Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Humans have evolved as social animals, and the benefits of cooperation have allowed us to build complex interwoven societies that rely on us working together.
Every time we’re exhorted to see ourselves wholly as individuals, antagonistic to our neighbours, communities and society, “in it” only for ourselves, we erode those very attributes that make our species so successful. Laughing at our neighbours who may not have what we have, mocking hapless contestants in reality TV shows, chasing enviously after “celebrities” and then gleefully celebrating as they crash and burn – these things make us less than we should be, as the Leverson enquiry shows. If nothing else, you can be sure that if you’re mocking someone, someone else will be mocking you for all the things you don’t have. The race to the bottom benefits no-one.
If we are going to get through the various crises facing us, whether they be economic, social, political or environmental, we need to work together. We need to start thinking of ourselves as individuals within a society, looking out for each other as well as ourselves. Until we do that, we’ll always be alone.
Monday, 28 November 2011
The best bit though was just as we were heading back to the car – the sight of hundreds and hundreds of starlings flocking to the reedbeds; wave after wave, swooping and diving like shoals of aerial fish over the flat, watercolour landscape, before disappearing into the nodding reeds. As the numbers grew, so did the noise, until you could hear the tweeting and twittering loud in the gathering dusk. It was an incredible moment.
Starlings don’t add to our GDP, they don’t contribute to “growth”, they aren’t subject to austerity measures; we can’t use them for anything. By the common, flawed, measures that society places on such things, they had no value.
But yesterday afternoon, standing in the cold, with a wriggling child sitting on my shoulders, watching the drifts of birds in the open sky, I was reminded just how important these wild places are, how important it is to save these places, the landscapes and the creatures that live in them. It’s a measure of how civilised a society is that there should be things that we don’t use, we can’t use, and should never use in any sense of the word.
Starlings enrich all of us.
Saturday, 26 November 2011
Friday, 25 November 2011
Although I missed the cake, Transition Norwich's three year birthday do was a really enjoyable evening with lots of inspiring stories about transition. The 15 minute film showing what kind of activities are going on within Transition Norwich highlighted to me the diversity of projects that transitioners instigate. It was also great to see the different 'ingredients of transition' that Rob Hopkins presented, from food projects to street parties and local money Transition Towns keep innovating new ways of building resilience and reviving local economies. Transition seems to just keep growing and diversifying.
This is probably due to an insistence, in Hopkins' words, that there is no right way to do transition and an underlying openness to the new. Although there are overarching stories about what transition is doing – like “trying to articulate what it will be like when Norwich's carbon footprint becomes like Mozambiques” – there is no formula for what transition looks like (although there obviously are ingredients). The focus is on showing what is possible when a group of people come together determined to explore what a low carbon life might mean. The transition approach is one of inclusion rather than confrontation, as it also came out in the discussion about transition and politics in the q&a after Hopkins' talk.
The positive vision underlying transition is inspiring and draws people into a space where they can begin to re-imagine the future. This is crucial for motivating and creating change. But it is also slightly at odds with the rather grim situation we are facing, including running out of oil and increasing climate change, but extending to what has been termed the sixth mass extinction or ecocide. Whatever statistic you use, it doesn't look good – we are living through a century where about three species are wiped out every hour that ticks by. This is not something that makes me feel very positive. In fact it is rather overwhelming.
A couple of years ago, I had a kind of nihilistic breakdown of sorts where most things stopped making sense against the background of the havoc we as a species are imposing on the planet (and on a smaller scale what is happening to wild places in England). It seemed that it didn't make much sense to continue talking about carbon emissions, carbon trading, low carbon transition plans and carbon rationing anymore. If my family two generations down the line will not be able to share their lives with many of the other living beings that I care for and love, what's the point? Is the only future we can imagine one where humans continue to dominate the natural environment? One where the 'solution' to climate change is devising technical solutions which will allow us to ignore our conscience and continue exploiting the seas, the mountains and the forests?
I got through my nihilism and life went on. However, it seemed clear that the 'problem' of climate change, peak oil and biodiversity loss is our way of thinking. Somewhere along the line we totally lost sight of nature, we relegated it to 'other', to 'resources' and to 'entertainment'. That's why the positive vision underpinning transition must be complemented by an honest attempt to break free of the underlying way of thinking that is the source of our control-mania, blinkers and flippant optimism. Times are tough and it looks like they are going to get tougher. It is not easy. Last night in the pub I overheard a discussion where one guy brazenly stated that he did not care about what is happening in Greece because what matters is your immediate surroundings, your closest and your everyday life. I empathise, but we've got to start caring about the wider world, even the non-human world, because in our interconnected and networked lives the everyday is inextricably linked to the rest of the globe. For better and for worse.
When I came across the Dark Mountain Project, it seemed like I had found a place where it was ok to be sad or worried about the state of the world but also where the worry was transformed into support and constructive action. Someone told me at the Dark Mountain festival in August that “sometimes one can feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, and I go away from this [festival] feeling less overwhelmed, and thinking 'no, perhaps all these ideas I have aren't so silly after all, and I should carry on pursuing them' […] There are projects which I want to start getting moving which will... coming here makes me feel more like I am going to do them.” In that way, I think we all found encouragement and strength. My festival neighbour put it thus: “For me Dark Mountain is a meeting point where… really, the main point is listening, is hearing other people. Seeing how they do things, and then how that can help me do my thing.”
