Tuesday 9 October 2012

1001 blogs and other tales

Last week on This Low Carbon Life we celebrated our third birthday. 1001 blogs on Transition and still posting! Rather than reading them backwards here, I'm listing the days I contributed to in one post in sequence. They document the different strands that make up a community blog and why I feel that "comms" is so key in Transition:

Today I'm writing our 1001st blog. We started This Low Carbon Life with a party and three years later the invitation is still open, as we celebrate our third birthday on 17 October at the Bicycle Cafe and the Keir Hardie Hall. Since then we have documented every aspect of resilience from allotments to zero waste. We have written short and long, nonchalantly, passionately, politically, in gritty black and white and in full-colour.We have looked at the big picture and the small print - from the impacts of global climate change to mending a kettle in our downshift kitchens.

This year in our topic weeks we looked at sustainable relationships, Transition documentaries,energy, buildings, blogs, trees, music, economics and livelihoods and development. We reported back from Norwich FarmShare, the Community Bees project, Low Carbon Cookbook and many encounters with the natural world - still our top subject (see Reconnection with Nature tag). Chris Hull's A Love Affair with Place became one of the Talkback comments on the new Transition Free Press; while Kerry, Charlotte and Mark have become full-on national bloggers on the Social Reporting Project (both publications inspired by work on this blog).

Since 2009 there have been 15 regular bloggers, who have contributed to this site, as well as many guest bloggers from Norwich's progressive quarters and neighbouring Transition initiatives. So hats off to all of us! It has been an extraordinary and productive commmunity enterprise and has inspired many people, including, of course, ourselves. Communication is a big part of resilience and opportunities to "show and tell", especially in a shared creative context, are increasingly valuable in our controlled,  locked-down culture.

Who knows where we will go next? As people have migrated to other projects - FarmShare, Magdalen Street Celebration -  left the initiative or the city, we have had to change our rhythm. We held our last Transition Themes Week #14 in May and in June we switched from running topic weeks and three-day shifts to a once-a-week rota. We now publish about three times a week, including occasional reposts from our awesome archive. Most of our work is original, and some of it cross-posted. Whatever shape or form this blog takes in the future, thank you dear readers for travelling with us.

So, as we head up for our birthday this week (October 4), we'll be publishing some of our favourite posts of 2012. Here to kick off is a reminder from our film week about what really matters when push comes to shove . . .

Baraka by Jon Curran
20 March 2012 
Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own lives, become obsessed with what my friend calls “first world problems”. The issues of the world outside our own bubble become abstract, almost academic. It takes something powerful to ground us again, to open our eyes to the wider world that we don’t always have direct access to.

I first saw Baraka in 1994 and I’ve watched it many, many times since. I call it a film without words; the name means “blessing”, and it’s a celebration of all that’s beautiful in the world, and an anguished cry against all that we do to destroy that beauty. It also, crucially, puts us, humans, in the context of the natural world around us, and reminds us that our cruelty to each other is not always in the action, but sometimes in the inaction too.

This is my favourite part – a montage set to great music by Dead Can Dance.

Bloggers meeting, upstairs at the Bicycle Cafe, St Benedict's Street at 6.30pm. Dancing from 8pm at Keir Hardie hall. For more info contact Charlotte Du Cann theseakaleproject@hotmail.co.uk
Images: Social Reporters at the Transition Conference at Battersea, late summer flowers from a roadside stall

Retroblog #2: Feedback
One of the major "tools" in communications is its ability to form feedback loops within any eco-system or culture. This is a vital part of embedding and establishing a new enterprise, as it gives value and meaning to everything and everyone involved.  Not only does feedback on meetings and projects keep people in the loop with what is going on, it creates a buzz and enables everyone to see how the initiative is developing, by recording and reflecting on our activities in time.

We live in a 24 hour get-this-done-and-over-with culture, so to establish what we do in Transition in time requires a steady and deliberate process. On the blog we do this by heralding events and then covering them (with text and images), and threading them back into our more reflective pieces.

