Monday 30 November 2009

Difficult Choices

I was “lucky” enough to spend a couple of hours in A&E recently. I was amazed how many people, on a normal, non-descript Friday lunchtime, had managed to injure themselves. After a couple of hours, the docs patched me up and booked me in to see a specialist the next day. Everyone I saw was calm, diligent, professional, everything you would expect from the NHS.

I’d been thinking a lot about those things people most fear giving up in a post-oil world. Charlotte mentioned hot baths, and according to George Monbiot, one of the most common luxuries people couldn’t live without is the daily hot shower. But I think one of the greatest luxuries that we take for granted is the constant safety net of our health service – the network of doctors, nurses, surgeons, health workers, specialists; all available to us free at the point of need. Not to mention the drugs, bandages, ointments, prosthetics and all the equipment used in operating theatres. That must be one big carbon footprint from end-to-end!

And this is where societies need to start making their choices and understanding what those choices mean. Do I think the UK needs to radically cut its carbon footprint? Yes. Do I think that the NHS is “too expensive” in its use of oil, plastic, energy etc. More difficult to answer. If you’d asked me while I was sitting in A&E, it would have been easy to answer - I’d have said “no way!” If it had been one of my children rather than me in need of A&E, I wouldn’t have even given anyone chance to ask the question! That’s what happens when choices are taken out of the abstract and into the real, dirty, messy, sometimes painful world. They become more difficult to make, and the consequences harder to predict or even to swallow.

Walking home from work today, I couldn’t help noticing how many shops, keen to maximise that all-important Christmas shopping time, had their doors wide open, heaters pumping hot air straight out into the cold street. What on earth are they thinking? What does that say about the choices we’re currently making about where we spend our imaginary carbon budget? If we have to start making difficult choices as a society (maybe from next week after Copenhagen) I know where I’d rather put my money.

Friday 27 November 2009

Just 27 shopping days to Christmas!

Today I visited Primark for the first time, to find out what all the fuss is about. Every time I’m in the city centre I see lots and lots of people tottering around with two Primark bags along with whatever other stuff they have bought on their shopping spree. Why do they want all this stuff? How can they possibly afford it? More to the point for us in Transition, how can the planet sustain this shopping habit?

I found out pretty quickly why people want this stuff: because it is unbelievably cheap. For under a fiver you can get a fleece hoodie-style top; jeans at £6 – or £13 if you are feeling extravagant; windproof fleece-lined jackets at £10; wool blend chunky knit cardigans at £12.72; faux suede high heeled shoes at £9.

But look closer. This is the clothing equivalent of intensive farming. Marks for price: 10/10, so long as you don’t worry about counting the cost of producing things so cheaply. Marks for style: 6/10; I heard customers saying that they had seen this or that product picked out by style magazines. Marks for quality: 2/10, if I am being generous. These are not real clothes – they are simply fossil fuels reshaped to look like clothes. I read the label on the wool blend chunky knit cardie: how much wool? Just eleven per cent. The rest of the yarn was nylon and acrylic. Most of the things I inspected were 100% polyester. There is no indicator on the labels where these things are made and how they can be made so cheaply – there have been allegations in the media about child labour (feel free to sue me, Primark). Whatever the truth, the material and labour costs must be tiny.

Next door, at Wallis, things are marginally better. Prices are more sensible, although still unfeasibly cheap - £38 for a chunky knit cardie made from ‘luxury yarn’ (55% acrylic, 30% nylon, a mere 15% mohair) and at least the label is honest enough to tell me it’s made in China.

I’m horrified by what I see. My own clothes are expensive, but before you write me off in disgust, those clothes are made with integrity. They are made of natural fibres and produced in workshops that pay a fair price; I buy very few clothes and they last a long long time.

I’m reminded of something I read in Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful about how we are spending our capital (fossil fuels) as if it were interest (renewables). We’ve lost the understanding that most things are very expensive and have to be treated with respect.

If (when) China imposes realistic prices to offset all the carbon emissions created to feed our Primark habit, clothes and other products will become very expensive again. We’ll treat them with respect because we have saved up to buy them and we’ll keep them in active service for a long time. In short, we’ll go back to quality.

My closing pic, before handing over to who knows who as the next guest blogger, is at Riverside, taken from the new St Julian bridge (that’s a story for another day!). It’s the widest point in the river, where the Baltic barges direct from Russia could turn round. The warehouses, now converted into hotels and flats, held the most fabulous cargo from around the world – from China, from Istanbul, from Russia – in exchange for the equally fabulous products we made here in Norwich. How times have changed!

PS: What's on your shopping list for Christmas presents this year?

Pix: Primark in Norwich city centre today

Riverside in Norwich, today

Thursday 26 November 2009

Market forces

This is Bury St Edmunds street market, a picture taken last February. The produce looks delicious, just what we should be aspiring to: fresh, healthy, lots of choice. What could possibly be better than this? But something is very wrong.

Look again and you will see that an awful lot of this produce is out of season. It’s early February, when Seville oranges (bottom right) are coming in from Southern Spain for our much-loved marmalade. That’s okay, because they have not travelled very far and they don’t need polytunnels – and anyway, local people in Seville don’t like them. In the middle of the picture, you can see Cox apples. That’s definitely okay, unless they come from New Zealand, because our local apples will store right through until March. Wet walnuts, probably from France, although they grow well in this country – also okay.

