Friday 31 December 2010

Changing the Frequency

In one of the last entries for 2010 on Transition Culture Rob Hopkins posts his interview with Christopher Alexander, a discussion of the links between A Pattern Language and the new Transition ingredients. At some point the architect and writer's wife, Maggie enters the conversation:

"If Transition was successful, what the community would feel - it would feel like home. Simple. Everyone can feel that feeling. You know it when you see it; it just feels like home. You walk down the street and somebody’s planted nut trees and they’re excited to tell you about all the nut trees they’ve planted . . . And how it can replace wheat or what it was you said. They’re excited because they’re making their home – that’s what it looks like!"

I’ve done a lot of giving up in my life - pleasures, habits and physical possessions. First when I went on the road in 1991, then when I joined the Transition movement in 2o08. So when people talk about giving up our materialist, greedy lifestyle, I know what they mean. Because I’ve done it. But it’s how we proceed, how we engage with life that’s really important. Sure you can cut your carbon emissions by half the national average, as some of us in Transition Norwich did last year, but can you still love the world? Can you make a place feel like home? Can you make Transition feel like home?

Alexander’s grammar of vernacular buildings speaks to us because our desire to belong goes deep. It’s an unspoken and unsatisfied force within us. We’ve come from a deracinated culture, deliberately alienated and set against one another in order that we aspire to the shiny, sugary, power-driven heavens manufactured by the empires of the world. But these are chimeras. We work hard to live in houses, but they don’t always make us feel at home. To belong is to become embedded in the living, dancing fabric of the earth. In all its colour and warmth, harmony and beauty.

When the writer Bruce Chatwin walked across the desert to the the ancient city of Persepolis, he noticed his nomad guide took no notice of the ceremonial tents erected by the modern rulers of Iran, as they passed by. When they arrive at the ruined city, Chatwin gazes at the megalomaniac inscriptions of its former tyrant-king: I fought, I slew, I conquered.

“Again I tried to get the Quashgai boy to look. Again he shrugged. Persepolis might be made of matchsticks for all he knew or cared – and so we went up into the mountains.”

Why did the young man not care about the city? Because the city was not in him. To live as a nomad, as a free man, to go home at the end of a long road, means you live by different laws. It means you follow a track, a songline, invisible to the naked eye.

The patterns that hold us happily within the fabric of the natural world are not mind-made or mechanistic. Don’t let Transition get mechanistic, cautions Alexander.

Don't imagine that science will save bees, only a change in our lifestyle will save the bees, declares Heidi Hermann.

I’m at the Bee Summit in London in December and the queen bee of the Natural Beekeeping Trust is laying down the law that science for all its cleverness cannot see. The honeybee lives within the sun-ordered rainbow-coloured frequency of the earth, absolutely in tune with her environment. Without the honeybee workers, 90 per cent of our crop species don’t get pollinated. The lawyers, politicians and official institutions are insisting that only when the scientific data is correctly submitted will Britain consider banning the neonicotinoid pesticides that are causing losses within bee colonies everywhere (the British Beekeeping Trust has until recently received thousands of pounds to endorse the pharmaceutical companies that make them). But this is 2010 - a year in which the number of hives in Britain doubled - and this is a room full of beekeepers in a city one third of which is made of people’s flowering backgardens. Beekeepers from Highgate Cemetery, the Royal Parks, The Tate Gallery, Chelsea Physic Garden. A great murmuring has started up amongst us. The upholders of the mechanistic world get stung by intelligent questions from the floor. Heidi gets a standing ovation.

The world doesn’t change because you change your behavior. But because you let go. When you let go of habits and things you realise you have been living within a certain configuration, a certain frequency that keeps you trapped in an artificial empire. I came. I slew. I conquered. When bees are affected by systemic pesticides they lose their ability to orientate themselves according to the sun and find their way back to the hive. In their dramatic disappearances bees have been telling us something, and in spite of our acquisitiveness, our chemical dependencies, our arrogant left-brain thinking, we’ve begun to respond. From somewhere we had long forgotten about.

There is a shift out there and sometimes you can feel it. No amount of media control, of distraction, of police brutality can cover it up. You can’t legislate against it. Because it’s invisible and intangible, something you can’t see with the naked eye. It’s a collective human feeling, in synch with all the living beings on the planet. A frequency that happens when people start to link up, share their stores, their sweetness, tune back in, start acting like bees in each others' interests. And that’s a feeling you can’t stop. And that’s the feeling I intend to take with me into the new year. 2011. A year when millions of us start coming home.

Abandoned house in Detroit (; shut-up houses in Coleman Road, Norwich; beehive in snow from National Beekeeping Trust . Rosebay Willowherb from Plants for Bees project, Bungay Community Bees by Mark Watson. Quotation from The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Sun Rising

Solstice is a door you go through. Perhaps the greatest door of the year. Thirty years ago, when I was 23 I walked out of the door and left Christmas behind – all its sentimentality and gift-wrapped pressures, the small violence of drawing rooms. I left turkey and television and fled into the mountains with my friends. There we drank vino caldo and flew down the slopes and felt free. It was as if a spell had broken and I was suddenly released from the grip of December and could roam the world. I went skiing in Kashmir, swam in the Caribbean ocean, discovered Venice and New York, and finally I went travelling as a way of life in lands where tinsel time never came. But I also left Winter behind, and everything that meant in terms of time and a place on earth. I lived in a perpetual and artificial summer. And one day I knew I had to come back and find a place to live. I went to Newgrange in Ireland, now the most famous Neolithic burial mound in the world. Once it commanded the hill and the wind sang through its abandoned chambers. Now it is a world heritage site, its stony face tidied up and fenced off. You have to take a shuttle bus with a tour guide who tells you what once happened here, as you stare obligingly at the three rocks that command the entrance with their mysterious spirals like giant snakes. The guide does not know what they mean. In spite of all this control the mound is an awesome space inside. As we sat in the dark our guide clicked on a torch and talked about the different kinds of mark-stones. On one there was etched a sheaf of corn. No one knows what that means either, she said and fell silent. And then she turned off the light. We looked through the Winter Solstice door. It was quite small inside the mound, and you could sense people in the dark, strangers pressed together close, like animals, and in this silence I felt something unexpected: I felt suddenly how it was when the people came together and waited for the moment when the door of the great year swung open, when the sun came back to the earth and the darkness of Newgrange became full of sunlight, and your heart burst open with excitement. In the days when everyone lived according to the time of the sun and earth. When I came back I wanted to discover what those snakes meant and those doors of time. And I walked for miles across the land, recovering myself as a dweller of these misty islands, as someone whose heart could leap at the sight of the sun rising. I wanted to belong, not to society, not to culture. but to a land shaped by ancestral forces. I wanted to become native, so that no one could tell me I did not belong to the earth or to life. The stone door in the first picture is at Wayland’s Smithy, an ancient burial mound on a hill in Oxfordshire where I began my quest. These hills in central England are crowned with circles of beech trees with small tracks leading to them that have been walked for thousands of years. Carved into the hillside is a mysterious figure some call the White Horse and others the white dragon, indicating that this hill, like many mountains of the world, is where the treasures of the earth are kept. Wayland was the lame smith of the Saxon gods who wrought their fine jewellery but the burial mound on this hill goes back way before he kept his elven forge here. It contains the bones of certain people buried at a certain time who wrought another kind of treasure entirely. This burial mound comes before everything we know. It comes before the temples, pyramids, the cities and the libraries, before the gods and before the invaders of this island. I lay above my ancestors on this mound like a grassy whale in the centre of England and for the first time in my life felt entirely at home.

