Wednesday, 31 March 2010
It's also dealing with the transitions we have to make inside. From being self-obsessed with a fixed identity and biography, to being open and fluid and able to cope with change. From living circumscribed, defensive lives where we only know People Like Us (or Below or Above Us) to relating to and treating each other as equals because we're all in the same boat on the same planet in a very uncertain time.
How are we treating each other?
Reduced To Clear - The John Preston Tribute Band
“We’re not really background music,” John Preston told me last autumn on the phone. We were discussing arrangements for his band to play at Transition Norwich’s first birthday party, which I was helping to organise. I thought that meant they were very loud, which John assured me was the case. But they could tone it down and be as acoustic as possible according to the event and venue.
Both party and band went down very well on the night, and amidst all the event managing and doing a set myself with Andy, I found time for a bop to JPTB’s very danceable groove. I was aware too that some interesting lyrics were going on, occasionally catching the dark murmur of It Costs The Earth or In Village Life.
But whilst I saw at the party that the band clearly had style and presence, it was only when John sent me their CD Reduced To Clear and I sat down and listened to it that I got a feeling for what he’d meant when he said it wasn’t just background music.
The music itself has a strong seventies punk feel to it with occasional rhythm and blues and even classical elements. And you feel you’re in good hands with the musicians, whether it’s John’s deep, clear vocals (you can hear all the words) or Les Chappel’s solid, earthy drums. Carol Hunter, the band’s keyboard player, is classically trained and her plaintive, slightly offkey riffs bring a quirkiness to the tunes which match the wit of the lyrics beautifully. Listen out too for Mark Fawcett’s splendid guitar solo on Bad Mood.
The melodies are catchy but not so much so that you ignore the lyrics. I grew up in the seventies when punk was born and I have fond memories of X-Ray Specs, for example, with their clever songs about supermarkets, advertising and genetic engineering. But it’s one thing being fifteen and listening to a fifteen-year old oracle, a cipher almost, raving about consumerism and identity crisis, and quite another being forty-something and hearing it from a maturer, more experienced artist. In the times we live in now, every consumer choice we make really is costing the earth and most of us are aware of that on some level. And it’s that level that these songs speak to.
In I Believe (which is also a great dance number), there is an almost Zen-like sense to lines like “I believe in myself, though I don’t know what it is.” Here is the ego clinging to its idea of separation with this belief in itself, this ‘insubstantial self’, which can’t allow for any uncertainty, because that would “be the end of me.”
“If I can’t win the conflict then I quit!” begins I Resign. Here again the ego who will be nobody if it can’t be Caesar. And “I hope I’m really needed, and not just superseded when I go.” Who hasn’t felt like this at some point in their lives? Or even a lot?
And yet isn’t this ‘insubstantial’ ego when it’s bound up with consumerism on a mass level precisely what has put life on the planet under such great strain? These are the kinds of things that listening to Reduced To Clear provoked me into thinking about.
There is more I could say about The John Preston Tribute Band, but it’s probably best to get hold of the CD and listen (and dance) to it yourself.
Pic: Me in a spiky mood coping with change after shaving off my beard by accident
Tuesday, 30 March 2010
It’s almost a year since the Spring Tonic Walk on the Wild side when Charlotte and I led a group of fellow transitioners from the Norwich and Bungay initiatives on an introductory visit to the native plants and flowers around our neighbourhood lanes.
Spring is really late this year. At the World Beyond Oil talks on Saturday there were all sorts of end of winter coughs and sniffles in amongst the facts about peak oil and climate change.
But just in time those green guardians nettles and cleavers are making their appearance and I’ve just seen some dandelions in flower down the lane. These three great tonic and cleansing herbs are the right wild thing to clear our cold sluggish phlegmy systems after the long, cold (but hopefully not too lonely) winter. Nettle tea, nettle soup, cleavers tea, cleavers soup, nettle and cleavers tea and soup, dandelion leaves in salads, dandelion flowers in salads... however you take them they will nourish, galvanise and electrify you. And you can find these plants anywhere.
Recently I came across Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal (who live just outside Norwich). Published in 2008, it is a clear and friendly introduction to the manifold and free benefits of wild plants, and is filled with instructions for making your own home medicines. The yarrow salve you see in the picture I made from a recipe using olive oil and beeswax.
Happy Spring foraging!
Pics: Spring Oak by Karen Alexander taken on the Spring Tonic Walk April 4th 2009; Yarrow Salve and Hedgerow Medicine
Monday, 29 March 2010
I'd been reading about how to tap the tree for it last week and lo and behold! Nigel brought some he'd collected to the Greener Fram World Beyond Oil event on Saturday.
Here is David Strahan asking Nigel about the sap, which by the way tastes unexpectedly mild, like slightly sweetened water. I'd had some idea of it tasting more resinous.
During his talk on Peak Oil David passed around a couple of lumps of solid matter (oil-soaked sandstone) from an oil field, which we all sniffed gingerly out of the plastic bag. Most of us in the room admitted we'd thought of oil only in terms of the black stuff we'd seen shoot up in the air in old Texas movies like Giant and imagined it came from underground liquid reservoirs. I realised I'd been intensely involved for two years in Transition and hadn't yet been close to the raw material!
Then there was the magic figure of 30 billion. 30 billion is the number of barrels of oil the world consumes each year (between 80 and 85 million barrels per day). Strahan was telling us to remember this number of 30 billion so that when we come across reports of huge oil finds in the media e.g. here we can work out what that actually amounts to, also bearing in mind that only 30-50% of the oil discovered can actually be extracted. At present the world uses three barrels of oil for every one that's discovered.
Someone in the audience asked a really interesting question. Why, when the price of crude oil is now around 80 dollars a barrel, are the petrol prices as high as they were in July 2008 when the oil price spiked at 147 dollars a barrel? Even David was stumped for an answer to that one.