But apricots and raspberries? These are perishable stuff and they are only in season here and in Europe in high summer. Either they need a huge amount of heat to grow out of season here or they have come from the far side of the world by air freight.

They are on offer in the market because that is what people in this country want. We’ve forgotten the excitement of eating seasonally, looking forward to different things as they come into the shops. Quite a lot of us don’t even know what should be in season, because street markets now have to follow what the supermarkets do. (There’s a great website called Eat the Seasons if ever you wonder what should be in season right now.)

I was surprised – and impressed – to see a very different story in central France last month, where I was staying with friends.

This is Limoges market, where almost everything is produced locally – all right, not the pineapples – but most things, including dairy produce. All the milk and butter sold locally comes from the Limoges dairy, which collects milk from local farms. The cattle in the fields are hardy native breeds that stay outside all year, and they get to keep their calves with them. The bread is made from local grain, locally milled.

Of course there was an enormous hypermarket nearby, but the local shops do very well. There’s no death-by-Tesco here. I asked my friends why that was. “People like to eat seasonally. The shops only sell local produce because that’s what local people want. If we Brits want something exotic right now – say, a melon – we’ll have to go to Carrefour.”

We've got a long way to go before we can get back to the Limoges approach to food production and shopping. Most people in Norwich shop in the supermarkets, because it's convenient and it appears to be cheap. They also shop there because they don't know what to buy. According to the Daily Mail this week, people don't know what to cook either - most mums have a repertoire of just nine recipes that they turn out all the time, with no reference to the seasons. Top of the list is spag bol, followed by roast dinner and shepherd's pie - not exactly a resilient choice.

But things are getting better back home, in spite of the dominance of the supermarkets. Lots of us support farmers’ markets and have veggie boxes and are rediscovering good local food – and there are even new traditions emerging. I was listening to the food programme on the radio the other day, when they were talking about rescuing traditional farmhouse cheeses from oblivion. There’s definitely a mood of change for the better. On the cheese counter in Norwich market they told me that there is enormous interest in local cheeses; year-on-year they are outselling all their other cheeses put together.

And here in our very own market there are some interesting signs of resilience, in spite of steady decline for decades. There's been a market here for almost a thousand years. As recently as the 1970s three-quarters of the stalls sold fruit and veg, mostly produced from market gardens locally; now there are only four still trading. But in the last couple of years some new food stalls have opened up: Oriental (two), Hungarian and the latest, Portuguese/Brazilian; this new generation of Strangers is buying local produce alongside their much-loved traditional food.

And what about you, dear fellow Transitioners? Where do you buy your food? Do you support local producers and do you regularly cook more than nine recipes? If you do, we'd love to add your recipes to our Low Carbon Cookbook.

Pix: Street market, Bury St Edmunds (February 2008)

Covered market, Limoges (October 2009)

Norwich market (December 2007)

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Getting from A to B

Transport: of all the Transition challenges, this is the biggest one for me. I’ve made some huge improvements, but I have a long way to go (sorry) before I can describe my transport habit as sustainable.

What’s going well? I’m no longer stuck in city centre traffic jams like the one above, taken on a Saturday very recently. I’ve invested in a second-hand bike, which I use most of the time. If it’s tipping down with rain, I walk. I used to take the car without a second thought, because it seemed so convenient, but actually I get in and out of the city much faster by bike or on foot. Not to mention savings in parking tickets… I’m the type of person who is wildly optimistic about the estimated stay in a car park and then picks up parking fines.

I’ve cut down my weekly commute from an astronomical 1,000 miles a week commuting to London every day on the train to just the occasional London trip two or three times a month on average. That’s in no small part due to the recession, but I don’t think I could ever go back to that pattern of two hours there, plus half an hour bus to Westminster or wherever the project took me, bus back, train back… five hours minimum every day, without factoring in the frequent breakdowns and delays on the line.

What’s not going so well? I’ve tried to use local buses, with mixed success. I’m used to an integrated bus/train/river bus service in London; even better in Rome, I’ve used my travel pass on metro/bus/tram; best of all, in Istanbul, exactly the same ticketing across an amazing integrated network of metro/bus/tram/ferry across two continents. In those international cities everything is joined up pretty well. Here in Norwich, there are lots of buses with different livery – there’s no clear local brand and certainly no integrated bus map.

In the city centre there are very good digital displays alerting you to when your next bus is due, but there simply isn’t enough information further afield. This bus stop does at least tell you which service stops here, although many don’t even give that basic information. But which direction do buses take from here? And how often does the service run? If I pitch up at this bus stop, I have no idea.

I’m keen to campaign for better public transport in and around our city, including the commuter routes into the city. If other medieval cities can have trams, so can we. If they can have river buses and buses that join up to railway stations and important destinations like places of work and hospitals, so can we. If other cities can have car-free city centres and bus services designed to suit the citizen rather than the bus operator, so can we. But we won’t get these things unless we demand them!

The alternative is the way of the dinosaur – gas-guzzling cars on ever-expanding road networks. I haven’t even begun to mention road freight...

