Monday 28 February 2011

Communications: When Push Comes to Shove - Transition Themes #3

At the beginning of February I was invited to Totnes to feedback on the first draft of the new Transition book (working title The Transition Companion). As well as members of the Network, there were Transitioners from Lewes, Forest Row, Belsize Park, Tooting and Edinburgh. It was an intense two days spent sitting in a circle, discussing the huge volume of work that has been going on behind the scenes since the 63 Patterns (now Ingredients and Tools) were unveiled at the Transition Conference last summer.

The book authored by Rob Hopkins is in two sections: the first a layout of the main structures and themes of Transition, including the drivers of Peak Oil, Climate Change and Economic recession, and the second, Ingredients and Tools, each of which has examples and success stories from initiatives from around the world, including TN's food projects (Local Food Initiatives), Transition Circles (Street-by-Street Behavioural Change) and this blog (Becoming the Media). The book is in six sections that set out how an initiative might form and then flourish, running from useful qualities through to setting up a Steering Group to Raising Awareness to community infrastructure to engaging with National Policies.

We fed back our responses. We asked questions: would this book be a replacement for the Handbook?(yes). Is it for readers who know nothing about Transition, or Transitioners? (both) We asked thorny questions about political frames, about Inner Transition, about the Big Society. We looked at our initiatives from the angle of the ingredients. We conducted two Open Space sessions on specific sections, notably those that involved groups, and afterwards went out for friendly and exuberant drinks.

One thing struck me: this is a useful, clear and intelligent manual, but not everything experienced in Transition is held within its encyclopedic covers. There was often a tension in the room, as people’s stormy experience of Transition (and most contributors had been in their initiatives for over two years) pulled and pushed with the book’s cool and calm setting-out of how Transition should be. The desire to draw an accurate picture struggled with the book’s necessarily promotional nature. We don’t want to put people off was a common cry. On the other hand Transition doesn’t promise anyone a rose garden. Gotta be a little rain sometime.

The roses are not hard to paint. It’s clear that engaging in Transition provides an exciting opportunity for people to combine their visions and skills in a way that is entirely new. But the wet is often hard to weather especially during that crucial post-honeymoon period after the initial sunshine fades. The reality is Transition is hard work. Communities and councils don’t always respond positively. People argue, fall out and leave. Often for reasons none of us have enough time and patience to understand at depth. There’s personal damage and a lot of unanswered social dilemmas. And the kind of design frame in which the book (and indeed much of the modern behavioural world) is set doesn’t give us a common language in which to discuss them.

Our premise is that we can start again with whoever is in the room, but our difficulty is that we are not just the people in the room. We come with history, our personal and planetary legacies. We come with class positions, with political leanings, archetypal constraints and religious beliefs, cultural differences, defence systems, unreal fears and hopes. Some of this is our own “stuff”, but most of it is our inheritance as social beings, a five thousand year old Empire that runs in our collective veins and we have to figure out a way to deal with that as that three-fold squeeze starts heading our way. We have been configured to think individualistically, to deal with every problem by splitting and attack and we have to transform ourselves into the kinds of people who can work together equally under pressure. Our hardest task is to dismantle the hierarchies that constrict our actions and imaginations with all the unkindness of a caste system.

If we’re lucky and we like each other, if we are engaged in strong, creative, practical ventures we can naturally pull together. That kind of harmonic convergence can overcome mountains. If we don’t no amount of design or psychology or spiritual right-on attitude right now is going to help us. Because when push comes to shove we have to have ingenuity and strength and genuine affection to hold together. We have to access our deep and intelligent humanity and forge a language in which we can communicate directly and for real. Anything phony will not serve us.

The tension in the meeting was the common media tension between marketing and editorial, between objective and subjective reporting. The official story written by me without me in it and the unofficial story with the “I” as the means by which the story is understood. The difference between saying what Transition Norwich is (the website/news blog) or how we experience it (the premise for This Low Carbon Life). This blog is unusual in that everyone is allowed to say how Transition feels, what it looks like, tastes like, what it reminds us of, in their own style. We can say what we like or dislike, express both difficulty and joy. That kind of allowance and editorial freedom is important because it allows people to know they are not alone with the thoughts they are thinking, and the feelings they are having. Those creative expressions are what bring about change. They act like strange attractors in the field, bringing chaos into order, breaking limit cycles, challenging the official version of things. All our upbringings prevent us from saying what in our hearts we know to be true, because all civilisations depend on the people keeping silent. Somehow we have to let them speak. Somehow we have to say that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

