Strange times call for direct action

May you live in interesting times, goes the supposedly ancient backhanded Chinese curse. We surely do.

I’ve admittedly been a bit too preoccupied with Brexit lately.  To tell the truth, I’m just as incandescent today as I was in the weeks following the 2016 referendum – on reflection, I’ve hardly rested my outrage since. The UK is still busy tearing itself apart both externally (in its chaotic attempts to extricate itself from the European Union), and internally (in the ever-more-toxic schism between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters), and the whole thing is tearing me apart too. It’s a shitshow, but I’m beginning to remind myself that Brexit isn’t the only show in town… It isn’t even the only shitshow in town either, sadly.

The planet is burning. Standards of living are continuing to fall for most people, and there’s a palpable dearth of hope and optimism in society. Most people I know are either ‘weathering the storm’ of what is now ten successive years of stagnant or worsening economic and social wellbeing, or they’re depressed – compelled to turn their general sense of despair inwards; to exchange their sense of foreboding for one of hopelessness and an NHS prescription for antidepressants, or a too-regular evening beer habit in my case.

People seem to be angrier where I live too. Grouchy, intolerant, harbouring a quiet malevolence toward one another. This is a bit puzzling because in a town dubbed the most pro-EU in Britain you’d think there’d be a comradely atmosphere. I think everyone’s just exhausted with this whole epoch if I’m honest. It’s not that Aberystwyth’s particularly or actually malevolent, I’m mean, this isn’t Harlow or anything, it’s just that there seems to be a general lack or reasons to be cheerful, which is actually pretty naff.

But there’s some good really stuff going on too, here and in other parts of the UK and the world. Like a lot of people, I’m buoyed, for example, by the recent climate protests of Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the School Strike movement headed by Greta Thunberg. Why? Because they’re shaking things up that need to be shook up, offering alternatives to the downward spiral many of us feared was cemented as the inevitable path of civilisation. It’s their methods, too, that are exciting. The central method – non-violent direct action (NDA) – says: I am not going to hurt you or oppress you, and I am not going to threaten you or destroy your property, but I am going to be fucking rude to you sometimes; There will be inconvenience and disruption to your activities which you will not like, don’t take it personally, but you have to change your ways. Enough of half measures and duplicitous platitudes, change must happen, and it’s probably going to be painful.

So far at least, it’s working. Although XR has inevitably attracting some criticism, it has more often than not been these criticisms themselves which have found themselves under the spotlight. XR has held a mirror up to society and showed us what we are, and told us unequivocally that we have been insufficient in our actions, hypocritical in our pledges, and, still, complicit in the demise of life on Earth. XR’s message is that this is a major fire, things are exploding, and we’ve been behaving like it’s a weekly fire drill. The time for positive-sounding (and ultimately, empty) soundbites and incremental change, and deferral, has passed. Now, vital changes must be forced through, non-violently, but disruptively. XR and the NDA tactics they deploy are disturbing and disruptive in the same way as an unpleasantly shrill fire alarm. Like a fire alarm, they serve an important purpose.

Following decades of profound disconnection – when we were trained to self-identify as consumers, and learnt that the only way that it was possible to enact social change was to shop ‘ethically’ and recycle the packaging – to rediscover the potency of direct action feels really good.

Harnessing Sustainability: Legibility and Ownership in the Promotion of Walking in Wales

This is the Ph.D thesis I completed in 2014. It’s about walking, the state, how things get defined by the state, and by people, and how those definitions don’t necessarily line up. It’s also about what people do when they make something ‘theirs’.

The research for the thesis incorporated research and evaluation of the Wales-wide Let’s Walk Cymru ‘Walking for Health’ programme, which was led and managed by Sport Wales (formerly the Sports Council for Wales), which also funded most of this research.

It is a piece of academic writing that I put an awful lot of my own effort and well-being into, that I researched and wrote for a specific purpose. It’s academic and technical, but I’ve tried to make sure it conveys some of the richly human nature of the research I carried out, with walking groups in all corners of Wales between 2008 and 2011.

Abstract

Let’s Walk Cymru is a Welsh Government-funded scheme designed to improve the health and wellbeing of the Welsh public by increasing levels of participation in recreational walking. Although a successful programme of led walks which ran between 2007 and 2012, the scheme’s coordinators found developing community ‘ownership’ and the promotion of more independent and ‘sustainable’ forms of walking to be a much more challenging prospect.

This thesis focuses on the informal and formal responses of project staff and walkers to this quest. It addresses this aim in two parts through a qualitative methodology utilising semi-structured interviews, walking interviews, participant observation and focus groups; which is designed to explore ‘what walking means’ to a range of informal and formal actors involved with the scheme. Part one explores how, to those to do it, walking is often associated with a variety of diverse meanings, associations, and purposes. These social and cultural alignments made by each walker influence how, and whether, they choose to walk. The thesis considers the relationship between the heterogeneous and diverse meanings and associations explored in part one and the more formalised and instrumental conceptions of walking, which are covered in part two. In this second part, the thesis considers the formal governance responses to the ‘sustainability objective’; which centre on the restructuring of the ‘delivery’ of walking in Let’s Walk Cymru along ‘flatter’ lines, based on partnership working principles. Despite their currency in government as a way of instating more ‘bottom-up’ and ‘community-owned’
forms of development and social practice, decentralising techniques such as partnership networks are no panacea for community ownership. The thesis attributes their failure in Let’s Walk Cymru to the fact that, although ostensibly decentralised, governance arrangements like these constitute their aims and priorities in characteristically objective and governmental, rather than in social terms in order to maintain ‘legibility’ of the social practices that they seek to facilitate. These approaches to social projects have a fraught relationship with the kinds of ‘sustainable’ and ‘community-owned’ forms of social practice which they are often tasked with achieving. The thesis proposes a more radical approach to social improvement schemes like Let’s Walk Cymru: one based not on a decentralisation of ‘delivery’; but of knowledge production and dissemination. The thesis concludes by summarising the recommendations made to Sport Wales on the use of this method to help facilitate the
development of more ‘sustainable’ and community-owned forms of social practice.