Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Keep Making Sense - How Transition Changed My Life #2

Yesterday afternoon, I interviewed fellow-in-transition Nick Watts for today's installment of How Transition Changed My Life. Nick has been active in Sustainable Bungay since 2008. He co-ordinated the Library Community Garden project, is one of the key organisers of Happy Monday's monthly Community Cafe and is secretary of the initiative. He also grows-his-own vegetables at home and on two allotments.

Nick had come over with his chainsaw to cut logs from the dead elm I've been felling recently, so our interview was informal. We sat by the woodburner with a cup of tea and I said, "So Nick, how has transition changed your life...?"

Nick
: In October 2008, I applied to do a Phd at UEA in Norwich, involving action research on how effective the Transition movement was on bringing about change in response to Peak Oil. At that time I knew nothing about Peak Oil.

MW: So that's when you first became aware of it?

Nick: Yes, and it affected me deeply. It was totally life-changing. I thought, 'This is it. I want to spend my my life doing something about this.' I realised our whole society rested on very shaky foundations. I'd been worried for some time about climate change and that there was a real social problem with addressing it. But when I put Peak Oil and Climate Change together it crystallised my thinking. I felt the solutions to these problems went hand in hand. On a personal level it also unleashed a huge surge of creativity - one of the first things I did as a response was make a Peak Oil collage...

MW: Oh, I remember that Nick, have you still got it?

Nick: Yes, I'll send you a picture of it.

MW: So what was your next step?

Nick: Well, I didn't get on the course. But I was totally fired up. I started reading the Energy Bulletin, John Michael Greer's Archdruid Report, James Howard Kunstler's work, got into the 'doomer porn' thing a bit (laughs)...

And then I went to a Transition Norwich Economics and Livelihoods meeting. Again, I didn't really know anything about economics at the time, but my own booksearch business had dwindled after more than a decade of earning a decent living with it, so I was at a bit of a watershed in my own life...

MW: And all this was happening at the same time as the economic crash? Around October 2008?

Nick: That's right. So I went to this meeting and met Tully Wakeman. He said, 'Did you know there's a Transition Group in Bungay?' I had no idea. He told me to get in touch with Josiah...

MW: And the rest is history...

Nick (laughs): Josiah told me later that Tully had warned him, 'I have to tell you Josiah, he's VERY keen.'

So I came to that Xmas party where the only person I knew was Margaret, so I talked to her most of the evening in the living room with a couple of other people. And I kept hearing bits of the conversation everyone was having in the kitchen... about Marx! I couldn't believe I was in Bungay!

MW: Yeah, it's a shame you missed that, it was really interesting... And you know Rob is a Marxist scholar. I'd also just been reading 'Capital' for the first time, an old version I got from the library. Transition gets you like that, especially at the beginning. You want to find out about all sorts of subjects you've never paid any attention to before. And talk about it with others.

Nick: Yes. You get a head of steam up and it takes over your life.

MW: Once you've had that end-of-suburbia moment, you get kind of hooked...

Nick: It's like a transition epiphany!

MW: So once you got involved, how did it affect your life then?

Nick: Well, practically speaking I started to co-ordinate the Library Garden project in 2009, which really got going after the Permaculture weekend in Jan 2010.

MW: What about transition's impact on your social life?

Nick: It's widened my social circle. And it's really good that you become friends with people you're working with on a common understanding, for a common good. You get involved with Transition and it casts a different light on everything you do. You're thinking bigger in a way about the systems that underpin our lives, but acting from where you are.

At the beginning I did want to tell everyone about it. It was a bit like a quasi-religious experience. I couldn't believe that people didn't want to know about how our economic system was so fragile, for example, or how dependent we are on our access to fossil fuels to live the way we do... Sometimes I felt a certain distance from old friends because of this.

I've been headed in the direction of voluntary simplicity for some time and now it seems more relevant than ever. Simplifying your life to where you're less dependent on a high income or high energy use. It makes you more resilient, less dependent on supermarkets and the industrial food system for what you eat. Peak Oil presents the very real possibility of these fossil-fuel energy-intensive ways of life being taken away. I see it as a responsibility, especially if you have children, to take it seriously.

MW: So three years on Nick, what's your approach to bringing awareness of the Transition approach to others?

Nick: I still tell people about it, perhaps not so zealously though. It's difficult to engage with people in a community where there's a reluctance to new ideas. So you get on with it yourself and with those you can work with. You build it up like that. Do things people can see and join in with. I think Sustainable Bungay's doing pretty well.

MW: Yes, me too. That's great, Nick and thanks for agreeing to the interview. Is there anything you'd like to finish on?

Nick: Perhaps this quote from Vaclav Havel:
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.
Pics: Nick in Bungay Library for Turning the Tide climate change play, April 2010; Peak Oil collage by Nick Watts; Nick shows me how to chainsaw logs, January 2012

Monday, 30 January 2012

Breaking Isolation - How Transition Changed My Life #1

Each day this week we'll be hearing from a different crew member on the TN blog about How Transition Changed My Life.

So to introduce the week I've been looking back at some of the posts I've written on This Low Carbon Life over the past two and a half years and seeing how they chronicle the changes in my own life through my engagement with Transition Norwich, Sustainable Bungay, and the Social Reporting project on the wider Transition network.

Choosing a random selection of six posts what strikes me most is how they all relate to breaking isolation, joining in and working with other people. Bringing myself out of the cupboard, getting involved, sharing the skills and resources I have - and letting others share theirs with me.

From introducing fellow Norwich and Bungay transitioners to wild medicinal and edible plants on a Spring Tonic walk in April 2009, to learning the basics of permaculture (and paying attention to where we are) with Sustainable Bungay on a weekend with Graham Burnett in January 2010 (was that really two years ago?), to exploring all aspects of our food systems as part of The Low Carbon Cookbook team in Norwich, throwing myself wholeheartedly into transition has transformed my experience from that of feeling like a loner on the outside to an increased sense of being part of it all.

I've also come to know a wider circle of people, all of us attempting to come to grips with what is, face the difficulties and work on solutions. And I've learned to chop my own firewood!

At the Sustainable Bungay core group meeting last Tuesday, Josiah spoke about how the original motivating factors for the group coming together - a response to climatic change, diminishing fossil fuels and latterly severe economic constraints – were more relevant than ever as we enter the coming year.

And that all those community events we have organised, websites we have constructed, community meals we’ve shared, projects we have pulled off and conversations we have had together since 2007 have given us invaluable experience in terms of facing and responding to adversity.

And the changes keep coming. Last Tuesday at Sustainable Bungay's AGM, to my utter astonishment, I was voted in as Chairman for the coming year. I thought Josiah was joking when he said he felt someone else ought to take the role he has done so brilliantly up to now. We all did. Then he said it again. He was serious. So Margaret thanked him and we all looked around at each other. I even said let's all be co-chairmen and do it a bit differently. This was not taken up.

