Monday 31 October 2011

The goose is getting fat...

Approaching the end of October, you can't miss the fact that the shops are already gearing up for Christmas - the Chapelfield lights are "officially" turned on this week, Thursday I think, to coincide with late night shopping. And between now and 25th December, we, of course, have two other important festivals - Halloween and Bonfire Night. The shop windows are already jostling each other to fill up the space with plastic pumpkins and fake fangs, or fireworks and boxes of toffee, or the usual seasonal fare of snowflakes and presents. It's all crept up on us, I think, the association of these traditional festivals with unending amounts of plastic stuff and the unrelenting push to buy things.

We were up at Bewilderwood with the girls yesterday, and they had some wonderful real pumpkin lanterns, and jam-jars with tea-lights in, dotted around the trees. We made lanterns out of willow and tissue paper - very tricky if you've never done anything like that before. We went home before the sunset parade - it was cold and we were all hungry - but I imagine it must have been magical amongst the trees. OK, Bewilderwood isn't the cheapest day out, but they'd clearly thought hard about what they wanted to do for Halloween.

Tully wrote a wonderful piece about Bonfire Night a while back, and it's well worth reading in the run up to next weekend's public firework displays. I do love fireworks - I know they're probably not environmentally sound - and I love a good bonfire. Being something of a hippie at heart, watching fireworks always reminds me how lucky we are to be able to watch what are essentially controlled explosions safely, unlike so many people throughout the world and throughout history, for whom a skyburst display like that would be something to fear and hide from during all the wars that have been fought since gunpowder was invented.

Now, Christmas - can I offer one suggestion for all those thinking about Christmas shopping? Ask people what they want. Don't wander into a store and buy whatever's on special offer. Your recipient probably won't really, really want a Simpsons' mug and coaster set, or a packaged mortar and pestle set with authentic chinese spices. If they did, they'd probably already have them. If they do harbour a secret unrequited wish to drink coffee out of Homer's head, then here is your opportunity to find out and get them that dearest wish. But ask first.

And can I also suggest that, in return, if someone asks you what you want, tell them straight. Don't pretend you don't want anything and then be offended if they either get you exactly that or you find yourself grinding chinese spices by new year. Of course, if you genuinely don't want anything, say so. And make sure they know you mean it.

You might just get your best present ever.

Sunday 30 October 2011

modal shifts of the third kind

Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed that an ultimate freedom was that no citizen should ever need to travel on a bus.

In cities like Norwich, buses - after walking and cycling - are what keeps it from entering total gridlock. Even with only handfuls of people on them, buses are big carbon-savers compared to private cars, and they save oodles of road space. The bus shown here - the No.25 which serves UEA and the train station - is the most frequent service in Norwich, and by a strange quirk of history, travels along what used to be Colonel Unthank's bridleway - now known as the Unthank Road.

Over long distances buses, and their cousins the coaches, are even better than the train for carbon emissions per person. According to the Department of Transport, the CO2 emissions per person for a journey from London to Manchester are as follows:

car : 36.6 kg
train: 5.2 kg
coach:4.3 kg

If you traveled by plane, that figure would be a massive 62kg per passenger. Figures assume the average car carrying 1.6 people, and the average coachload of 40 people.

So why aren't more people using the humble bus? In 2005 the then government introduced free bus travel for those of pensionable age and some other concessionary groups. It immediately increased bus patronage around the country, and was later extended to include cross-country travel. However, it became apparent quite quickly that the formula for calculating how the government reimbursed local authorities for running these schemes meant that most authorities had significant shortfalls. In Norfolk this shortfall is about £4.5 million (per year), with 180,000 people (passholders) eligible to use the scheme. It is critical in rural areas where the scheme has given new freedoms for non-car owners to travel around.

Now here follows a completely upfront and brazen replication of a County Council petition! The County Council is gathering names on a petition to present to the government in it's effort to rectify this big anomaly in funding - i.e. please Mr. Cameron, cough up the money you should be paying to enable us to continue running this bus subsidy. You can sign the petition here .

This is somewhat unusual I know, for the blog to be supporting the County Council, but in this case we are totally aligned in what we would like to see happen.

Done. So now I am off on my bike to catch the train!

Saturday 29 October 2011

Life Preserving

In the final instalment of this week's tales from the storeroom, Adrienne Campbell from Transition Lewes talks about her passion for preserving. This month Adrienne embarked on becoming a locavore in East Sussex which included making her own salt as well as hosting a discussion on Food Storage. Do check out her Social Reporting post this week on permaculture, We are the Earth's immune response.

Boy, I’ve been working hard! I’m spending all my spare moments storing food for the winter. All the apples, pears, plums and quinces from the allotment, the runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes, onions, beetroots, and other people’s windfalls too, as well as foraged berries, are being wrapped, chopped, boiled, pickled, jammed, brewed, frozen and stored away for the winter months. Why? Perhaps because it’s been an abundant harvest, perhaps because I’ve reached a new level of competence/obsession. It’s extreme.

As I spend yet another evening with my face over splattering vats of vinegar, I often ask myself whether it’s worth it. I can pop down to the shops and buy this stuff, for not much more than it costs me. Certainly, if you build in my time, it’s not worth it at all. So what’s it about? Part of me wants to develop skills that I feel we’re going to need some time soon. Part of me is almost invoking the spirit of my pre-supermarket forebears, who had to do this to alleviate winter food boredom, and I can also feel their joy and gratitude for the food that sustains our lives.

But mainly, increasingly, I want to preserve food for its own sake. As we live more and more from the food I grow on the allotment I can feel in advance the taste of sunshine in the autumn raspberries taken from the freezer in February. I can taste the summer echo in my tomato pickle eaten with a root stew in March. The damson jam will be brilliant on hot toast on a cold day. And of course some of it will go as presents.

