Wednesday 29 February 2012

Community resilience requires a look at economics

Transition has always been, to me, about community economic resilience. Even the types of things that don't appear to have anything to do with economic resilience at first sight, do. Growing your own food, for example, is a great way of making yourself resilient to dramatic changes in global food supply or prices. Reducing your energy demand increases your resilience to fluctuating energy prices.

But looking at this beyond a personal perspective, and as a community, what can we do together to make ourselves more resilient?

Many Transitioners have thought about this question ever since the movement began, and lots of great community projects have come out of it, but many of the root causes are still there. Consumerism (or producerism, as I think it should be called), greed and globalisation still seem to be going strong with little sign of abating.

In light of Occupy Norwich decamping from Hay Hill last week, but with the continued prevalence of their concerns within society, I have written this survey to see what concerns we in Norwich have, and what effects Norwich is feeling as a result of our global economic problems.

The idea is not just to gather data on what people think, but what social enterprises, campaigns or government policy (both local and national) may grow out of these concerns. We have the power to make the world what we want it to be, if we come together as communities to make it happen.

I hope that you will find the survey interesting, and be interested to know about the various campaigns that already exist to tackle the issues highlighted. One that I'm particularly interested in is the Mary Portas review for high street regeneration, which I'll talk about in a later post, but I hope that I will be able to find ways to progress professionally!

Please feel free to fill in the survey which is at

Images: Transition high street; Occupy Norwich's rebranding, using Norwich's motto "do different".

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Car Clubs and Car Shares – Hints and Tips

Thinking of giving up your car? Tired of spending fortunes on repairs, insurance and tax? Living the low carbon life, but need a car for work? Wonder how you’ll get to your favourite spot on the coast without one? Gather courage and look at the alternatives... James Frost on life after car ownership.

I gave up my car in 2008 and haven’t looked back. This decision was hurried along by my rusty Peugeot’s £500 MOT bill, but I was still nervous at the time – could I really live without my own car? Even though I love cycling and walking everywhere in Norwich, would public transport really cut the mustard for those trips into the Norfolk countryside? And my work contract stated that I needed access to a car, so how was I going to get round that?

As it turned out, I couldn’t live without a car. But that’s OK – I now use the Norfolk Car Club and operate my own car share scheme. It feels a bit greener and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. Let’s take those one at a time.

Norfolk Car Club

These are the swanky Polos and Golfs (image 1 or 2?) you see parked in special parking bays around Norwich. You join the scheme as a member (at the moment it’s free to join at, if you use the promo code ‘Norwich10’) and you book the cars online whenever you want to use them. Then, you go up to the car in the street confidently brandishing your swipe card, hold it over the reader (image 3?) and watch as the car magically opens up. Then you drive away, feeling smugly 21st century. If you are anything like me, at that point you are also driving the nicest car you’re ever likely to set foot in ... the kind of car that switches itself off while waiting at traffic lights...

Anyway, you pay about £5 per hour and return the car to the bay when you are done. So to go to the coast for a few hours you might pay £20+. At first, this did seem expensive but I found I had to take a mental leap and think of the bigger picture – remembering that I wasn’t paying for MOT, tax, insurance, breakdown cover, repairs or servicing, or dealing with the hassle of any of these things, quickly put it in perspective. Some nice man even comes and cleans the cars when you aren’t using them. It’s like car hire but the cars are available 24/7, in streets all over Norwich and you can book them for as little as half an hour if you like.

Car Share

Together with a group of 3 friends, I’ve also now set up a car share scheme. We all put in £100 and brought a car together – a secondhand Fiat. We set up insurance with The Green Insurance Company, with one of us as the policyholder and the other three as named drivers. We set up a Community Bank Account with Barclays Bank (this involved us saying we were a not-for-profit organisation and coming up with a simple logo on headed paper), with all payments going in and out of this account by Direct Debit. We book the car on a shared Google Calendar and with no-one having a daily need for the car, it all seems to work out so that the car is available when we need it.

We each pay £50 a quarter and then 15p per mile that we drive (with any petrol we put in taken off the mileage sum). So essentially, my fixed motoring costs are at £200 per year. With each of us paying the same, this more than covers the car’s annual payments, with a surplus accruing for any repairs. If any extra costs come up, we just split them in four, which is a lot less painful than swallowing the whole bill, as you can imagine.

It’s worth noting that if you want to share your car, but don’t have any friends/neighbours that are keen, you could offer it to the Norfolk Car Club above. They will then pay all your fixed costs, you will continue to use the car for free, but others will also be able to book the car online and open it with a swipe card. Now that is thinking out of the box!

The Future

So should we be advocating ways of continuing to drive in a post-peak-oil society? Is it climate irresponsible to be driving at all? Well, perhaps, but I’m no saint and where the fine lines of idealism and realism meet, I’d rather find solutions. I still want access to a car but I am mindful of my footprint. And hell, it’s expensive owning a car – I’d rather do it with others for that reason alone.

I am convinced that petrol prices and the rising cost of motoring are going to see more and more people sharing cars. Neighbours, friends, family members – people will be forced into thinking outside of their comfort zone and the costs will really focus people’s minds on what is a priority journey. Whilst I can see more people cycling and using public transport, car usage is not going to stop overnight. Belonging to car clubs and car share schemes, will provide a more localised, community-focused approach. Perhaps the streets will become empty of cars, apart from the few cars in community ownership, being booked online for only the very essential journeys.
James Frost

Graffiti on car advertisment in Norwich
; Norwich city car club car and poster

Monday 27 February 2012

Transition Themes Week #12 The Bigger Picture

Welcome to our Transition Themes Week #12. During this week we'll be looking at some of the practical projects Transition Norwich are engaged in from Energy Lookouts! to Norwich FarmShare. We'll also be hearing about the new Abundance project and its mapping of fruit and nut trees, as well as a great car-sharing offer in the city. We start however with communications and the key look at the frame in which Transition sits.