"Will you do it, Mark?" said Margaret.
I laughed. I'd never even considered it.
"Go on," said Richard.
"Well, I'm not..."

Then there was a vote and suddenly I'd apparently accepted and was chairing the rest of the meeting looking over at the agenda Josiah had organised. I actually felt slightly dazed for the next fifteen minutes.

"I might need a bit of a hand at first," I said to him. "Okay, I'll help you out if you need it," he said.

And that's one of the best things about Transition and how it changes your life. You get to do things as part of the community you would never have thought of. Call it re-skilling, being flexible, saying yes to opportunities, rising to the challenge, now's the time to resist the desire to remain in that not-so-splendid isolation.

To join up with our fellows to make good our fractured world, make the shift "from empire to earth community".

Later postscript: I've just read Ann Owen's (Transition Bro Ddyfi) excellent skillshare post on the Social Reporters project today (how to make a bender). It really relates to this piece so here's the link.

And keep an eye out for tomorrow's post where I interview fellow transitioner Nick Watts on How Transition Changed his Life!

Pics: Transition Is Also...; omg I thought it was just me; Gemma, Me, Josiah at Introduction to Permaculture Course 2010 (MW)

Saturday, 28 January 2012

connecting with our roots - a plants for life talk

"Are you sitting comfortably?" I asked the circle of people who had gathered in the warmth of Bungay Library on a Sunday afternoon. "Good then I'll begin. . . right we're going to get up and go out into the garden and look at plants!"

Everyone laughed and went outside into the courtyard garden that in spite of the winter still had 12 vibrant medicine herbs amongst the fruit trees and bushes and ghosts of flowers past: sage, thyme, marigold, parsley, fennel . . .

Writing now it's hard to recall exactly what I said in the 40 minutes that followed, because as you go about Standing Up to Speak you realise that set and setting are everything, the people in front of you are everything, and the words come tumbling out in a completely different order than you expect.

I imagine I am going to give a neatly ordered talk, but plants and speaking are spontaneous right-hemisphere things. You write ideas and concepts in left-hemisphere lines in your blue notebook, and then you look at the audience and those words start inventing loops and connections you hadn't thought of. You find yourself swinging far and wide from those linear concepts, running with a topic in directions you had no idea were there. You find yourself getting up and dancing and making people laugh. And you have to go with that. Because it's not just you speaking and this is the initiating talk in the Plants for Life series Mark has organised for 2012.

So in this post I am giving just a part of what I remember and letting it go where it wants to go. I wanted to start with a flower that was appearing in January and on our way to the Library we found a butterburr on the road to Brampton - a composite flower, known as winter heliotrope to gardeners, related to the native larger butterburr (known as petasites to herbalists). So that was the defining plant, a member of the sunflower family, frequently used as a natural pain killer and anti-allergen. I passed it around so everyone could smell its heavenly vanilla scent.

How do you approach a flower? I asked the circle. Colour, scent, shape, touch, taste we all agreed. With our memory and imagination, poetry and song. How do you approach your day? Ah, that's harder. We think about our day. We drive down the country road and we don't see the flower standing there on a cold January day, clocking the pathway of the sun. We are on the one-way fast track, staring dead-ahead. When you stop you realise you have to slow down and look all around. Notice this earth we are on for such a short while, what time we are in.

Right now we are in root time, coming up to emergence next month with the snowdrops and aconites. We're still in winter, on the edge of hibernation, underneath the soil, in the dark, storing up our energies for the bursting out of spring.

What are the root dishes on our table?
Swede, parsnip, carrot, turnip, beetroot, potato, Jerusalem artichoke. What are the root tincture and teas on our medicine shelves? Angelica, burdock, elecampane, horseradish, liquorice. All herbs for resilience, the sweet, the bitter and the pungent. I held up a stringy root many people recognise (nettle), and a root most people don't.

Here we are I said, in root time in sugar beet country. In January the trucks of East Anglia thunder towards the sugar refineries of Cantley and Bury, ferrying these wurzels torn up from the muddy fields. They stand waiting in vast piles by the road. We don't notice them as we speed by. We are barely aware the sugar that goes into our tea and marmalade comes from these pale giants, or anything about the industry that turns these roots into the white stuff that artificially sweetens our indoor lives.

But to connect with the plants is to connect with the rhythm of the year, to locate yourself in time and space. It is to connect with the neighbourhood you find yourself in and discover, that even though your world has apparently shrunk because of economics and peak oil, it has in fact grown hugely. It has by your attention to detail, brought memory, fragrance, belonging back into your life, as you notice the limes in the churchyard, the sage in the library garden, the butterburr along the highway. Each plant a small universe with its own story to tell, its own medicine to bequeath.

You can't make these connections with your straight mind, you have to do it with your wiggly mind that runs along the lines of the rivers and clouds, along the shapes of shorelines and roots and branches. You have to use your imagination to see the invisible underground systems of plants and the connections all the mycorrhizal fungi make. Right now, in root time, you have to go into the depths of yourself and connect with the plans and maps and dreams for the future you hold in store, that will one day burst through into the light of day, come what may.

Once you are rooted in time and space, in synch with the living systems, you can look at the bigger picture, you can be aware of your every encounter with all its ramifications. Where you don't want to be in a time of unravelling is whirling about in your mind only thinking in straight lines, listening to the radio in the car, in air-conditioned 24/7 time. You need to make different connections. Approach the world with all your senses. Stop and look around. Get up out of your comfortable chair on a cold day. See things for yourself.

It's a wiggly world out there with its own beautiful sun-based logic. In this earth-bound time and space the terror that prevents us from seeing what is happening to the planet and ourselves can be evaluated and acted on. You have to use your heart to see like this and not hold on to a fixed world view, you have to get up and shimmy and let those stiff thoughts and habits break up and decrystallise, so you can think and feel about life in a different way, come up with new twists and solutions.

There is one root we have in England that gleefully occupies every space and can give us all a hand in this endeavour: it was the main plant of the talk and is a peerless medicine for this crossover moment, from root time to emergence. Another member of the sunflower family, the Dandelion. This resilient "weed", loved by bees, hated by gardeners, contains in its roots, leaves and flowers all the bitter qualities of heart medicine. It gives us minerals for our bones and helps break up the stiffness we inherit from living in a rigid and heartless society, striking the strange attitudes of snooty politicians and fashion models. Detoxes our system, cools our inflamed and creaky joints. We ended the afternoon with dandelion and burdock tea. Two of the most powerful and most common medicine roots in the realm. Free for the taking.

This post can't do the things that speaking can. Because it misses a vital ingredient. No matter how smart and entertaining the words, how lovely the images, the warmth and vibrancy of people and the physical world are what really matter. Without them we go nowhere. Without these meetings there is no material, no context for anything we write.