Pix: Saturday afternoon traffic in city centre

Bus stop, George Borrow Road

Vintage Chevvies in salvage yard off Unthank Road

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Do try this at home: the Norwich loaf

All you need to make a great tasting loaf is flour, water, a pinch of salt - and a little bit of magic. I spent the day yesterday with Charlotte and Mark, showing them how to transform these simple ingredients into something scrumptious.

Making bread is such an easy thing to do, once you know how. You don’t need flour improvers, bleach (yes!), enzymes sourced from pigs’ pancreas and all those other horrible things lurking in supermarket bread; you don’t need bread machines or food mixers. You don’t even have to have yeast, because you can make your own sourdough starter with just flour and water.

I arrived at Reydon with my secret ingredient, a portion of sourdough leaven that started life in Russia (acquired on my breadmaking course last November).

After a brief tour of the garden, full of rare and exciting plants such as tiny yellow Mexican marigolds and huge floppy umbrellas of banana leaves, Mark showed me the string of oil tankers just a few miles out at sea. “They are full of oil, waiting for oil prices to rise,” he explained.

We turned our backs on that ominous scene and got down to the business of baking. Mark wanted to make the Norwich loaf, which uses nothing but local ingredients – wheat flour from Wakelyns just down the road, instead of the imported Canadian grain that’s used for most bread in Britain, and Maldon salt from Essex. It’s a sticky process kneading sourdough, as Mark discovered; the secret is to use your fingertips, not the palms of your hands. Next we made quick-rising rolls with spelt flour from another local grower, Maple Farm; these are easier to handle and the perfect recipe for beginners. And last, we made gluten-free bread. I’ve never done this before. Because there is no gluten there’s no kneading; you simply mix together a mix of flours such as potato and chestnut, water, yeast and sea salt, then pour the resulting squishy mix into a loaf tin and leave it to rise very slowly.

Time for lunch: Charlotte’s take on a Moroccan classic, Seven Vegetables with Couscous – must get that recipe, because it transformed the contents of their veggie box into something spicy and warming. Back to our baking, when it was time to take the sourdough out of Charlotte’s ancient bread pancheon. Mark stretched the dough and folded it a few times before popping it into a tin to rise for several hours. Then we all pitched in to shape the rolls into little buns and left them to prove for half an hour or so while the oven heated up. Into the oven! Very exciting… and the smell from the kitchen was divine.

… then time for tea. Mark wanted to eat the rolls immediately, but it’s worth waiting just a few minutes for them to cool down before spreading with butter and home made jam. We used white spelt flour, which turns pale brown when cooked, very nutty and sweet. Delicious.

By this time it was dark outside – a clear moonlit sky with a fantastic view of Jupiter, like something out of a child’s storybook. There’s no light pollution here, no street lights, no urban glow. Time to go home! Mustn’t forget to take off my Mexican pinnie, kindly loaned by Charlotte.


Alchemy - Mark and Charlotte kneading the sticky sourdough

Teatime tasting - Charlotte and Mark scoffing spelt rolls

Those Mexican pinnies!

Monday 23 November 2009

That ‘Damascus moment’ – what a difference a year makes

It’s exactly a year since I had one of those rare 'Damascus moments' that change your life. I found out about the Transition Towns movement and decided on the spot that this was something I wanted to be part of. I was at Schumacher College a short course Real Food, Slow Food, where a group of around twenty of us were learning hands-on about making artisan bread.

And, today, coming full circle, I’ve spent the day with Charlotte and Mark at Seakale Towers passing on some of the bread-making skills I learned on that course. In between kneading, shaping and baking our bread we talked a lot about what Transition means for us (I’ll come back to that tomorrow).

Last November, in common with an awful lot of professionals, I found myself abruptly out of work. Project budgets were being slashed; the market was flooded with City boys (and girls) desperate to find contracts and undercutting the old hands on daily rates. Everywhere my friends and colleagues were finding themselves with a lot of time on their hands.

The timing of that revelation about Transition was perfect. I’d felt increasingly concerned about the frenetic pace of our modern lives, always too busy… somehow missing the point. And suddenly my work circumstances (or rather, lack of work) gave the ideal opportunity to challenge all that. The Schumacher College course, combining two things I’m really interested in – Slow Food and real bread - sounded wonderful. I dismissed the idea at first as far too expensive and then thought: “But it might be just what I need to help me find my way forward. I can’t go on like this, even if the work is available.”

And that turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in years. Schumacher College is an extraordinary place that aims to help people to ‘understand and find solutions for the most pressing ecological and social concerns of modern life’. I’ll come back to the Schumacher experience later. The important point here was that several of my fellow-bakers were very enthusiastic about Transition and one said: “Surely you know that Norwich is a Transition City?” Well, no, I didn’t know. I was determined to find out more. And I did!

So how much has Transition changed my life? I’ll try to answer that: how it’s changed my attitudes to transport - hugely, as a previously thoughtless car-user; to energy use - now a paid-up shiverer in multiple layers of cardies; to food - much less wasteful but already a passionate advocate of seasonal and regional food and a life-long foodie – and much more. Importantly for me, challenging the short-sighted policies of our government locally and nationally; we can make a huge difference, as individuals and collectively. Along the way, acquiring so many new friends; that’s something beyond price.

