Wednesday, 22 December 2010

energy boost

We got our first Feed in Tariff payment today of £150 for generating electricity from the solar photovoltaic (pv) panels on our roof, on target with what our installer, Southern Solar, predicted.  We get paid a guaranteed rate that will pay off the hardware in 12-14 years, plus we get free electricity when we use what we are generating. So we cook, clean the house and wash our clothes on sunny days, reconnecting ourselves with natural cycles too.

Good Energy, who is our electricity supply company, tells us that there are 10,000 households in Britain generating electricity in this way now. It wrote telling us that it’s keeping its prices fixed despite mainstream suppliers putting theirs up by up to 7% this winter – scandalous given they also announced huge profits practically in the same breath. So if ethics is important, it would be worth thinking of changing supplier to Good Energy, who deals only in renewable energy.

But no man’s an island and true resilience is when all of us have access to the means to locally generated power. A transition group of us is starting an initiative in January called Roof Power Lewes (provisional name), a free service to help Lewes residents get solar power in their homes. Anyone with a south(ish) facing roof should at least consider getting involved – with Feed in Tariffs, at least this year, offering guaranteed incomes of around 7%, most mortgages can be extended to easily pay for the installation, which costs from £9,000. And now Ovesco has made an agreement with South Coast Money Line, who is working with the District Council to offer low-interest loans for renewable installations, including solar pv.

Given the Feed in Tariff incentive has been in place since April, and electricity prices are only set to go sky-high over coming decades, how come more than a handful of Lewes residents haven’t installed solar pv yet? Maybe they are deterred from the outset by the District Council’s planning conservation officer who, recommends refusal on street-facing roofs (I checked the other day) on the grounds of much of Lewes being a Conservation area (untrue, all non-listed roofs in conservation areas are permitted) and also being an Article4 Direction area (true, but it means that the £150 application fee is then waived – something they don’t tell you). However, the planning committee generally favours renewable installations, so there’s a definite knack to getting planning permission.

That’s what this group is setting out to do: to support Lewes residents to get group-discounted, funded, permitted solar pv on their southish facing roofs in 2011. It’s free, for now. We’re launching the project on 14 January. So if your new year’s resolution is to start to generate your own power, please contact us. Here’s wishing readers a warm and restful break.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

throw off the duvet

I’m amazed at how empowering DIY can be. The sudden drop in temperature has catalysed us into getting our house shipshape for the winter. Homebase now has a brilliant line in draughtproofing and insulation materials, and Bunces and Wenban- Smith do too, only a bit less choice. Last weekend we brought home two rolls of Carbon Zero loft insulation (for £10 total), sawed a little hatch in our bathroom ceiling and stuffed the roof void full of this wonderful stuff, a bit like candyfloss, spun from recycled bottles. This weekend we’re going to put our judgements aside (about not wanting to seem like poor students) and put double glazing film up on the bedroom windows. I’m more determined than ever, with the prospect of a second cold winter, to save up for double glazing throughout our house, which, like so many old Lewes houses, seems to be one big window.

Maybe I’m unconsciously aware of a great financial crash looming on the horizon. I’ve just read the nef booklet ‘Where did our money go?’ which describes the government and our economy/society as being inextricably linked with the banking industry and, so, unlikely ever to put in place the regulations needed to stop its suicidal growth at the taxpayer’s expense. It quotes Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England as saying, ‘Massive support extended to the banking sector around the world… has created possibly the biggest moral hazard in history’. Transition Town Lewes is going to be talking about this booklet and possible local solutions at an event next Thursday.

Attending a talk by Stoneleigh earlier this week only added to the impression of collapse as inevitable but also as a necessary part of the process of breaking through to healthier, local ways of running our society fairly on finite resources. As I wrote this summer, it really is time to prepare by getting out of debt where possible (and no, sorry, the banks will never forgive debt), to get interconnected and to start building resilience across the board. That means being strategic and investing our time and money into solutions – not escape plans!

So rather than snuggling under the duvet for the duration I’m going to dress up warm and get out there and engage with the snow and it all.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

put the kettle on

When I got home yesterday I discovered that all four of my children had taken part in the student protests, independent of each other. I'm proud of them for being active citizens, willing to participate in protest when democracy is not working. I'm actually amazed that more people haven't been protesting, given that the cuts coincide with the record £7 billion the bankers are about to award themselves in bonuses. 

Rose, who is 17, was one of a hundred students who got kettled on Brighton seafront late yesterday afternoon. That means that she was surrounded by armed and helmeted police and not allowed to leave the cordon to pee, to get warm or for any reason at all. They were kept like that, freezing, for two hours and only allowed to leave after that if they gave their names and addresses and were photographed. The kettling was much more severe in London.

This is apparently how police are being taught how to control peaceful demonstrations and although it is no doubt intended to intimidate citizens into being less likely to protest, I feel it is likely to radicalise a whole new generation of children and youth. 

We are probably entering a time of material hardship and therefore increasing unrest. I grew up with a feeling of national security. My kids will almost certainly not have that privilege. But maybe that's a more real perspective; looking back I can see that the price of our comfort was too high.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

mending our ways

My coat’s so old that it’s practically falling off my back, plus last winter the moths got to it. So when the weather turned I found myself coat shopping. In vain. Nothing, even the expensive coats in various Lewes chains, matched my friendly old pelage for comfort and cover. 

Just in time, a friend of a friend, Yvonne, came to the rescue, turning up at my house one afternoon. We started with a cup of tea, then, confident yet respectful, she encouraged me to take out my favourite old clothes, many too far gone for wearing but lingering in the back of my cupboard hoping for rehabilitation. She left in a while, with my coat, four old favourites and a pile of unwanted clothes to use as patches. A fortnight later she returned with a magnificent redeemed coat, replete with a new fur collar from an old purple fleece and patches all down the sides where the moth holes had been. Good for at least another ten years. And my beloved old rags now have a new lease of life. Plus, while on the case, I took three bags of clothes to the charity shops.

OK, I am now in danger of becoming the patchwork lady but for me, nowadays, comfort and playfulness are more important than status. Anyway, with this double dip/long descent, however you see it, repairing things is going to become the norm. How do we respond to life in a degrowth society, where our children are likely to be poorer than we have been? I say let’s embrace it, and let’s be a bit creative together.

Friday, 29 October 2010

flight spike

Last month we broke a four-year pledge not to fly, and took a 90-minute plane across Turkey. The two-night train sleepers were full and we had a stomach bug, so couldn’t go by toiletless bus. And we ‘had to’ head home.

In retrospect I think we should have waited a week for the next sleeper compartment, for when I returned home and filled in my weekly direct fossil fuel emissions on Carbon Account, I found that our carbon budget, carefully tended and pruned, was well and truly busted. We’d managed to get our household emissions really low, through a careful regime of draughtproofing, turning off appliances and lights, using big machines when the sun shone to use electricity generated by the sun, and wearing jumpers and using our woodburning stove as our sole heat source for most of the winter.

That one flight now sits, a massive orange spike towering over the steady thin line of frugality. Damn! 685 miles of flying means 70% of this year’s direct emissions to date, or nearly half a ton of CO2 each. And no matter how much we try to remain frugal, that spike will haunt us for the rest of the year.
I’m not one for guilt, generally, nor smugness. I just take this as a sobering reminder: there’s absolutely no point in making small changes like recycling and walking to the shops, if we don’t reduce our flying. In terms of making a difference to our carbon footprint, that’s the Big One.
So, I’ll just renew my Gold flight pledge here and encourage others to do so – there’s a Silver Pledge for those starting out on the learning curve.

