Friday, 7 December 2007

Power - the new money

The flight pledge I took a year ago was, in retrospect, one of the best decisions I have ever made. Instead, I’ve taken up time travel, which is free and doesn’t require fossil fuels. These days, the future is my preferred destination, around the middle of this century. Sometimes I get off at the wrong stop, which is the hell of our own making, where the two-degree tipping point has been passed. This is the destination our compass is currently pointing to; I don’t like to visit that place very often. I prefer to spend time in the future where humanity has redefined what we mean by progress. George Monbiot’s fabulous think piece this week set the scene to THE conversation of the coming year - how will we move away from economic growth society to a life sustaining society? We need urgently to all start talking about this and imagining it, and making different choices, living it.

In my travels, in 2050, I see communities generating all their power locally, through community-owned Energy Services Companies. Money will be replaced with tradeable energy units, also owned locally. Money as power, power as power. We’ll grow food and make things again, including our own entertainment. We’ll have moved completely away from fossil fuels and learned to live within our planetary means. Weaning ourselves off our fossil fuel addiction is going to be fantastic news for our wellbeing as humans and for all beings on the planet. The future looks bright, if we get it right.

Friday, 23 November 2007

A new economy

Last week I attended an inspiring conference Be the Change. George Monbiot kicked off. The problems we are facing, he said, are because capitalism is dependent on an ever increasing supply of goods and services… which are based on finite resources. In other words, freemarket economic growth is incompatible with an environmental and social agenda. The billion people who can afford to drive a car have greater purchasing power than the billion people who are struggling to feed themselves on the very same staple foods we can now run cars on - corn and wheat for example.

This is going to be a huge debate in the year to come, I think, as the majority of leaders still say we can essentially grow our way out of our planet’s crisis.Next up was Stewart Wallis of the New Economics Foundation (nef). I am in love with this organisation and everything that comes out of it. We’re running out of planet, he said. And the poorest are suffering the most. In 1900 the ratio of poor to rich was 36:1. Now it’s 75:1. He talked about the moral economy and how it is the right of every child to be brought up to consider the needs of others. Interesting, and true. His solution was devolution to local energy, food and community power while maintaining a global perspective.Change happens, he said, when people power start demanding it. It’s got to start with us. Maybe this wombat can teach us something.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Money as powertool

I've got money on the brain these days. Money is like thought: what you invest it in creates reality. So when I do spend money these days, I like to think of it as a creative act: by buying from local food producers I am reconnecting the broken links between myself and the land. When I buy from people who make clothes and useful things I am supporting that person’s life. When I buy from local shops, even if the goods are not local I am helping rebuild our community’s economy or lifeblood.

Not that I do buy much these days: apart from food, one can live extremely well off the fat of our society’s excesses by harvesting skips, swapping with friends, buying second hand or using Freecycle. But the other day I did, after some thought, buy something new: a pressure cooker. It was, at £106 from Steamer Trading on School Hill, the most expensive thing I’ve bought in ages. A month on, this tribute to Swiss engineering is practically a member of our family. We can now cook rich meat stews or chickpeas for houmous in 20 minutes, brown rice in 10 and steam root veg in seconds. It’s a great investment that, the makers say, can pay for itself in six months through energy savings. Plus, unlike most bought stuff, it’s helping us do our bit for the planet.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Money is debt

I only recently realised, from watching this great video, that money is debt. The whole banking system is basically a pyramid scheme, based on a growing pyramid of debt. Our economy depends on people being in debt. It’s a finely balanced pack of cards, and we witnessed with Northern Rock what happens when the belief system around it collapses. The same could happen to our entire economic system, apparently. An interesting sentence stood out in one article last week: as people are starting to become more cautious, cancelling their credit cards and spending less, this is having a knock on effect on economic growth.

So, on one hand, the best way to increase personal resilience to cope with rising energy prices is to get out of debt, mostly by reducing our spending, and consolidating assets. And yet that act itself is almost unpatriotic in the possibility it could bring on economic downturn. Plus, the steady growth of our economy over the past decades has been underpinned by growth in the use of fossil fuels. Now we’re starting to realise that fossil fuels are making us sick, and that they’re finite anyway, and the oil prices are starting to go through the roof. This could get interesting.

Yet perhaps this is not altogether a bad thing. We all know that money doesn’t buy happiness. Change is happening anyway, so my feeling is, let’s be conscious co-creators of another, better, story.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Waste not want not

Nowadays I’m getting the strangest thoughts in the strangest places, like scrambled messages from a timeless radio transmitter. The other day the thought came to me that waste is an indicator of the level of dysfunction of a community or household. Packaged goods have usually been transported long distances, usually because of (too) cheap labour. They’re usually not fresh, or healthy, nor do they really support the local economy, whether it’s ours or a some distant worker’s. The waste becomes a pollutant and starts to accumulate at toxic levels in our, or other people’s habitat. The packaged goods may be cheaper, but at a cost.

Commentators like Monbiot write that we in the West have lengthened our supply chains so much that we can no longer trace our waste. Just as carbon dioxide emissions, and methane farts and burps emitted by cows are invisible, so are the ramifications of our actions, thus preventing us from having to feel any guilt. Perhaps it’s ever been thus.