I delved into libraries and I sat under trees. I lit fires and marked the calendar of the year. I discovered that at the solstices an ancient struggle is enacted between the oak kings: the deciduous oak, the ascending sun, and the holm or evergreen oak (here the holly) who rules the dark half of the waning year. At the apexes of solar year, the light and the dark battle with one another, and one cedes rulership to the other. It's a mythology we know in fragments, in snatches of song, ritual, carol and rhyme, Who killed cock robin? (the bird of the oak). It was I with my little eye, said Jenny Wren (bird of the holm). I found that these mythologies are like a code that points us to where the real treasure of life is kept. Red berry, red breast, red blood. Solar fire. The mythic language resonates within you in a deep place, in deep time - a language of stone and star, a track of geese flying across a liquid sky. Bone knowledge, heart knowledge. At the solstice you tap into that bone knowledge of yourself, the part that remembers everything about your homeland, as you wait scanning the horizon, across an empty field, on top of the hill. You know that no matter what fairy stories you have been told, gospels according to Luke or Darwin or Sigmund Freud, your human parents do not give you the spark of life - the breath in your lungs, the food in your mouth, the wood that stokes the fire, the rhythm that beats in your heart. And that the primary relationship lies not within the institution of family, but within the creative matrix of the earth and sun. If, as Jeremy Rifkin suggests we are moving beyond psychological consciousness towards the realm of bio-spheric, where we are empathic with all living things, it is this relationship, released from our bonds of tribal obligation, where our attention now needs to go. In modern life it is hard to pay attention to the big things that matter, so prevented and distracted are we from the wild and the deep, the elemental, the ancestral, the true allegiance of our hearts. Yet waking this morning it is everywhere I look. Snowlight filling the house. A fresh breeze across the land. In the gaps of the clouds a full moon in eclipse and Venus shining, and to the East an invisible sun starting its ascent. A planetary moment under a great oak. A new day. Happy solstice everyone!

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire; yew, Box Hill, Surrey; sea forest, Borth, Wales; Solstice moon, Southwold, Suffolk.

From topic week on Midwinter

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Thinking Like A Creator - Transition and A Pattern Language

I first came across A Pattern Language with Adam. He and his boyfriend were reconstructing an adobe house with their own hands in the cattle-blasted valley outside town, and we were walking around the "garden", talking about the plants they could sow back into this red earth where only creosote now grew. They wanted to turn it back into the native grassland that used to wave golden in fall, mile upon mile, right down into Mexico. Adam was reconstructing his life. He had to give up his work as a graphic designer in New York because he had developed an allergy to almost all chemicals. He had become so sensitive that you couldn’t wear any kind of artificial scent around him.

The house was small and deserted in that great space. The empty swimming pool was full of frogs and leaves and the dead cottonwood by the porch had two great horned owlets inside. It had the kind of dilapidation and promise that made you feel you could start again. Right here, right now. He lent us the book. “It’s brilliant,” he said.

Christopher Alexander’s masterwork of environmental design, written with several other architects and academics over eight years, lays out a practical and imaginal map for human dwellings and settlements. When you open the pages it brings that same excitement I felt that day in the desert. It’s a peculiarly European response to North America (Alexander is Austrian, educated in England, worked in Berkeley, California). A sudden release from an old cluttered history into a new unexplored world. The feeling you can start all over again with the best of everything you left behind.

The book contains 253 patterns that go from planning large conurbations to making natural doors and windows. It sets out problems of design and then solves them with the elegance of a mathematician and the eye of an artist. Each pattern cross-references and interlocks with others, and as you work your way across the rooms and gardens, the squares and park benches, coffee shops and workshops you feel a delight in what planners call the “built environment”. Each pattern brings a sense of discovery: Different Chairs. Farmhouse Kitchen. Quiet Backs. You look at houses and streets differently afterwards. As if they matter.

A Pattern Language is the inspiration behind the Transition Patterns (or Ingredients) now being compiled by Rob Hopkins, as the baseline for starting up and developing initiatives in the way the 12 Steps did previously. It follows the same layout: presenting 63 Patterns that move from the small (the individual in Transition) to the large (the initiative working with government) and cross-referencing them in six sections. But in its content the similarity starts to part ways.

Transition does not have eight years to compile a beautifully-made book, published by an academic publishers (OUP), selling for £25 a copy. It does not have the benefit of a cultural past to lean on. All those lovely old facades and piazzas. Those black and white photographic gems by Kertesz and Cartier Bresson. Alexander’s book is alluring to both professional and lay readers because it presents places and situations we want to linger in: arbours and arcades. Places of desire.

Transition Ingredients come out of necessity. Crucially the patterns are not physical. They are verbs or qualities rather than nouns. Standing Up to Speak, Becoming the Media, Personal Resilience. You engage in them, rather than possess them or receive them as a passer-by. It's difficult to convey in images and words the real value and beauty of what happens inside when we come together to create the future. When we communicate. The pictures of Transitioners doing our thing in assembly halls across the world do not appear like the stuff of dreams. So the feeling on encountering this workbook-in-progress is very different. You feel you have to make some effort to get to grips with it. And like everyone else in this time of downshift, you’re not sure you want to do that right now.

Except of course we don’t have that kind of choice. “We are a culture shifting from well-having to well-being” as the voice-over reminds us in The Eleventh Hour, and moving our minds out of a consumer framework is part of that shift. Thinking like a creator means you have to consider everything as you forge a new way forward. You have to flesh out the blueprint, reconfigure yourself and your neighbourhood and make a record as you give everything a go. You can’t buy Transition, or sit in the audience and make a critique, you have to do it. It’s an active thing. A responsibility thing.

And when I say you I’m using the vocative case. I mean me too. I’m finding it mightily hard to write comments to the Patterns that have been going up now almost one a day for the last few weeks on the Transition Network. But tomorrow I’m going to give it a go. Give some examples of what we’ve been doing in Norwich and Bungay in these last two years. Starting up this co-creative community blog for one. Planting a few seeds in the scorched earth. A few ideas to inspire an exhausted world. Starting over again with the best things we have in our hands.

A Pattern Language in Pattern No.128 Indoor Sunlight; sunrise on the east coast from Personal Resilience, August; Mark and Josiah Being the Media, kitchen table, May.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Sisters Are Doing It For Ourselves

“We didn’t make a good job before,” laughs Apache Ray. “We’re going to leave it to the women this time.”

Apache Ray, brought up in a Mexican neighbourhood in Los Angeles, has returned to his native homeland in the Dragoon Hills and has opened up a trading post as a communications centre. We’re here looking at a patch of land behind the store he wants to turn into an indigenous herb garden and he has asked for Greta’s help. Greta, 25, has just written a paper about Apache medicine plants that grow all around these hills and arroyos. It’s a beautiful Spring day in the desert at the turn of the century. Gold California poppies ribbon the highway, blue lupines shine on the hillside and rings of evening primroses cover the red earth, like white handkerchiefs.

I had a feeling then as we all sat under the ramada of what is was like when people could come together without rancour and start again. When wild flowers could recover the earth like a rainbow. When the fiercest tribe in America could lay down their arms. And say that perhaps there was another way of doing things.

* * * *
“You have to be the thread,” said Eloise and we laughed. “Feel the thread and do it anyway,” I added, mostly to myself. We’re doing Button Holes today. Last week it was Zips and the week before Darts. It’s a sewing class on a Sunday afternoon at Bungay Library. We’re reskilling ourselves. Or rather I’m reskilling myself as surely the world’s worst needlewoman. Descended from generations of brilliant seamstresses and having worked in fashion with some of the world’s most beautifully-wrought clothes for over a decade, and yet I can hardly thread a needle. Originally I felt complete and utter resistance to coming here. Like everyone else I like shining at what I am good at. Not failing. In another context I would not have returned given the hopelessness that engulfed me when faced with this recycled, ferociously fast Singer sewing machine that seemed to have a will of its own.

