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November 1, 2011

Invest in the optimists

Looking at the news of late, who could be blamed for feeling a bit bleak about the future – one crisis after another piling on top of the last. Heartening therefore to read Julian Dobson’s blog suggesting that now more than ever, we need to invest in the optimists. He lists a few.  People with little wealth but oodles of creativity and hope for the future.  Like the person who came up with the idea for Community Lover’s Guides

A blog from Julian Dobson

We’ve been hearing a lot about optimism lately. David Cameron last week invoked the British bulldog spirit in a speech that suggested all we need is strong leadership (his leadership) and to stop being ‘soggy’.

So how’s it looking out there in the real world? Have we got cause for a new wave of optimism?

Look at the big picture and you might think not. Here’s a random selection of recent highlights. At a global scale, we’ve seen the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warning of continued price volatility and the best part of a billion people at risk of hunger. Small, import-dependent countries are most at risk, it says (the UK, by the way, hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for well over 200 years).

Let’s come closer to home. Here’s the British Retail Consortium, making the most of a slight increase in consumer spending last month:

‘Underlying conditions remain weak. Spending growth is below inflation, meaning customers are buying less than last year.’

What that means is the prospect of consumers spending the UK out of recession looks bleak. And given that retail accounts for around 14% of employment in the UK, that’s worrying.

There’s reason to be worried. Take a look at the latest report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, not known for its tendency to scaremonger. In the next two years median income is likely to fall by 7%, the biggest drop since the oil crisis of the 1970s. More than 3m children will be living in poverty.

Dig behind the figures and you’ll find the squeeze isn’t being applied evenly. A recent report by the Resolution Foundation found that even when the economy was growing, the living standards of the bottom half of the workforce weren’t growing at the same rate. In the five years from 2003 to 2008 the economy grew by 11%, but median wages didn’t shift. That’s because more of the profits have stayed in the hands of the top earners or been distributed to shareholders, while low earners have become more dependent on state support.

So where is the cause for optimism? Not in public school pep talks about leadership or in economic strategies dreamed up by the consultants at Micawber and Pangloss.

This week I’ve been talking to people who make me optimistic because they’re taking action, using the resources they have to make a difference. People like Jon Fitzmaurice, who runs Selp-help Housing, giving people tools and advice to take over empty homes and bring them back into use. People like Dan Thompson, who’s been doing a similar job through the Empty Shops Network, reusing the empty shops blighting our high streets. People like Tessy Britton, who’s creating a series of Community Lover’s Guides to help people celebrate what they value about their towns and cities.

There are many more like them. They don’t have great personal wealth or the backing of corporations. But they’re using the crisis we face as an opportunity to build a better world. What they have in common is that they’re not prepared to wait for an imagined recovery or a change of government – they’re ready to get on, using the tools and contacts and resources at their disposal.

If David Cameron really wants to build a more optimistic country, he needs to invest in the people with ideas that will create lasting change. He needs to invest in the optimists.