It's easy once you get involved with the detailed focus needed in maintaining projects to lose sight of the bigger picture. So this week, as well giving value to all our micro works-in-progress, we are also keeping an eye open for the macro - those big planetary drivers, from climate change to resource scarcity, that inform our on-the-ground narrative for change. Simeon Jackson will give an update from the Economics and Livelihoods group and our guest blogger, Mandy Meikle, will be reporting on Peak Oil. As the Transition 2.0 film has its preview this month, here's a reflection on one of the key communication tools in keeping this bigger picture in our sights - the grassroots cinema. Vision on!

The Last Picture Show
It's no go the merry-go-round, it's no go the rickshaw
All we want is a limousine, and a ticket to the peepshow
(Louis MacNeice)
The first thing you do is show a film. It starts with Power of Community. It starts at the 11th hour at the End of Suburbia. You go against your wishes, lured by a love of documentary, and find yourself talking animatedly amongst strangers about Life at the End of Empire, asking whether you can come to the next core group meeting. In these films there is a moment when you realise that life is not the fairy tale you have been taught to believe. It's the moment you join Transition.
The second thing you do is take the camera into your own hands. Or rather, you have it thrust into them and find yourself instructed by The Producer to interview people as they gather for the 2011 Transition Conference in the bar.

"What right now, here, Ed? I've only just arrived!"
"You're part of the media team. No time like the present."
That's another moment. The moment you realise you are in it for the long haul.

Grassroots cinema

Today we are taking a look at Transition and Film Media and reflecting on how films influence the way we think, feel and move in changing times. The documentaries we go to see and the videos we make ourselves. Films powerfully affect the way we perceive the world. They can maintain the illusion that everything is fine by providing us with entertainment and feel-good escapes, or they can confront us with reality. We can be mesmerised by the shiny surfaces of our fossil-fuelled civilisation, lulled by official everything-is-under-control voiceovers, or we can look behind the scenes at its unglamourous workings for ourselves.

To find the Inconvenient Truth means you walk down another path, enter unfamiliar venues and make connections you might not have thought of before. You walk past the neon signs for the latest thrillers and romantic comedies at the city multiplex. You notice the small poster at the local newsagents or on the Parish notice board. You stumble under the stars across the common to the barn where Sustainable Bungay and Waveney Greenpeace are watching Robert Newman's The History of Oil, or down a side alley to sit on the studio floor of Unit 6 to watch Transition 1.0 at Transition Norwich's First Birthday celebration. You come across these films by surprise: in temporary cinemas in festival tents, in village halls, in converted Volkswagens, powered by bicycle dynamos, or any number of inventive community spaces where the new In Transition 2.0 is being previewed this month:
It was shown in Lewes Town Hall, The Dukes in Lancaster, at the Watershed in Slaithwaite, the town building in Wayland, US, in the office of Project Lyttelton in New Zealand, in the fire station in Moss Side, a front room in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, US, a Hindu temple in Tooting, a school in Finsbury Park, a hall in Tokyo, Japan, in ‘Cinema Paradiso’ in Auroville, India and in a village in Portugal. (Rob Hopkins)
In these places you find yourself in an audience that is as much at home watching films about community growing projects as it is watching those about Collapse. Committed organisers run these film nights regularly alongside the initative's food and energy projects to give the necessary frame in which Transition sits. They show the bigger social and environmental picture that we do not see in our small everyday world and, perhaps more crucially, provide a meeting place where we can pay attention to the issues which are rarely discussed by conventional media, or at the supper table amongst friends and family.

Joining the dots

Although often considered to be just an early part of forming initiatives, these impromptu grassroots cinemas are a key part of the culture of Transition. They not only enable people to celebrate the movement through showing the In Transition movies, but also maintain awareness about fracking and peak oil and economic collapse and the facts about our industrialised civilisation that are normally kept hidden from view. To join up the dots in our own fragmented minds and come to different conclusions.
What are these dots? It's the panel discussion about climate change at the premiere of The Age of Stupid in Cinema City , it's the on-line debate about Transition and activism sparked by the documentary Just Do It! It's an empathic response to Josh Fox's Gasland, to the industrial food system in Food Inc, to the consequences of the oil we consume every day in Joe Berlinger's Crude.
It's any number of YouTubes we watch daily, recorded by citizen journalists around the world: from Happy Birthday Grow Heathrow! shot by Felix from Transition Brixton, to The Revolution is Love with Charles Eisenstein (Sacred Ecnomics) at Zuccotti Park. It's the animated Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds narrated by Richard Heinberg. It's the new Crisis of Civlisation film where you can makes your own remix. It's Transition Norwich watching itself Unleash and celebrate its third year. Standing with Nick, being filmed by Tom at Occupy Norwich. It's the effort we make to join these moments up and make a coherent picture.

There are many that argue that communities don't want to look at shocking films and they are not an inviting way to market Transition. That they are not well-made enough, too disempowering and depressing, too American. It's true: a lot of people are stll enamoured by the matrix of conventional media, caught up in the star system, who prefer BBC spin and Hollywood fantasy to reality, but that does not mean that those who want to keep our eyes open should not show them to the world. Even if only a small group gathers to take part, that collective focus and discussion are taking place where none happened before. It takes practice to engage in a complex multi-faceted way of seeing the world, instead of following the familiar storyline of baddies and goodies, the happy ending, and the OK Corral. Reality has its own powerful allure. And a shared reality even more.

Creating the new narrative

In Liverpool I am looking for "the story". I have been giving workshops on Social Reporting (that will form the basis for the national Transtion blog), holding a shaky camera for an interview with Ben Brangwyn, interviewing Rob Hopkins about the forthcoming Transition Companion, but I haven't found that aha! moment that makes sense of everything. I am about to stumble upon it. While the open mic is in full swing in the bar, two Transitioners from Barcelona are holding an impromptu screening of two short films and a follow-up discussion. Many of us in the audience have no idea what has been happening in the squares of Spain this summer. Many of us also have not heard each other speak about about the economic issues raised by the indignats of Europe. It is two months before the word occupy will run like wildfire through the grassroots media.

As the YouTube flickers against the wall, I can see the story. I don't care about the production, or the fact there are no actors I recognise. I am not here to escape, or dream the American dream, I am here to create a new narrative. I can hear it in the voices of the people, taking the microphone in the squares, I can hear it in the voices of the Transitioners standing up to speak in the room. It's a world where we are the director, the cameraman and the crew. We are the actors and we are the audience. It's a world we are creating together as we take the production back into our own hands.