At the recent Transition Conference a team of bloggers wrote 24 previews, on-site reports and reflections during a fortnight to give a rounded picture of the event. From November 2010 to May 2012 on This Low Carbon Life we ran fourteen Transition Themes Weeks which were specifically designed to report on the different projects initiated by Transition Norwich: these included Communications, Norwich FarmShare, Low Carbon Cookbook, Economics and Livelihoods, Transition Circles (Hethersett, West Norwich and Strangers') and Abundance. We also included the work of related groups.

Here is a piece from our Transition Themes Week #11 from a seasonal and investigative scheme, Norwich Energy Lookouts!

Images: spiderwebs amid wild carrot and plantain, September 2012 (Mark Watson); on a deadline at the Transition Conference (Laura Whitehead)
An Open and Shut Case by Chris Hull
11 January 2012 

Opening doors seem to emerge as metaphors for so many things, and in so many different fields and disciplines. From the football commentator's description of a team's defence being "like an open door", to doorways ( and stairways) to heaven, to many an artist's depiction of light and dark either side of a doorway. This seems to be a very long way from the pure functionality of a door!

When we launched the Energy Look Out initiative a couple of months ago, inviting people to tell us examples of everyday energy wastage in Norwich, we had several comments about the practice of shops and stores wedging doors open, with the consequent huge and rapid loss of heat from inside to out. Years ago, as a Councillor, I had occasion to take up this very issue with particular shops in Norwich following complaints.

The reason that shops do this is based on the belief that the door's position influences their footfall - that rather irritating commercial term used to describe how many customers actually go into the shop. To customers, of course, the feeling of warmth once inside is more important. This also applies often to the shop workers! So here we have a nice little microcosm of what is at the heart of promoting carbon reduction generally:
  • the differences in perception from one group of people to another over the same issue
  • a firmly held belief that is not actually supported by evidence (see below)
  • a linkage between commercial practice and public behaviour
  • a widespread practice that is actually responsible for high carbon emissions and financial cost, and which does not involve any cost or investment to change
Back to the doors. There is actually a national campaign to encourage the shutting of shop doors in the winter months - see here. To their credit, some shops in Norwich have signed up to this and display the sticker on their door to say so. The one here is at Oxfam in Bedford Street.

The campaign - started by 3 women in Cambridge - has now been endorsed by a number of well known politicians across the political spectrum, and has been signed up to by a range of the larger chains.

The practice of propping doors open persists, however....all the more surprising when the research carried out by Cambridge University on the energy and carbon wastage involved says shutting the door will:
  • Reduce energy usage by up to 50%
  • Cut a shop’s annual CO2 emissions by up to 10 tonnes of CO2
  • Maintain energy use at a standard low level
  • Enable heating to be shut off long before the end of the day without affecting internal temperatures

  • Stop need for so-called “air curtains” over the door – among the greatest wasters of energy: a single one consumes 24 kWh per day. This is equivalent to emitting 91 kg CO2 per week. The research found no conclusive evidence that footfall or transactions were affected by closing the shop door.(2)
This last point - "air curtains" are the commercial description for those fan heaters placed over open doors - is particularly poignant. Consider that the average household electricity consumption, for a whole house, is calculated as about 9 kWh per day, and you can see just how wasteful these contraptions are. My own household consumption now runs at an average of less than 1 kWh per day - more about that later when we talk about the whole subject of Energy in our theme week next week.

I never thought I would get so excited about doors.

Pictures Top: Waterstones in Back of The Inns, who keep 2 separate doors wedged open; Middle: Jarrolds Stores, Exchange Street, who keep all their doors shut; Bottom: Oxfam in Bedford Street, who keep their door shut and display the sticker. Further info on the scheme read intro news piece here

Retroblog #3: Resilience 
Diversity is what makes ecosystems, editorial and Transition resilient. Allowing diversity in a highly-defensive monoculture is a challenge. We are trained to follow the party line and want everyone to agree with My Right Opinion. Or else! Flexibility and allowance are not high on our agenda. Communications however can bring insight into others' lives and broaden world-views, without our going into attack. And thanks to DIY culture and Internet technology millions of people now have voices and faces in the world where once we were silent and invisible.

