Friday, 28 March 2008

changing the dream

Last week my friend Chris interviewed Professor Richard Heinberg in Lewes about appropriate responses to climate change and peak oil. Not the ‘peak oil theory’ but the real effects of rising energy prices on ordinary people. In many countries, Heinberg said, peak oil is already happening in the form of electricity blackouts and transport fuels being beyond the means of the man in the street. People in the West who recognise the problem early on, he said, are the ones who will be more resilient and be at an advantage in a world with rising energy prices. These are families and businesses who are proactively changing their habits to be less dependent on fossil fuels.

So we set the scene for our old dishwasher breaking down over Easter. We’d managed to resuscitate it several times, but we finally had to admit it was destined for the scrap heap. We’ve spent the last week starting to make the transition away from a dishwasher. Blimey, there are a lot of dirty plates. I’ve realised that a dishwasher is as much for storing unwashed dishes as for cleaning them. We’re still trying to negotiate the choppy territories of ‘who washes’ in a family of six. We are ill-equipped. But hang on, dishwashers are a recent luxury. As a child, it was my job was to wash and hand dry the plates for a family of eight. In Finland, apparently (see photo) they build cupboards above the sink to drain the plates.

So now I’ve sent a challenge out to Sue Fleming, who co-runs Woodworks of Lewes, a hand-made kitchen design company. Sue’s in the Transition Town Lewes business group with me. Can your company, I asked, design and make an above-sink dishwashing/drying/storage system that’s easy to use and looks elegant in our town house? I believe in frugality but not austerity.
This story sums up my reluctance as a rich white polluter to let go of modern luxuries in order to build resilience and save us all from extinction.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

The Upside of Down

When Jeremy Leggett spoke to Transition Town Lewes about peak oil and climate change a year ago, he told us that when peak oil hit, the economy would take a nosedive, recover temporarily and then go into a terminal decline. I never understood the reasoning behind that; surely markets adjust slowly and evolve to new ways of doing things?

I’m not an economist, but I’m starting to put the pieces together. Nobody’s spelling it out, but could the soaring price of oil and the collapsing economy be linked? Oil keeps hitting progressive price milestones, and just going up, which is what Leggett said would be a sign that Peak Oil had come in to the traders’ consciousness. If something is likely to be in shorter supply in the future, its price will go up, right? Meanwhile, our economy is, like a pack of cards, based on debt on the assumption of future economic growth. That assumption is based on ever increasing supplies of oil and other natural resources which, we all know, is the fatal dream that we’re starting to wake up from.

So if we are indeed witnessing the beginning of a systemic collapse, as many commentators are saying, the prevailing culture can either Keep the Show on the Road at any cost (including building runways and nuclear power stations and invading countries with the remaining fossil fuels) or Live within our Means. This will mean a radical although probably life saving rethink of all the assumptions of the Western Empire. As Richard Heinberg, who is talking in Lewes on 25 March, writes, ‘Economic contraction may be bitter medicine, but it's part of the cure for what ails our planetary home. However, we can manage this contraction either foolishly or intelligently.’

Monday, 17 March 2008

I just don't buy it

What I call the Reality Gap is widening daily and I’m in danger of falling in it. On one side, there’s a growing sense of huge approaching change. On the other side, you switch channels and there’s business as usual: buy, buy, buy; drive, drive drive; blah, blah, blah.

So it’s very comforting to meet other people who are quietly Minding the Gap. I recently discovered my friends Oliver and Sacha were doing this when I tried to flog them a copy of Transition Handbook at the Farmer’s Market. This is what Sacha told me (and bear in mind that she is one of the most stylish women around town):

‘We’re not buying anything new. We started in January with a six-month pledge. We can buy basic day-to-day stuff like underwear, floor cleaner, presents and food. But the other stuff like books, cds, clothes, coats: you can buy anything second hand. Just after we started our fridge broke down; we bought a great second-hand fridge for half its normal value.

‘I also started a clothes swap five years ago. I had a big bag of clothes I was going to take to the charity shop. I called up about 15 friends who brought clothes they didn’t want and we dumped them on my living room floor. We put a pound in for each item we took and gave that to charity. Now I do the clothes swaps in Iford Village Hall with more people; last time we made £265. I come away with wonderful stuff I could never have afforded to buy new, like a silk shirt from Joseph.’

‘My biggest learning is that I don’t need to buy things I thought I needed. I’ve found it liberating. I feel better about myself because I’m living by the values I feel are important. This experiment has made me really look at life in a different way.’

(Insider information: check out the Story of Stuff, a humorous animated story told by Annie Lennard)

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Bag banning

I practically fell over in the aisle at Waitrose last Friday when I was asked whether I would like a bag. A glance to my left confirmed a strange absence of plastic bags. The checkout girl gleefully told me that management that day had issued instructions to hide the bags, and assume customers would bring their own. Suddenly plastic bags are uncool. How did this happen, I wondered? Was this the result of competitor M&S’s announcement the previous day that it was to charge for bags? Was it Gordon Brown’s plan to get tough on plastic bags? Was it Lewes Town Council’s decision last week to step up efforts to help Lewes go plastic bag free? Or was it a compelling (or rather shaming) growing presence on the streets of Lewes of cotton and hessian alternatives?

You could say that plastic bags are a paltry distraction from the devilish things Gordon Brown and co are pushing through: What matter the odd bag in the face of a new Heathrow runway or coal powered station? Complacency is the new denial, and we could be sleepwalking towards our own demise by believing that plastic bags, composting and eating organically are together enough to get us through the survival bottleneck ahead. But perhaps the plastic bag phenomenon illustrates the power of the 100th monkey. This year plastic bags are the new drink driving; next year flying might be. Can we save the world one bag at a time?

Insider information: some of the places generating their own beautiful bags are Lansdown Foods, Harvey’s shop, Bill’s, Wickle, Lewes New School, Gossypium and the Farmer’s Market