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June 23, 2010

Have we lost our resilience?

Back in 1966 not everyone was preoccupied with World Cup football. A six week strike by the National Union of Seamen cut off the supply chain to many island-based communities.  Speaking on the theme of community resilience at last week’s DTAS annual conference, Alastair McIntosh, who was a young boy on Lewis at the time, reflected on why his community was able to cope back then, and why perhaps it wouldn’t cope so well now

Alastair McIntosh of the Centre for Human Ecology and GalGael Trust gave the opening keynote address on the nature of development and resilience. He said that the word “development” comes from the old French, de-enveloper, meaning to unfold the envelope. It conveys a sense of containing something special and undertaking the unfolding in a fitting manner. Too little development is destitution. Too much is a cancer. Our aim must be to seek development that is fitting to the people and place, and which has resilience to cope with the knocks that the future might bring.

To demonstrate the meaning of resilience he summarised a study that he has just submitted for publication with a former student, Lauren Eden from Canada. This interviewed some 30 key informants on the Isle of Lewis about how they survived during the 1966 National Union of Seamen’s strike. It had lasted for 6 weeks and forced Harold Wilson to call a national state of emergency. The research finds that three pillars of resilience were still intact in 1966. There was resilience of nature’s ecosystems, in that the land was still in good heart for agriculture, and the sea had not yet been overfished. There was resilience of know-how, in that people still knew how to butcher their own meat, to grow vegetables, and to make things. And there was resilience of Spirit, meaning that they cared deeply for one another and shared in the community when there were shortages.

In contrast, the study observed that today the Isle of Lewis is substantially dependent on just 2 supermarkets. When the ferry fails to sail there is panic buying because they are supplied on a just-in-time stocking basis, with only one or two days’ worth of stock. As one informant said, if the Seamen’s Strike happened today, “we’d be stumped.”

He argued that resilience of Spirit is especially important. This means working on identity and community cohesion at very deep levels. It needs to be the starting point for rebuilding community today. The cultural gap been locals and incomers must be mutually better understood. In some places the two groups are like oil and water, but this is not healthy where seeking to strong future communities. In concluding, he called for open discussion between both groups so that, where necessary, local ways can be better respected, and incomer energy more effectively harnessed for the common good. We may not all be native to a place, but there is a sense in which we can all become indigenous if we can relate to places in ways that grow naturally into their soil.