Really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Next year I’ll just have to make sure I set aside time in September to focus on preserving, just as I prioritized vegetable growing in March and April this year and bees in May and June.

Such deep pleasure, even just in anticipation! Is it possible that by simplifying we are inviting more abundance and happiness? It’s all a great mystery.

Photos: Plumpton Mill; Apples by MG Montoya.

Friday 28 October 2011

Mediterranean Tomato and Red Pepper Tart

I tend to find that tomatoes all ripen at once, making it a race against time to harvest before the rot sets in, or the bugs and slugs get them. But what to do with the glut of tomatoes?

Here's a recipe for a Mediterranean Tart that R makes - it's gorgeous! I think it was originally from cooking and Canaries hero, Delia Smith's How to Cook Book Three. Bon Appetit!

Make a pastry case (there are lots of recipes online - try BBC Good Food's site) - work some strong cheese into it for extra flavour. Prebake the case in the oven at 180*C for about 20 mins and then allow to cool.

For the filling, you'll need:

12 oz of ripe tomatoes
Four large red peppers
A large clove of garlic
Sprinkle of mixed herbs
2 large egg yolks and 2 large eggs
black pepper

1. Skin the tomatoes by placing them in boiling water for 30-60 seconds. Remove them from the water and the skins should slide off easily.
2. Roast the peppers and garlic in the oven at the same temperature as the pastry for 50 mins.
3. Once they're cool, blend with the tomatoes until smooth.
4. Whisk the eggs and egg yolks together, then stir in the tomato and pepper mix, along with a tablespoon of olive oil.
5. Turn the oven up to 190*C and bake for 35 mins, or until the filling has set in the middle.


Thursday 27 October 2011

Preserving the abundance

We have been finding ways of preserving our produce to see us through the winter months and hungry gaps for centuries, but for many of us, this age old practice only turns us to making jams, chutneys and pickles. Although these are all wonderful ways of preserving and have there place in most peoples diets, there are many other exciting ways of preserving produce at this abundant time of year, none more so rewarding than lacto-fermentation!

My kitchen has turned into an edible science lab lately, as I have been experimenting with lots of different methods of lacto-fermentation. These methods have formed traditions in many countries where they have kept touch with using lactic acid to avoid putrification and develop nutritional enzymes to keep them healthy throughout the winter. The simple act of using salt, water and spices to keep beans, root veg and aliums has been somewhat lost in our present culture of pasteurizing everything. I have been making sauerkrauts for a couple of years now, and eat it everyday. I am overjoyed at the fact I am getting lovely big hard cabbages from Norwich FarmShare now, which means lots of kraut making! It is so easy to do, all you need is a bit of arm strength and a good strong rolling pin or mallet to pound your cabbages to get their juices releasing!

You can add any hard vegetables into your kraut: beetroot,carrot, squash, turnip, onions. Try also adding ginger,garlic, juniper berries, fennel seeds, caraway, dill seeds, celery seeds, cumin,chillis… be creative and come up with your own variations. I love to mix redand white cabbage for a ‘pink’ kraut, and add fennel seeds for a mild tangy mix, leaving it for about a week to ferment. The longer you leave your kraut,the stronger it becomes, so taste it every few days to see how you prefer. There are some great books on fermentation, such as Wild Fermentation by Sandor Elliz Katz and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Sally Fallon is a huge proponent of lacto-fermentaion in her book and for good reasons:
The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.
Here is my basic recipe for sauerkraut:

1 large white cabbage
(or half each of red and white cabbage)
1-2 tbsp sea salt

Firstly, remove the outer leaves from the cabbage andset aside. I like to grate my cabbage using the food processor, as it releasesmore juices, but you can finely slice it by hand or grate using a hand graterif you like. Put the grated cabbage into a big bowl, and sprinkle with salt,mixing well with your hands. Add any other spices or seeds at this stage.
Using a strong implement, (a rolling pin is ideal) start to bash the cabbage to bruise the skin and release the juices.

You need to keep going until the juices come above the cabbage when you push itdown. Don’t be tempted to rush this part.. it’s crucial to the success of yourkraut!

When you are happy with the amount of juice comingfrom your cabbage, pack it into your sterile container of choice. A large roundpot or jar works well. You need something which you can fit something smallerinside to weigh the kraut down. Pack the cabbage in tight, pushing it down sothat the juices rise up above the cabbage, then place the outer leaves ontop,covering it all and up the edges. Place your weight ontop of the leaves, thecover everything with a clean towel.

Check your kraut every day, making sure that thecabbage is not exposed to air, and the juices are staying above the cabbage.The juice should increase as time goes on. Taste it after 3 days; it shouldtaste mildly tangy. If so, you can eat it then, or carry on fermenting it for aweek or more for a stronger kraut. Once ready, transfer into sterile jars and keep in the fridge tostop the fermenting process.

I am also experimenting with making lacto-fermented fruit chutneys using the whey, which the results are soon to be seen! All of my experimenting will be going to good use as I am co-teaching some 'fermentation masterclasses' this winter with another raw-food chef in Sussex, and I will be teaching some here in Norwich in the future too. I shall be back with results of my latest experiments, until then have fun with lacto-fermentation, dare I say it, it's addictive!

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Winter stores

There is good news and bad harvest news this year in Little Melton. The good news is that growing conditions were generally good and that those with enough water butts to have seen them through the dry patches have good stores of potatoes and carrots.

The bad news is that the Leek Moth has arrived. Up to now, I always thought that Leeks were indestructible and could be relied upon to feed us from October to March – though some members of the family have mutinied in the depths of winter at the sight of yet another leek in cheese sauce.