A year on from our family’s zero-waste week, we had a dustbin review. It’s now almost entirely populated by plastic wrapping. Shops are quite cheerfully taking back our excessive packaging. We’re still plagued by those darn yoghurt pots and biscuit wrappers; maybe we’ll find an alternative. For now, plastics and fossil fuels cannot be disposed of without polluting. I look forward to a more enlightened time when we’ve learned to close the cycle, create a cyclical economy, get off oil etc and use all waste as a clean and healthy resource.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Saying it with flowers

There’s a bunch of flowers on my kitchen table that’s giving me great delight. The cosmos, rudbekia, dahlias and sweet-smelling sweet peas are the last of the summer beauties, soon to be obliterated by the first frosts. The flowers were sold at Laportes and grown by Jo Corcoran, in a field at Ashurst Organics, one of Lewes’s organic growers. Jo, who runs Floralworks, also supplies the Lewes Farmers’ Market during flower season. This information is important to me: I drew the line on imported flowers earlier this year. When I learned about the price being paid by Kenyan women and Kenyan soil and Kenyan water to bring me cheap beauty, I decided I couldn’t buy into that particular beast any longer. I want to fund Kenyan women to grow their own flowers, and chickens, millet and beans, for that matter.

For those who believe in fair trade to promote international equity, there’s another option though, now that Hilary Moore’s flower shop stocks a selection of plants and flowers with the ‘Fair Flowers Fair Plants’ label. They do what they say on the package and if you care about these things, it’s important we support our local shops who care on our behalf. Meanwhile, I believe the best things in life are free, and glean increasing satisfaction from the occasional whiff of jasmine and rose in my garden and now winter flowering viburnums and witch hazel starting to send out their improbably powerful scents out in to the cool air up on Castle Banks.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Living like there's no tomorrow

I’ve been living for so long in my perfect world that I get a shock when I step out, as I did this summer, into what could be called the ‘surreal world’. Out there, people are living like there’s no tomorrow. Getting in a car to drive half an hour to the nearest Waitrose while on holiday seemed perfectly normal to my dear sister, when the organic farm shop, a scenic walk up the road, stocked plenty of cheap staples for a fortnight’s holiday. Now even the broadsheets are telling us to ‘cut our carbon’ yet there is little appetite for what that means: to wean ourselves off fossil fuel and everything it’s in. It’s killing us (at least, poor people and nature) and it won’t last. But we are addicted to oil, and by not dealing with our addiction we bring on the oblivion of no tomorrow. Today I give up alcohol (again). Plus, I’m starting to enjoy being frugal. Here are ten steps for a starter:
1. Educate yourself. Read Energy Bulletin for global updates.
2. Just buy less. Join Freecycle.
3. Share things; develop community.
4. Start learning skills.
5. Join an organic box scheme. Get off supermarket addiction.
6. Buy bulk food with Just Trade.
7. Eat more simply and locally.
8. Get into hot water bottles and heat one room.
9. Get a grant from LDC for solar water heating. Bathe less.
10. Wake up from the dream. Find out what true pleasure means!

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Stairway to Devon

This week our family of six is going by foot and train to Devon. It’s a pretty low-carbon holiday, renting a group of wooden chalets on a 20-acre nature reserve with my siblings. We’ll set off on foot to Lewes train station, and walk the two miles from the tiny Eggesford station at the other end. There are old bikes on site and a farm shop along the lane. We’ll take cards and booze and books. We’ll unplug the TV, go on walks, play some outdoor games and, if it’s not wet, sit around a fire most nights. The kids will get bored, for a while - always an essential precursor to self-directed play. And the simplicity of our fortnight, I suspect, will be deeply relaxing.

George Monbiot in his Guardian column this week questioned whether it’s sufficient to simply become ‘green consumers’ or whether in fact we need to consume less overall. It’s an essential question. Twelve months ago I drove without compunction, flew with little hesitation, ate meat with abandon and sourced my clothes and other consumer goods wherever I wished. Those days are gone forever. Knowing what I do now, I can’t justify a three-planet lifestyle, or even such things as offsetting. I’m slowly adapting to live within my planet’s means. It’s not very sexy and it doesn’t boost the economy. So it’s deeply unfashionable. And it puts the journalist in a tough spot: there’s only so many column inches one can write about the frugal life.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

A day at the sea

I’m starting to really enjoy the low life (energy-wise, that is). On Sunday, the sun breaking through called for a trip to the seaside. We hastily packed some sarnies, some plums and a bottle of water and took the next train seawards. Seaford, it turned out, was our destination. But it could have been Bexhill, Bishopstone or Brighton. The trains were plentiful, even on a Sunday. Half an hour after stepping out of our door we were stripped down and settled on to the shingly Seaford beach. It was barely populated, and the sea itself empty, waves plopping on the beach and the Newhaven ferry pooping in the distance.

The boys played in the sea and invented a complex game involving throwing pebbles at each other, and my mate and I settled into an afternoon of napping and reading, reading and napping. One of the best pastimes on earth, I reckon. As evening drew in we headed home, ice creams in hand. Cost of travel: £5 for four. Cost to the earth: affordable, even, probably, for six billion of us. Pleasure factor: high. Britain, apparently, is less happy than in the 1950s. Could it be that voluntary simplicity on a fossil fuel diet could lead us towards greater happiness?