Sustainable Bungay/Waveney Greenpeace in the barn watching The History of Oil; Collapse with Michael Ruppert; videoing at the Transtiion Conference wtih Ed, Mike, David and Adrienne; still from Transition 1.0; Poster for Gasland; cardboard notice in Barcelona, May 2011

Saturday 25 February 2012

The power of visioning

Today's blog is cross-posted from the Social Reporting Project, which this week has been reflecting on some of the Tools and Ingredients in The Transition Companion. Kerry Lane looks at Ingredient #7, Visioning, as one of the key Starting Out points for initiatives.

An Inspiring Low Impact house in Wales

Visions are the stories that we tell ourselves, the narratives we live by, they are so integral to our lives that it takes a collective effort to reimagine them.

I really can do no better than Rob's summary of the challenge associated with this ingredient:

Not being able to imagine a lower-carbon world is a huge impediment to designing and realising it.

I believe that the reason so many people become paralysed by the 'depressing' films Ann talked about on Wednesday is that they just cannot imagine an alternative to our current society, particularly one rooted in the reality of their local area. This is what Transition Initiatives enable, the collective imagining of a low-carbon future for their local area. And once you have a vision you have something to work with and towards.

It is no coincidence that advertisers have been using visions for years to sell their products, they are after all masters of human psychology. Whether it is harking back to an imagined golden age or playing on what we want from a better future - how many adverts can you think of that play on the idea of community, of being more connected? Visions and stories sell. Futerra, the sustainability communications gurus, recognise this in their top ten tips with #5 Only Stories Work.

Transition is one of the few environmental initiatives that has recognised this and has harnessed the power of visioning for positive social ends rather than for selling consumption. It gives us a joint future to work towards, one that we can start creating right now. You could argue that most Transition projects are the result of visioning of one sort or another. Armed with knowledge of the issues from the awareness raising and inspired by what others are doing, visioning lets our amazingly powerful imaginations get to work on sculpting local solutions.

Transition UWS
Vision is what is missing in my current Transition Initiative. The students and staff cannot imagine a low-carbon future that they want to be a part of. I suppose part of my job is to try and facilitate a community vision, but our funding constraints (which will be explored more in the Funding week led by Marella in March) make this quite difficult. Visioning is not really something you can force on people, you have to make a space and process where it is possible, but it is essentially a voluntary activity.

It is the inspiring visions cocreated in Transition Norwich that have kept me engaged in Transition through the group turbulence brilliantly described by Charlotte on Tuesday and through my relocation away from my initiative. In Transition Norwich I was involved in developing the resilience plan (energy descent action plan) that is effectively the next step up in visioning and we started by all contributing our individual visions, which were woven together into a rich tapestry of our communities vision.

It is my vision of being part of a Transition community, creating a low-carbon society, sculpting the job I want that keeps me hoping, keeps me creating, creates my future.

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw

Kerry Lane

Original post on during week on the Ingredients and Tools from The Transition Compansion on The Social Reporting Project

Friday 24 February 2012

Spring Cleaning the Mind

It might just be me, but it feels like recent winters have lasted a long, dark time. It feels like it’s been cold forever, even though I know logically that this winter has been a lot milder than last year’s deep chill.

But yesterday morning was the first time the thermometer showed double figures when I got up first thing. I walked to work with my coat unbuttoned, just outside the school gates was a single snowdrop, and I started noticing buds and green shoots poking through. Birds are singing everywhere. It’s amazing - even in this age of central heating, climate controlled offices, hot water in an instant, when the vast majority of the population aren’t permanently cold during the winter - there’s something about the promise of warm weather, the first signs of spring, that can lift you. It seems like there’s something wired in our ancestral brains, that ignores our modern lives, and senses relief at the lengthening days, the warm sun on our skin. Even if we get another cold snap, spring is on its way.

Out in the garden, the buds on the magnolia tree are showing the first signs of uncurling, the crocuses are poking through last year’s withered growth, and in the thick ivy that covers the fence between us and our neighbours, a pair of blackbirds have built a nest.

And the mind starts to unwind too. I start thinking beyond the confines of the winter house, the proverbial huddling round the fire. Spring cleaning the mind. I start thinking about jobs to do, clearing the garden, spring planting, days out with the kids, the bees up at the Farmshare, new projects, plans. Plenty to do.

Yep, it feels like spring is in the air.

Dawn Pics by JC

Thursday 23 February 2012

Seeking Inspiration

For my birthday last week, and as it was half-term, we took the girls down to the Eden Project in Cornwall. It was an amazing place. The Eden Project is all about the natural world and the plants that inhabit it - and our relationship with them. On a cold(ish) February day, we walked through the heat of a tropical rainforest where bananas, coffee and cocoa trees grew, and followed the path through a Mediterranean grove surrounded by oranges and lemons. There was even a bed of chilli plants, including the hottest in the world, grown behind a theatrically placed barrier.

I find myself continually seeking inspiration in what people achieve against all the odds, how they change the world in all sorts of ways, and this was a great example. I love this introduction from the Guide Book - it resonates with me in all sorts of ways:

To be called a dreamer is usually either a gentle rebuke or a scoff, yet almost all the things I love are the product of dreaming. Oddly, many of them were dreamt up in a shed, that simple wooden retreat with a view. Henry Ford dreamed motor cars, Steve Jobs computers; many of the world's favourite novels, plays and film scripts owe their existence to sheds...

...2011 marked (the Eden Project's) tenth birthday, by which time we had welcomed 12.8 million visitors, grown the largest rainforest in captivity, created 520 full time jobs at Eden, formed working relationships with thousands of local suppliers and those that source sustainably from further afield, and helped economic regeneration in Cornwall. We've built the Biomes... using sustainable construction techniques, created a Waste Neutral programme, started renewable energy projects and are working on collaborative projects exploring ways of living in the 21st Century. And that's just for starters. Not bad for a shared dream!
Turning a disused quarry, and ugly scar on the landscape into something amazingly beautiful; if you're looking for inspiration into the art of the possible, the power of dreaming, there's no better place.

