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.