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Back to the future

Strange man, Al Gore. One minute he’s telling us to save the planet by changing our light bulbs. The next he’s asking us to take an ‘easy’ seven-part Live Earth pledge that would in fact be extremely difficult to carry out. Last weekend Al told a billion of us that Part One is to lobby all our governments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90% - or the grandchildren die (kind of thing). Ok, so let’s tease that out a minute. That essentially means - and leaders are still unwilling to spell this out - that we must learn to live on 10% of current fossil fuel. In our lifetimes. The rest will be current sunlight in the form of plant food to fuel humans, horses and oxen - and renewable fuels. Trying to keep the show on the road with large-scale biofuels, nuclear or new coal plants could literally cost the earth.

So what’s the answer? Living lightly, it seems. Consuming less, working and eating locally, and getting used to living on much smaller amounts of energy. It’s not very sexy but living within our means - one planet living - is how most of the world actually lives. We’d do well to learn from older, simpler cultures, or from our grandparents. Putting it another way, we need to go back, with more wisdom, into the future.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Conscientious affirmer

I’ve come to realise that it’s more fun to be a conscientious affirmer rather than an objector. So a plastic-bag free Lewes becomes Gossypium creating a community bag; a rant against Tesco segues to a celebration of local food. OK I complain about the incinerator, but I become really passionate when I write in support of the proposed Glynde wind turbine. My utter refusal to be part of trashing our divine planet turns into a hundred daily positive choices. Waste becomes a resource; problems become solutions, the alchemy of our time.
Human society creates itself through a complex interconnecting network of individual choices. I wonder, how much are we are aware that what we buy, what we wear, what we eat, how we travel - all these things contribute in a very tangible way towards our future story. So when I feel sad that the lovely little sweet shop on Lansdowne, the one that’s been there forever, is to close, I must ask, how much did I help that place thrive? Am I husbanding what I really care about? Al Gore spoke so clearly about this on Radio 4 - we must change our habits, one by one. Together. Soon. And rather than see this change as giving things up, let’s just see ourselves as being conscientious affirmers of what we love.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

The unread column on the show with no name

Though I’ve been writing a column for Viva Lewes for a while, nobody ever talks to me about it, so I just imagine that nobody reads it. This gives me the freedom to write with abandon, just exploring the stories in my mind. My friend Leo has a regular slot on Subud Radio. From 8 to 10 every Tuesday he sends out from his attic in St Anne’s Terrace a lovely groove of amazing music. Last week he started a world tour of tunes from every country on the planet. And for a while we’re pairing up - I read the unread column on The Show with No Name. Check it out.

Last Wednesday I booked the community car and drove cross country to pick up a child of mine. In a moment of joyriding flashback I wound down the windows, turned up the volume and sped through the hot evening landscape. I swear the verges have been left to grow this year. I let my mind run wild, imagining what will happen when petrol prices rise so high that the council stops strimming the verges altogether, and the elders and the gorse and the herbs re-seed the sides of the road and then the road itself. Because the oil party’s over. It’s been great. But the midnight hour has struck, the era of earth repair has begun and it’s time to go home to what matters. Our home, our family, our community, our land. Our food, our roses, our friends, our music.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Empowering the power down

In my family’s experiment to reduce our impact on the planet by pushing gently against comfort zones, solutions sometimes serendipitously present themselves to us. Last week our analogue cordless phone gave up the ghost so we’ve reverted for a while to a couple of old Bakelite dial phones, which I’d mothballed for sentimental reasons. It turns out these phones are only slightly more inconvenient to use, plus they don’t use electricity to fuel an answer phone - we may have to subscribe to BT’s version if this experiment sticks. Kerching!

Then the light in our trusty fridge also went, and after realising I could remove the unit and order another, I decided that I can perfectly easily see the contents of my fridge without artificial light. Saving two: Kerching!

How about a bigger gesture then? After much contemplation my son and I flipped the trip and changed our dimmer switches to normal old- fashioned ones (most low energy lights don’t work on dimmers). I’ve been putting off this step for years as I’m deeply attached to that sparkly light given off my spotlights, so have cunningly planned the changeover this midsummer to make it relatively painless. Next step is to replace those lovely halogen lights in my kitchen and bedrooms - Megaman does a version but I’ll have to budget in changing the fittings too… soon, I promise! Changing my light bulbs has been more uncomfortable to contemplate than giving up a car. Although, once through the momentary pain barrier you get that pleasure of becoming part of the solution as well as an increasing feeling of empowerment through powering down.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

10 easy steps to supermarket liberation

Last week I wrote about suicide by Tesco, which means that through our shopping choices we’ve allowed local food shops to die out, and with them our resilience. So here are some easy steps to liberation from Tesco and other supermarkets.
Just stop, cold turkey.
Take stock of the local shops. Visit.
Savour the lovely, healthy food.This assumes you’re also considering cutting back on cars.
Delivery: that’s how the Victorian middle classes did it.
Things our family gets delivered: weekly veggie boxes from Ashurst Organics, including eggs, bread, juice and now an organic fruit bag.
Infinity Foods delivers cheap, bulk, whole-foods; either direct or via Just Trade.
Unigate delivers organic milk, and we hope Gote Farm in Ringmer might start to deliver unpasteurised milk to Lewes soon.
Farmers’ markets are a great source for all produce, including meat for the freezer, and you can’t get more local than our lovely Boathouse Farm.
Get used to shopping daily for other fresh food, which means that if you are a commuter, you might have to develop another career (over time).