Sunday, 28 March 2010
But my heart yesterday, it has to be said, was not with graphs and stats, it was on the evening performance. Facts are good to assemble, but they are not the whole story. You need to know about peak oil and that 95% of our transport (and the global economy) is run on oil (http://www.davidstrahan.com/). You need to know what kind of pressure farmers are under to serve the supermarket system, and how some are taking the land back into their hands and working to turn things around. Like Tim Waygood and his Agrarian Renaissance http://www.peopleandfood.org/. You need to know that in small villages in East Anglia, like Cookley and Walpole, people are coming together and erecting community wind turbines (http://www.energyaction.org.uk/). And you also need to know what part you are playing in the movement towards the future we can't always see.
After what seemed like hours on the road and listening to speakers in a school hall (I was feverish all day and not feeling good) I suddenly found myself at home drinking rosehip tea in front of Tom's fire, as we met for a last Low Carbon Roadshow rehearsal with our three Taiko drummers, Chris, Sarah and Richard. I felt at home approaching the Forum with Mark and Tom, deer skull and yew staff in hand, as we converged to perform a ceremony to open The Earth Hour. As the drums' vast rhythmic beats sounded out across Norwich. Boom, boom, boom. The future is here.
"There's always one mate, and today it's you!" said the bus driver, smiling, as Mark dropped all the money on the floor. He didn't bat an eyelid at the fact we had blue-streaked faces and were carrying a gallon of birch sap from Nigel in our hands. Like I said: you don't always notice the changes. You think life is always going to go one way (usually down, beyond our control). And then out of nowhere something surprising happens. Seeds start bursting out of their coats.
Above: Chris, Sarah and Richard on drums at The Earth Hour (photo by Lesley Grahame); Broad beans from Malcolm, ready for planting out; fennel seeds from Erik
Saturday, 27 March 2010
We're travelling with Netta from Beccles, Jane from Norwich and meeting up with all the TE crew - Nigel from Woodbridge, Gemma and John from Ipswich, Glenn from Debenham. And of course all the Greener Fram inititiative. Looking forward to hearing David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Shock. I'll be reporting tomorrow on both these events.
Meanwhile here is a pic Mark took of me and a bank of glorious sweet violets on the A12. You never know what you might find on the road.
Watch this space!
For more info on FutureVisions: A World Beyond Oil http://www.transitioncircleeast.blogspot.com/
For more info on The Earth Hour http://www.transitionnorwich.co.uk/
Friday, 26 March 2010
To be resilient in community, we need to be able to rely on each other to do those moves we can’t do ourselves.
Reasons to be Resilient: Part One - PHYSICAL RESILIENCE
Eating Real Food. About half way through winter I realised resilience is cabbage. I found myself wolfing down January Kings with alacrity and eyeing up the wild bittercress in the garden. In Britain we only grow 5% of the fruit we eat: so to eat resiliently in March means a larder of stored apples, forced rhubarb, bottled fruit from last summer and eating lots of peppery, pungent leaves. It sounds bleak when you think of colourful supermarket displays, but the reality is the more you eat a Real Time, Real Place diet, the more that exotic artificial oil-dependent one drops away.
Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer sage, gives sound advice in his seminal book, The One Straw Revolution: eat according to nature and the territory in which you live. Food that needs to be struggled for to obtain is the least beneficial. Nature or the body itself is the guide you need to follow, “but this subtle guidance goes unheard by most people because of the clamour caused by desire and the discriminating mind.”
Not Turning the Heating On. Last week we went to a really good climate change drama/audience discussion called Turning the Tide and afterwards everyone was madly talking about recycling, as if bottle banks and joking about beans from Kenya were going to change the world. Listen, I said. If you want to cut carbon, you just stop flying and turn the heating off. Everyone gasped in horror.
But having spent a winter scraping ice off the inside of windows in a draughty damp cottage, if that is as bad as it gets without oil, it’s really not that bad (and boy do you appreciate the Spring!). Physically you adapt. It’s the idea of being cold that people don’t like. We forget our natural resilience: our archaic bodies that are not at home in a fossil-fuelled lifestyle at 21 degrees.
A Warrior Attitude. Another trick I learned, from travelling in South America where things rarely go your way (especially buses). People like to say be the change you would like to see, but you rarely see them in the world. The fact is change hurts and to get in line with those resilient natural eco-systems means we’ve got to change a lot, give up all those hotel-style pleasures. People jump the suffering this entails and insist that low-carbon life is fun and somehow better, but actually that doesn’t cut the biscuit when your own life downturns.
We need a warrior attitude because the earth is a demanding place: to take proper responsibility for life means we need to be strong and resourceful in a way that our society has not trained us to be. We live in our airy-fairy minds with our high-maintenance illusions. We’re all stars and gurus, masters and powerful people (it’s just that nobody has noticed) with our all important families, jobs and acquaintances. Holding on to illusions means you’re going to feed those star-struck ideas about Me and Them first and let everyone else down. Ditch the Illusions. We won’t make it unless we work together.
Thursday, 25 March 2010
Fennel I reckoned was a good place to begin. A sun-loving, golden headed plant, tall, feathery, growing in great fragrant bands down amongst the East Anglian dunes, where in high summer I go collecting its spicy seeds for curry dishes and a cooling and drying medicine tea.
Everyone’s talking seeds in Transition right now: Jane’s planting for the Allotment; Erik in "zero-sweaters" is sowing a packet a day to keep himself in vegetables all year; Mark and I are planning our Herbs-for-Resilience Toolkit. At Sustainable Bungay's core group meeting on Tuesday we discussed our Mayday Give and Grow Seedling Swap when all those resilient veg and flower seeds will have sprouted. Today I’m off to see Becky at the Greengrow co-operative in Ilketshall St Andrew, where they are turning a big arable field into a market garden and apple orchard. I’m giving her a hand with setting up some press and publicity. Put everything on a blog, I'll say . . .
