Maybe we’re doing okayish

In his book There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee bemoans the ironically glacial pace of international action on climate change:

We have had decades of warning about climate change. But we have wasted that time through our denial, first of the problem itself and then of the nature of the solution that is required, and through the unspeakably clumsy way in which we inch towards the kind of global agreement that might actually help. In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on every challenge giving us so much warning. We’d better practise our global governance because we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change on a far shorter timescale.

This was a funny thing to read in the middle of a global pandemic because it made me reflect that, for the most part, humans are actually doing okay this time around.

Yes, nearly a million people have died from Covid-19. That’s awful. Perhaps millions more will die in the months and years to come. That’s also awful.

But the response, which is what Berners-Lee is talking about, has been rapid, global and, most importantly, cooperative. Given the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—there has been a surprising shortage of denial, clumsiness and ‘inching’.

Of course we can all point to individuals who dig sandpits of denial, others to whom clumsiness is a kind of elegance, and still more whose rulers are still dreamily scored with Imperial Inches.

But if we ignore the bombast of our elected politicians… What have we seen?

  • As individuals, we have all taken part in rapid and compliant social lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. More importantly: we haven’t torn our social fabric in the process. Indeed, research from 28 countries suggests that people may be feeling slightly less lonely now than they were before the pandemic. Well done us.
  • For all the post-truth opprobrium aimed at the ‘so-called experts’, the response to Covid-19 from the scientific community has been instantly impressive. To take vaccines alone, there are 321 candidates in development, with 39 already going through clinical trials. A process that usually takes years is being compressed into months—despite the difficulties of social distancing in a laboratory. Well done science.
  • Last year, the number of worldwide deaths from AIDS fell to its lowest level since 1993—and incidence of the disease is at its lowest since the epidemic began. (Wait, you’ll see how this is relevant in a second.) The UN estimates that the total amount of money needed for the global response to an AIDS epidemic that will kill another 600,000 people in 2020 is only £22bn. (Okay, here we go.) By July—i.e. only four months into their response to Covid-19—the UK government (alone) had spent £15bn on PPE (alone) for NHS staff (alone). That gives us some idea of the scale of our response to Covid-19.

Two points arising from these three observations:

  1. The AIDS epidemic is much worse than you think and still horribly underfunded. In the last thirty years, we’ve lost 32,000,000 lives to the disease—that’s the population of Australia and Denmark put together. An even larger number are living with AIDS today.
  2. No matter how shit Covid-19 is and no matter how much shitter things get, I don’t think humans should beat themselves up about their response. We can—and we will—do more, but maybe we’re already doing okay.

Finally, this isn’t to undermine Berners-Lee’s point about climate change. Note that he says ‘we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change’. Covid-19 is far from being intangible: as I’ve pointed out, human beings are very good at dealing with imminent threats to life.

As Daniel Gilbert wrote in his article ‘If only gay sex caused global warming’:

Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes. The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.

Sadly, the brain is nigh-on helpless when faced with the inexorable logic of generational climate change. But perhaps Covid-19 is helping us rewire our Neanderthal instincts, showing us how, when the chips are down, we can do this rapid, global cooperation kind of thing.

And that maybe, perhaps, we’ll do okayish.

The election that brought us together

This will be remembered as the election that brought us closer together.

Bear with me on this one.

For me, like many, this election was the first where I was an active participant beyond casting my vote. I wish I could find numbers to support this comment, but all I have is anecdote.

On Monday night I went to canvass in the Kensington constituency, but went home without knocking once – there were more than 200 volunteers and only so many doors.

But my canvassing in Bournemouth West and Reading West meant that for the first time in my life I was purposefully engaging complete strangers in conversation about everything we humans hold most dear: our health, wealth, families and futures.

How could such meaningful conversations fail to bring us closer together?

Perhaps half of the people I spoke to weren’t remotely interested in holding an unsolicited conversation on their doorsteps. They’d convey this in a manner either polite or abrupt – I hold short of saying ‘rude’ because who knows from what I interrupted them?

But half of my answered knocks ended up with a profitable conversation of some sort. Of course, some of those conversations were with people intending to vote for the Conservative Party. Of course, we started from opposite poles of opinion. But did those conversations drive us apart? No.

The original sense of the word ‘conversation’ is to ‘live with’, rather than to ‘talk with’. For these brief moments, facing each other across a threshold, we tried to find ways of living together, squaring the sympathetic human before us with the antipathetic opinions they espoused.

It wasn’t always easy, but I always walked away feeling like I understood a little better and had lived a little fuller.

From brief glimpses, I guessed that the lives I interrupted were trimmed from the same cloth as the one I returned to after the door closed softly: a mother and son watching the football on TV, a woman washing the dishes before going out, one man drinking a beer after work, another taking the dog out for a walk.

So, for me at least, this will be remembered as the election that brought us closer together.

What do we do now?

Today, though, everyone is asking, ‘What do we do now?’

I’ve done the research. France sounds good – citizenship in two years if I enrol on a masters degree and don’t develop any ‘assimilation defects’.

Italy is a viable option too, assuming I can find someone – anyone – willing to marry a jobbing writer in his late thirties.

Quitting the country aside, what do we do now?

Last night’s election results have made me think more carefully about what I’m already doing, and to measure that against the yardstick of my ideal future society.

It’s not a complicated calibration – am I pushing in the right direction? – and I think this election gives us all a moment’s grace to tap the barometer and take a reading of our purpose.

If we decide that what we were doing yesterday is helping to create our own vision of society, then we should double down and use the vacant impotence of the general election results to motivate ourselves to work harder and faster toward our goals.