But I did come back. And mostly because Eloise is running the class. She shows us her grandmother’s examples of perfect stitching, and we find ourselves effortlessly getting on with the clothes we have brought to make or mend. If we get stuck, we ask. It’s not really a class at all. You absorb everything as you go along. Mia and I make tea, Mark reads Keziah (Eloise’s 3 year old daughter) a story. And suddenly we all start singing Dancing Queen (Abba! Oh, please). There’s a good vibe in here, industry, self-organisation, creativity, inclusion. In that kind of harmony you can find connections and solutions that a competitive and controlling set-up would not allow.

“How is it going with that speech, Ellie?” I ask. Elinor rolls her eyes skywards. Elinor is in charge of Bungay Community Bees and she’s been asked to speak at the Capital Bee Summit on Thursday in London. Everyone wants to know what the Business Model is for the UK’s first Community Supported Apiculture. Our local Transition sub-group has inspired the start-up of community-owned beehives all over the city and it’s difficult to put what happened this summer in the neighbourhood orchards into a rational "left-brain" format. How can you describe something that catches people’s imagination? How can you describe why an enterprise works because joining it makes you feel you belong to life and to people and to the earth? Because it’s in synch with the eco-systems and with the time we are living and you just “get it”? Because it’s a group organised by female workers. Just like a hive.

So you see when I say sisters are doing it for ourselves, I mean another way of doing things is an intrinsically female way of doing things. This has nothing to do with the patriarchy or the matriarchy, or feminism, or Women are Better Than Men, it’s a beehive approach. A structural shift to right-brain perception, free from duality and me-versus-you. One person is the queen bee and because she is in that position, tirelessly productive, in tune with the whole hive, we all can get on with what we do. Which is bringing back sweetness and storing it up for future generations.

Writing about honey in a book on medicine flowers, I once wrote how the artist Joseph Beuys set up an installation in the 1970s called Honey Pump in the Workplace. Fat and honey were pumped around the gallery, creating a space in which new human communications could happen:

“During the war as a Luftwaffe pilot, Beuys had crashed into the snow-bound steppes of the Crimea and been rescued by Tartar nomads. He had been wrapped in fat and felt to keep him alive. It was an encounter that informed all his subsequent work. Many of his installations juxtaposed the vibrant dynamics of nature with a modern industrial life that produced cold-blooded human beings with materialistically-hardened thoughts, incapable of empathy or mystery. The warmth and movement of natural substances (in this case fat and honey) that related to the warmth and movement of our blood, activated the higher centres of our consciousness: thought became imagination, feeling became inspiration, and will, intuition. In short, the alchemical presence of honey provided the warmth and vibrancy in which real, heart-felt communication could take place.”

Transition gives you a starting point. It gives you a defined space in time, untarnished by history. Here we are: we have to relearn and restore and start again. We would not be here together singing in the library if this were a craft class, organised by the old community system. We’re here because it’s a new way, and we’re here because it feels good to be together. And in that warmth and camaraderie another world can happen. And that’s why in the year 2000 in Cochise, Arizona Apache Ray asked Greta to plant his medicine flower garden.

We can dance. We can jive.
Having the time of our lives.

Cathy; Charlotte, Eloise and Kate in Margaret's garden, Sustainable Bungay Core Group meeting, August 2010; Eloise teaching the art of zips, Bungay Library; Elinor teaching beecraft, Barsham; evening primrose in Cochise county, Arizona.

Monday 13 December 2010

We Don't Talk About That Kind of Thing Around Here

For a long time there were two subjects you never talked about around the table: Politics and Religion (you weren’t supposed to have any emotions either but that’s another story). They were considered dangerous topics. So it wasn’t until I went to university and fell in with a crew of Northern working-class radicals and lived in the slums of Birmingham that I discovered my political self. Not until I took a class called Politics and Religion in the English Revolution did I realise how whole populations can be controlled and changed by ideas. Not until I met Mark and travelled to the high mountains of South America in my mid-30s did I know anything about spirit. I could have spent my life avoiding both experience of and contemplation on those big shapers of human destiny.

If I had stayed obedient to the polite rules of my upbringing, I would never have discovered my innate radical nature: the ability to change myself at the root and thus the world I lived in. Transition, equally radical in its vision, has up to now also avoided the P and the R word. We have in our initiatives focused on the positive aspects of building a resilient community, priming ourselves to downshift into a low-carbon economy. But the climate of the world is changing and with it its mood. In spite of a distracting and manipulative press, we are as people getting smart about a lot of subjects that were once the province of professionals. As our consciousness expands and thousands of grassroots movements across the planet push upwards, so the corporations and those who wield power on their behalf push us back down. And push down hard. We want things to change radically in terms of social justice and the environment. And they really don’t.

Last week Rob Hopkins published two long articles on his blog, Transition Culture. One was about The Big Society and the other a response to Michael Brownlee who was calling for Transition US to evolve and split from its original genesis in Ireland and England. His argument, as Mark mentioned last week, is that "the Sacred" needs to be at the core of the movement, in the same way as Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (the seminal design work on which the new model for Transition is based).

The Network decided to endorse neither, for many clear and cogent reasons. It was a relief, not just because I had no desire to go along with a Conservative agenda (or for that matter a split from America), but because a social taboo was broken. The upper classes avoid talking about Politics and Religion because they know they are based in the ruthless power of the will which once unleashed can break up dinner parties and the fragile relationships between guests. Transition has avoided them for a similar reason. They separate and divide groups and can lead to non-constructive discussion and actions. Encouraging the energy of against rather than for.

However these historical forces need to be out in the open. We need to be aware of what we are up against and how power and ideas can split people into factions. This is a time for coming together, not defining differences according to country, religion, class or political party. The ability to bring diverse peoples together and work as a composite is one of Transition’s greatest strengths.

So my own response from the waterlands of East Anglia to Brownlee in rocky Colorado is that the core of Transition is the collective heart of people, not an abstract “spiritual” force, or worse still some non-human entity with apocalypse on the agenda. Climate change is scary enough without the threat of raptures and purifications as well. Transition is essentially about descending, not ascending or transcending. We need to be down-to-earth and very human indeed to make it to the lifeboat.

Having cosmic moments on mountains and enlightenments in forests are a matter of personal perception and destiny. They are internal and extraordinary events. But they don’t cut the biscuit when it comes to community, to reconfiguring the way we do ordinary things like reducing carbon emissions or exchanging skills. Spirituality does not make a good common ground between people as it is neither common nor ground. The archetypal world in which most spiritual systems operate is hierarchical and lofty: it turns ordinary modern people into gods and priests, gurus and shamans, pure, elected, evolved and way above the non-sacred folk on this so-called non-sacred planet.

I spent 17 years investigating “the shift of consciousness”, reconnecting with the earth and reading all kinds of right-on spiritual works. By 2008 I was well connected with nature but alone when it came to my fellow human beings. It wasn’t until I joined Transition that I could really talk with my neighbour as myself. Any encounter with the planet right now would direct us towards people and neighbourhood, to break down the barriers between us: because it’s not trees or rivers that are the cause of our planetary dilemma. It’s our civilisation.

The best use of spiritual knowledge any of us might have gleaned from practice would be to dispel our civilisation’s grand illusions (including spiritual illusions) and to bring fellow feeling into play. We do not need to be further separating ourselves into holier-than-thou communes. Or escaping into “woo woo” worlds. Or criticising Transition because it doesn’t uphold to our grandiose ideas of ourselves or how life should be. We need to get our feet on the ground and start forging a common language, a culture that makes sense of energy descent. Most of all we need to unlock and share our practical and creative genius and work together without falling out.

