Friday 29 April 2011

Joy Division

Here’s a scene: I’m sitting at a window ledge entwined in the arms of a boy called Carl. Behind us a party is in full swing and the neighbourhood is pulsating, loud with music. The streets of Babylon are rocking. It’s the Notting Hill carnival 1989, Summer of Love. There’s a mounted police charge down the street and we’re whooping and laughing, merged with all that sound and movement, our bodies flooded with seratonin. Happeeeeeee……? You bet! I don’t know it yet but this is the last party I will give in my flat above the off-licence on the corner of Westbourne Park Road.
When I first joined Transition we all experienced moments like this, a reckless kind of happiness, an inner drive that sometimes felt out of control and not quite real. We met in Heart and Soul circles, at regional gatherings, and expressed our feelings of excitement - in discovering each other, at this chance to begin again, to share stuff we had never said out loud. Possibilities and visions propelled us to meet up and speak together. But this colletive moment was short. It raged like a bushfire, like a love affair, and then died out. Convention and control broke up those good moods and fragile alliances. The gap between the global situation we perceived in our minds and the local territory at our feet seemed vast and unbridgeable. Ideas did not make it into physical reality. People found themselves quarrelling without knowing why. There was a lot of talk about community, but little fellow feeling.

To keep feeling-good meant that someone else in the room had to carry the difficulties that had come to light and feel bad. Chinese medicine practitioners might have recognised this as a symptom of over-enthusiasm of the heart. If we had been smart we would have looked at the history of new movements and recognised ourselves in the ecstasy of Ranters and Cathars. It was not our fault we skimmed over problems and shut down: we were all raised within the individualistic mindset of Empire and the sudden awakening of our hearts brought all our resistances to empathy into play. Maybe if we had been smart fewer people would have walked at this crucial shift where the fun stops and the work begins. What made some of us undergo that period of unrest and conflict was not happiness, but something more like hozho. A determination to weather the storm in order to secure "real-world harmony and balance".

That's when I realised that Transition was more like alchemy than the behavioural change psychologists and social scientists were talking about. And that the first step of alchemy is not enlightenment, but the forcing out of the materia, the dark stuff you have to transform.

Here’s a scene: I’m sitting at a window in a straw bale house in Arizona at a writing desk with a cat called Small Being. It’s September 2001, a hot afternoon 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a storm coming, and we’re watching it, the cat and I, as it advances across the desert floor towards us, a thick curtain of rain. Lightning is crackling in the sky islands all around us, huge forks of pink and green and yellow. I don’t know it yet but America is about to change its mood irrevocably. This will be the last time I will walk out and smell the world fragrant with creosote after the rain and feel completely at one with the earth. A condition of complete simplicity/Costing not less than everything.
I have a sanguine nature. Small things bring me great joy: rain and cats, heat on my body, the sound of thunder, the taste of river water, the way the sun shines through the seed pods of the creosote bush and fill it with light. I love writing, the way it taps you straight into the fabric of life and you can become conscious of everything around you in time and space, find value and meaning in every encounter. That scene is so strong in my memory I just have to close my eyes and I am there. The reason it’s strong I would not call happiness. Because, though the afternoon is beautiful, I am living in a geography of heartbreak, where the exile of Apache warriors, striking miners, illegal migrants from Mexico and El Salvador is written on every red rock. My own too when I am forced to leave. It's not about Me and My Personal Happiness anymore. It’s a destiny moment at a window, that connects with that first one a decade earlier. The beginning of the free travelling years and its bitter end.

This is how I prepared for Transition. My heart is stored with memories: moments of being immersed in the wild places, in the beauty, colour, form, harmony of the earth. And sometimes when I ask myself why I still go to Transition meetings, confront the realities of peak everything every day, why I struggle against the odds for no reward, I draw strength from those physical memories. What am I doing this for? And I can remember . . .

I do it for all the places I went in those years: for Australia, for South America, for Turtle Island, for the First Nations, for the coyotes that howled outside my door, for the eagles and owls, for all the old activists who lived out in the desert in Arizona, who kept singing and gathering medicine plants, for all the young activists I worked with in Oxford who fought for the trees of Newbury, who burrowed under roads and kept dancing and laughing. For those who did not make it out of the city: the beautiful men who forgot how to dance, the smart women who forgot how to laugh, for everyone that got institutionalised, caught up on the wheel.

Here’s a scene: I’m standing outside the RBS building at the corner of what used to be Spitalfields Market. Tuesday, April 26, and I don’t recognise these slick, corporate streets where I used to visit friends or hear them play music in half-derelict churches and houses. Old London, deep time London. But I recognise these revolving glass doors. I’ve just seen them in the documentary Just Do It, where Climate Camp activists blocked them for a day to protest against the bank’s funding of tar sands mining in Alberta. Miles from here the bluebell woods are all on fire and the hawthorn is blossoming white in the hedgerows. The nightingale is singing in the darkness. It’s almost May Day and the earth is undergoing her radical Spring make-over.
Who is telling us that being happy is more important than money? High priests and millionaire politicians. Well-being is the order of the day. We will close your libraries, destroy your health service, cut down your forests, sell off your waterways, take away your job, your house, your pension, education, crush your liberties, close your mouths . . . . but hey, don’t worry, be happy!

Institutionalised happiness, spin-doctor feel-good, is not joy, or love or merriment, anymore than lifestyle is life, or glamour is beauty. It’s a superficial panacea, a coping mechanism, so we don’t access and demand our rights for real joy and equity on the planet. So we don’t ask ourselves deep questions about why so many of us are poor and unhappy and why people everywhere are taking to the streets. Real joy kickstarts the kind of alchemy that shifts the base mindset of the world into the high frequency of the heart. This alchemy starts by pressuring the lowest elements down into their base material, forcing the beast out of the matter. Once out of its hiding place, transformation can begin.

