Saturday, 26 June 2010
The intellectual rationale behind economic expansion has shaped our society for decades. Milton Friedman's Chicago School of Economics underpinned the pattern of corporate rule throughout the world since the 70s. In the aggressive defence of free markets the rich have become immensely rich, the poor more numerous, and public services everywhere have been dismantled in favour of the private sector. It's a pattern this week's Budget is set to uphold.
But even though we are a civilisation obsessed by money, the financial system itself is rarely discussed. Though banker and credit crunch have became household terms, it's not until you look at the relation between credit and real wealth that you realise you are looking at a chimera and at some point it's going to disappear into desert sand.
With the exploitation of fossil fuels the financial bubble has expanded like never before in history. 1600 trillion dollars of virtual money in 30 years. For every slice of real wealth pie that exists there are one hundred claims. Because credit expansion is built on illusion the spell eventually breaks and deflation sets in. Credit disappears, house prices go down, prices for essentials go up. People start hoarding and without the lubricant of money trade halts. What do we need to do now? Nicole Foss (who writes as 'Stoneleigh' in the financial blog, The Automatic Earth) advised a packed lecture hall: look at your structural dependency, deal with debt, and make relationships you can trust.
In a workshop the next day 300 Transitioners looked at the future. We explored in images and words what would happen in one year's time, then five, then ten. What did it mean that we had so much debt? Everywhere you saw a split between breakdown and breakthrough, fall and transcendence; in amongst the dark scribblings emerged butterflies and the phoenix.
What we experienced after the shock was a different pattern emerging within ourselves. We were shifting from individualism towards community. We realised that if everything was falling apart we needed to be coherent. In a time of strife we needed to be harmonious. The culture of the credit bubble – with its exclusive dwellings and high-maintenance lifestyle, the Shangri-La of every shopping mall in the kingdom – was ceding to one where people had very little except the wealth they had inside - a wealth they were prepared to share.
It's a pattern that is emerging everywhere. Countries that have weathered the free market zeal that brings corporations and the IMF into play forces them to hand over real wealth – their natural resources – and reduce their vibrant people into a voiceless underclass, are turning their fortunes round. It's a pattern of neighbourhood engagement, workers' co-operatives and localised networks that foster the diversity and inventiveness that make all eco-systems resilient. Instead of being shut-off and in competition the people are getting together and working out how to rebuild their lives.
Meanwhile it becomes clear in Britain that we have a government that for all its talk of Big Society is not here for the majority, but to protect the priviledged. There will be no bail out for ordinary people, so we will have help ourselves. And the first step is to realise we are not on our own: there are billions of us in the same boat. This lifeboat called Earth.
This piece was originally published by the Eastern Daily Press as part of the collective weekly OneWorld Column,
Monday, 21 June 2010
This morning we had the whole world (and the roads) to ourselves: the scent of elderflowers and wild rose in the lane, mock orange as we sped by the sleeping houses, fennel in the dunes, the purple opium poppies in the allotments, red sorrel on the Common, wrens singing in gardens, larks over the marshes, the slow roar of the invisible sea before the dunes, and then the hugeness of sea and sky
I got a blue bike for my birthday when I was eight years old. And I loved it in the manner of all children, because it meant independence and freedom. I was an acrobatic child, climbed trees and scaffolding and rooftops, somersaulted over gates, jumped stairs and spent hours inventing balletic bicycle routines in the street where I lived in the city. Something of that physical ease and happiness I kept with me all my life and even now I like the reckless feeling of going downhill, or swerving corners, one finger on the handlebar. And all bikes I’ve owned have been blue ever since.
Last week I went to see Barry to get my brakes fixed. I had been using an innovative stopping technique with my feet and was wearing out my shoes. I was thinking about getting another bike. Barry showed me a vintage Raleigh that had just come in. It was beautifully made and in pristine condition - stainless steel wheels, dark forest green with a basket and a bell. A classic shape, but rather slow looking. He mentioned a price. It was a bargain. I hesitated.