However it seems that the Leek Moth is flying up from the south, presumably as a result of warmer conditions -though apparently it was undeterred by last year’s cold winter. So it looks like leeks are going to have to join the carrots under the protection of Environmesh. There is something of an irony in gardening organically but being dependent on plastic mesh to keep the crops alive!

Not being fond of spending time in the kitchen, I am concentrating on extending the availability of fresh foods and this year extended the tomato season by growing some both inside and outside the greenhouse. When the indoor tomatoes were over I moved the outdoor ones inside (with assistance!) and they are still cropping well.

My vegetable collaborator Jane introduced me to some squash seeds and Borlotti bean seeds and the harvests from these are all waiting for colder weather to be eaten – the Jumbo Pink Banana squash (pictured nestling amongst the potato sacks) should feed at least 10!

Other plans to extend the veg season include winter salad and winter onions which I’m growing for the first time this year.

One way to deal with excess apple crops is to arrange a communal pressing and then sell the juice to raise funds for village projects – the picture shows bottles produced in aid of the Little Melton church building repairs. Generally it has been an excellent year in the garden and we have been largely self-sufficient in fruit and veg since mid May when the first potatoes and carrots grown in movable pots were ready and the cucumbers started a record year that has kept half the village supplied.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Apple Time: Eaters, Cookers and Storers

October is apple time and all over the UK Transitioners are engaged in co-operative fruit swaps, apple pressing and cider making, as well as rediscovering which local varieties flourish at different times. Norwich was once known as the city of orchards and famous for its apples and pears. Bee Springwood from Thorpe St Andrew where there are still remnants of these apple groves (originally for mistletoe), shares her tips for storing our favourite native fruit.

Back from Hereford county awash with apples, I’m making a note of how to store our own mixed harvest... Our beautiful unnamed very local cooker is usually ready at Equinox. The high winds saw a lot of windfalls, and small remaining crop. I need to learn how to graft the dear old tree, now ailing, onto new root stock. It is a Bramley cross of some sort: pale green-gold with thin skin, sweet as can be and instantly fluffy on cooking, it's getting too old to crop well. There has been enough to share with neighbours, make some batches of apple and blackberry crumbles, (no sugar in the fruit, just cloves, and add cinnamon and some soft brown sugar to the oat topping) and some chutneys. The chutney can be a good way of using up the last of the runner beans, baby courgettes, all the odds and ends you have to bring in before the frost gets them. Then we have a stored “drawerful” for the winter.

While I process and store the cookers for later, we keep up with the eaters. These come in a pleasant Mexican wave from late August to November, starting with a crisp sweet sharp yellow and red striped delight, on to the Cox, which have done abnormally well, Spartans, and finally the Golden Delicious in November when the apples are really GOLDEN and therefore delicious indeed, full of sweetness not dull green starch.

We store them all in our shed, wrapped in zig-zag folds of paper to keep separate, in an old Liden solid wood chest of drawers. This keeps them out of harm's way for the ingenious Houdini rats, (better at getting in than out!) and it's easy to pull out a drawer with each variety to bring some indoors each week. The scent of them coming in from outdoors in midwinter is so sweet. Every month I check each tray to remove the mouldy ones, but the harvest lasts through till Easter time, or the first serious warm spell this way. For the cookers it saves on freezer space and prep time.

I have also been learning (from the Elliots of how to properly press them to make delightful apple juice, but there’s not enough to warrant the effort this year. That would be brilliant for all the small ones I fail to thin out on our abundant eater trees. Next year may be time for a collective investment in a press for Norwich Farm Share maybe? Bee Springwood

Photos: golden delicious on the tree; drawers full of saved green cookers and red Cox eaters

Monday 24 October 2011

What's in Store for 2012?

"The question I want to ask is: do we have a National Store?" asked Lady Cranbrook. "That’s one question I can answer," Lord Deben laughed. "No, there isn't one." (from Reclaiming the Field)

I am not by nature a squirrel. I don’t get a big feeling for hoarding or collecting stuff (though I do, like many coastline dwellers, have a habit of pocketing stones and quirky things from the beach). And yet this is the time when it is smart to be thinking ahead and stocking up with summer's abundance. Some wise Transitioners have been at this for months: plaiting onions, bottling raspberries, cooking up vats of green tomato chutney and damson jam, drying rosehips and borlotti beans. Along their hallways and windowsills sit pumpkins of various colours and sizes, seeds carefully collected in a drawer, dried herbs and chillies swinging from the ceiling.

In TN's Low Carbon Cookbook discussions the Resilent Larder is a prime focus. Some of us cottage-dwellers are lucky to have this key cool space, others find chests-of-drawers in garden sheds, extra cupboard space in their downshift kitchens, drawers under beds. We don't depend on huge freezers to store glut produce, but find out ways of keeping things that can be bottled and dried for the winter months.

The modern industrial world lives and eats at a just-in-time delivery pace. In cities and towns people can dash out anytime to supermarkets where fridges hum perpetually and everything is kept wrapped and irradiated and gassed, chock full of palm oil and preservatives so it won’t spoil. Winter and summer are identical when you can ship produce from anywhere in the world. You can eat strawberries and French beans anytime of the year.

But to eat seasonally, locally, ethically, with an eye to peak oil and carbon reduction you have to rediscover how to store up your treasures on earth: find out for example that strawberries are not here forever, that they appear deliciously for these hot midsummer weeks only. And those greengages that are dripping from the tree in July and buzzing with wasps will glisten like gold and taste like manna on a cold January day. So you learn things your grandmother should have taught you: how to make jam, how to store apples, how to make sauerkraut and quince paste, what to do with chestnuts. You learn to appreciate what you have now, and keep some for later. Just like life.