Food used to be 30% of a household’s budget. It’s now 8%. So now we get food-related illnesses. If budget is an issue for you, eat further down the food chain: eat less meat and dairy and more affordable organic pulses and vegetables in season. Lewes shops are rife with low-impact, high-joy foods such as olives and oysters and cucumbers and cabbages, beer and blueberries, mince and mint, carrots and carrot cake, potatoes, tomatoes, basil, carrots. Enjoy.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Gut reaction against Tesco

Over supper the other night our family were discussing what it would take to make Tesco disappear. Smuggling rats in by empty cereal packets was one option the children came up with. We talk about Tesco rather a lot, as the great ugly monster of our own making. According to Tescopoly, the supermarket now controls 30% of the grocery market and made £2.5 billion profits in 2007. Colin Brent’s description of pre-Tesco (pre-oil) Lewes as a vibrant, robust local economy with a huge diversity of crafts, skills and community shops and enterprises still haunts me. I’m deeply upset when I think of the financial choices we have made to gradually erode away the resilience of our local economy and our
natural resources such as topsoil and clean water.

We can blame corporate agriculture and retailers but, essentially, it is we who have chosen through our purses to give away our power. Our family stopped shopping in supermarkets a while ago, mainly using them occasionally as after-hours convenience stores. We tend to eat further down the food chain now, which helps make supermarket liberation affordable. And hey, we eat so well from local shops. There’s a wealth of fantastic food to be had here in Lewes - staples and luxuries too. Humanity has created Tesco so we can uncreate Tesco, and the first place to start is in our mind, just imagining life without Tesco (and Waitrose for that matter). Look at the excuses, one by one. Do they really stand up? What is your gut feeling?

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Honeybees on the High Street

I collected a swarm of honeybees today in the High Street. Our Alex rang at three to say there were bees collecting on the sign of the Panda Gardens restaurant. I grabbed my gear and ten minutes later I was up a ladder scooping the bees into a cardboard box. It was dramatic. There was a crowd. Alex was grinning. It wasn’t that easy. The ladder was high, and a kind gentleman held it below, with bees raining on his head. The bees did not plop into the box, as they do when you tap them off a branch. They flew around madly, and some are still there on the sign this evening. And I dropped the box; it thudded on the pavement but the bees stayed in, loyal to their queen.

I love bees, am in love with them. I took up beekeeping 15 years ago and when I first lifted the lid off a hive was blown away by the energy that came out - pure love it seemed to me. I can smell how bees feel - and they sense how I feel. I’m pretty allergic to bees, though, and swell up when stung. Last Friday I took a dozen stings on unprotected ankles, taking honey off in stormy weather, and spent the weekend on the sofa. Tonight, at dusk, I plopped the bees from the box into a hive in the middle of the woods I caretake. Birds and bees and trees and flowers; being a beekeeper, making these movements; I am a native, living in heaven on earth.
Sussex Beekeepers Association

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The alternative ending

May, lush May! All around Lewes the plants are peaking in their annual festival of colour and scent. As I walk, I soak up the dazzling profusion of abundance. Honeysuckle vies with jasmine in promiscuous abandon for the insects of the day and the insects of the night. The flies and bees and moths eagerly help these gorgeous blooms during their short window of fertility.

I remember as a child noticing intensely all the flowers in the London streets, learning their names from my father. That’s what inspired me to study biology - the science of life. And as the years pass, the awesomeness of nature soaks more deeply into my being. Last month, my son Adam and I shook the ornamental fruit blossoms around the bowling-green on to each other, confetti scattering madly in the hot air. I notice my favourite trees as I walk, many of them old ones like Bay and Lime and Apple. Opposite my house there is a fine young but ancient Ginkgo Biloba, next to it an Elder adorned with flowers. All these trees and herbs are our medicine.Now as I walk the short stretch from home to work, I pick wild flowers from the verges, and the odd Rose hanging over someone’s garden wall. If you stop to smell the roses, you will find that they all smell slightly different; walking through Lewes you can experience an orgy of noble scents.

Breathe in deep; blast away the thin veneer of civilisation. The primitive pleasure of life itself is right here, right now.

I wrote this as an alternative to a piece I wrote that despairs for our future. It helps me to remember that beauty will exist for ever - if we remember to seek it

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Whatever the weather

This morning John Humphreys said on the radio that the weather forecast “is not very nice at all”. Yesterday he said it was “gloomy” and the day before he said that “rain threatens”. I shall be writing to him in person. Following the driest April on record, with about one hour of drizzle, and predictions of drought, the rain this week came as a blessing, to me. When the first drops spattered against the window at the Transition Town Lewes HQ I gave a great cheer and threw the window open to savour the whole at-long-last event. I hurried home and planted out all my seedlings in waiting, and the herbs from Wellingham Gardens and the bushes from Goldcrest Nurseries.This is what you do before rain - you plant out your plants and then let the rain come - April showers, it used to be called - and after a day of rain I mulched with grass cuttings from the Ham Lane dump. I went there on Sunday, in the community car, on the off chance I’d find mulch (and not minded to buy a bale of straw, my usual mulch of choice, being in a non-buying mode these days). I got four sackfuls of someone’s sweet, fresh first-of-the-year grass cuttings, and four more of hot, rotting grass cuttings from another woman about to lob them into the bins. I went home and mulched the newly planted forest garden, safe in the knowledge that I am preserving the rain in the soil for the rainless times ahead.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Earth to belly to earth