When I met Dougald Hine – Dark Mountain co-founder with Paul Kingsnorth – after the festival, he explained this same sentiment in terms of what happens when we come together with our frustrations and decide to start thinking differently:
The night before the riots started [in London], I was starting work on an essay which I put to one side and will come back to. It started with the proposition 'the game is almost over'. It is time to remind ourselves that it was a game, and that we are the players rather than the pieces we've been playing with. The game, in a sense, is what we've known as capitalism. It's the way of viewing the world, and the actions that follow from that, where you tweak reality as made up of things which can be counted, measured, priced. And once you agree to that rule then certain kinds of behaviour become almost inevitable.So, let's start playing different games. Dark Mountain Norwich is underway. Come join the conversation. Jeppe Graugaard (email@example.com)
A lot of the stuff we've said about human nature is really about the nature of humans when playing that particular game. And history and anthropology have a lot of other material for us which shows that there are other constellations in which we can be human together than the ones which are normal under the rules of this particular game. And as this unravels then things are likely to be useful or not useful to the extent that they have an awareness built in that there are other games that humans are capable of playing.
You can read the interview with Dougald Hine in its full length here
Jeppe on the road; stone hill from Circles on Pattern Which Connects; discussion about eduation and the future at the Uncivilisation Festival; cover of Dark Mountain Issue Two
Thursday, 24 November 2011
Because as every writer knows words only come alive when they are read. You can't tell a story if no one is listening. You can keep notebooks and write manuscripts that gather dust under your bed but all these are a substitute for the real thing. In blogging I discovered, as thousands of other bloggers have, that you didn't need a publishing house or a newspaper to exist. As soon as you blog you become a part of a vibrant web of communication. Now alone in this birch tree on an ancient tumulus, thinking about the planet in a state of extreme shift, I find myself working alongside thousands of others in the cities, mountains and forests of the world.
So this is about the people who make that happen: my blogging colleagues. Because blogging not only liberated me from silence and solitude, it allowed me to work joyfully and productively with my fellow Transitioners, with Jon and Mark and Simeon and all the Norwich bloggers, with Mike at the Transition Newsletter and Ed at the Transition Network, all the regular writers and guest editors on the Social Reporting Project and people that I met as I set it up - from those who came to the talks on communications at the Sunrise Festival to the media team at the Transition Conference. With Adrienne Campbell (TT Lewes) of 100 Monkeys, with Shaun Chamberlin (TT Kingston) of Dark Optimism, with fellow writers at the Dark Mountain Project and the crew at the One World Column. Becoming a Transition blogger gave me licence to investigate, reflect, be creative, give back and make friends in a way I could never had imagined two years ago when Jon and I sat down before the empty screen just before the Transition Norwich First Birthday Party at Unit 5 (our first post).
Sometimes love redeems you from obscurity in a way you can never imagine, it comes out of the blue and rescues us from living a meaningless life, without relationship. It gives us all a second chance.
Scanning the news
Each morning I scan the tweetdeck for three or four retweets (for those who don't know this ace tool, it's a way of looking at four or more columns of tweet lists at a time). I look across those columns and the stories jump out. Each one of those links leads me to a blog and this now is how I see the world beyond my personal experience. This is how I know there are some bold and articulate writers and thinkers out there. Most of us writing for free and against the odds, looking at the big picture, facing reality, coming up with new moves, not losing heart. Providing coherence in a time of dissonance. As Mike Grenville described in his post on Navigating Change and Community Chaos, we are the imaginal cells of a butterfly meeting and joining up, while a rapacious caterpillar world violently resists our emergence.
We're creating a new kind of communications network that is not dominated by highly selective (and often manipulated) mainstream media, intent on fostering antagonism, 1% obeisance and consumer desire. We're writing because the world-in-Transition is created by forging new kinds of links and connections. We re-imagine this future through reading about what is happening, by tuning into the zeitgeist, by getting smart, and becoming empathic with our fellows. And most of all because we desire to wake up and live in a collective truth that has been kept from us. As Laurie Penny (Penny Red) wrote this week in the New Statesman reporting from Zuccotti Park on police brutality and citizen journalism:
Many of them are not even journalists in the traditional sense. Increasing numbers are bystanders, interested amateurs, or members of the occupations themselves, shooting footage on phones and pocket cameras, writing up eyewitness reports on Twitter and Facebook.
There's another problem for the authorities: not only do more of the journalists look like protesters, more of the protesters behave like journalists.
You can bar every reporter from the scene of a camp eviction, you can pen them way away from the action and rip off their credentials when they complain, you can arrest every single person with a press pass, and there will still be recording, publishing and broadcast technology beyond any 1990s news editor's most nicotine-addled fantasies right there in the sterile zone.