Monday, 25 October 2010


Listening to the press coverage of The Cuts today, you’d think we were on the brink of deep poverty. When that idea was put to Marguerite Patten, the War Food writer and home economist, at a talk in Lewes recently, she laughed derisively. As travelling outside Europe recently reminded me, we are extraordinarily well off in this country and few of us are likely to starve. Yet whatever the cause - bankers’ greed or government over-ambition, or simply because resource depletion equals economic decline - we are going to have to learn to live more frugally. It doesn’t help that our leaders and the press all express their great desire to get the economic machine back on track. Or that the collective dream of consumption continues unabated. The inconvenient truth is that small is inevitable. And like the proverbial ants, the ones preparing now will be more resilient and more relaxed.

Our family is still muddling towards frugality. This is the title of a book given to me by my friend Jim. The author, writing 30 years ago, tell us that the roots of the word frugality in Latin are frugalior meaning useful or worthy, and frux, meaning fruitful or productive. Unfortunately over the years the words have come to mean thriftiness and abstention, whereas their full meaning reflects a full and ‘fruitful’ use of all resources.

At this time of year, everything feels fruitful, and with my allotment is giving us fruit and veg for most of our meals. We’ve got a whole lot of greens planted up in the polytunnel which I hope will mean we can eat a salad most days of the year. Best of all, through the winter we’ll continue to harvest solar energy through our solar photovoltaic panels, carefully saved for and installed after a long and challenging planning process. Since they were installed in July, we’ve generated about ¾ of our household needs.We have wood for our burner and are still obsessively draightproofing.

I wonder, though, if frugality will take off. It doesn’t sell stuff. So the media wont sell it, nor will the shops. And it takes a little more time and effort for those too busy to bother and used to a convenience culture.

Yet, a frugal life is not something to be derided as hair-shirt abnegation. With less need to work and more time to play, it’s bloody brilliant! Let’s reclaim this frugality as a very juicy idea.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

whiff only

We’ve recently returned from a long train journey  through Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus. A month to celebrate being alive, together after 20 years. A cross-reflective journey in search of the exotic after four years of not flying. We’re still having travelling dreams, where the smell of sewage mingles with the call to prayer and the beautiful, dilapidated, ancient and chaotic has its own cohesion. It’s hard and unrealistic to try to make sense of such rich exposure. As difficult as interpreting the curly script of Armenian or the professional fleecing techniques of the Georgian taxi drivers. It’s enough just to wonder.

As a food lover I was struck by the inverse relationship between the wealth of a country and its interconnected, employment-intense food infrastructure. As soon as we crossed the Bosphorous in Istanbul, that marks the divide between Europe and the East, we saw people growing and selling food all along the roads, from women knocking walnuts out of the trees growing along the main roads, to horsedrawn carts piled with produce. Outside our homestay in Tblisi, Georgia, a man and his wife sold freshly-made khachapuri – cheese-filled pastries – from their front window, an old lady sold tomatoes and grapes from a little shelf outside a shop to supplement her tiny pension, and the next-door shop employed five women attending five counters, each selling different goods: fresh, preserves, alcohol, toys and household goods, cooked fast food: a whole department store in one little shop the size of Bill’s. And yes, it smelled very good, a mixture of fish, pastries, tobacco smoke, bodies and fruit, with a whiff of sewage.

Returning home, through Austria and Germany, I became chilled by the cult of efficiency – acres of clean pavement; supermarkets with minimum employment: materialism gone too far. Back in Lewes, I have mixed feelings; we’ve definitely lost our food resilience, being 98% dependent on Tesco and Waitrose. But we have a weekly market. And we’ve created a kind of token ritual in the Octoberfeast. Maybe, tentatively, we’re coming back to our senses.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

parallel worlds

Since previewing a brilliant short film called Beyond the Tipping Point, which is to be shown and debated in Lewes this autumn, I’ve been pondering the issue of how people are coping with the now well-established information that our collective behaviour (in the West) is taking our stable climate to the brink, some say beyond the point of repair (well, for a few million years).

I’m bewildered that so few people are talking about it. You’d think there’d be a mass conversation going on right now, as there would if, say, a world nuclear war was about to break out. But it’s a bit of a conversation stopper, the scale of the problem overwhelming people, sending them into a place of denial or hopelessness, or hedonism. No wonder alcoholism and gaming addiction is on the rise. Then there’s the problem, my young friend Bethia told me, of ‘why should individuals change when society isn’t?’ An extra disincentive to make real personal change is the fear of being ridiculed for being green, extremist, abnormal, a fear of not fitting in, of not being liked by friends for taking an ethical stand, one that can be interpreted as mad or superior. I’ve been accused of that lately; it shouldn’t hurt but it does.

Yet I’m also meeting individuals who tell me –‘I’ve given up flying’, ‘I’m making my own clothes’, ‘I’ve installed a solar panel, ‘I’m loving local’. I’ve heard some voices accepting that it’s not BP who is responsible for the Louisiana disaster, it’s us, who buy BP oil and who invest in it. And, come to think of it, maybe it’s the wealthy citizens, living on 3-8 planets, as we do, who are partly responsible for the flooding in Pakistan. One can, as my friend Anuradha Vittachi writes, measure how many lives are affected by one’s choice to fly. I know this talk puts people off change, but how big does the crisis have to be for us to start to talk about it?

And there are some pretty creative community-wide moves afoot. Lewes District Council last week launched a town-wide car club. Using cars to reduce car use, an initial two cars in central Lewes are now available for the pubic to book and drive; they’re inviting membership now from the Commonwheels website. The Lewes Car Club is a venture being partnered by Transition Town Lewes, who wrote the feasibility study. TTL is also still going strong, with a new weekly market and a renewable power station in the pipeline, plus a website, promoting among other things, events every Wedneday at the beautiful Linklater Pavilion. TTL isn’t out to convert everyone to being green. Rather, I think, it’s being pretty successful in gradually co-creating a basic parallel public infrastructure that can be scaled up as and when.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

pilgrim's progress

I walked to Forest Row last week, a walk of about 20 miles that I will remember for many years. It took three days, though some people can do the walk in one. My daughter Sophia and I set out at seven in the evening and reached the Anchor Inn in Barcombe at nine, just in time for a glass of wine and a quick meal and then a bed down in our warm sleeping bags and all-weather bivvy bags in an adjacent field, with the river at our heads. I was woken later by splashing in the river and hoped we wouldn't get trampled on by an otter or rat. Next morning we woke early and set off up the Ouse, swimming after breakfast in a gently sloping swimming hole surrounded by himalayan balsam and honeybees. A short while later we passed a woman who must have been about 80, lustily smashing rubble off bricks a a volunteer with the Sussex Ouse Restoration Trust, repairing the lock at Isfield. There we once 19 locks on the Ouse, which could, in their heyday 130 years ago, be navigated all the way to Haywards Heath. Their restoration, one by one, is a courageous act, and may prove to be important to life after cheap oil. After Isfield we headed off towards the pretty village of Fletching, where we had lunch and stocked up on provisions. That prompted a little nap in a field, then we got distracted by field mushrooms growing in fairy rings. We got lost later in the Sheffield Forest and arrived in Chelwood Gate at six, just as it started to rain. After supper of (field) mushroom risotto with friends we set up camp on the Ashhdown Forest, most of which is closely-grazed heathland. We spread our sleeping mats out and did some shooting-stargazing, on the night of the gorgeous Perseads. Because there was no moon, and little light pollution, the stars were like a blazing blanket above our heads. We camped in a little copse, sensing that wild camping on the Forest is frowned upon. I slept deeply, belly to belly on the soft, pine-scented soil. We slept late, and emerged to amble over to Gylls Lap on the other side of the Forest, meeting friends for a picnic before walking in to Forest Row. 