My husband dug our garden over to vegetables at Easter. Underneath our four-metre square patio, the soil was squirming with earthworms. We kept a few brick paths, so as not to step on the crumbly soft soil. The rest of the bricks were carted off by a variety of Freecyclers. Manure came in thanks to Raystede Animal Sanctuary. The organic seeds, from Tamar, have been growing in pots in our kitchen, now ‘hardening off’ as they go out for the day and come in for nights. I’ve started to plant out the beans, up a wigwam of young coppiced chestnut from the woods.

The whole amazing sacred cycle has started again. Five of my friends are growing vegetables for the first time this year. Latest figures from the Horticultural Trade Association show a 31% increase in the sale of vegetable seeds and a corresponding 32% drop in flower seeds. A combination of disillusion with what’s on offer and a renewed appreciation for the soil, our land and food, are making veggie growing a compelling pastime.

A few tomato plants, year round herbs and an experiment to find the best drying beans is not going to feed my family. But what I love, what I deeply passionately love, is the anticipation brought by seedlings, working late on a summer’s evening, listening to the blackbirds; smelling the earth; feeling the rain; harvesting the food; co-creating with nature and the universe. I’ve rejoined the blessed cycle of earth to belly to earth.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The power of Lewes

I was talking to Colin Brent, economic historian, this morning and he told me that in Victorian times almost all Lewes businesses were owned by people who lived in Lewes or near Lewes.

Local people owned the gasworks and the waterworks. Local people owned the farms and the shops. Local people owned the barges that went up the river and the breweries. Local people owned the three newspapers and the print-works. Local people owned the foundries, including a big one called Phoenix. Local people owned the banks, including Lewes New Bank, on the site of Barclays Bank, and which joined with other banks to create the first Barclays Bank, a direct line from local to global. The only business that Lewes people did not own was the London to Brighton South Coast Railway, but local people initiated and were shareholders in the Lewes to Uckfield line.

In the age of capitalism, we Lewesians have given away our power; leaving ourselves vulnerable to the hunger of corporate and supermarket agendas and out of town developers. However, the tide might be turning. The picketers at Lewes Arms pulled off a great coup last week; another group is forming a community land trust to investigate community ownership of the land of Lewes, and Lewes Community Partnership is seeking funding to buy the Pinwell Road site for an array of local businesses. With troubles ahead, we might just be waking up to the need to rebuild our resilience and abundance. Colin Brent will be talking at Pelham House alongside Bill Collison and Topsy Jewell at the next Transition Town meeting, ‘Feeding Lewes - Past, present and Future’ Wed 2nd May, Pelham House 8pm, £3

Thursday, 19 April 2007

The hundredth monkey

I’ve never written about the title of this column before. It’s based on a story about monkeys on a Pacific island who started to wash their fruit in the river before eating it. Once a critical mass of monkeys (say 100) had cottoned on to this improvement in their standard of living, monkeys on neighbouring islands started to do the same, even though they were not communicating in any obvious way.

This story - the Hundredth Monkey - is one of the great Urban Myths, made up by a sixties philosopher, Lyall Watson, to illustrate a phenomenon called morphic resonance, a term coined by the scientist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake himself carried out experiments to prove morphic resonance, which explains why, for example, dogs know when their owners are about to return, and why the more rats complete a maze, the easier it becomes for succeeding and different rats to complete the maze, and so on. Humans also communicate through morphic resonance, or as Karl Jung called it, the collective unconscious. Viva Lewes might call it the zeitgeist. Malcomlm Gladwell writes about it as the Tipping Point. I see myself as one of the first hundred monkeys (or rats) creating new pathways, new stories, to help us live more humanly and within our collective means. Our society desperately needs a new story - or maybe we should revisit some of the great fairy tales and native traditions. Transition Town Lewes is a process of designing a story, or pathway - together - towards a more viable reality. I hope at least 100 monkeys will be at the Official Unleashing of Transition Town Lewes next Tuesday.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Flipping the switch

My brother-in-law Mark emailed me from South Africa last week to tell me about an event to celebrate Earth Day on Saturday. The idea was that people around the world switch off their mains electricity between 7.30 and 8.30 local time. So at the appointed hour we flipped the switch and settled into a peaceful spell of pottering by twilight and candlelight, having baths and chatting.I suspect that a few people saving an hour of electricity didn’t even offset the massive surge caused by people watching the first Dr Who in the new series that hour (including us - I fudged - we put off our start by half an hour to accommodate that habit).

But what going off-grid, briefly, made me realise is that this is what I want, deep down. The feeling was what you get when you walk through an old wood, along the river at sunrise, make love particularly beautifully, happen to coincide with the dawn chorus or spend an hour over supper with your family just chatting. Times like that you feel, this is real; this is what I value.