My blog of choice for this week is the Energy Bulletin which is a nexus for many finger-on-the-pulse, thought-provoking posts, particularly at this point about the Occupy movement, which has appeared in the "blogosphere", like a flash fire, igniting the indignant hearts and minds of people everywhere. Uprisings in Tahrir Square and the plazas of Madrid and Athens provoked twitterstorms and blog commentary, but the Occupy movement that began in New York has opened the floodgates of the English speaking world.
Social justice, the environment, food systems, peak oil and Transition are some of the key subjects of this fast-moving productive blog, edited on both sides of the Atlantic by Transitioners, Bart Anderson (Palo Alto) and Kristin Sponsler and Simone Osborne (Bristol). It was adopted by the Post Carbon Institute in 2009 where (where peak everything, Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow-in-Residence) and is a vital "clearinghouse for information regarding the peak in global energy supply":
We publish news, research and analysis concerning: energy production statistics, models, projections and analysis articles which provide insight into the implications of peak oil across broad areas including geopolitics, climate change, ecology, population, finance, urban design, health and a range of information to help people prepare for peak energy, such as renewable energy information, alternative financial systems. low energy agriculture, relocalization... [and] any other subjects that could lead to better understanding the implications of an energy production peak.The Energy Bulletin also publishes some of the blogs from This Low Carbon Life and the Social Reporters (Yay, many thanks!), where they enjoy a different and wider readership. Cross-posting and retweeting is part of this new butterfly effect. Check them out!
We welcome original content, and we especially invite industry insiders, independent researchers, journalists, specialists and activists to submit their insights relevant to these issues.
Up a birch tree; photo from Shaun Chamberlin's post on Economy for the Social Reporters Project; Buy Nothing Day poster from post by Lindsay Curren of Transition Voice; from TN's First Birthday poster, designed by Andy Croft, first post on This Low Carbon Life.
Wednesday, 23 November 2011
... I just happen to blog!
- What it looks like if you print out every photo uploaded to Flickr over one 24hour day.
- When the BBC’s critically acclaimed series Frozen Planet is shown in the US, it will not include the episode that focuses on climate change.
- I saw a map of all the Occupy protests the other day, and my favourite has to be the bold one-man effort of Occupy Paisley.
- Fans of visualisations, knock yourselves out with the Atlas of Economic Complexity.
Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Real-life stories is what the Social Reporting project is all about: local market gardening on a shoestring on rented land in Wales where the majority of transitioners are not Welsh (Ann Owen); Feeling the fear of getting things wrong and planting those tomatoes anyway (Rachel, Transition Cam & Dursley); Squatting and regenerating derelict land and creating a vibrant community in Transition for squatters, villagers and visitors - and facing court eviction (Joe Rake, Transition Heathrow); the challenges of getting people interested in transition ideas in a small town in Northern Ireland and forgetting to brush your hair (Marella Fyffe, Transition Omagh); writing a transition book called Local Food at the same time as providing your daughter with leukaemia with proper healthy meals every day and avoiding all hospital junk (Tamzin Pinkerton, guest editor).
Monday, 21 November 2011
Before being part of "This Low-Carbon Life", I'd been a blogger of sorts. I'd started writing my own blog because of a conversation with a friend where we'd lamented the lack of "good news" in the news, and we said that if we ever "got rich" we'd start a news channel airing just positive news. We never got rich, and we never did it. But then blogging came along, and OK, it's not TV, but it's still a channel - probably a more flexible and agile channel than TV - and it's ours. I realised that I'd been kidding myself by thinking you needed to be rich to get out there. Blogging allows us to become the media.
I wanted to become part of that revolution because of people out there in the so-called blogosphere who were writing amazing things, thought-provoking, world-changing things. But, truth be told, I don't think anyone really read my blog, and as any blogger will tell you, it is hard work. Ask any of the the bloggers who write for this blog and they'll tell you about the highs and lows, the sleepless nights wrestling with ideas, the frantic typing at dawn to get the words down before they evaporate like early morning mist. I closed my personal blog the same day we started "This Low-Carbon Life", and never looked back.
So, this week is all about celebrating the hard-working, late-night, early-morning, typing, writing, wild-haired and crazy-eyed bloggers who are passionate about changing the world, through evolution or revolution, one step or one leap at a time, and the wonderful words they send out there in the ether.
Here are two of my favourites.
http://www.monbiot.com/ is George Monbiot's richly polemical, often controversial blog, and is required reading for those wanting to open their eyes to what goes on in the world, more often than not, unreported. I get blogs mailed direct to my mailbox and I get excited whenever I see one land in the inbox. His blogposts fill me with anger and unsettle me - they often open my eyes to the inconsistencies between what we aspire to and how we live our lives in practice. My only reservation is that sometimes I get all riled up by his subject and then don't know what to do next. So, George, if you're reading "This Low Carbon Life" (!) - this is my plea - continue to unsettle me, challenge me and make me angry, but could you also help us to see what we can do next?