The structure of the Transition Patterns or Ingredients are there for everyone to use in their own initiative’s style. If we engage with them whole-heartedly they will bring rewards. Even if we took just one and worked with it as a practice within our community. Alexander’s A Pattern Language is more creative than spiritual. There is great poetry in the patterns and their relationship with one other, as Alexander makes clear in his introduction. There is great poetry in what Transition is doing. But we talk to each other in prose. That’s important. Many of us recognise the cosmology that Brownlee is writing about, but to seek to live everyday in those kind of “sacred” dimensions is ultimately isolating. We don’t meet each other in the dreamtime. We meet each other here.

Banner at the Great Norfolk Anti-Cuts Demo; path up the mountain, the Andes, 1992; sitting under the neighbourhood cherry tree, Southwold 2010; patterns of ice outside the kitchen window. Photos: Mark Watson

Sunday 5 December 2010

Uniting the Kingdom - the Great Norfolk Anti-Cuts Demonstration 4/12

By Charlotte Du Cann

"What was that phrase?" asked the student. “United we stand...”
“Divided we fall,” we chorused.

There were a thousand of us at least standing beside the bandstand in Chapelfield Gardens, stamping our feet against the bitter cold. The last time I stood here it was a sunny autumn day, and I was listening to a song by Seize the Day dedicated to the striking wind turbine workers on the Isle of Wight. In 2009 at a Zero Carbon concert this had struck me as unusual. Most of the protest songs were about the environment or the war. Now there’s a change of mood in the wintry air. The Great Norfolk Anti-Cuts Demo in Norwich on Saturday marked a social shift, as hundreds of marches and demonstrations break out in Britain’s cities and occupations take place in 30 universities across the country, creating a new ferment and new alliances.

The shock tactics of the cuts are a standard part of an economic doctrine that is being administered for the second time in Britain. The present Coalition cabinet have been called the Children of Thatcher and the dismantling of the welfare state is a hallmark of the Friedman School of Economics, widely embraced by the last Conservative government - a deliberate break-up of unionised workforce, privatisation of the public sector and deregulation of the markets to create a society of extreme wealth for the few, corporate control and a vast and voiceless underclass.

Only these present cuts are happening in a very different climate in a very different decade. This is no longer the boomtime of the 80s when Britain was able to export oil and gas and the majority of the population could find credit to go on a shopping spree. There is economic collapse in Europe, an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, 388PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and perhaps more crucially a growing sector of people throughout Britain waking up to the fact that life is not the fossil-fuelled consumer dream they were once promised.

The key strategy in the shock doctrine is to keep people separated and unable to communicate. To make changes so quickly and brutally across the board that it is hard to grasp what is happening and retaliate. Confused, isolated and afraid, people give up. However after decades of individualism, different sections of society that have been out of touch with each other are beginning to connect up. I’m walking alongside the fiery-red banner of the Communication Workers, as we swing up Gentleman’s Walk, past the merry-go-round outside the Forum. I’m remembering the last time I joined a march with union banners was in Birmingham in 1976 when I was a student. Can it be that long ago? The Saturday shoppers stop and stare. But they are not divided as once they might have been. As we walk past the fire station the firemen come out and cheer.

We’re linking up. We’re joining up the facts in our minds and deciding how to act. We're meeting up as individuals and as groups and coming out of our houses. When this column was cut by the EDP after six years, the six writers did not go their separate ways. We decided to make the OneWorldColumn blog a focal point for all the activities that were taking part in the region; to start a conversation that would not only bring the organisations and disciplines we represented together (Green Party, Greenpeace, the peace movement, Transition movement, Campaign against Climate Change, international development), but to unify all the different strands within the local progressive community.

On the bandstand speakers from the public sector unions, the universities and the NGOs were advocating a clear alternative to the cuts that include scrapping Trident, stopping tax evasion, curbing banker’s bonuses, bringing troops home, introducing financial levies and creating a million green jobs and apprenticeships that would enable us to downshift into a low-carbon economy.

Cath Elliot, a Guardian blogger, is talking about the huge rise in unemployment for women, how equality has now been dubbed “a dirty word” (You can find her speech on the blog Too Much To Say For Myself). We all know that the 18 millionaires who are in the cabinet are not all in this together with us. That in the choice between people’s welfare or bankers' profit, the latter has been taken. And that knowledge brings a certain sobriety and solidarity within the crowd. None of us seem confused or afraid. I am standing next to a group of deaf people who are watching the speeches being signed by a woman in a white wool hat. “We’ve never had it so bad.” said the slogan.

The disabled and those who care for them will perhaps fare the hardest in these cuts. Crucial grants and benefits that make people able to live independent lives as human beings are being taken away. Many are being forced into unsuitable low-paid work. In another era I might not have been able to talk with them. Now we have something in common. We are realising that even though we face a global economic recession, we can come together, reorganise and redistribute amongst ourselves. And in a time of structural collapse, coherence and communication are perhaps the most vital things we can share.

Oh, the big society is happening all right. But it may not be the one the Government is banking on.


Tuesday 30 November 2010

Love in a Strange Climate

“Well it’s a community-led response to peak oil and climate change," I said energetically. And the woman looked at me as a great divide yawned between us. We were standing at a stall in a village hall on Energy Day. But I wasn’t selling jam and she wasn’t holding a raffle ticket. We had both just listened to John Gummer MP telling us that wearing woolly hats in winter was a Good Thing and Professor Winter explaining how the least carbon-intensive food you can eat are local carrots. And hey, if you heat your house with your own wood and swap your swanky car for an equally swanky but less powerful car, you can keep within the government targets for CO2 emissions. Both the woman and I realise that neither my words, nor those of the men on the platform, have bridged the vast silence that climate change brings within a conversation.

I had arrived at the stall by chance. One day I went to a documentary about climate change called The 11th Hour and found myself in a theatre full of people who knew that wearing woolly hats and eating carrots alone is not going to do the trick. What all the talking heads in the film were saying was that the way to avert the catastrophic consequences of a civilisation that considers itself separate from nature was to link up with people and find out what you can do. So here I was at the Transition East stall, doing all the things that Transition initiatives round the world do – communicating the bad news and the good news about powerdown. But the one thing none of us had yet done was talk to those people up on the stage, the politician and the professor, the penultimate of the 63 Transition ingredients now being assembled, Pattern 6.1 Policies for Transition.

This month we got our chance. It was called the Big Climate Connection, organised by Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, a group of over 100 NGOs, environmental, faith and community groups. Last year SCC organised The Wave in which 65, 000 people marched to Parliament. This year SCC organised a national lobby of over 190 MPs in the UK. And Michael Uwins from Friends of the Earth in Norwich was on the telephone. "Peter Aldous, MP Waveney is on the Environmental Audit Committee," he said. "We need someone to talk with him." "Oh, Kate will be brilliant at that," I said. "We’re counting on you," he said.

And that is how I found myself with Mark and Kate and Nick and Lesley and Daphne from Sustainable Bungay inside Peter Aldous’s office in the severely downturned seatown of Lowestoft. Aldous was newly elected in May and has just moved in. It was empty and there were only two spare chairs, so most of us sat on the floor. "Do you mind if I eat my sandwiches?" he asked. "I don’t know whether they sustainable or not.”

“Well, they are brown,” I said and laughed.

The lobby was meticulously organised. We were given a lobby pack with instructions on how to set up a meeting and what to say and how to feedback. Top of the agenda was to put forward three "asks" related to the Energy Bill and the UN summit: energy efficiency in homes, a cap on carbon emissions from power stations and support for low-carbon technologies in “developing” countries. (You can read about the meeting in full here).

Talking with politicians is a strange affair. They nod and listen but you never know whether they will act or not. And we are cynical creatures, knowing how politicians are lobbied, courted and heavily influenced by corporate powers, in particular the fossil-fuel industry, who dismiss climate change as a millennial belief rather than a scientific fact. And I am particularly cynical having been brought up amongst Conservative MPS and their grandiloquence. Aldous to our surprise was well-briefed, friendly and generous with his time (one hour). He agreed to all the asks and to follow up this meeting with another in four months time. We covered a lot of ground and focused our attention on the creation of an infrastructure and resources to implement renewable energy and community projects.

