Sunday 23 September 2012

The Lavender Hill Mob

It's 9am and there is no one on the beach. I'm about to set out by foot, bus, train and tube to the Battersea Arts Centre on Lavender Hill and I have leapt into the sea spontaneously for a last-minute dip. I have been swimming in this sea all summer long and can hardly bear to part with this feeling of fluidity, this physical immersion in the wild elemental world. The swells are long and slow and I am floating, gazing up at the sky and clouds. The sea town bobbing in front of me.

What's the word, I ask the morning, that I should take to the conference?
Open, the day replies mildly, as the horizon stretches in all directions and the clouds move with the wind ever westwards.

Afterwards I cycle down the sleepy high street, towards the farmer's market, where Brian has four kinds of home-grown chilli waiting for our next Happy Mondays Community Kitchen meal - a Mexican fiesta. I sing as I go up the hill:

Porque cantando se alegran cielito lindo los corazones
Because, sweet sky, singing gladdens the heart.
key one: finding the key
Vilcabamba, Ecuador, 1992. She was Night and I was Dawn. I was deliberating. We were enacting a drama, induced by the cactus, known as San Pedro, the keeper of keys.

"You can have it like this," she said and wrapped me in a big black cloak. "Or you can have it like this" and she opened the cloak and there in front of me were the shiny faces of my friends, laughing. It felt as though that decision was the simplest and the most profound thing I could make in my life. It felt as if it could turn the destiny of the whole planet around.

"I'll have it like this," I declared.
"Bring it on," she said.

Battersea, London, 2012  He is feeling and I am thinking. We are enacting a drama in a workshop on creating happy and healthy human cultures. Sophie Banks is asking us to express the extremes of opposite states and then to let them go.

"What did you experience?" he asked me afterwards. They are the same, I replied. I looked at you and I saw me. Thinking and feeling make the same shape. They are either closed down, or they are open.
The opposites are not feeling or thinking, or male or female, or action and reflection, but the state in which we operate. When we rush around the room, heads down, closed, defensive, self-obsessed, we live in a restrictive world where time is running out; when we slow down, get in pace with our hearts and the natural rhythms of the earth, looking at each other, related, connected, open, we find ourselves in another world. We are open to possibility, we are open to change.

That was a small key moment at the Transition Network UK confererence 2012 on Lavender Hill. And it gnawed at my heart all weekend, like a little mouse.
key two: set and setting
During this last fortnight the Social Reporting crew has been covering the Con-ference in all its aspects. We decided to preview, report and reflect on the areas that we were involved in and some of those that surprised us. During the break on Saturday morning, we met at the media hub and decided which workshops we were going to attend, so we could report back on as many as possible. As well as Sophy's workshop I put my hand up for When Transition Says No, facilitated by Ben Brangwyn, which featured the real-life stories of Transition Heathrow and their squatted community (Grow Heathrow), Transition Town Totnes with the local No to Costa Coffee campagin and Transition Cowbridge with anti-fracking activisim in Wales. In between I'm looking after the Transition Free Press stall, running an editorial session at Open Space, talking with all the people I now know in the movement and on the lookout for this year's surprise theme.

Two years ago at Seale Hayne it was the Stoneleigh Lecture which rocked the halls and woke everyone up to the economic crisis; last year in Liverpool it was the tale about los indignados, told to us by Transition Barcelona, which presaged the global Occupy movement a couple of months later. Here in Battersea I'm missing the kickback time and outdoor spaces afforded by both those residential events. This year the main conference is almost a day shorter, and we do not breakfast or have supper together. I'm aware however that it has a different set and setting, where instead of feeling like an outsider, I feel completely at home.

We not in not an agricultural college or an ex-Catholic seminary teaching college on a campus, but an arts centre on a high street in my home city, that once housed official Council offices. It's not an academic but an ex-civic space that now resounds with music and dance. We're singing and dancing too on land that was once lavender fields. We're singing with Ines, we're watching a caberet, put on by poets, journalists and film makers and we're dancing wildly to the band. We're writing a poem together and laughing. I've written the first line:

By the composting toilet I sat down and wept
key three: layers
I'm looking for the story in amongst the noticeboards and conversations, the shafts of sunlight filtering through the coloured glass roof. The title of the conference however is not about narrative, a fluid and linear sequence in time. It's about a vertical shape contructed in space. We are building resilience in extraordinary times - a resilience, I'm discovering, that is constructed in layers. Strips of meaning laid on top of one another.