You don’t have to be a writer or in Transition to know the pressure the status quo exerts on all of us. Everyone knows, for example, that how the Family appears in society and what goes on behind closed doors are two different stories. Sometimes the feelings are too great to bear and people spill the beans. And whole lives are turned around because they do. Somehow we’re going to have to talk to each other as if everyone can hear what we are saying. If we want to break down those ancient barriers that keep us apart and create the culture we say we want we are going to have to find a way to tell those stories in Transition.

Photos for The Transition Companion by Rob Hopkins; Ingredient 5h Community Ownership of Assets; 2f Visioning (Brixton); 3d Celebrating (Kingston); 4g Oral Histories; 2f Inclusion and Diversity (Tooting).

Monday 14 February 2011

Riches-to-Rags - Our Fashionable Stories of Stuff

I confess. I was once a fashionista. I worked for Vogue and Harpers and Queen and Elle, I observed catwalks, I styled shoots and interviewed designers in swanky restaurants – Jasper and Issey and John – and when the Japanese were In wouldn’t have been see dead in the capital cities of the world without a black turban and black lipstick. No one saw my hair for a year.

“You’re wearing your coat inside out,” said my friend Alexander in Rome. "I can see the hook”.
"It’s a fashion detail," I said. "It means this jacket is by Jean Paul Gaultier."

It was the most expensive beautiful thing I owned, a moody tangerine cotton frock coat with gold buttons (well this was the 80s!). Alexander, who was studying for the priesthood, laughed. He didn’t know anything about Jean Paul Gaultier. But he knew the work of a clever devil when he saw one.

Sometimes l think about the clothes I used to own and it shocks me that I remember my wardrobe more intimately, more joyfully than I remember my friends of that time. The question I ask myself now is: is this because we were damned, fallen angels trapped in the colourful lures of the material world, or is it because our relationship with matter, with the fabric of the earth, has never been truly celebrated or understood? Or is it that our letting go of Stuff, our powerdown, has become the most urgent and most interesting story of our times?

When I joined Transition Norwich the very first conversation I had was about fashion. It was with Helen. We were sitting at the Arts, Culture and Well Being table at the Unleashing, discussing the lecture on Peak Oil by Ben Brangwyn, and she asked me:

“What are we going to do about last’s year trousers?”
“We’re going to have to wear them and not worry about them,” I replied.

The truth was I had given up worrying about this year’s Look a long time ago, when I had chucked my job as a fashion editor and gone travelling in search of Life without a Hemline instead.

I now wore thrift store clothes and darned my own socks. My coat was worn. I hadn’t visited a dry cleaner for a decade. It was a different time. In 1998 I had tried on a hand-knit in Gap and felt the sweat-shop labour of children and had shuddered. Conscience and the consequences of the fashion business had pricked my consumer bubble.

This week we’re going to be writing about that wake up call that millions of us are experiencing as we connect with the planet, with our fellow human beings, and the decisions we are making to turn our materialistic world around. What it takes on the inside to shift that fierce possessive love of things to loving the earth and its peoples in relationship. As the Spring collections are starting up in Paris, Milan, New York and London and Norwich (once the weaving capital of Britain) is having its first fashion week the Low Carbon Life crew are going to look at clothes in Transition, waking up to the facts behind the textile industry, celebrating charity shop style, making our own hats, mending our shoes, our own stories of stuff.

The picture is a photograph of a wild cotton plant in Arizona, one of the most lovely bushes in the world. Because our consumer story, like the story of Sleeping Beauty, starts with a needle and cotton. With the very first industrial machine, designed in the North of England in 1764, the Spinning Jenny. If you follow the thread you find out who is in charge of the wheel . . .

Photos: cover and inside picture of last century's trousers from Vogue's Modern Style; desert cotton flowers by CDC.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Read All About it!

Today is Save Our Libraries Day and I'm writing this in Bungay Library, one of our local Suffolk libraries, planned to be closed down by the Government. We're taking part in a big Read-In and the library is packed. People are taking out books, using the computer (I'm certainly using the computer!), taking out books and DVDs, reading papers, signing forms and communicating. The library has never been so noisy.

