Monday, 8 March 2010

Let's take a walk

Brook Lyndhurst has recently completed some research exploring the phenomenon of ‘social capital’. Given significant impetus in the 1990s by Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”, social capital has become an established mantra of contemporary policy discourse: if we can invest in social capital in the same way we invest in financial capital, runs the unspoken argument, our ‘return on investment’ will be well-being. This, surely, is a good thing. If ever rising GDP will not deliver happiness, perhaps an ever-rising Social Capital Index will do the job instead.

Our research, soon to be published, presents a strong critique of this line of argument. Unlike financial capital, social capital does not build to an aggregate from homogeneous constituent parts. Rather, it is a composite of heterogeneous elements and subjective perspectives. One cannot inject social capital into a community in the hope of producing improved outcomes in the way one can inject financial capital.

What does seem possible, however, is to remove barriers that prevent freely associating individuals from forging their own social capital in ways that make sense to them; or, more positively, it may be possible to design and put in place facilities and services that enable or encourage people to do this. When humans gather and interact, they naturally produce a fabric of exchange, a pattern of informal connections, which provides a kind of social ‘mulch’. This enables the growth and development of more formal phenomena – levels of participation in volunteering, membership of bowling clubs and the like – the measurement of which is so beloved of social scientists and their attendant policy colleagues.

One of the most effective mechanisms for producing this mulch - it appears – is the singularly unglamorous activity of walking. When people walk, they meet. When people meet, they talk. When people talk, they create connections, networks, channels for exchange, mechanisms of belonging, a group psychological plasma that nurtures the growth of society’s basic units.

Settlements where individuals routinely or regularly walk exhibited – our research and analysis suggested – higher levels of both formal and informal social capital; whereas those where there was little walking (poor layout of housing schemes, excessive reliance on the car, few local facilities within easy walking distance of housing, and so forth) exhibited lower levels.

This throws a new and interesting light on walking. Walking is not merely good for your personal health (both mental and physical); it is not merely a ‘
low carbon leisure activity’; it is not even just a perfectly natural human activity in which we express our animal need to swing our limbs and move our minds and body through space unencumbered by barriers between us and the rest of the world. It is, in addition to all this, a profoundly social act, a means of colliding on good terms with our fellow beasts, and in so doing to forge the bonds that lift us.

We already know this of course. We regularly walk in groups, without ever questioning it. Whenever we wish to express our collective discontent, for example, we gather and walk. We call it a march, to be sure, but it is simply an orderly walk. We do not, generally, go on a protest run or a protest drive or a protest hop; we go for a walk. And we do so with our kith and kin, to demonstrate our solidarity.

The most impressive manifestation of this habit – this need – is the peasant movement in Mexico whose name –
Zapatista – literally means ‘those who walk’. They walk en masse, not simply as an act of socially solid protest (walking is exceptionally egalitarian) but also to signal that walking is their only option. They are the dispossessed. They have no land, and few belongings. They do not have cars. But they do have feet, and each other. Together, they walk.

Their leader – a man so stubbornly and wonderfully committed to the egalitarian nature of their effort that he rejects not merely the idea but also the title of ‘leader – is
Sub-comandante Marcos. He is following an intriguing vein of South American action/thinking in which the divide between the physical/material and the cognitive/spiritual is a falsehood; instead the being and the doing and the thinking and the acting and the personal and the political are all one and the same. The great Ivan Illich walked widely throughout South America, not as a holiday jaunt or to raise funds for his favourite televisual charity, but as an integrated and inseparable part of his political philosophy.

In the UK, by contrast, ‘walking’ has become that tiresome thing we have to do to get to the shops, a thing we do to get from one transport mode to another, a thing we occasionally do on holiday to take us to a fine view.

Enough. Walking is the humble bedrock of physical and psychological health in the individual (see
Antonio Damasio for the science on this); and it is the activity par excellence for promoting collective understanding and capacity. Walking is not a chore; it is a revolutionary act. Get out there now and do some. Don’t go shopping; make mulch.

No comments: