Last night I watched the second episode of a compelling 2 part documentary on BBC2 called “The Super Rich and Us”. Veering between anger and despair, I sat dumbfounded as journalist Jaques Peretti calmly and systematically peeled back the layers of greed and chicanery amongst the top 1% of our global elite: The facts (14% of UK wealth is owned by 1% of the population; bank bailouts and quantitative easing siphoned off to fund the super rich) were more than matched by the sense of entitlement of those who have seen a widening of the gap between rich and poor as just another money-making opportunity. Top prize for living dangerously should surely go to the titled lady owner of a rich tract of land in Gloucestershire which hosts a multi-millionaire polo event every year. Surrounded by Bacchanalian scenes of self-indulgence, she was asked if she felt guilty about such goings-on, to which she simply replied that it was natural for people to be envious, and the poor simply didn’t realise how jolly hard the rich worked. Not a hint of irony in sight, though she was a little bit hurt at being asked such a thoughtless question, poor dear. I could go on, but my blood pressure would only rise to dangerous levels again, and twitter is awash with plenty of pithy responses already.
French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the bestselling “Capital in the 21st Century”, also interviewed in the documentary, similarly critiques the yawning equality gap. In his book he uses economic and social history as a launchpad for predicting dire outcomes for all of us if growth continues without state intervention. In order to slow the pace of the widening gap between rich and poor, he controversially proposes a super tax on the rich to bring us all back to the same economic planet. Well, it’s controversial to those who are currently unburdened by any such notion of payback, at any rate. I personally think this is a merely putting us in poll position to redress our more extreme out-of-kilter imbalances.
Faced with such hell-in-a-handcart scenarios, it’s easy to feel powerless and disenfranchised: After all, how can we, as mere tools for enrichment of the already rich, convince the turkey to vote for Chrismas? Well, I think we can – and we must. Looking at things through the other end of the telescope, we are part of the 99%. If we all challenged the 1% just imagine how things could change – a point not lost on the more savvy super rich in Peretti’s documentary. The Occupy movement has already started to rattle the cages of the finance world and über establishment. If we can harness our thirst for change, and pull together the disparate energy of that 99%, just imagine what could happen.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear of Incredible Edible Todmorden a couple of years back: They passionately believe that big change comes through small, incremental, well placed actions rather than big shouty, shiny projects. In overturning the perceived wisdom of change only coming about through grand gestures and big spending, they have managed to tackle anti-social behaviour and bring real power to their community through growing sweetcorn. And carrots. And being kind to people.
At TIM in York we have been similarly inspired to tackle change through modest, well-placed actions. Our latest project is the Red Tower in York, an unused 15th Century tower built as part of York’s medieval defences. We hope to get hold of it soon and turn it into a community kitchen, cafe and growing space. We’re in discussions with owners City of York Council to acquire the building on a long lease. We could then have a great space in a currently under-served part of the City which the community could share, use, and benefit from. It’s early days, but we’ve had lots of support and enthusiasm from numerous groups including Food not Bombs, York Human Rights City Project, Heritage York Project, York Foodbank and Friends of York Walls. We are in good company, and certainly not the first to take on this type of project: From Incredible Edible to the Leeds-based Real Food Cafe and Food Cycle, more of us are taking radical approaches to inclusive food sharing and local action.
In a bid to gather as many ideas as possible, we are opening the Red Tower to the public over York Residents Weekend 31st January to 1st February between 10.00 am and 3.00 pm, so hope to see many local people coming along to share ideas and get involved. We will be updating this blog regularly as the project progresses, so watch this space.
We don’t by any means live in a perfect world, and at times the odds can seem overwhelmingly against 99% of us. But if we can refrain from throwing bricks at the TV when watching the likes of “The Super Rich and Us”, as I somehow managed to last night, we may just be on to something: If 99% can have faith in change through coordinated small actions, then big change can happen. And if we don’t? Then we get all the banalities we deserve from rich ladies in Gloucestershire.