In Sophy's workshop we begin with a traditional milling exercise: walking around the room slowly and deliberately, looking each other in the eye, then fast as if we were late for a meeting. Eyes down, locked into ourselves, pushing everyone out of the way. Then she outlines a Native American teaching about coming from upright or deteriorating mind. This is a teaching from the Six Nations confederacy, which gives us a blueprint of how to shift from a warmongering mindset to one of inter-tribal co-operation. Layer three comes from psychological work with trauma, where it's recognised that in extreme circumstances human beings split into two parts - an outer part that deals with survival (gotta do, gotta get on) and an Other inner part, which holds the traumatic experience and all the feelings it engendered.

The first part is always in control, and the second lurks underfoot, threatening to upset the apple cart at all turns. In order to avoid re-experiencing the initial trauma the controller projects all the dark and dangerous stuff onto other people. That's the black sheep in our families, our disloyal friend, whole sections of society in the down-there place, those "difficult" people in our Transition initiatives.

Me and you.

Layer four is our challenge: how do we move from Dominator Culture towards Partnership Culture? How do we take the good things from our deeply felt experiences and our smart, outgoing, pioneering selves, and join those fragments together?
key four: the talking shop
The Sunday High Street group process, devised by artist Ruth Ben-Tovim, starts with a word we write on a small blackboard and place in a chalk circle we have drawn around ourselves. What makes you joyful? she asks (communication and the earth I write). The exploration then opens out to a storytelling exchange with our immediate neighbour (about a white lion who find his home in the Arctic, about a community meal cooked for fifty people each month), followed by a discussion with eight people in our neighbourhood about mapping our street (leafy, friendly, sharing and interconnected), then finding partnerships in the Transition Town Anywhere, based on eight categories (communications), setting up a business in our High Street of Dreams.

Teen and I teamed up in the Communications corner. We were the first shop to open (No 19), and Teen was one of the torch bearers who ran down the High Street to declare it open. The Talking Shop was a media hub and literary cafe downstairs, wth an office for the Transition Free Press upstairs.

"We'll be too busy to do food," advised Teen as my plans for the cafe extended wildly. As it happened however we found ourselves next to a Community Kitchen and we soon knocked a door through our adjoining walls, so we could share custom. Sorted swiftly, with a minimal shop front, Teen went out to have a cigarette and I went to the media hub (real one), to send my menu notes for Monday's Mexican fiesta. When I returned the High Street was in full swing and I walked around the cardboard town, talking to people, asking questions, listening to their set-up tales. For a moment it was like being a kid again at the seaside, building sandcastles and spaceships that take you all the way into the future.

"Would you like an ale?" asked a familiar voice.
"Do you have cider?" I asked. "I can't drink beer."
"Oh, yes," Rob replied, and handed me a cup. I laughed as I peered inside and found it was empty. For moment I thought it was real. I had forgotten the joy of imaginary games. It's not often you get the chance to let go and be in play with 300 people. I loved the inventive things everyone was doing with all that newspaper and bamboo sticks, all those joyful exchanges of which I was a part. But inside I was troubled too.

"Gisse job," I said to Fiona from REConomy, standing next door at the Town's Job Centre.
"This is for people with skills," she explained.
"Communications is a skill," I replied. "We're setting up a media hub and a local newspaper."
"You need to go to the Bank," she said.

I went back to mind the shop. Communications is a skill, but in the imaginary and the real job centre there is no paid work for communicators. There were only two of us in the room who were doing the job. We were skilled journalists, social reporters, and already had a national Transition paper for sale. "Comms" in the conference was represented by the workshop on Spiral Dynamics given by Nick Osborne, but there was no formal focus on our relationship with the media, or indeed becoming the media. Even though the mainstream and alternative press have a key role in shaping the mindset of the collective there was no place for those of us telling the story of our extraordinary times.

This post has taken a long time to be published. Partly because my fellow reporters have already written so clearly and comprehensively about the event. But partly because something happened there I didn't really want to look at. I wanted to write how wonderful the conference was. Because it was. There was a high octane buzz and an ace feeling afterwards that we were a network of people throughout the world, working towards a future that had nobility, meaning and heart. But there was this other feeling I found as I stood at The Talking Shop I couldn't ignore - a feeling of redundancy.

I am not a builder. I am a storyteller who makes meaning in time. I go where the story takes me. I go where I am welcomed and where I am valued. It's not an individual decision, it's a group decision.

In my Transition initiatives I organise community blogs, press releases, newsletters, bulletins, speakers and sometimes am that speaker myself. I am the one who asks awkward questions in meetings, keeps a record, relates the bigger picture - from the Network to climate change - that frames all our small local moves. For the past five years I have written hundreds of blogs in praise of everything I see and experience in this extraordinary movement. I have found the words - all the words, the bitter, the joyful and the true. I have given them freely. In one initiative, I am excluded, in the other I am welcomed. Communications is understood as vital to our resilience and has helped keep us together where the other has fallen apart. It's not because I am a wonderful and important individual, it's because I'm working with a crew that knows the work of communications is vital if we want to create a partnership culture. Communication is what brings those fragmented parts of ourselves and our world back together. A key that opens the door.