The blog I want to share, though, is Duncan Green's excellent "From Poverty to Power" Blog. I love this blog as it challenges my assumptions, makes me think and aims at the highest possible purpose, that of changing the lives of billions of people in poverty all around the globe. If we really want to change the world, we have to change it for everyone.
Here's part of "Why don't more NGOs work on water?" - read the rest here.
A few weeks ago, Duncan posted his reflections on Oxfam’s discussions on water. As pleased as I am about Oxfam’s interest, it begs the question, why haven’t more development NGOs dived into water already?
We can all relate to water – and any traveller can tell you about bad water and poor sanitation, and water shortages cause problems even in developed countries. Having the runs may make for a few embarrassing holiday anecdotes, but it’s no joke that diarrhoea is the biggest child killer in sub-Saharan Africa. Preventable diarrhoea associated with dirty water and poor sanitation kills more children than AIDS, malaria and TB combined.
And it’s not just kids – water is fundamentally a gender issue. Women and girls bear the biggest burden of WASH poverty – walking long distances in rural areas, queuing in line for hours in urban slums. Poor water, sanitation and hygiene undermines maternal and child health and nutrition. In education, 443 million school days are lost to water related diseases. Girls are more likely to stay in schools with separate female toilets.
These failings in human development impose a cost on the economy, through lost lives, school days, work days and burden on health systems. The UN estimates that every $1 invested in water generates $8 in wider economic benefits.
Without water we have nothing.
And that’s just water for drinking and health – water is also an economic resource – vital for food (70% of globally available freshwater is used for agriculture) – and livelihoods. It is a critical ingredient for industry – almost every manufacturing process needs water. Finally, it’s intertwined with energy – and not just through hydropower. Thermal power stations need water for cooling and for the steam needed to turn turbines.
But water can also be a destroyer – witness the floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa. The impacts of climate change will be felt through and on water – too much, too little and the wrong type (e.g. salty rather than fresh).
All of this is not to say that having safe water is the silver bullet – but countries will make increasingly limited progress on health, education and economic development without commensurate investment in water and sanitation.
So if it’s so important – why is water so often ignored? As with many things, it’s about sex and money.
First, sexiness. Shit doesn’t sell. Water and sanitation engineers are seen as techy and boring – most people have limited personal experience of them and they are undervalued in comparison to teachers or doctors. (Declaration of interest: I’m an engineer by training! Although I’d prefer to think of myself as an engineer in the classical sense – a solver of problems, but that’s for another post…)
Value. There is no money to be made in providing water – there are limited rent seeking opportunities. It’s not worth a lot of money and most people don’t pay enough for their water. Even in the UK only about a third of the population have a water meter.
But it’s also about visibility. We in the North don’t think about water in the way that millions elsewhere do. We turn the tap, it flows. We don’t even think of it as something we pay for. Our water supply is so assured that we don’t even notice, so it’s hard to get people to think of it as an issue. You don’t see people dying of thirst, instead the tragedy of WASH poverty kills invisibly, mainly through diseases like cholera, where you literally shit yourself to death.
Finally, it’s complex – water is linked to so many agendas that there’s often no focus and competition between water ’sectors’, rather than making a case as a whole.
The good news is that low cost, sustainable solutions exist, so it’s not a lack of technology – what’s missing is the recognition by politicians of the centrality of water and the capacity of governments to deliver sustainable basic services.
To tackle the first issue, we need to make water visible. Fortunately, the wind is in our favour. Water is “cool” at the moment. Business and the media have begun to pick up on water – but as an economic resource, and largely driven by attention to climate change. There is a risk that the human dimension is again forgotten here, but we have an opportunity to use the oxygen of this attention to drive home the centrality of water to human development.
Secondly, we need to work with governments to build a sustainable sector. The potential for change is huge if done right – the Liberian government, working with Liberian community representatives and through the Sanitation and Water for All partnership (SWA) have developed a credible national plan to deliver exactly this through the able leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The hope is that donors and NGOs will work to this common plan to make the most of their resources and drive a step change in eliminating WASH poverty.
What could Oxfam do? It has the opportunity to contribute to both of these goals – to raise voices about the injustice of a solvable problem that, together with poor sanitation, is the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa; and more importantly to deliver – working with a range of sector specialists, like WaterAid, to create a step change in progress.
Duncan’s reflection looks at Oxfam’s potential programming and work around water (in addition to their existing work) – but rather than ‘do WASH’, Oxfam should do what it does best – speak up for the voice of the poor in global scarcity. You’re already halfway there with the GROW campaign – food, energy and water are linked by the same dynamic, a focus on scarcity rather than solutions to secure access for the poor.
Oxfam could also work with others to drive change that takes the energy that exists around scarcity issues and uses it to drive real change for the poorest around the world. Oxfam’s breadth means they are well-placed to act as common ground and to help others cross boundaries: between professions (humanitarian/development); across sectors (water/health/education/livelihoods); within sectors (WASH/Water Resources).
And, lastly, Oxfam needs to push its advocacy weight behind the global End Water Poverty campaign and give the same priority to water as the poor do.