The beauty of  blogging is that it allows "non-professional" writers to explore and express their everyday encounters in innovative, creative ways. One of its downsides is that it fosters silo mentality and self-obsession. So how do you marry the unique creativity of social media and the group focus of Transition?

We created a community blog.

This Low Carbon Life has published many different, and sometimes differing, voices in the last three years. We have also held over 30 topic weeks that run across the whole spectrum of cultural change (see our tag cloud on the right-hand column). These weeks have revolved around a chosen subject (organised at our quarterly meetings), introduced and led by one of the crew. In this way we were able to show a diverse mix of views and takes on one area (as well as stretching ourselves to consider topics that were "out of our skill set"). This year these have ranged from How Transition Changed my Life (led by Mark Watson) to Sustainable Livelihoods (led by Simeon Jackson).

One of our most popular topics has been our tracking of the changing planet in our seasonal photoblogs; Last Autumn we focused on stocking our store cupboards, at midwinter we went into the frosty lanes, this spring we looked at Trees, and at midsummer celebrated the Festival of Transition.

But this is not the only aspect of planetary change we have covered. We have also tracked the lifestyles and mindsets we need to rework to get in synch with the living systems and face the challenges the three Transition drivers confront us with: climate change, peak oil,  economic collapse. We have done this the low-carbon way, by showing how hearts and minds can shift in our houses and neighbourhoods with a bit of resilience and DIY attitude. Here is John Heaser (main topics: planning, cycling, veg growing and toads!) during our Energy Week, led by Chris Hull.

Images: cycling on the beach (from Sustainable Relationships Week, led by helenofnorwich; under the Oak  by Mark Watson (from Trees in Transition, led by John Heaser); the blogosphere (from A Week on Blogs, led by Jon Curran)

Creature Comforts by John Heaser
20 January 2012 

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!

Retroblog #5: I never promised you a rose garden

As well as our topic and themes weeks on This Low Carbon Life we also wrote in three-day (originally five-day) shifts. It gave us a chance to focus on our "home" subjects and to see the breadth of each others' experiences and to respond (the great advantages of contributing to a community blog, as opposed to a solo one, is  knowing you are not on your own). These days allowed us to stretch our wings as writers and photographers and appreciate our different styles and takes on life.

Where we met was in our celebration of plants, people and places. So whether this was Jon talking about bees, planting an oak or finding a city fox, John reporting on his vegetable garden in Little Melton, or rescuing toads on Norfolk roads, Elena on the wild life at Norwich FarmShare or Helen celebrating the artist quarter of Magdalen Street, place making forms the heart of this blog. You could say it created a connection between us, as well as grounding us within our Transition stories. Climate change and "community" can be abstract things unless fully engaged with. A feeling, kinetic and imaginative connection to our neighbourhood and its inhabitants (not just human) help us all make ourselves at home in a rocky and restless time.

One of our most eloquent PPP reporters has been Mark, who manages to weave a love of the wild and medicine plants with an unswerving generosity towards fellow Transitoners. Funny, warm, self-depracating, as well as a great record of community events and meetings, his blogs regularly track the comings and goings of plants, particularly this year where he has curated a Transition medicine bed at Bungay Library Community Garden. I really enjoyed the winter (look still no heating!) Meanwhile let's talk about the weather, the springtime foraging epic Conquering Alexanders and the mix of midsummer meetings in  Life is roses... sometimes.

We are told that life should be a paradise, when we see all about us a wrecked and polluted kingdom. We depend utterly on the plants for our food and air and shelter, yet we are taught to treat them as mere commodities. Somehow we have to restore our relationship with the planet, with each other and get back on track.