Jane Chittenden

Saturday 21 November 2009

"Are you wearing tights?"

I'll sign off for now with a picture of the second package I received from Andy in the post recently. And very welcome these will be too in the months to come. Some of us men in transition have been talking recently about bringing long johns back into the style in which they will surely become accustomed in the not too distant future.

A few weeks ago Tully wrote, "long johns are a forgotten but important item of clothing for us blokes. Forgotten because central heating rendered them unnecessary. Even in my Board meeting, though (where people ought to know better), a colleague stopped in mid-sentence, stared at my leg, and asked in a shocked voice, 'are you wearing tights?'"

I've enjoyed writing these posts this week, but only with my previous post did I begin to get the feeling Jon and Charlotte spoke about of not wanting to stop!

So, after the weekend it's over to you Jane, and here's wishing you the happiest of blogging.

Friday 20 November 2009

watching lights go on and off and knowing nobody

cars go up and down and lights go on and off
because it is a large town
but i know nobody here
outside this house
i have not been here long and yet i seem always to have been here
no, i don't mean in this house nor even in this town
but here
watching lights go on and off and knowing nobody

oxford, feb 1997

It is now November 2009 and I left that house in Oxford a long time ago, in many ways. I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties travelling and living in the Americas, and although I was 35 before I passed my driving test and 39 before I owned my first car, there were of course the flights. I had a lot more money than I do today.

At the Diss regional gathering on Saturday I chaired a group conversation in the Troubleshooting section which I called "Facing Profound Lifestyle Changes". People spoke about comfort zones and spiritual practices in India, being unemployed, being in a good job, how to harness the energy of the young and disaffected, how to deal with work colleagues who laugh at the suggestion of using IT for a meeting rather than flying to Frankfurt.

Through it all I kept focussing on facing the subjects which were bringing us all to the table: Peak Oil, Climate Change, the economic collapse. And how we could work together to face things we haven't really had to face before and have little or no experience of. One man suspected we wouldn't really grasp the situation until oil was $300 a barrel and most of us literally couldn't afford to drive to where we wanted to go.

The lights on the sea horizon in the picture are the lights of oil tankers; I counted twenty seven when I took the picture yesterday at dusk. They have been there for months and the lights blaze through the night. They are moored some miles out from the East coast. This is the view from Southwold, near to where I live. The tankers are involved in ship-to-ship transfer of oil. The oil companies are waiting for the prices to rise.

Looking back at this poem and that time, long before I had heard of Peak Oil or Climate Change, or experienced my own economic downturn, I realise how even my small wealth allowed me to keep myself apart. I could afford not to know people.

These days I no longer sit behind a window watching lights go on and off and knowing nobody. Since joining in with Transition, I now know people in Bungay, in Norwich, in Diss, in Downham Market, and in other places. We meet in the city and in the country, in libraries, in pubs and in our homes. We sit together at tables sharing food and seeking ways of preparing for the dark and difficult times looming on the horizon. Times we won't be able to get through on our own.

poem and picture by Mark Watson

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Breakfast with Friends

So what has this breakfast got to do with Transition? And where are the friends? Well,the quinces (both cooked and uncooked) come from Nick's garden in Bungay and he gave them to us on Saturday after the regional gathering in Diss. Roasted in the oven, they are fragrant and delicious and go brilliantly with the porridge, which is from Garboldisham near Diss, and milled in the windmill there. The oats are organic. The honey is from Cockfield in Suffolk.

The bread is a Downham (Market) loaf which Carol and John brought to the gathering on Saturday and gave to me afterwards. I'm not always that keen on brown bread, but this is wonderful and melts in the mouth. It is made from locally grown and milled wheat by a local artisan baker. Talking of bread, if you've been to any meeting with Jane (Comms and Transport), where there's a shared meal, you'll know what a wicked baker she is with her Norwich loaves and sourdoughs. And she uses flour from Wakelyn's Agroforestry in Metfield.

I am able to take the photos for this and my other posts for this week because Andy (he of the wonderful Transition Norwich posters and TN communications group fame) sent me a phone he was no longer using last week. Thanks for that, Andy! He also sent me another very useful item this week. But that's for another post.

PS Before you cook the quinces make sure you smell them with a good deep inbreath. Fragrant doesn't begin to describe it.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Tents, Documents and Transition Gatherings

I spent a lot of last week helping to prepare the Transition in the East document with Charlotte and Josiah in time for the Regional Gathering in Diss on Saturday. A lot of proofreading, phone calls, emails and conversations, cohering material from 29 initiatives around the East of England. I worked in the house, the library, the local Voluntary Help Centre and... the tent in the garden.

Charlotte and I have had the tent up in the garden for a few months now, and are still sleeping in it, though not every night. In the day when the sun shines it's a really warm place to be, and I love the spare, uncluttered feel of the space. It's just great for working in.

When we got back from the Gathering on Saturday after a full-on day of meeting people, Open Space sessions and introducing the new Transition Troubleshooting, those strong winds and rain had dislodged the pegs and down the tent had gone, the mattress and bedding was damp, it was too dark to get to grips with it and so we brought what we could in and left it till the morning. After repairing a few rips, I got the tent back on its feet late Sunday morning just as the sun broke through the clouds.