Because, sweet sky, singing gladdens the heart.
Because, dear readers, I sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept.

Pictures: words and people from the project In Your Own Skin, showcased at the Cabaret and being crowd-funded this month (Katheryne Trenshaw),; mosiac bee on the floor of the Battersea Arts Centre (Laura Whitehead); writing up a blog at the media hub (LW); communications board at the High Street group process (LW); our sunflower-shaped neighbourhood (Mark Watson); Martin from Asda with the pre-processed carboard (Ruth Ben-Tovim); newly minted Bristol Pounds, our Transition Free Press front story, launched on 19 September.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

We will, we will, blog you! Happy Birthday Social Reporters!

The Social Reporting Project is one year old today and this post is a many happy returns from (most of) the reporting crew at the wonderful Transition Conference in Battersea. This week we will be posting our reflections on this latest gathering: Kerry on the Youth Symposium, Jay on REconomy, Ann on the Thrive training, guest blogger, Gary Alexander on the International Hubs and all of us on the main event.

The project kicked off last year with a workshop on Transition and communications I helped give with our producer Ed Mitchell in Liverpool. As well as communicating how we envisaged this blog (originally a three-month pilot), I was also helping out at the media hub and writing for the Conference blog, and at times it felt as though I was running around like the proverbial bird without a head around trying to capture the essence of everything on my own. This year there were six of us reporting and we were a team. We went to different workshops, we shared everything (including computers and the rather dodgy internet connection). Some of us were staying together in fellow reporter, Jo's flat and travelled together across London, swappping stories, laughing, sharing responsibility, lightening the load.

If there were three words that encapsulated this year's event, they would be these: sharing, connecting, wellbeing. What would life be like if these formed the building blocks for our culture? That could provide us with the resilience and the wherewithal to face the storm that is surely coming, and make the times we live in truly extraordinary? A turn-around, a transformation, a change of heart?

I'll be writing about these threads later on. But right now there is only word word that I'd like to say: to my (jolly good) fellow bloggers who have been on this creative journey with me (that's Adrienne, Ann, Caroline, Craig, Jay, Jo, Joe, Kerry, Mandy, Marella, Mark, Rachel, Sara, Teen), to all our guest bloggers who sometimes join us, to Ed and Laura and tech team who always support us, to the ace co-ordinating team and the Network who made the event so brilliant, to everyone at the Conference who held the core, who are the very heart of this movement, who provide its rhythm, its warmth, its beauty and all of its meaning. It's a word I found left on the living room floor when I came home from Emily and Danny who were looking after the house while we were away (unsubbed!) . . .

The crew from left: Ann, Jay, Teen, Caroline, Kerry, Mark, Charlotte (Mike Grenville)

Sunday 16 September 2012

mapping the moment

Sunday. Finsbury Park. It's all about time. Are we going too fast to catch up with ourselves? Yesterday at the first workshop How to Create Happy Healthy Cultures we looked at how going fast gets your places, but you doesn't give you the space, or the relaxed frame to absorb or perceive what is going on. This conference is going at a wild pace and I'm running with it - gatherings, talk, workshops, talk, meetings, talk, open space, talk, lunch, talk, cabaret, talk - and the usual dilemma. Do I immerse myself fully in all this, or do I hold back and blog?

I am typing this at Jo's flat in Finsbury Park, where four of us have been staying. It's six am and there is a fox trotting down the street bold as you please. I'm flicking through the reports from the crew - Anne, Kerry, Jay, Caroline. Mark will be up and wanting this computer soon to write his first impressions of the conference. We're filing short reports as we go and next week back in our houses will be reflecting on this intense gathering at the Battersea Arts Centre. So stay tuned!

Meanwhile here ar a couple of shots of Friday evening. I'll be adding more later on this post (if we can get an internet connection at the media hub!) The first is by Jonathan Goldberg of a superb launch of the Transition Free Press in the Octagonal room, accompanied by Alexis' summer punch and Mark's 35 plant herbal refresher. There was a great buzz (followed the next day by an equally vibrant Open Space editorial meeting). We have a stall with a fast disappearing stack of newspapers and are busy recruiting initiatives to distribute future issues. If you haven't come and seen us yet, do swing by at any of the breaks today and add your name to our map on the wall.