Sometimes we find help in the most surprising places . . . .

Magdalen Celebration crew, 2011 from Shift Together - Working Title (helenofnorwich); Mark under neighbourhood cherry from Wallking with Weeds (Charlotte Du Cann)

Some Notes on Tracks and Edges by Mark Watson
31 March 2012
At the edge where we encounter another human being, we discover for ourselves what it is to have to break down a little... Cat Lupton

I am standing on the platform at Lowestoft Station. It is early evening. April 2010. And May. And June. In under an hour I will have traversed the Broads on the two-coach train, past the swans and waterways, past the big sugar factory, past the wide green and gold vistas and the boatyards. And will have arrived in Norwich where I am on my way to a carbon conversations course.

I have loved these journeys, made possible as they have been by a bus service connecting Lowestoft to where I live further down the coast. This will not last. The bus route which has run for 26 years will be reduced then scrapped altogether in the Autumn. No more connecting night buses. The carbon conversations will finish.

I am unsure about the carbon conversations, a 6-session course over twelve weeks aimed at helping people reduce personal and household carbon use and emissions using a non-confrontational approach. I often feel like I’m at school disrupting more well-behaved pupils in a quiet and serious class, and prefer the more creative, deeper, experimental nature of our Stranger’s Circle meetings where we bring our household energy bills to show each other, take a good look at the industrial food system, have difficult conversations about transport use. Where we're making it up as we go along. Where there's more of an edge.

Down the line (sic) I see the value in both approaches, and it was through both the Strangers’ Circle year and carbon conversations that the Low Carbon Cookbook group was born, which meets monthly to explore low carbon ways of buying, growing and preparing food (and write a book about it – always the hardest part!)

But back to the easternmost station in England. I have no such ambivalence about the journeys themselves (carbon-footprint-calculated though they were). Having downshifted in a major way over the past decade from someone who travelled all over the place in bus, car, train and plane, I rarely travel beyond East Anglia now. And I’ve learned to become less spoilt, less desirous of more ‘glamourous’ destinations, more present to where I am.

That platform for instance. If you walked past where the small train stops, where no one goes, in June and July of 2010, you would find, there at the edge, the most extraordinary outbursting of native wildflowers and medicine plants, all Growing Up Through the Cracks: midsummer Mugwort, St. John’s Wort, Plantain and Yarrow, Buddleia and Wild Carrot. All shining in the early evening light. The plant the Chinese use for moxa in acupuncture, the ‘sunshine herb’ dispeller of demons and nightmares, the menders of myriad wounds, the butterfly bush and the ancestor of one of our favourite vegetables.

It is so easy to hate: those who flail the countryside hedgerows and pour poison on the poppies by the junction of the main road. The stupidity of councils and people obsessed by tidiness. The compulsion to keep anything that smacks of ‘wild’ or ‘untamed’ out or under strict control.

Those rude, healthy, resilient plants. How dare they push through those cracks in the polite concrete and tarmac. In the end they were not left alone, beautiful and shining on that part of the platform where hardly anyone went, but removed in the manner of all ‘weeds’ in the name of civic orderliness. They still make their appearance further over on the tracks and by the fences though it’s not quite the same.

And anyone who loves the 'wastegrounds' and the natural world will know how difficult it is to live with the feelings that these things bring up. In my pre-Transition years I was frequently overwhelmed by them. Now after all the meetings and events, carbon conversations and circles, food and plant swaps, wild plant and foraging walks and experiments in downshifting, I still feel the same about the destruction of wildflowers and their habitats, but I'm tougher. I'm taking people out to show them where the 'weeds' grow, what their properties are, how they feed bees, how they heal us and how beautiful they are in their own right, and curating a plant medicine bed with related events.