If we decide that what we were doing yesterday doesn’t align with our vision, then we must change. We must do whatever we can to change whatever we can in our lives today so that we are always working towards a more promising community.

Life is too short to stay indoors, praying for rain.


So I spent the morning working on Thighs of Steel, a project that creates the kinds of communities that I want to participate in.

This year, for example, the 90 cyclists raised over £87,000 for grassroots refugee organisations that I know have a uplifting influence on the lives of the dispossessed in our society.

So what can I do? I can use the energy of this election to work even harder on next year’s ride to make sure that it’s as successful as it possibly can be. That’s what I can do.

In just over a week, I will be volunteering with Crisis at Christmas. This year I’m doing three shifts instead of my usual two. It’s not a huge amount of work, but it’s the kind of response that I can make to the crisis of five more years of Conservative government.

We know that homelessness will increase again during this parliament.

Since the Conservatives first came to power in 2010, the number of households in temporary accommodation in England has risen by 60 percent (2017 figures; it’s got even worse since then) and the number of homeless people being treated in A&E has tripled (2018 figures). That’s astonishing.

I cast my vote for a party that promised to end rough sleeping within five years. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a priority for most of my fellow voters.

So what can I do? I can, in some small way, stand in solidarity with rough sleepers and homeless people by volunteering my time over Christmas. That’s what I can do.


Reading that back, it sounds like I’m virtue signalling, wanging my holier-than-thou altruistic tittery around like a politician before his scandal hits the newsstands. Sorry – that’s not what I meant.

I’m trying to say that everything we do is political because everything we do contributes to the future society that we’re building together.

So how does that society feel to you? And how can we use the energy and momentum of this election – however you voted – to deepen the ways we live with each other?

Small is Sociable London to Bristol

I am reaching the end of my winter sojourn in Bristol. I have been here, more or less, since October last year, and next week is my last.

Since leaving London permanently at the end of 2017, I have learned one thing beyond doubt: my local habitat plays an incalculably important role in the things I do, the people I see, and how I feel day to day.

Let me begin this piece by saying that I have enjoyed spectacularly wonderful days in London, and look forward to many more in the coming years. I particularly cherish the cacophonous abundance of nations and cultures, and the lush green patchwork of parks and gardens.

However, the accusation often levelled at London, particularly by outsiders who have never lived there, is that it is ‘too big’. After 16 years in the Big Smoke, I think I am at least qualified to agree.

Of course, many people live extraordinary lives of joy and connection in London and have no trouble bounding over its sprawling morass, or simply confining themselves to a more manageable slice of the metropolis.

I was not one of them. And, after a year apart from the old mistress, I think I understand why.

The truth isn’t earth-shattering; in fact, it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever spent any time as a human being. In a smaller conurbation, it’s easier to be sociable and that sociability is what makes me happy.

Nowhere worth going in Bristol is more than about 20 minutes by bike from my house. The compact nature of the city has two effects on the population, each reinforced by the other, which I reckon result in a more sociable society.

In Bristol, I know that whomsoever I meet, and wherever I meet them, there’s a decent chance that they’ll live within about 20 minutes’ bike ride of my house. And this makes it likely that I’ll meet them again, either by chance or by appointment.

This likelihood has two consequences. Firstly, I’m less likely to be a dick to strangers because, chances are, our paths will cross either personally or through presently unknown mutual friends. Secondly, I’m more likely to actually meet up with people I do hit it off with, simply because it’s easy.

The second effect of smaller city size is that no one here has a commute time of more than 20 minutes – at least in theory.

Commute time is famously correlated with positive affect, or happiness. If you’re commuting for more than an hour a day, then you’re likely to be miserable. Or at least more tired and less likely to want to meet friends – old or new.

The converse is true. In a city like Bristol where commute times are short, people are more likely to go out after work to socialise and they’re less likely to want to stay in bed all weekend just recovering from work.

As a consequence, they’re more likely to have hobbies, be members of a club, or just have a local drinking haunt.

And what does that mean? You’re more likely to bump into them out and about, you’re both more likely to be feeling positive and open to new encounters, and, thanks to the size of the city, also more likely to meet up again.

In a city with an enormous population, people just don’t matter so much. You’re vanishingly likely to bump into the same stranger twice. When you spot a friend on the tube, you both react like you’ve won a million quid on the lottery.

(In fact, your chances of winning a million quid on the lottery are better. Assuming you only have one friend.)

If you’re confident that you’ll never see Joe Bloggs again, you’re hardly likely to be bursting with social bon homie – or even goddam polite, are you?

I speak primarily for myself, but that’s why we Londoners walk around with our eyes downcast, hidden behind sunglasses, or buried in newspapers and smartphones. What’s the point? Strangers aren’t important because they’re just one in ten million, all too often mere obstacles to circumnavigate on our way through the chaotic city.

In smaller towns, people are more precious. There are still 460,000 people here in Bristol, still plenty of personalities to mesh or clash with, but each one has a distinct value. I’ve bumped into countless people I know here. It happens most days I leave the house – and I’ve only been here for 4 months, remember.

Every interaction here carries higher stakes: we are both on something like our best behaviour because we both know that the social network will, more or less, hold us to account – even if we don’t get on personally.

Of course this close community has its downsides. London’s anonymity is not without its pleasures. You can do anything, be anyone, and reinvent yourself every other Tuesday if you please. But, for me, this luxury is not worth the price I pay in social isolation.


Talking of social isolation: here’s an interview with loneliness researcher John Cacioppo.
Talking of leaving London: apparently I’m not the only one.