And every step I take, away from dependence on electricity, cars, supermarkets and all the supposed luxuries of the modern world, feels sane and safe, a step in the right direction. Maybe there a better life just around the corner and it’s only when we do something random and un-habitual that we realise it in a gleeful peak moment. So I say bring it on, flip the switch!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

To my dear brother

Dearest Mark,
Thanks so much for the photos of your trip to Mexico. The girls look so grown up and ladylike - I bet they are real characters… Mark, you know I love you and your positive take on life. And there’s no easy way to say this: I have a problem with your flying on long haul holidays. Bottom line: it’s affecting me, and my family’s future. The information is all out there, in Britain at least. Excessive burning of oil is causing global warming, melting the ice caps, which will make sea levels rise, and at this rate Lewes and many of the world’s great cities will flood.

I can be smug, as it’s you that’s travelling - and paying for - flying to England this summer, so all our spread-out family can be in one place. Occasional Love Miles is one thing, but this flying long haul on a non-essential holiday bothers me deeply. As you can see, I do judge your behaviour. I’m not happy with that; judging people is too time-consuming. In the past I would have said: live and let live. Feel compassion; I’m just happy to live lightly and locally. Like you I loved to travel; I’m a recovering travelholic. Since that paradigm shift last autumn and taking the Flight Pledge in December I still get the travel bug, big time.

But the stakes are high; we’re interdependent, the party’s over and it’s time to move towards new territories. Brother - can we talk about this?

How low can I go?

How low can I go? How much can I reduce my impact on our gorgeous, precious planet? Last September, I wrote about a self-imposed zero waste week in our household. That experiment was so eye-opening that our family life has continued to move in this low-impact direction. Here are some things I did this week that seem quite sensible, from the perspective of the polar bears and the endangered small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies in our woods. I pruned a rampant Virginia creeper in our garden, cut and bundled up the pieces with twine and stored them away for next winter’s kindling. OK, it took an hour, but all that bending did wonders for my stiff back. I started to dig up our paved garden (15 ft square) to make vegetable beds. We used newspaper to line our compost bin. We talked to neighbours about newspaper sharing. We shopped mostly locally and walked a lot. I had several long conversations. I didn’t do any printouts. We only ate meat twice. I didn’t buy much, apart from food. On Sunday, six friends stacked coppiced wood that will fire our stoves for the next five years. I used a mooncup for my period instead of tampons.

Mooncups are a great local product invented by women from Brighton. I look forward to all re-localisation of crafts and manufacturing, and I support and thank with all my heart those who have weathered the era of oil: our blacksmith/toolmaker on Fisher Street, our potters, clothes makers and menders, guitar makers, cheese makers, basket makers and brewers.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Transitioning to a post-oil world

Is it still happening? The transition to a post-oil economy, I mean. The signs are that it is. Brighton has just announced plans for a sophisticated new public transport system that will help get people out of their cars. The Soil Association last week sent a letter to all members asking for support for their Food and Farming - Post Peak Oil initiative, including Transition Towns.

Next step on the citizen/consumer front: good citizens will by now have written to Lewes District Council to support Glynde’s wind turbine (because it creates energy from a renewable source) and have put in their diaries the next Town Council meeting (5 April). As a citizen this week I have decided to write to Waitrose to ask why they keep all their lights on at night. For good measure I will write to Tesco to ask why they keep their doors open through the winter and their freezers and chill cabinets open while operating a central heating system. As consumer I continue the journey towards unconsumer. Last week I walked the length of Lewes in search of a cushion. Not only did I not find one good enough, but neither did I buy a single other thing on that journey. I’m free! And I now carry lightweight cotton bags wherever I go. Barefoot Herbs, our local eco-store, now simply does not offer plastic bags, even recycled ones. If people have forgotten to bring a bag, they can buy a cotton one for a quid. Imagine Tesco doing that.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Teachings of the bees

I’m a beekeeper and like many beekeepers I have a strong connection with the bees. When I first took up this craft I was struck by the smell and the energy that seemed to emanate from the hive. I was lovestruck. Now I look after two colonies in the woods and can sit near the hives for timeless stretches. I visited them recently, on a strangely warm February day, and watched them come out of their winter huddle and do that dancing flight back and forth coming into the hive laden with gorse pollen. They were rather slow and dazed, as you would be if you’d spent the winter in a dark hive, keeping warm only by stored honey and the fanning of wings.

Now honeybees are dying. Last autumn, across the US, bee farmers started to notice that whole colonies were fleeing the hive never to return, leaving behind the queen and a cluster of enormously diseased bees. In many cases those bees were infected with a massive toxic load of virtually every bee virus and fungus known to man. This sudden and unprecedented collapse of colonies - dubbed the Marie Celeste phenomenon - is causing enormous concern among scientists and farmers, whose crops, and our food, depend on bee pollination. Some say it’s been happening in Europe too. More will be revealed when the hives are open come springtime. Wouldn’t it be terrible if the bees are dying out in order to show us how interdependent we are with all beings?

Thursday, 1 March 2007

The citizen consumer

It’s happening! In this week’s Draft Climate Change Bill we’re now witnessing our government’s transition from paying lip service to climate change to a willingness to tie itself to targets and even vie for being the greenest party in town. This may just be rhetoric but the shift towards action is welcome to many environmentalists.