And then just as I was about to do a whole seeds thing, Jon posted another blog. Churches and birches! And I had to change track, towards the invisible worlds. Luckily there’s another part that fennel plays: one that's not so well known. Giant fennel from the Mediterranean once formed the Dionysian thyrsus, the staff that spearheaded the Mysteries. A procession that led down into the seedstore of the earth where the mysterious life-in-death, death-in-life process was revealed– a celebration that was performed for thousands of years in all corners of the earth.
That’s the story that plants tell us. Life works because of the connections you can’t see with your day-time eyes, because of what happens underground.
Only artists these days go down into the dark places. Because writers, musicians, performers play with the unknown. Face the music, dance on the edge. Only if you are in play, in a state of creative chaos where limits are broken up, can any new solutions emerge. Trouble is we’re living in a world where the dominant hegemony insists Powerful People have got it down and are In Control. It's been that way since civilisation began.
Yesterday some of us artists-in-Transition went to our second rehearsal for the Low Carbon Roadshow in Tom’s garden. We're planning to do something for the Earth Hour on Saturday. When we first met at the Norwich Arts Theatre none of us knew what would happen. We found ourselves enacting the future, imagining who we might be in 100 years from now. What our messages might be for ourselves in the present. 2110 appearing in 2010.
Climate change and peak oil mean that the future is not going to be that present individualist story we live by no matter how many times the Powerful People repeat it. “We’re making it up as we go along!” as Tom said. Most people feel pressured to conform to this old narrative (or it’s the end of the world for you!), creative artists can’t help following a different drummer. They know that the future is embedded in the present, and every move we make now affects what follows in our tracks.
Somewhere in their bones they remember that ancient plant story and know that time in fact is not quite as linear as historians and politicians would like us to believe, nor is matter as concrete as some scientists tell us. That’s why creators are inventive, fluid, tricky. Appearing only when they need to. Making it up as they go along, with a few ancestral tricks up their sleeves. They are holding the door open for something else to happen.
What kind of future do we want?
Which way do we want the show to go? A tragedy that ends in fallen kings and queens, a comedy that ends in a round dance, a medicine show which restores our lost connections, or a mystery play where the plant that sustains us emerges from a fennel seed, like the sun?
On the Low-Carbon Road to the Roadshow: catching a bus for the First Rehearsal, on the train to the Second. Polytunnel at Greengrow, Open Day, April 10, 10am-3pm. Ilkeshall St Andrew.
Wednesday, 24 March 2010
It tastes great and is made from ingredients that I can actually pronounce! OK, some of them have palm products, which I'm becoming increasingly dubious about, but they have an active environmental policy around that part.
You can get it from Rainbow and Holland & Barrett in the city, and the Green Grocers out on the Earlham Road, and probably a whole load of other places too.
Tuesday, 23 March 2010
We don't have any pets at home, so in our house, feeding the slugs is the closest we get. The girls (bizarrely?) love when I take the lid off and the worms wriggle around. However, during the cold winter months, the worms and slugs bury themselves deep down in the bin and won't eat anything I give them. So the amount of rubbish we throw away grows by about a third. Now things are warming up nicely, we're back in business. I'll be digging out the compost at the bottom ready for this year's tomatoes and cucumbers, and all the peelings will go in the top to feed the next generation.
A friend of mine told me about his son-in-law who was having no luck with his composting. Being a life-long successful composter, my friend offered to take a look. There was a funny smell when he lifted the lid - turned out the son-in-law had been so horrified to see the bin "full of bugs" that he'd poured in a liberal dose of pesticide and killed everything in the bin.
My slugs, bugs and worms are great! I've also discovered that slugs make a great paper shredder for confidential post. No data thief is going to be able to get any personal information from my mail once my mini-beasts have chomped their way through it.
Now all I need are a few toads to keep any adventurous slugs from travelling from the compost bin to the veg patch at the other end of the garden.
Monday, 22 March 2010
I mentioned in my very first post just how damn draughty our house is. Well, last week we took a big step towards fixing that. We were given some lovely thick carpet by a friend of my mother-in-law and found someone willing to lay it for us (not many people will lay second-hand carpet, so it took us a while to get going).
The difference is unbelievable! Just having the hall, the stairs and the landing carpetted has made such an impact. Plus I'm now slightly less worried about the girls falling down the stairs now - daughter number two and I can both attest that it's no fun falling down wooden stairs.
But a strange thing happened after the carpet was laid. We started leaving the internal doors open. The house was noticeably warmer, but we got lazy. It took about two days for R and I to both notice that our habit of shutting every door in the house behind us to keep the heat in had stopped. Having the carpet made us complacent. Once we noticed, we took action, and we're once again shutting out the draughts from the doors as well as enjoying the carpets. Funny how the mind works though.
Then, last Tuesday, we (hopefully) plugged another hole in our footprint by lagging the loft. When we bought the house, there was some insulation but nowhere near the recommended minimum, so now we're the proud owners of the full monty right across the space. It was amazing how hot it was up there yesterday afternoon when I went up there to take this photo!
I've made a note in the diary for the day it was fitted, and I'm hoping that when I come to review my annual gas bill (and related carbon emissions), I'll see a big dip compared to this time last year.
Saturday, 20 March 2010
It seemed like it would never come. For months the land was hard and sere and all my attention seemed to be focussed on getting from place to place, from day to day. Even Malcolm shook his head about the lateness of it, when we went to collect our vegetables. "There’s just no sun," he said. "Nothing is growing." Then today we got up at sunrise and walked down the lane and realised winter had released us. Spring was finally here. The air was soft and vibrant. The earth felt near, as if every branch had come alive, buds ready to burst. We sat beneath an oak and breathed in the morning – blackbird singing high in the boughs, hazels dripping with golden catkins. Tapping of woodpeckers, mew of a buzzard above our heads.