All empires are threatened by real joy. The empire does not want to change, it wants to hold on to its power, its monolithic marketplaces. It is terrified to experience its own ugliness and lack of heart, its human vulnerability. It blocks the alchemy of the heart by mutating the natural forms of earth, bringing them under the control and ownership of its corporations and then attracting the people’s attention to the tamed and hybridised. It does this by making the mind and emotional body dependent on end-of-the world dramas, by entertaining us with circuses and freakshows, by fostering envy and possessiveness. Meanwhile it does everything in its power to destroy the real thing: everything in nature, everyone who celebrates the earth. This is why the corporate world appears ever more ugly and flaunts its power in ever increasing images of artifice. It is working hard to kill every shred of joy and beauty from appearing. But it can’t succeed. Because the flowers are coming up wherever you look.

Why do we dance with the colours of the rainbow on May Day? Why do we keep singing and dancing? Why do we laugh? Why do we go to the woods, watch the sun come up, love plants and bees? Why do we keep going in Transition even though it’s hard? We’re activists for the fair, for the wild, for the free, for the harmony that is at the core of all living beings, activists for happiness . . . just not the kind the government has in mind.

Police raid at Grow Heathrow glasshouse, Transition Heathrow, April 27; ocotillo in the High Desert; up a hazel tree in the bluebell woods.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Fracking Hell and Other Apocalypses - The Energy Story

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
(from Burnt Norton, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot)

In Kensington Gardens there stands a statue: it’s called Physical Energy and throughout my childhood it acted as a marker for all journeys in the park. We’ll go to Physical Energy and back. The granite statue depicted a man on a horse looking toward an imaginary future. He seemed, from my small perspective, vast and strangely remote. Did he, I wonder, foresee what we now see, as he gazed implacably across the Serpentine?

Our culture is entirely underpinned by physical energy. Each one of us has the power of a hundred horses underneath us, at our fingertips, as we race through the land, across the world wide web. We think nothing of it as we click and switch and yet there it is invisibly pumping through the pipes in our houses and public buildings, heating and cooling, crackling through the lines: electricity, oil and gas. On and off, 24/7. Where does that power come from? The banking system invisibly debits our accounts and we don’t think about it much. Sometimes we might see a news flash about an oil spill, or a nuclear explosion, or campaigners talking about coal-fired power stations, but to connect those dramatic images with what is going on in our ordinary domestic lives seems not only hard, but undesirable. We don’t want to. There are better and more fun images to look at, and a story we love to hear again and again. We Can Have What We Want Anytime.

And yet if we are to avoid the kind of disaster scenarios predicted by climate change scientists, environmentalists and First Nations we are really going to have to make those connections and fast. As Rob Hopkins pointed out in his recent review of the documentary Gasland, we are entering the second part of the oil age - the societal scraping of the barrel. This will entail the kinds of violent resource drillings and mining thousands of us are protesting against: gas fracking, coal-fired power stations, nuclear power-stations, mountain-top removal, tar sands, Arctic oil-drilling, bio-fuels, the decimation of thousands of eco-systems, the homelands of indigenous peoples, pristine wilderness, wild creatures, birds, ancient forest. All of them decimated in the hands of a vast and remote culture that is violent in its refusal to change its ways.

To reverse this scenario, we’re going to have to get our minds around powerdown really, really quickly.

The powerdown story however is hard to tell, partly because it has no precedent but also because the anti-story to We Can Have What We Want Anytime is The End of the World Is Nigh. If I can't be king of the castle I'll smash the castle. We are the inheritors of People of the Book. And whether we believe in Second Comings or not, apocalypse in embedded into our culture and into our imaginations. If we’re not creating, we're destroying. Oh, my great-grandchildren will have to deal with that! people remark blithely, the earth will get rid of us, or they get that scary Rapture look and rub their hands gleefully at the thought of a total systems collapse.

I am not, by nature, an Endtimer. I'm not into bring-it-all-down, come-the-revolution, oh, 2012 is next year, great! I don’t want to escape into the fourth dimension, or be lifted off planet. I’m not in a rush to die violently. I long passionately for radical change, but have read enough history to know that in revolutions writers are the first people to board the train to the gulag. And I have weathered enough small apocalypses in my own life to know I don’t want to live through any on a giant scale.

In my own experience people can swing two ways in extremity: wake up or cut out, become extraordinary or turn into monsters and zombies. In 2007 a policeman trained in disaster management swung by my house and spelled out exactly what the monster scenario might mean in the UK. Does anyone want to experience what the Japanese are going through? I don’t want to have to abandon my home, or my cat or any of my neighbours, or the old people in the retirement home at the end of the road to their fate. I don't want all the trees in my neighbourhood cut for fuel. I love this earthly life as it is. And I am happy to lose those mechanical horses the industrial revolution bequeathed me to keep it that way.
How else to describe this than as a form of mass insanity? Just when we know we need to be learning to live on the surface of our planet, off the power of sun, wind and waves, we are frantically digging to get at the dirtiest, highest-emitting stuff imaginable. This is where our story of endless growth has taken us, to this black hole at the center of my country — a place of such planetary pain that, like the BP gusher, one can only stand to look at it for so long. As Jared Diamond and others have shown us, this is how civilizations commit suicide, by slamming their foot on the accelerator at the exact moment when they should be putting on the brakes (from TEDwomen talk by Naomi Klein)
The correct response to a looming disaster is to try and prevent it happening. To be inventive and find ways to reconfigure how we do things. However most of us are not listening and responding. Part of the problem is that we escape into our minds to avoid facing reality. We’re not looking ahead and seeing the big picture, we’re carrying on as if everything is going to be the same. And in that desire, we’re wrecking the very lifeforms that keep us alive.