Pic: The Eden Project Biomes, by JC

Wednesday 22 February 2012

rita, mark, josiah (and me) too - coming together in groups #1

In the last post of our Sustainable Relationships week (and a half!) we consider perhaps the most challenging relationship of all: with our fellow Transitioners. Here are some reflections posted yesterday on the Social Reporting Project in response to The Transition Companion's first Ingredient.

When Rob Hopkins launched the new Transition Companion on twitter, the question I asked in 140 characters was which of the 82 ingredients and tools did he consider the most important: "working in groups" was his reply.

Coming Together in Groups is the first ingredient in the book's storehouse; it is the essential thread that runs through the whole movement and distinguishes it in many ways. There are all manner of protest and campaign groups, political and philosophical movements and most of them are organised by small configurations of people. However in these groups the bigger picture is held to be the key unifying factor: us against them. In Transition the social fabric of the group (us) is considered priority. Because this is not an individual or a mass response to peak oil, climate change and economic recession, this is a community-led response, and learning to work in community is one of the hardest tasks we face. If we are serious about responding resiliently to the challenges of those drivers and powering down we have to learn to break out of our chronic individualism and work as a crew in dynamic and creative ways.

This is not to say Transitioners have it down. We so don't. Everyone in Transition can tell you how their respective groups or projects have formed and stormed and fallen by the wayside. How people clashed, initiatives dissolved, all manner of disaster tales. I am no exception, I have been in theme groups that fell apart, lost my temper, my cool, been foolish, been excluded from a core group, taken part in projects that did not happen in spite of everyone's talent and good intention. And I have also been in a core group for three years that has weathered the storm and prospered, and taken part in projects that have undergone radical shifts and succeeded in every way (and still do). I have sorrowed and rejoiced in equal parts, lost valuable colleagues and gained friends. And most of all, like everyone else disenfranchised and unrooted by modern society, I have found myself through these communal experiences, belonging to my neighbourhood and my native land in ways I could not have imagined.

So partly to explore this topic (in our week on Ingredients and Tools Part 1) and partly in response to Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed's statement (in yesterday's post) that Transition has "failed" in galvanising everyone to take part, I would like to share an insight I had when I was eleven years old.

Breaking form

Every Saturday at school we had a film afternoon at the lecture hall. It was the big highlight of the week: sitting in the dark watching the flickering screen, seeing places I didn't know and people whose lives I would never experience. One of these was The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. It was an old-fashioned Hollywood film, cheesy in many ways, and looking at it now I would probably wince at all its imperialist and religious overtones. But there was a scene in it that has stayed with me all my life. The film depicts a true story of a maid who becomes a missionary in China during the war with Japan. At the beginning of the film Gladys (played improbably by Ingrid Bergman) works to helps break this practice of footbinding that had been imposed on women (by women) for a thousand years. A group of women look at her in silence, and then two old women step forward. She shakes her head as the pain, unleashed from decades in captivity, will be immense. Let the younger ones do it, she tells them. But the elders know that if they have the courage to go first, the rest will follow.

There are many who say our current social and environmental problems are political, caused by capitalism and a dominant global hegemony, and this is true. But we can cannot really change these larger outer structures, unless we deal with the inner ones as well. Mostly our problems are perpetuated by a kind of cultural footbinding that has been in place for thousands of years. We are broken as children and as communities: our natural relationships with the world and each other are severed and we are enmeshed in unnatural ways of behaving and relating with one another. Hierarchical, hostile, subservient to the rulers of civilisation, we play out these constrictions daily, mostly unconsciously. And no matter what the rhetoric or rules of good governance we decide between ourselves, when we come together as groups these invisible forces control us and our endeavours unless we consciously dissolve them and unbind ourselves.

As individuals we can do this as a practice, with ourselves or within our relationships. In groups getting out of these binds is more of a challenge. Even naming them out loud is hard. We are advised in the Companion to seek outside help with the conflict that it inevitably arises, but most of us do not know the world of counselling, or want to engage in it. We feel these antagonisms between ourselves, as we come to meet: the feelings of repression or gloom. We find ourselves acting out roles that are not our own, scapegoating people or being scapegoated, taking the flack, taking too much responsibility, being excluded from communications, forming elite bands, being treated as a volunteer. Haughty, subservient, dismissive, flaky, silent, babbling, critical, self-important. Mostly we feel alone and under pressure. Me against Them.

Sometimes it feels as if the very fabric of the places we meet in - the pub, community centre or council chamber - impose their own restrictions upon our working together in harmony. As we struggle to bring in new ideas we find ourselves defaulting to the civic or feudal shapes the ancien regime has imposed on people through history. We find our fellow Transitioners disappearing into mental abstract realms or spiritual fantasy, preferring ideas to reality. Our contributions to the Bungay newsletter sound like dreary notices from the Parish magazine.

"Why are you writing like a member of the W.I?" I cry exasperated to Mark as we assemble everyone's copy.

"I don't know," he says. "It just comes out like that!"

If we are lucky we like each other. If we are determined we keep meeting each other come what may, keep inventing new and creative ways to do Transition. If we are "elder" enough we take off our binds, get over ourselves, cut the slack, be unremittingly generous. If we are wise we read the excellent essay, written in the 70's about the Women's movement, The Tyranny of Structurelessness and realise that our "cages" sometimes feel comfortable to us, the only thing we can count on, and that liberation from the known is scary, often painful and always challenging.

If we are smart, we do these things ourselves first, like Ghandians, and know the consequences of freedom, before we urge anyone to do the same (or criticise them for not doing it). We show everyone what the future looks like by living it conspicuously everyday. We don't lose heart. We know that one day our small local enterprises will join up, link together and make an extraordinary map across the world. Bearing this in mind, we get on with the business at hand.

