Friday 31 October 2014

ARCHIVE: On an ordinary summer's evening in an ordinary town

This week one of my fellow activists from Sustainable Bungay Nick Watts, left the flatlands of Suffolk for the mountains of Wales. In celebration I helped produce a 'souvenir' issue of our regular newsletter for his farewell party, and it was only when we sat down to chart everything he had done during the last six years that we realised how intrinsic some people are within a Transition Initiative. Here is a blog from our heydays in 2011 that starts and ends with Nick - about downshifting, being ordinary, and the dynamics of working in a group:

"It’s definitely the stick," said Mark as he stood with a piece of wood in his hands. It had been inadvertently donated at Sustainable Bungay's Give and Take Day and suddenly reappeared in our hallway. From the outside it looked like a shiny broom handle but it wasn't: it was a fighting stick belonging to a young man mortified by its disappearance. 

But I guess you’d have to be a warrior to know that.

It’s an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town. We’re on our way to our monthly core group meeting. First we have to drop off the stick at Kate’s and have some supper with Nick.

“You share your lives in the blogosphere and I’d like to share some of what I do," Nick said as he began to fill a box full of July veg - onions and garlic, fennel, beetroot, fresh eggs and blackcurrant jam. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank some squash wine, ate a delicious bean salad and talked about the financial crisis.

You have to be in Transition to truly appreciate Nick's house – kale and courgettes in the front garden, sorrel around the door, a garage with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of preserves, giant tanks of rainwater, chickens, cupboards and windowsills with kegs of homemade wine, a stack of books on economics. It’s not what it looks like, but what is behind everything you see. What it took to get there. The bare aesthetic of downshift.

Years ago I interviewed a man called Tommy Roberts. I was working for a glossy magazine at the time and the subject of the article was Taste, that indefinable quality that distinguished one person or house from the next.What is Taste? I asked various arbiters of style, fashion designers and editors, owners of grand and important properties. Tommy was once a designer of natty suits in the 60’s when he was known as Mr Freedom but at that time had a shop under Centrepoint full of zany, brightly coloured modern furniture: Taste is the Japanese room with one beautiful vase in the corner, he told me. A lifetime of taking away makes that room. It’s what you don’t have that defines taste.

We live in a have and have-not culture and our value systems are entirely based around possessions. Not just the things those designers were talking about back in the 1980s when materialism and property began its great boom – wallpaper and watches and John Fowler’s "pleasing decay" - but a personal warehouse of business connections, children, communities, garden flowers, Hollywood stars, holiday countries. My special world.

"Well, you’re rich in other ways," said the man at the Financial Instability workshop at the Transition Conference after I had detailed my downshift from The World of Interiors to Sustainable Bungay.
"I really am not rich", I replied.
"You are rich in social relationships", he insisted, frustrated with my density. "In quality time. You are abundant in other ways."
"I have very little", I replied. (which is not strictly true because like most people in this country I have chairs and tables, pots and pans and all manner of basic essentials). 
"What is wrong with nothing? Why do we have to be wealthy at all?"

What I wanted to say was I had spent a lot of time clearing out that room. And I didn’t replace the things I used to own with different things - with people or experiences, or a low-carbon lifestyle - but had learned to love space and time and the freedom that lack of ownership brought.

In downshift less is not more in the way we once understood Japanese style. Less means you take everything you don’t need away, so that what really matters is left. It means you don’t have because having is no longer important. What becomes important is that freedom of movement and living a deliberate life.

It’s an ordinary evening in a Transition town and we’re on our way to our meeting at the Library. But first we have to meet at the pub with the Community Bee Group to celebrate the success of our Beehive Day, and then unload Eloise’s van full of information boards and select some just-picked fruit from the back of Cathy’s car. Cathy runs the Abundance project and swapping our produce and plants - at our meetings, in the Library community garden- has become a way of life. So here we are in the car park with a stack of boards and punnets of cherry-plums and blackberries meeting in a damp summer in a difficult time, swifts whizzing round the roofs, echinacea flowers full of bees.

