Sunday, October 12, 2008

Beeting the Downturn

The word `Meltdown' summons all kinds of images. Icecaps, nuclear reactors. Never, till now the financial system which underpins our whole economy and society. What it could mean for charities and social businessses is only just beginning to be considered.

We exist, largely, on the wealth of society and the state. None of us had planned for an era in which this wealth wouldn't be there. The bailing-out of the banks, though necessary, has used up all the Government's borrowing capacity. No money to shore up the economy through massive public works or tax cuts. Savage cuts in public spending will follow all this as day follows night.

It was weird mulling all this over today on a perfect October morning as I stomped across fields of sugar-beet while tractors raced around us moving the beet from the soil to the steaming processing plant five miles in the distance. The beet gets, I am told £23 per tonne. Prices are lower than farmers expected. So the job has to be done quickly and I will probably be walking through wheat next year.

Brilliant, clear days like this offer comfort because they remind you that most of what truly matters to you is the stuff you don't pay for. The smiling baby in the backpack. The health which propels you effortlessly across heavy fields. The browns and greens of the early Autumn made bright by the pale October sun.

As I scanned down the hectares of descending fields overlooking Bury St Edmunds, I saw a landscape barely changed in decades. Stability running long into the future. But it feels like the mental-maps we have all used to understand the way our world works have been lost and that, for now, we are working without a new one. Even the opinion-formers seem to be unable to bring together the forward-prospect.

This is particularly so in the third sector where most people are either in denial or fighting the last war (the early 90s recession) and waiting for the weather to change. My own feeling echoes that of Rod Schwartz of Catalyst Fund writing in the Guardian last Wednesday that we are possibly going to emerge from this into a new period of capitalism based not on profit-maximisation with some subsequent disbursement to `good causes' but a blended model where firms' create both financial profit and other social outputs all at the same time. In other words, social business.

I only hope he is right.

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