“I have no idea, never having been there, of the US context for all this…”
—— Rob Hopkins, Co-founder, Transition Towns Initiative
“England and America are two people divided by a common language.”
—– Attributed variously to Winston Churchill/ George Bernard Shaw/Oscar Wilde
John Bowlby, a British Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, expressed concerns about the common pattern in his country, and among his class, of having nannies raise children. His most important work, Attachment Theory, was to encourage British women to pay more attention to childrearing, and to reject the notion that parental attention and affection would lead to dangerous spoiling. British women of the higher classes were in the practice of “visiting” with their children after dinner, and before bed. Often this was their only interaction for the day.
When his theory of attachment reached the US, it was widely embraced. Mothers, who had no experience with the nanny tradition, and had always been the primary nurturers of their children, took it as an admonishment to pay even greater attention, lest their children be left emotionally scarred. This advice was embraced to such an extreme degree, that later theorists had to admonish American mothers to (paraphrasing)“allow your children some time alone in their rooms each day.”
The captain, [of the Titanic] Edward John Smith, shouted out: “Be British, boys, be British!” as the cruise liner went down, according to witnesses. One wealthy passenger, recognizing he was doomed, donned a tuxedo and declared: “I’m going to go down well dressed.”
A behavioral economist attributes the disproportionate loss of British life on the Titanic to the fact that these passengers created an orderly queue, waiting to enter lifeboats, while Americans swarmed to grab their spots. Others have noted the same trend, and added “we’re just quite shy, almost apologetic for our presence.”
British and American cultures are often thought of as mirror images of one another. Sharing a common language, and linked by a shared history, it is quite easy to assume that one set of ideas translates flawlessly from one culture to the other.
Take socialism, for example. In the UK, it is represented in name by several political parties, while it is little more than a political accusation here in the US. Many in the EU are proud of their ‘welfare state’ and are puzzled why Americans use this same word as an indictment. While affording health care is a constant worry to a large number of Americans, the refusal to provide health care to its people is considered barbaric to much of the EU. Labor has its own political party in the UK, while even at the height of unionization, American labor’s elite chose to not form a distinct political party.
The UK is a small country, and, as Hopkins points out, there is no room to “run and hide.” In contrast, vast sections of the US are virtually empty. We have different gun cultures: One might argue that the Revolutionary War itself crystallized our view that a Militia was not only desirable, but essential. So essential, in fact, was gun ownership to the American psyche, that it became written in as the Second Amendment of the US Constitution! Our gun ownership laws are the most liberal in the world (along with Switzerland), while those in the UK are probably some of the strictest. We will need to explore this important cultural difference in detail, in order to understand the phenomenal rise in popularity of the American “survivalist” movement, and TI’s-UK’s (culturally based?) aversion to it.
The UK has experienced the decline of its once vast Empire, and it is now arguably a more mature culture, while the USA, still in its adolescence, is beginning to feel the limits of its colonial aspirations. While we fight here for the rights of some couples to marry, the UK has dispensed with marriage in favor of civil unions for all.
With these, and so many more examples we can point to, I’d like to initiate a conversation about whether trainers are encountering cultural differences, when Transition Initiatives are applied in an American setting.
As one example (and perhaps not the best) there appears to be an accepted idea in TI- UK that political influence is not only possible, but all but assured, when “group consensus” presents demands to their elected officials. Elections there, are publicly funded. Despite the buoyancy of the current election, most progressive Americans would agree that corporate interests are well-entrenched, and political influence is paid for through campaign contributions.
It is quite a different situation to argue for more extensive public transportation and rail, rather than a complete re-introduction to, and valuing of, the concept of public transportation. The car has long been a symbol of American independence, while it has, at best, been a desirable but expensive luxury in the UK, and their petrol prices reflect this. Their use of fossil fuel has been miserly compared to ours.
Also important, our people have a different historical memory of the period between 1929 and 1945, and this experience will no doubt impact their view of how to prepare for the Hard Times as they continue to unfold.
For example, in the UK, the Great Depression was followed by a devastating war resulting in massive bombings of their major cities. Few of us in the USA can imagine the impact on the psychology of a people who became unified in a war that arrived at their doorsteps, and reduced neighborhoods to rubble. Possibly the closest example might be 9/11 in NYC. In contrast, the Second World War never reached our mainland shores, and provided a boost to US manufacturing, given our superior oil supply.
Australian POW’s in WWII were startled by hidden cultural differences: “We thought we were British!” These cultural differences were starkly reveals in the differences between the British and Australian adaptation to the make-shift institutional structures of their shared POW camp.
According to one study: “Repeatedly, in hundreds of camps, the British POWs established institutions of economic distribution based on hierarchy and social class while the Australians established communitarian institutions based on the idea of equality and the ethic of ‘mateship’.”
Will these very diverse cultural contexts lead to a different sort of “imagineering?” How does the differing psychology of both peoples inform their capacity to build and strengthen community, particularly at the margins of known cultural differences (hierarchy, social class, politics, guns, space, individualism, religion, activism, etc) These are some of the questions that may be valuable to discuss and explore. Cultural differences are not only physical, but also psychological, and we can’t truly understand these differences without careful reflection.
I encourage us all in the TI-USA, to consider the psychological differences in the people of these two countries, and begin a thoughtful conversation that considers these differences. Our British friends have put forth valuable ideas that appear to work well within their cultural context, and many aspects of this work, have already been successfully adapted to TI-USA. However, it is also essential to reflect on aspects of transition which may, in fact, be uniquely American.
I invite us all to begin this conversation.
P.S. To point out a more humorous example of cultural difference, I doubt many of us in the U.S. could calmly provide the police officer or pizza delivery guy the following addresses without getting arrested or having our pizza order trashed “–What’s the address?” “Crapstone, Devon” “Crotch Crescent, Oxford;” “Titty Ho, Northamptonshire;” “Wetwang, East Yorkshire”; “Penistone, South Yorkshire,” “Slutshole Lane, Norfolk”; or “Spanker Lane, in Derbyshire.” Only the most proper of British accents could pull that off.