Would anything come of this lobby? It’s hard to tell. But it’s what we took part in joyfully and energetically the six of us on the fifth of November, one tiny piece in a vast planetary jigsaw our minds can barely comprehend. To influence the course of history the so-called bottom up grassroots organisations will at some point have to negotiate with the top-down policy-makers. And we’re not well versed in that. We like to have opinions and criticise and pull down, but we’re not so keen on making efforts outside the parameters of our known world. I didn’t want to organise a lobby and was hoping Kate (who is running for the Green Party as a District Councillor and had organised a coach to the Wave last year) would do it. But it ended up being me.

And so I had to read what the Energy Bill was about in the same way I have had to read books about climate science and peak oil, give impromptu seminars on community transport, write about the unpalatable facts of the industrial food system. We have to get smart. And we have to get constructive. Because it’s one thing having a gut feeling about climate change (which most of us do) but if you talk with policy makers you have to have more than a gut feeling. You have to know what you want as a people. You have to be able to put yourself in the politician’s shoes and learn their language and you have to teach them yours. Because unless we start speaking together and forging a dialogue, making bridges across that divide, we won’t be able to see what lies ahead of us and what we can do about it. Because no matter how much we care as individuals or community groups what will really change things is when the active forces within society perceive the real situation together.

For that we have to join those pieces up. And we are going to have to let go of a lot of prejudice and blame to do that, as well as our fossil-fuelled individualism. And we are going to have to start thinking as one group amongst many groups. Because a 100 organisations working as one is an excellent thing for a day. Imagine what that might achieve in 365 . . .

Cold weather, hot climate - view from my window; Sustainable Bungay and Peter Aldous MP; poster of The 11th Hour.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Green Drinks: Energy and Community - A Report

“So long as you have a good hat on and boots," said Paul. We were not talking fashion, we were talking insulation at the second themed Green Drinks on Energy and Community. Once my head was full of French movies and tailored coats, but now in Transition my attention is on more practical things. At the Waveney Rural Summit I found myself intricately involved in Bungay community bus routes, here in how two feet of breathable sheep’s wool will keep you toasty no matter what the weather. The energy was buzzing in the Green Dragon, as everyone swapped data about solar panels and wind speeds, fired questions, busily immersed in the details of KW, PV and CO2. How many people does it take to erect a turbine? Where are grants to be found? What is the payback time?

The backroom was full: 27 people from different locations including the local church, UEA and the Centre of Alternative Technology had gathered to discuss energy. Josiah hosted the evening which took its shape from our first one on Economics and Livelihoods. Two expert conversationalists, John Taylor, the Climate Change officer from Suffolk county council and Simon Weeks of Cookpole Energy Action spoke about how the new push is towards community energy projects:

“The real potential lies with FITs,” said John who is also part of Transition Ipswich's pioneering wind-turbine project.

John placed the evening’s discussion within the wide frame of global warming, resource shortage, peak oil and the stark fact that during the boomtime 80s and 90s Britain could afford to export its oil and gas, but now had to import it, along with its fluctuating fortunes. We all live on an island that was once energy rich but is no longer: our vast coal reserves that fuelled the industrial revolution and North Sea oil as John pointed out in his wide-reaching introduction “drove a lot of the prosperity of the 80s and 90s, but now is in long-term decline.”

On a global level the energy market is "like a crowded bar," he explained. “Though there is big demand the bar can just about keep up; but outside a coach with a rugby team has turned up. Is it possible to deliver?”

We are challenged as a nation by an inclement damp climate and houses that were not built for energy-efficiency. Nor do we have enough trees to spare for mass conversion to wood-burning stoves (you need 3 tons per household per year to keep warm). So there is a need for retrofit and massive insulation on an individual scale, coupled with a move on a community scale to get more locally resilient. We need to start forming co-operatives and social enterprises and pool resources to buy solar panels and wind-turbines to generate local electricity.

Wind turbines are a sticky subject in East Anglia despite its being a landscape historically peppered with mills (500 windmills and 200 watermills in Suffolk alone). However community wind-turbines are smaller and less controversial. Their challenge lies in the perseverance of each community to pull the project off. Funding big projects takes time, energy, resources and a massive shift in attitude, as people relearn how to negotiate and work together. Simon Weeks quotes the Good Neighbour scheme: people offering their services free to help everyone get wise on energy. Cookpole Energy Action has already been going for two and a half years to erect two 18 metre Gaia 133 turbines (“Not the most efficient,” he agreed, because the higher you go the more wind there is). Two local farmers are providing land in return for free electricity (wind was preferred to a solar panel array, due to the space – turbines only take up 5 sq metres of field). The turbines cost £100,000 which they are finding through grants and fund-raising.

Most of the villagers are on-board though a few households do not support the enterprise. How do they deal with that?
"We listen to their views and try to include them," replied Simon, "Because the last thing we want is a divided community."

Cookpole reckon on making £16, 000 per year (£2000 of which will go towards maintenance) once the turbines are installed and the money will go towards the social regeneration of the community. The two outlaying villages of Cookley and Walpole have no pub, no school, no shop, no village hall (except a pavilion) - and the intent of the project is to provide the community of 150 households with the necessary green infrastructure to thrive in a downturning resource scarce culture. Setting up a community woodland for example.

"We were the big society before there was a big society," laughed Simon.

"One minute there is no society and now there’s a big one," remarked Lucinda. Originally from Brixton (where there is a strong Transition initiative) she told me how the borough was changing, how a lot of the poorer, mostly Caribbean residents were being moved out to Banbury. "Oh, that happened in Leiston," I said "when everyone was moved out of the East End". Someone I had met when I first moved to Suffolk had called it “slum clearance” and I remember how shocked I was not so much by the fact itself (though that is shocking) but that someone intelligent and apparently philanthropic should say such a thing and not give a damn.

Simon Weeks comes from another time and another paradigm: he has a stack of experience he is happy to share, especially the pitfalls to avoid. His present difficulty lies in unsure planning details regarding bat and acoustic surveys where there is no legislation for small wind-turbines (only for large wind-farms). He is the first to admit there are no assurances when it comes to the future:

“One thing you can guarantee: there ain’t no more oil and electricity prices will rise."

At question time David Gibson spoke about the 11 1/2 Kwp solar array on the Emmanuel Church (whose conference on Climate Change in 2007 sparked Sustainable Bungay into being). He was once the energy conservation officer for BT before joining the ministry and like many English churches heating is high on Emmanuel's agenda. Their funds came from grants and the rest has been donated or given in interest free loans by the faithful. The scheme has cost £80, 000 (30,000 from government grants). Payback is over 7/8 years.

Afterwards we broke up into groups and moved around the room, speaking to each other about the different aspects of energy efficiency and micro-generation. I talked with Paul about what it was like to live off-grid for seven years (in Thetford Forest) and remembered a time in my own life when I had lived for several summers on an island in Greece. I remembered how everyone gathered in the cafes before electricity came to people’s houses and there were cars and television. We had running water twice a week, I said, and the bread was baked in a communal oven in the side of a mountain. The communal places were where the warmth and the meaning was.

We’ve lived such individualistic lives with our houses set at 21 degrees, with our daily hot baths and washable lifestyle, we’re going to have to shape our lives very differently, get used to living in colder places, invest in good hats and boots and start sharing our resources.

“Even if we cover the whole of Wales with wind-turbines it’s never going to be enough to maintain the energy we are used to,” said Nick. That’s a fact that most of us aren’t looking at right now. And in the centrally-heated warmth of our own home, not one we want to much. But in a buzzing room, with all the options and possibilities in front of you and 27 people pooling their time and attention, that’s a different matter. A low carbon community starts looking like the place you want to be.

