We live in a society and culture that is shot through with class and hierarchy. We are brought up living and breathing it whether we like it or not, with our monarchies and corporate pyramids, line managers, owners, renters, professionals, masters, servants, wage-slaves, the woman who has and the woman who does.
Some people are upstairs, some people are downstairs, the ones downstairs are dreaming of what it’s like to be upstairs. And whilst most people do not find themselves literally living in Upstairs, Downstairs today, one look at our lives, our day-to-day exchanges, the way we speak and act with each other, the language we use, not to mention the huge (and growing) disparity in wealth distribution and access to resources, is enough to see how heir (and heiress) we are to millenia of inequality in civilisation. Our own government (if we can call it ours) here in the UK is testament to this, packed as it always is with privileged public schoolboys.
Some people, as Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins says*
know what it is like,
to be called a cunt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light...
and other people don't.
But what has this got to do with climate change, peak fossil fuels and economic crisis? The things that individuals and communities in transition are responding to?
In a recent interview with Rob Hopkins, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says that an adequate response to climate change and continued economic growth are mutually exclusive. Levels of energy and resource consumption need to be drastically reduced, and it's the people who earn more and therefore consume more, where these reductions need to happen most. He says that already people on lower incomes are consuming less because they have less money:
given that we face a lot of issues now with unemployment, welfare reductions etc., issues that disproportionately affect people in the middle-lower income band; it is these people that could actually benefit from a transition to a much more efficient and lower carbon economy. Andersen goes on to say that Transition’s bottom-up, community approach is pivotal in providing examples of how individuals and groups can prepare for a future with less fossil fuel energy and less consumption. They are, in effect, the pioneers.
Most people who have done "very well out of our western system, and live very carbon profligate lifestyles are going to face difficult challenges, and we should not pretend otherwise."
At present though, many of these people, including old friends of Andersen’s in the oil industry and even fellow climate change scientists "think climate change is a serious issue but are not prepared to make any changes to their lifestyles. It has raised some serious challenges for me in maintaining personal relationships..."
Until we actually embrace alternative means of finding value in our lives, I think that transition from where we are today, high-carbon, high-energy lifestyles, to ultimately lower-carbon lifestyles is going to be both difficult and unpopular. But ultimately, I do not see an alternative.Some of those alternative means are going to have to come from letting go of the idea that some people are ‘better’ than others because of their position of birth, class, profession, what school or university they went to or because of how much money and property they own. This includes the have-nots. We have to stop aspiring to resource-hungry lifestyles. Another dream needs to happen.
I am the current chairman of Sustainable Bungay, a grass-roots community initiative in north-east Suffolk, 15 miles from Norwich. The group started up in November 2007 (it’s our 5th birthday this month) after a Climate Change conference in the local Emmanuel church (which included speakers from the Tyndall Centre in Norwich).
We became an ‘official’ Transition initiative in the summer of 2008, ‘unleashed’ in 2009 and we’ve been unleashed ever since. We have had minimal funding since we began. We host several events each month, and you can read more about us on our community website – in fact, I've just noticed the about us section is due for an update.
I’m not saying that no hierarchy or class exists in Sustainable Bungay. There is scarcely a place in our culture and in ourselves where these have not been ingrained, and they are sometimes expressed unconsciously.
But I’d like to talk a bit about the core group, which has been meeting together for five years now. Every month since then, bar December when we have a party, we meet at the library or the oak room at the Three Tuns pub and organise and feedback on our various events and projects.
We have a chairman, a secretary, a treasurer, a bank account and a basic constitution.
The core group meetings are open to anybody who wants to come as are all our events. This ‘open plan’ structure has kept the group coherent, dynamic and relatively fluid. The meetings provide a space where people can report back on how the projects they’re involved with are going, ask for help or sound out ideas for new ones.
I grew up in a working class family of Irish immigrant and English background on a council estate in High Wycombe, in an atmosphere with Bohemian overtones and musical and artistic ability. My dad was a car mechanic and my mum cleaned offices and houses. I passed the twelve-plus and went to grammar school where I was thrown suddenly among middle-class people with much more money and status (and posher cars) than my parents had. I have known what it is like to be short of school books* and money and to be looked down on*. To wear a cheaper school uniform than others and be aware of it. And to dream of being upstairs when I was downstairs. As an adult living in various places I have also felt the exclusion of being a renter when most other people were buying their houses.
I am no longer personally so much at the behest of these things. Partly due to age, partly to having spent a great deal of time examining them and lately to involving myself in Transition with all the friendly collaborations and difficult encounters, carbon cutting and community building. I'm tougher now. Though social inequality is as rife, as iniquitous and as inexcusable as ever.
I am at present the non-hierarchical chairman of Sustainable Bungay (happily holding the position until it's time to let go for someone else's turn), and a writer on this Social Reporting project. I have been downshifting for years on very little income (could do with a bit more, actually), exploring with others ways to (re)connect with the planet, keeping our carbon down and our spirits up.
My dreams though are neither up nor down these days, more steady-state.
Photos: Temple of the Magician (all civilisations need a magician or two), Uxmal, Mexico, 1991; We Told Them the Wealth Would Trickle Down**; Downsizing at the first Sustainable Bungay Give & Take, March 2009***; Plants for Life (for everyone) poster, April 2012. Images/artwork by Mark Watson except **from the Mendo Island Journal and *** from Sustainable Bungay
*from the poem Some People by Rita Ann Higgins (1988) in An Awful Racket (Bloodaxe Books, 2001)