Not that Transition has been either an easy ride or a magic pill. Learning to temper one's individualism to relate to others, even include them at all and not lose yourself, can be a struggle. There's the frequent temptation to cut off when that carbon conversation is just too, too... annoying. Boring. Left brain. Whatever. Or to simply go along with things that don't feel right because challenging them would make you feel like you WERE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO FELT LIKE THAT and EVERYONE would look at you like the OUTSIDER YOU REALLY ARE and you would be EXILED.

But engaging in that struggle, difficult, edgy though it is, can bring a meaning and sense to life which no amount of comfort or opulence will ever bring.

And the quote at the top of this piece? It's from an extraordinary post, Meeting Your Edge, by Cat Lupton, writing this week on The Place Between Stories about grappling with individuality and community after an introduction to permaculture course.

It was reading Cat's post that gave me pause to consider these things.

Pics: Mugwort Lowestoft railway station 2010; on the train to Norwich, Lowestoft, 2010; Midsummer wildflowers, Lowestoft, 2010; Plants for Life talk at Bungay Library community garden, 2012

Retroblog #7 opening the post

One of the strengths of a community blog is its inclusivity. As well as inviting comments from anyone around the world, it can also be open to "outside" contributors. Alongside our regular reporters on This Low Carbon Life we also welcome guest bloggers. These posts are either commissioned as part of a topic or theme week, or they form part of an occasional series on Sundays. This year we have had several cross posts from the Social Reporting Project (including posts from TN ex-blogger Kerry now stationed in Wales), beginning with Bye Buy by Adrienne Campbell about a collective pledge to buy no more "stuff" in 2012.

Most of our stories however have been closer to home. From the Magdalen-Augustine Celebration collective we featured stories from local Norwich blogger, Rachel Lalchan and the singer James Frost. James wrote about the Green Buildings open days for our Buildings week and the new city car share scheme in the transport slot in a Transition Themes week.

Sarah Gann from Norwich FarmShare launched their Abundance project with Where are all the fruit and nut trees? and Josiah Meldrum celebrated an ancient and modern East Anglian staple in Mean Beans.  From our Transition Circles we had stories about Transition Hethersett and reskilling in Circle West and from the Low Carbon Cookbook, Sophie Chollet's Water Water Everywhere and Not Any Drop to Drink

Today's piece was written by fellow Dark Mountaineer, Jeppe Graugaard who first came to Transition Norwich on the eve of a Midsummer Reskilling Picnic, organised by the (then) Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Well-being group in 2009. Here he visits us again at a talk given by Rob Hopkins in November to celebrate the launch of The Transition Companion.

Images: packaging for Great British Beans, launched in 2011; "transitioned" car poster in NR3

Re-imagining the future by Jeppe Graugaard

Today's post is by Jeppe Graugaard who is researching grassroots innovations at the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA (where he undertook an MSc on Climate Change, 2008-9). He runs a website/blog called Pattern Which Connects. Here you can find his work on grassroots innovations, most recently on the Dark Mountain Project, and the exploration of personal and collective stories for change.

Although I missed the cake, Transition Norwich's three year birthday do was a really enjoyable evening with lots of inspiring stories about transition. The 15 minute film showing what kind of activities are going on within Transition Norwich highlighted to me the diversity of projects that transitioners instigate. It was also great to see the different 'ingredients of transition' that Rob Hopkins presented, from food projects to street
parties and local money Transition Towns keep innovating new ways of building resilience and reviving local economies. Transition seems to just keep growing and diversifying.

This is probably due to an insistence, in Hopkins' words, that there is no right way to do transition and an underlying openness to the new. Although there are overarching stories about what transition is doing – like “trying to articulate what it will be like when Norwich's carbon footprint becomes like Mozambiques” – there is no formula for what transition looks like (although there obviously are ingredients). The focus is on showing what is possible when a group of people come together determined to explore what a low carbon life might mean. The transition approach is one of inclusion rather than confrontation, as it also came out in the discussion about transition and politics in the q&a after Hopkins' talk.