We are, like the roadside flower, here for a short time. We have to value our human form, this wiggly mind, that allows us to comprehend this earth and know it for the extraordinary experience it is. We have to know what part we are destined to play in the future as a people. The plants have been with us all our lives, they have been here from the beginning of time when the earth grew her first spring-green coat. They are our link to her and to all our ancestors. We need, right now, to connect with them, because only with strong roots in this earth, can we hold fast in the winds of change that lie before us. This emergence we call Transition.

Photos by Mark Watson and Elinor McDowall: poster for Mark's Plants for Life talks, walks and workshops, 2012; CDC standing up to speak; tools of the trade; anyone know this root? (sugar beet); dandelion clocks in real time; Gemma and Kate checking out resilient herbs; Nick, organizer of the Bungay Library Community Garden.

Friday, 27 January 2012

the terror of the situation

There's a scene that I remember from The Heart of Darkness. It comes back to me sometimes in Transition meetings. The hero returns from Africa and tries to tell Kurtz's fiancee about the iniquities of Empire. But she is not listening. He can't bear to tell her the truth of what he has witnessed. The Congo is far away from the polite drawing room in which they now sit and the illusion that everything is nice and safe is too strong for him to bring the cruel realities of the forests and its people to light.

You might be forgiven for thinking that all the bad things that are happening "out there" to our fellow human beings and to the earth, are due to politicians and bankers and the military-industrial complex. And this is true they are. But they are also happening because we shut our ears in our modern version of Joseph Conrad's drawing room, believing that everything is OK really. And I often wonder how in Transition we can bring those kind of shocking, end of suburbia moments to bear, so that we can realise that the times are really not OK, and actually have never been OK and take steps to shake ourselves and everyone else awake?

This week at Sustainable Bungay's AGM something outrageous got into me. We were upstairs in the Library and Sylvia, who is on the pilot for the new version Bungay Community Library, was giving us the low-down on the county council's shifting of funds and personnel in respect to the cuts. Everyone was listening intently.

"What a bunch of crooks!" I exclaimed, breaking the uncharacteristic formal atmosphere, created by the appointment of our new chair (Mark) and confirming our treasurer, secretary etc.

"Sounds like Stalinist Russia!" roared Rob from St. James Village Orchard. We all laughed and Sylvia told us that it might look like everything we had done together was in vain, but it wasn't.

"If none of us had acted, they would have taken everything," I said.

Then a local charity, the World Land Trust came up in passing. "Oh, that dreadful organisation!" I burst out, because I had just read a blog about some of their activities. And when someone added that David Attenborough was the president, added "He is the worst."

People were shocked. I had broken a taboo. These things are complex, we said to one another afterwards, but we need to know all the facts, not just the ones we like. We need to question everything, and our belief-systems about "population" most of all. Just because a person or an organisation appears to be acting in favour of the planet, doesn't mean there are no consequences to their actions or they that they do not support an unpalatable agenda. We can't take everything as read.

The fact is we do take everything as read. Because we would rather believe that someone we have seen all our lives being kind to animals on television is a good person. We would rather believe that the party we vote for acts in our own interests, that our parents love us, that the energy we use is limitless and that at some point the cavalry will come round the corner. We would rather believe Sustainable Bungay - and indeed all of Transition - was just about friendly community events, but the reality is it is set within a frame of massive degradation of the earth, the power-play of corporations and the global banking system, resource wars and media manipulation and although, as yesterday's post explored, we have to have a positive vision to work towards, we can't do that unless we allow those realities to frame everything we do.

And this isn't just an individual decision this is a social decision. Because a conversation between people who know the facts and one where people are upholding the illusions of the status quo, is a different conversation. You discuss the same things and design the same events, but they contain the ability to change the way everyone sees and thinks about the world, in the same way the Occupy movement has changed the conversation about our financial system.

It will be an Abundance project, where we are really finding out what it means to live on local apples through the winter, a skills, knowledge and resources directory where we are really learning to share everything we have. It will be events like tonight's showing of The History of Oil at Tom Abbott's barn in the Saints, because though we like to be entertained like everyone else, we have a serious reason to meet up. Because the real struggle we face as Transitioners is not so much to design and implement a localised infrastructure, but to change the fixed perceptions about our civilisation. To shift out of a complacent narrow world-view we have been taught to uphold, to one in which the consequences of our collective history can be clearly seen.

What has this got to do with this photograph of an emerging Monkshood shoot? Well this is one of the 52 Flowers That Shook My World. The shoot is emerging after a long winter as a seed, kept in the dark, and this image (by the German architectural design lecturer, Karl Blossfeldt) shows the kind of energy and determination that emergence takes. Monkshood possesses one of the most poisonous roots in the world, but its poison has the power to cure many maladies and was one of the two founding plants of the homeopathic system, a system that recognises a small inperceptable action can change the health and destiny of an entire organism.

In the book I stand beside the 1648 border of the Oxford Botanical Gardens and contemplate the turning point of the English Revolution. In 2012 in the Bungay Library I take part in Mark's Plant for Life series, with a talk called Connecting With Our Roots.

In tomorrow's post I will explore those radical "disruptive" energies in the light of this talk, what they have to do with our own roots, what they have to do with Transition.

Monkshood shoot by Karl Blossfeldt; Bungay Library Read-In, February 2011; poster for the History of Oil by Robert Newman

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Mapping the Future

Today's post is from the Transition Network's Social Reporters project where we are immersed in our Looking Back (at our 2011 pilot), Looking Forward month . During this second half the Social Reporters have been looking at the year ahead and outlining their plans and visions for themselves as Transitioners, their initiatives, their neighbourhoods and the world. Here is mine:

Visioning is one of the Tools and Ingredients in The Transition Companion. It states that not being able to imagine a low-carbon world is a huge impediment to designing and realising it.
Transition suggests we start by creating a positive vision of a future. It asks:
If you woke up in, say, 2030, and the transition had been successfully managed, what would it look, feel, smell and sound like? What would you have for breakfast? What would you see when walking down the street?
If you woke up in 2012 what would you see?


OK. I'm kidding. But visioning for a future we want, or don't want, is not the same as visioning for a future that might actually happen.

Transitioner. In spite of having an active imagination I am not great at looking ahead. I am more of a dreamer at heart, which means I see things within the complexity of the present moment, rather than in linear time. When Transition Norwich launched their Transition 2.0 personal carbon reduction initiative, in response to the imminence of climate change, fifty of us engaged in a long group visioning process. Afterwards everyone began talking animatedly about community and food projects, about getting in touch with neighbours, sharing stuff. I closed my eyes and I saw myself in the garden and everything appeared the same as it is now. It was perhaps quieter, as if the world beyond the garden had stopped running around chasing its own tail.