Ten tips for coming (and keeping) together as groups

Taken from my experiences in the Bungay core group and the Transition Norwich bloggers

keep your doors open invite people to join meetings and the enterprise - network with other groups outside transition

keep insisting on a co-operative structure people have different roles but equality is key - value everyone, include everyone (that's you too!)

communicate, communicate, communicate keep those channels open, no secrets - remember if you are in control you are not in communication

do not react wait three days before you reply to THAT REALLY ANNOYING EMAIL

keep working together eating together, drinking together - even when you don't want to

share everything community culture starts here - vegetables, eggs, tools, knowledge, skills, books, cars

maintain a rhythm keep putting out that daily blog, that monthly green drinks/film night, quarterly newsletter on time

make a commitment to the project you love do that thing with all your heart

allow space and time for everything to unfold especially the tough parts - let go and hold on (that's a Zen one!)

awareness see this ingredient as the quicksilver of the social alchemy that is Transition - without this group the future you desire will not take place anytime soon, the old business-as-usual order will prevail

Like all pioneers of something new and radical we need to know we are breaking form. And that creating a new infrastructure - from local food systems to alternative media - is hard work, but that endurance furthers. Every time.

Wishing everyone the best in all your groups wherever you are. Come together, right now!

Coming Together as Groups is the first ingredient of The Transition Companion by Rob Hopkins (Green Books). All ingredients are available on-line as resources and also as playing cards.

Photos: Cathy, me, Eloise and Kate in Margaret's garden at Sustainable Bungay core group meeting; poster for Inn of the Sixth Happiness; cycling with Bungay core group; meeting fellow blogger, Kerry at the Bicycle Cafe, Norwich; last night at Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Intellectual Adventurousness

When it comes to relationships, I'm not someone who likes to be in a cosy blanket of "love". I don't want it to make no difference to my friends whether I try to be a good person, or whether I just sit back and enjoy a passive, environmentally destructive lifestyle. No, I like to be challenged by my relationships, allowing my (and their) beliefs to constantly evolve. My best relationships, I feel, are with people with whom I have an ongoing debate on all manner of topics, including "contentious" ones, such as religion and politics. I always try to understand people's views, but if mine differ, and I can justify that difference, I prefer a relationship where I can speak out, and start a dialectic conversation.

So when it comes to Transition, there's a lot to talk about, because there is such a variety of differing views and beliefs. My friend Matt and I often find ourselves fighting for opposing corners when it comes to use of local shops or the effects of computer games on society, but this helps me to understand the complexity of such issues, and I'm grateful for it. I also have a very dynamic relationship with my parents, where my mum has in the past stood up for the conventional view of economics, whilst my dad agrees with me that there are too many people getting paid huge sums of money for just moving other people's money around, and that it's not right. My attitude to friendships is that if you are not affecting each other on both emotional and practical levels by being friends, what is the point of the relationship?

I don't currently have a girlfriend, but when I do, I'd like her to be "Intellectually Adventurous". I'm not too bothered about shared interests, and even her current political or social beliefs are not really an issue to me, but an attitude of adventurous debate, I feel, is important. When it comes to debate, no viewpoint is too radical to be considered, if it can be justified in some way. This, to me, is the best kind of relationship. It may seem strange and unconventional, but some of my happiest moments have been when two differing opinions, when discussed and thought through, converge to a single, enlightened truth.

Image: Plato and Aristotle from The School of Athens or Scuola di Atene by Raphael Sanzio.

Monday 20 February 2012

Family Trees

This week we are continuing with the theme of Sustainable Relationships and as it is a just few weeks since my second grandson was born I’m thinking about the relationships that will sustain young Oren throughout his life. Oren has a good chance of living to be 100 and it is 100 years since his great grandfather was born – so four generations may span two centuries – which seems like a very long time!

Whilst it hard to predict how Oren will be living in the 22nd century it is clear that the last 100 years has brought much greater mobility in terms of where people live and work. A consequence of this is that families are now spread out all over the country and not in a position to share resources. My elder daughter has a one year old with winter vomiting sickness – not a good time for the washing machine to die. We have a washing machine but it is 100 miles away - so not much help to her. We live in a village where most people are comfortably off and many are middle aged or elderly.  Most people have washing machines, lawn mowers and even cars that are very lightly used - whilst their offspring struggle to earn the money to buy their own. Clearly this is not an efficient use of resources.

People in our village are often very happy to share things when the need arises – our neighbours did our washing when our geriatric washing machine suffered a fatal illness that no amount of scavenged parts could mend – but we only scratch the surface of what is possible. Regular sharing of tools and skills would not only save resources and energy but would strengthen the community. Another obvious problem is that both my daughters are raising babies in very cramped conditions due to having to live near to London for employment but not being able to afford the massive property prices. Around here we have lots of elderly people living alone in houses larger than they can easily manage. Our housing system is based on the days when life expectancy was about 60 for many working people.

Houses are not just places to live but for many people represent their major asset and house ownership can determine the resources available for care in old age. When most people will be spending a third of their lives as ‘elderly’ we need to be much more imaginative about housing provision. It seems to me that the way forward for Oren is to develop a society where people are financially invested in their local communities rather than living as isolated individuals. Housing provision and education need to be flexible throughout people’s lives and respond to their changing needs. I can’t see that we will return to the days when people were born and died in the same village and lived in extended families but we need to replace those lost relationships with a community based equivalent if the children born today are going to enjoy their many years on this planet.

Sunday 19 February 2012

The people in the room, the people next door, the plant by the river

In the post-Unleashing days of the Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Well-being group (yes, we really called it that) in Transition Norwich, a lively group of up to fifteen people would meet once or twice a month and discuss everything from Deep Ecology to mental health and the NHS to Authentic Movement, Dreaming and how a sledgehammer might help us to be resilient.

We came from all walks of life, disciplines, classes, sexualities, ages and incomes, all with our different experiences. Some of us knew each other a lot, some a little, some not at all. We were all drawn by this new thing called Transition. What? Unleash creative genius – together? LET’S DO IT!

In the first months we would start each meeting by speaking about an object we’d brought along which revealed something about our lives. As we each spoke out from a knitted square, a painted tin butterfly, a photograph of a grandparent, a branch of bay leaves or indeed a sledgehammer, a kind of intimacy was created in the room which would have been impossible otherwise in a meeting lasting two and a half hours.

Over a couple of years the group shifted and morphed and ultimately dissolved; people got jobs, left, fell out, started other Transition projects, things changed.

