John Bird: Beyond soap and sandwiches, there must be a better solution

Our focus should be on prevention, for the good of people suffering today as well as future generations

I got a very sincere letter from people who were worried that if you were homeless then you had nowhere to wash. They suggested showers and baths be reinstalled, the public baths of old, in our cities. At least then the homeless could wash.

Other people I get letters from suggest a cleverer, more deeply spread use of the soup line. And other things, like getting all of the food stuff from supermarkets, out of date stuff, and getting it to people in need.

I never ever get a letter from anyone saying, “How can we end this need? How can we stop the bestial way in which countless stopgaps don’t do more than cover the day?”

I think that is because we are taught how to think not deeply, but sketchily, as if life was some large supermarket, made up of many aisles. And we need to make sure all of our requirements are met in this world of shelves of needs. 

Hence when people look at poverty and need, at the destruction of people’s lives on and in the streets, they think, “What can we add to make them clean and less hungry?”, as if life was a long supermarket shelf and all we need to do to make the world honest and true, and equal, is to ensure that we all of us get the shelf of goods and services we need or desire.

Unfortunately our long progress from leaving Africa over 70,000 years ago, and ending up in Croydon, Romford, Paisley, Carmarthen, etc, has not involved us in learning how to think in bigger than ‘relief’ terms when it comes to poverty. We cannot seem to get over this hurdle, which would allow us to imagine what is necessary to dismantle the problem, rather than to make those with the problem more comfortable.

Don’t think you are alone in all of this. Most of the big educated and powerful players are involved in this fascination with looking at life as a series of ‘effects’ and give no attention to ‘causes’. So when I went into the House of Lords to dismantle poverty by preventing it they looked at me and smiled and told me of the latest piece of band-aid thinking they wanted to apply to the problem.

But still the letters come in. Letters from Harvard graduates and graduates of Oxbridge asking me what they need to do. And I am tempted to send them a postcard with the word “Think!”.

Stopgaps lead only to people actually having no future

Of course I am not so silly or rude as to do that. But I do when the chance presents itself tell people that we as a species need to move on from dealing with effects, to tackling the ‘cause’.

Where did this shit come from? How can it be prevented? How can we stop tomorrow being a rerun of today?

There is a very great point made by certain people today to emphasise that when it came to Brexit our younger generation tended either to be too young to vote, or voted to stay; and will be paying for the mistakes of those who are old and voted to leave. It seems to point out that if you voted to stay you were usually younger than those who voted to leave.

I often hear that this is a kind of injustice. It’s a nice idea; a generation screws up the future for another generation.

I know what they mean. I did not vote for the Second World War, but my generation paid for the mistakes made by the previous generation. And they paid all the way through to when I got to 50 years of age for their decisions. It’s like that. We inherit the mistakes or territory of former generations.

Future generations will really have to work full time on making sure that they don’t leave grief for later generations to pick up. Like climate change. Like wars and oppression. Like exploitation.

And also perhaps we need future generations to abhor all of the emphasis on dealing with the ‘effects’, with little on the ‘cause’. That would be a major leap in
our thinking.


If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

But there is little evidence that human beings will suddenly change their philosophical spots and stop just dealing with life as if it were a series of today, followed by another today, followed by even more todays.

Prevention should be pushed up the political top 10 and made to become the big one.

Of course, who wants to suffer shortages and poverty today on the basis that we should be supporting future generations? It’s easier in many ways to think life is simply just a series of stopgap things that need to be done to get you through to the end of your life.

But stopgaps lead only to people actually having no future. The need to have heat and power for industry in the late 18th century, and then the Industrial Revolution – pressing needs for development – has finally led us to even more shameless environmental destruction.

It all fits together. Short term, people demanding more showers for the streets, and sandwiches for the streets, fits in very well with putting off the big thinking: prevention, for another time and another generation.

Too many bright solutions for patching things up. Not enough for preventing things. Join the thinking revolution and
demand prevention!