Gill Reeve wonders whether young adults today constitute a ‘sacrificed generation’. She suggests standing in solidarity with young people and turns to the example of Bishop James Jones for hope.
In some recent interviews with young adults in Europe there were some moving testimonies about the profound anxiety that many of them have experienced during the last 15 months and the huge effect the pandemic has had on their futures, mental wellbeing, education, and job prospects. One young adult interviewed describes himself as part of the ‘sacrificed generation’.
The interviews resonated with what I have heard as a chaplain in higher education over recent months. Many of the young adults I have spoken to feel that they have been let down by the government and have largely been forgotten by them. Even before the pandemic, these young adults had many more worries and responsibilities than I ever had in my late teens and early twenties.
As an Anglican chaplain I find myself searching in my own faith tradition for inspiration on how to stand with, and indeed fight alongside, this ‘sacrificed generation’, many of whom are passionate about social and ecological justice. But current Anglican theology seems to fall short when it comes to issues of ecology or justice. Having the environment as just one of the five marks of mission feels a bit like sitting on a sinking ship and reviewing your schedule to see if you have the time to start bailing! It gives the false impression that the social and the ecological are separate entities when they are inextricably bound together.
Someone I interviewed as part of my research into socio-ecological transformation said that they had recently asked a group of Anglicans: ‘Can we change our language? You know, the Roman Catholics talk about ‘Our Common Home’, which is better than talking about THE environment […] we are all in the environment, we are the environment—social cohesion, ecological care, it’s not different.’ Language matters because it shapes our conceptual thinking and informs our action, or lack of action.
Eco-church has certainly been a helpful tool for waking the church up to the ecological crisis, but there is also a danger that it could end up as an introspective response that is too focussed on meeting the church’s own needs. The urgency of the ecological crisis requires a far more holistic framework that emphasises partnership and working with others towards socio-ecological sustainability and justice. For inspiration in this, the church would do well to look to young adults themselves, who are finding ways to form alliances and partnerships that speak together and fight together on the big issues facing our world. Such collaborations are challenging because to fully embrace them we need to relinquish our own plans for the greater good, to let go of the need for recognition of our own achievements, and to listen and learn from others in humility. It is a demanding journey.
So where might I look, within my own tradition of the Anglican church, to help me as a chaplain in my work with young adults? I am inspired by the example of Bishop James Jones who spent much of his ministry engaged in fights for justice, including as chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chair of New Deals for Communities for Liverpool, and leading the Gosport Independent Panel related to hospital care. In an interview in 2017 he states that chairing the Hillsborough Independent Panel ‘became the climax of my time as Bishop of Liverpool. It wove together the three foundational values of my ministry—compassion, truth and justice’. In the late 1990s Bishop James visited schools in Liverpool to listen to what young people were most concerned about, and their overwhelming response was ‘the environment’ (Jones, Jesus and the Earth, 2003). He responded by spending a three-month sabbatical learning more about ecology, reflecting theologically on the care of creation, and gaining wisdom from people from other faiths. Returning to Liverpool he set up the Eden Project (now Faiths4Change) as a multi-faith initiative that aimed to bring communities and faith groups together to work on environmental projects.
What can we to learn from Bishop James about how to stand with young adults in the face of the immense challenges and worries that they face? We must start by listening and learning from young people and allowing that encounter to challenge us and shape our actions. If we are brave enough to fully embrace this, then these experiences will undoubtedly broaden our mindset and enrich and expand our theological thinking. But if we are to stand with this ‘sacrificed generation’ and struggle for a fairer and more just world, then as individuals and as the church we will need to set aside our own needs for security, significance, and growth. We will need new social and ecological values beyond those of the neoliberal metric that has so dominated our worldview in the West.
Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel believes that ‘growthism’ prevents us from thinking about the really vital questions, and he suggests that the way out of this is to embrace degrowth and the decolonising not just of lands and peoples but also of our minds. We need, he says, ‘a new way of thinking about our relationship with the living world’ (Hickel, Less is More, 2020, p. 289). Hickel warns us that: ‘We are in a trance. We slog on mindlessly unaware of what we’re doing, unaware of what we are sacrificing […] who we are sacrificing’ (Hickel, Less is More, 2020, p. 291).
Bishop James speaks of ‘a moral and theological imperative to encourage an embracing of environmental justice’ (Jones, Jesus and the Earth, 2003). And it is within this framework of justice that I believe the Anglican tradition best encourages me to stand with young adults today in their struggles to build a sustainable world and a more hopeful future.