The Sussex Energy Group debate at Brighton Library on Tuesday addressed our responsibility not just as consumers but as citizens, who influence the way our politicians behave. As individuals we have more power than we realise in both roles. So here’s Step One. As consumer, the single most effective easy step I’ve taken to reduce dependence on fossil fuels has been to change our family’s electricity supplier to one that gets energy only from wind. The companies (slightly more costly than standard fare) are Ecotricity and Good Energy - Kerching! towards fossil fuel liberation and a little smugness too. As educated citizens, we can influence our leaders to do the right thing for the community, regardless of national, corporate or party political agendas. We need to understand the process of local government and help inform it.

So two steps for the citizen here: join Transition Town Lewes in attending Lewes Town Council meetings and (two) write to the Lewes District Council planning committee to support the first wind turbine application in Glynde, the first proposal in East Sussex. Lovely natural wind is limitless, and becoming ‘zero carbon’ is part of our post-oil economy - towards which we are making a transition, said Sec of State for the Environment David Miliband last week. Those exact words.

We live on planet bliss

I have a keen sense of smell. As I walked through Lewes last night I smelled at least five wood fires. I have a woodburning stove, installed by Home Heat last month and partly funded by a grant from Lewes District Council. It’s a British stove, a Dovre, and it’s specified for smokeless zones. It gives off a glowing sort of heat that gently seeps up the house. I have a woodland near Laughton where I go once a week in the community car. Sometimes I stay the night in a bender. I love the woodland, wholeheartedly; I keep bees there. And there are rare colonies of Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterflies so I’m helping support them and the other insects by gently clearing a heathy glade in the young oaks. A forester called Harvey Malthouse is coppicing the overstood chestnut this week with a grant from the Forestry Commission and I plan to form a group of people in Lewes with woodburning stoves to log together the coppiced wood. I have a life of beauty. Dirk and I started to realise a while ago that we humans are co-creating our lives, with the help of the Great Life Force, in a miraculous way we cannot really understand. And that life, especially nature, reflects it all back. My friends Alinah and Leo have this on their fridge: ‘Who you are in the present is given by the future you are living into.’ I am living into a future when we have all realised that we are living on planet bliss.

Thursday, 22 February 2007


Last week I asked Sheila Marshall, the dressmaker on Station Street, to alter my daughter Anna’s winter coat. In the spirit of make-do-and-mend I was keen to support a local artisan whose skills will become important when the fossil fuel fiesta winds down. It turns out Sheila had just returned from a trip to China, a package tour that took her to Beijing, Shanghai and beyond. It was like a Hollywood set, she said: from the top deck of the double-decker tour bus, she could see behind the glossy fa├žades into the filthy shanty towns behind, whose roofs were piled high with coal soot. My friend Gordon also told me last week that when villagers enter these shiny new cities, they are rounded up and given work in factories for minimum board and lodging, often never to be seen again (perhaps from choice).

It’s dawning on me that I’ve been supporting economic slavery, without being fully aware of human beings in the Far East making cheap Primark clothes, and of Kenyan mothers growing Valentines flowers for a pittance, killing the great lakes and soils of African lands, and their history and community. It’s more insidious than forced labour: sometimes the great economic beast of western consumption just makes it so. So. That’s it. I’m going local for clothes. On the whole, I’ll be buying from some of the great ethical shops in Lewes: Gossypium and Susanna Wolf, along with second hand clothes: Roundabout, Stock Exchange, Barefoot Herbs, as well as all the great charity shops around. I hear M&S is investing in fair-trade cotton too; organic knickers, why not? Apparently, it's the bicentennial year of the abolition of slavery. I wish.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

We belong to the earth

I’ve just had an Emperor's New Clothes moment. In deep despair this weekend over the UN report, I was thinking and dreaming about how we humans were going to turn this beast around in time to avert unimaginable cross-species suffering by 2100. With our leaders not only in denial but in the case of Bush and his neocons, appearing to be deliberately ‘bringing on’ Armageddon, things look bleak.

It’s not a great stretch to understand that cutting CO2 emissions means a planned descent from fossil fuel use. And unless we move en masse to nuclear or renewables (both of which are problematic large-scale) this means the economy - so closely linked to oil and gas production - has to turn the peak towards terminal decline. But that very solution for the biosphere is also the greatest fear of governments and corporations, whose lifeblood is economic growth. I spoke to Chris Skrebowski, Editor of the Petroleum Review, on Sunday inviting him to speak about peak oil in the Transition Town Lewes programme later this spring. He confirmed this and more: our leaders will not make the first move. Many people have been saying, and it was reiterated at the Soil Association conference: change will start from the individuals, communities and organisations who don't have as vested an interest in endless growth.Which is what gives me the greatest hope: we are moving towards a paradigm shift or turning point, into a new era, when we stop believing that the earth belongs to us and start realising that we belong to the earth.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Soil Association on message

I’ve just returned from the Soil Association Annual Conference, to which I was invited to speak about Transition Town Lewes. (I also showed Keith’s short film of Lewes people and our oil dependence). The conference was called ‘Preparing for a post-peak oil food and farming future’, and it was an urgent call to action to farmers nationally to look at a very different reality. It brought home just how dependent we are on farmers for our survival. Growing your own is a skilled job - believe me, I’ve tried it.