Apart from the joy of spending uninterrupted time with my daughter, what struck me was how gentle and - feminine - the experience was. Walking over the land, a slow exploration, is kind and non-violent, especially compared to the cars we encountered a couple of times. Walking through fields of corn and wheat, at the beginning, which gave way to sheep and cattle towards the Forest, you get to know the land's intimite details, to appreciate the roll and the plains, the brooks and the different trees. I was strangely moved by the experience. My body ached by the end of the walk, but I feel great now and I'm longing to walk again, further, longer, to be, as Satish Kumar recently said in his talk in Glynde, not a tourist on Earth but a pilgrim.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


I started writing about staycations a week ago when faced with a fortnight with nothing much to do. Kids gone to festivals, and apart from one day's work, my diary was empty. So since we’re not going away this month, I decided to attempt a staycation. In my own home.

Here are some of the things I did the first week. Stay in bed late. Have a long bath in the morning. Paint my toenails. Check out 20 books and dvds from the Library. Go back to bed in the middle of the day. Walk around town, slowly, looking in shops I don’t normally look in. Sit in a cafe, with the papers. Have a cranial treatment. Have lunch with a friend. Fall asleep on the sofa with a hot water bottle and a book, in the daytime. Spend a whole day on my allotment. Drop in on a friend. Cook a different recipe every day from Ottam Ollenghi’s brilliant vegetarian cookbook Plenty. Spend an afternoon sitting by my bees. Scrump plums from the Landport and make plum jam. 

Here are some of the things I didn’t do: turn off the phones. Turn off the computer. Stop doing the chores. Get sidetracked into a drama. So one week in and I'm not doing that well. Holiday is a state of mind, but a very difficult one to achieve.
And now I’ve had a holiday forced on me. Our router has gone bust; it’ll take ten days to get back online. And I’m setting off this afternoon on a walkabout, with my daughter Sophia. We’re taking sleeping bags, bivvy bags and a stash of food and water. We’re turning left out the door, left up the river towards the Ashdown Forest and, ultimately, Forest Row. We’ll sleep when tired and eat when hungry. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


I recently had an encounter with the plant meadowsweet.  I was on a course, camping, and my friend Anna Richardson suggested a tea of meadowsweet for the headache and aching joints Grace and I were experiencing, instead of the paracetamol we would normally have turned to. She handed me a sprig she’d picked earlier and we immersed it in boiling water. The taste and smell were amazing – a sense of hay and almond, a light dusty fragrance, full of sunshine. And that night, in the dark, my dreams and even my pee  smelled of meadowsweet. At the end of the course Grace and I made a pact to make our own herb teas this year rather than buying them.

Meadowsweet, with its frothy, creamy heads, is abundant in the ditches and meadow margins at the moment, and I went out to gather some on a hot afternoon this week on the back lanes. It’s drying on my kitchen table, now, filling the room with its presence. I rang my friend Haskel Adamson, the herbalist, for guidance about what to do next.

‘Now is a perfect time to be collecting herbs’, he said, ‘because the intense heat brings out the essential oils. I went on a walk last night,’ Haskel continued, ‘and I saw yarrow, agrimony, mugwort, St Johns Wort, self-heal and tansy, which all make good herb teas. And in the meadows I saw meadowsweet, vervain and walnut leaves.’

Plants from the garden include sage, lavender, thyme, and rosemary, which are good to dry now before the oils diminish in the winter time. It’s a perfect time to pick lemon balm, before it goes to flower, and it might then grow again before the winter. You can also pick and dry flowers for herb teas, such as marigold and borage.

To dry the herbs, says Haskel, either hang them up out of direct sunlight in a warm, airy place, such as your kitchen, or for smaller flowers, dry them on a rack or muslin in a similar condition then store in paper or fabric bags in a dark place for up to a year. It’s also a perfect time to make St Johns Wort Oil. Fill a jam jar with the flowers, cover with olive oil and leave in a sunny window for a month until the oil turns red. Remove the flowers and store in a dark place, using the oil for wound healing and aching muscles.

Of course, make sure you know what you are picking and don’t over-exploit them (the Wildlife and Countryside Act makes picking all wildflowers illegal). Pick only a small proportion of the plant, and check that there are plenty of other plants left.

For me, the experience of gathering and drinking herb tisanes involves a good deal of reverence and gratitude; isn’t it amazing how the plant nations all around us are there for our nourishment, healing and delight? Some might even say that we can learn directly from plants in much deeper ways. It seems to me that this re-connection with the plant world is pretty much essential for us to make the transition, to become healed and viable as a human race. Thank you, meadowsweet.  

Anna Richardson and Anne Lynn are running a plant journeying day on Saturday 31 July in a local woodland to learn how to deepen our relationships with plants 01273 858154

Haskel Adamson is available for herb consultation and remedies, and personal herb walks 07842192614. Picture from Wikimedia.

Thursday, 15 July 2010


As the summer reaches its peak, I’m immersing myself in nature whenever possible, and this year I’m particularly enjoying being naked wherever I can. There’s something about being bare that brings out the playful rebel in me. And I’m fascinated by what it brings up in all of us. When inviting my friends to the recent Pells Skinny Dip, the responses included What Fun! How Disgusting! How Embarrassing! and What’s the Point? To some extent, I agree with the latter perspective, the skinny dip being late in the day, most of us rather chilly and the setting rather un-natural. But I went there because I could.

My pleasure in nakedness has certainly increased with age. When I was younger there was always the real fear of being leered at by the male predator types. Now there is no chance of that, particularly since I now only have one breast, and that freedom from fear of being pounced on is liberating. When I had the operation last year I was grieving never being able to skinny dip again, but a friend pointed out that that was a ridiculous thought. Many women have lost a breast to cancer, and being relaxed about it would do us all a service. In some ways, being seen and accepted, scar and all, has been part of my healing journey and I wonder whether it’s not just being naked but being seen naked that is healing for others too.

I’m finding my favourite place to be naked is in deep nature, especially, this summer, in rivers. I’ve swum in the chocolate brown waters of the River Dart, under the cool, mossy oaks. I’ve dived into the muddy waters of the Ouse at the turning of the tide. And last week I swam at dawn every day in a Gloucestershire river that meandered through fields and woods. Feeling the smooth flow of cool water, standing in the hot sunshine with a gentle breeze, lying in the soft grass, unclothed, is, to me, a hugely sensory experience, one that’s available to anyone of any age or body shape. Being naked in wild places can be deeply empowering: at times I start to vibrate as I feel the earth’s energy flowing through me. At the same time, it can remind me of my vulnerability, as though, as we strip off clothes we strip off the layers of pretense and protection with which we clad ourselves in the ‘civilised’ world.

My friend Philip Carr-Gomm, a Lewes resident, writes about all this in his lovely, illustrated, new book A Brief History of Nakedness,
‘Awareness of ourselves as embodied creatures lies at the heart of our sense of self, which explains why so much money and effort is spent on trying to change and cover our bodies, since the way we perceive them and our appearance radically affects our experience of ourselves and of the world.’

