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.