Tent photos by Mark Watson; Photo op at the Transition East Regional Gathering by Robert Stanford

Sunday 15 November 2009

On the road (to Diss)

Planning to travel to Diss for the Transition East meeting, I expected to drive. I intended to offer space in my car for anyone else travelling the same way, when someone on the google group mention the train station in Diss. Public transport? I hadn't even considered it.

A quick search on Traveline confirmed that the journey would be possible by bus, though considerably longer than by car.

I awoke on the day of the meeting to howling winds and lashing rain beating against the window pane; stuffed my breakfast down whilst printing off a google map of Diss and wrapped up warmly for the walk to the bus stop.

Stepping outside, braced against the weather, I realised that the wind had dropped and the rain thinned to the odd spot. Walking, I thought that this experience of using the bus would be an interesting start point for a blog post about how my expectations about travelling are so distorted by oil. I expect to be able to leave my house, jump in my car and travel: warm, dry and insulated from the world, direct to the door of my destination.

Standing at the bus stop I was caught by the magnificent green fields in the storm light. I watched the rooks; some flying overhead, some still hunched in trees. The few birds still singing so late in the year took the place of my car radio.

On the bus I met others travelling to the meeting and we talked. From the bus windows I saw a hare, a herd of deer and a covey of partridges. I watched the low sun sweeping the fields and burnishing the trees, and I realised that a blog piece that started off being about our false expectations about the ease and pleasure of travelling facilitated by our private car ownership was becoming a piece about my false expectations about the difficulty and undesirability of using public transport.

In Transition, we all start from different places and we all travel in different ways. But I'm enjoying the journey, and I'm learning along the way.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Thrills, chills and the spirit of epic adventure

I was chatting to a friend about the TN Blog, and he told me that a friend of his, Norfolk-based author Alex Scarrow, had written a thriller based on a fictionalised Peak Oil crisis. So the next day, I popped into Norwich library and borrowed Last Light. It's a fast-paced and visceral read, and a frightening picture of a week in which the flow of oil into the UK is stopped by terrorists. I couldn't put it down, and finished it in a couple of days. It's easy to dismiss it all as fiction, but the author doesn't hold back from presenting the serious message about just how vulnerable our society really is.

There must be something about Peak Oil catching the attention of people right now - Episode 2 of the BBC's gripping drama series, Spooks on Wednesday was all about the threat of societal collapse caused by an interruption to oil supplies. Thrilling stuff, and I have to say, watching it with "transition eyes" was an unexpected added pleasure.

To make sure all this disaster was starting to get me down, I found plenty of powerfully positive stuff to keep me going! Duncan Green is Head of Research for Oxfam GB and writes the excellent From Poverty to Power blog for Oxfam (as well as a book of the same name). On Thursday, he wrote about resilience in the context of resilience from global economic shocks, but his views hold lots of truths relevant to transition - one of the key things he points out is the need to develop "Social capital (family networks, social organizations, faith/religion)". Sounds a lot like Transition to me.
And finally, I found a wonderful analogy for our collective journey. John Manoochehri, writing for the BBC News' Green Room blog calls for the spirit of epic adventure in tackling all that climate change may throw at us. Stirring stuff indeed!

Friday 13 November 2009

Coming Together in Resilience

Today the trees are on fire. It's a moment that happens in November. All down our lane the great oaks are blazing gold, the hedges tipped with hawthorn and rosehip flames, the bracken rusty on the banks. At sunset the whole land glows amber, russet, crimson. If I could I'd fill this space with the sight and feel of it. For years I paid attention to these moments and these trees and flowers. Then last March my attention shifted, when, at the First Regional Gathering in Downham Market, I realised I was in Transition for real.

Resilience is one of the key words in Transition. It refers to the ability of an eco-system to withstand shock and hold together within radically different conditions. To invent ways of dealing with change. To evolve.

Last March Mark, Josiah and I interviewed Professor Martin Wolfe at his research farm, Wakelyns Agroforestry in Suffolk. The plant pathologist told us that it is the diversity of species working together that enables evolution to take place. He's developing what is known as Composite Cross Populations of wheat, organic wheat that will flourish in the kind of adversity that peak oil and climate change might bring (as well as providing the flour for the future local loaf in Norwich).

The strength of living systems depends on things, he told us, that cannot be measured by conventional agricultural science. Something Darwin first recognised as he observed the natural species-rich grassland around his house in Sussex: that the greater the diversity of species that existed in a place the greater its abundance.

The memory of how to thrive and be abundant in diverse conditions happens when many species work together. The ability to find solutions to the difficulties we face also depends on things that cannot be measured, or even recognised in a conventional and monocultural world.

As it is with flowers, so it is with people.