This is the community in action. All ages, all classes, all professions (including our local councillors and MPs and authors) coming together to show their solidarity, as well as their affection for the place and the culture that allows us to be intelligent, in contact and share our resources. Like many places Bungay is not just about books. It's a meeting hub for all kinds of collectives, from poets to environment groups and of course for Transitioners. Over the last year Sustainable Bungay have created a community garden in the paved courtyard, based on Permaculture principles, invited school children to plant bulbs, we've swapped seeds and produce ideas out there and in here had most of our core group meetings, our energy days and our reskilling sewing sessions.

We've helped organise this Read-In too. So I'd better go now and do my welcome-would-you-like-to-fill-out-this-form and pin your Why I Love the Library story on our giant pinboard . . . more news (and pix) later!

Next day: 220 people came through the door n two hours. Children were busy painting banners, everyone writing on the notice board, shelves were emptying fast. Elizabeth Jane Howard presided on the main reading table and at about 11.30pm there was a crescendo as the community confronted David Richie from the Suffolk Country Council and Peter Aldous MP. Just waiting for some pix to come through so you can see what that looks like. Meanwhile here is one of our Community Garden as some people kick-back from the fray . . . oh, and read a book!

Pix: noticeboard and poster by Josiah Meldrum; Bungay community with Transition Kate, Elizabeth Jan Howard and Peter Aldous MP; library community garden by Mark Watson.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Today is the day of emergence when the ground springs awake and the winter turns. I'm writing this in Totnes at day break. There's a robin singing outside in the garden and I'm getting ready to take part in another kind of chorus. It's my third invitation: it came, like the rest, completely unexpected, when Rob Hopkins asked me to come and discuss the new Transition book (working title The Transition Companion), based on the Patterns Directory he and many others have been compiling on the Network for the last two months. People are converging from all over the UK to take part in this workshop (I'll be reporting on our meetings in our Transition Themes week later this month).

I met my friend Adrienne on the train at Reading and we talked non-stop about our respective initiatives. She told me about how the groups move and change, what kinds of extraordinary and diverse people are in them, how when she met Ben Brangwyn (whose house we are staying in) in Lewes in 2006 they both realised how massive Transition was going to be, how it is at that moment when you realise that it is the only thing that makes sense of the world, the only thing you want to do with your life. The breakthrough moment.

Gotta put that stuff in the book, I said.

It's the moment of emergence when the roots stir and the shoots move upward. Everything stored and consolidated in the winter comes awake. Through the mist the late sun burnished the green-mantled hills of the West, the old man's beard shone whitely, the hazel trees lit their golden candles. Under one of these hills so the legend goes, Arthur's warriors lie sleeping, hazel staves in their hands, ready to awaken when the kingdom needs defending.

There's a new mood in the land right now. People are waking up, I'm waking up, realising what lies at stake as things we took for granted are being taken away: our forests, our health service, our schools, our libraries. At Bungay Library we're having a Read-In this Saturday. Adrienne just took part in a Tea Party protest outside her local Boots (recently the high street store has become corporate and moved its finances off-shore, so now pays only 3% tax and is set to take over sections of the NHS as it is privatized). These are the kinds of moves we pay attention to in this blog, in the OneWorldColumn, in our conversations. It's important we realise this together. In a depressed low vibration everything disperses and separates. No one communicates. Nothing seems possible. A people who are alone and hopeless are easy to control and to sell consumer dreams to. In a high spirit of convergence, in the feeling of engagement, your energies, thoughts and feelings soar. The mood shifts, everything becomes possible. That's the real mood of Transition.

Gotta go now and get ready for that meeting. Take some of that mood with me. Have a beautiful day!

Photos: hazel catkins, Suffolk; tree protest, Forest of Dean.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Delivering the Message

It came out of the blue the day following the Transition Norwich First Anniversary Party in 2009. The same week we launched this blog, This Low Carbon Life.

Would you like to join the OneWorldColumn? The invitation was from Rupert Read who had founded this weekly “alternative” column on the EDP six years ago at the height of the Iraq War. We’d like you to write about Transition and food, he said. So there it was after 20 years, an invitation to join a shared column with five other writers on subjects ranging from globalisation, peacemaking and human rights to international relations and the environment.