I’m not a builder or a craftsman or any kind of technician. I don’t wield any kind of political or scientific or community influence. So my only real response to these issues is be as a journeyman writer. When I joined Transition I didn’t join the Energy group, I joined the Communications group. There are many brilliant perspicacious and informative writers on blogs such as the Energy Bulletin and The Oil Drum who are far smarter on peak energy than me, who can tell you everything you need to know about nuclear waste, shale gas, oil drilling, carbon capture.

What I know is how to downshift. And I know about stories, how they affect us energetically: those spin stories that take hold of our self-deluding minds and the other kinds of narrative that speak directly to our heart’s intelligence, to our innate sense of fair play, that give us the courage to face the consequences of our actions. We are ruled in our granite minds - the unkind left-brain mind that can dismiss life in a sentence and welcome The End, that jumps to a scenario it thinks it can control. But it’s our warm-blooded hearts that connect with all our relations on earth, that feel for the Japanese people and the Canadian trees and the Siberian reindeer, even though they are thousands of miles away in places we will never visit now. It’s our hearts that can face reality and make the decision to live differently.

One person who perceives directly with an unwavering gaze. with a staunch heart, breaks a small spell in a small circle, a hundred looking at the big picture and acting in every which way they can widens that circle. Everyone paying attention means millions of people focusing on the same dilemma at the same time. Millions of solutions appearing, as opposed to millions burying their heads in tar sands.

It might be the end of a civilisation as we know it. But it won’t be the end of a people. And it won’t be the end of the earth.

Energy in Transition

There are myriad energy projects in Transition, ranging from the recent workshop on Tar Sands organised by Transition Heathrow, to draught-busting workshops by Transition Belsize. Some of the current Transition energy projects are listed in the Network website. Most focus on energy conservation but there are also community renewable energy initiatives. Perhaps the most exciting of these is the Solar Power Station, set up by Transition Lewes, which is being launched today (read Adrienne Campbell’s excellent defence of solar power, Solar So Good on her blog, 1oo Monkeys). Local East Anglian projects include Transition Ipswich's community wind turbine, Transition Cambridge’s wind-turbine construction workshops and bulk-buying loft insulation schemes (Framlingham and Otley).

Creating an Energy Descent Action Plan was the main goal of the original Transition 12 steps, and, like many initiatives, Transition Norwich's EDAP (renamed Resilience Plan) became the primary focus for most of the theme groups that formed after the Unleashing in 2008. Energy reduction has been a key driver both within the innovative Transition Circles and Carbon Conversations. TN also took part in a Solar Panel Scheme organised by SolarCentury.

At the end of 2009 the Energy and Buildings group ran an Energy Audit, principally lighting at night, of public buildings in Norwich, that was televised by BBC Look East. This year the project is about to be revived in a new form. Chris Hull reports:

"The Carbon Trust did a report into business energy waste and efficiency, December last year. Based on a survey over a 3 year period and analysing 1000 companies, they came up with a figure of U.K. firms wasting about £1.6 billion a year on energy.

The Carbon Trust also found that the Finance Directors of large companies underestimated the financial return of investing in energy efficiency by as much as 30%. Our idea for 'Citizens Energy Watch' is to invite people to note and record where they witness energy waste - for instance lights in office blocks, car forecourts, and shops being left on late at night, 'patio heaters' on the outside of cafes, etc. - and let us know via a specific webpage. We would then work with companies to encourage them to reduce their waste and their cost, and mention the companies by name who succeed."

For further info on Citizen Energy Watch contact Chris Hull 01603 664928 or

Poster for Gasland; Tar sands extraction in Alberta; A Japanese man looks down at two dead horses within the exclusion zone, 20 km from the Fukushima plant on April 7 in Minamisoma (Athit Perawongmetha); Solar Community Power team, Transition Lewes; A homeless dog wanders the streets of the exclusion zone in Futuba Town, approximately five km away from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

Friday 15 April 2011

Confessions of a Class Traitor

By Charlotte Du Cann

Where you are going is overwhelmingly dependant on where you are from.
Just before the last election OWC columnist Lee Marsden wrote a perspicacious analysis of public school education and the class system. If the Labour government had hidden their Etonian and Oxbridge advantages, it was clear the next millionaire cabinet were going to flaunt them. We were entering a very different political period. A moment of turbulence in which we were all about to be thrown out of our comfortable seats.

During the last 30 years as the global finanical credit bubble swelled, many people in Britain improved their material lives. Everyone it appeared was able to buy houses and go on holiday. Shopping became a national pastime. In 1998, in a shocking report on poverty and prostitution, Dark Heart, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies looked at the hidden cost of that improvement, the demolition of the working class and the creation of an invisible underclass, a quarter of the population who served as scapegoats for the rest, and most particularly the governing elite.

We imagine that class has disappeared from modern consumer society, but of course it hasn’t. It operates insidiously as a signalling sysem, through language and behaviours, to establish who we are and where we figure in the pecking order: the people who take charge or who obey, those who bask in the limelight, or act out the collective shadow. In spite of what we do in our adult lives we are strictly labelled according to our childhood circumstances and education.

“Daddy, what class are we?” “We’re professional class,” replied my father, once a lawyer. “If anyone asks you tell them you are a professional.” I’m standing outside his old chambers on the Victoria Embankment and a group of socialist lawyers are gathering under a banner in wigs and gowns to protest against the cutting of the court services. It’s March 26 and thousands of workers, students, unemployed and sympathetic protesters are massing beside the Thames. I’m talking with Gurkas, London fireman, librarians from Manchester, engineers from Birmingham, student nurses, actors and coastguards. There’s a strong feeling of solidarity in the crowd I haven’t experienced for a very long time.

My father was born (illegally) in the Inns of Court and spent his whole life behind these gates, defending the innocent and the guilty, pornographers, murderers and fraudsters. During the day he battled against censorship, at night he told me stories about the woods and birds from his rural childhood on the Sussex Downs and about the protagonists of the French revolution. The liberation of Paris obsessed him. Allons citroyens!