Thursday, 17 June 2010

the money loop

This year’s Transition Conference in Newton Abbott revealed a new level of maturity in the movement, with hundreds of communities all over England – and the world – creating positive projects and bringing a low-carbon culture into being. Apart from several workshops with great relevance to Lewes – Energy Descent Action Planning and Working with Local Councils, one talk left me and most of those that attended reeling.

Michelle Foss, a Canadian financial commentator who writes as Stoneleigh on The Automatic Earth, spoke with great authority and in technical detail about a systemic financial crisis that would be upon us within two years, probably starting this year. The rapidly decreasing energy return on energy input of fossil fuels and a collapse of access to cheap unregulated finance will mean that we can no longer leverage the derivatives creating artificial wealth in the last few decades and we’ll experience a return back to the real economy, which is very much smaller.

We’ll be experiencing the world’s worst financial depression, she says, on the back of the world's biggest financial bubble, with house prices falling 90% and cash more or less drying up. Her key advice was to get out of all debt and get into transition. See here for Shaun Chamberlain’s great commentary. And there's a recording of her talk here at Indymedia. In the aftermath there was much discussion, which was summed up beautifully by Peter Lipman, chair of the Transition Network.

During the conversations someone talked me through a thought experiment: think of the times when you’ve been most happy, fulfilled in your life. What was happening then? Now think of the times when you’ve been most stressed, most shut down. What was happening then? Good, healthy experiences are usually not to do with money; they’re about being bonded, with each other, with nature.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

here comes the sun

I'm jumping for joy because we’ll soon be installing solar photovoltaic panels on our roof on St Johns Terrace. Last night’s planning committee gave us permission, going against the conservation officer’s (lengthy) recommendation for refusal, as well as opposition by Friends of Lewes and the new Conservation Area Advisory Group. (Though with loads of support from residents and Transition friends).

It’s a coup for several reasons. The chair of the committee, who is very supportive of renewables, agreed that the council’s interpretation of the Article 4 Direction (which places extra conservation measures on Lewes) should be reassessed. It’s a ridiculous waste of taxpayers’ money and residents’ time for householders in central Lewes to require planning permission, where in all but four towns in England, solar panels are permitted anywhere except on listed buildings.

Second, our roof is central and visible, and will, I hope, inspire others. Ovesco, by the way, Lewes’s non-profit energy company, is investigating low-cost loans for people who can’t raise the cash. £11,000 in our case, from a job that practically did Dirk in when he spent three months solid earlier this year playing for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Third, these panels will enable us to generate half our current electricity needs, probably more if we made a bit more effort – and all once the children leave home. All our electricity will be free when the sun shines, and when we’re not using it, it will be used by one of our neighbours.

The new Feed In Tariffs make solar pv affordable, with a payback of 12 years in our case, through an income (£900pa) that is guaranteed for 25 years. So once we’ve paid off the system, the payments will continue, much like a pension.

There’s quite a ‘phew’ element to all this for me, as it’s the latest in a long list of resilience measures our household has been putting in place over the last couple of years. Peak Oil, which three years ago, when we started Transition Town Lewes, seemed like a distant mirage, is getting more and more real, with even Paxo leading a 15 minute discussion on it as Newsnight’s main story last night. Peak Oil means that easy oil has run out, and the fuel we have become so addicted to is becoming more expensive, more damaging to nature through extraction and CO2 emissions, and more unethical, in some cases, deeply, disgustingly so. Personal and community resilience is a sane response to this: growing food, working locally, building community, enjoying consuming less, and – finally – generating our own power from the sun. It’s a powerful feeling!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

the swarming of the bees

The recent sultry, heavy weather has been perfect for swarming bees. And they have been swarming. Last week I helped collect a swarm from an apple tree in New Road. And then two days ago, an empty hive in St John Sub Castro cemetary near me was suddenly inhabited by a swarm. I wasn’t there to witness it, only came upon it late in the day when the queen had already entered and the bees were outside the hive, abdomens in air, fanning the pheromone scent that calls the other bees to the queen.

That makes fours swarms I’ve been involved with so far this year. Every time, it’s an incredible honour. It’s a strange experience, one that involves total trust in the bees and some courage, especially as my intention is to gradually stop using the veil and other protection for most bee work. In fact the two seem to go hand in hand; many beekeepers, with protection, can be quite clumsy and inconsiderate of the bees. Being vulnerable makes one far more gentle and observant.

When I collect a swarm I feel like a midwife, and try to be someone who is simply observing, supporting and there to help in case of any problems. The ideal midwife, to me, is someone who is both invisible and very present.

I read today that bees have existed for 45 million years (dated from a bee preserved in amber). Compare that with humans who have been around for at most half a million years. Yet, in one human generation we’ve managed to bring 45 million generations of bee to the brink of their own existence. Or, if you think of the bee as one organism, we have brought the bee being who has lived for 45 million years, to near death. And, according to some, when the bees go, our days are numbered.
Clearly humanity has gone very, very wrong and the bees (and most other beings) are telling us this. Yet society’s response to the bee collapse is more funding and research involving genetic and physical manipulation of bees to help make them varroa resistant and so on: more focus on the symptoms rather than the cause.

My belief, and that of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, is that honeybees need to be left alone to do what they have been doing for millions of years. We have got to start understanding their needs, not ours. They simply need a healthy environment – both a (natural) hive environment and also biodiverse, non-toxic air, water and food/foraging, which is what we need too. The bees are our greatest teachers, and I deeply hope that we can start to learn from them.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

letter from the future

I'm planning a trip this summer to visit my brothers in America and Canada. I’m taking three months – one to cross the Atlantic and back by Clipper ship, one to spend with my brothers and other friends and one getting around. The electric train network, especially down the East Coast, runs really well now the electricity companies have sorted out the solar fields around cities and the major train junctions. I’ve been saving up for this trip for a couple of years and I’m really looking forward to travelling slowly.

Travelling wasn’t always like this for me; I was in the local paper in 1960, for being the youngest child in England to fly transatlantic – for my New York christening. When I was in my twenties Freddy Laker figured out how to run cheap transatlantic flights – I was at university in America then, studying science, and I remember getting standbys for £50 to come home for holidays. Later, I took cheap flights when I could, and when the children were young we had holidays in St Lucia, Sardinia, Morocco and all around Europe. Those holidays deepened my sense of awe and respect for all life and people on earth. That global mind was one of the good things to come out of the century of flying.

Which is why, in my 40s, when I discovered the effects of burning fossil-fuels, in gory scientific detail, I had to stop all that flying and buying that I’d been brought up to believe was my birthright. I was sad to leave it behind, but my conscience made me do it. Some friends got the message long before me, in the 70s; others continued flying for a few years, often because, like me, their family had scattered around the world in the age of cheap flights. But gradually flying, like smoking, became socially unacceptable; people started to discover that flying was not a resilient or – real – way to live, and that other ways, like conference calls, or just working closer to home and family were more relaxing and effective. That’s when other modes of transport also became more common and more affordable.