I joined with a happy heart, thrilled to be getting the Transition movement expressed into the open. I wrote about peak oil and climate change, what is was like to join the Wave and the Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts demonstration, about the Big Society and how John Gummer MP had told a woman at an Energy Fair in Suffolk that wearing a woolly hat was a Very Good Thing (whilst keeping five cars in his garage). I wrote about the oil that Chevron had allowed to seep into Ecuadorian rain forest, how 50 billion farm animals are slaughtered each year in the industrial food system. I reviewed Avatar and Food, Inc. and wrote about things that deeply affected me on a global and planetary level and what Transition was doing at a local level to configure the world that had got so out of balance: seedling swaps and community gardens, Transition Circles, Bungay Community Bees, all our decisions to use less energy, eat differently, come together in small bands and work to build a low-carbon culture.

Each week the six of us would send each other our column and peer review what we had written, I read Lee Marsden on right-wing religion, Rupert Read on future people, Trevor Phillips on unions, Marguerite Finn on nuclear power, David Seddon on South Africa, Mark Crutchley on sharks and the perilous state of the ocean. We made suggestions and gave feedback and the column brought a rhythm and communication to the week. Unlike this blog it was hard to write those 642 words, because when you write for conventional media, you’re writing against invisible forces that don’t necessarily like what you are saying, with an eye on the news desk, knowing that anytime those paras can be cut (which sometimes they were). What made it work was we were not on our own.

Then last August equally out of the blue the EDP told us we would not be needed any more. It was "time to ring the changes".

But that was not the end of the column. We decided to keep writing on the blog where six years worth of writing from 12 writers had been archived. And we were going to continue. Instead of falling apart we came together and pooled our resources. We began to meet at the Alexandra pub and talk about ways we could expand ourselves and "make the OneWorldColumn blog a focal point for all the activities that were taking place 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", We are academics and politicians, philosophers, activists and campaigners, the subjects we write about are equally diverse, yet what struck me when we met is how we speak the same language. It’s as if we’ve known each other forever.

Last week we gave a party to launch our blog at the EPIC Media centre on Magdalen Street. We were throwing open an invitation to all progressive organisations in the Eastern Region. Last of the six to speak I stood up and told a story about working for newspapers. It was in 1990 when I was working on The Independent as a fashion editor and Mark was singing with his band, The Love Fund, at a gathering in Milton Keynes called the Sacred Run. A band of Native American warriors were running from America to Russia to deliver a message of peace. I persuaded the news desk it was a good story and went to interview their leader, the activist Dennis Banks:

“I run to remind the world that the eagle is still the eagle and the owl is still the owl," he told me.
"Does the world want to know?” I asked.

He looked at me, cocky little journalist, French designer jacket, Japanese tape recorder in my hand.
"It’s doesn’t matter who gets the message. What matters is that the message is delivered."
"Well," I replied (rather pleased with myself) "Thousands of people will read this tomorrow."

But the fact was they didn’t. Because the story was never published (the photographer didn’t get a good shot). I left the paper to travel to America and didn’t appear in newspaper print for another 20 years. A year after the runners returned communist Russia fell.

At some point all our empires end. The ones we think will go on forever inside us, the huge corporate machine that strides the present earth. This blog, the OneWorldColumn blog, seem small things in the face of such powers. Our task in Transition seems immense. But if what we are saying is the Right Thing, if we are saying what we feel in our hearts, if we are People in the same way the eagle is the Eagle, and the owl is the Owl, then it matters that we keep delivering that message. The invisible forces are strong because they don’t want people to say what they really feel, what we know in the core of ourselves to be true about the earth, about social justice, about freedom.

The empires may control and close down the official communication channels, but this new media will keep finding new ones. It’s easy to be persuaded that unless thousands of people are reading you and you are backed by powerful newspaper magnates and surrounded by the glitz and glamour of the world, what you say is irrelevant. But it isn’t. That's the beauty of modern social networking. It’s run and written by people who know that when you are a messenger that’s what really matters. Because when you’re in communication you are not alone. TheOneWordColumn is written by six people, This Low Carbon Life is a community blog, The Transition Norwich news that comes out today is the work of fifteen different contributors. We’re not on our own anymore. We’re in convergence.

Photo: With Jacky Howe at the OWC party at the EPIC centre, Magdalen Street; Dennis Banks and Russell Means at Wounded Knee; Avatar poster