We are made of the stories we are told. Sometimes we are told them in order to live them out. And sometimes we are born to end them - not just our personal narratives but the ones we tell ourselves as a culture, as a people. The most enduring story we are taught is that some people are better than others. Better fit to rule, better fit to live in splendour, more intelligent, more evolved. I was raised to believe that “lower” class people were poor because they were stupid and when workers went on strike they were holding the country to ransom. But this wasn’t the story my life followed.

At the age of 19 I found myself living in the slumlands of Birmingham with working class students from the North, who unlike me, had struggled hard to get here. It was the mid-1970s and all our world-views were being challenged. In the red-light district of Balsall Heath amongst the immigrant sweat-shops, I learned about Diggers and Levellers, studied Chomsky and socio-linguistics, stood by ASLEF workers and against the National Front, and when I faced a police charge realised I was in a country that bore no relation to the one I had been brought up in.

Those years changed everything. At the age of 35 I sold everything I owned and went on the road, compelled, like many of my contempories in the 90s, to reconnect with the earth and with people in a way that broke with our conventional upbringings. Today I’m about to march past the offices where I once had a successful career as magazine journalist. Fortnum and Masons, where I used to meet my grandfather for tea, is about to be filled with the tax-dodger protesters from UKUncut. It’s another England. I’m no longer inside those gates.

Like many people I'm struggling to co-create a new narrative, one of equality and fairness - not just for myself among the crowd in Hyde Park and the millions dependant on the welfare state, but also for the invisible people of the global South, on whose natural resources and slave labour the global North depend. In order to write a new story I need to deconstruct a very old one.

The coalition government are made up of the kind of people I was brought up amongst: proud, ritualistic, acquisitive, obssessed by form, terrified of losing face, with a horror of the masses, all fellow feeling having been ruthlessly bullied out of them. In order to hold its superior position, the ancien regime needs to continually push others down. The more equality and fairness exerts its pressure within the collective, the harder they push. They are, as George Orwell points out in his peerless study of class, Road to Wigan Pier, terrified of losing control and falling. In this they are as much at the mercy of this heartless system as anyone else.

In order to deconstruct a story you have to know what it’s made of. The institution of class is ancient, stemming from the Aryan caste system, established in India thousands of years ago and upheld by the powerful few within all Empires from Assyrian overlords to corporate CEOs. It works its restrictions through all our lives, born high or low. The barriers between us are kept in place by hatreds, by humiliation, by blame, by revenge, terror, hostility and mostly by ignorance. In 1975 in Birmingham Mel Foster railed at me. An ex-miner, he had gone through Trades Union college to study for a degree and was cracking under the strain. Like many of his working class peers he was loathe to betray his origins by becoming educated and thus middle class. "You have destroyed the Hull fishing fleet and all our livlihoods!" he yelled.

He knew nothing about London. I knew nothing about Hull, but I did know I had a legacy, A crooked inheritance I had to put straight. We all have that legacy. And in this the working class is no more exempt than any other section of society, for it too has its whipping boys - the unemployed, the migrant, the homeless Orwell once walked amongst. Everything in our consumer society is a product of the exploitation of our fellow human beings, from the child slaves of the African cocoa plantations to the Chinese IT factory worker. None of us has impunity.

To break out our historical mould we can’t identify with the class we were brought up in, hold on to our positions as victims or conquerors, as righteous Conservatives, as ideologially pure Socialists, we have to let go of them and come together in a new and fluid way. We have to see the world from a common perspective. Because, if we don’t, the corporate elite will push us all down as far as we can go. We will lose everything our ancestors fought for so hard - all our freedoms, all our public services, If we separate and attack each other, we play into their hands. United, we can exert a force that could change how we live on this planet as a people forever.

Part of that unifying future story, that radical shift, is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. We have to know what it’s like to be in other people shoes whoever they are, and when we understand begin to act from within a deep frame of change. And this is why I am telling you mine. I fell and failed. I quit my position, my house, my job. Contrary to the cautionary tales was told I did not die in destitution as my great-grandmother did in a workhouse on the Isle of Wight. I found that people are kind and fair and intelligent everywhere you go, so long as you don’t give way to your hatred or rage or self-pity, or close down from fear. What matters is that you give that natural empathy and desire for liberation a chance. History does not need to repeat itself. The French revolution, like all revolutions that followed in its wake, ended in the Terror and the brutal reinstatment of another kind of hierachy. We don’t need another revolution. We don’t need class war. We need to evolve.

Photos: March for the Alternative, Victoria Embankment, March 2011; looking outside the door, Kent, 1958; Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth behind Hidden Britain by Nick Davies; coming together to discuss civil liberties and economic system, Transition Norwich, Aladdin's Cafe, Magdalen Street, Norwich, April, 2011.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Entering the Conversation

Scientists talk about climate change with studies on pollution and toxins where the Inuit discuss the effects as they occur within our lives. Our whole world is changing. On the topic of environment southerners focus on borders which prevents them from getting connected. When Inuit talk about environment we are one. (from Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change)

From 1998-2003 I ran a project with Mark called the Earth Dreaming Bank. It was an investigation into the relationship between the earth and human consciousness, specifically dreaming. One of the tools we used was called Five Levels which I had borrowed from the eco-psychologist, Stephen Aizeinstat. Aizenstat had returned from the Rio Earth Summit where dreaming had been recognised as an intrinsic part of human knowledge, our world heritage. I had met him after a talk he gave in Santa Barbara on Aboriginal Dreamtime.