“Not exactly a BMW,” I said (Barry once sold us his very beautiful scarlet and chrome E reg in the days before we discovered peak oil).
“A Rolls Royce,” he pronounced.
It was a lovely machine, but when I tried it out down the sandy track by the garage something heavy and depressing came over me. It seemed to take an age to turn a corner. And then I realised: it was an old lady’s bike. I had visions of bowling sedately along the seafront with long skirts and cardigan, and I shuddered. And even though it was my 54th birthday yesterday I couldn’t quite do that sit-up-and-beg thing.
“I’m just a drop handlebar kind of girl,” I told him.
“Head down, bum in the air,” he said.
“Something like that,” I laughed. And sprang happily back on my second hand 5-speed Sun bike, terminally rusty from an encounter with the sea waves. Without a helmet, without a care.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Nicole Foss writes under the name Stoneleigh on the influential blog, The Automatic Earth. Unlike most disciplines which only look at their subject on its own terms, Stoneleigh looks at the Big Picture, and the the Big Picture in 2010 from the financial and resource perspective is looking none too good. In fact it became obvious through this intense one and a half hour lecture that we are facing a meltdown, within which the financial collapse (already set in motion in 2008) is the defining event. This is because finanical markets move far more quickly than resource markets. They change in the speed of an email or a phone call. Fear spreads like contagion and positive feedback is the rule.
The graphs came and went. The patterns of deflation were spelled out. Bubbles burst through the centuries, pyramids collapsed. With fossil fuels the bubble has expanded like never before in history. 1600 trillion dollars of virtual money in 30 years. For every slice of financial cake that exists there are now one hundred claims. Because these expansions are built, as Stoneleigh pointed out, not on the reality of wealth, but on a perception of money. At some point the spell breaks. We are running off a cliff and our legs are still working, but very soon we’re going to look down and realise there is nothing to hold us up. We fall bigtime.
We looked at the screen: credit disppearing, affordability descreasing, house prices going down, prices for essentials going up. People hoarding and the lack of lubricant money halting the interactive flow of goods and services. What do we need to do now? Stoneleigh advises us: look at your structural dependency, deal with debt, and make relationships you can trust. In effect, be part of Transition.
The lecture hall was packed and everyone sat in a stunned kind of silence. Afterwards we reeled out to a second leg of Open Space and after lunch the next day entered a Big Group Process in the Great Hall. It was a new Transition experiment. We gathered into our “home groups” (groups of eight people formed at the Mapping of the initiatives at the start of the conference) and looked collectively into the future. We explored what we felt would happen in one year’s time, then five, then ten. We closed our eyes and put ourselves in a frame to see what would lie ahead, as Sophy asked questions. What does it mean we are so much in debt? What are our feelings about what is coming? Then we discussed the matter between ourselves and drew our thoughts in images and words. At the end we held up our sheets of paper in a living gallery. 2011, 2015, 2020. Everywhere there was a split between breakdown and breakthrough, fall and transcendence. In amongst the dark scribbling emerged butterflies and the phoenix. Through the dualities of hope and despair, the good ship Transition sailed on towards the future.
The Stoneleigh effect rippled through the weekend. It was the most talked about event. Not because most of us are unaware that things were going to change radically, but because the reality of the figures made the reality of what we might experience come home to everyone in the room.
Transition is well known for its positive outlook, for the fact it sees an opportunity for living very differently on the planet as fossil fuels become scarce and costly. It deliberately steers a different course of activism from environmental or social protest against the old powers; it does not encourage endtimes glee, the mind's arrogant dismissal of life. It works very hard to make new connections between human beings, to forge resilient communities, to enter the field of possibilities rather than follow a trajectory that we have been trained to see is the only way. But the fact is none of this can happen without the old structures that hold that trajectory in place breaking up.
You don’t get to the butterfly without the caterpillar dissolving. And that dissolve is what we were looking at in the Stoneleigh graphs as they dipped. It was the pattern of collapse of a civilisation.