I think the turning point was around 2010. That was a bad year for the airlines. First the early stages of the economic contraction left many of them bust or consolidating. Then fuel prices started going up and that made it more difficult to run cheap flights; the whole scandal of the tar sands didn’t help either. The Icelandic volcano erupting grounded airlines for the first time since they were invented and made some people long for quiet skies, and that uncertainty started a trend towards trains for short-haul. Plus, everyone was saying how unpleasant flying had become, with the anti-terrorism checks and so on. And then I remember the new government - it was that brief Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition – announcing that there would be no more new runways built at Heathrow, Gatwick and Standsted, the main hubs.

I remember storming parliament to demand this, dressed as a suffragette, linking with the right for women to vote. Your mother also had a big sit-down picnic in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, and your aunt Anna too; I think she still has the Flash-Mob T-shirt. To them, as teenagers, it was so clear that new runways were incompatible with the move away from fossil fuels and the age of earth repair that we could see coming by then. Yes, if there was a day to celebrate, when the age of air travel turned a corner, I think it was the day they stopped building new runways.

I hope that helps with your essay about ‘flying in the olden days’
With much love, your granny, May 2030

Thursday, 13 May 2010

the lewes bubble

It struck me the other day that not a single one of my friends has a proper job. That is, a 9-5, Monday to Friday job. So are they all dossers? Far from it; on analysis they work quite intently at their profession, or should I say professions. It seems that most people I know do a range of jobs, mostly part time, mostly self-employed, some paid, some unpaid, some as a hobby, some as part of a training. Take one friend, for instance. She’s not well off but manages to rent a room in Lewes. She works with disabled children three days a week, and as a yoga teacher some evenings. As an accomplished artist, she does occasional community art projects, paid or unpaid. The rest of the time she grows food, spends time supporting friends and experiencing life to the full. Take another friend. He occasionally works for the Royal Shakespeare Company as a musician; he composes library music when the opportunity comes up and the rest of the time he works for community projects in Lewes for free and sunbathes. Lewes is full of people like that.

I know, Lewes is a bubble, but I’ve noticed that what happens here tends to be what the national trend will be. People are becoming ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with mass consumerism, and this feeling seems to have intensified since the banking and politicians’ expenses fiascos. Class isn’t a factor: the class system is far less defined these days in terms of prosperity. Perhaps conscience is the motivating factor these days. Either way, consumerism is being dismantled, invisibly: a revolution that’s not being televised.

I find the trend towards self-employment exciting. By embedding themselves in the community with their work, such people (including me) are more self-determined and therefore more resilient. Recently, I’ve been bartering with friends who are manually skilled – a polytunnel erection for a cord of wood; a beehive for help with marketing. This is a serious game – one that’s incredibly fun, it’s bucking the money system, and it’s so much more real than this plastic world we’ve been living in for most of the 20th century.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

veg out

Something is happening to me and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I had to go to the supermarket a couple of times last week - I can’t remember why - I was in a hurry or my usual shops were closed. Standing in front of the vegetables my stomach spoke to me: ‘Don’t eat that stuff. You don’t know where it’s from.’ I walked up and down the vegetable aisle but there wasn’t a thing there I felt like eating, even organic. Normally I get a little joy-song from my body when I think of eating the food in front of me. But the sullen silence meant I left without the planned supper. Maybe it was seeing Food Inc a couple of weeks ago. Maybe I’ve gone off industrial food.

What to do? The allotment is still mid-hungry gap, and my Ashurst veg box is still fortnightly. But there are a few things to eat. There’s the last leeks and some chard, just about to bolt. I’ve been steaming chard, chopping it up with the end of the garlic and olive oil. There’s nettles, of course, which make the best soup on these cold days. There’s rhubarb, loads of rhubarb, still. And there are some good salads around, if you use the young lime leaves along the Pells to replace lettuce, and mix in a few odd leaves like dandelion, kale and rocket. I’ve got some spring onions left over from last year, some just-up chives plus the last parsnips from the old lady in the nearby allotment.

So, in fact, there’s plenty of food. It’s free and it’s incredibly tasty. It’s what there is, until June when the variety starts to grow.

Someone commented recently that I am a rich woman playing at the good life. And the Tesco supporters at the planning meeting implied that local food is for wealthy people. These facile repetitions need to be challenged. I am technically quite poor – poor enough to qualify for tax credits and maximum grants for my children in education, and happy to be so. But I am educated and I read about the world, and so good quality food is a priority, and I forego much of the ‘stuff’ and activity other people seem to find so essential. I’m not alone on the allotment in growing my own food partly because it saves money, and will do so increasingly as economic growth continues to stall and peak oil starts to be felt. The kind of food we eat is a choice. We are not victims of our economic circumstance; we are partners in our own destiny.

Our vicar in Firle, Pete Owen-Jones seems to feel the same in a new BBC2 series, How to Live a Simple Life.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

the buzz about bees

Honeybee swarming season is upon us again and I collected a swarm from a garden in the Pells last week. The bees are now safe and cosy in a beautiful Abbe Warre top bar beehive made by my Lewes beekeeper friend Mike Millwood. Abbe Warre was an abbot, living around 1900, who spent his life experimenting on 350 different hive designs to find the best kind of hive for bees to be live in naturally and with minimal intervention. The design allows bees to make their own foundation and comb and it assumes bees will swarm. The whole art of natural beekeeping is observation. Needless to say, I’ve been sitting on a little log near the hive observing the bees (and they have been observing me).

My new hive is on my allotment on Landport. Blessings on Steve Brigden, the Town Clerk. I asked him if I could keep bees on the allotment and he then all Lewes allotment holders whether they object to honeybees being kept on allotments. As far as I know, there were no objections, only replies of delight, and Steve is now writing a new clause in the allotment contract allowing bees to be kept on all Lewes allotments.

Three other lovely things have happened this week. First, I heard the great news that the North St industrial estate has been redesignated functional flood plain by the Environment Agency. The definition of functional floodplain is land where water has to flow or be stored in times of flood. Which effectively means no new build on almost the entire area. Presumably for the duration of the transition, in other words, a long time. So Angel Properties and the likes will never be able to get their hands on Lewes land. Hooray!

Industrial land like this shouldn’t be built on. It’s meant to be flexible and open for use by the creative, local livelihoods that are emerging as a result of the transition. There’s already a lot of local employment in the area. Some of the warehouses, such as Zu, Pop-up and Arthole, are already buzzing hubs of innovation. Hooray for Lewes Matters, Phoenix Action and the Lewes Community Land Trust. Hooray for Marco Crivello, Anthony Dicks and John Stockdale, our local heroes.

On Sunday I heard Satish Kumar (founder of Resurgence and Schumacher College) give an extraordinary sermon at Glynde Church in a service led by radical pilgrim vicar Peter Owen-Jones. He spoke of the difference between people who are like tourists in this world, seeking what they can get from life, consuming. And people who are pilgrims, who celebrate life and seek to enter a relationship with all beings.

Tomorrow morning I accompany Steph Bradley, a Transition storyteller, on a walk out of Lewes towards Forest Row. She has walked from Totnes along the footpaths over the last month, and is walking around England for six months, visiting about 200 of the transition towns and cities in England, listening to and sharing our stories. Steph is an Earth pilgrim, documenting and celebrating England in transition in 2010.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

clipped wings

Blessings on the volcano. I still feel a little giggle inside when I think back on the week the skies went quiet. There’s something immensely reassuring to know that nature is still in charge. Amongst the news babble, Alan De Botton’s lovely A World Without Planes stood out, a transition-style story from the future when our elders will tell tales of the great, noisy machines in the sky. In those times, people will still travel, but slowly, quietly.