What all of this can do is to deliver what really matters – whole solutions that work on the ground to make people’s lives better.So what are you waiting for? C’mon in, the water’s warm…
Pic: http://datamining.typepad.com/gallery/blog-map-gallery.html - it's a view of the blogosphere - I don't pretend to understand what it's showing me, but it just goes to prove that data can be beautiful!
Saturday, 19 November 2011
So now I just have to make brownies so that I can say I was 'involved' in Occupy Norwich..
So just to explain the image. This is my flat mate Kate, who knows all about preserves, teaching me to make crab apple jelly. Mine came out rather lumpy but tasted fine. I got many of the apples from the Foodcyle evening at the Quaker meeting house but also some from behind the womens centre on Colegate (a woman came rushing out to tell me not to eat them as they were not 'real' apples) which was sweet. I also picked some sloes and put them in vodka (a present from Russia from my dad) to make sloe vodka.
Friday, 18 November 2011
When I walk I sometimes take my shopping trolley which if I have heavy things to carry. Its particularly important when going to green events as it makes you look all kind of holy in an environmental way. I nearly convinced someone I had made it but I did in fact put new wheels on which I took off a pram that I am almost certain had been abandoned.
I hope that I have influenced people into living more transitionally over the years. I know that many people have helped me along in my journey so far.
Thursday, 17 November 2011
The lovely James Frost played a song he had written for the film which I was looking forward to hearing but then got sent off with a bucket to collect money from people who had come in late and missed the chance to donate. Afterwards there were stalls representing different projects going on in transition such as the Magdalen street celebration and farm share. There was a most amazing cabbage on display which looked like an imaginary cabbage in a dream you might have.
With regard to the Occupy Norwich picture that you see there was an agreement that here was a very visible revolution going on that people could get involved in. One that was saying that we can't can't carry on in the same way as we have already.
Wednesday, 16 November 2011
GrowHeathrow is also on squatted land. Their kitchen, living space and workrooms have been converted from two ruined greenhouses, their garden from derelict and poisoned earth, and tomorrow the owners are taking the group to court to try and evict them (in spite of the fact that the local community and residents' associations support the initiative and attend many of their events).
So today I'm writing about ownership and property, alongside our Social Reporting week on Economics, and to question the violence which those who own and possess use against the people who wish only to live on the earth as real human beings together (the brutality of the US police against the Occupy protestes, for example or the UK police evicting the travellers at Dale Farm). And how, as the banking system puts a stranglehold around the resources of every country, we are being challenged to come together and defend our right to live peaceably.
And also to rethink our attitude.
Everywhere, from corporate land grabs in Africa to the IMF seizure of assets in countries such as Greece, the rights to common ownership are being eroded. Indigenous people are being evicted from their ancestral lands, small farmers from land they have cultivated for centuries. In Britain new laws around squatting are now going through Parliament just at the point that many are losing their homes. To stand up against these measures we need to overcome any fear and hostility we might hold towards the dispossessed. We need to see our heartless attitude as a result of centuries of indoctrination by the Empire, as the 1% have systematically and violently seized common lands and native territories everywhere and asserted their rights to domination.
How does this fit with Transition? Why am I writing about the activist initiative GrowHeathrow when I live in East Anglia? Because the resilience of communities everywhere in the future will be measured insofar as they can embrace a culture of shared space and fellow feeling.
As Rob Hopkins said last night, summing up his talk at Transition Norwich's Third Birthday Celebration, most of the projects within the Transition movement are based on co-operatives and community-held assets. A brief look at The Transition Companion will immediately show you a wealth of social enterprises, community gardens, farms, energy companies, bakeries, breweries. Shared knowledge, shared meals. At the heart of the movement is our radical breakout from individualism, a relinquishing of a culture that champions private and exclusive property, to embracing one that celebrates shared neighbourhoods and shared lives. Habitats made for the benefit of all beings, not just for 1% of the human population. Our challenge is to let go of our addiction to possessing things and instead hold those same things in common - tools, cars, food, land, space.
You might not want to sleep in a tent at Occupy Norwich, nor live in a converted greenhouse in Sipson, but the spirit that Occupy and GrowHeathrow embody is core to Transition initiatives everywhere. Ours not yours.
Watch this video. Be with them tomorrow.
GrowHeathrow; Poster for The Garden, a documentary about the 14-acre community farm, South Central, in Los Angeles. the largest of its kind in the United States. In 2006 the owners sent in bulldozers and razed it to the ground; well wishing photo sent to the GrowHeathrow photo campaign; OccupyBeloMonte (Dam), Brazil.
Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Protest song sung by Makana in front of world leaders at APEC summit in Hawaii (45 mins wearing Occupy with Aloha T-shirt)
Since September 17 there has been a new mood in the Western world as the OccupyWallStreet protest ignited a fire that has been roaring in the cities ever since.Tonight before hearing Rob Hopkins talk about his just-published, The Transition Companion, I'll be heading down to OccupyNorwich for their evening assembly.