The Five Levels explore night dreams from five different perspectives, asking how they relate to your waking life in the last 48 hours, in terms of your biography, as a social being, in the realms of world mythology and finally as a creature of the earth. In the practice with others the hardest level to account for was the third. To break out of that individual mindset and shift into the collective level was a difficult step, often hedged by unnamed fears. Mostly people didn't like to think of themselves as a member of society within a historical or political framework – as a woman, for example or a member of the working class, even of the human race at this point in time. They felt they no longer had a handle on their destiny somehow, which was not true of the other levels.

None of us liked to think of ourselves as being subservient to the heartless and autocratic system we were all part of. A number or statistic. Somehow dispensable. And yet within the dreaming an awareness of our position was often the most powerful point, the point at which radical change could take place, a moment of liberation.

Perhaps the strongest opportunity Transition offers is for a redefinition of that social level. Partly because it values working with other people on an equal and fair footing. And because it recognises that a reconnection with people is a vital step towards co-creating the kind of low-energy future we want to live in. No matter how strong our connection with the natural world, no matter how determined we are to break out of illusion and live a deliberate life, if we don't also connect in a meaningful way with the people in our neighbourhood and in our society we will indeed become dispensable, cogs in a machine that is already running out of control across the planet.

These are not necessarily the conversations you have across the supper table or on the bus. You need another set and setting to engage in them fully. Transition can provide an informal platform for such discussions because everything we do is within the deep frame of change. Most of all we're not addressing the effects of the 3 E's (energy, environment, economics) as experts, outside the problem, we're discussing them as players, inside the problem, as a People.

April 8 7.30pm Tom Abbot's Barn. The Saints. Suffolk. Our second Sustainable Bungay and Greenpeace film night. There are 20 people in the barn and we're watching the Economics of Happiness. It's a documentary about the effects of globalisation, principally on the people of Ladakh who once all lived in autonomous, self-sufficient and locally-orientated communities. The director Helena Norbert-Hodge poses ways we can combat the eight spokes of the global economic wheel that run from competition and conflict to false accounting, how we can engage in localisation and revitalising our own local communities. We're discussing what we can do here in East Anglia and the freestyle conversation is running from sharing stuff to permaculture. We need to shift our values, we agree, how do we begin? Richard riffs on farmers committing suicide and dogs undergoing hip surgery. "It's great we can count on you for keeping our spirits up", says Marion, champion of organic potato growing in the region, and we laugh.

Outside across the dark common the stars are burning and the new moon hangs in the sky. The blackthorn is shining. I'm collecting my Suma order from Kris's car and going to stay overnight with Netta in Beccles. The parlous rural transport situation means I can't get buses after teatime. "How are you going to get those sacks back?" she says, as I heave 30 kilos of millet and rice into the back. "Trolley them!" I laugh. En route she turns to me and says: why don't I just drive you home?

April 12, 6pm Aladdins cafe, Magdalen Street, Norwich. The cafe is unexpectedly full. 35 people are listening to Deepak giving a recap of Nicole Foss' presentation last month. As well as the main theme of runaway deflation, he mentions other subjects Foss touched upon after the event at Christine's, notably the restriction of our civil liberties. We've organised ourselves into five tables each with a question arising from the talk: Are we heading for inflation or deflation? What political actions can we take in order to save our society? How did we get into this situation, historically, philosophically? What actions can we take locally, as individuals and in community?

I've asked the question: How can we preserve our liberties and what are they? "We don't even know what our rights are," remarked a young midwife as she described how her time-honoured profession was being squeezed out. There is a large piece of paper in front of us and I'm writing a litany of our disappearing freedoms: EU directives on herbal products, the liberty of living in a mobile dwelling on your own land, habeus corpus, the rise of demi-gods, press freedom, press monopoly, collection of data. We're talking about breaking our own self-censorship, standing behind others as they act on our behalf, protesting. What feels important is that we are talking these things out loud. Because silence is consent. Afterwards we give a plenary of everything we discussed. Financial actions that we can take from starting our own currency in Norwich to shifting cash into ethical funds.

Unlike our laid-back country conversation, this city one is intense. While others continue in the pub afterwards, I head back to the station down the back lanes where the stone walls are green with shepherds purse and ivy-leaved toadflax and ancient cherry trees lean out of hidden gardens. I'm staying with Lesley tonight in Oulton Broad. En route to her house we walk through Bonds Meadow Wood and feel the presence of the huge willow trees shifting in the warm spring night. In her kitchen there's a meal waiting for me and a glass of wine. Red cabbage sprouts for the salad from a seed tray outside her door.

You don't expect to find flowers in a city street, and yet they are there. You don't expect to find kindness and generosity in people, yet it is there. I don't think we talked about those qualities in either of our discussions and yet it was everywhere, unsaid in the room. Hussein and Tariq who run the cafe kept it open for us past hours, so we could have this conversation. Tom opened his barn. When I can't get a bus, people open their houses, drive me home, offer me lifts. Last week I hitched to our local market town and 4 strangers picked me up. What do you do they ask, the builder, scrap metal dealer, visitor (from North Wales), artist (from East London). I'm in Transition I say and start telling them what that means.

The fact is we have to have the conversation. Whether that conversation is haphazard or highly structured, whether it's awkward or fluent, speaking to our neighbour or speaking to the room, we can't feel on our own. As the world darkens and tightens its grip we need to feel light and in charge of our destiny. "The big thing is control," said Deepak. "And what mitigates control is communication," I replied. We have to talk about how we feel and what we can do, how we can manifest a vision for the future that includes the earth, our skills, our intelligence, our common cause, our common freedoms. The institutions that hold us in their grip count on our being separated and afraid. In the dreams Mark and I once paid attention to so intently, the point of liberation came when we said how it felt to be trapped. When we spoke from our hearts the dream broke open. The autocratic world none of us wish for and all of us resist, counts on not saying what we really feel out loud.

Time to speak.