It’s so hard to imagine, in this generation of overconsumption, but a world without planes is totally and utterly inevitable. For two reasons. The scientists tell us we must decarbonise by 80% by 2050 – or 95% if everyone has equal consumption rights (by the way, see here for the Guardian’s new national carbon calculator, which helps us to discover our options quite graphically). In that world – assuming that as a race we will choose to avoid our own demise through runaway climate change - flying will be very rare because of its intense use of fossil fuels and therefore pollution levels.

The second reason is the end of cheap oil, peaking sometime soon, apparently. Planes exist purely as a result of cheap oil. There’s currently no fuel to replace fossil fuels for flight, apart from biofuels, which, in cars, are already competing with an increasingly short food supply. A few years ago, when I gave up planes for ethical reasons, the feedback was invariably: ‘Some new, clean fuel will be invented’. Well it hasn’t and, given the science, it probably won’t.

George Monbiot, in his excellent column this week, warns that because of cheap oil our society has built a level of complexity that is highly vulnerable to shocks. We’re starting to see the effects of various kinds of shock – natural and man-made - on our globalised world, and Monbiot’s point is that we need to simplify in order to build resilience and to avoid collapse of any part of the system, which could lead to global collapse. ‘We can start decommissioning the system [aviation] while there is time and find ways of living happily with less of it. Or we can sit and wait for physical reality to simplify the system by more brutal means.'

Thursday, 15 April 2010

paradise lost

If I stand on my doorstep by St John-sub-Castro I can smell the balsam poplars down by the river. Their powerful scent draws me into their web of life, a web that seems to spread very far in this expansive springtime when the planet breathes a long breath out. At the other end of the North Street industrial estate, the wild patch along Green Lane has been cut to the ground, and with it has gone all the diversity of life that lived there. I was especially fond of the many little birds that lived and sang in those big scrubby bushes. Every time I walked through, almost daily, my heart would sing a little in celebration. A few years ago someone identified the birds there, and it was considered a bit of a bird haven. Now it's gone forever. I wonder what will replace it. Perhaps some concrete or some turf. Pity.

There’s also a community garden springing up in the middle of North Street, behind Pop Up Studios, which used to be the old fire headquarters. A group of artists and designers have been given a lease for two years while the estate is in limbo, along with many other creative small businesses populating other warehouses in North Street. So a few of us are starting to clean up the land; call it earth repair. We’ve removed the rubbish, cut back the brambles, made paths for the people who use it as a walk through from the car park, including willow arches, bowers and hideouts for children. Huge pallets from the Cuilfail tunnel work are being filled with soil from Freecycle, edible perennials and vegetable seeds. Young gardeners are teaching other people how to make compost and grow biodynamically. You’re welcome to join in. This is rebuilding a web of a kind, a community growing around growing food together. Because of the demand for land to grow food on nationally, these initiatives are cropping up all over England, and in response the government has created a Meanwhile Lease, to officially make undeveloped land available to grow vegetables. Now, about those lovely several acres of St Anne’s School in Lewes that ESCC is sitting on...
I do hope that loads of people turn up to the exhibition of visions for the North Street area, under the name of Phoenix Rising. Back at the end of last year, many disparate people came together, after wide invitation, to pool their ideas, one of which was the community garden referred to above. It’s a real, grassroots-led but thought through initiative serving Lewes, a chance to add our own hopes for the North Street area. So do make time to go along to the Town Hall next week.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

My last posting about Tesco

So Tesco won its application to expand in Lewes yesterday, increasing its already massive share of Lewes’s money and further undermining an already fragile and complex local economy and employment structure. It was interesting to watch how the drama played out in the formal planning meeting. The two members of the planning committee who spoke to accept the application said they opposed it but could find no material objection that would stand up to appeal. In my view, having read the documents, if the committee members had been minded to, they could have called on a number of laws now in place to prevent this kind of monopoly. They could have commissioned better, independent research. But they didn’t and the legal officers, ultimately, ran the process last night. A sad day for democracy.

But hey, I’m not sad. I did everything in my power to prevent the extension. I researched and wrote about it here. I had fun taking part in publicity antics like the Tesco whirl. We got 1,000 signatures, which meant that those 1,000 people are thinking more carefully about the ethics of their food. I got to know the wonderful Marina Pepper a little better. And I learned more about how corporations and local government work.

And much more importantly, I’m also helping create better alternatives. I’ve joined a Transition Town Lewes group forming to create a weekly local produce market, thanks to the support of the Lewes Town Partnership and Lewes District Council. We met yesterday, before the Tesco debacle, and had really positive meeting with vision, skill pooling and can-do. It’s going to be a wonderful market, with affordable, nutritious, local food providing creative enterprise opportunities for many people and rebuilding our relationships with each other and the land around us.

The old paradigm and the new are so poignantly juxtaposed. Here we are at the cusp of transition from an industrial growth society that has, especially in my generation, all but destroyed our collective natural capital. We live in the last days of unchecked greed; the machine is running out of fuel. And little by little, this creative, collaborative parallel public infrastructure is forming, not just through the Transition movement but in many, many different individual and collective ways, quietly, gently, persistently, beautifully.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Tescopoly - again

Marina Pepper and I spent the whole of Tuesday in the planning office of Lewes District Council sifting through documents looking for holes in Tesco’s application to expand by over 40%. Let’s be clear: Tesco is a multinational corporation and its consultants, Montague Evans, have the arguments down to a tee. Much of their evidence is estimated, predicted or extrapolated. By predicting a growing economy, they can claim that the effect of ‘only’ 4-5 shops closing will be remedied within two years. By linking the predicted increase in employees to increase in floor space they inflate the job numbers created by the expansion. They use a complex impact argument to claim that a £4.88 million revenue increase in their comparison goods will have a tiny effect on the town centre.

Many claims border on the hilarious. Tesco says that by increasing local jobs it will increase the local multiplier effect (used to measure money circulating in the local economy). It plans to become carbon neutral (rather difficult if much of your profits are based on transporting largely non-organic goods around the world) and it claims to support local food production.

There’s hidden information too: the plan shows four new bays for the dotcom local delivery business but there’s no mention of the increase in traffic that would be caused by the vans themselves or the produce vans supplying them.
According to the Retail Consultant hired by the District Council (and Tesco’s own figures) under the Competition Test, which was due to be incorporated into the new planning policy PPS4 last December, Tesco’s plans would have failed on all three counts. It’s taking over 60% of the convenience market; there are only two supermarkets in Lewes, and it’s not a new entrant.

There’s a clear case of monopoly here. How sad it would be if Tesco Lewes was the last superstore allowed, before the Competition Test became law, which might even happen before the General Election.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

mind the gap

I bought a cucumber and a bunch of grapes from the supermarket yesterday. The only odd thing about that is that I’d not done that since last September when they were in season. Nowadays, eating fruit and veg mainly from veg boxes and my allotment, such things are a rare treat, in this case an attempt to get my son to eat cheese sandwiches for lunch and a treat for my daughter who craves grapes when she’s ill. In terms of British eating season, we’re entering the hungry gap, when the roots all go floppy and start to sprout. I’m finding it hard to muster enthusiasm for cooking up, again, the swede, celeriac and parsnip in my fridge drawer. Yet, just in time, the greens are starting to come into their own and now every meal is green, rotating between chards, sprouting broccolis, various kales (this year I’ve grown Pentland Brig, Borecole and Red Russian) and the early pungent salads, a mix of rocket, lamb’s lettuce, dandelions, fennel leaves, various herbs, chives and young cleavers and brassica leaves, all coated with a honey and tahini dressing to offset the bitterness. The hungry gap means that the apple season is over, oranges from Europe have nearly finished and bananas are now a rare occasion in our fruit bowl. For the next two months, rhubarb is our main fruit and when strawberries arrive we will so very much enjoy them.