Our current culture has made us massively de-skilled and vulnerable, in the face of great uncertainties. We’re also dependent on transport and supermarkets. Remember the lorry strikes of 2000: the supermarket shelves started to empty after two days and within a week, local food supply would have dried up completely. Our leaders are talking, theoretically at least, about a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and unless we segue to nuclear, this means a crash diet from oil use. What on earth will that entail? It’s encouraging that a major body such as the Soil Association is starting to look this issue in the eye. If we are to eat in the coming decades, and in order to stop the planet burning, we will need a massive shift in habits. One speaker said up to 20% of the population will take up farming. There was a strange sense of optimism at the end of the conference. Are we ready to let go of our addictions? There’s everything to lose. Listen to keynote conference speaker Vadana Shiva

Thursday, 25 January 2007

The scrag end diet

If we’re looking seriously at one-planet living, food leaps up near the top of the agenda. Especially meat. Land which is used to feed animals could produce far more crops (except for unploughable hilly land, of which there’s a lot round here). Plus, animal farts are speeding up global warming. (There must be a way to store this methane for use as fuel...?)
Have you noticed that most meat sold today is the prime cuts? What’s happened to the ends, knuckles, tails, tongues and offal that our grandparents made do with so readily?With the thought of moving towards weaning ourselves off meat, I decided to subject my long-suffering family to a new experiment: the scrag end diet. I was talking about this recently with Derek, the butcher at Boathouse Farm, my favourite organic meat supplier. He recommended I get hold of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Do you know this lady had four children, ran her house like a ship and died in 1854, aged 28? This week I asked Martin of Boathouse what were the most nutritious cuts to feed a family of six for a week for a tenner. He suggested liver…
Hm. I took home a brisket of beef (which I stewed, fatty and thick, with root vegetables and lashings of mash), some chicken carcasses, which I boiled down for stock for two soups, and some sausages which turned into Toad in the Hole with a massive winter salad. Results! No leftovers. Next week, liver..?

Thursday, 18 January 2007

The demise of the oil eaters

I’ve just read a report by Caroline Lucas, our excellent Green MEP for the South East, called Fuelling a Food Crisis: the impact of Peak Oil on Food Security. Peak Oil means that we are reaching the peak of production of oil and gas, globally. The timing is not clear; most estimates are between now and 2020. What this means is anything based on oil and gas will become dramatically more expensive afterwards. Which is almost everything, including, worryingly, food.

Basically, most of us Westerners are ‘oil eaters’: Huge amounts of oil are involved in the growing, fertilising, processing, packaging, transporting, selling and preparation of food.When I came across this information last autumn I had a crisis that went like this:
1. Not another global problem.
2. Things are going to change in my lifetime.
3. But actually it could work out for the better.
4. I’m sure the government has a plan to get us through this.
5. But why would any government or corporation knowingly precipitate an economic decline?
6. Why didn’t anyone tell me?
7. What about alternative fuels/technologies? Not on any scale.
8. Biofuels? They will compete with food and step up climate change problems.
9.What the hell are our world leaders doing?
10. Hope this is not just another conspiracy theory
11. Where do I get more information?
12. What can I do?

If you’re still interested, can I suggest the Energy Bulletin, and Powerswitch as a starting point? Let me know how you get on.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

These are a few of my favourite things

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child - a long way from home. Where are our leaders? Blair tells us there’s no point in cutting back our personal consumption. Russia threatens Europe’s oil supply - new power games ahead. Heat wave on the East Coast. The first year that winter didn’t happen?

These are a few of my favourite things; thinking about them helps offset the depression.

  • Hearing the choir practise in St John’s Hall on a Sunday afternoon.
  • The Ouse when it’s flat and brown.
  • The winter mimosa down by the Railway land.
  • The smell of bhajis from the stall at the Farmer’s Market.
  • Lying on a grass bank near the Ouse up from Willey’s Bridge, watching the sunset.
  • The walnut trees in Baxter’s Field.
  • The lights of Lewes from the golf course at night.
  • Downstairs at the Needlemakers; it smells old and there are trinkets that people have stockpiled over the years.
  • The bowling green in the watery light of a winter morning.
  • Picnic on the banks of the river under the blossom trees.
  • The first apple from Oakhurst Farm and knowing apple season has started again.
What are your fears and dreams?

Friday, 5 January 2007

New Year habit changing

I had a nasty shock last autumn when I measured my eco-footprint and realised that my standard of living would require three planets to sustain it. This is one of those virus-like pieces of information that sits in your brain until you have time to relax, at which point it unravels and reveals its full power. I think I was in the woods when the penny dropped. First, this standard of living (average for Lewes, apparently) is unsustainable: It-Has-To-Stop. Second it is unfair: I easily imagined a sister, across the world, unable to feed herself. Third, it leaves me, my family, and most people I know, in rather a vulnerable position during these changing times.

Al Gore (yes, him again) warns us not to go from Denial to Despair, a very convenient segue. So I decided to take action instead. Apparently it’s all about changing habits. At the Climate Change March last November, George Monbiot urged everyone there to give up watching telly and dedicate that time instead to campaign for the environment. It’s one of the best things I’ve done. New Year is an excellent time for fresh starts. I’m working on cutting down on alcohol, my personal fuel addiction (hmmmm), and have pledged to not fly this year. Lewes District Council has published a draft report: Taking Action in a Changing Climate, which has a lot of excellent ideas for commitments we can make at home and work. The great thing about all this habit changing is that it’ll make us more robust, physically, emotionally and financially.