Occupy is the story on everyone's lips and fingertips. It's the subject of this week's social reporting blog as Shaun Chamberlin introduces our week discussing economy and Transition as well as the key topic of many brilliant reflections within the social media. Transitioners everywhere have been taking part in the tent universities that have sprung up on the pavements around the globe, hosting talks and films and finding practical ways to contribute to this burgeoning movement.
But to really understand what thousands of people have been doing with their bodies every night, risking being brutally attacked by police, you have to experience what it is like to sleep on the cold hard ground in the middle of a city centre. That's the business of social reporters, of those who are Becoming the Media and creating a new communications infrastructure, you have to write from within the field as one of the many, rather than observing from the comfort and safety of a house or office. You have to put yourself on the line.
Just before Guy Fawkes night I went with fellow Transitioner Nick from Sustainable Bungay and stayed amongst the tents. Here's a report that was first published on the OneWorldColumn.
On a Friday night in Norwich, November 2011
Earlier in the week I took part in the general assembly at the Occupy London site at St Paul's where a sea change had just occured. The Church, having originally joined forces with the City of London Corporation to evict the protesters, decided not to go ahead. Clerics resigned from high places as the dilemma presented by the presence of 200 tents in the financial district forced the church to have a change of heart and threw light on the customary obscure power play of the Corporation.
As you weave between the tents you are first amazed by the camp's organisation- the field kitchens, information booths, rota of night watchmen, co-ordinators and working parties - and then by the intensity of the dialogues. In sharp contrast to the shoppers and office workers wrapped up in themselves on their journeys home everyone is talking and listening - a media team sitting in a circle outside the coffee shop, workshops on inner change and the NHS in the meeting tent, a soapbox exchange on industrialisation and slavery by the church railings. It feels modern and yet historic, significant in all ways. St Paul was famously a tent maker, this site was once a place for radical and popular debate known as the folk moot. It's as if all the spiritual and political contradictions about Western culture have been thrown up into the air, in these squares, on the these steps, for a radical re-examination. Not by the 1% who rule but by the 99% - the people who serve its complex machinery. Ourselves.
Philosophers, since the first Athenian city-state was created, have provided politicians with rational justification for all their red in tooth and claw deeds. Political ideas, sanctioned at universities, have justified all the empire's violent acts from the shock doctrine meted out in South America to the rationale behind the atrocities of the Khymer Rouge. In spite of the call from the "thinking classes" for a full-scale manifesto of economic demands, the Occupy movement is taking time to self-organise and find its own directives. Directives that are not just dictated by "left hemisphere" reason and force.
New kinds of street university are springing up around the world. These exist so people can get together and decide on the intellectual and ethical base behind their actions. Most of us have not met before and certainly not in these configurations. We are strangers bound together by a common cause, by our sudden realisation about the global banking system. We are used to living and thinking individualistically, within a hierarchical structure, sanctioned by the official bastions of education. Now we are coming together and learning to think and come to conclusions as a group, creating a new narrative. In common with other occupations, we use the tools of consensus decision making, skill-share, assembly and co-operative agreement.
"What we need is a maxium wage," declares one of the climate change debaters.
"What we need is a fair society," added another,
"What we need is a society," says a third and everyone laughs. A student called Sam writes everything down. All our names. All our conclusions.
It's a Friday night in Norwich. At the FoodCycle Cafe at the Friends Meeting House the long queue for the free weekly meal has now dwindled. At the Forum a Cafe Conversation on Philosophy and Depression organised by the UEA is winding up. We're just getting going. It's a debate that will go on until eleven and then continue around the camp kitchen until 1.30am.
* * * *
In 1992 a German professor from the University of East Anglia walked from Norwich down the coast of Suffolk. His meditation on life and death begins with Sir Thomas Browne and ends in the streets of London, following a train of black funeral silk woven in this city of silk-weavers. The Rings of Saturn charts the intricate wheel of history as it holds us ransom in its grip. In their seats of power, the 1% preside, like dragons with their hoards, coveting form, bringing death and ruin on the world. As I lie on the cold hard ground, next to Sam and Victor and Nick, I'm wondering what it would take to break that pattern, bring warmth and life back to the people, to get us off the wheel.
* * * *
There is the most terrific din outside as the street sweepers and dustbin collectors storm down Gentlemen's Walk. Someone is speaking loudly to an itinerant man with a flying helmet. It's six o'clock. I climb out of the sleeping quarters I've been sharing with the others curled up in sleeping bags in one of the communal tents. I greet the dawn watchman of the camp and walk out towards the loud speakers sitting under the plane trees.
One of the most challenging things about the camps is confronting the hard edge of our city culture, for this is no summer festival in a green and pleasant English field. In common with other protest camps Occupy Norwich has a no alcohol, no drugs policy, but that doesn't apply to everyone else out on a Friday night. As well as keeping yourself together physically, you have at all times be ready to converse with everyone that swings by and cope with both the positive and negative responses to the occupation - not just the ordinary shoppers and workers, but the police, the Street Pastors, the homeless, the bitter and confused and angry, the mentally challenged, curious and cynical teenagers, merry pranksters celebrating the end of another hard week.
