Monday, 7 February 2011

Starting Somewhere

I’ve had some really interesting conversations over the last week or so, inspired, no doubt, in part by the ongoing “austerity measures” that are really starting to to be felt by the ordinary person in the street.  The conversations run along the line of “I really want to do something but I don’t know where to start”.

There’s a feeling that it’s all too much for people – they don’t know what to do and feel paralysed.  Classic shock syndrome.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers, far from it.  But, for those guys, and you know who you are, here is my personal top ten of where to start.

1. Pay attention – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it’s very difficult to know what you don’t know.  So you have to get out there and find out what’s really going on in the world.  Read the news (real news, not the slop that passes for news on much of the TV and the tabloids), read magazines, blogs and books.  Norwich library has hundreds of books on various subjects, and some great “dummy guide to” style books.  It’ll take a bit of effort, but once you learn about some of the things happening in the world – happening in your name - you will Get Angry.

2. Get Angry – research suggests that people will only make a change in their lives once they reach a certain point of anger and frustration.  That point is different for different people, but we all have it.  To actually want to do something, you’ll need to get angry. One of my favourite cartoons of last year reminded me that so much is interlinked – peak oil, climate change, economics, social justice, respect for people and planet.  So whichever subject floats your anger-boat, you’ll be in good company.  But anger can be very unfocussed, so it’s important to Arm Yourself.

3. Arm Yourself – with facts (not guns, obviously).  There are lots of people out there who will tell you that a) you’re wrong, or b) that you’re just a dreamer and it won’t make any difference.  Prove them wrong.  Learn some facts about climate change, about economics, whatever.  The more you learn, the more you’ll want to learn.  And also, make sure you learn the counter-arguments.  Learn the rhetoric of the other side of the argument; some arguments you’ll never win, but you may give the other person something to think about.  The important thing is to Get Involved in the debate.

4. Get involved – this should be an easy one in the sense that the country is buzzing with debate around the economy at the moment and the government’s various proposals of how to deal with it, from tax reform to selling off the forests, to restructuring the NHS.  People will want to know your opinion, so let them know.  Not just colleagues and friends, but also your MPs, councillors etc.  Make sure these last two know what you want from them, regardless of the party they represent.  Remember, they don’t represent a party, they represent you.  Make sure they remember that too.

5. Build Resilience – one of the challenges to getting started is feeling that you’re just one insignificant person facing a sea of indifference at best, strong resistance at worst.  But you’re not alone; look around you, there are hundreds of groups, thousands of people all wanting to make a difference; make things better for the many, not just for the few.  Transition Norwich is one such group, and there are many more, big and small.  Working with others will remind you that you’re not alone, and that together, people can work wonders.  If you don’t believe me, think of the suffragist movement, the trade union movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall; look at what’s happening in Cairo at the moment.  Think about the growth of Fairtrade or the Transition movement. Working together will build your personal resilience and inspire you. So, be inspired, and then take action.  If you’re not ready yet to jump right in, you could dip a toe in the water and Start with the Small Things.

6. Start with the Small Things – magazines and Sunday supplements are full of articles on the “ten things” that will save the planet, save the environment etc.  I’m fairly sceptical of these top tens, because they all tend to be pretty similar in subject and in scale.  Changing your lightbulbs to energy-saving ones and lagging the loft are all small things, and to my mind, lack ambition.  But hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere, and let’s start with the easy wins.  Have a look at your house and lifestyle and see what you can change. The plus side is that a lot of these Sunday supplement suggestions will also save you money, so you’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling from your bank statement as well as your conscience.  And, hopefully, as with learning to walk, once you’ve taken your first tottering steps, you’ll soon want to learn to run.

But before we embark on the big changes, it’s worth pausing to take a Look Behind the Curtain.

7. Look behind the Curtain – the world is a complex place, and what seems clear cause and effect isn’t always the case.  There are hundreds of examples, but one of my favourites is that of the Somali pirates.  Quick caveat – I’m not condoning piracy or the violence that goes with it.  Obviously…  However, there’s a view that the rise in piracy off the coast of east Africa was directly related to the overfishing and subsequent depletion of our own fish stocks.  Once we’d fished out the North Sea, then the North Atlantic, we in Europe sought new fishing grounds to keep the supermarket ice-counters full.  The industrial fleets moved into the Indian Ocean, and displaced the traditional fishing lifecycles of the people already living there.  So, skilled sailors with boats suddenly had no jobs, no income, and no way of supporting or feeding their families.  Next thing, Saga cruises are being held up by pirates. That’s a simplistic assessment of the situation, but the kind of scenario that you see when you look behind the curtain of the traditional media explanations.  There are many, many similar stories.

So if that kind of thing really hacks you off, maybe it’s time to start doing the Big Things.

8. Do the Big Things – you know the kinds of things I’m talking about – the things we discuss a lot on this blog.  Flying, shopping local, buying organic, making things, reusing things, changing your personal financial model, cutting down on consumption, challenging the economic growth model.  These are the things that can frighten people, but they’re actually the things that really mean something.  They can require personal sacrifice, or sometimes they just feel like they require personal sacrifice.  Once you make a change, you might wonder why you hadn’t done it before.

9. Live like you M
ean It – we had a laugh at work on Friday as I said I wouldn’t get a bacon bap for breakfast unless I knew where the bacon had come from.  I was kind of joking as I’d already had my breakfast, but there was a serious point too.  I do have a personal code that guides the decisions I make.  I don’t always make the right choices; other things get in the way and I have to compromise – that’s life.  But I try and I think we have to keep trying. I want to leave the world a little better than it was when I entered it; leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren that I can be proud of.  I won’t Give Up.

10. Enjoy Yourself and Don’t Give Up – my children constantly remind me that you can’t take yourself – and life –too seriously.  The challenges facing us are great, but working towards solutions can be a lot of fun – that’s one thing that Transition Norwich has taught me.  There’s a great bunch of people working towards a better, more equitable future, so join in.  Don’t give up, and have some fun on the way.


So there it is – a very personal view.  What do people think?  What have I missed?  What would be in your top ten, or even top three?  Leave a comment and let us know.

Pic from


  1. What a fantastic guide Jon. I wish all of the disillusioned out there would read this.

    Just as a side note Transition are having a session on the 20th March to decide which projects to do next and how to start addressing some of the things that 'Make us angry'. So if you want to be part of the solution then come and join in!

  2. Can I add '4.1 - Offer To Help', please? I think people often know what needs to be done but can't be bothered to make the effort. Too many people assume that 'someone else' will pick up the litter, save the planet etc etc.

    I'll stop there before I 'Get Angry' and have to go back to Number 2