The second is of the first meeting by Mike Grenville who is uploading some ace shots of the weekend for us all to use. 270 Transitioners are about to do some mapping to orient ourselves. A good third of the participlants are from abroad so there's a real international mix this year. In Sophie's workshop we were converging with people from Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, South Africa, and Ethiopia. This morning we're going to be gathering back in this old Town Hall to do a "big group process" together. It's under wraps, but something to do with newspaper and lots of cardboard . . .  first though I've got to find a coffee.

Friday 14 September 2012

things fall apart the centre cannot hold - resilience and communication at #tnconf2012

Last night I got an email from the Arctic. It was from our fellow social reporter, Sara Ayech, who is on the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, as it cuts through swathes of melting sea ice and where Shell are planning to drill for oil this month. This is the story that encapsulates all the drivers of Transition -  peak oil, climate change, economic retraction. It's the story that should be rocking the world, but isn't.
We reached the ice a couple of days ago and it's incredible, although in a far worse state than the scientists thought it would be, or satellite pictures show. Yesterday we were at 83 degrees North (420 miles from the North Pole) and we didn't see any large ice floes, everything was a lot smaller and thinner than we expected. This morning, a bit further west, it was mostly slush in the water - we're seeing more now but it feels like it's melting before our eyes.
Right now it's the lowest sea ice surface extent ever recorded - just below 3.5 million sq. km. Trying not to be depressed though - it's still amazing and beautiful. We have seen some polar bears though - yesterday a mother and her cub were pretty close to the ship, jumping between ice floes - wonderful!
"Comms" in Transition is often understood as a persuasion tool: we have marketing and "communication skills" so we make people join our initiative, downshift, wake up to the effects of melting ice on our small lives. But editorial is not in the persuasion business, it is in the reality business. As the corporate media distracts everyone with parliamentary debates, game shows and celebrity parades, it is our work as communicators to report what we see happening all around us, to frame our community moves within the bigger picture. We are in search of a narrative, as individuals, as Transitioners, as planetary beings at this moment in time. What we value is a media that reflects what is going on from the ground -the gritty, the beautiful, the profound and intelligent. But most of all, the true.

Building resilience in extraordinary times is a buzzy headline, but what does it mean as far as our communications at this conference are concerned? The principle definition of resilience is the ability of eco-systems to hold together when the whole is challenged. Our challenge as Transitioners is to hold the core within ourselves and our communities, and not to fragment. Eco-systems do this by being connected, by a web of communication exchange and feedback. When threatened what matters most is that the fire of a body, what keeps it alive, is preserved, in the same way the bees in a colony cluster around the queen to keep her warm as winter sets in.

What keeps people together is the spirit of the enterprise, its heart. That's something we share together, what we hold in common. Look at it as a story we tell each other around a fire. What is the narrative we are creating? What really matters when the chips are down, and the world is falling apart, and it feels as though everyone around us is sleepwalking? In extraordinary times, when the wild fires are raging and harvests are failing, can we tell another story that wll feel like the warmth of a fire? And who among us is going to tell it?
crew one: social reporters at large
It has been my great joy to have been a co-founder of two national comm -unication projects in Transition, which I feel are a fundamental part of our collective resilience, keeping us intact and integral in tough times. The first is this blog (celebrating its first birthday next week) and the second is the newspaper, Transition Free Press, both based on small local initiatives: Transition Norwich's This Low Carbon Life blog and Sustainable Bungay's quarterly newsletter. As we plough through those dark waters, with the menace of corporate media at our tail, we are secure insofar as we have ace crews on board. None of us are expecting an easy ride. And all of us are keen to the beauty and fellow feeling that appears even in times of difficulty and loss.

For this weekend's conference six of our reporters (that's Ann, Caroline, Charlotte, Jay, Kerry and Mark) will be setting sail within the crowd, with our ears alert and our eyes sharp, our pencils at the ready. If you find us do tell us your story and let us know any feedback or suggestions about the blog. In the next two days we'll be writing short reports from the different events and workshops, and the following week we will be reflecting on our experiences at both the main conference and all of the four sister strands (including International Hubs on Monday). You are welcome to contribute guest blogs at the media hub (we'll have two computers there at the ready).

Oh, and we'll be communicating and networking like mad. For me, the best part of the conference is meeting and speaking with everyone in real time and space. That starts with the reporters themselves, who normally only communicate via computer or telephone. And we're all very happy to welcome back our producer, Ed Mitchell, who is returning to Transition comms from his year's voyage out. Come and find us.
  launch of the transition free press
Tonight we'll also be launching our new national paper the Transition Free Press. We published our preview edition in June and since then have been distributing our 2000 print run in different regions of the UK and at summer gatherings from Permaculture convergences to Sunrise and Uncivilisation festivals. There will be a copy for everyone at the Conference, so if you haven't already seen a copy do take one home. It is our intention to publish four editions through 2013, beginning this winter, and in order to fund this venture, including printing, payment for editors and contributors - we need your help and contributions, and most of all your loyal readership.

