I came to South West Wales almost 20 years ago, and those 20 years have really been a story of falling in love with this place. Like many of you, I have lived my life’s journey in this place. I’ve had my heart broken in this town, and I’ve had the highest points of joy in my life here. I’ve had my babies here, I’ve pushed buggies along these streets, I’ve watched my kids run wild on the hills and pick shells on the beaches. I’ve grown my business here, I’ve driven to meetings, faced defeat and victory, built relationships, discovered places, grown up through my twenties and thirties, day in day out. And in that time, I’ve come to love this place and belong to it, and every day I try to remember to appreciate how blessed I am, how lucky we all are, to belong to this place – in peacetime, with freedom, with food on the table and people we love: South West Wales is a wonderful place to call home. And it’s our place.
The way I think about places is that they become overlaid, over time, with the tapestry of our lives. Our physical lives – the routes we’ve walked to school or work, the buildings we’ve been inside, the roads we’ve driven. And our emotional lives – the feelings that we’ve had at particular moments in time, the high points of joy and the low points of despair. All these threads and knots of our lives lived in a place, weave a tapestry that settles over the land we inhabit, like a blanket, growing thicker and richer with every passing year. That is my experience of belonging. We belong to the places that are overlaid with the threads of our life, the memories and experiences, the feelings, the daily existence.
Now, there’s a theory of global economics that says, place is not important. I spoke to an American friend about some of the economic struggles of this place, and he said, people should move, if there are no jobs where they live, They should move, go where the business is, go where the money and opportunities are. And of course that’s what generations of young people have been doing from across this region since the old industries began to decline. Leaving South West Wales to go and work in London, in England, in the rest of the world, going where the jobs and money and opportunities are.
That is globalisation, economic migration, and it’s been happening all over the world. People have moved away from their own places, and towards ever growing cities – so that now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 that figure is expected to grow to two thirds of all people, living in megacities.
But this theory of economics is a broken system. It is unsustainable in every way. It has led to ever worsening inequality, and massive environmental destruction. Because for every booming economy and burgeoning city, there are all the places left behind. All the Left Behind Places. And of course, not just the places, but the People, left behind.
What happens to a place when all those who can, leave?
It doesn’t just happen to our most ambitious and pioneering people. It also happen to our most successful companies. Businesses grow to a certain size in the region, and then they either stop growing, or they leave – the retiring founders sell up to bigger national firms, good ideas get bought up and taken away, large industries get offered a better tax incentive or lower wages somewhere else in the world, and the means of wealth creation – people and businesses – leave the region and go off to make someone else, somewhere else, rich.
That’s the reality of global capitalism, and the clue to the problem is in the name – it’s global, it’s disconnected from Place, as if Place wasn’t important.
But if you live in one of the Left Behind Places, and South West Wales is just one of those places, there are thousands of regions that have been left behind by the global economic machine, all over the world. If you live in one of the left behind places, you should know of course that Place is Everything. We live in a global culture that has tried to disconnect us from our sense of Belonging to a Place, but every day we wake up in our own beds in our own homes; every time we walk down our own streets, sit on our favourite sandy beach or look out of a window at the view, we Know it’s a lie. Belonging to a place, weaving that place in and out with your memories and experiences, being surrounded by your own people, feeling rooted and safe – these things are fundamental to our well-being as humans
I guess my neoliberal American friend, who thinks everyone in South West Wales should just jump in their cars and move to Texas, might say, if your economy is broken, just move, you’re not a tree. But that’s just it, You Are A Tree. You are a tree, rooted in a place, and your roots hold the soil of that place together. Keep uprooting the trees, and the soil falls apart.