Am I a joyless self-flaggelating purist? No, on the whole – apart from, ahem, the roots - eating locally in season is pure pleasure, and the range of vitamins and minerals soaked up from our local, natural, unpolluted soil, water and sun are perfect after a long winter without sun, fresh local veg and exercise. Mankind has been finely, intuitively, tuned to nature for 80,000 generations, and just because one generation of Brits has bought the marketing message that supermarkets mean progress, doesn’t mean that it is so.

taking the 'ate' out of corporate

I’m still buzzing from a talk by Patrick Holden, chair of the Soil Association, at Pelham House last night, during which he described the mad vulnerability of our food chain to the complex man-made crises ahead. He reminded us of the collapse of other civilisations, usually because they ran out of food or fuel, often precipitously, because they continued apace until the final collapse. And because we globalised in the 20th century, the crisis in the 21st century is likely to be global, he said. Factors contributing to this include fossil fuel depletion, resource depletion (including phosphates we use for fertilisers), climate change, a rapidly growing population, diminishing growing land, the industrialisation of agriculture and a complete failure by our leaders to ensure we have a resilient plan B.

In our lifetime, in one generation, we’ve used up half of the world’s resources, laid down over hundreds of millions of years, including topsoil, fossil fuels and fish. Pause a minute to let that sink in; it’s deep. We’ve lived way beyond our means and we’ll pass down a severely depleted planet to our children. We’ve all been responsible, he said, even organic growers, so now it’s time to reverse the trend and start to take personal and collective responsibility. He said he sat next to Professor John Beddingham, the government’s chief scientist, at a lunch recently, and asked him about his thoughts on our resilience. Beddingham replied he thought that things would get very challenging in 15 years.
Holden’s main concern is that our food systems are far too concentrated in the hands of a few corporations and physically dangerously centralised, making them vulnerable to fuel price rises when peak oil hits. In the US 80% of arable land is planted with only two varieties of crops: maize and wheat, both genetically modified, so the seeds cannot be saved. A lot of that is used to feed animals in feedlots covering as far as the eye can see. It’s getting that way in the UK, he said. If you buy own-label milk in supermarkets, it comes from one of five milk processing plants. All of Sainsbury’s meat comes from one abbatoir. Even in Waitrose, if you buy carrots they are likely to come from one of 10 carrot producers, who produce 80% of all carrots.

Some of my best friends still shop in supermarkets, even though they admit that they don’t really want to. It’s almost addictive, the rut of supposed convenience and supposed savings that supermarkets tie you in to. They say they are too busy or can't afford to do otherwise. Yet I notice that cost isn’t such an issue when it comes to other expenses such as holidays and entertainment. But this isn’t about making people feel guilty or stupid; it’s about trying to raise awareness and talk about the issues. I’m wondering if we might need a sort of Supermarkets Anonymous – a 12 step programme to help us get off shopping and hand ourselves back to nature to feed us – any takers? Though a simpler start could be to simply join one of Lewes’s vegetable box schemes listed here.

And as I’ve said before, we shouldn’t demonise the supermarkets; they are doing what it says on the packet - maximising profit mainly through economies of scale and externalising costs (that means using our common natural capital as though it’s interest and exporting the pollution/cheap labour to somewhere invisible). And apart from being unsustainable and abhorrent, this practice is not resilient. The great thing about resilience – the ability to withstand shock – is that it’s about self-preservation – whereas the response to climate change is essentially a moral one. My hope is that once the penny drops and we all – from individuals, communities and governments, realise that the corporate food system, including Tesco, is not only unhealthy and immoral but also makes us dangerously vulnerable to shock - we will come to our senses and start to treat food as though our lives depend on it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

the convenient truth

The proposed Tesco expansion fascinates me. I keep wondering why so many people seem so unconcerned about giving their power and money to a global corporation that doesn’t have our welfare at heart. Far from being true to its strapline – Every Little Helps – Tesco cares mainly for profit. That’s what corporations do. Recent research from the Guardian revealed that in the week before Christmas last year, Tesco raised prices on a large number of items by over 10p average, when people really could have done with a little help but didn’t have time to shop around, while hyping price cuts, the majority of which were under 1p and 10p.

Many of us have a gut feeling that shopping at supermarkets isn’t great for anyone. But, the perceived benefits are price and convenience. Supermarkets are supposedly more convenient for two main reasons.

1. Because you can buy everything under one roof. I remember that smug feeling of loading a week’s shopping in the car after half an hour in the convenience store. But I believe that with a little creativity and willpower, it’s even possible to shop locally mainly from the sofa - ordering deliveries from Infinity Food/Just Trade, a veg box and the milkman, with the odd delivery from Bills to top it up, as I described here, here and here (ooo-er! I have got a bee in my bonnet!)

2. Because food from supermarkets is easier to prepare. I also believe it’s possible to cook, fairly quickly from scratch using the palette of amazing pulses, vegetables, cheeses and other goodies available from local shops. Just take for example the humble baked potato, which can be the basis at least once a week for a sumptuous feast.

And what’s the fuss about convenience anyway? How have we managed to turn the values in our lives upside down so that we’ve relegated what’s essentially a deeply pleasurable and nourishing experience to a drudgery to be rushed through? During my encounter with cancer last year I had time to question our notions of how we spend our time. I realised that once you reconnect time with pleasure, absolutely everything can be a deeply pleasing adventure, whether it’s shopping in local shops or cooking fresh food for family. And the more I honour time, by living simply, locally, slowly, the more juice I get out of life.

Lastly, convenience is the opposite of resilience. The more we vest ourselves in Tesco and the likes the less resilient we are in food, individually, as a community, and nationally. In 2000 during the fuel protests, the chair of Sainsbury had to ask Tony Blair to concede to the truckers because the supermarkets were running out of food. We’re not resilient to sudden food shocks, nor the ‘perfect storm’ predicted of food shortages caused by climate change, energy price hikes and the likes. Basically, we need to move away from convenience and towards local resilience. Transition Town Lewes has invited Patrick Holden, chair of the Soil Association to talk about Food Security in the 21st Century next Wednesday (7.30, £4, Pelham House). It should be fascinating. Meanwhile, let’s fall in love with real food, like chef Dan Barber did in this powerful, humorous short video.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

every little hurts

I joined in the Whirl at Tesco last Saturday along with a disparate group of local concerned citizens and un-consumers, to try to raise awareness about Tesco’s proposed expansion. It started at 2. We filtered through the line of policemen - who were tipped off - at the entrance and past the rows of arms-crossed managers at each aisle and started our non-shopping, initially nervously and then playfully, eventually ending in a delightful conga line of empty trolleys. At which point we were politely asked to leave. I hoped the red-faced manager would add, ‘For not shopping,’ but he said he didn’t need to give us a reason. We certainly were not, as he claimed, being disruptive. So we decamped to the entrance, where the younger ones started playing music and dancing and gave out leaflets to the shoppers, who seemed on the whole very open and a little alarmed to hear that Tesco wants to expand. Later that day, May’s General Store reported pre-Christmas levels of shopping and another long time Tesco-shopper friend told me he’d stop buying at Tesco if it expanded: ‘Enough is enough,’ he said.