Next week Mark my comrade-in-Transition for the last 19 years takes over this blog for a week. He doesn't like this picture of himself Josiah took at the last gathering, (with shared lunch and Open Space "laws"). But I think it captures the spirit of the times. You know he's speaking to you when you look at that picture. There's a wild fire coming through that's sparking something alive that has been forgotten for centuries. I've been hearing it in people's voices during the last two weeks, as I've been preparing a document about the 28 Transition initiatives that have sprung up in the Eastern Region over the last two years. Talking with people from the villages, market towns, cities and bio-regions of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex

Tomorrow we're all meeting up at the Second Regional Gathering. It's also the day my first column for 17 years comes out in the EDP an article about Transition called Leaving the Pleasuredome. I've just become part of a co-operative of 6 writers and each week we appraise and encourage each others' work. This community blog works in the same way - with Jon Curran, John Heaser, Tully, Elena, Jane, Helen, Andy, Mark, myself and others who have yet to join us. It's how life works, how people work best -in co-operation, in collaboration, in communication - how we get to enjoy ourselves together on this rough and beautiful earth, And now facing the greatest challenge we have ever faced - the triple crunch that Transition has articulated so clearly - it's also how we stand together and evolve.

In life, for life. See you there!

Above: Circle of summer flowers from the Midsummer Transition Party, 21 June 09 by Mark

Below: Mark in his famous brown jumper at the First Transition East Regional Gathering, Downham Market, March 7 09 by Josiah

Thursday 12 November 2009

Calling An Amnesty and Other Prodigal Returns

Your carbon debt is HUGE,” said Josiah on the telephone this morning. We were discussing last night’s Copenhagen Climate Emergency in Norwich and Tuesday's post about bathing in the hot springs of South America. I was about to leap to my own defence, armed with a “yes but I don’t have any children” or one of any number of possible parries. But I resisted the temptation. Because Josiah and I are co-ordinating the Second Transition East Regional Gathering in Diss this week, because we’ve been working at each other’s kitchen tables over the last year on local and sustainable food and all things Transitional and because, well, I like Josiah and his two boys, Reuben and Tristram and I'm looking forward to meeting his daughter, Iris, (now two weeks old) .We’re on the same road together. We can’t afford to fall out with each other.

Besides, who hasn’t got a huge carbon debt in the Western World?

We need to be prodigal and return to our senses, but we’re not going to do that if we are burdened with a debt we can never repay. If you undergo a radical change of heart, you don’t want to have to deal with accustations and judgements for your past follies as you walk back down the mountain. At the Climate Change talks last night it became clear in order to keep our emissions below that scary figure of a 2% rise in planetary temperature, we are going to have to drop our fossil-fuelled lifestyles pretty damn quick. And those of us who have used profligate amount of oil in the past, have lived in the fast lane, know the ins and outs of priviledge and glamour, know exactly how to do it. Because if someone like me can change, anyone can.

The fact is we didn’t know until now. We were brought up in illusion. I had never considered carbon emissions until I joined a bunch of community activists in Oxford and someone said something mildly about how much fuel aeroplanes use. The year was 2001 and I had spent the last ten years travelling in aeroplanes, buses, trains and cars across the Americas. When you know you know and you can take action - so long as you are free to do so. One of the speakers last night was the economist and driving force behind the New Green Deal, Ann Pettifor. She is famous for leading a worldwide campaign to cancel approximately $100 billion of debts owed by 42 of the poorest countries Jubilee 2000. The moment you cancel the debt, you can start to liberate yourself from the constraints of Empire.

The consequences of our life-style have now become clear. Since the 70s our carbon use has trebled. Climate change is directly due to our increased consumption, our flying round the world, our industrialised agriculture. None of us knew this at the time. Not because we were ignorant but because we are products of a civilisation that has deliberately blindfolded us to the effect of our actions, distracted us with entertainments, numbed our emotions with feel-good highs and hostility. We can do something about those things. We can wake up and not take those flights. We can ask questions rather than escape into our minds. We can join up and share food and houses and tools and fires. What will hold us together is our human relationships. The feeling that we want to see each other again.

So this is a call for amnesty for all prodigal sons and daughters. Forget the debt. Come home.

Above: reeds at Minsmere Marshes, Suffolk - the plant tribe at the root of Western civilisation and the world’s first source of paper by Charlotte

Below: Me, Josiah and Reuben with a pan of nettles for soup - Spring Tonic Walk, April 09 by Helen

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Diggers Unite!

Finally got down to the TN allotment today. Jane and I met at the train station and then we took the bus (35) almost to the gates and went walkabout the Bluebell plots, full of tall cabbages, late cornflowers, golden windfalls sprinkled on the ground, lanky sunflower ghosts and everywhere winter veg shooting hardily out of the soil. We met David from Take 5, (the great bar in Tombland where the Communications crew have their meetings), Peter who used to work for the EDP and is now the compost guru and of course Mahesh who is the MC of this small vegetable kingdom (complete with compost loo and community kitchen).

After a winter picnic of Jane's frittata under the now-leafless plum trees, my coleslaw of red cabbage and carrots laced with lemon, green chilli and roasted pumpskin seed oil we drank a masala chai tea boiled in a Kelly kettle. Kelly kettles were apparently invented by Irish fishermen and they are just the sort of useful tool you need on damp November afternoons. They're like an aluminium thermos with a bore hole through which the fire heats the water contained inside a metal jacket. You light your dry twigs in a small dish, put the KK on the hob and five minutes later, hey presto! you have your perfect zero-carbon brew.

And then we set to work. Serious digging with forks getting the bed ready for the Spring. I was going to wait for J's photo to come through of me, fork in hand, turning up the couch grass, but here is one from Kathryn Siveyer who does the most lovely blog about her Transition allotment in Canterbury that inspired us all in the beginning. I'll post that one tomorrow.