Photos: Mark and Tully discussing resilience and infrastructure at Strangers' Circle meeting, 2010; Economics of Happiness poster; Deepak outlining the three E's at Aladdin's Cafe; the plenary; action sheet.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Breaking the Habit

In The Transition Handbook Rob Hopkins describes our fossil-fuelled industrialised lifestyle as an addiction. We’re addicted to oil. And that presents humanity with a major dilemma: we find ourselves stuck inside a destructive self-replicating system with very few ideas of how to get out of it. We can either get together and find ways to liberate ourselves, or face the consequences of a planetary meltdown. Tough call either way.

With classic dependencies like alcohol and heroin it’s clear what you do when you face the music, when you wake up to your life falling apart. You stop. You can do this with sheer determination, you can get professional advice. You can go to any number of self-help groups and sit in a room with fellow addicts. You can treat it as a personal problem or a social problem - the historical fate of certain people at the hands of Empire, indigenous tribes dispossessed of their land, the factory workers in the slums of 19th century Manchester. You can look at it as a spiritual problem, the fate of the most of us, escaping from reality in one way or another, because of the emotional harshness of our lives, because of the lack of connection with the earth and with the spirit of life. It’s not our fault and yet it is our problem.

Most addicts, when they decide to quit can ask someone who has quit before them: How did you go through this process? And can expect to receive an answer. Normal is not-addicted (or at least not to the degree that it rules your life). But how do you do this with energy? When normal is addicted and our lives are built around a constant need for electricity and gas? When oil interplays in almost all our activities? When no-one before us has given it up?

Instead of looking at the big picture of peak oil and climate change and feeling unable to act, the Transition Circles in Norwich decided to tackle the problem from ground up and go the way of self-help groups. We kept the big picture in mind and concentrated on the four drivers of energy, transport, food, stuff (and waste) in regard to our daily lives.

We confessed our profligate use of heating oil and gas, brought our log books, crunched numbers. We came out as bicycle riders, as users of rainwater, organic food producers, second hand clothes wearers, non-consumers, admitted a secret horror of plastic. But hey! We were in a Safe Space. It was OK to care about the planet. No one was going to accuse us of being tree huggers or climate agree-ers. We had a lot of fun (and good food). And in a few months, most of us had shifted to a low(er)-carbon way of living. We reduced our emissions to four tons (half the national average). We’re still working on it and communicating our findings to everyone we come across, 100 monkeys-style. This blog was created from those original meetings in 2009/10.

Still, as we found out, you have to go cold turkey and that’s a personal thing between you and the Power that rules your life. And then you have to hold those decisions in the outside world, often against stern opposition. How do you do that?

I’ve given up a lot of stuff in my life. I gave up sugar in tea for Lent as an experiment when I was 12 and, heathen child though I was, discovered the joy of renunciation. I never went back to it. After living a high life during my 20s and 30s I gave up a colourful list of recreational drugs, vodka and champagne drinking when I went on the road. I gave up newspapers and television and designer clothes and buying interesting stuff in markets. I gave up smoking cigarettes (oh, tobacco!), meat and fish and cheese, restaurants and elaborate cooking. In Transition I gave up daily hot baths, owning a car, supermarkets, flying, central heating. The pre-Transition decisions got me a lot of flak, the in-Transition ones curiosity and questions.

The trick is the decision. You’ve got to see it matters within the big picture. You have to see that it gives you freedom. And that you prefer that freedom, all that space and time, to being caught in a repeat cycle, even at the risk of "losing" people. It isn’t really renunciation as I found out, it’s breaking a hold something has over you. When I gave up drinking wine it didn’t mean I would never drink wine again. It meant that I broke the habit of having to have wine every day in order to feel OK. I still have hot baths, but only when I need one. It’s not driven from a puritanical urge. It’s come because I want to be fluid and autonomous. And on a social level I want to find out how we can extricate ourselves from the oil age and what that demands from individuals and communities, humanity as a whole. So there’s adventure in there, intellectual and physical curiousity, pioneer spirit, desire for experience (and copy!). What would it be like to live in rural England without a car?

Right now I’m breaking a terrible habit I picked up this winter when I had the flu. DVDs from the library! I had given up going to the cinema in 2005. I love films, especially real life stories with redemption in them. The DVDs from the library are mostly Hollywood movies so I can’t even claim I’m engaging in high culture. I’m just distracting myself. After a while you feel enclosed in these worlds of American gloss, the girls with their perfect hair, those mawkish plot lines. The globalised culture depends on these movies and their star system to disengage people’s attention , to give everyone a taste for the artificial and the emotional tone it brings. It’s violence and false desires. It’s hidden heraldic structures that imprint themselves on our imaginations. Giving up has got to have meaning in there. And noble purpose.

If you lay out every thing you have given up, the habits you have broken, you’ll find yourself with a map of powerdown. That’s when you notice it looks a lot like gaolbreak. A lot like breaking a spell.

Photos: Smoking in the Yucatan 1991; opium poppy; Strangers' Circle. 2010 - All by Mark Watson. Black Swan poster, 2011

Monday 11 April 2011

Notes from the Sunrise Coast

Dawn. There’ a bittern out there booming in the marshes. Soon the blackbird will start singing, and then the wren and the chaffinch. A mist is hanging over the fields and spinneys. The greengage is glowing in the garden. Clear sky. It’s going to be another lovely day. Spring has come so quickly this year it’s hard to take it all in. Last week cycling back cross-country with our vegetable box, I just caught the great goat willow on East Hill in its full golden bee-buzzing glory and the wild daffodils in the woods. In a wink the violets have disappeared and there are primroses in all the ditches, dandelions appearing, and the hedges you flash past are already stippled green with hawthorn leaves, luminous white with blackthorn and damson blossom, searing yellow with gorse. And everywhere the rising scent of alexanders. Oh, to be in England now that April’s here!