Resilience, the key concept of Transition, is the ability to weather shock, to adapt and still thrive. This is the kind of unexpected shock we will have to weather, as Sophy explained later. The lecture was a last minute addition to the programme and interrupted the Open Space sessons; it sent people reeling and some to sit for hours in circles talking about their experiences. It influenced the way we thought, what was discussed around the tables, under trees, at the bar. But in many ways it was a relief, we didn’t have to be Pollyannas anymore. It was OK to talk about the difficulties we will face. Because it was clear we were all going to face them. That made a difference. Because instead of being alone, we will be together.
That evening I went swimming with Adrienne. There were five of us and we met up in the canteen in the self-organising style of the conference. The river Dart runs through a wooded valley, free flowing, tan-coloured with dark mossy rocks on either side. We went down a track through the trees and jumped naked into the cold wild water and swam together upsteam, and then floated back with the current. The sun spiralled through the green leaves and I remembered a long, long time ago a moment in Australia: a boy had fallen into the rainforest pool from the cliff and I was beside him waiting for the shock to subside and a turtle swam by and I heard the wind blow through the gum trees and looked up and saw a group of men, women and children standing naked in the water, in complete syncronicity with everything around them and there was a peace and a silence between us that seemed to stretch to infinity and I realised I was looking at the future.
Because who knows what happens when we take off our clothes, divest ourselves of our caterpillar lives, what butterflies we might become? Who could predict that I would have met Adrienne again after 25 years and that we had so many deep and shared experiences to talk about in a way that we could never have known in our careless city youth? What underlying pattern brought us together, connected the totem bird of the Conference, a fledging jackdaw with the fledging jackdaws I wrote about in the blog before I came? What patterns of strength do we find within us when the shock subsides, what depth of feeling, what intelligence and skill arises when other possibilites lie ahead?
What wings do we discover when we look down and see there is only space beneath us?
Photos: Sophy introducing the conference in the Great Hall (Ed Mitchell); Tully before the Stoneleigh lecture; mapping the future; Adrienne facilitating our Communication and Media session; bottom up initiative - swimming upriver (Mike Grenville).
Wednesday, 16 June 2010
A Pattern Language was inspired by an architectural book of the same name written by Chritopher Alexander out of Berkeley in the 70s. Almost an academic cult classic it takes key elements of buildings and settlements, villages and cities and looks at what makes them work. Why, as Rob Hopkins says in his introductory workshop, walking through Sienna you feel joyful and Slough wretched. The book’s dynamic comes from a system of cross-references – a forerunner as Hopkins pointed out of the hyperlink process on computers. How everything from sunlight through windows to market squares relates in a harmonious way, so that you want to be in those rooms and neighbourhoods in the same way you might want to be in a wood or by the sea. It’s a design system, but one that has been organically-formed. It takes as its strength thousands of years of people living together. A vernacular way of life.
The pattern language of Transition was displayed down one of the corridors at the Seale Hayne college and so we walked down them together, discussing and writing notes over them. Because with our experience we can respond to this new structure, strengthen and enliven it. This is not an empty workshop exercise: it has meaning because we are attempting something new. We’re feeling our way to reassemble some key elements that have been within humanity for thousands of years and we’re looking at the ones that work and make us feel OK about living together within a time of turbulence, a time of radical social change. We’re looking for some base notes that underpin a new kind of society that speaks to people everywhere and can be as diversely spoken (as it was at the Conference) everywhere from Norwich to Sao Paulo, from Bungay to Fife, island, city or remote village, north or south.
