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Paradise lost?

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I’ve just returned to work from a fortnight in Jamaica.

My mother’s from there so we spent a lot of time with family.

In an eventful trip I gave my Mum away at her wedding and gave the remembrance speech at my Grandmother’s funeral – unfortunately she just died before we got a chance to see her.

Even in a country that is financially challenged, our family are pretty poor.

Many of them live in the hilly region of the island close to Christiana in a community of self-built shacks and houses with temperamental electricity and sporadic water supply.

Despite the incredible sunsets and beaches of Negril, the time spent with uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces in the red dirt of central Jamaica was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip.


There was an immense feeling of community and I counted around 30 children who seemed to be roaming freely from house to house.

Most there can’t afford healthcare. My uncle showed us how he had removed several of his teeth with pliers and a hot nail (and a large amount of marijuana).

Children were bought up by whoever had capacity (this is not uncommon in many developing countries).

Food was virtually prepared communally with everyone putting something in and taking something out.

Of course there were family links helping to cement this community together but I got the feeling that the community was born out of necessity not genetics.

Everyone there knew they would need to call on the help of their neighbour at some point and so the idea of not helping when someone needed you was unthinkable.

It’s a completely patronising myth to suggest that people living in this kind of poverty are happier than us in the west with our hectic, isolated lives but there did seem to be a surprising lack of stress and an abundance of smiles.

Having said this they would swap their ‘happy’ lives for ours where wasting food isn’t a sin and lights don’t have to be rationed, in an instant.

And the opportunities we have for self improvement, whether that’s the ability to earn and develop careers or the ability to truly decide what lifestyle we want to live, should not be sniffed at.

All of this got me thinking about what makes a perfect society.

I started to worry that my vision of a true utopia might not be possible.

The very things that have to happen for a society to produce the opportunities we all take for granted are the things that take us away from the stress-free, money-free living that I witnessed.

At the same time, without these ills we wouldn’t have the excess they create. Without the excess we would all face a much tougher time and probably wouldn’t have time to contemplate our happiness as we’d be too busy making sure there was food on the table and a roof over our heads.

So an ideal society would have to have elements of both of these lifestyles.

It would have to be rich enough to ensure that nobody starved while remaining poor enough that people didn’t forget how crucial we all are to each other.

This is a very thin line to walk.

Of course, as an ageing lefty, I would argue that basing societies on the accumulation of wealth is always doomed to failure in the happiness stakes. But that accumulation brings stability and stability means we can pursue endeavours that people from developing countries can only dream of.

It seems to me that Jerusalem could be builded here in Britain:
If we could somehow nurture a real feeling community responsibility while keeping our freedoms
If we cared a lot more about what we are like as people and a lot less about what we possess
If all voices in society were listened to and all opinions were considered.
If nobody ever said, “that s not my responsibility” when faced with a challenge.

Oh and a bit of sunshine wouldn’t go amiss either.

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  1. If………indeed!
    Affluence has a negative effect on society, People become less generous, less concerned for others, more self-centred; the richer we get, the meaner we seem to get.
    I think the reason is that our degree of affluence affects our assessment of the value we place on our relationships, our possessions, our spare time etc.
    In economic terms, because time is more valuable, we require a larger personal return from it than is obtained by spending it in the manner you describe, which is seen as “wasting” it.
    I’ve heard people say “We were poorer in the past but we were happier”. Mind you, poverty isn’t accompanied by contentment, or else more of those who could afford it would voluntarily embrace it.

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