Tuesday 30 November 2010

Love in a Strange Climate

“Well it’s a community-led response to peak oil and climate change," I said energetically. And the woman looked at me as a great divide yawned between us. We were standing at a stall in a village hall on Energy Day. But I wasn’t selling jam and she wasn’t holding a raffle ticket. We had both just listened to John Gummer MP telling us that wearing woolly hats in winter was a Good Thing and Professor Winter explaining how the least carbon-intensive food you can eat are local carrots. And hey, if you heat your house with your own wood and swap your swanky car for an equally swanky but less powerful car, you can keep within the government targets for CO2 emissions. Both the woman and I realise that neither my words, nor those of the men on the platform, have bridged the vast silence that climate change brings within a conversation.

I had arrived at the stall by chance. One day I went to a documentary about climate change called The 11th Hour and found myself in a theatre full of people who knew that wearing woolly hats and eating carrots alone is not going to do the trick. What all the talking heads in the film were saying was that the way to avert the catastrophic consequences of a civilisation that considers itself separate from nature was to link up with people and find out what you can do. So here I was at the Transition East stall, doing all the things that Transition initiatives round the world do – communicating the bad news and the good news about powerdown. But the one thing none of us had yet done was talk to those people up on the stage, the politician and the professor, the penultimate of the 63 Transition ingredients now being assembled, Pattern 6.1 Policies for Transition.

This month we got our chance. It was called the Big Climate Connection, organised by Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, a group of over 100 NGOs, environmental, faith and community groups. Last year SCC organised The Wave in which 65, 000 people marched to Parliament. This year SCC organised a national lobby of over 190 MPs in the UK. And Michael Uwins from Friends of the Earth in Norwich was on the telephone. "Peter Aldous, MP Waveney is on the Environmental Audit Committee," he said. "We need someone to talk with him." "Oh, Kate will be brilliant at that," I said. "We’re counting on you," he said.

And that is how I found myself with Mark and Kate and Nick and Lesley and Daphne from Sustainable Bungay inside Peter Aldous’s office in the severely downturned seatown of Lowestoft. Aldous was newly elected in May and has just moved in. It was empty and there were only two spare chairs, so most of us sat on the floor. "Do you mind if I eat my sandwiches?" he asked. "I don’t know whether they sustainable or not.”

“Well, they are brown,” I said and laughed.

The lobby was meticulously organised. We were given a lobby pack with instructions on how to set up a meeting and what to say and how to feedback. Top of the agenda was to put forward three "asks" related to the Energy Bill and the UN summit: energy efficiency in homes, a cap on carbon emissions from power stations and support for low-carbon technologies in “developing” countries. (You can read about the meeting in full here).

Talking with politicians is a strange affair. They nod and listen but you never know whether they will act or not. And we are cynical creatures, knowing how politicians are lobbied, courted and heavily influenced by corporate powers, in particular the fossil-fuel industry, who dismiss climate change as a millennial belief rather than a scientific fact. And I am particularly cynical having been brought up amongst Conservative MPS and their grandiloquence. Aldous to our surprise was well-briefed, friendly and generous with his time (one hour). He agreed to all the asks and to follow up this meeting with another in four months time. We covered a lot of ground and focused our attention on the creation of an infrastructure and resources to implement renewable energy and community projects.

Would anything come of this lobby? It’s hard to tell. But it’s what we took part in joyfully and energetically the six of us on the fifth of November, one tiny piece in a vast planetary jigsaw our minds can barely comprehend. To influence the course of history the so-called bottom up grassroots organisations will at some point have to negotiate with the top-down policy-makers. And we’re not well versed in that. We like to have opinions and criticise and pull down, but we’re not so keen on making efforts outside the parameters of our known world. I didn’t want to organise a lobby and was hoping Kate (who is running for the Green Party as a District Councillor and had organised a coach to the Wave last year) would do it. But it ended up being me.

And so I had to read what the Energy Bill was about in the same way I have had to read books about climate science and peak oil, give impromptu seminars on community transport, write about the unpalatable facts of the industrial food system. We have to get smart. And we have to get constructive. Because it’s one thing having a gut feeling about climate change (which most of us do) but if you talk with policy makers you have to have more than a gut feeling. You have to know what you want as a people. You have to be able to put yourself in the politician’s shoes and learn their language and you have to teach them yours. Because unless we start speaking together and forging a dialogue, making bridges across that divide, we won’t be able to see what lies ahead of us and what we can do about it. Because no matter how much we care as individuals or community groups what will really change things is when the active forces within society perceive the real situation together.

For that we have to join those pieces up. And we are going to have to let go of a lot of prejudice and blame to do that, as well as our fossil-fuelled individualism. And we are going to have to start thinking as one group amongst many groups. Because a 100 organisations working as one is an excellent thing for a day. Imagine what that might achieve in 365 . . .

Cold weather, hot climate - view from my window; Sustainable Bungay and Peter Aldous MP; poster of The 11th Hour.

Monday 29 November 2010

Who is banging the drum for climate action now?

Has the beat for action on climate change lost its impetus? Can we expect a fresh rhythm from world leaders after Cancun?

I am not, at core, an environmentalist. I have always been suspicious of '-isms', and this particular -ism is no exception. I am, however, and always have been, deeply moved by injustice be that at a global, local, or personal level. Since around the age of 7 when I first became aware of one of the first scandals in Africa to reach the British media - starvation in Biafra - I have been active in some campaign or other.

It should come as no surprise then, to find myself in areas which relate to what must be the biggest global justice issue of all time - climate change. Whilst oceanographers, meteorologists, statisticians, and computer modellers worry about the changing composition of our atmosphere and oceans (rightly), I worry about the composition of people who live on the edge of the Sahel, or the Bangla Desh floodplain ( that's most of the country), or the Maldive islands. The NGO aid agencies now estimate that there are 1.7 billion people in such places around the world where people are already being affected by climate change - through no fault of their own.