So where the original Pattern Language is based on things, on nouns, Transition’s Pattern Language is based on activities, on verbs on doing things together. You can download the work-in-progress here (8MB pdf). Many of these are the words and phrases we have had quickly to master and manifest: speaking in public, working with local businesses, great reskilling, great unleashing, food coops, energy descent action plans. Each of the 63-patterns contains a challenge and a solution and all follow a sequence of 6 evolutionary phases - from the groundwork before an initiative begins to Scaling Up. It starts with the personal shock of peak oil discovery and ends where grassroots initatives begin to dialogue with the “top-down” structure and influence how things can shift from an oil-dependent civilisation to a new resilient way of exchanging and interacting as a people, in synch with the eco-systems of the earth.
Transition is about working-together in the face of immense physical and emotional challenges, learning to take matters into our own hands. It’s about creating a way of living that is fair both to the planet and to its peoples. One in which we are by virtue of our task capable of divesting a heavy, materialistic way of life for one of necessary lightness and simplicity. One which will require us to let go of our illusions of grandeur and separation and face a common reality - to transform within and without us the consequences of the power-hungry, acquisitive, high-drive, domineering Western world.
We need to be conversant, fluid with this language because it is what we have in common, what will enable us to hold together when everything else is falling apart. It is the language that makes it easy, for example, for 300 people from diverse places to be in complete harmony with one another. This is because we are speaking to one another from the material. Not just our mind’s opinion of Transition, but words that match our physical and emotional shared experience of Transition – a language spoken by people who matter, who have the matter in hand. Patterns of language that configure a different world. Because the network of Transition is communication, and we can’t weather this shift on our own.
Why we can’t create the future on our own I’ll be reporting about tomorrow . . how the 2010 Transition Conference received its own shock and how some of that reality came home. Meanwhile if you'd like to read more about the Conference do check out Rob Hopkins's blog http://www.transitionculture.org/ or the Network's coverage on http://www.transitionnetwork.org/
Tuesday, 15 June 2010
I had forgotten: England is beautiful. Even before the train drew into Newton Abbot we had been past the green Chiltern hills and the willowy Thames, through the tree-clad valleys of Somerset and along the boat-sprinkled estuaries and red-cliffed Devon coast. It's a cliche I know, but the sea really did sparkle, and those hills did shine. It took my breath away.
300 people converging and tuning into Transition took my breath away. The conference was almost three days long, with workshops, lectures, lunch, dinner, meetings, process, discussion, break-out, breakdown, big group, small group, spiral dance, free form dance, open mic, opening up . . .
There are several highlights I'll be reporting on during the next few days: Pattern Language (a new way of explaining Transition), Stoneleigh's shocking report on the Economic collapse, meeting my old friend Adrienne Campbell from Transition Lewes and how five of us went swimming without our clothes up the River Dart.
Meanwhile here's a pic by Ed Mitchell of the man in action at the introductory workshop on Pattern Language. Stay tuned!
On the Rhododendron Road in the East; Rob Hopkins at the Seale Hayne Agricultural College in the West.
Wednesday, 9 June 2010
Each dawn I wake to cacophony. In May there were sweet sounds, but in June there are cacklings and croakings and cawings. The jackdaws are fledging. For weeks they have been in my chimney, their parents flying around the neighbouring fields and returning, jumping in and out of that small space. Jack, jack, jack. This morning they are out on the telephone line: all eight of them, making an unholy din. How eight of these large sooty birds can fit in that brick chimney I cannot imagine. Now they are taking part in a flying lesson: how to crash land into oak trees whilst making a loud running commentary, the way all members of the crow tribe love to do.
Buckminster Fuller once said modern people are like birds in an egg: we are hatching, but we don’t know it yet. We think our world is coming to an end. Food is running out, space is running out, what can we do? Without thinking we start tapping against the limits of our containment. Breaking through the shell. I think we are like those immature crows, stuck inside a dark chimney. It’s cosy but rather squashed and stinky in there. We get fed, but we’re hot and restless inside, fighting like mad with our brothers and sisters. Peak oil! Climate change! Economic collapse! Environmental disaster! There’s a whole new world out there: a world of lightness and air. Somehow we’ve got to get out of that hole.