Short post today as I'm on the road. Writing this in the Norwich Library and about to go to the Copenhagen Climate Emergency talks . . . watch this space . . . Oh, here's that pic!

Top: Sprouting Broccoli by Kathryn Siveyer

Bottom: Charlotte at Bluebell Allotments South by Jane

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Finding Myself in Hot Water

Last night I went to Mangreen Hall. The Stranger’s Circle was meeting to discuss everyone’s personal powerdowns. We met in the kitchen and after supper did the unthinkable - we got our electricity, gas and oil bills out on the table, said last year’s totals out loud and discussed how we could live without all that central heating and hot water. Those of us from large warm houses and those of us in small cold ones. One thing was clear. That no matter how we looked at it, we have been living in an artificial world for so long, we are finding difficult to find a way out of it and discover the real one – the earth outside our doors, in all its beauty and challenges, with all its seasons that now in East Anglia, in these islands, means coldness and damp.

“It is hard to know that this magic carpet exists and that one will no longer fly on it,” Jean Cocteau once wrote. The artist was writing about his life-time opium addiction. Opium is one of the most powerful natural medicines in the world. It has relieved the physical suffering of people for thousands of years. But it has also distracted us from reality and stimulated our minds to such a degree that we find ourselves prefering to live in the stately pleasuredomes of our imaginations rather than face the (often terrifying) truth of the situation. Fossil fuel is one of the most powerful and addictive power sources in the world. It has enabled us to live like kings, flying over the planet, whizzing up and down the country, eating luxurious food out of season. But the fact is millions of us are destroying the real world in order to live in an artificial paradise.

Some of us in the Transition Circles are struggling to awaken from a life-time’s addiction to that cruel dream.

There were some sober moments in the kitchen last night. I live frugally, partly because I am poor and partly because I’m in Transition. But even without the central heating turned on and minimal use of electricity I am still 1.5 tons up with personal energy use, without considering transport or food. If we are cutting our personal carbon footprints from 6 tons to 3 this year, it’s going to be tough to cut more.

“There are those daily baths of course,“ said Mark.

I’ve been going cold turkey for years. I’ve kicked lines of cocaine at parties and little glasses of wine at six. I’ve given up supermarkets and holidays, I don’t have a freezer or a tumble dryer or a dishwasher, I don’t eat chocolate or bananas or go to restaurants, all my clothes are falling apart. But oh oh oh, HOT WATER! I’m finding that one quite tough. If you live in a cold house and get up at five to write there is nothing quite like that fragrant steaming tub to steep yourself in at breakfast time. Scented with juniper berries for stiff joints, lavender for a sore head, sea salt when your circuits are jangled, rosemary when you need a bold burst of sunshine. . . in those warm scented waters all those fractious thoughts and tangled-up feelings dissolve and a door inside swings open. 90% of my inspiration comes from lying immersed in H2O. This year I started sharing baths with Mark (taking it in turns), using only half the tub, using the water for our clothes, for the loo, for the plants. But whatever way we swing it, it’s still an oil-fired habit.

If I lived in Morocco or Turkey I’d go and scrub myself clean in the neighbourhood hammam. If I lived in Australia I’d walk down the beach to the tea tree lake at Byron Bay. If I was in New Mexico this morning I’d walk through the Apache pine forest and sit in the rocky hot springs of Jemez .If I was at this moment in Quito, Ecuador, I’d take a ride up into the mountains at dawn and immerse myself in the waters of Papallacta, watch the cold Andean mists evaporate and hummingbirds drink from the tree datura flowers that hang over the steaming sulphurous pools. I’d jump into the cold river and back again into the warm baths, and have a breakfast of freshly-caught trout and bitter South American coffee. Sometimes I think about all those mornings, those lovely waters of the earth I have bathed in thanks to the magical properties of fossil-fuel, and like Cocteau, it is hard to know I will never go there again.

Opium flower by Mark

Monday 9 November 2009

The Reality Business

It’s the dawn of another day. Small creatures have stopped prowling around my tent. The stars are fading from the immense night sky. Like an alphabet I almost recognise the letters of the constellations are disappearing one by one leaving only rusty Mars as an umlaut below a high waning moon. The cockerels are shouting from the nearby farmhouses, the ducks calling to each other amongst the marsh reeds, Wake up! Wake up! Owls hooting in the oak trees. Pheasants arguing in the copse. The faint sound of the sea in the distance. Ah, you might say, a small paradise! And yes where I live, a brick cottage down a coastal lane, it is in some respects. But at the edges, as I lie snug under a heavy crimson quilt, listening to another day begin, I can also hear the faint hum of lorries thundering down the A12, on the distance there are oil tankers strung like a necklace along the horizon, and those flecked and golden pheasants will soon be shot by men who pay up to £1000 per day to satisfy their ancient bloodlust. Once I would not have noticed these things, my eyes set firmly on the beauty of the earth, or in the meaning and significance of this mysterious life, but now I’m in the reality business, I’m in Transition, and I can’t ignore them anymore.