Gill Reeve charts some of the new challenges, unavoidable losses and unexpected opportunities of 2020, drawing out lessons that are relevant for us all.
Starting my PhD in September 2018, I anticipated many of the challenges ahead: time pressure, difficulty finding focus, searching for the research gap, writer’s block… to name but a few.
But in March 2020, as I was writing my methodology chapter, a global pandemic was one scenario that had certainly not entered my head! I was all set for an ethnographic research project on the values that underpin collaborative, socio-ecological place-shaping. Participant observation was central to the deeply embedded research design. But, as the pandemic took hold globally, it felt as if the words of my research portfolio lifted off the pages and disappeared into the atmosphere. Not only was my field research now out of reach, but there was also a growing realisation of the seismic shift occurring in the world. Locating socio-ecological research at such a time of enormous flux and instability took on a new level of complexity.
Gradual despondency caused me to consider my options. I could suspend my studies; give up; start again on a different topic. But, over time, I began to realise that my current research was more important than ever. The values that underpin socio-ecological place-shaping are under-researched, and yet, in the sustainability literature there is increasing recognition that these values may provide deep leverage for change. COVID-19 has brought immense pressures to cities such as Liverpool, the context for my research, that, even in pre-COVID times, had extremely high levels of social deprivation. And whilst the government recently expressed a commitment to a ‘levelling up’ agenda, it is difficult to be hopeful about this. Historically, regeneration agendas in Liverpool have depended on high levels of pump-priming from central government and the EU. Given the national economic impacts of the pandemic and the new relationship with the EU, it seems implausible that any levelling up is possible without a radical re-think. The great danger is a repeat of the same: more top-down approaches that imposes new structures and bring short-term initiatives that are poorly integrated with existing community work and lack sustainability.
In April 2020 I started to revise my methodology, searching for creative new ways that would still bring depth to the research and capture insights that could inform future policy and practice. I started to re-engage with the New Materialisms through the work of Rosa Braidotti on the post-human and Jane Bennett on Vibrant Matter. Re-reading their work in a COVID-19 world gave it new potency and resonance. Bennett stretches our worldview towards a new way of seeing:
“… the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality. We are vital materiality, and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.”
(Vibrant Matter, p.14)
Bennett argues against the dominant anthropocentric worldview that focusses on human uniqueness and thereby upholds a moral argument that ‘privileges man over germ’ (p.12). Reading this statement again, in the midst of the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of the folly and arrogance of such a worldview. A tiny virus has floored humans globally in ways that we could not have imagined a year ago and the physical impacts of the climate emergency around the world are in plain sight. Our inter-dependency with the natural world and the fragility of humanity has surely been laid bare in 2020.
I was also increasingly drawn to creative arts methodologies as a way of delving deeper into the hidden values that underpin socio-ecological place-shaping. Creative arts provide a rich reservoir for re-imagining, enabling engagement with hitherto hidden and nuanced perspectives. Imagery, metaphor, and storytelling have become central in my research methods, enabling the exploration of the untapped imaginations of those working at local, community-based place-shaping. Many of my participants, interviewed on Zoom, have had decades of experience in local community projects and as I speak with them, I sense that I am mining the treasure that has been almost imperceptibly gathered over the years. Such is the nature of the embedded values that shape practice: they are illusive and often hidden actants in material assemblages. But perhaps their invisibility is more to do with the limits of our dominant worldview that priorities the concrete, visible aspects of the material world and has become incapable of perceiving what is hidden in plain sight. Values are woven into the intricate narratives and intriguing metaphors that my research participants tell, but we need Braidotti’s ‘post-human’ perspective to unravel such nuances and to see the multiplicity of actants in this complex web of materiality.
Researching in 2020 alongside COVID-19 has been exhausting! One of the hardest things has been coping with a lack of energy and concentration, arising from a more stressful working environment, months of social distancing and the anxieties that the pandemic brings. But it has not all been about losses. The pandemic has pushed me to embrace a more creative research approach that I might previously have felt was too risky, too out of my comfort-zone. But now, I am finding this creativity increasingly thought-provoking, life-giving, and intriguing.
With the UK government’s publication of a new obesity strategy last week, Gill Reeve suggests that a more urgent need is a broader strategy to address the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. With a cabinet minister inviting us to take personal responsibility for our weight, the new strategy should not be used to deflect attention from the government’s own responsibility to address inequality.