One of the most poignant realisations I came to - long after it had happened - was that the infamous Ethiopian famine of 1985 ( enter stage left Bob Geldof), and subsequent droughts in that region - has a direct correlation to carbon emissions from the rich countries. The dry season in the region is usually broken by a shift of a large bank of clouds that normally hover over the nothern tip of Africa, and move south to bring rains. This shift is decreasing in frequency, resulting in more frequent droughts.

So this week is all about climate change, and it is all about us. Nobody appears to have much expectation of anything specific coming out of the Cancun conference - we'll see. We can be specific, however, about what we are doing, what Norwich is doing, and what Norfolk is doing.

On Wednesday, our guest blogger for the week, County Councillor Andrew Boswell, will be writing about his work on the County Council in the area of low carbon development. He will show how the County Council seems to be trying to pull in two different directions at the same time! ( does this sound familiar?). Andrew and I were colleagues for 4 years on the Council, and I can vouch for his huge commitment to this area, and his significant impact on the Council, helping to set up and chair the 'climate impact working group', amongst many other things.

So lets see if, this week, we can locally make some noise and take action, collectively or personally or both.

Pictures: top - the magnificent Odaiko drum made in Norwich by my taiko teacher, Alice Kemp-Welch
middle - Villagers in Mali

Saturday 27 November 2010

Food by numbers

Amongst Transitioners we talk a lot about what motivates change. We talk about people needing to engage with things on a heart level as well as a head level. And numbers are really not seen as a good motivator. But I read the Transition Handbook and this passage turned my world-view upside down:

“In 2004 the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; we imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream by weight, from France and exported 9.9 million. The figures for the same trade with Germany were 15.5 million kilos and 17.2 million. Germany sent us 1.5 million kilos of potatoes and we sent them, yes, 1.5 million kilos of potatoes.”

As part of being green in outlook and quite sceptical about things, I'd always generally assumed that 'big business' was doing things that were a bit silly and bad for the environment. But I'd never seen it in such black and white, with numbers of that size. Swapping one and a half million kilos of potatoes with Germany in a year? But my brain, like most, doesn't easily understand what big numbers really mean. So lets play with this number. If the average potato is, like this one, 8cm long and weighs 200g... That means there are 5 potatoes in a kg, so 1.5 million kilos is 7,500,000 potatoes. If they're each 8cm long- now I feel like I'm on Blue Peter- and they were all laid end to end, the line of potatoes would be 372.8 miles long. That would reach from Cromer to London and back again. Which would be roughly as pointless as swapping potatoes with Germany.

Once I'd learnt this I suddenly understood what all those people saying “Growth is not necessarily a good thing” were on about. Such trade is 'good for business'. It 'keeps the economy on track'. It's also blindingly stupid.

We hear a lot about food waste too, and I flicked through a recipe book the other day and was transfixed by a page about food waste. The numbers on it were so outlandishly large that I hunted down the report to check it was talking about households in the UK, not including retail and catering. No, it was just household. Then I checked if it meant actual waste- some of these reports include tea leaves as wasted food, which in my opinion they are not. I use them, I can't eat them. When they've been used I compost them. At no stage in this process can I consider them 'wasted food'. But no, this report finely categorised waste as 'unavoidable' (eg. the cores of peppers, pea pods- but I make stock from mine, and it's delicious!), 'possibly avoidable' (eg. carrot skins, potato skins) and 'avoidable' (that's whole, wholly edible things that are just thrown away).

So these numbers are real, about real food and real households. Here we go:

Every DAY we throw away:

7 million slices of bread.

1 million slices of ham.

4.4 million whole apples.

660,000 eggs.

5.1 million whole potatoes.

260,000 unopened packs of cheese.

2.8 million tomatoes.

1.2 million whole sausages.

550,000 rashers of bacon.

330,000 chicken portions.

700,000 unopened packets of chocolate and sweets.

82,000 whole cakes and gateaux.

2,900 unopened bottles and cans of lager.

The report helpfully priced each item: the bacon for instance was 'worth' £50 million a year. I've not included those prices. I think we deserve to carry the costs of those foods, if we're stupid enough to act in this way.

What I find deeply offensive is the idea that pigs died for that bacon to be thrown away. We know that much chocolate production involves the use of bonded child labour: slavery, essentially. And we're throwing away the products that caused so much misery in their production. Some of the eggs and chicken we throw away are likely to have come from battery chickens, imprisoned for their whole life- each chicken with about as much room as a mouse-mat. And after that hell, we're just throwing away their bodies? Then consider the farming itself: people's life-work being thrown away. The decline of skylarks on UK farms, growing wheat ever more intensively to make flour for bread- when we throw away 7 million slices of it every day. The deforestation of rainforests to grow soya to feed cows to make cheese which we just throw in the bin. I can't say how angry this makes me.

I'm guilty too. I throw food away. I think I fancy more of something than I've actually got an appetite for when it's cooked. I buy food which I don't manage to eat because my plans change mid-week. But I do try, very hard, not to waste food. I'm motivated by my heart, not my head, on this one. But now my head has seen those numbers too, and it understands we really do have to change these things.

Thursday 25 November 2010

A fascination with numbers

For my 3 day slot, I'd like to talk about numbers. I've become very fond of numbers. It's not always been this way. I started school when I was 5, already a confident reader. When I was 6, I had glandular fever and was off school for quite a while. When I returned, everyone else in the school seemed to have conquered maths. I don't think I ever caught up. I wasn't helped much by a terrifying teacher who reminds me of nothing so much as a skeleton with a very fierce hair-do who barked out mental arithmetic tests and mocked and humiliated me for getting the answers wrong.

Fast-forward a few years and finally numbers are starting to fall into line for me. I've developed a passion for spreadsheets (no, really, they're great. They're like lists with numbers.) and a fascination with the numbers we're presented with every day.

I'd like to share some of the more dramatic numbers with you over the next few days- and see if I can convince you how interesting they are.

A debate seems to go back and forth over whether little things can make only a little difference, or a big one. Magazines advise one to switch off phone chargers when they're not being used. Others snort at such advice. This is where the numbers start to matter. If I switch off all my phone chargers at the socket, and make sure my appliances are not on standby- and be sure to recycle my milk bottles and never take a new carrier bag, surely I am being green. If I try really hard at all these things every day of the year then surely I deserve a holiday. And I fancy Greece this year. While I'm there, I shall join in some sort of turtle-conservation group: just to top up my good green feelings.