Becoming the Media is one of the principal tools in the Connecting chapter in The Transition Companion. This includes YouTubes, social media, blogs and Twitter feeds. But nothing has impact like the printed page. Newspapers publish many stories on line but only certain ones make it into the paper "proper". Physical print, like everything else built in material form, has a strength and a baraka like nothing else. We are aware as communicators that the print holds knowledge and goes places that computers can never go - no matter how swanky the tech.

Moreover the discipline of writing news stories requires a totally different attention than writing blogs or emails. It demands far more work and time and dedication. It requires skilled designers and editors. For us, the paper is a bridge that crosses boundaries, it connects all the different strands that make up an alternative vision for the planet from anti-fracking campaigns to land rights movements to food co-ops, it connects initiatives around the country and around the world, and communicates and celebrates what we do. It is a tool that is integral to the core we are holding, and lets people who might never have heard about Transition know that it is not all business-as-usual out there.

At the conference we are looking for 35 initiatives to sign up as distributors for our paper - that's all of us in the room and in Transition. Having dedicated people around the country is what will make this enterprise possible. We will have a map of Britain up behind our stall in the Octagonal Hall and distrbution forms, so do come up and talk with us and ask questions about what this might entail. We will also have a flat plan for future issues and we're looking for contributors and any stories or ideas you might have for the different sections fo the paper. On Saturday we will be running an open editorial meeting during the Open Space session (4.15-6pm). All are welcome.

The TFP crew will all be at the launch party: that's me (ed), Alexis Rowell (news ed), Mike Grenville (production and distribution), Tamzin Pinkerton (food); Mark Watson (subeditor); Trucie Mitchell and Mihnea Damian (designers), as well as many of our wonderful contributors. We're really looking forward to meeting you and declaring this paper an "official" voice of Transition. We're starting at 7pm for 7.15 and will be toasting and launching our vessel at 7.30pm in the Main Hall. See you there!

Images: Sara Ayech and the Arctic Sunrise on the Arctic sea ice (look out for Sara's story next week!); Charlotte from interview with Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture; map of Britain we hope to cover with map pins indicating distribution points for the Transition Free Press.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Low Carbon Cookbook - Down Mexico Way 1

We're just about to head off to London to the Transition Conference and the launch party of the Transition Free Press (herbal refresher in hand), but all this week my heart has been in Mexico. Because next (Happy) Monday we're throwing a Mexican fiesta down at the Bungay Community Centre and I've been helping direct and organise the menu.

The main attraction of these community meals is their convivial and celebratory nature. It's not often you can cook for and sit down with 50 people for supper, and food with its provenance, memory and rich flavours brings us all together in a way that dry discussions about climate and cultural change can never do.

But still there is a deep Transition frame in which these monthly meals take place. All its drivers, including peak oil and the gift economy, are on the table, among the flowers and the leaves. Even though some of our dishes are global (Greek, Moroccan, Indian), nearly all the ingredients are local and seasonal. We are deliberately vegetarian to show how meals do not have to rely on resource-heavy meat or fish to be delicious and nutritious.

Everthing is cooked from scratch (in three hours flat) and so free from industrial processing. At the planning meeting earlier this month the recipes and ingredients were discussed in detail from the use of "dry" Italian rice (traditional paddy-grown wet rice creates extremely high methane emissions) to whether Nick's allotment maize would be ready in time for the Seared Corn with Coriander and Lime. I have spent a very happy fortnight sourcing local chillies (though most Suffolk growers who make their own sauces report very poor yields due to the wet and dark summer) and the house has been resounding with Mark singing old mariachi standards. Is he practising for something?

I'll be writing in more detail about the food and the gathering after the meal (happening just after Mexican independence Day). Needless to say beans, the staple of all Latin American meals, will be our cornerstone, followed by a classic-with-a-twist pudding made with late raspberries and blackberries.

Here is one of the side dishes to whet your appetitie. Sweet potatoes are sold ready-cooked from a barrel of honey in Mexican markets and this recipe by the wonderful, Rick Baylis from his book, Mexican Kitchen, is full of all those sweet, warm and spicy tones of Indian summer.

Chilli-glazed sweet potatoes with cinnamon and orange
Serves 50 (with luck!)