At the 2011 Transition Network Conference we took part an exercise. We had to imagine a group we longed to be with in the future. I am no good at visioning and all I could think about was the fact I would be 65 in ten years time and how weird that was. And then I realised I don’t long for a group of people because I am already with those people and I had met them three years ago in the theatre down the street from here. And what was difficult to feedback to my fellow Transitioners in the canteen in Liverpool was the fact that it wasn’t the individuals in the initiative that made us matter to one another, the way we are used to people mattering in our lives, as special friends, or heroes, support systems, as possessions and dependencies. My important relationships.

It was the fact that when we met up as a group in these public spaces something happened between us. Something we held in common. We understood implicitly what we were doing and why – sharing stuff, organising events, going through the agenda. When I looked at this working-together in the visioning it looked like an energy field, the kind of energy field you sense when you stand by a hive humming with bees. A hum of warmth and intelligence that allows people to naturally collaborate and make that low-energy downshift happen. When that’s going on you don’t need possessions to compensate for your isolation, to anchor your introverted fantasy world. You don’t need data or climate science to persuade your tricky mind. You just need to tune in and act.

If you passed by Bungay Library tonight you’d notice the lights were on and if you peered in you might see a group of people around a table, eating plums and laughing, one person intently writing notes, one speaking, another occasionally calling order and everyone else paying attention. None of us look as if we are arbiters of taste, or abundant, or full of well-being or anything else the modern world puts a price on or gives value to. We’re obviously not important members of the community with homes-to-die-for, or great jobs or cars. We appear utterly ordinary and so we are. Ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.

You can’t see the field from the outside, you have to feel it from the inside. You recognise it when you are in it because you are doing it along with everyone else. In fact you can’t be in it unless you are doing it.

That’s the real shift. The move from individualism to group collaboration for the good of the whole is primarily a personal shift, away from ownership and control, into a field of exchange and communication and reciprocity, into give and take. And that’s a whole new lexicon of being. It’s not a replacement of things, it’s a move. A let go and a join in.

Because Transition is not a noun, it’s a verb.

Photos: Sustainable Nick - souvenir issue; with squash wine in Nick's kitchen; rainwater storage; Cathy's Abundance fruit; Nick with harvested herbs.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Holding the world beloved in our hands

My column from the summer edition of EarthLines on the destiny of animals and ourselves 

She is heavy, much heavier than I thought, and stinking. Still I carry her down the road and over the gate to the marsh where she was going. It’s a short way, although it seems to take an age to get there, and all the time Otter images are flashing in my mind: Tarka the Otter, The Ring of Bright Water, animal medicine cards where Otter stands for female energy and playfulness.

But mostly I’m remembering Dougie Strang's installation, Charnel House for Roadkill, where the bones of wild creatures are laid in scarlet-lined caskets. How he found a dead badger on the road one night and drove home with the windows of the car open.

I have only encountered an otter in my imagination before and the reality of its presence is unnerving, forcing me to look, feel and smell the creaturehood in my hands as the cars roar past Hen Reed Beds. The blood and guts, bone and fur. The stench that is partly her own powerful scent and partly the smell of decay. I lay the form gently on the side of the dyke and am shocked by a feeling of cold fury that runs through my hands.

The scent of dead otter stays in my nostrils for days.

mountain lion

Roadkill encounters feature strongly in the Dark Mountain canon, partly because they directly challenge our human-centric view of the earth. There are two stories in the new Spring journal and one of the paintings is made from the hide of a roadkilled roe deer and the smoke of fallen birch trees. “To create an image of themselves in life” as the artist, Thomas Keyes explains.

You feel it is some kind of test. You want to drive past on those empty country roads, but sometimes you have to stop, feel the smoothness of snakes and the prickliness of hedgehogs, notice the unbearable beauty of bird feathers. Hold a dying rabbit against your heart.

Gary Snyder once said that the collective karma in respect to our treatment of animals was massive burden we had to contend with: and if you look at the number of campaigns that call for a halt to hunting, zoos, SeaWorlds, deforestation, mega-farms, abattoirs, fur factories, badger and bear culls, you will see why. We are hell-bent on pushing the animal kingdom out of our dominion – without realising we push out our own humanity at the same time.