Lets look at the numbers, then. Turning things off properly saves around 25kg of CO2 per year. Using reusable bags saves another 5kg*. That flight to Greece causes 1440kg of CO2*. Oh. That's not working out nearly so well as I thought.

George Marshall's Carbon Detox laid these numbers out in an excellent table:

Tip, with kgs of CO2 saved in a year
Never use a new plastic bag 5
Change one standard lightbulb to a low-energy one 17
Never leave your TV on standby 25
Turn down heating by 1 degree 230 (in an average house)
Commute to work by bus instead of car 400 (average uk commute/car)
Become a vegetarian 500
Make one fewer flight 500-12,000 (depending on the flight)

He follows that up with this wonderful passage: “Clearly there is something very wrong with a list of personal actions that have a one-thousand-fold variation in effectiveness. This is highly misleading and … encourages people to adopt a trivial behaviour change and believe they are doing something effective.”

But I've got some more numbers for you- and they bring a whole new factor into the discussion. Lets get back to those standby lights.

“On a national scale, the wastage of energy and emission of greenhouse gas from standby power is simply embarrassing. In Australia, standby power is responsible for over 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas every year. In America the number is closer to 30 million tonnes... [and] requires the equivalent of 26 good sized power stations”

So, lots of people not bothering to do a thing (which, after all, has only a tiny impact) ends up having a pretty big impact. By my calculations appliances on standby just in America emit one 200th of the total USA emissions- or more than the total emissions of Turkey.

See? Fascinating!

After much wrestling with the numbers, I reached a conclusion. Not a momentous one, nor an original one, but my own, and hard-won:

Lots of people doing a little thing can have a big impact. But not as big as lots of people doing a big thing.

It takes everyone in America (307,000,000 people) switching off their standby lights to reduce emissions by 30 million tonnes. It only takes 3000 people to change their holiday plans and decide not to fly from the UK to Australia this year to reduce our emissions by the same amount. That's 306,997,000 fewer people.

Numbers for standby and reusuable bags from George Marshall (no further details); for flight to Greece from Defra; national standby figures from Climate Change begins at home (references given but not tied individually to facts, making them hard to follow up); country emission data from Wikipedia, flight data from Defra.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Eat your heart out - book review

Today I want to tell you all about the book that I have been reading. It is a fascinating expose called Eat Your Heart Out by Felicity Lawrence, the lady who wrote the book Not On The Label, which described the awful ways that our food is produced. Her new book is about the economic, political and cultural reasons that these methods of production have evolved.

It is a fascinating read and a real eye opener. Amongst such stunning facts as cereal originally being invented as a cure for masturbation (lack of moral and dietary fibre), it also reveals the horrendous sleights of hand (aka lies) prevalent in our foodsystem. For example probiotic drinks are predominantly sugary milk designed to 'add value' to dairy products and many of them don't even have added 'good bacteria'. Most of our meat is also treated with potassium nitrates to give them that healthy pink glow, unfortunately these chemicals are also carcinogenic... and cereal has to contain large quantities of sugar otherwise it would taste worse than the cardboard box it comes in!

The book is divided into chapters on different food types - cereal, milk, vegetables, pigs etc - but the further through the book you get the more similarities you start to notice between the different food stuffs. Most of the problems seem to stem from the 'race to the bottom', where processing companies try and consolidate and cut costs in an attempt to become as 'efficient' as possible, so that they can stand up to the dictatorship of retail giants who currently control the market. This combined with distorting subsidies and manipulation of consumers through advertising explains a lot of our current situation. So you can't help but draw the conclusion that smaller, less intensive, more localised food production would be a better alternative.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with any interest in where their food comes from and how it is produced. I definitely won't be eating cereal again and I may have to find an alternative source of milk.

Photo: Front cover (www.penguin.co.uk)

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Living the advice

There is now a copious amount of advice out there on how to live a low carbon life. However, having given some of it a go I am coming to the conclusion that quite a lot of it was designed by people who haven't tried it out themselves. Recently I have come up against this in relation to household energy saving.

Insulation v's ventilation
The household energy efficiency watchword is insulation insulation insulation. This is all well and good but if you block all of the drafts and insulate everything then the air stops flowing and your house gets nasty and fusty. I am currently stuck in a horrible conundrum in my - rather chilly - bedroom between shutting the window to keep it warmer or leaving it open so that there is some fresh air in the room. I really don't understand how you are supposed to reconcile these two things. If anyone has any suggestions I would love to hear them.

Secondary glazing
As we live in a rented house with no double glazing we decided to give the DIY secondary glazing a go. So we bought the plastic stuff from thorns and after several attempts we managed to correctly decipher the instructions. However, it turns out the tape they provide to stick the plastic to the window frames is not actually that sticky when it is being put on old wooden window frames. We have now purchased some ordinary double sided tape that works much better, but we can't help but feel that the DIY kit was designed for lovely shiny new plastic framed windows, but they are probably going to be double glazed already! So who knows what the manufacturers were thinking - they probably weren't.

But we have got past that hurdle and now are windows are beautifully shrink wrapped. Unfortunately they keep getting wrinkly though, so we have to keep reheating it. So over all not a resounding success so far but we shall see how it progresses.

Clothes drying
How are you supposed to dry your clothes in the winter without making your house damp? Line drying clothes in the summer is great, but come the winter they take a lot longer to dry and intervals between rain showers get a lot smaller. So I often resort to drying clothes inside, but as the house is now so well draught proofed and not keep particularly warm this doesn't add to the general atmosphere of the house - cold and damp are not a friendly combination. But what are the other alternatives? I have tried drying clothes in the conservatory, but they never really get completely dry out there, so I am a bit stumped. We are going to have to find a practical solution to this problem though as it is one that we are all going to have to tackle in the future.