The ingredient advises us to imagine a future in the context of a world
that has responded to climate change, has far less net energy than today, has moved beyond economic growth, and has adapted creatively and purposefully.

Listening to everyone speak, I realised I was already living in that future. I no longer had the means to fly around the world and had already rooted myself in the neighbourhood. Most of this had happened by circumstance, rather than design. At the time I felt like a ninny but now, thanks to the Transition Circles that emerged from this meeting and the two projects that came out of them, I have forged some valuable tools for downshifting and am now able to articulate and share these with others as a Transition communicator. The individual moves you need to make with those key drivers - home energy, transport, waste, water, food.

Step one: walk your low-carbon talk

Projects The two projects that came of our Transition Circles were the Low Carbon Cookbook and This Low Carbon Life, a community blog that has been running daily for over two years, and provided the structure for the Social Reporters project. This year, after tracking the growing and harvesting cycles in our gardens and kitchens in 2011, the Cookbook will start taking its written form and the blogs will continue to reporting and reflecting on that future way of being on earth.
One of the blogs' greatest strengths is showing what a low-carbon culture looks and feels like, showing all its relationships with people and with the planet in a vibrant, intelligent and colourful way. This gives heart and strength and meaning to all ventures within the initiative. We inherit a world that is all creation and destruction, in which our presence is arbitrary. Two vital components that make these projects work come between these two states: 1) maintenance and stability and 2) valuing everyone who takes part.

Step 2: commit to projects and people come what may

Initiative In 2010 a group of Transitioners met in the Norwich Arts Centre and engaged in a day of creative visioning. We were improvising on the theme of Future Beings, preparing for a performance that would happen on Earth Hour outside the Forum on the Spring Equinox. We chose cards that imagined different scenarios and then spoke to each other as if we came from those futures: steady state, techno-fix, paradigm shift, Mad Max . . . During our performance we would speak with the audience as those future beings and they could ask us questions.

I spoke from an unexpected future. It was marked, like my vision, by its remarkable stillness. One day I said, everyone just stopped what they were doing up to then, and began something completely different. The change was absolute and sudden.

One thing I have learned about creativity in Transition: when you provide the space and the opportunity extraordinary things can emerge from people. Everyone that day was an actor, a performer, a speaker, a creator. When you experience those untapped capacities, you can then seize the day and appear in your true colours. You are in this venture, not on your own. You are acting in an ensemble company, backed by all the ancestors and future beings who are yet to come to this earth. When you step out you realise the audience is with you every step of the way.

Step Three: be bold, be on show

World What does it mean to be a dreamer? It means you hold within yourself a vision for the whole earth, not just how your community can feed and clothe itself, but how we need to be as a collective, aligned with the living systems. It means seeing in big time, considering all peoples, all creatures, all lands. You don't do this in linear time, mapping things step by step, but in a present moment in which the past and the future are contained. Where everything that is going down in the room, the neighbourhood, is going down in the world, what some call hologrammic perception.

It means when we meet we are all meeting as a council of all beings deciding on how the future will go. It's an attitude, a frame that brings depth and intregrity and a sense of play into everything we do.

Step Four: live every encounter as if it really matters

This is a small map, drawn up without any previous planning. As I put my attention on each section the material presented itself. All I had to do write everything down. As I sketched its contours, I realised that most of its elements, explored in previous years, were now coming into play. Even though at the time they didn't seem to "go" anywhere, now they were making sense. That is the value of visioning. You plot the map and one day you find yourself in the territory, and because you have drawn the map you know what to do.

Last week five of us met up at Jo Homan's Edible Landscapes nursery garden in London, and then decided on our future weekly topics for 2012 (read all about it here). We're starting in February with a full-on month of skill-share, energy, ingredients and tools, the international Transition 2.0 film and national REconomy project. Meanwhile my fellow reporters have been outlining what will be happening in 2012 elsewhere in the UK . . do check us out!

Photos: still from 2012, the movie; visioning for Transition Norwich 2.0; taiko drummers announcing Earth Hour, 2010; visioning the future, Catton Grove Primary School (with Transition Cambridge); It takes a Billion, Billion Years to Burn Out the Energy I Have in Me by Mark Watson; five meet up in Finsbury Park

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Changing the social logic through design

In Prosperity Without Growth, the seminal book by Tim Jackson, he concludes that our social logic must change:
The social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, but detrimental ecologically and psychologically. An essential pre-requisite for a lasting prosperity is to free people from this damaging dynamic and provide opportunities for sustainable and fulfilling lives.
He goes on to give some recommendations that focus on this task, which I will describe here, and then use patterns from A Pattern Language (which I blogged about in Monday's post) to describe ways in which those can be "designed out" of our built environment.

Working Time Policy

This is not the first time I have talked about a shorter working week on this blog. In that article, I highlight the benefits that would come about due to reduced stress levels and more time to care for ourselves and family, but there's another benefit that is more economic in nature, to quote Tim Jackson again:
In an economy in which labour productivity still increases but output is capped (for instance for ecological reasons), the only way to maintain macro-economic stability and protect people's livelihoods is by sharing out the available work.
Although I believe that such policy will never really work until we have an economic system that does not rely on continual economic growth, there are a few patterns that will help:
  • Work Community (pattern 41) - "Build or encourage the formation of work communities - each one a collection of smaller clusters of workplaces which have their own courtyards, gathered round a common square or common courtyard which contains shops and lunch counters." - This sense of community, I feel, would mean that working times could be much more flexible, would build potential for synergy between members, which would mean that more intense but highly productive work could be done whilst people are together in their work communities, at the same time as freeing them to be truly away from work when they are not there.
  • Self-governing Workshops and Offices (80) - "No one enjoys his work if he is a cog in a machine." - When you step back and question why you turn up to work 35 hours or more a week, it can seem on the face of it absurd, but the real reason is that "the man" requires you to do so. You would work 20 hours if you could, because it would be so beneficial for you, your family, and for society in general, but it is not currently allowed for within our social structure. But when do we "design" self-governing workshops? When we start new enterprises, develop community projects, form teams within companies. And if we form them as self-governing entities, they will be much more satisfying places to work.
  • Also: Small work groups (148), Flexible Office Space (146), Local Sports (72), The Family (75)
Tackling Systemic Inequality

"Systemic income inequalities increase anxiety, undermine social capital and expose lower income households to higher morbidity and lower life satisfaction," says Tim Jackson.