It’s a whole different relationship with the world. Brought up in a city neighbourhood of delicatessens and street markets I learned to cook supper with stuff I picked up on the way home from work. I am a grazer and gleaner by nature, an opportunist who loves surprises. Ah, that looks good. Now when I look at my larder I can see the resilience factor at work in spite of myself. We are not as well-stocked as Nick, who turns everything into his garden into a pickle or wine, or as thorough as Graham and Nicky Eliott who teach classes on preserving in their organic smallholding in the Waveney Valley (last one on November 5).

But you can chart that shift. It’s packed to the gunnels: shelves of wild cherry, sea buckthorn and marigold tincture, dried elderberries and lemon balm leaves, beetroot relish and blackcurrant jam, on the floor sit two sacks of potatoes (Marion's and Malcolm’s) and several trays of apples (from our Abundance tables at Sustainable Bungay) alongside sacks of millet and rice flakes and sweet jars of rice and beans (from Suma wholefood group). Outside there’s another cupboard of freegan groceries and a cache of acorns on the table I hope to turn into seriously survivalist flour with a recipe from Milly at the Transition Camp. A dormouse would be happy.

This week on the blog in celebration of Autumn we are sharing our tips and thoughts about the cheerful and resilient storing of food: harvesting and preserving, showing neat ways to keep native fruit and prepare dishes from seasonal veg by a Transition crew of growers and cooks. Some of this food is from our veg boxes, roadside stalls and gardens, others from our wild neighbourhoods. As the storm gathers outside we’re learning new attitudes to old ways, scouring our nearby hedgerows, collecting fruit from city trees. Learning to relish what we have and not let harvests rot or go to waste.

In October's Transition Newsletter the post that had twice as many clicks than any other was Who is Storing Now? by Eric Curren. It's the initial piece in the series The Happy Hoarder on Transition Voice that advised learning from the experts - from survivalist dried food producers to Mormons to US Transition groups like Grand Ronde Transition in Oregon who shot this video on three month food storage. On the Energy Bulletin amongst articles on peak oil and the #occupy movement an ex-newspaper editor from St Louis now living in Ireland makes hawthorn wine and jelly and reflects on old and modern ways of collecting food:
When we do things like this, we act as modern gleaners, the subculture of people who gathered the waste left behind after the harvest. Gleaners held an accepted place in most cultures, gathering grains in fields or rubbish in cities

Stand behind a restaurant or supermarket at night, or look at berry bushes or weed fringes in season, and you might see our gleaners at work – freegans, greens, preppers and itinerants of all kinds. They wear your old clothes, fix your old toaster, and eat the pre-sliced carrots that the supermarket keeps under plastic and argon. If we have resource shortages and mountains of rubbish outside our cities, it is because we don’t have more of them.
Time to get those bottles out.

Photos: Halloween pumpkin heads; with Daphne, Lesley and Eloise at the Sustainable Bungay Autumn Produce Swap at the Library Community Garden; local rosehips;
poster from Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I; dried field beans grown by William Hudson as part of TN's Beans, Oats and Bread project.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Facing Eviction at Grow Heathrow

In our series of occasional cross-posts from fellow Transition initiatives here is a news story from Transition Heathrow. In the last two years Grow Heathrow has cleared 30 tonnes of rubbish from a piece of derelict land (formally a market garden).and planted vegetables, fixed bikes and provided a community space. Now the owners want to evict them. This is their story and how we can help

On Thursday 17th November 2011 Transition Heathrow's squatted community garden project 'Grow Heathrow' will be heading back to court. The evictors, despite no support are continuing with a third attempt to remove us from the site. Encouragingly for us, the local community, the council and our local MP all want us to stay so that’s what we’re going to try and do.

Transition Heathrow was started to support the residents and communities who had been fighting the expansion of Heathrow airport for many years. Grow Heathrow; a community market garden and social space was established on a piece of derelict land right in the heart of Sipson; one of the villages to be completely tarmacced to make way for a third runway. The land had previously been problematic for the local community and was often a site of anti-social behaviour before it was virtually abandoned. Traditional Transition Towns often have a strong emphasis on growing your own food, so we decided to incorporate that with a squatted community space where people could come together, and spend time as a community. The site is directly in the path of the proposed 3rd runway and so everyday people are there it acts as a political statement which offers a positive alternative to the power structures that build runways on peoples homes for profit.

Over the past year and a half the site has been completely transformed into a thriving community hub and market garden that provides a space for the local community to come together again and rebuild after the blight the local people suffered from. The site in Sipson plays host to a wide range of free activities for residents which are sorely needed. On a more national level the site has also played host to many political gatherings for groups such as Climate Camp, Reclaim the Fields, The Transition Network, No Tar Sands network, The Kick Nuclear campaign and many more.

The upcoming possible eviction makes no sense. We have tried negotiating to come to some agreement from the start but they will now only let us speak to their lawyers. They have no plans for the land and as it is greenbelt land they can’t get planning permission to do anything. All that will happen is a return to a site where regular activities include car scrapping, car breaking and contamination of agricultural land. We will not let this happen!

What can people do to support us in the run up to court proceedings?

1. Sign the petition for court –

2. Send a supportive testimony to or to Grow Heathrow, Vineries Close, Sipson, West Drayton, UB7 0JG (Full list of statements so far found at

3. Follow us on Twitter @transheathrow. #defendGrowHrow

4. Get down to Uxbridge County Court for 9.30am on Thursday 17th November for a big show of support outside the court.

Joe Rake

(Joe Rake is a Transition Network Social Reporter - read his blogs on Transition Heathrow, Building Our Own Alternative Media and In Defence of Squatting here)

Photos: the GrowHeathrow greenhouses before and after Transition; Transition Heathrow

Friday 21 October 2011

Nice Work If You Can Get It

"Soon there'll be no jobs working for the Boss," Mark said to me at a One World Column meeting.