The positive vision underlying transition is inspiring and draws people into a space where they can begin to re-imagine the future. This is crucial for motivating and creating change. But it is also slightly at odds with the rather grim situation we are facing, including running out of oil and increasing climate change, but extending to what has been termed the sixth mass extinction or ecocide. 

Whatever statistic you use, it doesn't look good – we are living through a century where about three species are wiped out every hour that ticks by. This is not something that makes me feel very positive. In fact it is rather overwhelming.A couple of years ago, I had a kind of nihilistic breakdown of sorts where most things stopped making sense against the background of the havoc we as a species are imposing on the planet (and on a smaller scale what is happening to wild places in England). It seemed that it didn't make much sense to continue talking about carbon emissions, carbon trading, low carbon transition plans and carbon rationing anymore. If my family two generations down the line will not be able to share their lives with many of the other living beings that I care for and love, what's the point? Is the only future we can imagine one where humans continue to dominate the natural environment? One where the 'solution' to climate change is devising technical solutions which will allow us to ignore our conscience and continue exploiting the seas, the mountains and the forests?

I got through my nihilism and life went on. However, it seemed clear that the 'problem' of climate change, peak oil and biodiversity loss is our way of thinking. Somewhere along the line we totally lost sight of nature, we relegated it to 'other', to 'resources' and to 'entertainment'. That's why the positive vision underpinning transition must be complemented by an honest attempt to break free of the underlying way of thinking that is the source of our control-mania, blinkers and flippant optimism. Times are tough and it looks like they are going to get tougher. It is not easy. Last night in the pub I overheard a discussion where one guy brazenly stated that he did not care about what is happening in Greece because what matters is your immediate surroundings, your closest and your everyday life. I empathise, but we've got to start caring about the wider world, even the non-human world, because in our interconnected and networked lives the everyday is inextricably linked to the rest of the globe. For better and for worse. 

When I came across the Dark Mountain Project, it seemed like I had found a place where it was ok to be sad or worried about the state of the world but also where the worry was transformed into support and constructive action. Someone told me at the Dark Mountain festival in August that “sometimes one can feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, and I go away from this [festival] feeling less overwhelmed, and thinking 'no, perhaps all these ideas I have aren't so silly after all, and I should carry on pursuing them' […] There are projects which I want to start getting moving which will... coming here makes me feel more like I am going to do them.” In that way, I think we all found encouragement and strength. My festival neighbour put it thus: “For me Dark Mountain is a meeting point where… really, the main point is listening, is hearing other people. Seeing how they do things, and then how that can help me do my thing.”

When I met Dougald Hine – Dark Mountain co-founder with Paul Kingsnorth – after the festival, he explained this same sentiment in terms of what happens when we come together with our frustrations and decide to start thinking differently:
The night before the riots started [in London], I was starting work on an essay which I put to one side and will come back to. It started with the proposition 'the game is almost over'. It is time to remind ourselves that it was a game, and that we are the players rather than the pieces we've been playing with. The game, in a sense, is what we've known as capitalism. It's the way of viewing the world, and the actions that follow from that, where you tweak reality as made up of things which can be counted, measured, priced. And once you agree to that rule then certain kinds of behaviour become almost inevitable.

A lot of the stuff we've said about human nature is really about the nature of humans when playing that particular game. And history and anthropology have a lot of other material for us which shows that there are other constellations in which we can be human together than the ones which are normal under the rules of this particular game. And as this unravels then things are likely to be useful or not useful to the extent that they have an awareness built in that there are other games that humans are capable of playing.
So, let's start playing different games. Dark Mountain Norwich meets regularly in central Norwich. Come join the conversation. Jeppe Graugaard (jeppegraugaard@gmail.com)

You can read the interview with Dougald Hine in its full length here

Jeppe on the road; stone hill from Circles on Pattern Which Connects; discussion about education and the future at the Uncivilisation Festival; cover of Dark Mountain Issue Two All publications available on the Dark Mountain website.

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