After five months of watching the temperature gauge hover around freezing, it had suddenly risen six degrees. Six degrees makes a difference when you are living without central heating. Nine degrees means your bones stop aching, you no longer are terminally attached to your hot bottle, living in a cocoon of cardigans, kindling, soup and hot tea. You are no longer focussed inward, you are looking out towards the horizon, the room is full of unexpected light and air. Coming back from Norwich last week after a hard day’s work the sun burst through the clouds that had enclosed us in a grey helmet it seemed for weeks. The alders shone purple along the riverbanks and in the centre of each ploughed field there crouched a familiar form:
"I wonder why are there so many hares", I said to Mark.
"It’s March", he replied sanguinely.
Late Spring, cold spring. Is this climate change or just English weather?
One thing I know, we normally greet the snowdrops in Dunwich Wood at the beginning of February and this year it was the middle of March. We sat as we always do on a fallen trunk and listened to the soft inrolling sea against the cliffs and the birdsong amongst the yew trees, immersed in the quietude of white flowers.
It’s one of those moments you take in with your whole body – eyes, hands, feet, ears. The scent of rain and salt and sweet nectar, the hairiness of bark, the stillness and high vibration of the flowers. Spokesman for the wild places, Edward Abbey once wrote to all the environmentalists who had been inspired by his radical texts (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) to take action on behalf of the earth. Take time, he said, to go up in to the mountains and remind yourself why you are putting yourself on the line.
It’s good advice because with all the talking about feeding the world and energy reduction, about social change and behaviour change, all those hundreds of emails and newspaper headlines taking up your attention, you can forget why you are in Transition in the first place and what it means to be alive on the earth. In winter, summer or spring.
Sometimes I dream of a world where we can walk nobly, without shame, on this planet. It’s a future I hold in my heart, ready, like a leaf, to unfurl:
Happily with abundant plants may I walk.
Happily on a road of pollen may I walk
Being as it used to be long ago may I walk.
May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beauitful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty is it finished.
In beauty it is finished.
Words from a traditional Dine (Navajo) Chant; Snowdrops and Mark in Dunwich Wood, purple crocus outside my door
Friday, 19 March 2010
On my last day i remembered you a supposed to develop a theme over the week so looking back i think mine must be relationships and leisure time. But how do you have green sex? Well i dont really know but i thought it might get the blog some hits. although this might be a good time to mention my hand knitted condom, although still at the prototype stage, is soon to be on the market.
But seriously these frogs are on Mousehold heath along with thousands of others and a testament to the fact that spring is definitely here so you can stop feeling guilty about having the heating on during the night and just enjoy the outdoors. Have a green weekend and try not to make any babies because the pond is seriously, totally full already.
Thursday, 18 March 2010
Before I joined transition I only socialized with people from work or other artists. If I went for a walk near my house I never met anyone I knew, now it takes me half an hour to buy a loaf of bread because I meet so many people on the way.
I have set up an environmental meeting in my postcode so that like minded individuals from NR3 can meet and share ideas. This way we will start to connect with people who live nearby. I now know about ten people who live a short walk from my house who I can go to for a coffee, invite to a clothes swap, buy a handmade necklace or just pass the time of day. Although I wouldn't say that the people in my actual street are people I would normally hang out with I have still found they have added to my living a greener life. All my neighbours have readily lent me things such as cake tins, ladders etc so I haven't had to buy them. The people opposite told me today of a welder who can mend things like metal chairs and ironing boards that might usually go to land fill. I am not sure if we are ready for a street party yet but maybe by the next jubilee who knows?
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Last summer I was commissioned to make a film for a care farm that was being developed in Northern Ireland. One of the projects being made was a compost toilet. The farm now has pigs and chickens all being farmed organically and with the potential for people with health problems to benefit from being there. I know I had a great time and met some wonderful people. We all worked really hard and in the evenings we went to one of those Irish theme pubs they have over there. Sweet!
If you want to view the film in a higher resolution go to Youtube
www.youtube.com/watch?v=37svfHC6sWg or type in helenofnorwich
Tuesday, 16 March 2010
last week I was due to see my parents in Peterborough and felt too ill to drive so I went by train.
Interestingly although I did not train it for any environmental reasons I found that it had a number of advantages over driving
1. It was about the same price as the cost of petrol for the journey
2. It was about half and hour quicker
3. I was able to knit which i always find awkward when driving even with an automatic. ( this IS a joke)
By the way, a good place to buy wool in Norwich is Norfolk Yarn on Aylsham road.
Friday, 12 March 2010
In my final post I would like to take a wider view. I have recently been appointed to be a Trustee of the Transition Network and will be working with the Totnes (mainly) crowd on shaping the movement. I am extremely pleased with and grateful for this appointment.
I have become involved with Transition over the past couple of years because I see it as the most exciting movement I know that is working towards a sustainable future. The most important reason for this is that it is positive: it is about people in communities taking responsibility for their own lives and their own future.
That is very different from many other environmentally-oriented groups that put their efforts into lobbying governments or into protest. I think there is a place for that too, but the problem is that governments generally have no idea of what a sustainable future could or should be. They hold onto too many vested beliefs, particularly economic growth. I don’t think that growth in the well-being of people and planet and growth in the amount of money spent are at all the same, and very often are at odds with each other.
We in the Transition movement don’t have a fully worked out blueprint either, but we are engaged in learning the best ways of doing that, or at least the best starting points.
The Transition movement has been growing extremely rapidly, with more new towns in more countries all the time. I put that down to the appeal of Rob Hopkins (and others) vision in the Transition Handbook, which laid out a set of initial steps that people could look at and say “Yes, we can do that.” It was also the breadth of that initial vision, which went way beyond local food and energy, to include Heart and Soul and related issues.
A lot of our present activities are awareness raising events in our communities, and that is the bread and butter of Transition groups. The endpoint of the original Transition 12 steps was an Energy Descent Action Plan, which is aimed at helping their community create a vision of the future they want. All this is really valuable.