This picture is of my father when he was young, with three baby greenfinches on his head, the moment before fledging. It was snapped by a local reporter in Sussex where he lived before he went to university and became a lawyer in the city. When I was a child he would tell me stories about the nature he loved in those years, the birds and the trees, about the French revolution for which he had an unusual passion. Like everyone else, I inherited my father’s world, with its rules and regulations, its traditions and teatimes. This world governed by bourgeois values, the world of possessions and form. But something in those stories about the earth, about people breaking out of limitation, out of an unjust rule, made me quit that comfortable nest and seek the light and air. Within a generation, those values disappeared in me.
Millions of us on this planet dream of freedom, of a liberation from that old restrictive mindset that holds the physical world in chains. We don’t know what shape it will take. We look back at History and we shudder. We look forward and see a blank space. What can we do? We can meet within the frame of Transition to see our predicament in a way that is not bound by form. By our compulsion to repeat what we have been told by our parents and teachers. We can create conditions and ways of exchange that are not hostile. We can provide the space and the time to allow something else to happen. Something that hasn’t been done yet. Because even though people may live bound by the laws of the ancien regime, they also carry the dream of the Earth and self-governance of the people within them.
The dream they sometimes tell their children, because they cannot imagine how to live it out themselves.
Today Chris and Tom are coming to visit us and we’re going to rehearse for the Low Carbon Roadshow in the garden. We're planning to do some street theatre for the Community Arts Fair Helen was writing about that the NR3 group are hoping to organise. They’re having their first meeting tonight in St Augustine’s Street. We’re planning to create a play for Transition. It’s new territory for all of us. We’re going to start where we left off at The Earth Hour outside the Forum at Spring Equinox. Four beings coming from different futures a hundred years hence, returning to the present to work out a way forward that will be of benefit for all beings – not just the privileged few, not just the humans. A new earth. A leap from the immense space we hold inside us, from our imagination, into blue sky.
In the crow's nest: Charlotte Du Cann in a (sycamore) tree, 2010; Dicky Du Cann with birds, 1945.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
It was the honeysuckle moment. Each flower has its moment: it spends weeks developing its individual show and then it bursts out into the world in a glorious mass of colour and beauty. When you learn to love flowers, you wait for those moments and treasure them when they arrive: the shocking moment when the bluebells shimmer in the woods like liquid fire, when the poppies ripple through the barley. Last week it was the hawthorn moment, this week we’ll head for the coast and find the sea kales flourishing in front of the nuclear power station at Sizewell. And for that moment we’ll immerse ourselves in the scent and presence of the great Krambe maritima growing in spite of all odds through the shingle. Holding a deep root in a hard time, for the flowers and for ourselves.
I have, like most people in this country, been able to avoid History and do not know how things would be in England if our social fabric breaks. I have however been through many individual shocks. A lot of them forced me to leave places and people, set-ups I had taken for granted, to look at the flimsy things I had depended on: spiritual fancies, culture, friendships, beliefs, reputation, innocence. Some of them made me abandon my biography entirely and start again. All of them broke me out of a small space. All of them made me more human. Only a heart that is broken and bitter knows how to feel beyond its personal circumstance and reach out for its fellows. When you have nothing to lose is when life opens up. When you are terrified of losing, you close down and don’t see the bigger picture, you only care for yourself, your space, your cherished beliefs about the world.
To be truly human, aligned with life, resilient, we need to hold on to what is dear and be prepared to let everything else go. To respond to that shocking moment we have to be flexible and open and to know how to work with people, so that History does not repeat itself and mash us in its maw. We have to practice thinking together, working together, exchanging things, sharing knowledge, knowing that the shocks will come and we can keep coherent and not fall apart. And like all resilient eco-systems, we need to be in communication and feedback what we experience and feel. Gathering up sweetness the way bees do from flowers. What we can’t afford to do is shut down.