In a map showing the weight of animals on the planet, human beings take up a large section, exceeded only by the cattle they raise, and in smaller proportion, pigs, sheep and goats. Elephants occupy a small corner, and tiny dots represent the rest of the wild animal kingdom. The otters weigh less than a feather.

Somehow we can’t look this reckoning in the face. We know this is way out of kilter, but we do not know how to right the balance. Or maybe buried beneath our rational minds, deep in our own creaturehood, our blood and guts and bone, we do but are unwilling to step into the territory.

My friend Cyril once found the skin of a mountain lion in a flea market in Nice. So he bought it and went up into the mountains, and lit a fire for the animal’s spirit. He had prayed and buried the skin under the trees. And we were quiet when we heard his story. Because we had all once lived in places where the wild cats had roamed and heard them roar in the canyons. And deep down inside us we knew that to live where wild things have their place is to live in right relation with the planet.

And it is a hard, hard thing to look at the psychotic and cruel things human beings do to their fellow creatures – and have always done – without turning away and wanting to play with totem animals in our minds, or watch them in nature programmes. Or simply to blank the fact out.

barn owl

I live in agricultural country, big arable fields skirted by reed beds, where most wild animals are considered vermin. Fox, rabbit and deer are all shot at night from military-type vehicles. The suburbanisation of our lane over the last decade has caused a once lively population of hares to disappear from view.

This year the barn owls also vanished. 2013 was a catastrophic year for the owl, even in their stronghold of Suffolk. The harsh weather conditions and increased use of rat poison has reduced their numbers to a mere four thousand pairs.

I had gone to the Big House to have a drink together with our neighbours. The six of us had all converged years ago in defence of this lane against a development, and, although we live in different social spheres there is still a kinship between us. I asked about the owls who had once nested in the oaktree in the drive. Had anyone seen them? No one had. Rat poison is badly affecting their numbers, I said.

“We use rat poison,” admitted the lady of the house. And there was an awkward moment then as everyone - bird lovers all - sipped their small glasses of prosecco. I wanted to be polite, but couldn't. “91 per cent of barn owls are found contaminated with it,” I repeated.

Some days I stand at the window at dusk and look over the pastures to where the owl used to fly, a ghostly presence flitting past in search of voles, mice and young rats, and feel his absence keenly.

I wouldn’t say it was grief, more what the Apache call a 'pain in the heart'. You have to let the ache be because to escape from the feeling would be to join the cognitive dissonance that afflicts the rest of the neighbourhood. You don’t want to rage (though so many times I have) because that blame and hatred fuels the unconscious even more. You need to act, if you can, support the people who fight for owls and foxes and hares. Then you have to remember how it was when they flew over.

One day when the conditions are right, you say, you will come back. As the tawnies call to each other in the oak trees. We are still here, are you, are you?

goat willow

Around the equinox I went to visit the goat willow that grows on East Hill, a small mound overlooking the wide sweep of reed beds outside Walberswick. It is huge tree, perhaps the largest I have ever seen, and we come here each Spring as part of the year’s flower pilgrimages: snowdrop, daffodil, lily-of-the-valley, seakale, sea lavender. I love to lie down beneath its golden branches and listen to the bees gathering pollen. It has a mighty effect on your sense of wellbeing.

This year the tree’s crown had been smashed by the big winter storms and many of its top branches were broken. And yet in spite of the damage, it emanated the same feeling of exuberance and calm. Its spirit was intact.

And I remembered then the goat willow I had sat down beside and wept the year cows and sheep were being slaughtered in their millions across the land. Its trunk had been partially burned by vandals, but still there were catkins about to burst out and buds of intense green. I had gone to the wasteland by Port Meadow to connect with the animals’ spirits and apologise, which was the only thing I felt I could do.

And though my heart was sore, something in the tree’s resilient presence would not let me become overwhelmed. You have to grow your roots, even when your branches are cut. Life does come back, I knew that then. But I also knew we had to not let the destruction continue. And how could we do that as a people in an institutionally heartless world?