But there is an increasing emphasis on what Transitioners can do for themselves, to increase their own resilience and reduce their own carbon footprint. The two major areas for this are food and energy use. For reducing energy use, in this region, we have the Transition Circles and the Carbon Conversations. In both, groups of people get together to learn what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint. I think that being part of the group is as important as the reduced footprint, as the resilience comes out of being part of a supportive community. (See my anxious attempts to reduce my own fuel use in my Monday post.)
For food, there are so many projects: sharing vegetables from gardens and allotments, Seedy Sundays for seed sharing, community orchards and woodlands, community supported agriculture schemes, and probably most important of all, lots of shared meals.
My sense is that there is a great variation in the strength and stability of the various Transition Town groups, and even within the several parts of the larger groups, such as Norwich and Cambridge. To the extent that Transition starts to make a real difference in people’s own lives, as these energy and food projects are beginning to do, Transition will thrive and attract more people.
And where to next? I think that is to do with learning to support ourselves better organisationally. The challenge is that, on the one hand, we don’t want conventional hierarchical methods of organisation. We know that the kind of society we are trying to invent is not based upon power and coercion. On the other hand, we want efficient and effective ways of working, where people build upon each others strengths.
The starting point for this is effective communications, so that people know what others with similar interests and problems are doing. That is necessary for synergy to grow. Because of that I have been part of the Transition Network’s web project, and also have set up transitioneast.net as a regional web portal for East Anglia.
But that is only a first step. I think we need people who take responsibility for taking an overview of Transition at various levels. So we have the Core Group in Norwich, and the Transition East Regional Support Group.
We need to learn effective skills of communication and conflict resolution, using such techniques as Non-violent Communication. I hear too many stories of people falling out with each other, people who are seen as pushing their personal agendas at the expense of the group. That is a major reason for the patchiness of the success of Transition groups.
Finally, I think we need to be creating a coherent vision of the future we want for ourselves. The Energy Descent Action Plans are part of that, as are the Transition books: the Handbook, Timeline and Local Food book. My Sustainable Diss 2030 is part of that too.
I would like to see us move beyond publishing books and plans, to holding discussions and taking polls on these to make it clear where we agree and where we disagree. I would like to see summaries of these circulating around the various parts of the movement, so we begin to form an explicit shared vision, to attract more people, and to put before policymakers and businesses.
I see this combination of a clear shared vision, and making a substantial difference in people’s daily lives as the key to success for Transition in the next year or so.
Thursday, 11 March 2010
My first posts were about my personal life and how I’m working to live more sustainably. Today, I’m going to write about my current project. As part of this year’s Taste of Diss 2010 festival of local food, I am writing a booklet describing what a sustainable future might be like.
I’ve done a lot of writing in my career, and it is always both a creative joy and a struggle. Here I am trying to write something that will be appealing and readable to the average person in Diss who thinks about environmental issues.
I found this great cartoon that expresses the essence of it:
Here’s how I’ve described it in its Introduction:
This Guide is meant as a starting point for a community discussion of our future in Diss. We hope it will help you to clarify your views on those issues, and that you will find it enjoyable and also, perhaps, provocative!I’m writing the vision of the future as an interview between ‘you’ (the reader) and a set of fictional residents of Diss in 2030. I have a set of great cartoon characters, who I am using to make it lively.
It will present the good news and the bad news.
The good news is that a sustainable future doesn't have to be a disaster, a precarious life of struggle and material poverty.
On the contrary, it could actually be nicer in many ways. There are lots of people exploring new ways of living, less consumerist, but still comfortable, more community-oriented and sociable. Not so much stuff, but more fun, better emotionally and more stable socially.
The bad news is a review of how and why we are now coming up against the Earth's limits. It’s purpose is to clarify the reasons for believing that our current way of living is not sustainable, and will have to change one way or another.
Have a read and see if the vision presented is what you want to see happen. And, you get to vote on it!
On the practical side, I describe a future with all the features a Transitioner would expect, revived local economy, lots of walking and cycling, local food, etc. Where I hope I am adding something new (or at least clarifying it), is in the social structure I am describing.
I describe a future community that has become very collaborative and decentralised. There is a ‘Sustainable Supermarket’ that is a partnership between consumers and producers. There is a lot of use of new forms of online but local social networking that include trading as well as reputation to help keep the local economy working efficiently and stably.
The booklet is due for release towards the end of May. I plan for it to it be distributed widely to Transitioners as well as people in Diss. I hope you will all like it, and that it will broaden the vision we are all groping towards.
Wednesday, 10 March 2010
I’ve always loved my food, even though I’m not a gourmet and only an adequate cook. I appreciate having really good meals, especially together with friends, and I am fortunate that this happens to me quite regularly. It happens especially in Transition related events, and for me that is one of the best parts of being active in the Transition movement.
Thus it was natural for me to want a more sustainable food supply for myself and my community. So, as I have become increasingly active in my local community here in Diss, much of that activity has been related to food.
A group formed a few years ago to promote the best of local food, the Waveney Valley Food Group, so I joined the committee. It was a very energetic group, that put on an event every month for a few years. We visited a local organic farm, a strawberry farm, a vineyard where we had a tour then a meal, and we took any excuse to hold a public meal in Diss.
As an extension of that group, we set up a Diss chapter of the international Slow Food movement, and for a while, the two groups put on a range of joint events.
There was the ‘gourmet feast’ in the Angel Cafe, where 65 people squeezed into a small room behind the cafe for a fine meal and entertainment by the Lizzy Smith Band. There were Thanksgiving Feasts in the Diss Corn Hall. I arranged with good caterers for several public meetings.
We held a ‘supermarket debate’ chaired by our local MP, Richard Bacon, with several speakers, including a farmer who described his problems supplying supermarkets, and I described a possible ‘Open Food Co-op for Diss’.
Our monthly Farmers Market was quite moribund, with only a few stalls, so we set up a Farmers Market Support Group. It got a small grant with which it bought roadside signs and banners. It puts up posters and puts out a press release every month, and gives a subsidy to a busker. And we went out recruiting more stalls. The Farmers Market is much more vibrant now.