20 garlic cloves
10 dried red chillies (Ring of Fire) or preferably 30 small anchos. stemmed and seeded
3 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cloves (best freshly ground)
800ml water

For dish:
8 kg or 25 medium sweet potatoes
14 organic oranges, zested (7 juiced)
14 tbsp honey
Olive oil for the pan

Garnish (optional)
Crème fraiche or sour cream
Chopped coriander

Orange zest

Time: 30 mins to prep paste; 1 hour to cook

Method: Paste: Dry roast garlic cloves (15 mins), cool and peel. Toast chillies (in same pan), cover in hot water and leave for 30 mins, stirring occasionally. Drain and discard water.
Combine oregano, black pepper, cinnamon and cloves, along with chillies, garlic and water in a blender or pestle and mortar to make a puree. Strain through sieve into bowl.
Potatoes: scrub and cut into wedges (4 per medium potato, 6 large). Lightly oil baking dish and lay them in a single layer. Combine paste with orange zest, juice and honey in the bowl. Spoon evenly over pototoes.
Preheat oven to 180 deg. Cover potatoes with foil and bake for 45 mins or they are almost tender. Raise temp of oven, uncover, baste and bake until they are glazed (10 mins). Garnish and serve con much gusto!

Huichol maize mother and her five daughters from Lore and History of Maize; home-grown epazote, the key ingredient in black beans; candy-floss stall in Mexico City (by Mark Watson; sunflower.

Sunday 9 September 2012

when the left hand knows what the right hand is doing

Welcome to the third in our series based on The Transition Companion where the crew look at different Ingredients and Tools. This week we are considering Chapter 3: Connecting, which contains some of the themes we have focused on this year, including Working with the Council. Forming Local Networks has also inspired a regional series, which this autumn will see reports from working initiatives in London and Scotland. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, I was planning to write about commun-ication today, which forms the main strand of this chapter (hard to connect without communication!). But reading the entries for Oral Histories and The Role of Storytelling, I realise these are very precise exercises which I know little about. Both the initiatives I have been in have been more on the ground than teaching or workshop-based. I do know about writing stories that are embedded in the future, which was the basis for a real newspaper, the Transition Free Press. And I know about speaking with older people about the neighbourhood and getting a deeper sense in time, a sense of a culture and economy based on life without fossil fuels - though only in a non-structured context.

I could write about how hard it is to break the spell of the media, and how listening to people is key to breaking out of our chronic individualism, but to be fair to the book these ingredients are not ones that we have used in our Transition kitchens in Norwich and Bungay. The tool I know however like the back of my hand is Street-by-street behaviour change, which we called Transition Circles. I would say that this was perhaps the most influential and essential enterprise I have taken part in (apart from Working in Groups). Here's our precis in the Companion:

There are other approaches similar to Transition Streets that have also proved to be very effective. Transition Norwich started a less formal approach called ‘Transition Circles’. In this model, small groups of people meet, usually over a meal, and start with looking at individual actions, creating a space in which people can talk in a real way about lifestyle changes, and are able to support and encourage each other to take the first steps.
The Circles came out of a second wave in the initiative, called Transition Norwich 2.0 (TN2) in 2009, in which a core group of Transitioners made a decision to cut their carbon emissions by half the national average in the key areas of home energy, transport, food and ‘stuff’. The second motivation for TN2 was to start up intentional communities in different neighbourhoods, to bring people together to create and celebrate a low-carbon culture.
The groups have been meeting regularly, and have since broadened their focus to look at larger practical initiatives, e.g. wholefood-buying co-ops. For Transition Norwich, personal carbon reduction is a defining element of what Transition looks like in an urban context.

To bring personal carbon reduction changed the dance completely because it challenged us to be real about the changes required to downshift. It changed the conversations between us. Transition groups sometimes meet with the understanding that somewhere in the woolly future "the community" will engage in energy descent. However when you put your own highly consumptive lives under the microscope, the kind of double think and denial that allows Transitioners to talk passionately, for example, about peak oil but still take planes, could no longer happen.

In Norwich we ran a series of Carbon Conversations alongside the Transition Circles during 2009-11 and personal downshift became something most of the movers and shakers were engaged in. It formed the basis for our discussion, our measure and a way of life that we celebrated in all its rich detail. It inspired our Low-Carbon Life blog (now in its third year), and the Low Carbon Cookbook. We didn't see it as behaviour change, we saw it as culture change, something we were creating together. It was another story about the world we could tell. And we told everyone we met. Look here we are in old coats, on the bus, eating beetroot, chopping firewood!

I was in the Strangers' Circle for about six months and in that time radically reduced the energy I used, the waste I produced, relocalised my larder, joined a wholefood coop, learned to share a car, stopped buying stuff apart from essentials. Two years later those decisions carry on being made: reduce, reuse, recycle, repair. We have not put the heating back on. We eat almost entirely seasonally. This year I haven't bought any clothes. I'm not thinking about "carbon reduction" anymore, or even writing about it: it's become embedded in the everyday fabric of my life and continues to affect everything I do and every conversation I have.