When we began this blog last month I wanted to hear about what it’s really like for people to live through Transition, and for us to keep some kind of record. And when I read of John Heaser’s pride in his woodpile, of Jon Curran’s delight gleaning chestnuts with his family in the woods, or of Tully’s anger taking his children to the city fireworks, those experiences stir my heart and make me feel it’s all worth it. Reality is hard to come by in an I-pod, me-only world. It’s so easy to get grandiose, sitting at our computers like the Wizard of Oz, issuing big corporate statements about peak oil and politicians, wearing spiritual cliches like Eygptian priestly robes (We are All One! The Power of Now! Be the change!) doing the great marketing spin on our lives. But actually what turns everything around is the treasuring of our small and roughly-hewn humanity. Feeling and thinking deeply about ourselves and our fellows. Paying attention to the details.The fact that we are who we are together, engaged in an almost impossible task: downshifting from the great pleasuredome of the Western World.

This blog is about the small things. Small paradises, small moves, small moments of affection and respect between people hard-pressed on all sides. This week I want to write about some of those moments and some of those people. It’s a busy week. Tonight I’m going to a Stranger’s Circle meeting, one of our neighbourhood Transition Circles, out in the hinterland at Naomi’s house in Mangreen. On Wednesday I’m visiting the TN Allotment with Jane, reorganising the website with Andy and manning the TN stall with Christine at the Climate Emergency Talks. At the end of the week I’m helping co-ordinate the Second Transition East Regional Gathering , when 27 initiatives will be converging on the market town of Diss to talk about the future. Stay tuned!

Morning Glory in the conservatory by Mark

Sunday 8 November 2009

Consumption and public space

I got made redundant last week. Only temporarily, I hope, but for a few months at least we’re going to be enjoying even more reduced circumstances than usual.

I’ve been surprised at the feelings this leaves me with regarding my role as a consumer and what is says about my place in society. Leaving the job centre on Thursday I walked along Gentleman’s Walk, looking at the shops and the coffee bars and all the people still filling the streets on their way to buy stuff. And I was aware that I’m not, for now at least, one of those people. Norwich has felt like “my city” for most of my life, but at that moment it felt like it belonged to those other people, not me.

Then last night I took the kids to a firework display in Long Stratton. There were some fireworks, but no bonfire (health and safety, presumably). But what there was lots of was stalls selling unnecessary plastic objects (hook a duck, get a prize). My three children were with me, and spent most of the evening hassling me for more money to buy more stuff. I hated every minute.

It seems to me I have three powerful reasons to try to consume less. One is that, especially now, we can’t really afford it. Another is that I want to help create a more resilient, low-carbon economy, and buying tat from China doesn’t help. And the third is that for a long time I’ve felt a distaste for it all: I really don’t enjoy either unnecessary plastic objects, nor unnecessary positional goods.

I’d rather be producing than consuming. There’s a pleasure to trying to do useful work in the world. There’s a pleasure, that I’m just beginning to discover, to being here at home (the picture is the view from my window as I write) raking leaves or gathering firewood or baking bread (when I get around to it).

But our public spaces are mostly about consuming. The centre of Norwich is a temple to that insatiable hunger for tat. The public celebrations of bonfire night – Samhain, the end of summer and the closing in of the nights – are now just about more tat. It seems to me that, if we’re going to make the move away from consumerism attractive, we’re going to have to give attention to creating new public spaces that celebrate community rather than consumption.

Beans, brassicas, bulbs....

Just a quick update on the allotment. I’ve spent a little time there this morning (Sunday), after doing some work on it during the week with Brenna.

I've forked over the first strip and planted:

  • three sorts of broad beans (so we can do some trials of what works best)
  • spring cabbage plants
  • onion sets
  • three sorts of garlic
  • some Italian winter salad (might be too cold, but we'll see).

Mr Fox paid a visit and left us a lot of footprints but no presents (phew).

On the rough dug patch to the right of the pond I was going to sow green manure, but I discovered that there is just time to put more broad beans in if I get a wriggle on. Stan has given me some broad bean seeds that he has saved, so it would be very nice to have our first TN bean crop from TN seeds (many thanks, Stan!).

We now have four types of broad bean to compare, plus some more spring cabbages; and I’m taking a gamble on some Cicoria Rossa di Verona – who knows, it might be colder in Verona than Norwich.

Mahesh is going to organise soft fruit bushes for us over the next few weeks - a block of raspberries to go round the far end of the pond on the right; and assorted fruit bushes to go along the back.

So, now is a good time for us to start collecting cuttings of herbs, fruit bushes, strawberry layers etc.

Do come along to check up on how our TN garden grows. See you soon!

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Carrot and Cumin scones

As enjoyed by Transition Circles people on Monday night.

200 g Plain flour
100g Wholemeal flour
3 tsp Baking powder
75g Butter
2 tbsp Cumin
1-2 Grated carrots
200 ml Milk (plus 1 tbsp)

  • Sieve flour and baking powder together.
  • Rub butter into flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Add Cumin and carrots and mix.
  • Add milk and gather mixture together into a soft dough.
  • Roll out and cut into rounds.
  • Brush with remaining milk and pop onto a tray
  • Bake at 220 degrees C
Remember to make the most of your hot oven and cook more than one thing at a time- I used mine to sterilize the jars for my quince jelly.