Finally, I have helped put on a few fairs and festivals. There was the Food and Crafts Fair on the Green in 2006 and the Taste of Diss Festival of Local Food in 2008, and now about to run again in June 2010.
Now the question becomes, what has all this meant for me personally? Do I now have a supply of food that I consider sustainable?
The short answer is ‘no’. Yes, I have helped put on many events that I and lots of other people have enjoyed, and most of them included some great eating. That has contributed to the raising of local consciousness about local food, sustainable food, organic food.
Our main supply of vegetables is from an organic box scheme, but that isn’t particularly local. Some of it is regional, which is about the best we seem to be able to do.
During the 2008 Taste of Diss, we found that most of the better local restaurants claimed to be using local ingredients. In practice, many were buying from a local distributor who we visited. He had once sourced locally, but now could no longer do so. There just aren’t many vegetables grown around Diss. He sends a lorry to London a few times a week. And while there is a lot of local quality meat, it is generally fed on feeds that compete with land for human use, and often include GM soya from abroad.
I’m quite envious of my Norwich friends, who claim to be able to get genuinely local food at the market, from box schemes, and who are now working on large community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes and other activities.
There is a small group in Diss that are interested in these issues. We have been looking for land for a CSA for some time, but without success.
So there is still a lot of unfinished business around here regarding food. At least I can console myself by enjoying all those shared means with my Transition friends and others.
Tuesday, 9 March 2010
When I think about ways in which I can change my life so that it is more resilient, the two most immediate changes are fuel use and food. I’ll come to food in the next post.
I wrote about my reduced use of gas for heating yesterday, and I feel quite pleased with the progress we are making there. Besides using more wood and less gas and keeping the house cooler, we’ve also been insulating it as much as we can (it is ancient and listed, so there is a limit to what we do). So far so good.
Then there is transport. That is a much more difficult one. We have a very active social life, and often go places where, if we had to use public transport as it is now, we simply wouldn’t go. We aren’t yet ready to take that step. We go dancing a lot, and almost always arrange to travel with friends so we have a full car. But we do end up going to Norwich often, and only sometimes go by train. (We live in Diss.)
About 10 years ago, we joined with a group of people who bought land in Portugal, for group holidays. It is a very beautiful area, in the Algarve, near the sea. For most of those years I was going there probably twice a year for about a week or two.
While there we lead a much simpler life, in much wilder land, with very little water and only a small solar panel for electricity. We have compost toilets and a bucket shower. We usually do a lot of physical practical work on the place, which again is quite different from the rest of my life.
We had a group project building a beautiful straw bale house. Unfortunately, it was flawed and was later torn down, but we had such fun making it.
The beaches are stunning, and we have got to know the area really well. Lots of pretty towns and cheap local restaurants.
Every time I have gone I have loved it.
What a great environmentally sound project! (Or was it?)
But of course, it is a long way away. We have almost always flown (and as last week’s blog made clear, that is an ELEPHANT!) We drove once, but it took several days each way, and is no better than flying in terms of personal fuel use. My wife came back by train once, but that was also slow, difficult and much more expensive than flying. And we have to drive to the airport and hire a car at the other end.
So, really quite reluctantly, I have decided – again on aesthetic grounds – to give it up, or at best, to go very rarely. I haven’t been there for nearly two years now.
These first two posts have been about how I have been making changes in my life to reduce my impact on the Earth in ways that actually feel like living worse. They are better aesthetically, in the sense that they are a more appropriate way of living, but I don’t really think that is what Transition is all about. It is a part of it, but really, we are trying to create better lives for ourselves and our communities.
I’ll try to move in that direction in the rest of my posts this week.
Monday, 8 March 2010
Saturday, 6 March 2010
I wanted to write a piece about my wonderful holidays and the fun we can have without flying. I wanted to concentrate on how I have it so much easier than anyone else. Never having flown, I don't have to stop flying. I don't have to give up the keys to the world. I don't have to choose to take the train instead of flying, and spend days on a journey instead of hours. When I was a child, my family took holidays in the UK, and once I started holidaying myself, I followed in their footsteps. Now I'm aware of the damage of flying, I've chosen that I won't fly on holiday.
But first I want to do my best to lay to rest a damaging cliché; one that I feel fuels the middle-class sense of entitlement to fly at will.
Travel does not broaden the mind any more than buying exercise equipment makes you fit. It is thinking that broadens the mind.
I have met any number of people who easily disprove that old chestnut. I've drunk in pubs where I could hardly hear myself think above the Hooray Henrys braying about their trips to Cuba, the Caribbean, African and Asia. They showed no evidence of having learnt anything on their travels- nor of finding themselves, or (more's the pity) losing themselves. I've listened (endlessly) to people returning from gap years; their accounts of drinking and sleeping their way around whichever continent they descended upon. They sound extraordinarily similar to other friend's descriptions of their weekends, just a bit hillier and rather longer. Maybe those people's experiences abroad will make them more rounded, more compassionate and wiser. Or maybe it is age that will do that to them, as it does to most people.
It is important to remember, when discussing travelling, that throughout history travel has been restricted to a tiny minority. It is even more important to recognise that it still is.
Only an estimated 5% of the world's people fly- which is the sole reason that aviation produces only 3.5% of global CO2 emissions. Even in Britain, flying is generally restricted to the better off, with poorer people taking very few flights. And whilst it's important not to conflate travel with flying- they're not the same thing- they do at present overlap strongly.
So, if we wax lyrical about how personally beneficial travel is, how it leads us to learn about ourselves and other cultures, how it stops us stagnating, teaches us about politics and the environment, do we risk suggesting that those things aren't experienced by those 6.3 billion people who don't fly? Of course not, that would be a terrible and ludicrous thing to suggest. But asking the question suffices to tell us that there are other ways than global travel to experience those things.
I feel very strongly (and I suspect it is because I haven't travelled) that broad mindedness, a capacity to learn and to be awed and compassionate are states of mind, not a function of travel.