Green Drinks will resume in 2011 and will engage in different Transition themes, including Social Enterprise, Transport, Waste and Cultural Values. Keep an eye out for our next SB newsletter next month, or check the calendar on this website.

Photos: John Taylor talks about resource and energy constraints; A Gaia wind turbine

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Low Carbon Cookbook - Vegetable Kingdom

The cookbook is a new working project. It began with the "low carbon snacks" for TN's Anniversary party in 2009 and the food sharing at the Transition Circles (most of the cooks and writers have either been part of TN2 or are Carbon Conversations facilitators - or both). In our first meeting this September we mapped the territory we would cover – the ecological "deconstruction" of dishes we'd brought. In October we mapped the construction of the book. We decided we would follow the seasons during the course of a year, cataloguing what came and went through our larders and kitchen, what plants we grew, what wild things we foraged, our most nourishing and lovely meals.

Apart from giving a carbon readout of every dish, the book's function is also to collate and cohere the independent food producers and sellers in and around Norwich, including the CSA (which Elena is writing about on Thursday) and the bakers working with the Milling Project, like Steve Winter of Dozen. We’re going to chart their inter-relationships, with ourselves and within the city. We’re planning to create a Norwich-based workbook that can be copied by other Transition initiatives.

Key to this project is the reestablishment of our proper relationship with food, with vegetables in particular. Vegetables lead us back to right relation with the earth, whether you grow your own, buy a veg box or go into the markets and farm stores that sell local produce.

Eating low-carbon means procuring your food in a very different way. You have to know where to go. To a bunch of outlets, not just one. It’s an absorbing task. The attention you pay goes deep and wide. You have to be aware of transport (yours and the food's), of packaging and become keen to the relationships with people. The people you don’t see who grow the food and process it and the people you do, who sell it. You become aware how small producers and local businesses depend on the loyalty and the engagement of their customers.

“Regular customers are what keeps this place functioning. They are the key drivers. You can’t compete with prices, with fruit for example, but you can with locally grown veg. It's about freshness because you are buying direct. "

I’m talking with Robert who runs Folland Organics in Norwich Market. We’re standing in a quiet moment on Saturday surrounded by local mushrooms, Demeter Seeds, Fairtrade bananas, long bunches of celery, dark brassicas, scented apples, skinny new leeks, squashes of all colours and sizes. Looking at the gnarly parsnips and celeriac in the rough wooden boxes you know winter is coming. Already your focus is turning to the deeper darker dishes. Soups and stews.

Robert buys his organic veg from three main sources in Norfolk: a smallholding in Greshams, established on the principles of community exchange, Grahame and Lizzie Hughes (founders of Eostre Organics) in Bunwell, and the biodynamic farming community of Thornage Hall where Robert, also a musician, plays piano for eurythmic classes.

The edge he has lies in the proximity of these suppliers. it means leaves can be cut at the end of the day and by morning they are on the stall. “People who are using it are using it with enthusiasm. You have to fan the flames."

This is the key really. Big stores can have the dazzle and the PR but they don’t hold a connection with place and people, with the time of year, with the heart of things.

“The important thing is the link that is being made. If there are not places like this where can people get their organic stuff? Supermarkets. You’ve got a quality issue. They are already bored with it."

Robert has a theory about this unsustainable food systems we've been caught up in: "Everything is going faster and faster. In the end the supermarkets will float off and people will fall to the bottom. You always have to run to catch up with them and then one day you can’t catch up with them, and they’ll realise people aren’t with them anymore. It’s important to do something else."

Brought up alongside Portobello Market in London, I always bought my fruit and veg from stalls. I don’t jibe with perfectly sorted produce on trays, covered in plastic that seems to have no relationship with the outside world. So when I moved to East Anglia and walked into the then-steaming labyrinth of Norwich Market I felt at home. The stamping of feet in the cold, mugs of tea alongside the till, the starlings stealing crumbs from the cafes, the banter and the exchange. The stall was then run by the cooperative Eostre who started it up in 2003. At the time it was the country's only 6 day a week organic market stall and one of the only places in the UK outside the supermarkets (and very few of them stocked them) that one could buy organic Fairtrade bananas. I regularly bought fairtrade coffee and secondhand books from the market, and a big bag of fruit and veg, stuff I had never even seen in London, like giant sweet lemons. Later when Eostre folded it was taken over by Salle Organics, and then by Robert who had worked on the stall in its early days. "It’s come full circle," he says, smiling, and puts my biodynamic apples in a paper bag.
When the market was revamped two years ago many of the stallholders suffered. People didn’t approve of the Council's redesign, the flow-through was altered due to the repositioning of busy traders like the keycutters (who once formed the back row) and a change in bus routes. The dynamic shifted. But Robert is still there and it's a really good stall. A gem that needs to be treasured. Keeping the supply chains close to home is what creates resilience in communities. The money that goes into the stall stays within the circle of people that Robert trades with. It doesn’t flow out into the insatiable maw of the global food machine. And somewhere inside, where everything matters, it makes sense of the world.

Folland Organics is at 30/31 Norwich Market. Inquiries to The Low Carbon Cookbook's third meeting is on 23 November at 7pm. Inner Space, Maud Gray Court, St Benedict's St. Bring ingredients to make a meal.

Monday 15 November 2010

Transition Themes Week: Communications

Welcome to our first Transition Themes Week! We'll be running this week most months, to give you an insider peek at what goes on behind the scenes in some of the Transition Norwich meetings and projects - from neighbourhood groups like NR3 and Transition Circle Hethersett, to theme groups such as Reskilling, working groups like Communications and Permaculture, projects such as the CSA and the Low Carbon Cookbook, opening to include our outreach connections in the city as well as the Transition movement on a regional, national and international level. We'll be looking at some of those 63 Patterns or Ingredients that are being discussed interactively on at the moment. Today to kick off the series we're looking at the genesis of the hub group, Communications . . .

The very first meeting I went to in TN was a Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Wellbeing gathering at the Playhouse. It was packed (25 people) and everyone was talking at once. One voice was particularly strident: the Most Important Thing was Marketing. This voice was evangelical and fiery. We must go into the streets and spread the word! "We need editorial!" I chipped in, not sure whether to be alarmed or excited by all this passion and zeal. Chris intercepted the hubbub in his characteristic mild way: "We're thinking of forming a communications group." Afterwards I went up to him. "I'm in," I said.

The first communications meeting was held several weeks later at the same place and was very low key. We were 5 people and pragmatic. We had a website to set up, events and gatherings to organise, to make the most of the moment, the zeitgeist as Eileen put it. "Has anyone got a pen?" asked Tully. "I have," I said. "You can minute this," he told me. "We need a creative structure," I told everyone, "A co-ordinating editor and correspondents for all the groups. Like a beehive". And that was how it began. I had never taken notes for a meeting in my life, I had never worked on a website, used a googlegroup, hosted a stall, designed a newsletter, facilitated, blogged or Tweeted. I was an ex-journalist from another era. One thing I knew though: I knew the value of editorial. I knew that the low-carbon world we were all mad keen to manifest could not just be transmitted as marketing or information, by workshops or reports or strategies for behaviour change.

Modern communication tools are useful, but they do not tell the whole story. We are not people of the left brain only: we are creatures of sense and sensuality, imaginative, intuitive, creative, and some things about life, about downshifting, you can't put into a memo or a Surveymonkey. To create a real and vibrant culture of powerdown we can't just communicate in that split second it takes to send an email. Or to be radically inspired by an idea in a meeting. We have to be able to pause in the middle of a sentence and talk about our experiences: Hang on a minute, let's look back at that track we just made. Was it the right one? How does it look? How does it feel? Is it beautiful? Where are we right now? Is this the place we meant to get to? And who are my companions?