The high aims that we had for the Circles to spread around the city did not happen, but as speakers for Transition we became real about what we were saying. That has its own homeopathic effect within the living breathing world. We live in a mind-based culture which is happy with the abstract, with words rather than actions. We can dismiss billions of strangers by talking blithely about "too many people on the planet" and yet be unable to face the real-life death of a close friend. We are happy with the theories of Transition but do not necessarily engage in what it takes.

One of the functions of communication is to allow people to speak from their true beings and from their experience and to find a common ground, and for that we have to listen. We spent those winter months 2009-10 when the four pioneer Circles were up and running, talking in a small group about our everyday struggles to live a more frugal and respectful life-style, one that was kinder to the planet and to the people we would never meet who made it possible. It was hard going because we had to face our own denial in each other's front rooms, or around the kitchen table. We had to listen to difficult things and not shut down. Allow our resistances and resentments to be there in the alchemical space of the room. We had to know that this was everyone's shared experience, one way or another. We didn't talk in the abstract: we looked at electricity bills, car logs and shopping lists. We confessed to supermarket habits, having hot baths, driving too much. And then we acted on our findings and feeling during the following months.

Maybe one of the stories we need to tell each other is that every-thing in Tran-sition goes through a process. Stories allow you to look back and treasure everything with what Roberto Calasso calls the "douceur of time". Just because a project isn't still current, or established, or a social enterprise, or famous in some way, doesn't mean it was a failure. The Circles were a huge success in that they broke a pattern, taught us clarity and generosity and endurance, and opened a rich seam of stories that enabled, for example, the Social Reporting Project to come into being and gave Norwich FarmShare its cultural backing. For Transition to work there have to be stories - real stories, real experiences - heart-warming testimonies about the struggles and rewards of doing downshift, not scientific graphs and behaviour mananagment. For that as we need real storytellers, people who are prepared to stand by the words they speak and write, and tell it how it is right now - not how it should be or was once long ago.

We had a lot of fun too especially sharing the meals (we were all cooks) and there was this sense that we were not engaged in a programme or teaching, but pioneering something that people hadn't done before. No one was in charge. We were all of us in the dark. No one knew anymore than anyone else and that made our moves exciting and real. It connected us in a way that still, years later, makes sense of what we do, even though most of us no longer see each other and the initiative is no longer up and running as it once was. The Circles were a way-though. I don't think I would be where I am now without having take part in them. So this is a recognition of that and a thank you too, to all the people I sailed with on that powerdown journey.

Because those storytellers are not the oral historians in our community, or the journalists in the conventional media. They are us.

Images: all banners from reports on Transition Circles and Carbon Conversations 200-2011 in Transition Norwich News; Hold the Front Page, Transition Culture; colleciting apple grafts and fingerless gloves and the Stranger's Circles discussion on Resilience in This Low Carbon Life.

Monday 3 September 2012

We don't need no education

"But Mr Biddlecombe what is god?" It's 1972, Felixstowe, Suffolk. I'm wearing a gym slip several inches too short according to the music mistress (Du Cann there are male members of the orchestra!) and I've just discovered existentialism. Julia Weatherly and I are the only atheists in a religious school and we have found our intellectual edge. Rev Biddlecombe runs the chapel where I sing in the choir and is attempting to teach us theology. I am giving him a hard time because that's what you do when you are fifteen and running up against authority and the big questions in life.

I know he won't be able to answer, and that no teacher can. The question is not there in search of an anwer, it is there to challenge the boundaries of a prescribed world.We live in a world governed by education - a small mean god we worship, even without realising our faith. It schools us in the rational mind and teaches us to look at the earth through the heartless and acquisitive eyes of Empire. Depending on what kind of house we are born into we go to school to be shaped by the requirements of our hierarchical culture: to be turned into obedient factory or cannon fodder, to fill in forms, or to arrogantly rule the world.

But no matter what school we attend, all of us are programmed to see life in geometric squares, truth as scientific facts, the earth as property, our nation's history as the rightful conquest of Western civilisation. We are taught that control of the mind is always more important thanl real-life experience. Some of us are broken by our establishments - bullied, humiliated and made miserable, labelled as difficult or deficient in some way. Some of us become haughty and power-hungry. Some of us find ways to thwart the hold this god has on our imagination and our liberty. When I am fifteen I devour philosophy and literature in the bathrooms at night and start to keep a journal. I have decided to become a writer, which means I will be the one in the room asking awkward questions, bringing the mythos into play, challenging conformity at every turn. I am learning no one will ever love me for it - but I'm going to do it anyway. If only to hold open a door.