So in practice the green advice is not actually always that easy to follow or has not actually been practically tested. So I suppose that is why we are here! We are the pioneers who are trying all of this out, so we can tell everyone else how they can dry their clothes with zero energy in the winter and have a well insulated house with lots of fresh air....

Photos: Our secondary glazed windows - note all the wrinkles that have appeared - boo and Radiator foil.

Monday 22 November 2010

An Ode to Dirty Hippies

There are certain difficulties you encounter in your quest to be a low carbon eco warrior, especially tricky are those subjects that are taboo in society, such as personal hygiene. It is not something we really like to discuss, we are much happier just accepting the advertisers spiel on it.

We must eliminate all bodily odours.
We must use all these luxurious hair care products or our hair will look horrendous.
White equals clean.

However, after reading a very interesting book on this topic – ‘More work for mother’ by Ruth Schwartz Cowen – and getting involved with Transition Norwich, I started to question some of these ideas. This is what I have found so far...

We all know that short showers are better than baths, but what’s wrong with a sink wash? It's definitely more pleasant in a cool bathroom as you only have to be half undressed at any one time and you don’t get as wet. And also the amazing invention of microfiber cloths renders soap fairly obsolete when you use them as flannels.

Another fallacy is all of the copious hair and beauty products that tend to stop your skin/hair looking after itself rather than helping it along the way. So I think many people would be surprised by how much healthier they looked without them. I was a bit sceptical of not using any hair care products until I discovered that my friend who always has incredibly stylish looking hair does nothing but wash her hair with water. So I decided my cycle touring this summer was a perfect opportunity to experiment. So off came all the hair in June and I haven’t used anything but water on it since. And it’s amazing, it looks if anything less greasy than it did before. Most people just think I have some kind of styling product in it to make it stick up! I have yet to try it out with longer hair though.

So generally I have been trying not to use products at all if possible, but deodorant is something that it is still culturally unacceptable not to use! However, it is challenging to find one that doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer, through containing aluminium or blocking pores, and does actually work. I have concluded that using two ‘eco’ ones is the best answer, but it still doesn’t have quite the same complete odour blocking effect of some of the leading brands. However, I don’t think that this is actually the end of the world. After all we evolved to smell to attract a partner, therefore it can’t be all that bad? I have sometimes contemplated making my own deoderant, but I have the feeling that they would be even less effective!

An important point in this discussion though is that although all of these measures are great for the environment and/or your health, it is also important for your happiness to still be accepted into society. I don’t want to become a dirty, smelly hippy as my friend bluntly puts it. And getting that balance right is the challenge.

This is further complicated by using eco-balls in my laundry which aren’t quite so effective at removing odour… Line drying outside tends to compensate this, but as winter draws in this becomes harder and I may need to purchase some laundry liquid to compliment the eco balls. There is also an interesting conundrum of waiting to have a full load of washing meaning that you need to have more clothes! It’s ever so complex sometimes having to think for yourself rather than just blindly trusting the adverts.

Well I hope that whistle-stop tour of low carbon personal hygiene has got some of you thinking. Our next transition circle is on this topic so I am looking forward to a lively discussion!

Photos: applying deoderant (http://www.bellasugar.com.au/Use-Natural-Deodorants-8041996) and eco balls (http://www.ethicalsuperstore.com/products/ecozone/eco-balls/)

Saturday 20 November 2010

Feeling the bigger picture

Wide sweep or long view? One of the features of Transition work is its capacity to embrace so many different aspects to our lives. A quick glance at the range of groups in any Transition initiative anywhere in the world - re-skilling, food, transport, 'heart and soul' and the arts - reveals this range and depth.

But what are we all in it for? Are we driven by external forces, or by our collective desire to create something together? Do we think we are going to rock Norwich into quickly becoming the beacon resilient community? Or are we working diligently and quietly in our own group, walking the talk and supporting each other?

If we are driven by external forces - and there are plenty of those clamouring for our attention right now ( think: a bankrupt Irish state, a U.S. economy officially in deflation, U.K. spending cuts, rising unemployment, lowering wages, house price deflation, species extinction rates, peak oil already passed) - we risk not only being reactive, but getting depressed in the process.

If, on the other hand, we immerse ourselves exclusively in the minutiae of a particular project or theme, without a corresponding context, we risk losing the vision of what it is all supposed to be about.

Whenever I have participated in any of the 'visioning exercises' that have become a hallmark of transition work, I am struck by how consistently I and others see so many positives in a low-carbon community - it's not the sackcloth and ashes stuff that comes up - it's the quieter greener neighbourhoods, people having more time, needing less money, talking to each other more (whatever next?!), being happier and calmer and fitter ( remember the Radiohead song), being less driven, you know the rest................

When I really feel the external factors rather than read about them or look at them - I realise I am actually part of something we call 'external', and I also simultaneously sense the real power of what we are doing in transition. That wherever in transition we are working and acting, if we are doing it authentically - with heart and intention - we are ushering in the new. By innovating, we are not suddenly going to change the face of Norwich - although I admit to a fantasy here....that one day the 'Welcome to Norwich' sign in the rail station, currently advertising jewellery, will have a strapline underneath, ' A Transition City'. What we are doing is creating a local infrastructure which people can freely join and opt into, when the fragile bigger structures continue in their process of decay or disintegrate - a process which seems to me inevitable.

There is a huge suppressed demand for what we are doing - many many people no longer trust the big old structures - but do not necessarily know where else to go, or what else to buy into.

Spike Milligan was once asked 'Did he believe in reincarnation?' . His answer was that he didn't know because he hadn't tried it yet. The more we mutually reflect, question old beliefs and received wisdom, have open and candid conversations, create projects which have practical purpose and meaning, the more we will be de-mystifying our work and message, and the more people will want to 'try it' and us.

Friday 19 November 2010

Transition Circles - A Personal Carbon Reduction Review

Welcome to the Transition Circles and Carbon Conversations theme slot. We're starting off with a personal carbon reduction review based on the results of real experiences in TN’s Strangers’ Circle. Mark Watson reports:

Strangers' Beginnings
In June 2009 TN2 was formed as a response to climate change, with the aim of reducing our personal carbon use and emissions to half the national average over the coming year. The Strangers’ Circle emerged as one of TN2’s Transition Circles, made up of those of us living outside of Norwich. We began to meet every month bringing food to each others’ houses, where we would discuss the principle drivers of carbon use (transport, food, home energy, ‘stuff’) and ways we could reduce it.