In short we have to work. We have to work with the material at hand.

Communication is many things in Transition: bulletins, meetings, calendars, press releases, parties, events, stalls, emails. It's working till 4am with Andy on this poster we designed for the First Anniversary celebration. It's taking a branch of bay leaves to the Heart and Soul group and speaking about its oracular qualities to a circle of strangers; it's talking on BBC Radio Suffolk at 7.20am about showing The End of Suburbia ("We love our cars," said the rush hour presenter, "What do you say to that?"); it's standing up in front of a crowded room without notes and encouraging everyone to take part in the new move of Transition 2.0. A call to arms. "I've just been reading a story to some children," I said. "It's called the Bear Hunt."

You can't go over it. You can't go under it. You've got to go through it.

Two years later Communications is working on this post this frosty morning, knowing my fellow bloggers are going to be writing after me this week - cataloguing the shifting and changing configurations of people that make up a Transition initiative. What it's like to go through this process, the good stuff and the hard moments. The profit and the loss. Valuing everything. We're not scared.

Thanks to this technology, we've got a good archive stored up now, like so many shiny bottles of summer fruit in a larder, like honey in a hive. After several meetings in cafes and what seems like a thousand emails, that editorial structure finally took its place in the news blog. We're leaving a colourful track behind us, so others can follow. That's the most important thing about communication, as any writer will tell you. You're part of keeping a door open, a possibility, so the future can happen in the way in all in our hearts we would wish. Even if we never get to see it.

What a beautiful day!

Poster for TN First Anniversary Party by Andy Croft: Egmont russet apple twigs from Powerdown (Feb 3) on the TN blog; banner for the May Bulletin on the Stranger's Circle by Mark Watson;; TN's Twitter logo.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Darkling Thrush

Some things you can't capture in a photograph in a time of fall: the scent of woodsmoke, the perfume of a quince, the sound of the sea roaring in the darkness, a sky with bright constellations, the knowledge that once this was the time of the reed, now sere in the marshes, which was gathered to thatch the rooves of houses. A time of shelter from the storm and of waiting.

It was a windy week: our tent blew down, our garden haven, and so I knew late autumn had arrived. I put my hand on the glass roof at 2am and felt the coming of ice. We ran into the darkness and fetched all the tender plants into the house. It's the bletting time: a time you wait for the hips and sloes and medlars to begin their sweet collapse. It's a time you wait inside as dusk comes and are sometimes surprised by the sound of a bird singing.

I found this young thrush in the road. He was still warm, without a mark on him. Newminted from a spring nest in a summer hedgerow. I held him for a moment and laid him under a blackthorn full of sloes. Two long-tailed tits came and danced around us.

That's something else you can't photograph. The pain in your heart when something is gone. A beautiful singer who won't sing his mistle song, his great joyful sound in a time of elegy and loss in the woods when Winter's dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day. In a land where thrushes are fast disappearing. In a world that is fast losing its songbirds and its poets. On a day when you struggle to pick up the camera and go into the lane and photograph the colours and shapes of those things you write . . . . and yet you go. Because something inside you won't stop loving the world, no matter what weather comes. It's a covenant we made with the earth a long time ago.

Bird in the hand; rosehips in the lane; Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

Thursday 28 October 2010

cockroach nation

We live in a throw -away land. We chuck what we don't want on the dustheap and replace it with something new. Trouble is that dustheap has grown so large it's started to seep into our lives. It’s poisoning our water, contaminating our bodies, killing off the natural world. We're not paying attention: we’re distracted by the soap ads and the shiny stars and power figures on our screen, busy upholding a mindset that says we have to possess more and more, instead of getting back into balance - teaching ourselves to live with less, value what we have and transform what we no longer need.

The stats we know: we produce more than twice the amount of food we actually consume and waste a third of the foodstuffs we buy. We eat a highly extravagant diet, high in meat and dairy. We eat in profligate take-aways and restaurants, where sandwich crusts are routinely discarded by the ton each day. There are millions out there starving and millions here overeating. But, even though we might address these things personally, it's not just consumers who throw food away, or supermarkets that encourage people to buy more, restricted by sell-by dates, encouraged by special offers. Over-production is the key element to the global food industry: the more you waste, the more you need to produce, the more profit corporations can make. While you are eating your fish and chips, happy in the thought the beef fat it's cooked in is going to become bio-diesel, 40 to 60% of all fish caught in Europe are being discarded - either because they are the wrong size, species, or because of the ill-governed European quota system.

Walk along the edges of the potato and onion fields in East Anglia and you will find thousands of assorted, small, marked, "wrong-sized" vegetables that didn't make the grade going to rot in the winter rains.

Or maybe you won't. Maybe someone else got smart and has started to pick them up.
Getting smart about food waste is a point you get to when those mind-mesmerizing stats become action.. Last summer I was working for the waste management social enterprise Bright Green at the Latitude Festival. I was standing with Mark, like a pair of vigilante vultures at the Recycling Station in the Families camp site, occasionally pouncing on those should-know-better-slouchers who slunk past and left their bin bags unsorted. My eyes widened as tents, chairs, mattresses, clothes, sheets were dumped in a great pile without a quiver of shame. But most shocking all what was going into the food waste bin. At some point I cracked as I witnessed a whole side of smoked salmon being tossed in amongst the garbage: I put my hand into the bin and started to pull back out supermarket packs of organic avocados, strawberries, half-full bottles of wine, whole loaves of bread. We dined on it for a week.

Later that winter I ate my first roadkill . I picked up a dead pheasant, and like Alice in Wonderland found myself entering another world. Eat Me! said the bird in my hand. It's a boundary you cross. We live in a world where these boundaries keep us separate from real earthly life where death and dirt and gratitude for everything on earth lives. Don't go there, says our moral upbringing. This not your property, not your business, not nice, or proper or clean.

Freegans cross this line everyday; some because they are hungry and poor, some because they are activists, like Tristram Stuart ( Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal ) and working to put a crooked thing straight. Stuart has fed himself on throw-away food since he was a student and recycles food waste by keeping pigs and chickens in his back garden in Sussex (a practice now forbidden on a commercial scale by European law).

In the space of just two hours in December 2009, in partnership with FareShare, Save the Children, ActionAid, and This is Rubbish, he and his team fed 5000 people in Trafalgar Square with free hot curry, bicycle-churned smoothies, and three tonnes of fresh groceries, using only ingredients that otherwise would have been wasted. The Feeding the 5000 team have now launched A Taste of Freedom, turning unwanted quality fruit into fruit-based ice-cream-like treats that kids find irresistible, contributes to their 5-a-day, and raises awareness about food waste. In cities around the UK (including Norwich) the social enterprise Foodcycle collects waste food from local outlets, cooks it in unused professional kitchens and redistributes it to those who need it most.
When I looked at that salmon amongst the wet sandwiches and coffee cups and hooked it out, waste was suddenly not about stats. It was real.

Somewhere where I had been living in my own micro-managed world, shut off conveniently from everyone else, the line broke. It was not just my personal waste problem, it was all our problem. That’s when I found the free food on my plate. You think it’s about giving, but actually it’s about receiving.

You think it’s just physical, but it isn’t, it’s metaphysical. Which is why ancient and native cultures have scavenger gods in their pantheons: raven, coyote, scarab beetle, jackal, vulture, condor.
May we be truly thankful.

In order to reconfigure our world, we have to let go and let in, enter the process of transformation. We have to enter into the kinds of exchange that occur naturally within the soil and in our compost heaps. This is not just about doing the four Rubbish Rs and getting smart about anaerobic digestion. We have to become alchemical beings ourselves, stoking our inner furnaces with old thoughts, emotional patterns, ways of being, fuelling our lives with our own refuse. Within our culture, the poet and activist Gary Snyder wrote in The Real Work, we should act as fungi and insects in mature forests, liberating energy from the dead trees and animals that lie on the forest floor. We need to liberate energy from the past and give energy to the living, and thus become symbionts rather than parasites on the earth.

