Life Skills

I wonder what you associate with the term “life skills”? In British social work and residential child care it usually means things like cooking, shopping, washing and ironing clothes, travelling, elementary budgeting and the like. 

School and the education system are supposed to take care of maths, English, science, history, IT and geography in preparation for either further education or some sort of employment, and life skills are what you need for basic survival if you are going to “move towards independence”. (This is quaint and ubiquitous phrase that derives from the erroneous idea that adults are supposed to demonstrate their maturity by living alone as individuals, rather than in some form or relationship or “inter-dependence”).

It is of course possible that you associate life-skills with a range of other activities and competencies.  If so, I would be pleased to hear from you, and to learn what you take them to mean, and how you feel they are best passed on or acquired.  But meanwhile I have been pondering what life-skills will be essential to the next generation that we may not be seeking to equip them with at present. 

It seems to me that the pace of social and technological change worldwide is so great that there is an increasing risk that young people will face situations and challenges for which they are ill, or even, unprepared. 

Among these are: how to cope with the onslaught of capitalist-driven consumer culture (not new, but increasing pervasive and cynical); the sexualisation of relationships and identity; the dependency on mobile phones that can appear rather like the blanket that the Linus in Charles Schulz’s cartoons found it impossible to cope without; the search for roots and meaning without falling into fundamentalism; life together in households and families without the covenant of marriage, and so on. 

It behoves those of us responsible for the welfare of children and young people to identify such issues rather than assume that the skills we have been teaching will remain forever the most important. I have been struck by the reluctance or inability of those who form policy to anticipate future issues. 

Childhood obesity is only now becoming seen as a serious long term social problem, but the combination of junk food and a lifestyle focussing increasingly on electronic communication and culture rather than direct human activity and interaction, has been around for a decade or so.

Likewise the problem of bullying by means of electronic communication.  It is one of the saddest and most serious threats to the personal safety and wellbeing of children and young people, but until recently those who set standards in residential care were trying to make sure that young people had access to private telephones, completely unaware of the double-edged nature of such communication.

We are going to need to build into the system ways of keeping abreast with (or better still, ahead of) changing challenges and needs, and in my view it will be children and young people who are the ones who can best help us in this.  In conversation with, and observing, them we will find the clues to emerging trends. 

But this was not what I wanted to write about in this column, so much as a way of introducing it!  And I certainly did not want to sound pessimistic about every dimension of what might perhaps best be described as elements of that web of developments that go to make up “globalisation”.

What I wanted to share with you was a sense that one of the most important life-skills needed by future generations (assuming that collective and individual action is taken soon enough to avert potential global catastrophes) is that of adapting to the newly emerging awareness of the fragility of planet earth given the strains being placed on it by 21st century lifestyles and demography. 

During the Easter holidays some of the Mill Grove family made yet another trip to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth in North Wales.  It happens that we have had a base in North Wales ever since CAT first began and so it has been possible to follow the progress of this radical community that is committed to planet-friendly and people-friendly ways of living together.

On this particular occasion I spent nearly all the time walking around with a seventeen-year old who was visiting this impressive cooperative venture for the first time.  He is studying for GCSEs with a special interest in photography and media, a Manchester United supporter, passionately committed to Rap music, and a shrewd observer of the contemporary scene.  As far as I know he had not thought seriously about sustainable living, but coming from a Punjabi background he has for some time been aware that the way of life on the Indian sub-continent is several times more sustainable than that of Europe and North America. 

So what I was interested to discover on our trip around the CAT “Visitor Circuit” was what exhibits and experiences best helped him to understand the relation between models of sustainable living on the one hand, and his own daily life and ambitions, on the other.

I thought that the impressive 60-metre-high Water Balanced Cliff Railway by which we entered CAT would be of immediate interest because as a paraplegic he would be particularly aware of alternative forms of transport, but although he was impressed by it, it did not seem to arrest his attention. 

The same went for insulated houses and materials, the “Low Energy House”, wind turbines, combined sources of heat and power, the woodchip boiler, the recycling of sewage, solar panels, compost, the smallholding and animals, methods of organic gardening, the wave machine (demonstrating the potential of  wave power), hydro-electric power and so on.

So what was it that engaged his attention and imagine in the extensive range of exhibits and information?  Two things beyond everything else:  the first was a solar-powered mobile phone re-charger; the second was a series of pictures representing the changes in urban and rural landscapes over a period of fifty years. 

He had been wrestling all the time at CAT with the nature of electricity and alternative methods of producing and storing it.  He knew that non-renewable sources of energy such as oil and gas were running out, but it was not until he saw how he could re-charge his mobile phone that the penny dropped and he had his “Eureka moment”.  Coupled with exhibits where he discovered how hard it was to generate enough power by hand to keep a 40 Watt light shining (a 200 Watt electric kettle proved all but impossible), this simple device provided the bridge between his own world and one of the possible alternative worlds of the future.

And the series of pictures of changing landscapes, easily accessible as he sat in his wheel-chair, somehow engaged not only his power of observation, but his emotions.  The quality of social life was not being automatically enhanced and enriched by the “technological progress” that resulted in modern cities and networks of motorways and vast depots of the national and international food retailers.

Perhaps (although we did not discuss this) it conjured up for him the threat to the sustainable way of life that had been practised for millennia in India, by so-called “Westernisation” or “Modernisation”. Whatever it was, he saw with immediate clarity the truth that the so called “progress” represented in this series of pictures was not something he identified with.

And my sense is that he has now begun to see how he personally, and societies in general worldwide, need to acquire new life-skills if human life is to be sustainable long-term on planet earth.  No doubt other young people have found different ways of making this fundamental discovery. Indeed, some of the other youngsters with me at CAT that day talked of other aspects of the circuit that had interested them, but however it is done, it seems to me that this is one of the most important learning curves for all members of the emerging generation.

I’m pleased to say that at Mill Grove we have been trying for three decades to do something about more planet-friendly ways of living together and generating power, so this trip to CAT will not remain an isolated event or experience. Until increasing concerns about Avian Flu strains reached fever pitch we had kept our own chickens. 

We still grow plenty of pears and cherries, some apples, and are blessed with three wonderfully productive (and patient) roots of rhubarb.  We have a large compost heap, and grow several varieties of vegetables. We all have our own bikes, and prefer sail power at sea to motorised craft. 

We are preparing for some solar-power, and wonder about the possibility of a wind turbine.  Some of us (not the young people, I fear) have always been careful about saving and conserving heat, and being careful with water and electricity.  (It seems to necessitate payment of utility bills before awareness rises to a significant level!)

So we are trying in a modest sort of way, and I believe that my young friend will be more open to these and other ideas from now on. 

Come to think of it, living in a way that goes with the grain of nature rather than against it must surely be one of the most important life skills for us all.  Let’s hope it’s not too long (and too late) before it finds its way to the head of prevailing lists of life skills in every part of society.

Keith J. White lives and cares for children and young people in Mill Grove where his family has lived for four generations.Since 1899 it has been a family home where children unable to live with their own parents have been welcomed.

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