The meetings were informal, exploratory and intimate. We looked at the real evidence of our energy use, our individual log books and shopping lists. We brought our energy bills to the table to share along with the food for the meeting on home energy. We led quite different lives. Some of us owned our homes, some rented. Some of us had children, others not. We had different financial circumstances. So our responses and actions were also different depending on those circumstances.

Winter 2009/10
When winter arrived last year Charlotte and I decided to forgo the central heating. We heated the water for one hour a day. We used the radiators for drying clothes when they really wouldn’t dry outside. We dressed up warm. We lit fires, but not every day. It was cold. We rent our house. The windows are double-glazed and there is minimal insulation. Our next door neighbours are not there all the time so their house is cold, too, with no heat coming through the walls. We live in a semi-detached rural cottage built in 1884. This is interesting to visitors who walk past in the summer, look up at the numbers built into the brick on the front and say “Eighteen eighty four!” and walk on. But it means that we can’t have cavity wall insulation.

It was an interesting six months (and last winter did go on for six months!) and those monthly Strangers’ Circle meetings were key to maintaining my enthusiasm and momentum. Shared human warmth was both metaphorical and literal.

Where We Are Now
This week we had our first delivery of oil in 19 months. Oil is what fuels our central heating and hot water. We also have a woodburner in the living room. Here are some figures to put things in context:

In October 2008 we ordered 500 litres of oil (at 48p per litre), and in April 2009 another 500 (42p per litre). That was our last order before this week of 500 litres (at 58p per litre, up 16p a litre since last April). The woman on the phone at Total Butler said it was wise to order now as prices looked set to increase further. When we first moved here in January 2003 oil cost around 18p per litre, and we’d order a whole tank (1200 litres) twice a year.

I worked out that we’d reduced our oil use by two-thirds since joining the Strangers' group. What's more, when the cold began this year we noticed it hasn’t bothered us as much.

In large part for me it worked because of the sustained attention over many months on personally reducing carbon emissions within the structure of a group engaged in doing just that.

And for this winter? I’ve been sawing up dead elms from the trees in and around our garden for the woodburner. We’ve arranged with the landlord to get the radiators fixed so we can turn eight out of the ten of them off without their leaking. We’ll live mostly in one of the rooms and have some heating on the coldest days. And hopefully not have to order any more oil at least until April 2012.

Transition Circle Earlham North are meeting on Monday 30 November, Circle Hethersett on Tuesday 1 December and Circle Earlham South on Monday 7 December (see Calendar for details)

Pics: Carbon Conversations and Strangers' Circle; Piping Oil

Thursday 18 November 2010

Norwich Community Supported Agriculture

Welcome to the first Theme Week update from Norwich’s newborn Community Supported Agriculture scheme. For those new to the idea, here’s more about what one is. We’ve been in the process of setting up a CSA for Norwich for around 18 months, and now things are really starting to happen...

Firstly, that’s our new tractor there on the left, isn’t it handsome? Now, hold onto your hats, because this all gets terribly technical from here. On Monday night 5 of us gathered to sign the subscription papers which comprise the company formation documents. (Or possibly, to sign the company formation documents which comprise the subscription papers... I’m still not quite clear about that.)

Either way, those papers will now be sent to the Financial Standards Authority to be ratified- which will finally make us official.

We discussed lots of different forms we could take- and decided on the wonderfully named “Industrial and Provident Society”. Even more wonderfully, the second article of the rules of an I&PS state that we:

“shall have regard to promoting the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being of the community, especially those who participate in the activities of the Co-operative”.

This seemed to fit our purpose nicely, and it gives us the space to be something quite different from a ‘limited company’.

Norwich CSA is based upon a vision of doing something really different-something not yet available in Norwich.

To help us develop that vision, we’re holding a visioning meeting at 7.30 next Wednesday (24th) in Room 5 at the Baptist Church on Duke Street. The meeting will be open to absolutely everyone with an idea about what the CSA should be, do or strive to achieve. The more people who come and contribute to this vision, the more fully the CSA will be able to meet the desires of our community. As Tully said: “Please do come along- and bring your wildest dreams with you.”

Incidentally: if you’ve heard of the CSA and would like to buy our veg but haven’t yet told us so, you can
sign up quickly and easily.

On Tuesday night our focus shifted as the Growing and Environment group met. We discussed lots of intricacies, but the big excitement of the night was Jason (a local forester) unveiling his tree-planting plan. We’ve room at the CSA site for an astonishing 1,100 trees- which will provide vital functions to the CSA: acting as windbreaks and shelter belts, hedging and bugbanks (giving home to beneficial insects); as well as giving us wood from coppicing, willow for courses and crafts and of course fruit for our members- all whilst making the place look pretty & being good for wildlife.

Jason has chosen the tree species with care- selecting mostly native trees which will do well in the area, but also with an eye to climate change: our native oaks and beeches are unlikely to thrive as the climate changes.

Which brings us neatly back to our reasons for developing a CSA. Local food requires less transport and packaging. Organic growing methods lock up carbon instead of emitting it.

A CSA lets us think in new ways about our land and food and the way we work with both. As just one example of what we can achieve by thinking differently: our hedge will lock up around 7 tonnnes of CO2 in its lifetime- but cutting and maintaining it by tractor would emit 3-4 tonnes. So we plan to do it by hand. That in turn gives us the opportunity to run courses in the traditional skill of hedge-laying.

After our visioning evening, the next big event will be on the weekend of 29th and 30th January (Just in time for Bridgid’s Day) when we will all gather at the Farm in Postwick to plant our trees. All 1,100 of them. So you’ll understand when I say we’re hoping that you all join in! You can tell us you’d like to be involved here, which will help us in planning the weekend. Please do come along, we think it will be a wonderful celebration of everything we’ve achieved so far and an opportunity to look forward to all our future successes.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Lessons in Reskilling

The idea behind the Reskilling group is that there are many things that are currently done for us in our industrialised world that we will have to learn to do again when oil starts becoming more scarce. So rather than waiting for the crunch point where we suddenly have to work out how to make ourselves clothes, soap, chairs etc a group of us decided we wanted to learn now.

