It is the nature of people to imagine their world as solid and certain, even as things begin, undeniably, to fall apart. Too often, the illusion of stability is preferred over the recognition of its absence.
This tendency was particularly apparent in recent months as the current financial crisis first began to take hold. There was a peculiar sense of disbelief among many people, including politicians and journalists: a stubborn refusal to accept that such a thing was even possible. While some commentators had been warning for years that our economic system was untenable, and liable to catastrophic collapse, most had simply acted like small children, placing their hands over their ears and singing the same song, loudly. The economy will always grow, they sang; house prices will always rise. But they were wrong, and dangerously so.
None of us is immune to the effects of this crisis. Many individual savers and shareholders now fear for the future, as all financial certainty drains away. Shetland Islands Council too has been hit hard, with their pensions fund and other investments taking a serious nosedive. Those who will suffer most in a crisis like this are those who can least afford to do so. Those whose greed, stupidity and recklessness helped to spark off the collapse will not be facing the same dangers. In a system where blame is impossible to apportion, justice clearly has no place.
I have always felt that any kind of disaster must provide an opportunity for serious thinking. If we are to avoid repeating our mistakes then we must learn from them, reconsider our methods, re-evaluate our priorities, change our ways. This, surely, is a time to think.
Apparently not. It seems that the way out of this particular disaster is to pour immense sums of public money into the banking system that helped to cause it, and politely request that the economy be taken back to where it was a few months ago, so that we can carry on as if it all never happened. The banks in turn have responded by giving themselves a hearty pat on the back, and some jolly good bonuses to celebrate. Any talk of a serious reassessment of the system itself has been, at best, muted. I must admit that I am confused by this. But then, perhaps the economy is different; perhaps there really is nothing to learn from our mistakes. Or perhaps these are lessons that nobody wants to hear.
Still, while politicians and economists work earnestly at rebuilding their beloved house of cards, the rest of us certainly can think again.
Long-term financial security cannot be created using smoke and mirrors. It must be built with intelligence and foresight. And, I would argue, that building should begin locally. A strong, solid local economy is crucial if Shetland is to protect itself from further instability.
Much of that strength must come, of course, from the council. Continued investment in local businesses and industry, as well as in infrastructure, is essential. Austerity is not a solution; it is an abdication of responsibility.
But we as individuals have a role too. As consumers we have choices, and our choices do make a difference. It has sometimes been said that the most radical and revolutionary political slogan in use today is “Buy less stuff”. The constant-growth economy – that chimera upon which our society so precariously rests – depends on our continued, mindless consumption of “stuff” to survive. By recognising the political significance of our purchases therefore, we can consciously commit acts of financial rebellion.
Buying local is one such act. As the economic crisis deepens and the price of imports gradually rises, local food in particular is liable to become increasingly attractive. While the cheapest option is still the default choice for most consumers, and a necessity for a very few, it need not always be that way. Buying Shetland meat, vegetables and other produce is a show of support for the local economy. It is money that stays within Shetland, and helps to protect each of us from the volatility of the national and international markets. Buying local expresses a commitment to a real and a reliable kind of stability, rather than the fragile, illusory one that we are now leaving behind. Buying local is a lesson we need to learn.