Of course, many Lewesians support Tesco’s expansion but I suspect they don’t have the full facts, and if they did I believe many people would refuse to shop at Tesco and the likes, thus bringing on their demise. The negative impacts of Tesco are well documented and include destroying the local retail networks, local employment, they suck money from the local economy, their food production creates massive amounts of CO2 and waste, they depend on cheap imports and degrade biodiversity, land and water supplies in poor countries. Yet they’re not, nutrient-for-nutrient, calorie-for-calorie, cheaper than local shops. The inconvenient truth about supermarkets is that convenience is their only selling point.

I remembered the words of Joanna Macy, the Buddhist deep ecologist, who says that the Great Turning (from an industrial growth to a life-sustaining civilisation), which is happening now, is taking place concurrently on three dimensions. One is Holding Actions, which slow down the rate of social and ecological damage – such as boycotting, blockages (such as the Tesco whirl) , regulations (let’s hope Lewes District Council planning department has done its research well). The second is Shifts of Consciousness in which old materialist ways of thinking give way to understanding the interconnectedness , interdependence, of all things, such as we see in systems thinking; at that point, shopping at Tescos (and, probably, any supermarket) will be understood to be deeply damaging to the whole. The third dimension of the Great Turning is Structural Changes – which include new economic and social formations – new ways of owning land, sharing housing, measuring prosperity, an example of which is Transition Towns, local currencies and Community Land Trusts.

It seems that people sense we’re in the Great Turning but don’t feel empowered or inclined to do anything. That powerlessness is part of the old paragidm, and some would say, the ‘plan’ to have us all be consumers. Yet, there’s plenty we can be doing, including changing the way we do everything – work, eat, travel, spend our leisure time, relate – to reflect our deep human values. And the very best thing to do now, the most radical action, would be to move away from the global corporate-owned supermarket system that feeds us and start buying food locally, supporting local farmers and shops. Start now, even if it takes a year. Food will become fresher, tastier, more nutritious and simpler - and possibly cheaper. And while you're at it, why not join the Facebook campaign ‘We’ll do Whatever it takes to Stop Tesco Expansion in Lewes’.

Friday, 26 February 2010

ban the draught

I dreamed of draughtproofing last night, which shows me how obsessed I've become about blocking up the winds that sweep through our Victorian house. Until this winter I'd been quite happy to live with the cold until my stepdaughter came to stay to have her baby and we needed to have the house at a steady, warm temperature. Then I realised that as soon as the heating went off the temperature dropped back down to the icy levels of the outside, with frost on the inside of the windows, and so on.

It all culminated in a Transition Town Lewes Draughtbusting Sunday last weekend, a demonstration of all the things I had done and was planning to do. In the amazing absence of any online resources the energy group and I prepared a basic information sheet. The research was so complicated, my lack of basic carpentry skills so lacking, and the learning curve so steep that we felt that we needed to start pooling our wisdom and courage to get anything moving. Half the housing in Lewes is pretty ancient and as I keep on saying, many of us are totally unprepared and unresilient for when energy prices really rise, especially if climate change means more winters like this last one.

Apparently, since up to 20% of our heating goes straight out the door, windows and other cracks, that's a potential 20% of heating bills saved withe some draughtproofing, much of which can be done on the cheap. My favourite tool in the draughtproofing armoury is a roll of gaffer tape, available in white or black from Wenban Smith. As a quick fix, you can go round the rattling sash windows and simply tape them up in the winter. If you don't want to mess up the paint, there's other proprietary brands, including brushes for under doors and around the front door, from Architectural Seals, who are offering a 12.5% discount (thanks to Transition Town Lewes) for Lewesians (code LEWES125). A lot can be done with secondary glazing, which can range from cheap plastic film that you put on each year to the full blown replacement windows, via a cheap local chippie, Kai - all revealed in the instruction sheet.

But I'm obsessing. I really need to get out a little.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

you're welcome

This week we welcomed a baby girl into our household. It’s a deep privilege to support Hester, my stepdaughter, with her rite of passage that is motherhood and to help her practically with Wren’s transition in to the world. Wren’s birth has reminded me of the miraculousness of life creating itself, and the total innocence, nakedness, with which we enter this world.

And how does that innocence turn into the level of overconsumption and unbalance that we are witnessing today, with one billion people obese and another billion starving? How have we brought ourselves to (some say, over) the brink of our own survival? How did the indigenous soul, used to living in balance for perhaps up to 100,000 years, go wrong? I don’t think mankind is programmed to self-destruct, as some people say. I prefer the line taken in extraordinary novel Ishmael in which author Daniel Quinn describes our ‘taker’ culture as simply a culture of beliefs, that arose about 6,000 years ago, with the advent of patriarchal societies, religions and agriculture. Unlike genetics, beliefs can be changed.

Innocence is a big theme for me as I try to shed blame from my communications about climate change, whose facts still remain. I’ve been wrestling with the question: how can we do what we do in full knowledge of the effects? How can my neighbour, a green activist, fly around the world, knowing what he knows? And inevitably, as my finger points with three fingers pointing back, the question is most usefully turned around to me: why am I behaving self-destructively, knowing what I know? As someone who has lived through the near-death experience of cancer, why do I indulge in alcohol and dark thoughts?

All I can say is, I’m working on it, just as we all are, of course. It helps to remind myself that I’m innocent, to ask forgiveness for my flaws, and to be immensely, wondrously, gloriously and joyfully grateful for the wonder and flow of life living itself.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

the wasteland

A little pleasure garden is rising out of the rubbish and brambles on the North Street industrial estate. In the marginal land between a building that used to house the fire brigade and the walled-in river, a patch is being tended, tenderly, by a few people thrown together through the love of it. It’s a community garden in the making, so everyone’s welcome. On the first day we picked up the litter and cut back the brambles. The stronger among us hoisted logs to make a hexagonal raised keyhole bed. At the next session we planted strawberries, raspberries and an artichoke in it and made some paths using an old pile of woodchip. A little boy pitched in with his bucket and spade. An artist made a path around a welcoming mound by the entrance, on which we’ll plant crocuses, primroses and forget-me-nots. Soon we’ll make a swing, a fire pit and somewhere to sit, and a willow dome for the children, all out of scraps and unwanted things. A friend is running a biodynamic compost making workshop there soon, which will help revitalise the polluted soil. It’s becoming a place of beauty and intention.

Last week’s Costing the Earth spent 30 minutes covering the New Diggers, a new wave of people reclaiming unused land all over Britain in order to feed themselves. It’s a visceral collective response to climate change and peak oil, a move to empower ourselves in the face of uncertainty.

We all garden for different reasons, and this patch is special to me because of the people I am working with and because I love marginal places, derelict land where nature shows up through the cracks. That’s the reason why I never pay to visit National Trust gardens and the like; to me they’re sterile, forced arrangements in comparison. No, the wild places, the edges, are where it’s all happening. Last night’s totally gorgeous Natural World focused on the Wild Places of Essex. And there are plenty all around Lewes, when you start to look. From the moss on a wall to the tall grasses on the mounts and the wild patches near the castle, nature is constantly reasserting herself; you can never keep her down, never tame her. So we’re helping her along, a bit of Earth repair in our little Pop-Up garden, a place where people can be together and do what comes naturally.