So there was a different mood at Naomi and William’s last night. We discussed our wholefood co-op order and our new project, the Low Carbon Cookbook, but our usual exuberance about dishes we brought had shifted. We were no longer looking at carbon reduction in the light (sic) of reducing energy, as if our way of life was going to continue only more ecologically. We were looking at something else entirely around the kitchen table. A moment of radical change. A change which we can only look at for real when we are together, because each of us carries within us a vital component that makes that possible, both to see and to bear. Because that change is about coming together after decades of individualism. Because something about this moment is extraordinary, fragrant, unexpected yet known. Coming out of the dark, permeating the atmosphere, like honeysuckle after a storm.
Underneath the May; hawthorn flowers; honeysuckle and bumblebee door; Tully talking about resilience with the Strangers' Circle at Mangreen.
Monday, 7 June 2010
I had wanted to go back there for as long as I can remember. The small cove had lingered in my imagination, beckoning me through the years. A strip of river sand with soughing wind-bent pine trees on the cliffedge and a stretch of shining water. Only accessible by boat.
And then last week I went back. Mark and I set out up the Alde River with our neighbour Philip in his gaff-rigged boat Snow Goose. Philip spent a childhood sailing on the Deben further down the coast and now we all live alongside the Blyth. To live happily in East Anglia is to be kin to the water and its relationship with the land – reedbed, estuary, broad, marsh, fen. Eastern rivers are slow-moving but tidal, tricky to navigate. The Alde is broad, so at high tide you can have a good sail if the wind is fair. I know this because I used to spend all my summers here with the friends of my youth. This place urged me to leave the city, my desk, to make a leap into freedom. For years I yearned for this scent of salt and reeds, of open water and sky and the haunting curlew’s cry.
We rounded the bend and there it was: the shoreline dotted with pied birds, a small breeze on the green water, the squiffed red pines still guarding the clifftop. Utterly beautiful in the way that East Anglia is beautiful for those of us who love the waterlands.
It was perfect, a perfect place for a picnic, as it had always been. I held the moment in my heart, and then I let it go. We couldn’t land because Snow Goose has a fixed keel and this is a shallow inlet, and so we went about and tacked upriver along Blackwater, where the rhododendrons shimmered along the bank. A swan took off and flew past us. The spell of the past broke inside.
What has this got to do with Transition – apart from the obvious fact that sailing is about as low-carbon a way of travel you can imagine, only using the dynamics of wind and tide and current and your own human ingenuity and skill? Apart from the realisation that Transition has made us socially bold and confident on almost any topic - economics to ecology - so that we could have a dynamic friendship with our neighbours that might not have happened otherwise?
It’s got to do with Transition because nostalgia, a yearning to go back to places and times in a possible future, prevents us from living in the now, where we now most urgently need to live.
Because if we don’t love where we are and who we are with we won’t make it. We’ll be looking to be someplace else all the time, wrapped up in ourselves and our great sadness. We won’t put the best of ourselves on the line. We won’t have a reason to be in this neighbourhood, with this group of people, happy to be holding this dish of humble vegetables in our hands.
My three posts this week are about loving where you are. Not escaping into a holiday Earth that requires vast amounts of fossil fuel, but making steps to belong wherever you find yourself. Getting together with people and doing things in the creative way that Helen was talking about last week, taking care of the physical world in the craftsmen’s way John was talking about, paying attention to small things and thinking of the bigger things the visionary way Mark was talking about Bolivia: what some people call hologrammic imagination. Tapping into the workings of the world.
You see, Little Japan was called Little Japan because the quirky-topped trees look like the stylised trees in Japanese paintings. Of course they are nothing to do with Japan; they’re Scot’s pine, our oldest native trees, guardians of burial grounds and often planted as windbreaks in the sandy soils of Suffolk and Norfolk . Now I know about trees I don’t need to cover the place up with cultural references. It is as it is. Just as the Alde is all rivers, The River, and we are all people, navigating with the tiller in our hands, listening to the sound of water running underneath the boat, feeling the wind on our faces, in tune with ancestral fabric of the place, with each other.
On a broad reach, coming home to who we really are.