What is striking is the camp's general friendliness and openenss towards the people who turn up. The way strangers respond to one another generously, bringing not only free food, but their knowledge and time in order to articulate the complex web we are all caught in. We are the 99% means difficulties have to be dealt with rather than pushed away or dismissed in the heartless manner of all Empires.
The itinerant man starts to reel down the steps, singing a military song in German. "People are sleeping!" I tell him, but he is oblivious. Heil Hitler! he shouts as we stand under an umbrella in the softly falling rain.
"I don't think we want any of that around here," I say and laugh, and direct him back to the street where he disappears into the day. That's when I remember it's the 5 November, why everyone has been wearing those Guy Fawkes V masks and transfering their money out of the Big Six banks. It's a quiet revolution that's taking place in the cities, that burns within the right governance of all our hearts.
If we can hold out against the repeating hostilities of history, we might just make it to a future.
Makana singing We are the Many; wish list at Finsbury Square via Flickr; Young protester at OccupyNorwich, 15 October; writing on the steps at St Paul's, OccupyLSX; ON group in discussion on those seats (blipphoto.com); the camp (South Norwich News); OccupyEarth at the (successful) Keystone Pipeline protest outside the White House.
Monday, 14 November 2011
Ten years ago I spent a winter in Wales. I had arrived back to my native land and was looking for somewhere to live. I couldn’t afford to live in my last "hometown" Oxford anymore and although I loved these mountains and everyone I met was very welcoming (much more than in most places in England), I wasn't Welsh. I had just been thrown out of America as an "alien" ("go back to your country, buy a house, get a job, be normal") and had spent years on the road as a gringo, a pom, a Brit, a rosbif and suddenly I wanted to live somewhere where it was OK to be English and most of all, myself.
I soon discovered that, even in England, being English wasn't enough. In Suffolk I wasn't native enough, I was an “incomer” and would always be an incomer (even though I had spent years of my early life here). For other incomers in my lane, I was a "renter" and was frequently asked how long I intended to stay. When I visited London (my birthplace where I had lived and worked for 35 years) I was treated by visiting workers with the scorn reserved for outsiders. When I asked a fellow Londoner why this should be she said: "Well, this is a multi-cultural city now. You don’t live here anymore".
Returning to the Mountain
Francisco Ozuna stood on the mountain as we stood in a protest circle to pray for the Dragoon Hills. The peak was about to be blasted by a German mining company to provide the European art market with marble dust. The Dragoons are sacred to the Apache and were once the stronghold for Cochise and his warrior band during the last Native American resistance against the white invaders. Francisco, brought up in Mexico, was coming back to the land his people had been hounded from a hundred and fifty years ago:
"The mountain doesn’t belong to the Apache," he said. "We belong to the mountain".
At what point do we belong to the earth and to the people? And who is it who is telling us we do or don't belong?
In 2001 when I considered my position on the planet I realised I would never belong to any "community" if I was waiting to be invited and welcomed. I would always be too posh or not posh enough, too white, too poor, and never possess the correct genealogy. I would never own a house, or get the right job or be part of a local institution – church or club or school. I would never be "normal", or desire to be. I had to make myself at home.
Because one thing I had learned travelling all those years: you can be at home and belong to the human spirit anywhere you go, so long as your heart is fired up. When a volunteer from my old workplace came up to me and asked when we would be leaving Suffolk, something rebelled inside. Something wild and indigenous:
“Right, that’s it!” I said to Mark. “I am not moving”.
And so we have stayed in our cottage, down the lane, in Reydon, in Sustainable Bungay, in Transition Norwich, in England. We're not going anywhere.
What has this to do with Transition?
Most Transitioners are incomers. At least most of the ones I have met. We desire to belong to places and communities we find ourselves in and being part of an initiative allows us to have meaning and give back to a collective without having to be in a place for generations. We have the enterprise and ease of passage afforded to those who look towards the future. We can welcome people and be welcomed in ways that break convention and social isolation. Most true natives however are heavily constrained by their collective past, by family ties, by local traditions and vendettas that go back centuries. To do something different and new puts everyone at risk of being criticised and ostracised, which as social beings, as tribes, we are conditioned to fear more than anything else.
Transition gives us an opportunity to start again and thus the world. But to avoid the sense of futility (not reaching the community) or internal group conflict, we need to recognise we’re not starting with a blank slate. No matter how good our intention, how many ingredients and tools we have up our sleeves, we come into the room with history. Not just our own personal history but that of our society, being the change in places full of ghosts and bitterness. We carry the scars of a hostile and hierarchical culture within us. If we identify with it, repeat the patterns of acting the oppressed or being the oppressor, keep shunting other people out of our elite circles, out of the initiative, out of town, we are not truly in Transition. We are in the same system that is crippling the planet.
Why the Occupy Movement has captured the world’s imagination is because we are the 99% includes everyone. We are not moving means we are occupying the space that the 1% says belongs to them. Suddenly in cites everywhere it doesn’t matter where you are from or who you are. We are all locked into the financial system and somehow we have to configure a way out of the labyrinth together.