This week I came home with my hands full of food that people had given me out of the kindness of their hearts: perfumed quinces, Japanese burdock, home-made chutney and ginger cordial, beyond-its-sell-by date pesto and avocado oil, a bottle of red wine, tomatoes that had split in the rain. I came home with sweet chestnuts and wind-fall apples from the neighbourhood trees in my pocket. I came home with an unexpected golden afternoon, with a glowing half-moon appearing in the darkening sky, with a fresh breeze. I sat down to supper and everything tasted good. I licked my plate clean. Nothing went to waste.

(originally posted on the collective Transition blog, This Low Carbon Life for a week on Waste 2011)

Photos: Rubbish pic by Reuters; pheasant on the road; wearing a Proper Waster Sort Your S**T Crew T-shirt from Bright Green.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

A Lifeboat moment

Last night 25 people gathered in a downtown pub in a market town in the East Anglian borderlands. It was Tuesday night and raining cats and dogs and the pub was almost empty. The backroom however was full: heads were craning forwards to tune into the mood of the moment. The big cuts were about to be announced (at 12.30pm today) and the Sustainable Bungay sub-group on Economics and Livelihoods was about to be launched.

"We need to learn skills with working together, said Gary Alexander who had been invited to share insights about visioning a sustainable community outlined in his booklet, Sustainable Diss. Here is the Good News, he said and outlined what the town c.2030 had achieved and how people only got into exchange and relocalisation when they had no other choice.

When we discussed our imminent future we were sharing the Bad News. Wheat will go from £150 to £700 a tonnne in 10 years, said Glenn, a farm manager, and filled us in on how tractors now use more fuel, so that carbon emissions can be reduced. David told us from his experience in Africa how it takes two years to reskill a community to do small-scale farming. Cathy "in the spirit of the gift economy" brought some chard from her garden to share.

"Are you coming to our Apple lunch?" asked Netta from Sustainable Beccles.
"If the exhaust hasn't fallen off the car!" I laughed, and thought about the cost of petrol and how hard it's getting to travel from place to place.

It's difficult to see how we can effect change in our economic structure, not just because we lack financial or political power, but because we have been distracted for aeons from looking at the truth of the matter. We prefer ideas to reality. We like to handle facts as if they are our property and preside over them like CEOs. The fact is we are small and the iceberg that looms before us is large and invisible and the best response I can think of right now is what I was doing one hour earlier in Josiah and Elinor's kitchen, mapping out our Transition workshop alongside Iris (almost one) eating a biscuit, playing swords with Reuben and Tristram, and chopping up some (local organic) veg for dinner.

It's cold outside, but in the kitchen it felt good. We were all in Transition together, and that counts in ways you can't evaluate on any form. The pub was warm too, but disquieted.

"490,000 public sector jobs are going to be axed," said Josiah by the bar as he invited us to debate the issues around small wooden tables. What were we going to do as a community to build an infrastructure, to give each other a hand, to start up small enterprises within a hostile atmosphere?

He brought a paper by Tom Crompton (WWF) to our attention. It was written for Common Cause and argues that what is really required at this point is a change of values:

"The values that must be strengthened – values that are commonly held and which can be brought to the fore – include: empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world. Undoubtedly these are values that have been weakened – and often even derided – in modern culture. They are not, for example, values that are fostered by treating people as if they are, above all else, consumers. But they are values that have an ancient and noble history within Western thinking, and they still fundamentally inform much public debate. They are there to be activated and strengthened. We believe that everyone – individual citizens, civil society organisations, government and business – can play an active role in strengthening them. Indeed, they are values that must be championed if we are to uncover the collective will to deal with today’s profound global challenges. "

The problem with this is not its premise, but it's position. We are used to seeing the bigger picture from the outside with our minds rather than from within the situation with our actions. You stupid human what a mess you have made! You wrong people need to do this and that. Change your behaviour! Shift that consciousness!

No matter how intelligent or visionary or noble our words, we remain above the situation. We're not in the thick of it, saying how it feels, speaking as one of those stupid humans who have been trained to think that how we live is normal and OK and "civilised". We're not seeing that when our assumptions are challenged we either start commanding the idea of reality ("Pepsi and ASDA now say our agriculture is unsustainable") or start inventing happy endings for ourselves.

Somewhere in our scaredy-cat minds, we're thinking . . . any minute now the cavalry will come and I'll be rescued. I'll win the lottery. Someone I don't know will sponsor me, pay for me, let me off the hook. I'm thinking one day I'll be able to go back to America, to Mexico, my books will sell, I'll wake up one morning and my bones won't creak anymore. One day everything will be all right. And even though the world is crashing around our ears and I know my agent won't call and I'll never be able to fly or put my legs over my head again like Iris, I'm holding out somewhere. We all are. And that somewhere isn't here in the room.

This is it. We are the people we are waiting for.

When I woke up with this morning I realised. Those Titanic thoughts have to go, or we won't make the lifeboat. Gotta get real.

Poster for Green Drinks: half a cider at the Green Dragon; Cathy's abundance of chard and damsons at the Library Community garden; discussing the future

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Life at 13 Degrees

Suddenly it came as it always comes one moment in October. I was standing in my neighbour's garden at six in the morning in the dark with the alarm bells ringing wondering whether there was a burglar in the house (they were away) and I realised . . .

"Jesus, it's COLD!"

This time last year as we were warming up to our Low Carbon theme there was a flurry of emails in the TN2 google group about that key peak oil-and-climate-change subject, central heating. We were all putting off the switch-on moment, swapping stories of waterbottles, woollies and stern morale. Stuff it said Elena at some point in the October shift. It's 14 degrees in the living room and it's going on.

We persevered, keeping ours off, only switching it on to dry clothes when there was no wind or sun outside, as the gauge slipped further and further down, hitting an all time low around February at 7 degrees. We wanted to experience what winter was like without oil. Dealing with the cold formed the backbone of all our Transition Circle meetings. And something in those communications, our ability to write about it on the blog, enabled us to keep going. What would this year be like?

Like all physical memories, you tend to forget the harshness of winter when it's summer, even a damp, grey English one. Yesterday as I walked down the lane, I couldn't go into Indian summer denial anymore, it was a serious autumn day. The ivy flowers were buzzing with the last of the summer insects: bees, hoverflies, wasps, hornets. The hedgerows were crackling with blackbirds after the haws. I was wearing two cardigans. When I got back from posting my blog, Mark was energetically sawing up dead elm branches.

"Chris just rang," he said. "He had an evening celebrating his new wood burner with singing and friends last week."

It was our first fire of the year, stoked with foraged ivy, elm, oak and some birch and ash logs from last year. The stored sunlight poured into the damp cold room and made it come alive. There is a certain attention you pay when you're by a fire. The heat enters your bones in a way a radiator never can, just as standing under the shade of a tree cools your body the way no a/c can. To live with winter cold means you have to be active, rather than passive. And just as chopping wood, energetic walking, deep engagement in the physical world brings its reward, so gatherings of people in the colder months take on a different collective mood. A kind of singing together.

We've have several this week: Green Drinks on Economics and Livelihoods tonight in Bungay. Low Carbon Cookbook meeting in Norwich on Wednesday, taking part in a Transition workshop at the Waveney Rural Summit and Bungay Community Bees outing to the Vanishing of the Bees to Poringland on Friday. We'll be reporting on these this week as well as looking at the "Big Society" and urban agriculture. Stay warm. Stay connected!

Transition essentials: Long johns and fingerless gloves modelled by Andy; wild Mexican marigold and Tarahumara sunflower seeds collected by Mark