Although uncertain and scary, Brexit offers a thrill of progressive possibility

Like many people, I was shocked and dismayed by both the Brexit referendum result and the absence of any plan for how an EU exit might actually happen. In the shell-shocked days that followed the result, I soaked up as many of the legions of doom-and-gloom articles as I could. But then I came across something that helped me look at things differently. The Guardian’s Paul Mason was calling for a ‘ProgrExit’:

“We can and must fight to place social justice and democracy at the heart of the Brexit negotiations,” he wrote.

I promptly adopted this post-Brexit portmanteau — both the ProgrExit word and the thinking behind it — and began considering ways we could master this progressive, positive EU exit. Mason’s article reminded me that all the UK had voted for was an exit; it hasn’t voted for any particular kind of exit, or for the values and principles on which it would be based.

Britain could, after all, be reshaped as a more sustainable, equitable and resilient nation, modelling a completely renewable energy grid. It could become a home to thriving and diverse food economies. It could meet its housing needs through affordable, appealing homes owned by the community. And it could support its citizens by creating a range of sustainable job opportunities that benefit people, the economy and the environment. With ambition it is all possible.

Britain could be reshaped as a more sustainable, equitable and resilient nation

Romania, for example, recently passed a law to require all supermarkets to stock a minimum of 51 per cent locally sourced produce, a move that will foster new infrastructure, a new culture of enterprise and possibly even a public health revolution for Romania. I can’t help but think: how could we create similarly innovative solutions?

With this in mind, I was very taken with Robin McAlpine’s Brexit analysis. You may not like the result, he wrote, and you may be scared of what comes next, “But on the other hand, can’t you feel a bit of the ‘thrill of possibility’?” Flagging the inevitable sameness and absence of any real social or political change had David Cameron and co. been returned, McAlpine asked: “And isn’t there something energising about having real, achievable tasks to hand?”

To answer these questions, we need to ask: what is it that the people we share this island with, live with, work with and are related to actually long for? It’s a big word, longing. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a yearning desire”. For despite claims that xenophobia influenced people’s leave votes, very few people, in their deepest of hearts, truly long for a country that abuses migrants, that concentrates wealth in the pockets of the elites, or is inward-looking, closed and suspicious. That’s not who they are. Not really.

I know people who voted to leave. They’re not the monsters the post-Brexit slanging matches would have us believe. They’re good people. They are respectful and kind. They work for the wellbeing of the places in which they live. Whether voting to stay or go, people long for many of the same things: for beauty, for companionship, for feeling part of something, for their children to have more opportunities than they had, for a sense of things being fair.

By pursuing a ProgrExit that addresses real longing rather than getting bogged down in numbers and economic forecasts that obscure our basic motivations and desires, we can steer this outcome towards something uniting, something wholesome. For example, when we consider our real longings, why would we vote for the mass rollout of unaffordable, bland, identical housing that channels money into a few hands when we could have community-owned developments that benefit both occupants and the environment?

I know people who voted to leave. They’re not the monsters the post-Brexit slanging matches would have us believe. They’re good people.

Why would we support the vast, environmentally questionable money pits of nuclear power or fracking when we could provide clean energy and savings to communities? Why would we allow what remains of our independently owned economies, with their long history and connections to local families and culture, to be swept away by superstores and Starbucks when a more vibrant, diverse local economy is so much more enriching?

Yes, people need jobs, houses, energy, security. But it seems increasingly obvious that a transition-type approach — a community-led shift to sustainable local economies — scaled up and with political support, would meet those needs better. Far better.

A transition approach could bring people together and help build common ground, especially when it comes to issues that transcend borders. Climate change, for instance, is accelerating at a terrifying pace. Worldwide, the temperature for the first half of 2016 was the hottest since recordkeeping began in 1880, and June marked the 14th consecutive month the temperature record had been broken. Building common ground to address such a complex and wide-reaching issue is crucial and urgent. A ProgrExit could provide an effective and timely means of doing so.

Of course, there are some unpleasant truths about the Brexit result that need to be acknowledged. One side effect is that some people have been emboldened to be speak and behave in openly discriminatory ways. We need to feel similarly emboldened. We need to talk about the kind of world we want to see and to challenge racism and xenophobia wherever and whenever we encounter it.

People are doing this. A Huntingdon man responded to the ‘go home’ letters that had been posted through many Polish residents’ doors with ones that simply read “You are welcome here”.

There are many people across the country working to build common ground, along with community and jobs. They are initiatives from which a ProgrExit approach could learn. These include Brixton Energy, a not-for-profit co-operative renewable energy project that provides training and employment; Billinge & Orrell’s Greenslate Farm, which has reinvigorated a disused farm and brought it into community ownership and Transition Fishguard, which uses food that would otherwise go to waste to provide healthy meals to low-income families. Transition Homes in Totnes is building affordable, environmentally friendly homes by and for its members. And so on. And so on. And so on.

So while it’s easy to dwell on the Brexit negatives — and believe me, I initially did — it’s more useful to concentrate on its positives and possibilities. Writer Anne Lamott once wrote: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” So shine on, you crazy transitioners and changemakers of all hues and persuasions. Shine harder than you have ever shone before and let’s ensure the Brexit is a ProgrExit.

Photo: Transition Bro Gwaun

This article has been adapted from a blog on the Transition Network.
Rob Hopkins is the founder of Transition Town Totnes and of the Transition Network.

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