In March as part of the No Glory campaign, a speaker from Norwich Stop the War Coalition came to our local library in Bungay and talked about the millions of young men who died in the trenches of France and Flanders during the First World War. It had been organised by a member of our local Transition group. This was not a wellbeing walk, a Give and Take Day, or any of our usual events, nor is the Transition movement political. And yet we gathered in a space so that a history that still caused a collective grief 100 years later could somehow be addressed.

Quietly and slowly several people told of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had survived the war and yet never spoke of it. Some finally spoke – or sang – as they lay dying, remembering their comrades on those muddy fields. The Great War is a trauma that runs very deep in the English psyche and the loss of whole bands of men from the surrounding villages can still be felt.

I realised then that no matter how many seed swaps we organise, or plant monographs I write, if these things are not done in another spirit, in kindness and with full awareness, they will affect nothing. To restore the wasteland demands more from us than event managing or clever words. It requires the kind of spirit medicine you feel from the goat willow, when you bury an animal with honour. For regeneration the conditions have to be right.

The superficiality of our minds and our unfeeling wills trample easily over the statistics of men and beasts killed in the name of Empire. Our hearts know differently but keep silent, because we have been bullied for aeons not to utter a word. Soldiers famously lost their ability to speak in the face of the horror at Ypres and Passchendale. And still now It is hard to speak out loud about war or factory farming or deforestation, even among our fellows. It is hard to mention rat poison to the people in the Big House. We don't want to look at the industrialisation of the planet, and our implicit agreement in the slaughter. We want to be polite and well-thought of, and for nature to be our solace, our plaything, our quiet Eden.

But to right the balance we have to pick up the otter when we find her on the road and acknowledge that this lithe, female, watery being, whom we have loved in our imaginations all these years, might not love us back in reality.

And we might have to work very very hard to get that relationship back. And we have to do this work because without the otter, badger and lion, without the spirit of the willow trees, without the hearts of young men, we are going nowhere.

Images: Deer bones from Charnel House by Dougie Strang; Following the Roe to Bennachie (birch smoke on deer vellum) by Thomas Keyes. New issue of EarthLines (Autumn/Winter issue) is now on sale.

Sunday 12 October 2014

DANIELLE PAFFARD: on radicalistion, austerity and making fossil fuel industries feel out of date

In a month of climate actions and demonstrations from the global People's Climate Marches to No to TTIP and Global Frackdown here is the autumn Transition Free Press profile of activist Danielle Paffard. Each issue I interview people who are key to an understanding of and manifesting 'Transition' culture. In past editions these have ranged from Mark Boyle on the philosophy behind gift economy to George Monbiot on rewilding our neighbourhoods and imaginations. The interviews are often long and intense, though the space in the paper only allows for core extracts from our conversations. I begin with a few key questions and let the story unfold...

What makes an activist? And what effect do actions take in shaping our cultural narrative?

Danielle Paffard helped start up the highly influential campaigns UK Uncut, Move Your Money and No Dash for Gas. How did she get from being ‘relatively unpolitical’ to becoming the new UK divestment co-ordinator for 

“I studied the environment at university and came out feeling there was a huge problem, but also feeling totally useless and unable to contribute. 

“I came across Climate Camp and went from being quite anti direct action to meeting these amazing activists. Two months later I was locked to a coal-fired power station, shutting it down from the inside. That was a really transformatory experience and formed the founding principle for most of the activism I’ve done since: you find a group of people you can work with and who inspire each other. 

“Then in 2010 there was a change of government. When the Spending Review made it clear just exactly what this new government was about another radicalisation moment happened to me. 

“One of my friends said: if we just keep on marching from A to B listening to Tony Benn speak, we’re going to lose. We need something that’s more feisty. 

“The next day he found a small piece in Private Eye about how Vodafone had avoided £6 billion worth of tax and he made the link: ‘Look, if we’re losing £6 billion from one company that could cover almost the entire issue of the cuts, how are the government getting away with this austerity narrative?’ 

“UK Uncut started at Vodafone’s flagship store in Oxford Street, using the direct action skills we’d learnt through the climate movement to highlight the falsehoods behind austerity. 70 people shut down the shop. By that weekend there were 30 more actions around the country. 