For this, I point back to the Self-governing Workshops and Offices above. Those who have a say in how their enterprise is run rarely make decisions that would reward those who do no work, whilst cutting pay and jobs for those who earn so little, and need the money so much more. But on top of that, I will also mention these patterns:

Having out-buildings that could be used to run an engineering business from was a factor in my father's choice of home
  • Home Workshop (157) - "Change the zoning laws to encourage modest, quiet work operations to locate in neighbourhoods." - Part of the reason for systemic inequality is the lack of power people have to make their own livings from home or in their local neighbourhoods. When looking for a job, I was expected (by the jobcentre) to consider travelling up to 90 miles to a workplace, but who knows what enterprise there is the potential for in our local community if there were just the resources available to do so. Why is it almost impossible to find houses which have workshops included, or where the front room could be converted into a local shop?
  • Also: Small Services without Red Tape (81), Office Connections (82)
Measuring Capabilities and Flourishing

Tim Jackson: "The suggestion that prosperity is not adequately captured by conventional measures of economic output or consumption leaves open the need to define an appropriate measurement framework for a lasting prosperity."

At first I struggled to think which of these patterns really cover this, but then I realised that lots of them are appropriate! Since flourishing is subjective in nature, the patterns which measure our prosperity best are those which attract people to them, and form happy spaces, I therefore bring your attention to the following patterns:
  • Activity Pockets (124) - "Surround public gathering places with pockets of activity - small, partly enclosed areas at the edges, which jut forward into the open space between the paths, and contain activities which make it natural for people to pause and get involved." - We sometimes don't spend time in public spaces, not because we don't want to be out and about, but because we don't feel comfortable being exposed. The measure of good public space is how much it is used, but it will only be used if people feel comfortable using it, no matter whether its with a small group of select friends, or a city-wide Carnival (pattern 58). This pattern is also closely related to Courtyards which Live (pattern 115).
  • Sleeping in Public (94) - "It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep." - Sounds like my kind of park, and my kind of success! On this note, perhaps any kind of doing less could be considered success?
  • Beer Hall (90) - "Where can people sing, and drink, and shout and drink, and let go of their sorrows?" - If a community has not got places like this, then it's probably a failure, but they do exist. Many of our smaller villages' last pubs have closed and many new housing estates are given no such provision. Norwich, I feel, is quite lucky in that there are so many such places, or at least in places to drink. But it would be nice if Norwich had more places to sing and shout, don't you think?
Strengthening Social Capital

Tim Jackson: "Understanding that prosperity consists in part in our capabilities to participate in the life of society demands that attention is paid to the underlying human and social resources required for this task."

Immediately, two patterns come to mind:

Norwich City Hall, which is too centralised and closed to be the basis for truly participatory local democracy
  • Local Town Hall (44) - "To make the political control of local functions real, establish a small town hall for each community of 7000, and even for each neighbourhood; locate it near the busiest intersection in the community. Give the building three parts: an arena for public discussion, public services around the arena, and space to rent out to ad hoc community projects." - Sounds idealistic, right? But when you look at what we do have, you do start to wonder why government is so centralised. Occupy Norwich have agreed by consensus that "The House of Commons does not represent the will or interests of the common people, rather the wealthy". Isn't an important part of claiming back our participation in the life of society to ensure that our government is at the appropriate scale for the activities that they undertake. And that society as a whole (rather than just the wealthy) has a representative say in how things are done? Simply building places to represent this would help. I hope that Beyond Green (who I mention in yesterday's post) design into their plans provision for local democracy, because without the provisions, such "democracy" will just end up as plutocracy, thinly veiled.
  • Necklace of Community Projects (45) - "The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves." - I love this image, and it follows on naturally from the previous pattern. Being involved in society is not just about democratic participation, but also in trial services, research, public consultation and community activities.
Further patterns which are also relevant: Common Land (67), Local Sports (72), Dancing in the Street (63), Self-Governing Workshops and Offices (80), Master and Apprentices (83), Shopfront Schools (85), University as a Marketplace (43) and many more.

Dismantling the Culture of Consumerism

This is the biggie, when it comes to Transition, I feel, because even with all the other social logic changed, if we continue to speak to each other primarily through the language of consumer goods, then there will be no hope of ecological balance. Tim Jackson says this:
Consumerism has developed partly as a means of protecting consumption-driven economic growth. But it promotes unproductive status competition and has damaging psychological and social impacts on people's lives.
The idea of patterns to combat consumerism, then, are those that give us an alternative, non-material language to express our identity and culture:

  • Connected Play (68) - "Lay out common land, paths, gardens, and bridges so that groups of at least 65 households are connected by a swath of land that does not cross traffic. Establish this land as the connected play spaces for the children in these households." - It seems to me that a huge amount of our economic consumption is demanded by kids who have been confined to their cramped homes by the child-unfriendly nature of the public space outside their homes. But I have seen other places where, by providing rear gardens that link up with each other and even open out into countryside, children can freely be children without demanding the kind of material entertainment that they have been accustomed to in recent years.
Lower Goat Lane, Norwich
  • Street Cafe (88) - "The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by." - Who suggested to the world at large that "retail therapy" could ever be a legitimate and truly lasting aide to human well-being? Certainly not me. Unless the "retail" is a warming drink and a slice of homemade cake, and one can sit, perhaps with a friend, contemplating life, love, or whatever it is that makes you feel at peace with the world...
  • ...which for many people may be religion or spiritual nourishment, requiring their Sacred Sites (24) - "People cannot maintain their spiritual roots and their connections to the past if the physical world they live in does not also sustain these roots." - One worrying thing about consumerism is that, for the generation that has grown up within the last twenty to thirty years, it is the only world we know. It is the only model of society that is presented to us by TV, glossy mags and even by our schools (arts subjects have been consistently under-supported for many many years now). Consumerism has become akin to a religion, but one that is damaging to society, the environment and even, often to our own psychological well-being. Therefore churches, meditation centres, parks, memorials, graveyards... these are all essential sites in providing spaces where other values are put higher than individualistic materialism.
  • And further to these, we could also call upon the patterns Identifiable Neighbourhood (14), Dancing on the Street (63), A Room of One's Own (141), Network of Learning (18) and various others to back up the idea of places challenging the sovereignty of materialism, but, if you've got this far, you've probably got the gist by now!
This last recommendation of Tim's could, I know, form the basis for many more thoughts and posts, but this post is becoming long enough as it is!

Images: 21 hours publication by nef; all others are scenes of Norfolk and Norwich by Simeon Jackson.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Places are made of people (and bricks)

I blogged yesterday about the book, A Pattern Language. One thing it teaches us is that places aren't just bricks and mortar and concrete, they are a culmination of thousands of years of human activity, and constantly adapt to the patterns of life which occur there.  They are shaped by humans to operate for the benefit of humans (or, more usually, a subset thereof).

But this is by no means the end of the story! As Jonathan Smales of Beyond Green said in a lecture I attended at the Festival of Architecture in Norwich and Norfolk (FANN) last year, "We shape our cities; thereafter they shape us." The phrase is based on Winston Churchill's quote which talks of buildings, rather than cities, but it all boils down to the same thing... the designers of our environment have a lot to answer for because of the influence that their perhaps seemingly trivial decisions can have on how we live our lives.