What I've realised this week as I engage in the topic of sustainable livelihoods is that it's not a simple matter. Jobs, for example, are not the same as livelihoods (see Rethink the idea of Jobs by Joanne Poyourow of Transition LA.)

I’ve spoken with fellow transitioners on the phone and at Green Drinks, followed the blog and paid attention to the unfolding Occupy movement. I even bumped into Richard who was installing solar pv's in a neighbouring village and read an interview saying 40% of bankers will lose their jobs.

"We used to install solar panels for people with an interest in environmental sustainability. Now the motivation is purely financial," Richard told me. I heard similar words from the vicar at Bungay's solar-powered Emmanuel church. People are doing it for money. Just business. As usual.

Context and Sustainability of Physical Matter
One thing came up repeatedly in the conversations: as individuals we can be dedicated to living an environmentally-friendly life, even run a local or home business with minimum carbon emissions and energy use on a day to day basis and provide work for people locally, like John. Yet every one of us in the UK and the West, works (or not) within the context of an oil-dependent, energy-intensive globalised system - however our money comes in, whether through a paid job, self-employment or benefits.

How long that system can be kept going (one meaning of sustainable) is debatable. But the physical fossil fuels it (and therefore we) have been depending on are finite and the main one, oil, which is embedded in all our goods and services, is peaking or has peaked. It’s downhill from now.

People and Social Sustainability
The theme on the Transition Network’s Social Reporting project this week is Diversity and Social Justice. In a comment on Kerry Lane’s excellent Helping Your Community Out First, fellow social reporter and smallholder Ann of Transition Bro Dyfi writes:

(It is) so easy to exclude all those who are working really long hours on tiny incomes, those who rather than jobs, have livelihoods, where a patchwork of jobs, skills and goods are traded to make a living, leaving little time or energy for community organisation…

…When a tenner a week makes a difference, that's what I call money poverty. It creates a level of ongoing insecurity which is exhausting, physically as well as emotionally. There are lots of us in this kind of situation, but mostly we go unnoticed until we become homeless, a situation we're only ever one rent raise away from.
This shows that when we’re looking at “sustainable livelihoods”, we’re also looking at social justice. And we’re back to context. There are lots of us in this situation. Most of the people I speak to in transition in fact.

Considering Ann’s words I see a direct link between the exhausting ongoing insecurity, and the tactics of ‘shock doctrine’ Chicago School-style economics, which underlie the present ideological ‘austerity measures’ and keep the illusion of economic growth going so an uberwealthy 1% can carry on landgrabbing and lording it over the rest of us.

Transition and me
So what about me? I'm looking for work. Work that, as the old economic system crumbles is the only kind of work that makes sense to me - helping to build a parallel infrastructure for the future with the underlying permaculture ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares. Some do this by growing food, setting up energy co-operatives or working with alternative currencies.

My skills work best in becoming our own media, which I spoke about in News From The Engine Room last week. I've worked with people all my life, helping them to make shifts in their personal and planetary lives. The challenge now is to do it within a new paradigm.

And to get paid for it.

Pics: Great Depression, taken from Rethink the idea of jobs by Joanne Poyourow; Earth Care, People Care, Fair Shares at Bungay Co-op Family Fun Day, August 2011

Thanks to Charlotte, Nick and Josiah, fellow transitioners with low incomes for vital in person and telephone conversations

Thursday 20 October 2011

Working lives

This less than inspiring photo shows the broadband connection that makes it possible for me to work from home but write computer systems for clients in Australia.

The technology means that a relatively small consumption of electricity provides employment for 4 people - one of whom cycles to my house each day to work, the others drive relatively short distances. My staff spend some money in the village shop and I can offer flexible hours to a single mother.

Working from home means that 4 people (and the cat) are kept warm all winter by one small wood burner fuelled mainly by discarded wood. The computer hardware has a long life, we upgrade components to avoid complete replacement and anything that becomes too old for our use finds a new life with Recycle PC. So those are the good parts but is it a sustainable way to earn a living?

Computers use Rare Earth minerals, some of which have known reserves of only a few years – the industry is going to have to get a lot better at recycling. But the big question is - how do our clients earn their money? We are not sustainable if they are not. Our clients are very diverse, some offer education, some provide services others supply and fit items – a pretty average mix and fortunately none of them is involved in anything really unsustainable. But the clients in turn are dependent on people to buy their services and the same is true for anyone who provides a service to the general public. We are all part of the same system and have to take some responsibility for the whole. Even TN’s Farmshare scheme is dependent on people to earn money to pay for their veg boxes.

The computer industry has its good and bad points – the Internet has enabled the sharing of knowledge and ideas and is heavily used by Transition – yet much of the structure of the internet is funded by advertising, often promoting the worst forms of unnecessary consumption.

We can’t change the system overnight but we can all nudge things in the right direction through the choices that we make every day. Since we are all dependent on each other, all those nudges should create an accelerating , virtuous cycle. I hope!

Wednesday 19 October 2011

What Do You Do? Writing on the Edge

We don’t talk much about what we do for a living in Transition. So today I was going to write about the “real world” work some of my fellow Transitioners are engaged in, about being a cook, or market gardener or librarian. Then I thought: why am I not writing about myself trying to make a sustainable livelihood from writing?