I’ve been reading Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin. Deakin was an East Anglian writer, filmmaker and broadcaster, famous for loving trees and swimming in wild water (in the nearby River Waveney and North Sea, as well as in the moat outside his old Suffolk house). The book is an edited collection of six year’s worth of notebooks that he kept as he was writing his two modern nature classics, Waterlog and Wildwood.

I am not a great reader anymore. But this book I can spend time with happily. Maybe because I feel some kinship with the man who wrote it. I like its creaturehood, the closeness to things, the way Deakin watches the vetch pods snap in the meadow outside the window of the shepherd’s hut where he sometimes sleeps, the sound of birds in the walls, rain on its roof. Most people write about nature (which is to say everything on the planet except for man) at arms length, as if they were scientists poking it about, or as if they own it as property, as an escape, a separate entertaining world from normal life. But with Deakin you are up front with the spiders and dragonflies, ash trees and green lanes, the weasel he finds dead outside his door and the squirrels that raid his beloved walnut trees. Nature entwines about his daily world and his house like ivy, and keeps a passionate hold on our attention. He writes as if everything matters dearly.

One day when he was 17, a policeman came to the door and told him his father had died on the Underground. That moment, he considers, was what made him into a conservationist. I was wanting back what I had lost, he writes. I wanted my father back. I didn’t want to lose anything anymore. Does this matter? Is this too personal a base? Too emotional a base? Not philosophical enough? Not the right reason?

Daybreak. Sun now coming up a big red ball over the sea. The jackdaws have started their nest construction business in the chimney. Rattle rattle goes the television aerial. Jack jack goes the conversation. Soon Mark will go downstairs to check on the progress of the seedlings in their trays. The conservatory will be filled with the scent of tobacco flowers.

When we started Transition two and a half years ago Reconnection with Nature was a big topic. We understood it as an essential part of the seachange humanity needed to undergo. We all wanted to go on walks together and tune in to trees. Deep ecology was the phrase on everyone’s lips. And then the subject disappeared. Partly because nature is a thing you can’t really do with other people, sitting in a circle, or conversing on a Sunday walk. You can write about it, but you can’t talk about it. It’s a solitary thing, a certain focus of the heart. It has to do with making relationship with other lifeforms –with stones and plants and animals and the North wind, with your deep memory and sense of belonging. Deakin doesn’t talk to people in his notebooks, except his friends and even they they don’t get much of a mention. What absorbs him – and us - is his relationship with the physical world. He’s clocking everything, treasuring everything, day by day, month by month in his last years.

I had lost such a big part of my life that I needed to compensate by holding on to everything.

You can’t reconnect with nature in a room, in a meeting, or with your rational mind, however well-intentioned you are. It’s a whole body, whole life absorption, which is why most people who are connected with the earth have had powerful and dramatic encounters alone in deserts or up mountains. Or they work with the land and with their hands, as Deakin did. It needs to matter, as a matter of life-and-death. As dwellers of urban worlds, we are told the earth only matters insofar as we need its resources to maintain our lifestyles. We live a trapped life of the mind and see the earth as “environment”, a backdrop for our all-important dramas. We are cynical and incurious. The fate of small moths and hornets at our windows does not concern us. To strike up a friendship with the pheasant that struts in his technicolour dreamcoat across the garden seems absurd or sentimental.

To get back in synch we have to immerse ourselves in the world of colour and shape and beauty, the intelligence that is in all living things and see ourselves within the fabric, not apart from it. And this work, this practice, is as essential as reskilling ourselves, or reducing carbon emissions, or growing our own vegetables. Because when we do we break with our need for complex consumerism and fantasy that are a poor substitute for the powerful connection with life. We will then be happy living in a plain and frugal way.

The reason I’m writing about Roger Deakin today is not that he writes great nature books, but because in those books he lives a life that is close to the Transition aesthetic and he makes that life something tangible and desirable. He only wears second hand clothes, he experiments with cooking on an field stove, he works with hand tools, he cycles, he walks. It is a rich and alert life completely in synch with the natural world but it’s also in touch with the intellectual world and the world of imagination. I’m telling you this because sometimes writers can take you to that place you think you might have lost but is always there, just outside your door. I found my connection with plants when I lived in the city of Oxford. I read a book that said anyone can connect with flowers. And so I walked out and found them.

It doesn’t matter where you live. What matters is the attention you pay. Most people paid attention to the buildings in Oxford, its university, its great tradition, I sought out its street trees, canalsides, botanical gardens, wastegrounds and parks. And when I did I found I lived in another place entirely. A place in which the humble dandelion and daisy is king. And that’s what I wanted to say. That world is here now on this beautiful morning. It’s always here, in England, in spring.

Dandelions and oak trees; cover of Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (Penguin Books); lying among daffdils; Mark and daisy; Roger Deakin in a wild pool (Daily Mail).

Monday 4 April 2011

Communications - A New Narrative

I feel like this is the moment to come to terms with our history in so many ways, because this is a crisis born of the industrial project that was fuelled by colonial extraction and mass dislocation. It all comes together with this crisis. When we talk about storytelling, all of our stories are in crisis and we need new stories about how we got here, at whose expense, who paid the price, how we’re going to do things differently. That means learning from the very people who got the worst deal out of the industrial era (Naomi Klein interviewed by Rob Hopkins - Transition Culture)
Our life is determined by stories. Stories we are told by our parents, by our culture, by the Empire that has ruled us for thousands of years. Some of these are ancient and reworked fairy tales, Cinderella being one of the most enduring. You are really a princess. Your ugly sisters are making you tend the fire and work in a kitchen. One day a fairy godmother will come and you will go to the ball and marry a prince and live in luxury for the rest of your days. We love that story. Partly because it resonates with the beauty of our real inner selves, but mostly because it ends with riches, with feasting and nice clothes and aligning with power. It’s a major upstory.