"But the sea is also beautiful!" It's 2012, Stowmarket, Suffolk. I am sitting at question time at the What if . . . the sea keeps rising? event, chaired by Andrew Simms. Everyone on the panel has given a slick and scientific low-down on climate change and the way it will alter our coastlines as the Arctic melts and the waters cover the earth. The sentence floats uneasily among the rigid facts and figures, among the agricultural tools of the c14th barn, signalling another route we could take - except that The Problem about Transition has just risen among the sea of heads. The Problem at question time is usually three-fold: 1) Transition is too middle class 2) what are you going to do about population? and 3) where are all the young people and We Have to Take Transition into the Schools!

I am no longer fifeen. I have learned to bite my tongue and not take the bait. I've been in
Transition for four years and know all these "questions" are memes, manifestations of the annoying defense system of the left-brain, and none of the people who utter them intend to act on their words, or indeed join Transition.

Transition is big on education. Its tools and ingredients favour an academic approach: measurement, graphs, stats, mindmaps, flipcharts, trainings. In 2009 the UEA published a survey about Transition Norwich (from its mailing list) that received more attention than anything the actual Tranistioners were doing on the ground. Students and researchers have often observed our grassroots activity, as if they were in charge or separated from the meetings and projects, like anthropologists making notes on an interesting rainforest tribe. In spite of our emphasis on reskilling, learning practical stuff and giving it value, the abstract theories of the mind world are considered superior to physical experience, and for sure anything that smacks of creativity or the unquantifiable stuff of the right hemisphere.

This is not to knock learning here. But to bring attention to the limits of this approach, to our logos-biased world, and to question how we go about Transition. Our ability to look at reality is severly hampered by our education. Our instituationalisation makes us obedient and perverse in ways that hamper our ability to act decisively. Trained to be commanded, we are waiiting to be told what to do (mostly by people we are taught to think of as our responsible "superiors"). We think that if children understand climate change, everything will be sorted and we won't have to change ourselves. We don't see that the mindset that enables governments and corporations to engineer reality, the systems that makes people disassociated, hostile to one another, controlling, scornful of life, have its roots in the classroom and playground.

We don't see that this system will resist the kinds of changes we really need to make, because it is designed to uphold the industrialised world (as Charles Eisenstein points out). I have taken Transition into school (to give classes on Reconnection with Nature and Peak Oil in Norwich and honeybees in Bungay) and was shocked by its soul-destroying architecture and atmosphere of repression. The children were raucous, lively, friendly and also disturbing. They got Peak Oil and creation myths and pollination in a trice, and listened more-or-less quietly to the tales about the future Transition Cambridge brought with them, and happily tuned in to the spirit of the beehive. Then the bell went, and so probably did everything we said. Theatre and stories are for fun. Back to the curriculum tomorrow!


The sea is also beautiful, and I am still a non-believer. It's the end of the summer and the newspapers are full of smug-looking schoolboys jumping into the air with their triple A results. I am not going back to school, but I can feel the season turning. Geese are coming in from Siberia in the mornings, and the evening light is turning tawny. Everywhere the fields lie bare and gold after the harvests. Floating in the deep swell, I can feel the temperature of the water dip. After six weeks the Social Reporters are returning from their summer break to a full-on autumn term. We're genning up for the Conference, looking ahead, filling in the rota. This is my last postcard from the Sunrise Coast.

No one taught me to love this old North Sea. It was there all the time when I was reading Sartre in the small hours at my boarding school, and now it is here: still mysterious, moving, unquantifiable. No one taught me to love the moon that shone through the bathroom window as I turned the pages, or my friends sleeping in the dormitory, or the feeling of being able to write about my own life, to make meaning of everything, to be autonomous and not bow down to authority.

I don't remember those lessons I learned during the day - cosines, dates, or Latin declensions. But I do remember this sea. How it changes every day, the light, its mood, the shape of the waves. How it feels when you are there, immersed in the elements, alone with the wind and sky, or alongside your fellows, as the cormorant or the seal pass by. And it feels to me that the greatest lesson we ever learn comes directly from the planet we are now trying to "save", and that if we held our love of this place and all its creatures as the basis for all our knowledge, how differently the world would look. How differently we would speak with one other, with our initiatives, with all our relations.

Images: still from The Belles of St Trinians; harvest fields outside Bungay; Plants for Bees class at Bungay Primary School, 2011; Peak Oil class at Catton Grove, 2010; still from Kes; on Aldeburgh beach, 2011