And I wouldn’t normally be thinking about it, but five of the people writing this week* on how our relationships have been/are influenced by Transition, were in that early group. And four of us were in the room together when instead of an object we each brought a relevant night dream we’d had and spoke it out loud to everyone else. We were looking for potential keys and clues as we made our way along the road less travelled of Transition.

I chose a dream from an intense, experiential exploration of the relationship between plants and dreams I'd conducted with Charlotte over several years. This is what I wrote about it for a booklet we produced, Speaking with the Heart – How to Dialogue with Ourselves, Each Other and the Earth. The plant is Hemp Agrimony, an East Anglian native wildflower. And I was being taught about getting on with the people next door.

HEMP AGRIMONY Eupatorium cannabinum
Hemp agrimony is a tall, strong plant which grows by water often in the company of great willowherb and meadowsweet. It blooms in July and August and its flowers are pink and fluffy. Sitting alongside the plant on the riverbank one day, I became aware that it remains rooted and maintains itself, whilst letting things go by. That night I asked hemp agrimony to inform my dreams, although I had no specific question. I dreamt the following:


I am staying in a room somewhere overnight and a group of drunk ‘travellers’ and ‘hippies’ come to stay in the next door room. My attitude is nonchalant and self-amused, and when I talk with my rowdy neighbours I am outspoken and non-judgemental. I was aware of hemp agrimony informing the dream and clearly heard the words: That’s the end of Moral Mark.

I felt this was a poor dream but in dialogue with Charlotte the next morning she remembered a message she'd received when working with hemp agrimony: Go with what you have.
So who or what is or was Moral Mark?
Moral Mark is the opposite of all the things I felt in the dream. He is uptight, indignant and self-righteous, quietly resentful, bitter and very judgemental.
Moral Mark certainly would not enjoy having travellers and hippies come to stay next door, particularly if they were drunk.
Moral Mark says everybody must be clean and well-behaved and most of all quiet. Especially if he is around.
Moral Mark thinks there is him and then there are them, or rather THEM, and THEY are different from him and therefore wrong, or rather WRONG.
Moral Mark does not have a sense of humour, certainly not about himself. Moral Mark does not like the neighbours.
Moral Mark is gravely offended and takes everything personally.
Moral Mark remains in his room thinking negative thoughts about the people in the other rooms. He does not go out and speak to people.

Moral Mark was never a very real character, more a crystallisation of certain collective mindsets and opinions. However this is not to underestimate his power.

When Moral Mark was in the ascendant, my life would become restricted and miserable. These crystallisations dam the flow of energy and with time can take over one’s being. Hemp Agrimony was informing me that Moral Mark had come to his end. That my heart wanted something else. It was time to decrystallise.

All these years later and thanks to Transition (and hemp agrimony) I have decrystallised. I'm no longer stuck in a room next door to the party thinking negative thoughts about others. There are far too many people to meet and projects (and parties) to be getting on with these days.

So this post is dedicated to everyone in those early Transition Norwich meetings; to *Charlotte, Chris, Helen and Kerry; to all the travellers, hippies, reskillers, authentic movers, plant people, nurses and neighbours in that room and the one next door. Without you this decrystallisation would not have happened. And the world is less one negative neighbour. Thank you.

Photo: Purple Loosestrife, Gypsywort and Hemp Agrimony in Oxford 2011 by David Short; Painted Stone in Hand (MW)

Saturday 18 February 2012

Finding Mr Green

In case you don't know me I will just start with explaining that transition pretty much summarises who I am. It shares most of my values and beliefs, it defines how I try to live my life, I even work for a Transition Initiative albeit an unusual one, it is also what I want to do with my future. For more info on the depths of my Transitioness check out my How Transition Changed my Life post.

So with that clear, my answer to one of the question Helen asked us 'How much do you let the Transition lifestyle interfere with your relationships?' is that it's kind of hard not too when that's essentially who I am. It does, however, create additional hurdles in what is not the easiest quest in the first place.

The first fairly obvious side effect is that the number of people who can comprehend and accept (even if they don't follow) what I believe in and how I live is relatively small, making the chance of finding them much smaller. For example I went on a date with a lovely guy who turned out to be a carnivore capitalist (his definition not mine!) which was going to make things a bit tricky.

And how do you find these people? Those who agree with the transition ethos are so diverse that it's not like knowing you like heavy metal and so going to lots of heavy metal concerts. Transitioners don't follow stereotypes or labels (apart from that they are all lovely!)

This is not made easier by the fact that our society doesn't really offer many easy opportunities for talking to people and getting to know them. We seem to be expected to make all decisions on face value. Hopefully transition's community building is changing this, so maybe in 20 years time...

And if you do meet lovely people on the same path as you then another hurdle rears its head. Transatlantic relationships aren't really viable if you have vowed never to fly again. So a further limit - keep it local!

It's not all barriers and problems though (just like its not all hair shirts and lentils!). So much of Transition is about building positive, nourishing relationships that this can only be good in the long term. And we are constantly encouraging community and connections. So maybe it takes a wee bit longer to get started (no quick convenience culture here), but it's built to last and it's a lot more fun if your partner likes climbing trees and gets as excited about home grown jerusalem artichokes as you do!

Photos: maybe we need a transition uniform so that we are easier to identify - I'm voting for this stylish look, muddy matches online dating: lovely transitioners or feudalist recreational hunters?

Friday 17 February 2012

I am another yourself

There are several crucial relationships we sustain in life, from the relationship we have with ourselves as individuals to the one we have as a collective with the planet. But the one I want to focus on today is the one you have with the person who stays with you no matter how hard the wind blows. Your partner, husband, friend, colleague, compadre, the one who walks beside you, who feels they have always been with you, without whom you could not make this passage through life.

Here is a picture of my fellow voyager and Transtioner, Mark Watson at the beginning of our travelling years. It's in Guatemala, 1991. We have just left our old lives behind. We have left family, friends, given up our work, sold everything we own and gone on the road. We are writing a book together. The town is beautiful, the sun is shining, the houses are painted in the colours of the rainbow, but our inner worlds are in turmoil, as all kinds of monsters, lurking beneath the facade of the life we once knew, are now coming up for transformation.