How can we live low-carbon, ethical and fulfilling lives when much of our environment is designed for car-drivers, supermarket shoppers, individualistic materialists and resource wasters? Sure, there are some great places too (which I shall mention in more detail in tomorrow's post), but there's a double waste associated with bad environments: firstly the wasteful environment itself, but also the destruction of the potential for a sustainable environment. Fields, once turned into car parks, cannot be turned back into fields without another huge packet of waste.

Beyond Green Developments are, in some ways, in a great position to try this out, and indeed they are determined to, as developers responsible for an entirely new place to be built in the north-east Norwich "growth triangle", but that doesn't mean that we should just leave all these complex place-making decisions up to them alone. As potential residents, shop-owners, community members, we also should be able to guide these design decisions.  Luckily, Beyond Green, unlike other developers, is keen to ensure that the new community members do get a say in the form their community takes.

Such new communities would have the ability to design an "identifiable neighbourhood" (pattern 14), with a "web of shopping" (pattern 19) where "individually owned shops" (87) form an activity node (30), served by "bike paths and racks" (56), encouraging the use of those local shops over bland, out-of-town supermarkets.


But why shouldn't we also try to influence decisions made about places that already exist?  What small changes could we make to our environment that would help us to live in a more sustainable way, without having to rely on huge redevelopment? Take, for example, the pattern "Fruit Trees" (170), which suggests that small orchards should be planted "on common land along paths and streets, in parks, in neighbourhoods" for the experience they add of "growth, harvest, local sources of fresh food; walking down a a city street, pulling an apply out of a tree, and biting into it." We could quite easily plant up places like the above open space on Trafford Road with a few fruit trees.  It would serve multiple purposes, as it could also create a vibrant "public outdoor room" (pattern 69) by planting up the area near the road, effectively forming a wall (pattern 173) to shield the space from the road.

When people talk to you about how they want to live more sustainably, but lack the ability to follow through, why not ask yourself how much of that is because their environment is shaping their lives more than they themselves are? Perhaps it's time for a change of environment, like moving to Norwich from the middle of nowhere so that you don't have to drive everywhere, for example!  

Images: Chapelfield Mall Car Park entrance and park on Trafford Road, both by Simeon Jackson both released under Creative Commons.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The patterns of a low-carbon life

This book, A Pattern Language, has been a huge inspiration to me ever since I first saw it.  It has helped me to gain perspective and insights into what is wrong with the world, in specific and practical terms, and what good design can do to make the world a better place, again in quite specific and practical terms.

This book, just to give a bit of background, was written over thirty years ago by Christopher Alexander and his research colleagues. It outlines the patterns of human life, and how these are designed for in our built environment, from the large-scale community planning to the details of a window or feature in a building. The book was inspiration for Rob Hopkins, who applied the same kind of structure in the "ingredients" concept of The Transition Companion.

The book is a catalogue (a dictionary, to follow the "language" metaphor) of patterns of human life, and how spaces are or may be formed to serve those patterns. More about what a pattern is is explained in The Timeless Way of Building (again by Christopher Alexander); a great book, but not essential reading. In essence, a pattern is an observation of something that benefits human well-being, and the book will then discuss some of the issues and then comes to a practical conclusion.  Here's a summarised example of one such "pattern":

TEEN-AGE SOCIETY

Teenage is the time of passage between childhood and adulthood.  In traditional societies, this passage is accompanied by rites which suit the psychological demands of the transition. But in modern society the "high school" fails entirely to provide this passage.

The most striking traditional example we know comes from an east African tribe. In order to become a man, a boy of this tribe embarks on a two year journey, which includes a series of more and more difficult tasks...

In modern society, the transition cannot be so direct or simple...  Every culture that has an adolescent period has also a complicated adolescent problem... high rates of delinquency, school dropout, teenage suicide...

Therefore:

Replace the "high school" with an institution which is actually a model of adult society, in which the students take on most of the responsibility for learning and social life, with clearly defined roles and forms of discipline. Provide adult guidance, both for the learning, and the social structure of the society; but keep them, as far as feasible, in the hands of the students.

Summerhill School in Suffolk, famous for its democratic governance by the children
As you can see, architecture is hardly mentioned in this pattern, but such a pattern obviously affects the design brief of the "school" to be built!

So, the book is essentially about human well-being centric design.  That is, to provide environments that are healthy, sociable, educational and positively participatory. These are the social goods that are being strived for in the book (although it doesn't mention them specifically!). Designing in line with natural psychological tendencies (by designing places that we feel happy and comfortable in), rather than against our human instincts (designing places that require huge, brash advertising to persuade you to do something that you don't actually want to do anyway) is a key element in this and is just one of many links to Transition principles that naturally comes out of this well-being centric thought process.

In the next couple of days, I will be blogging further on some specific patterns from the book, and how our built environment shapes the lives we lead (and consequentially how sustainably we live)!

This book is one that I recommend everyone to have a copy of on their bookshelf - it's well worth its $65 cover price (although you can pick up a copy on Amazon for £32).

Image of Summerhill School from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Local Energy, for the World

When I was about ten, we lived in Saudi Arabia for a year, where my parents taught in a school in the capital, Riyadh.  One day we took a trip out into the desert; and there in the middle of the stark white and yellow sand dunes that marched in all directions to the horizon, stood an oasis, exactly like those you see in comic books and old films about the French Foreign Legion.  An oasis of cool green water, surrounded by scrubby grass and great palms, groaning under the weight of dates.  Nearby stood a village, and it was this village that really caught my attention; every available space was covered in solar panels.  I was really impressed, even as a child, by the thought that this village could be entirely self-sufficient in its electricity needs; that a country unbelievably rich in oil, was, in this village at least, fore-sighted enough not to use oil-powered generators, but to invest in technology that could harvest the sunlight that is freely available in large quantities, and effectively forever.

I listened to a debate on the radio recently where one of the speakers said that in order to feed the world, we must go down the route of genetically modified crops; he was a passionate advocate and cited the moral argument that, given the numbers of starving people and the technology at our disposal, the choice was obvious.  The counter-argument, shorter, more succinct, was that the world already produces as much food as we need,  but not as much as we want.  Feeding the world with a western-style, meat-and-dairy-rich, daily 3000 calorie plus, diet would require radical change in our agricultural methods.  Feeding the world more equitably could already happen; the change would have to be in our minds and habits rather than in the job of our farmers.

It's a concept that's echoed in George Monbiot's book Heat - How Can We Stop The Planet Burning.  We could, with available technology, and enough will, provide all the power that we currently need, but pretty much not all that we want.  Given the amount of energy we waste every day in the UK, and across the world, arguably we wouldn't even have to increase production that significantly to achieve energy equity across the globe.