The 1% of society want us to be in the down-there, outside place for ever and it keeps us in this position by encouraging everyone to hate each other and push each other out of the way, so that we live in a terror of not-belonging, with the wrath of a five thousand year-old alien empire on our heads. You, earthling, do not step out of line!
The fact is that by pitting themselves against the earth and against the people, the 1% are the real outsiders, even amongst themselves. Like mythical all-powerful dragons, they have no brothers and sisters, no compadres, no companions. They are alone in their lairs with their hoards of treasure. The most strategic act we can do right now is not to act like them - within ourselves, in our neighbourhoods, in our initiatives. Because the only place worth belonging to is the earth and to the human spirit.
If we can hold that fire and hold together we can all come home, wherever we live, in the cities, in the mountains, by the sea.
Photos: speaker at OccupyNorwich, Oct 15; rocks at Dragoon Hills, 1997; with Helen, Magdalen Street Celebration, Oct 1; with Nick and Margaret at the Transition Tea Tent, Greenpeace Fair, Suffolk, Sept 4; ocean at Cancun, Mexico, 1991.
Sunday, 13 November 2011
Today's Outreach slot in our Transition Themes Week is cross-posted from the Transition Network's Social Reporting Project where TN blogger, Kerry Lane, reports from her new home initiative in Glasgow. This entry was originally part of our Diversity and Social Justice Week.
When you are struggling to engage people it is tempting to just label them as selfish and apathetic (NB. Slightly sore point as no-one turned up to my screening of Just Do It tonight). But Catrina's thought provoking blog and my experiences earlier this week have reminded me of why valuing diversity and not just writing off the 'unengaged' is so key to creating a better society.
A wee look from the other direction
This week I completed my first Home Energy Audits, an integral part of one of our projects where we go to peoples homes and do both a structural and behavioural survey to try and help them save energy at home. We also lend them an OWL energy monitor so that they can visualise their energy use.
It is lovely to be able to help people out and give them advice if they don't understand how their boiler works or which energy tariff they are on. But I was left wishing that there was more that I could do for this lassie living in a Housing Association flat with her wee boy. The building was as structurally heat retentive as a sieve and the heating system was highly inefficient and very expensive. As much as we tried to give advice on behaviour change and possible DIY options, all of us knew that really unless the housing association took moral responsibility for providing more energy efficient housing for its tenants, not much could change. Of course if any changes were to be made, these would inevitably be passed on to the tenants as an increase in rent anyway.
This experience made me understand, in a way I never truly had before, why a lot of people at the university do not feel like putting lots of time and effort into environmental projects. When plain survival and protecting your family are such priorities is it any wonder that there is little energy left for making awkward lifestyle changes with no obvious personal benefits? It is not that people are not sympathetic to environmental issues or that they are essentially selfish, they honestly do not have the luxury of being able to care.
My lack of audience tonight illustrates this beautifully. I could just throw my hands in the air, despair at a world full of people who do not care and cannot be bothered and give up.
Now as it is my job giving up isn't really an option, but besides this I am choosing to take a different view. Many students actually live a fair way from the university, they have children, jobs and other commitments. They come on to campus for their lectures and then go home. They don't even like to have gaps in between lectures where they have to hang around campus. Now most students would think of this as a great opportunity to go and work in the library and IT labs, but they would rather be at home with their wee ones or ready to go straight away if they get a call from work (perfectly reasonable). All of these pressures on time mean that even though they would love to be able to do extracurricular activities, they are bottom of a very big pile of priorities.
One of the politics lecturers had come to lead a discussion after the film, so we had a chat and we are going to try and put on another showing, but this time we are going to look at all of the politics timetables and find a likely gap, at least straight after the last lecture, but ideally in between them. This way students do not have to hang around on campus for 4 hours and it will be a more integral part of their course rather than something separate. As after all it should be a very useful case study.
I have found when talking to people that they do care, they just do not have the time or energy to make an effort. So it is about trying to help them out and make it as easy for them as possible.
Shrinking the gap
On the train home I was chatting with one of my colleagues about how so many of the measures put in place to alleviate poverty by government and other institutions, just end up benefiting those who are better off. Those who have to live in inefficient rented accommodation cannot take advantage of government insulation grants, they cannot afford to choose the cheapest deals, such as paying by direct debit. Instead they end up on pre-payment meters, paying the most for their electricity of all of us. A horrendous exploitation of those with no other choice.
Those who go back to education to try and get themselves a better job do not have the luxury of being able to study properly because they have so many other responsibilities and worries to juggle at the same time.
A society that allows this to happen, that lets so many people slip through the net can never be resilient. And while people are still trapped in these situations by society they are never going to embrace the transition message because they do not have the ability or the energy to change.
Although in some ways it is fairly obvious, it is important to reiterate that unless we address social injustice as part of Transition we have little hope of being sustainable in areas where it manifests itself. For this (and other) reasons I fully support the addition of equality into the Transition Initiatives statement.
Before we can expect low income communities to embrace Transition, we first have to help them into a situation where they can. Kerry Lane