Writing, as a method, is rarely sustainable, no matter how right on you are. Producing books means taking down forests, working as a journalist means being financed by corporate advertising. Even this blog is invisibly dependent on vast machines fuelled by American coal. Your hands are dirty as soon as they touch the keyboard. And yet following Simeon’s criteria writing and speaking sustains the people just as vitally as food and water.

Communication functions within the human collective in the same way mycorrhizal fungi work within the soil, amongst the roots of plants and trees. Communication between ourselves keeps us human and at liberty. The shock doctrine that has been applied to the world economy is based on the the principle of forced solitary confinement of prisoners. It presses to keep the door shut between us so that we feel alone and powerless.

To work in communications means you work 24/7 to connect, cohere and make sense of the world. You speak for those who have no voice, disseminate ideas, uncover truths, challenge, inspire and a hundred other invisible tasks that go (mostly) unsung in organisations everywhere.

Writers know that their primary "job" is to keep those doors open, no matter how hard history presses. So whether you earn money by your craft, or not, it does not dissuade you from the daily task you have inherited in spite of yourself and your destiny.

The Task

How did it begin? At the age of 12 my grandfather began to perch on the edges of my life like a sparrowhawk.

Be a writer, he told me, and burn that cello!

Surrounded by the formality of the Club, he would launch into what he considered the worth-while things of life, which went in the entirely opposite direction of everything I had so far been taught. Self-discipline, rigour, gnosis, was the basis of his creed, as well as generosity in important matters, such as clotted cream. Writing was life’s greatest task, Arnold Bennett, who wrote 2000 words before breakfast, its ideal craftsman. Entirely self-educated, he learned to write by becoming a journalist, he taught himself law whilst serving in the trenches, and told me that life, and only life, can give you anything worthwhile.

“You must leave school,” he tells me, as I sit before the austere and shining battery of eating implements of the club dining room. “School will only teach you how to read books. When you become a writer, then you can travel wherever you like and be able to earn your living.”

“But I am only fourteen!” I protest (I am fond of books, and also of my school companions).

But my grandfather does not change his position on the matter. He proof-reads and copy-edits my correspondence in red ink, informing me that The Times always expects a good margin from its contributors and Life that we keep to the Delphic code.

Know thyself. To thine own self be true.

I became a journalist at the age of 22 having gone to university and read a lot of books first. I wrote for my living for 12 years in London: interviewing, styling shoots, writing opinion pieces, hitting deadlines for newspapers and glossy magazines. But what had attracted me to the work was my grandfather’s description of freelancing in South Africa, the way writing brought with it the unimaginable vastness of the African savannah. The unmistakable scent of freedom!

And so, one day at the height of my brilliant career, I left to experience those bright spaces:

Tonight is retro night: no one is talking about the future. There are models passing by with crystal laughter and young men dancing with themselves and a caberet from Harlem. I suppose this is a good enough way to say goodbye. Goodbye to words like serious and important, major and grownup. Goodbye to my fashionable vocabulary, goodbye to Sancerre at lunchtime, goodbye to black, goodbye to my fast life, all that double kissing.

"Once you go, you know there is no re-admission," warned the doorman.
"Yes," I said, "I do."

Hey ho, time to hit the road . . .

The Return

How do I come back? For a long time when we were travelling I was self-financed. When I left London in 1991 I sold everything I owned, including my flat, and then several years later my father left me some money in his will. When I returned to England in 2002 I could no longer return to my old work as a consumer journalist. Everything had changed.

“Who are you working for?” asked the ladies of Southwold politely when I arrived. “I don't work for anyone,” I replied. “Oh!” they exclaimed and turned away, fearing, as many conventional people do, the taint of the non-employed.

For a while I worked in local arts organisations (paid) and for environmental campaigns (unpaid). I used my skills to write press releases and theatre programmes and sometimes worked 60 hour weeks for the equivalent of £3 a hour. That’s when I realised the great cultural divide between the salaried and the wage earner in the UK, when I learned about the benefits system, about charity trustees and managers, and what it was like on the other side of the tracks.

One day I the poet, Adrian Mitchell give a lecture called Who Killed Dylan Thomas? I knew I had to write the books I had inside me, no matter what it took:

The kitchen years are about to end: the years when I adjusted microphones and radiators, stuffed envelopes, poured wine, knew the insides of buildings like my own body and the needs of people better than they knew themselves. These are the years in which I failed because I was someone who believed in editorial and could not write advertising copy, marketing copy or the kinds of prose shiny souvenir programmes are made of; where line managers tell me “we don’t want to know what you think”, and charity trustees that I am “just A.N. Other”.

These are the years in which I wear badges that declare I am a.n.other event
manager, venue manager, safety officer, press officer and spend hours counting the small change. The years I served a strange god. Here at this poetry festival I have been talking to poets who are sent into prisons and mental asylums, who are laughed at by schoolchildren, poets who cannot speak, who cry in supermarkets, who are not listened to anymore than I am myself. Poets who wake up in the midst of terror and make an oath of loyalty to the kitchen table, who praise radishes and olive trees when the times are bad.

Where does this go? I now ask myself, having written those books and been a Transition blogger for two years (unpaid). What does a lifetime’s knowledge of medicine plants, land dreaming, Western culture in all its aspects count for? Can being able to source and cook real food, put together a book, a magazine, a blog, to downshift, hold a meeting, give a talk, have any economic value? All of these skills are useful in Transition, but do they have any leverage in the world of work which seeks the young and qualified and a strict obeisance to the status quo?

The fact is, like thousands of people around the world, I am configured for a new time. I have downshifted from a life of privilege to find out how to move from a hostile individualistic way of being (Empire) to a collective, life-affirmative one (earth community).

