DISCUSSION Reasons to be cheerful…

by Michael Wise _______15th October 2018

As the world veers this way and lurches that, with crisis always seeming to be just around the corner, here’s one thought I keep returning to: to what extent does the media play a part?

A case in point: a couple of years ago, I was doing some research in Manchester Library. Scrolling through 40-year-old newspapers on microfilm, it was clear that, although the dramatis personae were almost entirely different, and the settings were (to an extent) different, the themes were largely the same…

…to quote the sign hung round the neck of a bloke I used to see whenever I would visit Speaker’s Corner 15 to 20 years ago: ‘IT’S GOING TO GET WORSE’.

There’s no doubt the maxim ‘If it bleeds it leads’ holds true. No matter how much we deny it, inherent within us is a curiosity that leads us to seek out disasters of the human spirit. If it’s tragic, nasty, horrible, stupid, a crisis or some sort, you can guarantee it’ll be the most read, viewed, clicked and shared. And, of course, the internet has turbocharged the whole process, meaning that so much – too much – information is out there.

It’s more than enough to make a person nervous. Anyone who’s been familiar with David Byrne over the last 40 years or so knows that he’s pretty much always been that way; perhaps, therefore, he feels it more than most of us do? ‘Reasons to the Cheerful’ is his jerky-limbed, staccato pushback, a project that seeks to do exactly as it says and point out to anyone that cares to listen – who recoils from the news cycle, worn from worry and compassion blunted – that there are things happening out there that makes one realise that the human race is not chasing its tail after all. Or eating it, for that matter.

Named after the 1979 hit single by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Reasons to be Cheerful is simple enough, in that it lists examples of what can happen when people come together and do something worthwhile in their community.

The projects must meet the following criteria:

• Be ‘bottom up’
• Not specific to one culture
• Proven to be successful
• Not isolated i.e. not human interest stories of the ‘Billionaire Gives Money’ variety

…and they fall into the following categories:

• Science/tech
• Climate/energy
• Education
• Civic engagement
• Urban transportation
• Culture
• Economics
• Health

The website displays a map of the world that the user clicks on for specific projects that contributors have found. And there are the projects that David himself has found – out on tour, and while out and about on his bike (he’s a keen cyclist).

Little surprise, then, to learn that urban transportation is an issue close to his heart. And, given also the influence that Latin American music has played on his own, it’s perhaps not that much of a surprise to see South American urban transportation initiatives featuring heavily in David’s YouTube presentation.

We learn that, instead of just building more roads, in both Bogota and Curitiba they have rapid bus lanes instead, and also cycle lanes – an initiative that, David says, has been adopted in 300-odd cities across the world. Thus issues such as energy usage, sustainability and health/fitness are addressed to some degree while, as he also points out, one’s perspective of a city becomes rather different when viewed from a bike.

Another standout section is culture. In Bogota, for example, a cultural hub has been built out of what once was a garbage processing centre. Similarly, in Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, kids can have the chance to see that music and the arts, rather than drugs and crime, are things to aspire to.

David also quotes research undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania on the effects such projects can have:

“There’s a lot more of them,” David adds towards the end of the presentation. “I could go on for hours.”
Then he lists what he has learned during his odyssey, including the observation that “ordinary citizens are becoming more engaged”. Clearly, that would be a step in the right direction. But we need more steps.

A few UK-based projects are displayed on the RTBC website map, and one is (relatively) local to me: Incredible Edible, a volunteer project based in Todmorden, which has spawned followers all around the world by virtue of the simplest of ideas: planting and cultivating vegetables to eat on patches of waste ground.

The projects might not be specific to one particular culture, but it’s those that are more readily identifiable or relatable that are bound to resonate more. Reading about such an initiative and its benefits immediately made me wonder how many such are out there and what sort of profile they have in local communities.

It also prompted the question of how many people actually get involved in such initiatives, as well as the deeper question of what’s stopping them from doing so. In a Q&A after Byrne’s presentation, he was asked, “How do you get involved with your community?” “Wow,” was his initial response, as though he was thinking, ‘Has it come to this?’ Maybe he didn’t think that, but it’s what I thought: have we reached a point now where adults are struggling with an instinct as natural as coming together in a communal space (that isn’t the workplace)?

If relentless, depressing news and media action doesn’t foster a certain amount of cynicism, then living in an atomised society might. In post-irony times, it’s still easy enough to look at community gatherings with lusty singing while trying to suppress a snigger. But projects such as those highlighted by Reasons to be Cheerful place such reactions in their true light and point out the wrong turns society has made.

Another idea, perhaps, is that such initiatives might serve to breathe much-needed life into the social contract, so that more of us make a contribution to the world in which we live on a more regular basis. So that we improve it and feel better in doing so. It seems such a simple idea; is stuff like this actually being debated anywhere?

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