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 robert.folland@phonecoop.coop. 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 http://www.transitionculture.org/ 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