How do you tell a downstory? Downstories are hard to find in our culture. There are plenty of upstories that don't work out that act like scary cautionary tales (if you don’t make it to the ball, you never get out of that fireplace and will always wear rags). But how do you go about telling the story of Transition, of the energy descent we have to make as individuals and as a people? How do you turn the coach back into a pumpkin and the princess back into someone who can tend a fire?

How can you tell the story that is not about individual people making it OK, but about whole communities turning themselves around? We hunt for analogies but they are hard to come across. We find people pulling together during WW2 and imagine that Digging for Victory was all like an Ealing comedy. But that is to ignore the very real drama of war and government progaganda. No matter how urgent our situation, carbon reduction quotas and climate science don't quite fit into a narrative that will help us face reality together.

Here's Paul Kingsnorth writing on his blog, Dark Mountain:

I think that the poets have been cowed into silence by the dominance and urgency of the quants’ narrative. How to reassert the importance of stories, then, is perhaps a key question now. Green poets might perhaps start by observing that worlds are not ’saved’ by the same stories that are killing them. They might want to observe that saving worlds is an impossible business in the first place, and that attempting to do so is likely to lead to some very dark places. Or they might try and explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to this, time and time again – arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away (from The Quants and the Poets)

The fact is we don’t have to go outside ourselves for a new story; we just have to retell our own and be prepared to listen to others as they tell theirs. Here's one:

Once upon a time there was a girl who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She lived in the big city and went to the park and had lovely party dresses and dancing lessons and when she grew up she wrote for shiny magazines and bought herself a little flat and drank champagne and had lots of friends and lovers. She was successful, threw parties and went all round the world. And then on her 35th birthday she left everything behind and never returned.

She did what? This is my story. You could think it ended there and then with that exit. But you would be wrong. It was the beginning of a new narrative. How I went travelling, like scores of my contemporaries, in the 90s to connect with the Earth, to shift our consciousness in order to deal with the legacy of Empire. How I came back to England in 2001 and had to begin my life again at the bottom as a nobody. This is not just my story of course. There are thousands of us out there who chose the red pill, walked out and gave up the game. Who went on the road and sought answers, who got enlightened in forests and mountains, who became activists, who started again. There are thousands of people in Transition who know how to downshift because they have done it themselves from all classes, all income streams, all professions, all situations.

But who is going to tell these stories? And who is going to listen?

For several years I tried to publish my downshifting story, but no publishing house or magazine would take it. Not because it wasn’t any good, but because it is a Cinders story. It’s got suffering in there and the reality of the kitchen. It’s got a lot of questions about civilisation, about the family, about media. Because if our culture started officially publishing this kind of stuff it would challenge the Cinderella-enthralled status quo.

Then in 2009, I discovered, like millions of other people before me, the liberty of blogging. Blogging unshackled everyone from agents and editors and publishers. Suddenly we could write what we wanted, and like the Levellers who took full advantage of a decade of free press, we wrote unceasingly. The premise of this community blog, This Low Carbon Life, was to record the daily stories of powerdown among 12 Transitioners: to give value to the small steps we take to create a world that won't tear people apart and that treasures the earth. I didn’t want to tell the story on my own. Because the story of the moment is not an individualist story. My personal powerdown (and no one else’s). It’s everyone’s story. You need to hear everyone’s story in the new narrative. That’s how it works.

Here's Sharon Astyk cross-posted in the Energy Bulletin:
Nor do I believe for one moment the oft-quoted claim that we are too spoiled, unlike our grandparents and ancestors to give things up. I think, rather, that no one has asked, no story has emerged - despite my attempts and the attempts of others to write one that takes into account events. Perhaps our collective attempt to disseminate such a story, a new way of life will evolve, as events do. Perhaps we can offer collectively, as we repeat, embellish and expand the narrative that says "You do not have to do that, you can choose these things instead...and come join those of us making more of less." We need such a story more than we need nuclear power or coal power. We need it nearly as much as we need air (On Baby Harp Seals, Coal Plants and Nuclear Power)
We need that new narrative because our desire to live in fairy palaces is destroying the earth. We are constricted by living in a left-brain, number-fixated, quant world. We are pressured by happy-ever-after Hollywood stories, by American dreams, by our own sentimentality, by our desire to vanquish the enemy. But there is one thing that has a more powerful allure than all of these. And that is a story with love and redemption in it. People will go a long, long way so long as there is meaning at the end of their struggles. Because of us this dear world got to be free.

There has to be meaning in what we have ex-
perienced in the rise of our lives, in order to make sense of the fall. There has to be meaning in being born with a silver spoon in my mouth and writing about those party frocks. The meaning is in the letting go. I know what it takes to leave the city, to give up restaurants and holidays and being a success. You know what it takes to move out of a house, a job, those relationships, those material debts. And you also know why you did it.

I know why I left the city. I left because I wanted to break free. I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be able to talk with anyone. I wanted to know the world and myself in a way that my upbringing and culture never allowed for. I never went back to my early life because when I looked back I saw it for what it was: a gilded prison.

Letting go was not loss. Letting go was liberation.

We’re busy people in Transition. As Shane Hughes from Transition Bedford once said: we’re holding two worlds at once in our hands, an old and a new one. Both of which make demands on our attention and our time. But if we could make time and space to speak with one another in a way that allows us to see what we are really doing with our humble woodpiles and shared meals, with our vegetable gardens and community events, Ingredients and Tools, our blogs and meetings and struggles to understand, it would bring a nobility and depth of meaning into all our actions. It would give us courage and common cause as we meet outside the Palace walls.

We need to know that each of us are holding the story of this changing world within us. And that it’s time we began to listen to each other and join those pieces up . . .

Comma butterfly and pasque flowers by Mark Watson; Amelia and the Angel by Ken Russell, 1958, from Beginning Again.