In his interview with the BBC on 24th July, Boris Johnson highlighted the problem of obesity. There is undoubtedly a serious health issue related to obesity in the UK, which also increases the risks of COVID-19, but is it really as simple as thinking a little more about lifestyles and taking personal responsibility, as Dominic Raab suggested in an interview? The causes of obesity are complex, but significant among them are the deep-seated inequalities that persist in the UK. In highlighting obesity without setting it in its broader context, there is a danger that the government side-steps their own responsibility for rising socio-economic inequality.
Social inequality and health outcomes
A recent government briefing paper on poverty in June 2020 highlights that poverty rates for children and working age adults are higher than they were fifty years ago, and that an estimated 24% of children are now in households of relative low income after housing costs (AHC). Research has long recognised that the health outcomes for deprived communities are much lower in multiple ways, and that people living in deprived areas are much more likely to live with multiple morbidities. The impacts of this are laid bare in a Public Health England report on health equity (2017), that showed people living in the least deprived areas live around twenty years longer in good health than those in the most deprived areas. Obesity is part of a much bigger health crisis that is significantly correlated to poverty.
Child poverty, obesity and food poverty
An independent report on poverty by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2017 suggested 4.2 million children were living in relative poverty, with the prediction (pre-COVID-19) for this to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. The Children’s Commissioner supports these findings and the forecast that about 37% of children will live in poverty by 2022. The impacts of COVID-19 on poverty are not yet known, but a recent article by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggested that COVID-19 has already placed an extra 200,000 children in poverty.
The Public Health England report on heath equity (2017) reveals ‘stark inequalities in the prevalence of obesity’ in children aged 10-11 years old, with a 17.5% gap in prevalence between the least deprived and most deprived areas of England. A report by the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (RCPCH) brings insights from doctors on the front line, who report that ‘poor nutrition as a result of the inability to afford enough healthy food is associated with both poor growth of deprived babies and children on the one hand, and rising child obesity on the other’. When obesity is considered within the wider context of poverty, the reports shows that central issues include: the inability of people to afford healthy food options, the struggle to afford essential items such as toothpaste, and widespread food poverty. Added to that, the RCPCH report points to other social factors that negatively impact health, including the lack of access to a garden and to safe green spaces in local neighbourhoods.
Intersectionality of obesity, poverty and inequality
Poverty leads to multiple morbidities, food poverty, obesity and much more, and it disproportionately affects particular ethnic groups. The Public Health England report on health equity (2017) provides evidence that there is ‘a clear gradient’ between increased poverty and increased obesity, with the most deprived areas of England having the highest proportion of overweight and obese children. And the statistics are startling in the connections made between poverty, ethnicity and childhood obesity. The Government briefing paper on poverty (2020) shows that in households where the head of the household is from a Black ethnic group, relative poverty rates are 42% (AHC) with 47% of children experiencing child poverty (AHC). Comparative data for a Bangladeshi ethnic household is 53% and 67%, and for a white ethnic household it is 19% and 26%. The Public Health England report on health equity shows the link to child obesity rates, which is the highest in Black ethnic communities at about 43%.
Policies to tackle underlying causes of inequality and deprivation
There is plenty of statistical evidence that welfare changes over the past ten years have put many more children into poverty, and a report in June 2020 by the Social Mobility Commission calls for a common strategy across government to tackle inequality, coordinated and driven forward by a single unit at the centre of government. It is this coordinated strategy that is needed in order to review complex issues that are deeply interrelated and to embed changes across policy, decision-making and implementation.
Addressing the key area of child poverty would have multiple benefits, not just to obesity but to the health and wellbeing of whole families. The IPPR report suggests targeted changes that would immediately decrease child poverty: removing the two-child limit and the benefit cap—imposed in 2015 as part of the government’s austerity measures–and increasing Child Benefit by £5 per week per child. The RCPCH report suggests restoring national targets to reduce child poverty and the adoption of a ‘child health in all policies’ approach to decision-making and policy development. In addition, there needs to be a reversal of the public health cuts that have decimated early years services, which are vital support services for families.
COVID-19 has exposed wide inequalities in the UK that are racially, socially and geographically aligned. Tackling COVID-19 is also an opportunity for the government to take responsibility and to strategically address poverty and the profound inequalities that negatively affect so many people’s lives.