Not being insular is achieved by communicating, by listening wherever you are. It's taking the opportunity, when working alongside a Polish agency worker, to learn a few words of Polish, and to listen to her experiences; it's learning traditional skills from an elderly neighbour.
Last year I spent National Dawn Chorus Day in a tent in a wood, waking in the dark, almost deafened by the sweetness of the birdsong. It was an astonishing, life-affirming moment. And I could have had exactly the same damn experience by staying at home and setting my alarm clock. It's not the travelling, it's making the effort to open your senses and experience things.
So, now I've got that off my chest, on to the wonderful future we can have without flying. I don't fly. I have amazing holidays: I relax utterly, I see beautiful things and I have the time of my life. I spend summer weekends camping by our glorious Norfolk beaches. Hours basking in the sun, swimming with seals; or hours drinking in steamy over-stuffed tents, waiting for the rain to stop so we can go to the loo. Both have their pleasures, though I admit to preferring the former.
I spent last March in a yurt in the Lake District- that really was lovely. In June, I went to the Shetland Isles. It took 26 hours by train, bus and ferry and emitted 0.26 tonnes of CO2. It was the wildest, starkest and most alien place I've ever seen.
In future years I hope to visit France, Italy and Spain. I'd love to go to Sweden, Morocco, Croatia. Wherever I go, I shall travel solely for the pure selfish joy of the experience. I won't dress it up. And my own selfish joy is not reason enough to justify the environmental or human damage done by flying. So I won't fly.
But, wherever else I go, I shall keep visiting Norfolk's beaches and loving them; and I shall keep my eyes and heart open wherever I am.
Pictures: View from the Road to the Isles train; Waxham Beach.
Friday, 5 March 2010
Not the best holiday, or the best place you’ve ever been to. The best journey?
In my time, I’ve flown all over the place. Heathrow to Bangkok on Singapore Airlines where even economy class felt like staying in a posh hotel. LA to Heathrow where a most unexpected British Airways upgrade taught me why those with the money always turn left when they enter an airplane. I’ve experienced the other side too – Nigeria Airways, Libyan Arab Airlines, the ubiquitous and universally hated Ryanair, and, quite the worst in my book, Monarch. Flying is certainly an experience. But even the best flights I’ve ever taken don’t even get a look in compared to my best journeys.
To talk about my best journey ever, you have to get much closer to the ground. And get on the train. Say you love trains and people think anoraks. And even I can’t get too excited about the 06.57 Norwich to Peterborough that I sometimes have to get for work.
But… Cairo to Luxor on the exquisitely old-fashioned overnight train. Waking up a stone’s throw from the Valley of the Kings.
The Transalpine Express that crosses New Zealand’s South Island Alps, leaving the fertile Canterbury countryside on the east, travelling up to snowy Arthur’s Pass in the mountains before descending to the wild western shores of Greymouth.
The rickety and crowded Bangkok to Petchaburi train, full to capacity with locals travelling for business or for pleasure. The frequent stops at tiny villages to take on yet more passengers, food-sellers, freight.
Even thinking about these journeys makes me excited, nostalgic. I can’t wait do to them again, maybe this time with the children. And do more. Trains across India, Helsinki to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian. Wherever there’s an epic train journey to be made, I want to be there.
However, there is a snag. Before you can take one of these trains, at the moment, you first have to take a plane. Some of the reasons are political; you’re never going to take the train through Iraq or Afghanistan at the moment. Some of the reasons are more to do with the society we’ve built around ourselves. I work full time. I get six weeks holiday a year – more than most. But spreading that over Christmas, Easter, summer, the school holidays, isn’t easy, and like most people, I’ve convinced myself that if you want to go somewhere, you need to get there as fast as possible so that you can then relax. Wind down. Chill out.
But the destination isn’t the same as the journey; in the same way that going on holiday isn’t the same as going travelling.
Travel is an essential part of the human condition – if it wasn’t, we’d still be crowded into Africa’s Rift Valley, having not moved for millions of years. Travel broadens the mind, opens your eyes to other cultures, helps you find yourself, or lose yourself, helps you to realise just what we have living in England. Without travel, we would stagnate, become insular.
So, what if we were able to change the way we’ve been taught to think over the second half of the 20th Century and into this one. Taught that the only way to “escape it all” is to fly thousands of miles to a sanitised tropical enclave where any interaction with the “picturesque” local culture is from behind the glass of the tour bus. What if we didn’t need so much to “escape it all”, and instead take all the opportunities that we could to explore it all. Take the time to travel, overland by bus and train, over sea by boat and ship, and really get under the skin of this beautiful and diverse planet that we share. Change the pace of our lives so that travel isn’t something we just squeeze into whatever time is left in our busy lives. Isn’t the bit we have to endure between leaving work and hitting the beach.
I love Norfolk, and Britain more generally too, yet even so, I don’t want my children to go no further than our beautiful shores. I want them to explore the whole world. I want that still to be an option for them when they’re old enough to do it, as it was for me.
So what do I want the future to look like? A future full of “best journeys”, where flying isn’t even part of the equation. Where we have time, and can connect to all parts of the world by train, by coach, by boat. Where we can explore all the places that we, in our previous lives, just flew over and missed out on. That would be a future worth making.
(picture courtesy of http://www.tranzscenic.co.nz/)
Thursday, 4 March 2010
Sitting in deserts in the sand,
Nothing and no-one to get in the way, no bills to pay.
I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea,
I don`t want to think about all the places I will never see,
Living is hard and flying is easy..
What will you do ?
What will we do ?
(Flying by Shannon Smy, Seize the Day)
I’m in Chapelfield Gardens dancing next to Christine at the Zero Carbon Festival, as Chris Keene’s epic journey from Wales to Copenhagen passes through Norwich. I’m at Speaker’s Corner holding a Climate Emergency banner with Mark, just after John McDonnell's speech about the third runway at Heathrow. There’s the same song playing and the same movement happening inside. It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced yet in Transition. The song is about giving up flying, about the singer not flying to see her grandmother in America, and her sister in Australia. It’s a real song. And she’s out there singing it on show to the world.