This is the main 'transition' reason for the Reskilling group, but the other reasons are that making things is brilliant fun, you appreciate things so much more when you make them yourself and it's often much cheaper.

The Reskilling group has been a great, friendly and fun transition group. We have had trips to the weird and wonderful wood fair, learnt to make rag rugs, done loads of knitting, swapped lots of clothes and talked about all kinds of exciting skills. It has had quite a textiles theme recently as we had enthusiasm for it in the group and we were trying to run 'themed' groups of workshops and textiles was the one we decided to start with.

All of the reskillers tend to do crafty, producing kinds of things at home anyway, but it is much more fun (and easier) to do things together and learn from others.

Lesson 1 - One important thing that I have discovered from being part of the Reskilling group is that it is no use trying to organise things for other people. Do not try and guess what other people are interested in and organise something for them. It doesn't work. The thing to do is to organise something for yourself. If a few of you want to learn a certain skill or just want to make stuff (like jam) together, then if you organise it and invite others along it cannot fail! Why? Well because even if no-one else turns up you are going to enjoy yourselves and also putting your energy into things you are not enthusiastic about is tiring.

So there you go that is my skill suggestion for this month - learn the art of only organising things that you want to do whether anyone else comes or not!

So if anyone fancies making chutney soon I was going to give this new skill a go with some apple and chestnut chutney so any veterans/ enthusiasts that want to come and help then just let me know!

Photos: mending some clothes after a clothes swap (Helen), taking up some trousers (Elena), a rag bag made in a reskilling session and lots of preserves I have made recently.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Low Carbon Cookbook - Vegetable Kingdom

The cookbook is a new working project. It began with the "low carbon snacks" for TN's Anniversary party in 2009 and the food sharing at the Transition Circles (most of the cooks and writers have either been part of TN2 or are Carbon Conversations facilitators - or both). In our first meeting this September we mapped the territory we would cover – the ecological "deconstruction" of dishes we'd brought. In October we mapped the construction of the book. We decided we would follow the seasons during the course of a year, cataloguing what came and went through our larders and kitchens, what plants we grew, what wild things we foraged, our most nourishing and lovely meals.

Apart from giving a carbon readout of every dish, the book's function is also to collate and cohere the independent food producers and sellers in and around Norwich, including the CSA (which Elena is writing about on Thursday) and the bakers working with the Milling Project, like Steve Winter of Dozen. We’re going to chart their inter-relationships, with ourselves and within the city. We’re planning to create a Norwich-based workbook that can be copied by other Transition initiatives.

Key to this project is the reestablishment of our proper relationship with food, with vegetables in particular. Vegetables lead us back to right relation with the earth, whether you grow your own, buy a veg box or go into the markets and farm stores that sell local produce.

Eating low-carbon means procuring your food in a very different way. You have to know where to go. To a bunch of outlets, not just one. It’s an absorbing task. The attention you pay goes deep and wide. You have to be aware of transport (yours and the food's), of packaging and become keen to the relationships with people. The people you don’t see who grow the food and process it and the people you do, who sell it. You become aware how small producers and local businesses depend on the loyalty and the engagement of their customers.

“Regular customers are what keeps this place functioning. They are the key drivers. You can’t compete with prices, with fruit for example, but you can with locally grown veg. It's about freshness because you are buying direct. "

I’m talking with Robert who runs Folland Organics in Norwich Market. We’re standing in a quiet moment on Saturday surrounded by local mushrooms, Demeter Seeds, Fairtrade bananas, long bunches of celery, dark brassicas, scented apples, skinny new leeks, squashes of all colours and sizes. Looking at the gnarly parsnips and celeriac in their square baskets you know winter is coming. Already your focus is turning to the deeper darker dishes. Soups and stews.

Robert buys his organic veg from three main sources in Norfolk: a smallholding in Greshams, established on the principles of community exchange, Grahame and Lizzie Hughes (founders of Eostre Organics) in Bunwell, and the biodynamic farming community of Thornage Hall where Robert, also a musician, plays piano for eurythmic classes.

The edge he has lies in the proximity of these suppliers. it means leaves can be cut at the end of the day and by morning they are on the stall. “People who are using it are using it with enthusiasm. You have to fan the flames."

This is the key really. Big stores can have the dazzle and the PR but they don’t hold a connection with place and people, with the time of year, with the heart of things.

“The important thing is the link that is being made. If there are not places like this where can people get their organic stuff? Supermarkets. You’ve got a quality issue. They are already bored with it."

Robert has a theory about this unsustainable food systems we've been caught up in: "Everything is going faster and faster. In the end the supermarkets will float off and people will fall to the bottom. You always have to run to catch up with them and then one day you can’t catch up with them, and they’ll realise people aren’t with them anymore. It’s important to do something else."

Brought up alongside Portobello Market in London, I always bought my fruit and veg from stalls. I don’t jibe with perfectly sorted produce on trays, swathed in plastic, that seems to have no relationship with the outside world. So when I moved to East Anglia and walked into the then-steaming labyrinth of Norwich Market I felt at home. The stamping of feet in the cold, mugs of tea alongside the till, the starlings stealing crumbs from the cafes, the banter and the exchange. The stall was then run by the cooperative Eostre who started it up in 2003. At the time it was the country's only 6 day a week organic market stall and one of the only places in the UK outside the supermarkets (and very few of them stocked them) that one could buy organic Fairtrade bananas. I regularly bought fairtrade coffee and secondhand books from the market, and a big bag of fruit and veg, stuff I had never even seen in London, like giant sweet lemons. Later when Eostre folded it was taken over by Salle Organics, and then by Robert who had worked on the stall in its early days. "It’s come full circle," he says, smiling, and puts my biodynamic apples in a paper bag.