I am here to show what it is like to go through those creative alchemical processes in order to make this shift happen: how to put a crooked thing straight in the world’s history, how to align with the planet, how to make sense of difficulty, bring meaning and value and structure into everything we do, create beauty, clear space. But few, if any, in the business-as-usual system want to pay for that stuff. Unless it takes the form of entertainment or to make the 1% feel more comfortable about their lives.

The fact is when you burn your cello and go for that freedom you make a bad servant. That’s a risk you take. A risk all writers take, even though it sometimes kills us and sends us to the gulag. You leave what is known and safe in order to keep the door open. Because you know in your heart that no human being is born a wage-slave and that it is time the 99% of the world let their voices be heard.

So dear reader, if you know of any publishers . . .

Excerpts: Passionflower, from 52 Flowers that Shook My World; Introduction to Reality Is the Bug That Bit Me in the Galapagos by Charlotte Du Cann and Mark Watson (HarperCollins) and Opium Poppy, from 52 Flowers.

Photos: #norwichoccupier at the Haymarket; annual passion flower; opium poppy; Brixton Pound stall from post on TTB's volunteer policy: with Theresa and Cecilia, Real de Catorce, Mexico 1994

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Being Employed in Transition

Reposted from the Transition Network Transition Stories Blog. It is an introduction to me, my initiative and what it is like working in Transition.

My initiative is a wee bit different. It isn’t even officially a Transition Initiative and it’s definitely not a town.

For the past four months I have been working for Transition University West of Scotland. It is a Scottish Government funded project to deliver five environmental initatives before the end of March next year and to try and make UWS into a Transition University. So as I said a wee bit different. There are some specific features and challenges that are different to more conventional Transition Towns.

1. It is in three separate locations
Yes that’s right, we are trying to inspire a movement based on localism and community across three geographically disparate locations. There is one campus at Hamilton (just south east of Glasgow), one at Paisley (just south west of Glasgow) and one at Ayr (on the west coast). I am personally based on the Hamilton campus, delivering the five projects there.

It is definitely going to be challenging to foster a sense of community across all of the campuses as well as just within them. This is not helped by the next difference…

2. It is a work and study community, people do not necessarily live there
Generally people invest more time and energy in initiatives where they live rather than where they work. Trying to encourage staff and students to engage in activities outside of their job descriptions and courses is going to be one of our biggest challenges.

3. Low engagement and top down
The University of West Scotland has a very high proportion of home students (80%) so students do not feel the need to join in with social activities at the university as they would if they were moving there from a different area of the country. So the number of students actively involved with the students union is a lot lower than at universities like Edinburgh. This means that we do not have a pool of already involved students who we can ask to join in, we have to inspire the unengaged. Now that isn’t necessarily any different to a conventional Transition Town, but the fact that we are essentially outsiders trying to inspire the Transition movement at the university, rather than an established part of the community wanting to make a change, could put us at a disadvantage in terms of credibility and knowing how things work at the moment. This links in with the final difference…

4. Five full time staff
One on each campus and two project co-ordinators. This means that a lot of time can potentially be invested into getting the Transition Community started - promoting it, supporting it, doing the admin etc. Although there are five specific projects that we need to deliver, which take up quite a lot of our time. These are:

Green Impact Awards – staff get into teams and complete as many of the environmental criteria in the online workbooks as possible. They can get bronze and silver awards after completing a certain number of criteria and then the team with the most points at the end of the year gets the gold award.

Greener Homes – We can give free home energy audits and follow up advice to any staff, student or relatives and we will also be holding home energy advice clinics on the campuses.

Student Switch Off – a competition between the different halls of residence. The hall that reduces their energy use the most by the end of the year gets a massive party and monthly prizes are also available for posting pictures of themselves doing energy saving actions on Facebook!

Journeyshare – there is an online website where anyone can register their car, bike or walking journey and find someone travelling their way to share with. This should encourage new cyclists and walkers and reduce car usage – hopefully!

Waste Me Not – At the end of the last academic year we collected everything that the students who were leaving the halls of residence didn’t want (rather than it going in landfill) and having sorted and cleaned it we are now going to give it away at the Freshers Fayres this week.

So we have a lot to be getting on with and as our funding runs out at the end of March we are also on a bit of a tight schedule!

Transition UWS and Kerry

Having moved up from Norwich where I was actively involved with the Transition movement I found it quite difficult to get my head around how such a different set up could possibly be classed as a Transition Community. However, I spent my time at the Transition Conference considering this and did manage to square the two.

The view that I came to was of me, my colleagues and the five projects we have to deliver as part of our funding as the inspiration and catalysts for the grassroots transition movement that will hopefully follow. So we are a slightly more extreme take on the core group before the unleashing! At least this is my vision. We are hoping to get a People and Planet society set up to start the grassroots process, but this week is going to be the first indication of how that is going to go.

Personally I have found working in Transition – specifically an unconventional, not community based one – fairly hard going. It is hard to hold on to your enthusiasm when you have to do something rather than because you want to. Also the funding means that you do not have the freedom to go where the rich pickings are, we can not be as lean and flexible and resilient as we should be. I also miss all of the friendly, inclusive, feel-good processes that I associate with Transition, such as shared meals and consensus style decision making – these unfortunately do not translate so easily into a conventional workplace. It is also less rewarding to put all of your energy into a Transition community that you are not intrinsically part of. I do not feel that I will necessary reap the benefits of what I sow.

However, the potential for change is huge (over 23000 staff and students) and working in a transition context is what I want to be doing, so it is a challenge I am willing to face. It is a big experiment in the name of Transition and hopefully we can make it work.

