What makes up community well-being in a time of financial constraints and climate uncertainty? This was the question twenty five people turned up to explore at Sustainable Bungay‘s first Green Drinks of the new year at the Green Dragon in January. The evening also marked the start of our new Arts, Culture and Well-being sub-group.
Well-being has been the subject of several recent studies, such as the New Economics Forum’s ‘Five Ways to Well-being‘, as well as the focus for many Transition initiatives. We live in a culture based around a market economy, and money and material status (or the lack of it), have become the driving force of most people’s lives.
But what real good has this done ourselves or the planet? Apart from living in a badly degraded environment, we are as a collective suffering from ill health, depression, loss of identity and lack of connection to nature and other people. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
For many people (including myself) this winter has felt particularly long, dark and cold, with uncharacteristic feelings of gloom and lowness. When I’ve spoken to people about it, many have said "Oh, it’s not just me then." Then there are those colds and fevers which seem to take weeks to clear up. Something is clearly not okay.
What would it mean if our lives, instead of being determined by GDP, were based on our mutual well-being and happiness – not just our personal well-being, but within the communities and neighbourhoods we all share? What would it mean if instead of striving for our own comfort and security, we valued sharing our resources and knowledge? How would our attitudes to each other change, and what kind of changes in the environment would that bring?
Much of the work Sustainable Bungay has been doing over the last five years has this co-operative learning at its base – from creating the Community Garden at the Library to hosting Happy Monday meals at the Community Centre, to organising bicycle rides, sewing circles, Give and Take Days, Bungay Community Bees and the Pig Club. Several of us attended the recent East Anglian Living Together day about co-ops and intentional communities in East Bergholt, where we found we had over 30 practical skills between us – just in one workshop! As well as sharing these skills, we’ve learned that working together brings a certain kind of happiness you just can’t pay for.
For example, you can go and forage for blackberries on the common on your own, but going out together, sharing a picnic and then taking some to the Abundance table or for a Happy Mondays pudding for others to enjoy, makes for a more open and shared experience. This simple activity has all those five ways in it: connection, action, learning, taking notice and giving. Most of all it involves the place we live in and includes the wild spaces we are surrounded by.
At our Green Drinks we have focused on the many ways we can reconnect, from learning about medicine plants to the restoration of the River Waveney. In January the ideas were flowing, as people paired up and asked each other what community well-being meant to them and what creative or practical skills they had they would like to pass on to others.
A common thread emerged: well-being meant belonging to a place and not feeling on your own. So plans for a wide range of communal activities were mapped out, from walking and exploring the local countryside to river swimming and canoeing. to sharing skills such as food growing, cooking and meditation. Creative workshops were designed, including storytelling, theatre work and body percussion. What also became clear was that well-being is a major factor underlying and motivating Sustainable Bungay’s activities.
Giving ourselves more time and space to connect with people and the neighbourhood was something people thought was vital and in April we’ll begin creating a well-being map of Bungay with a walk around town paying particular attention to what the various public spaces in town feel like to be in.
Sustainable Bungay is a busy group. We have always been primarily events-focused and that seems set to continue. But a closer look shows that these events also often provide the space for people to come together for discussions that might not happen ordinarily.
At our seventh Give and Take Day last Saturday (16th March) over twenty people joined in with a conversation on the Gift Economy – sharing what we have with others in times of austerity. Nick spoke about some of the ideas in Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and Jeppe and Vanessa talked about their involvement in setting up the Common Room in Norwich, an initiative which makes unused or underused public spaces (in this case an old church) available as a ‘living room for the community’, where people can swap and share skills, knowledge and company with no money exchange involved.
What was striking about this discussion on a cold, dark, Saturday midday in March in Bungay’s (slightly dilapidated) Community Centre, surrounded by the Give and Take tables of household goods, clothes and books, and accompanied by a bowl of Josiah’s homemade fava bean and winter root veg soup and Christine’s freshly baked bread, was that when time was called after 50 minutes, no one was in any hurry to leave. People were still discussing everything from how to receive a gift and should that leave you feeling obliged to give something back in some way, to how to begin to value ourselves and other people, places, skills and the living planet in a way that is not market-driven or utilitarian.
Usually when we think of well-being, it’s in terms of personal comfort, and often has medical associations. But what if well-being were really not just a personal matter? What if it also depends on our getting out of our personal enclosures and insistence on everything belonging to some private personal sphere? And into that ‘living room for the community‘ where a conversation can happen about sharing what we have, and we can start to forge different relationships with each other, the places we live in and the planet that gives us life.
"I’ve never experienced such a discussion before," said one visitor. "I could have stayed much longer."
Images: Plants for Life 2012 weed walk, Bungay; Hot Beds and Leafy Greens poster, March 2013; Koru body percussion poster, March 2013; Gift Economy conversation at SB’s 7th Give and Take Day, March 2013