Looking each other in the eye


    A few weeks ago, as we reached for our lunches between yacht races on the sunlit harbour, one of our number leaned over, flicked the tin being unholstered by a younger crew member and said, without emphasis, that we don’t buy tuna any more. It is an endangered catch. 

    No-one was arguing but it stayed with me that we need to get that clear about stuff; that we in the favoured nations living the life of Riley compared to any other time in history don’t wash in palm oil, eat sushi made from tuna that’s being hunted to extinction or put off buying an electric vehicle out of sheer laziness. 

    The collective challenge in the 21st century is to develop the same uncompromising abhorrence to such issues that we would bring to a personal decision if confronted by 17th century human slavery. 

    That won’t just happen, or at least, not until we collectively shuck the idea that we need to clamber all over each other to succeed at all costs and reclaim the right – and obligation – to actually care about each other. 

    In the Guardian’s new series on things going right on the planet, Finland is  something of a standout, a country big on civic duty, co-operation and transparency, rated the most stable, the safest and the best governed country in the world.  

    Its national education system – free and frequently acknowledged as one of the world’s best – was established before Finland achieved independence (from Russia) in 1866. Its roots are in a deliberately-created egalitarian society where education was essential to advancement.

    Finland’s  integrated health centres cover everything from preventative medicine to home nursing services. Parental leave is paid for a year and parents of children under three can opt for local authority day care or a “home care allowance”.

    Journalist Jon Henley points out that the country’s 5.5 million citizens enjoy the highest levels of personal freedom, choice and wellbeing. They are also the third most gender-equal in the world and have the fifth lowest income inequality. “Their babies are the least underweight, their kids feel the most secure and their teens perform the second best at reading.”

    Trust is important. Finland’s most successful company is games studio Supercell and it currently pays more than $978 million in tax annually.  Like the country’s other 10,000 top earners, it has its tax bill published in an annual list on “national envy day”.

    We could also copy Finland’s permanent Committee for the Future on which MPs study and report on social challenges for the coming decades.

    All this in a cold, harsh and remote place, as its former president Tarja Halonen put it, where “every person has to work hard for themself. But that is not always enough. You have to help your neighbours.”

    If Danes have given the world the untranslatable word hygge (pronounced hue-guh and conveying acknowledgment of a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary, that’s cosy, charming or special), Finns have sisu, a kind of dogged, courageous persistence regardless of consequence. 

    It also has talkoo, which means, according to Halonen,  “working together collectively for a specific good. Getting the harvest in, stacking wood, raising money. It’s about cooperating. Everyone together, equally.”

    It sounds like a cold-climate version of Holland’s Polder system that also conveys the idea of “cooperation despite differences” imposed by the geographical imperatives of its canal system.

    Finnish journalist Anu Paranen, quoted in the Guardian article, ascribes Finland’s success to a general Nordic theory of love.

    “In the family, it’s realizing that relationships can only really flourish between individuals – parents, children, spouses – who are equal and independent.

    “In a society, it means policy choices aimed at ensuring the greatest possible degree of independence, freedom and opportunity for everyone.”

    In New Zealand, we’re a modern nation of about the same age, size and geographical isolation and much of what makes up virtue in Finland was similarly part of our national character, at least until Rogernomics arrived and sidelined the social justice and egalitarian values that still seem so familiar to those of us who grew up here in the 50s and 60s. 

    Perhaps the best take-out from Henley’s article is the conclusion that, in the streets of Helsinki at least, “You don’t look up at people, and you don’t look down. You look level.” 

    It’s not a bad motto for every well-found society. Our individual points of view might widen to include more of the planet as well. • Liz Waters

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