We are realising that this journey we have undertaken is as much about the inner world as it is the outer. As we wake up in Central America we find ourselves battling with the history stored in our bodies and dreams, with class and sexuality, with our ancestors and relations, with the Irish famine, with the Victorian workhouse, with the silent wars of our grandparents, with our own childhoods, with past lovers and school bullies, with the archetypes of Mummy and Daddy, god and goddess, with the karma of generations. We are working these things out in a country that is just coming out of the horrors imposed on it by an imperialist shock doctrine. We don't know about that history yet, though we can feel its invisible legacy, as we sit facing one another with the volcanoes all around us.

Many modern relationships are unsustainable. High maintenance, fragile, hierarchical, about power and profit and pleasure. Making sure that the people near you give you what you desire - parents, partners, children - worrying about what your neighbours and colleagues think. Making sure you don't encounter the pain of your inner worlds and compensating for a lack of connection to the earth with possessions and holidays and distractions.

It's not anyone's fault. It's how we have been brought up in an individualist Empire which trains us to be heartless and competitive, to battle with our wills and egos and to escape into our minds. We are not brought up to be our own true beings, governed by our hearts, in synch with the living systems, in relationship with all creatures, all plants, all peoples. We confuse control and fantasy with love. It wasn't until I left the city and my native land that I realised I was a very different person than my family and my friends wanted me to be and that my whole life up to that point (I was 35) was hemmed in by those contracts. It was a kind of gaolbreak Mark and I were attempting in Guatemala.

Why am I writing about something that began in a faraway country between two people 20 years ago ? Because in Transition we need to be different kinds of human beings to weather the storm that is coming. To be honest a blog post is way too small a space to describe the complex untanglings that release us from the constricting, conventional moulds society puts us in. It's not about washing up (or washing up liquid - those "green" matters that divide modern households), or romance or even psychology, it's a lifework you decide to undertake together, in the same spirit you join Transition.

We need to know how to work together, and having unsustainable relationships where we go unconscious and act out the hostile, undealt-with parts of ourselves, hinders (and sometimes destroys) that kind of fellowship. We need to learn to live in relationship with all beings, as initiatives and communities, and foster the kind of relationships where we are free to be ourselves and at the same time fully aware of the other people in the room. Not as projections to suit ourselves and our ideals, but as fellows without whom you cannot make it through the night. To be aware that we are, all of us, changing the inner structure of ourselves, as much as we are our use of energy or water. Powering down those archetypes of empire inside us, as we come to meet each other in completely new configurations.

If we are lucky we have a partner we can do this work with. If we are lucky we have enough time and space to go deep into what it really means for men and women, of all cultures and upbringings, to forge a harmony between them. To turn the legacy of darkness we carry inside into light and warmth. But many of us do not. Some of us have partners and families and friends who do not see it our way at all and contradict our every move. Equally some of us now find ourselves amongst people who feel kin to us in ways we find hard to describe.

Many times I have felt like leaving Transition, flouncing off in the way I used to with lovers (how dare they speak to me/treat me like that!) but every time I have stayed. I would have kept travelling forever if I could, remained in the country (like Chris) that I loved more than my own.

But history is demanding something more from me, from all of us. It's demanding a return. And those of us who know that, deep inside the core of ourselves, need to hold to that feeling, as we turn to swim against the flow, like the salmon returning to the source of his origin. We need to know we are not alone in our endeavours, we are not alone in our houses, in our small neighbourhoods. That each of us carries a piece of the future inside our hearts, the colour of the rainbow. What powers us is not fossil fuel or hatred, ambition or prize, but the one thing that will turn the world around, that turns everything around at the breaking point, as the darkness closes in. It turned our relationship around as it hit the rocks in Guatemala, at the point we realised we were in it for the long haul and would never make it till dawn unless we made a vital opening move.

Your heart holds the key to my liberation.

Transition only happens because of you. Because of us.

Mark in Antigua, Guatemala, 1991; myself in the same town and year; later in conversation, Merida, Mexico; with Karen and Mark in New York, 1992; social reporters in Finsbury Park, 2012; with this Low Carbon Life crew, Norwich, 2011

Thursday 16 February 2012

A love affair with place

When we talk about relationships, we are normally talking about relations between people. Equally love. And when we talk about falling in love, a few characteristics typically come to mind: a sense of longing, a sense of 'nothing else matters', inner joy or peace, aliveness, and so on. Well I have to admit it - I've been there - been to that place - and that place is/was actually a geographical place. I fell in love with a City - or part of it - located 3000 miles from home, and I became addicted. Each time I left my other place, I had longings to go back. I felt an immediate sense of aliveness and vibrancy on arriving, and each time I returned home to Norwich I felt empty again. Something was missing.

Over a period of years this resonance with my other home, as it became, was so strong that I began to wonder whether I really belonged there, and not in Norwich. The thought of upping sticks certainly passed through me more than once, but against it, tugging the other way, were all my family and friend and campaigning connections in Norwich. After quite a process of examining exactly what it was which attracted me - what characteristics of Chris-ness were getting amplified and expressed when I was in this place - I began to realise what was going on.

Not long after this, timewise, in 2005 I was unexpectedly elected as a Green Party County Councillor, and with it a whole set of new responsibilities and transparency of values kicked in. By this time the awareness of flying in aeroplanes as a destructive pastime had really taken hold - and so now, I was faced with another dilemma to add to my list. Having let go of the idea of moving home and country, and promised myself I could survive and keep my attachment going by annual visits, I was now faced with the shame of knowing how destructive such visits would be, given the necessity of travel by air.

Here I need to digress a little. Volumes have been written on the ifs and buts of flying, some of it sound, and some of it highly misleading. The essence of air travel is speed and distance - that's the whole point - and of it's nature, anything travelling at high speed and over a long distance will use extremely large amounts of energy.