“This was when Occupy was starting up and there was a huge anger with the banks and the bailouts. But, though with UK Uncut we targeted high street banks with our actions, it was hard to break through into the more systemic problems around banking.

“It was unexpected and exciting and had a key role in changing the awareness of tax justice in the UK. 

“At that point I banked with HSBC, who fund the world’s biggest coal mines. It had been on my to-do list to change, but it wasn’t in my diary. So we came up with actions to motivate people to close their accounts.” 

“And so with another group of friends we set up the Move Your Money campaign, which was about very publicly moving your money away from the big four banks into more socially responsible alternatives. 

The blockades to a just transition are due to the political power of the fossil fuel industry” 

Danielle’s next move however was far away from any high street: with 16 others she scaled a 300 foot chimney to protest about the building of new gas-fired power stations in the UK. 

“The platforms at West Burton were about five metres from the top. Once we got on there we blockaded the access points and dropped a hanging tent down into the chimney. So they had to turn the power off. And people took it in turns to sit in that tent. It was November and really cold. 

“We delayed work for a week and stopped 20,000 tonnes of C02 from being released. EDF tried to sue us for £5 million. The public reaction was extraordinary. 65,000 people emailed EDF to drop the charge.” 

As a result many climate activists were reinvigorated and the Reclaim the Power event was launched at the Balcombe anti-fracking camp in 2013. Paffard is now to be found behind the scenes as divestment co-ordinator for the climate action organisation, 

“We’re working on ways to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry sufficiently to unblock the political process. It is so weighed down by the fossil fuel lobby we are struggling to get the meaningful decisions we need to do something right on climate.
“My role is to work with the existing campaigns – the university campaigns organised by People & Planet, Operation Noah who work with faith groups and the fossil free health campaign, started by Medact, who have just got the BMA to divest. I am also helping to encourage small independent local groups to get active in their communities, on their own councils, and get them to debate publicly whether public money should be going into fossil fuels. 

“If councils don’t have investments in fossil fuels then they’ll be very quick to tell you. And they will do, because everybody does. We’re working on tools to make it easier for campaigners to find that information out, looking at pension funds because that’s where a lot of the investment money is.”

Do people say to you: It’s all very well to divest, but what’s the point if we’re still using oil, coal and gas?

“We are very focused on divestment, rather than personal consumption. It’s very hard to make change until the political power of the fossil fuel industry has been significantly dented. Incentivising clean technologies and getting the investment we need to really transform our entire economy, are blocked by these incredibly powerful industries. And while individual action is important it isn’t going to take down the fossil fuel industry as quickly as it needs to be.

“Until we get massive investment in public transport or incentives for renewable energy, it’s going to be difficult for people to make meaningful enough consumption decisions to change the economy.

“Much of the discussion is now about the social value of investments. The recent Law Commission’s review questioned whether it is right that ‘fiduciary duty’ should just mean short term profit for shareholders. Should it include long term stewardship of both your money and the planet? The fact these questions are being discussed is a really important part of the narrative.

Do you see a relationship between Transition and the divestment movements?

“If you don’t have a Yes, then it’s much harder to push the No. If we’re going to deal with the climate crisis we need to shine a light on all the community projects that are working, so they can be rapidly replicated and supported to make change happen.

“Divestment could be a really interesting project for a local group – because it is about democracy and local participation in decision-making about where public money should be invested. Using the divestment campaign to build a community to do more of the Yes work on a bigger scale.”

Activism typically deals with heavy-duty issues. How do you keep going without being burned out, or oppressed?

“I go running!“ she laughs. “I think it’s about having a good group around you, who can talk and offer support. Also one of the reasons UK Uncut was so successful was because it challenged these big problems and organisations in a fun way.

“So whether you are talking about Sure Start centre closures, by setting up a crèche in an HSBC bank, or running sports days in Top Shop, activists know it’s important to make sure that activism is fun and engaging, because in the end if it’s not, we can’t keep on doing it.” 

Taking part in an Art Not Oil action at The British Museum, 2010; Danielle Paffard; UKUncut Top Shop protest in Brighton;'s carbon bubble for global People's Climate March, 2014