Flying is a burning Transition topic because it’s so high-carbon. In our Transition Circle meetings it was the one subject that silenced the room. Because if you’re cutting your carbon emissions by half the national average, as those of usin TN2 decided we’d do this year (and a further half next year) there is no way you can fly. In December Not Flying was discussed at length in Transition Culture with 83 comments. In January Adrienne Campbell of Transition Lewes spoke eloquently about her difficulties with other people flying in her blog, 100 monkeys. How far does our conscience about the planet take us? Does it give us the right to challenge each other? Or is something else happening we can’t see just yet?
Tully’s right, flying is not just about figures, useful though they are. It’s about ethics and relationship and the fact that when you stop flying you’re not just giving up pleasure or people you’re giving up whole continents. Whole parts of your being that flourish in the big wild places, that can expand to the further rim of deserts and oceans and climb the mountain peaks. All the ancestor places, medicine places, wisdom trees, dreamtime.
The airports are gateways and run like a litany over my tongue: La Paz, Kingstown, Santiago de Chile, Kauai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, Dehli . . . I’m like one of those shops with outlets in every destination. I could hide it. But that would be lying. I could off-set my conscience and say these flights were for work. Which they were. But the fact of the matter was I loved to fly. I was a travel writer both trade and by inclination and for ten years I lived out of a suitcase.
I took a lot of planes. I was only was in danger once (nearly crashed in El Salvador en route to Honduras). Only lost my cool once, riotously drunk and delayed in Newark one snowy New Year's eve (did the conga round the Virgin Airways jumbo with my fellow passengers - Ay! )Shortest flight? The one in the picture that took me from the Caribbean port of Cartegena into Gabriel Garcia Marquez country. Longest? 24 hours to Lima en route to Macchu Picchu and the rainforest for a fashion shoot. Lots of fashion shoots and interview work, dragging vast blue Globetrotter suitcases and typewriters (this was before internet). Difficult photographers with delicate cameras. Immigration snarling at us (won't miss those guys). Paris, Milan. New York (again). A host of American runways rising to meet me: Los Angeles, Alburqueque, Phoenix, Des Moines, Dallas, Houston . . .
I didn't get security with all my travelling, but I had a life that I wanted to live and I got to love the world the way some people love children, which is to say absolutely, knowing that you give part of your heart away when you do. I couldn’t have gone without those aeroplanes, that’s the truth of it. And so rather than sorrowing or hiding the fact, I’ll come clean and say I am thankful that I could. They were the best of times. There isn’t a day really that goes by without my thinking of those places and thanking this beloved earth for letting me experience her in all her absolute glory.
I know now that nothing will replace the feeling of Mexico, nor Arizona, nor the sound of tropical rains falling. To cope with the reality of that you have to access your heart. Only your heart can cope with that kind of loss. Because travelling takes you to places inside yourself that Western rationality and justification don’t go.
For a long time I wrestled with what I had gained from staying home in East Anglia for the last eight years (with the exception of one flight to India, one train journey to London) and I looked about me and I couldn’t see it. How was my life better? Was I now looking forward to an increasingly depressing life without any money or work or heating, or the ability to travel much beyond my own lane? Or was I missing something? And I lay awake for hours last night thinking. And then I got it. When I stopped flying around the world, I came home. Because there was nowhere else to go. I had come to the end of the line. And I realised that to live a good life, I had to love that place at the end of the line. And that was hard.
Life is hard and flying is easy. One day you wake up and realise that the future you took for granted went and disappeared, and only when there was no possibility of escape, did you face reality and begin the real work which is to see the world afresh with your heart. Right here, now.It’s a small inner revolution that will turn everything around. But so long as we can fly away from difficulty, keeping that sparkling holiday destination in our minds, we won’t land and engage in this task. We’ll keep flying off into never-never land. Our obligation as human beings to value life on earth – which all civilisations ignore - has to be fulfilled. To love youth and success in our culture is easy, to love your own reflection in the mirror, with its wrinkled face and second hand coat is hard. To stay indoors in your coccoon, surrounded by shimmering screens and soft music is easy, to speak with your neighbour and the one you live with is hard. To love the places that are Not-Home, those beautiful deserts and mountains, those Other landscapes and cultures laid out like delights in a bazaar costs us nothing. To love this polluted, crowded island with all the responsibility for Transition on our shoulders costs us everything.
But looking at the earth, and the course our Titanic culture is taking us what else can we do? Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful line that's often quoted and forms the last line of 'The Transition Timeline': another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe. In the big green places where the tropical breezes blow through the papaya trees you can feel this breath upon your whole body. In East Anglia in February, with people pressing in on all sides, it’s a struggle. But sometimes you get a little help.
Three thousand miles away in Africa the migrants are preparing for take off. By April thousands of them will be touching down in Southern Britain. They’ll be following the flight paths of their ancestors and arriving in woods and scrublands as they have for thousands of years. One night I’ll wake up and steal down the lane and as I turn the curve of the road by the barley field, I’ll hear a sound that goes out for miles across the dark land jug jug jug. And I never know whether it is this song with its two hundred variations, or the fact this small insignificant brown bird sings at midnight that grabs my imagination and my heart so. But whichever, I know somewhere inside we are like the nightingale. And insignificant though we all are in Transition, grounded and struggling, we have to know that when we make our downshifting moves, our heart-felt decisions, we are like the bird singing in the dark and that there are people who are listening out for that sound.
Because when they hear it they'll know that after a long, cold lonely winter, our Spring is truly come.
On the road in the 90s: taking the plane from Cartagena to Mompos, Colombia. Sacred fig tree. Mompos.
The trip to Mexico that changed everything. Café in Valladolid, just before visiting the ancient Mayan cenote.