And this is where I started thinking about the problem.  As part of our New Year Aspirations theme week, I talked about local energy generation, using solar or wind power to support a community-led energy collective.  I think this could be a real opportunity to both generate power sustainably and from renewable sources, but also to wrest some control back from the utility companies that control how much we spend on our gas and electricity.

But I also started to think about the problem from a more global perspective.  Given that climate change knows no political and national boundaries, what could be a global solution?  If we as a global community are sufficiently concerned about climate change, would it make sense to invest heavily in, for example, solar technology, right across the Middle East, across North Africa to the west, and across the central Asian countries to the east?  They get the most sunshine, so that would make sense, wouldn't it?  I'm not talking about the complex carbon trading initiatives that offset holiday flights against energy efficient cooking stoves in sub-saharan Africa.  I'm talking about genuine, cooperatively owned, community-owned solutions, harvesting the plentiful sunshine and wind resources for the benefit of the communities that live in those regions.  It could provide energy, but also training, jobs, prosperity, autonomy.

Am I just being simplistic, or is the only real challenge to that concept in our own minds?

Even on a (grey and wet) day like today, installing panels in Norfolk is still an effective option.  And what else do we have?  We have a lot of wind (I'm told that the winds from Siberia heading west cover flat country all the way across Europe until they hit the first high ground here in Norwich - sometimes I can really believe that!).  We have the turbines at Scroby Sands, and scattered across the county, plus the beautiful old windmills dotted around the place, some of them still working, many, I'm sure, just ready to be refitted to modern-day usage.  In the same way that Iceland uses its locally available geothermal energy, maybe we should be pushing for a new localism in energy production - local, but cooperative, while supporting other countries, so called developing countries, in building their own local energy, based on what is most suitable for their own locality.

I'm not saying that this will solve all our problems - solutions often come with their own complexities, their own new problems.  But as part of a mix - localised, community-based energy production, side by side with radical and focussed energy waste reduction and elimination - this could be a real opportunity to create energy sustainability and equity.  It just needs to will to make it happen.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Look after the pennies...

I'm going to assume that you know the other half of this little proverb.

I don't want to quote it in full because this is one proverb that I truly can't stand.  It makes no sense! It's just not true! If anything, it's the other way round: If you make big investments in things that work well and last a long time, you'll never have to worry about the minute details ever again!

And so it is with energy.  When people talk about home energy-efficiency, the first thing that pops into your head is... let me guess... low-energy light-bulbs. Great! But as far as I'm concerned, low-energy light-bulbs are the "pennies" of energy-efficiency. Yes, by all means install them in your homes, but don't expect them to take care of the bulk of your home energy-efficiency.

To demonstrate this point, let's compare boiling a kettle unnecessarily to leaving a light on unnecessarily. Have a look at these calculations:
Boiling a kettle: 3kW for 3 minutes (1/20th of an hour)
3 kW x 1/20 h = 0.15 kWh 

Time for a 60W lightbulb to use the same energy:
0.15 kWh / 0.06 kW = 2.5 hrs

Time for a 11W lightbulb to use the same energy:
0.15 kWh / 0.011 kW = 13.6 hrs
What that's basically saying is that to waste the same amount of energy as boiling a kettle, you would have to leave a 60W incandescent light-bulb on for 2.5 hours.  Or if it was an energy-efficient light-bulb (11W), a whopping 13.6 hours!

The other thing about kettle-boiling is that it is a huge demand for a short period of time, which, if large numbers of people turn them on at once, as Chris mentioned on monday, causes a peak in electricity demand that can be in excess of the entire electricity production capacity of the country.  Electric lights, however, are a more constant demand and can be allowed for much more easily - 273 low-energy bulbs would have to be turned on at exactly the same time to create the same effect as a single kettle switch being flipped!

So which should we pay more attention to? The "penny" light-bulbs or "pound" unnecessary kettle-boiling?

It's still very hard to keep you eye on where you're using your electricity though, because it's so invisible and so available! You can just flick a switch and it's there, but this hides the amount of energy you're really using.  Say you've got an electric heater in your living room (as indeed I have, although I rarely use it), it would be quite easy to turn it on and leave it on without a care in the world, and to be barely aware of the energy that is going into it.  With a woodburner, however, if you were spending 10 minutes every couple of hours going out to the shed to bring in some more wood and stack it up in the burner to get the same effect as a 2kW electric heater, you'd start to think to yourself "What the hell am I doing? Look at all this wood I'm wasting!"

Perhaps you'd see your electricity bill differently if it was itemised, like a telephone bill:

This week's electricity usage:      Cost per Use      Total
Dishwasher Use x 8 .................................. £0.15 ......... £1.20
Washing Machine Use x 2 ........................ £0.20 ......... £0.40
Lights in living room x 28 hrs .................. £0.003 ........ £0.10
Cooking x 10 ............................................ £0.15 .......... £1.50
Microwave x 6 ......................................... £0.15 .......... £0.90
Washing hands with hot water x 20 .......... £0.02 ......... £0.44
Power shower using electric immersion heater x 7
................................................................. £1.01 .......... £7.07

Which would you look at first?  The lights? Or the power showers?

Whether the shower or the tumble-dryer takes the most amount of energy in your house will depend very much on your set-up, appliance energy-efficiency and heating energy-source, but you can depend on one thing: you're not going to have a big impact on your bill without looking at the pounds, not just the pennies!

Images: Three pounds and one pence by Simeon Jackson (who noticed that there are three pound coins in the bin in the corner of the picture?  Who's looking after them now, huh?), Kettle switch found on the internet, annotated by me.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Waking up in Forest Row

I am in Forest Row, East Sussex. It's six in the morning and outside high in the trees a thrush is singing in the dark. I have just made coffee, switched on the computer and the lights. I don't think about it (the power that is). Like millions of people each morning I click the switch, press the button and expect light, heat, instant connection. I'm staying with Mike Grenville (thanks to a fossil fuelled train) and we're putting together an idea for a Transition newspaper. Yesterday we went to the local coffee shop where the talk was all about fracking as the village is close to the site at Balcombe where Cuadrilla plan to test for oil. We were going to go to have a sauna (wood-fired) by bicycle (human powered) but the project took up all our attention.

The fact is everything we do is shaped by energy - by electricity, by oil, by gas- and there is not one of these sources of power that doesn't somehow leave blood on our hands and present some kind of dilemma.