Try pushing a car. Then try pushing a jumbo jet. Then imagine this jet being propelled at 500 m.p.h. for hundreds or thousands of miles. Actually in my case, traveling to my special place involves, per person, about 3.5 tons of emitted CO2. So getting on this aeroplane and traveling for about 6 hours each way, I, personally would be responsible for emitting the same amount of CO2 as my house now emits in 7 years. To make matters even worse ( for my conscience), there is something called the 'forcing factor' when emissions are made at high altitude - which roughly translated means that carbon emitted at altitude, has 2.7 times the effect as that same emission would have on the ground. Put another way, this one trip would involve more carbon emissions than an average Tanzanian in their entire lifetime. And when it is widely regarded that a truly sustainable, long term, per person per year emission rating is 1.1 tons, there really was no way I was going to continue my addiction.

So then began the painful process of letting go of my attachment to this place, and of the dear friends I had made there. Actually, I still feel in some way connected with my friends, thanks to the wonders of e-mail and skype. The whole process has helped me realise just how difficult it is for us as individuals to kick the carbon habit, and how, over time, our lives have become dependant to such a degree on using energy and carbon. It wasn't exactly like coming off an addiction to ice-cream - although my special place had plenty of that in quantity and quality - more like coming out of a relationship. Sometimes I still feel that impulsively arrange a trip....but then I really do get that image of struggling sub-Saharan people in drought areas, whose circumstances are undoubtedly in my mind partially brought about by our addiction to carbon and guzzling energy. [ It's no co-incidence that all the major NGOs doing work in areas like that campaign vigorously on climate change issues].

Oh yes, and I've grown to really appreciate Norwich too!

My special place, if your really interested, is Boston - that's Massachussetts, not Lincolnshire.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

The worst daddy in the world

I am, it seems, the worst daddy in the world.

Every morning, in term time, I force my children to walk the fifteen minute walk to school, come rain or shine, or, in the last month, snow and ice. Why, Daddy, why? Why can't we just drive?

It is true that driving them to school would make my morning much more complicated - I'd have to drive to school, drive back again, then retrace my steps to walk into work. But, it's also true that I really don't want to drive to school. On the best mornings, we walk to school singing and skipping (well, they skip, I walk), we tell stories and it's just like the Waltons. Other days, it takes a lot of strength not to give in, get in the car and just drive. So, why don't I?

The girls are very good about turning lights off in the house, and are quite quick to tell me if I forget. They tell me, from discussions at school, about the melting polar ice caps and the effect on polar bears. And they've started to get the hang of buying local (or at least British), and they've understood Fairtrade for a long time. But by and large, these are the easy things, they don't affect them directly too much. The school walk does. It's hard on little legs, especially when it's cold and wet - maybe I am the worst daddy in the world?

It's a difficult balancing act, being a parent. You want to make life easy for your children as much as possible, shield them from the worst that the world can throw at them. At the same time, you want to inculcate them with the values that you think are important. That's part of being a parent too. I've explained that turning lights off has value in itself, but it's a drop in the ocean compared to driving the car to school each day. But to such small children, it's difficult to explain causes and effects. What about the whole range of issues, from air travel to "stuff" - I've written before about the amount of stuff that kids consume - there are whole industries dedicated to getting parents to part with their money on behalf of their kids.

We try and throw up barriers around them - we don't have commercial TV at home, we buy most of their clothes second-hand and we try and spend as much time with them as possible. Doing stuff instead of buying stuff. But it's not easy, and it's going to get harder as they get older and their range of influences gets wider.

So, I walk to school with them rather than drive, and I explain to them why. Sometimes I talk about polar bears and sometimes I just say "that's what we do in our family, we walk to school". I want them to think about how other people are treated, to know that it's important to look out for the environment around them and for people other than themselves. I can't tell them everything all at once, they're too young to take it in, but being a parent is a slow, step-by-step process that you never stop working on.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Sustainable Relationships #2

I have been asked by Helenofnorwich to write a blog as part of the sustainable relationships week.

She was impressed by my ability to balance my environmental beliefs and my three children's needs.

So lets start with white goods. One of the things that has really changed women's lives is the invention of white goods. My washing machine is very dear to my heart, it works away every day doing a chore that would otherwise literally take me hours and hours a week. My dishwasher is my second most-loved machine. There's a huge amount of debate out there about whether washing up by hand or using a dishwasher is the more environmental option. Only this morning this was being hotly discussed by my fellow Quakers when considering refurbishing our (currently dishwasherless) kitchen. The jury still seems to be out on this one, but The Guardian tells us that dishwashers are the greener option, and I for one believe them on this one. Also, as a woman and single mum of 3 I firmly believe that when calculating the eco-friendliness of any appliance, you should factor in the effect is has on women's lives.

It's funny (to me at least) that although no one would consider turning back the clock and doing the washing by hand (or do you? let us know, and why!) there is still resistance to the idea of using machines to do some chores for us and this seems to particularly apply to washing up. One friend said to me that he enjoyed the peace and repetition of doing the dishes, but I had to point out to him that in fact his wife did the washing up most of time.

Having children, particularly more than one, is sometimes condemned as a move which increases the pressures on the world. As parents, we are very aware of this, as we struggle with washable nappies and throw out double the amount of rubbish that we used to in the pre-parent days. When our lovely babies grow into interesting but somewhat selfish teenagers, they relentlessly ask you to give them lifts here and there, provide them with new stuff ALL THE TIME and generally seem to retreat into a world where consideration for others and the planet ceases to exist for a while. This makes it hard to explain that no, we won't be buying a massive TV screen just because they are all at the rage at the moment.

One of the things I hadn't really expected is that my children, deprived of computer consoles, laptops etc at home would end up going round to their friends' or their Dad's house to get their fix of computer-based fun. We have one TV and one computer, both in the living area. Living in a little house can drive teenagers mad, but I prefer to see it in more positive terms - we are all a bundled together in one living room sharing our lives and keeping each other warm. Those long winter evenings just fly by!

When they were little, I effectively ran a huge children's clothes swap system with my friends and a lot of clothes got passed round and round. I had hoped that when they were old enough to choose their own style, they might adopt charity shop chic, just as we trendy souls did in our young days. But alas no, my kids wish to be clothed by expensively-labelled stores which seem to tap into teenagers' needs to fit in and wear exactly the same T shirt as everyone else. Will they grow out of it? Or will they rebel against their Mum's greenish and slightly hippy ways and all become 4X4 driving gas guzzlers? Joanna Smith