When the market was revamped two years ago many of the stallholders suffered. People didn’t approve of the Council's redesign, the flow-through was altered due to the repositioning of busy traders like the keycutters (who once formed the back row) and a change in bus routes. The dynamic shifted. But Robert is still there and it's a really good stall. A gem that needs to be treasured. Keeping the supply chains close to home is what creates resilience in communities. The money that goes into the stall stays within the circle of people that Robert trades with. It doesn’t flow out into the insatiable maw of the global food machine. And somewhere inside, where everything matters, it makes sense of the world.

Folland Organics is at 30/31 Norwich Market. Inquiries to robert.folland@phonecoop.coop. The Low Carbon Cookbook's third meeting is on 23 November at 7pm. Inner Space, Maud Gray Court, St Benedict's St. Bring ingredients to make a meal.

Monday 15 November 2010

Transition Themes Week: Communications

Welcome to our first Transition Themes Week! We'll be running this week most months, to give you an insider peek at what goes on behind the scenes in some of the Transition Norwich meetings and projects - from neighbourhood groups like NR3 and Transition Circle Hethersett, to theme groups such as Reskilling, working groups like Communications and Permaculture, projects such as the CSA and the Low Carbon Cookbook, opening to include our outreach connections in the city as well as the Transition movement on a regional, national and international level. We'll be looking at some of those 63 Patterns or Ingredients that are being discussed interactively on http://www.transitionculture.org/ at the moment. Today to kick off the series we're looking at the genesis of the hub group, Communications . . .

The very first meeting I went to in TN was a Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Wellbeing gathering at the Playhouse. It was packed (25 people) and everyone was talking at once. One voice was particularly strident: the Most Important Thing was Marketing. This voice was evangelical and fiery. We must go into the streets and spread the word! "We need editorial!" I chipped in, not sure whether to be alarmed or excited by all this passion and zeal. Chris intercepted the hubbub in his characteristic mild way: "We're thinking of forming a communications group." Afterwards I went up to him. "I'm in," I said.

The first communications meeting was held several weeks later at the same place and was very low key. We were 5 people and pragmatic. We had a website to set up, events and gatherings to organise, to make the most of the moment, the zeitgeist as Eileen put it. "Has anyone got a pen?" asked Tully. "I have," I said. "You can minute this," he told me. "We need a creative structure," I told everyone, "A co-ordinating editor and correspondents for all the groups. Like a beehive". And that was how it began. I had never taken notes for a meeting in my life, I had never worked on a website, used a googlegroup, hosted a stall, designed a newsletter, facilitated, blogged or Tweeted. I was an ex-journalist from another era. One thing I knew though: I knew the value of editorial. I knew that the low-carbon world we were all mad keen to manifest could not just be transmitted as marketing or information, by workshops or reports or strategies for behaviour change.

Modern communication tools are useful, but they do not tell the whole story. We are not people of the left brain only: we are creatures of sense and sensuality, imaginative, intuitive, creative, and some things about life, about downshifting, you can't put into a memo or a Surveymonkey. To create a real and vibrant culture of powerdown we can't just communicate in that split second it takes to send an email. Or to be radically inspired by an idea in a meeting. We have to be able to pause in the middle of a sentence and talk about our experiences: Hang on a minute, let's look back at that track we just made. Was it the right one? How does it look? How does it feel? Is it beautiful? Where are we right now? Is this the place we meant to get to? And who are my companions?

In short we have to work. We have to work with the material at hand.

Communication is many things in Transition: bulletins, meetings, calendars, press releases, parties, events, stalls, emails. It's working till 4am with Andy on this poster we designed for the First Anniversary celebration. It's taking a branch of bay leaves to the Heart and Soul group and speaking about its oracular qualities to a circle of strangers; it's talking on BBC Radio Suffolk at 7.20am about showing The End of Suburbia ("We love our cars," said the rush hour presenter, "What do you say to that?"); it's standing up in front of a crowded room without notes and encouraging everyone to take part in the new move of Transition 2.0. A call to arms. "I've just been reading a story to some children," I said. "It's called the Bear Hunt."

You can't go over it. You can't go under it. You've got to go through it.

Two years later Communications is working on this post this frosty morning, knowing my fellow bloggers are going to be writing after me this week - cataloguing the shifting and changing configurations of people that make up a Transition initiative. What it's like to go through this process, the good stuff and the hard moments. The profit and the loss. Valuing everything. We're not scared.

Thanks to this technology, we've got a good archive stored up now, like so many shiny bottles of summer fruit in a larder, like honey in a hive. After several meetings in cafes and what seems like a thousand emails, that editorial structure finally took its place in the news blog. We're leaving a colourful track behind us, so others can follow. That's the most important thing about communication, as any writer will tell you. You're part of keeping a door open, a possibility, so the future can happen in the way in all in our hearts we would wish. Even if we never get to see it.

What a beautiful day!

Poster for TN First Anniversary Party by Andy Croft: Egmont russet apple twigs from Powerdown (Feb 3) on the TN blog; banner for the May Bulletin on the Stranger's Circle by Mark Watson;; TN's Twitter logo.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Darkling Thrush

Some things you can't capture in a photograph in a time of fall: the scent of woodsmoke, the perfume of a quince, the sound of the sea roaring in the darkness, a sky with bright constellations, the knowledge that once this was the time of the reed, now sere in the marshes, which was gathered to thatch the rooves of houses. A time of shelter from the storm and of waiting.

It was a windy week: our tent blew down, our garden haven, and so I knew late autumn had arrived. I put my hand on the glass roof at 2am and felt the coming of ice. We ran into the darkness and fetched all the tender plants into the house. It's the bletting time: a time you wait for the hips and sloes and medlars to begin their sweet collapse. It's a time you wait inside as dusk comes and are sometimes surprised by the sound of a bird singing.

I found this young thrush in the road. He was still warm, without a mark on him. Newminted from a spring nest in a summer hedgerow. I held him for a moment and laid him under a blackthorn full of sloes. Two long-tailed tits came and danced around us.