To look at where the coffee, the kettle and all those invisible wires go, what grids they are connected to, what industries, means we're looking at big picture: fracking, mountain top removal, coal-fired power stations, all the issues around nuclear power, the burning of rainforest wood and palm oil for biofuels, oil extraction in the wildernesses of the Artic, deep sea drilling. We're looking at dams and tar sands and pollution and climate change and land grabs. We're looking at companies that make billions of pounds profit, at ourselves struggling to pay bills as those prices keep rising and being totally dependent on that power to live our lives and all I want to do this morning is make my cup of coffee and write this blog before I catch the train home. All I want to do is make my breakfast and step outside into the garden and listen to that bird.

But I can't do that because I'm in Transition and this is the energy week and I know that even if we did make it to the woods to have that sauna last night the bender and the stove exist because of the same energy and somehow we're not going to escape that dilemma no matter how right-on and low-carbon I am about not using central heating. Even if the local people in Sussex, Lancashire and Kent and Wales resist the highly controversial, expensive and resource hungry drilling that will damage the water tables of Britain as it has in the United States, the question we need to ask is where do we get the power from?

"It's about narrative," said Mike. What is the energy story are we telling ourselves?

Off Grid This summer we sat the two of us, as the wind and rain shook the tents at the Sunrise Festival and drank our coffee (rocket-stove) as two men chopped wood for the pizza oven. Grateful for heat and shelter, it is experiences like these that bring home exactly the kind of attitude and engagement you need to live without modern power systems. Tin Village had a solar panel and a small wind turbine that kept the computer going for on-line communications and a small cinema. Everything else was run on wood. However this was the summer and a weekend. Most people, including myself, would soon be heading home. We love all that Kelly kettle camping business but we're on holiday. This is not our everyday world.

To live off-grid all year round in 2012 requires either money for alternative power systems (e.g wood chip boilers, ground-source heat pumps) or high principles. As anyone who has slept in a tent at Occupy Norwich can tell you, off grid is cold, damp (and frequently muddy) in a wintry Britain. Some fellow Transitioners have organised their houses to run almost entirely on wood burners for heat and water and cooking, some like the activist initiative Transition Heathrow have a strong supply of wood from a local tree surgeon for their rocket stove kitchen, a bike generator and four solar panels and a very committed crew.

Other Transition initatives have made that strategic step and started to create their own community energy source, most notably the solar power station in Lewes and the community wind turbine set up by PEDAL - Portobello Transition Town. To create the kind of enterprise requires huge commitment and funding and is no small undertaking. It's a big topic. as Forest Row discovered, when Mike set up a debate between Charles Hendry and Jeremy Leggett at the recent Transition Energy Fair.

But however you organise your house and your transport and your neighbourhood, all of them are underpinned by different stories. The first is that you can continue living the same individualist lifestyle, only using alternative sources of energy, and the other two involve an individual and collective powerdown. Which is not, as energy campaigner Mandy Miekle pointed out recently, so much about creating a low-carbon community, but a low energy society:
The more I have looked into the energy crisis, the more I feel that the next big leap forward will not be technological, but psychological. We must reexamine our relationship with nature, for all resources come from nature. We need to stop talking about outcomes like saving ecosystems without also asking why we are destroying ecosystems in the first place. As Paul Kingsnorth points out, this squabble between worldviews is not about numbers at all – it is about narratives. We have many cultural narratives to address, but our relationship with energy has to come first.
However there are a few barriers in the way, not least our ability to look reality in the eye.

Techno-fix. In Forest Row the talk is also about free energy and not the kind that comes from the sun or the winds and waves of the earth. The anti-documentary of the moment is Thrive where dodgy looking geezers fly over the ancient sacred sites and crop circles on a disc, discussing how the big oil corporations (controlled by the banks) are squashing all research into this everlasting power source, encapsulated in the symbol of the torus (see left). This key invention, transmitted by extra-terrestrial intelligence, will transform the planet and solve all the problems of the world (cue starving Africans) which according to the film are entirely due to the lack of energy.

This is another narrative entirely. It suggests that we will be saved by outside agencies who somehow will work in our best interests and all former ideas of collective equity are null and void. And instead of looking at the hard facts we just have to fall down a virtual rabbit hole into a wonderland mix of half-truths about the global banking system and conspiracy theory.

This is a bad fairy tale to be believing right now, because it suggests we don't need to do anything about our energy dilemma, that we don't live in a place of limit and or have to face the consequences of our actions. All real stories look at these realities, and the characters in them who are plucky and ask questions, who don't go along with the magic spells, are the ones who live to see a happy ending.

Time to check out those narratives.

DISCLAIMER: Just in case you thought Mike was responsible for showing me Thrive, I twisted his arm, curious to the max. What we were really watching in Forest Row was a film of Alan Watts speaking from a different paradigm altogether in California. . .get wiggly!



Photos: solar panels on Mike's roof in Forest Row: Keystone XL pipeline protest; chai-making at Tin Village, Sunrise Festival; making a wind-turbine at Transition Heathrow; Scene from Thrive.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Creature Comforts

I’m currently reading ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson and enjoying learning all sorts of quirky details about how most of us came to live in relative comfort. Apparently crude oil was first extracted from the ground, in the 1850’s, in order to produce paraffin for lighting and the petroleum fraction was considered worthless and discarded. How times have changed!

A lot of the book is about how the exploitation of energy sources have made our lives comfortable – a concept that we now take for granted but the word ‘comfort’ only assumed its current meaning in 1770 (when it was used in a letter by Horace Walpole). Until then most people had no expectation of being comfortable and in medieval houses people literally huddled together around a single open hearth with no chimney. The exploitation of coal led to heat, steam for engines to power the industrial revolution, gas for lighting and ultimately to electricity and all the labour saving devices that we now depend on.

A biomass boiler
Apparently, if you ask people what they want from life, a common reply is ‘to be comfortable’. So given how recently it is that the working family has achieved a comfortable life, you would think that we would all be motivated to preserve the resources that sustain our comfortable lives. We are now planning to build many thousands of new houses around Norwich and I would hope that planning for a world no longer supplied with cheap oil, would be a priority – but I don’t see it happening. Many of the technologies that could keep us warm in the future (such as anaerobic digesters and biomass fuelled heat and power plants) need to be designed into new communities when they are built – it is much harder to retrofit. And don’t get me started on the need for cycle paths and transport!

I really don’t understand why people who are now in their teens and twenties are not demanding new homes to be designed for the energy deficient future that we all know is coming. Councils are largely run by the middle aged or older – who put in a huge amount of voluntary effort but subconsciously don't expect to be around when energy has become painfully expensive. Young people need to take action now if they want to enjoy the same levels of comfort in their older years. Some of us can keep warm cheaply today by scavenging wood but you can’t keep a whole city warm that way.

An unplanned consequence of the discovery of oil, was that cheap paraffin destroyed the market for whale oil and saved sperm whales from extinction. Predicting the future supply and demand for energy is never straightforward but we have to try harder to be less dependent on finite resources!