’d also like to see politicians engaging on the platform. Even if the Council of Europe can’t enact change, it may be possible for regional and city governments to nurture some of these ideas.
Here are key things I’d like to see explored further:
Critical period of rapid change: we’re stressing about young people’s access to jobs and homes now but in a very short time (some said by 2014 even in Europe) we will be stressing about everyone’s accesss to food and water in some places.
Currency: recognition that a job, paid in money by an employer, is not the only or inevitable route to future thriving. The Edgeryders want to reinvent work to mean purposeful activity that brings wellbeing not wealth. Alternative currencies were seen as a key solution to this. If you can change the currency you change the relationships between people to be less transactional and more symbiotic.
Reclaimed not new infrastructure: we don’t need new roads, airports and offices to stimulate growth. We need to reuse what is being abandoned and reinvent what doesn’t work. Digital now means delocalisation and de-edification of work, learning and retail. Empty shops offices and libraries must be reclaimed for generating new kinds of capital and reclaimed as home or as Commons.
Open public culture is key: the vice mayor of Thessaloniki, Spiros Penga, told how culture was a route to his city thriving in future. Revolving around that are food, young people and the creative economy. We heard so many examples of creative people all over Europe leading the reinvention of learning, public services and shared spaces.
Learning is to give the means to thrive: there is an unprecedented need for people to rapidly accelerate their skills and capacities (for bioempathy, problem-solving, engineering, food production and cooperation). As it’s unlikely that schools and colleges will reinvent themselves en masse for this new economy, new networks and companies supporting connectivist and self-managed learning are emerging.
Generating biosphere capital: This is a critical moment when we need to entirely reinvent the notion of sustainability. Environmental sustainability is currently a tiny cling-on, like ‘Health & Safety’, on the great whale of what is called economic sustainability but is really ‘economic growth fast, now, sod the future’. The reinvention will be driven by a focus on generating biosphere capital as the root source of value, intermingled with cultural and social value.
The call is for the Council of Europe to listen, extend and amplify those ideas, while also supporting the fundamental policy changes that will lead towards ecosocial justice.