That's something else you can't photograph. The pain in your heart when something is gone. A beautiful singer who won't sing his mistle song, his great joyful sound in a time of elegy and loss in the woods. And Winter's dregs make desolate/The weakening eye of day. In a land where thrushes are fast disappearing. In a world that is fast losing its songbirds and its poets. On a day when you struggle to pick up the camera and go into the lane and picture the colours and shapes of those things you write . . . . and yet you go. Because something inside you won't stop loving the world, no matter what weather comes. It's a covenant we made with the earth when we came here, a long time ago.

Bird in the hand; rosehips in the lane; Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

Saturday 13 November 2010

Some difficulties of being 'In Transition'

This lovely picture is of the Blickling Estate, near Aylsham. A couple of weekends ago when my mum came to visit me we decided to go there for a day out. However, I had a grand plan of only driving to Wroxham then getting the Bure Valley railway to Aylsham and back, which would be more fun and lower carbon. Unfortunately as I had been too busy to check the times online we missed the first train by 10 minutes and the next one wasnt for another 2hrs. So that lovely plan was thwarted and we had to drive all the way, which admittedly was easier in some ways - our current public transport system is not particularly convenient. But that in itself is frustrating.

My other transport related irritation recently is that every book/ website/ leaflet written about cycling in Norfolk assumes that you are going to have a car to drive to the start of your cycle ride. Now I don't have a car and am quite happy cycling from Norwich, but I wouldn't mind a nice 'cycle rides from Norwich' leaflet...

Generally I think that pink and orange clash hideously, but nature has managed to create a very attractive pink and orange berry to confound me. Spindle is a wonderful plant and it's easy to spot the striking berries in the hedgerows at this time of year.

I have been meaning to gen up on edible mushrooms for sometime now and had great intentions of doing some foraging this year, but I turned out to be too busy starting new jobs. So as most of them only occur for a couple of months a year I will now have to wait 10 months before actually making a start on befriending fungi.

However after all of this ranting and moaning I would like to add that - as on my walk on the Norfolk coast on wednesday - there are rainbows everywhere in life! So don't give up on that pot of gold...

Photos: Blickling estate, the tour of Britain team cars on Grapes Hill, a spindle berry at Blickling, some fungi at Minsmere and a rainbow near Cromer.

Friday 12 November 2010

My Armistice Day

Featuring photos from my walk along Mousehold Ave and Gilman Road on a very windy, rainy Armistice day and a poem that I wrote this week reflecting on the need for a transition in our territorial, competitive culture and on inter-personal communications generally - including my own...

Leaves in Autumn

A bonfire of colour in the trees
The heralding of a turning tide?
A bonfire of vanities is what we need
Otherwise, otherwise...

Are WE those trees?
Or are we branches?
Or are we leaves?
Are some of us nuts?
Or maybe seeds?
And who's to judge?
And who lets be?

Watch who wields an axe,
Careful more, an axe unseen,
The rasping of a saw,
Unkindness in asides,
Assumptions, judgements, more,
How to deal with "difficult people",
Whisperings of war...
Paint them into corners,
If they don't reach for the door,
Gather all your forces,
And bash them to the floor.

The bitterness on my own lips,
Do I swallow and ignore?

Are the sufferings of someone else
An irritation to endure?
Another person's weakness
A reason to abuse them more?
Another's gifts or fortunes
A reason to abhor?
How to deal with your nemesis
Without a bloody war?

I ask myself:
Whose work will I do for what and why?
And who lays down my law?

Pics: Head on collision - crashed cars on a transporter on Mousehold Avenue,
'Slow' before the corner on Gilman Road

Thursday 11 November 2010

Autumn - A rotting time of year

At this time of year, nature gives us a lesson in recycling. All those leaves falling to the ground are stores of nutrients being returned to the earth to be slowly released to feed the seedlings that will grow next year. The fungi that work unseen to break down dead wood, now send up their fruiting bodies.

Nothing is wasted and the cycle can continue for ever - evolving over time to become more sophisticated. We can learn a lot from trees!

Autumn is also a time of harvest and I'm still munching my way through a stock of apples and pears.

On cold nights I shall be thinking about the hedgehog that nested in my flower bed. This did not seem very secure or dry so I have made a cover for his nest and packed it with extra leaves. I look forward to seeing him in the spring!

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Elegy in a City Graveyard

There's something indefinably elegaic about an English churchyard in the autumn.  The peaceful drift of falling leaves, like swirling flakes of burnished metal.  The gentle wind through naked branches, the distant call of birds.  The colours a mark of the end of the summer; the gravestones a solemn reminders of our own mortality.

Not that the girls give a monkeys about any of that.  What they want to do is jump in the fallen leaves and kick them all over the place!

Being out and about in the autumn is one of the great treats of living in England, and the seaside in autumn, to my mind, is far more beautiful than in the height of the summer. Wrapped up warm, you can't beat the bracing winds, gorgeous waves, fabulous cloud formations.  And lovely chips too!

(pics: Bowthorpe Cemetary, Norwich.  Southwold, Suffolk)

Tuesday 9 November 2010

The Cosmos is Still Here

So far this Autumn there have been no frosts and some of the flowers we take for granted in the summer are still out as I write on this blustery, wet November day.

In the house: This passionflower (Passiflora gracilis) is the only annual in the genus. Normally the green fruit, which you can see forming here, turns a beautiful bright orange. It's late this year, so I'll have to wait and see.

In the garden: The Cosmos is still out. It's been flowering for months, alongside Mexican wild marigolds (Cempoalxochitl - flower of the dead).

In the field: Corn Marigold. Small November suns. Soon the farmer will put sheep in this field and the marigolds will disappear by the end of the day.

In the wild: Yarrow (in front) and Wild Carrot (behind). Daucus carota is the ancestor of our familiar vegetable. When the elegant flowers with their bloodred central spot turn to seed, they take on the appearance of birds' nests. A true beauty.

Coming home: Charlotte carrying a huge bunch of spinach from our neighbour David, who picked the leaves from his garden. "Those Cosmos will turn black when the first frosts come," he said. "Then you'll know what to do with them."

Pics: All taken 9 November 2010 by Mark Watson