Photos: The Transition UWS logo, me at an energy advice clinic and all of the stuff that we collected from the halls

Monday 17 October 2011

Sustainable Livelihoods

This week is Sustainable Livelihoods week on This Low Carbon Life.

I proposed this theme on the blog because of observations I have made whilst I have been looking for jobs over the past few months. Firstly, that there is a huge problem with unemployment at the moment. The "jobless" rate is over 8% of UK population, and is far higher amongst young people at over 20%! Secondly, that many who are working are over-stretched, stressed, underpaid, working long hours and complain about not having the time to spend with family and friends. Thirdly, that the economic structure of our society exacerbates this trend, with corporate greed driving wages down and down and hours up and up to satisfy their own need for profit, whilst personal credit is available to "top up" earnings, or, more realistically, to ensure that the public are trapped in spiralling debt so that they will continue to work long, stressful hours to pay the interest on last year's Christmas presents.

It's essentially slavery. What makes it worse, it's voluntary slavery, entirely legal, and under no circumstances will you find a benevolent master willing, or even able, to free you.

So what options does that leave?

Well, there are some alternatives. Increasingly, there are books, magazines and movements in support of a changed attitude to work. Social Enterprises (where the social benefit of a company is essentially written into its constitution) are on the up. Starting a cottage industry, being self-employed or partially self-sufficient are all respectable career choices these days, and rightly so. "Consumers" are more aware of how their purchasing choices affect those involved, and the environment.

But this still doesn't answer the question - What makes a livelihood sustainable? What conditions must be met?

Firstly, there must be a continuing market. Farming, for example, will always be a sustainable livelihood, because there is always a market for food. Gadgetry, on the other hand, is only a market so long as the fashion calls for it, the advertisers make it desirable, and the "consumers" are in a position to be able to purchase it. Although highly profitable while those conditions persist, the industry must constantly service its own market and will die when fashions change.

Secondly, there must be a sustainable supply. One word - oil. I don't think we could possibly argue that there will ever cease to be a market for oil so long as it is pumped out of the ground, but such a supply of oil is limited and, on this basis, any industry which relies on the continued supply of oil cannot be sustained.

Thirdly, we must be in a position to connect the two without relying on unsustainable resources. This, in many ways, is the most important one. This covers all the skills, equipment, logistics and everything required to provide a product or service to a market. This is what takes time, thought and design.

At this point, I was going to give some examples of some jobs that I considered to be sustainable, but now that I think about it, there are too many different types of livelihood and structure that by picking one out, I wouldn't be doing justice to many others.

So instead, I'd like you to think about what you do, what you want to do, or what a close friend does. Consider each of the preceding conditions and see how they apply to that situation.

For many livelihoods, the supply and demand structure will be highly complex, but try to identify what human need they are ultimately satisfying. How much does the demand rely on marketing? Does the method of providing for that need use up unsustainable resources, like extensive travel? Is the method so complex that the failure of one part of it would negate the benefits that are being provided? Has the method been designed to meet the needs of humans, for their prosperity, or corporations, for profit?

Now, for the particular example you chose, where could improvements be made? How could reductions on the demand of unsustainable resources be made? How could you redesign the method of providing for the human need in a way that is not damaging, is resilient to shocks and benefits all those involved? Where unsustainable resources are being used, what alternatives are there?

Over the past few months, I have read many inspiring stories of people who have used their ingenuity to meet human needs in sustainable ways and started successful companies in the process. In the American magazine Yes!'s New Livelihoods issue, there's an article about SoupCycle, a company that delivers fresh soup made using local ingredients to nearby workplaces by bicycle. I've heard the story of a journalist who, rather than starting by pandering to the wants of the press and working their way up, has spent years on a shoestring, reporting about what they want until they earn the respect of major newspapers. I have heard the stories of community-owned energy companies, community-owned shops, transport, housing.

In Norwich, we have some way to go, but this certainly isn't an unrealistic fantasy - sustainable livelihoods are tried and tested all over the world!

Images: "Occupy Norwich" protest at the Haymarket on Saturday 15th October credit: Brian McHammer; quote by American founding father, Thomas Jefferson; Norwich Market; SoupCycler.

Saturday 15 October 2011

NR3 - the place to be - part 2

Today I am expanding on meeting someone locally. In the olden days they had dances and you could meet someone in your own area and perhaps knew their family. Nowadays we are often looking for partners in a town we did not grow up in.

So how do we meet someone who has the same values as us? I met my girlfriend at Quakers so I already knew that she held many of the same values as me such as the importance of community and equality. She has many green credentials starting with an allotment in NR3 so I am sure of fresh vegetables throughout the year (is it true that the North city has more allotments that any other part of the city?) She is very non materialistic but thinks that some of us without children don't realise how important white goods are to your sanity. ( I am persuading her to write as a guest blogger on this subject)

She looks a lot like me only is smaller. Kind of how I would look from a distance. Which some would say is the best way to view me.

Because we live quite close it means I can cycle over to her house and have a drink and cycle home again (or not).

Yesterday she bought a chair from Barnados and we carried it up the street to her house. Of course being community minded means that everyone knows you and is watching you out of the window and possibly thinking 'oh look! that's that woman with her new girlfriend and look they are buying furniture together!' For the record we were not buying furniture together but she does have a lot of clothes in her house that I am persuading her she should store for the next clothes swapping party that should be at HER house.

On the less green side she has a rather large Volvo. However this was useful when we were running the Magdalen Street celebration and none of us had a car big enough to carry a table from the Octagon Chapel to Anglia Square. She tells me though that this is 15 years old and called Victoria and is necessary for the sanity of any mother (she should definitely write about this don't you think?)

If you think she should blog about being a mother then comment here .....