Thursday, 8 December 2011

this land is your land

I heard on the grapevine that the North Street area of Lewes has been sold to a foreign buyer (subject to contract). Its previous owner, Anglo-Irish Bank, who had loaned a ridiculous sum to Charles Style of Angel Properties to develop it, had repossessed it when Angel Properties went into admin. The Anglo-Irish Bank, which was heavily over-extended, in turn, went bust and was nationalised a couple of years ago so the land was until recently being held by the Irish government.

News of its new ownership must come as a blow to the Lewes Community Land Trust, which had created a consortium of social developers including Guinness Trust, to bid for the land. Their bid, however, was conditional and was probably underbid by an unconditional offer, which the Irish Government had been requiring.

What upsets me is that someone can simply buy a piece of land that’s essential to a town’s infrastructure, and then attempt to make money out of it, with little reference to the people who live and work there, this history, the culture, such as we saw with Charles Style’s bizarre Phoenix Quarter – brilliantly subdued by Lewes Matters five years ago.

At the moment, North Street is experiencing a small renaissance, with individuals and small groups of people renting the warehouses to make goods and run services. It’s probably quite a significant source of self-employment and employment in the town, precisely because there are no corporate logos to be seen, but under-valued as a result. The myth still prevails in town planning that large employers are the biggest source of revenue for a town, when the opposite is often true.  

Is the 22-acre land being landbanked as part of a wealthy foreigner’s property portfolio with the tenants in long-term uncertainty and unable to invest in infrastructure? Or will Lewes residents once again be faced with staving off someone else’s self-wealth-creating ‘vision for North St’? We shall see. I look forward to a future where once again Lewes is run by and for local people, looking after each other in the complex web of interconnectedness that creates real abundance and resilience. 

Thursday, 1 December 2011

well-fed neigbours

I don’t want to scare you but I think it’s time we started to store food. It looks as though we could be in for quite big changes in the coming decade. We might be looking at the Long Emergency and we might be facing some sudden changes. These could come from one or several areas: economic, energy and climate. Most pressing is the recent news that British government is planning for the possibility of economic collapse following the now-almost-inevitable collapse of the Euro.

When change happens, we’re all better off if we see it coming. There’s nothing more conducive to panic and bad behaviour than being badly prepared. You only need to visualise the Christmas rush at Tesco or the empty shelves in the fuel strikes in 2000 to get my drift. Or, as the article above describes, banks being unable to give out money and destroying companies dependent on bank credit.

But you don’t need a national crisis to justify storing food. Friends of mine who are going through financial troubles say that they feel so much better knowing they have a few sacks of rice and pulses in their store cupboard. And such things were totally normally in our grandparents’ day before the just-in-time brittle corporate food chains were established.

As I see it, there are three main ways to build food resilience. The easiest is to simply build up your own stores. Aim for a couple of months’ of your usual staples at any one time, then just get used to rotating the food as you eat it.
For a decade now we’ve been ordering our bulk food from Infinity Foods, a co-op that’s cheaper and more convenient than supermarkets. They deliver free to Lewes on a Tuesday if you buy over £250-worth. We order every four months, storing the 5kg bags of rice, oatmeal and pulses, tins, oils and jars on top of our cupboards and in our basement. There’s always a bit of space somewhere to store food. I know people who group together to share orders and others who buy Infinity food from Just Trade, a brilliant Lewes-based non-profit co-op that runs a drop-off  at Lewes New School (next delivery 9 December).

Some people feel afraid at the mention of food storage, projecting out that it’s about being selfish or fear-mongering. And though it’s true that denial is a first cousin of fear, it’s best to get over that fear and be practical. The more of us who are storing food, the better. As they say, our best defence is a well-fed neighbour.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

hook, line and sinker

I know I’m going to dream about fish tonight, after a day of mackerel fishing on the sea.  It feels as though my kitchen is rolling on the swell and the Easterlies that rocked our boat, the Ocean Warrior 3 all day.

We set off from Newhaven harbour at eight in the morning on what is, despite its name, a small chartered fishing boat. The skipper, Dave, took us straight out to some wrecks where he located fish on the screen in his cabin. Once anchored over a shoal, the mate, Steve, put on the tackle and bait on to our rods and off we went.

I’ve never caught a fish before but I had asked for a rod for my birthday two years ago as I wanted to develop what is a crucial skill for feeding ourselves. I’d been occasionally fishing off Seaford Head since then. Even though I’d accepted that I might not catch a fish today I was really excited when the first took my bait - a mackerel whose doleful eyes stared at me as I pulled the hook out of its mouth and threw it in the box to suffocate. Then another, and another. One of the men on board, Ron, lent me his mackerel tackle, which consists of six feathers and hooks that the mackerel seemed to love, because I immediately caught six on one line, almost as soon as I threw the line in the water.

When I caught two dabs on one hook, Steve told me I was a ‘dab hand’ at this. I was happy at that and also happy to move and roll with the boat. We all caught many fish between us. After a while, though, I stopped, though, as I felt that would easily do for my dinner, my friends and my freezer. It almost seemed unfair to the fish for the fishing, and their death, to be so easy. I felt grateful that these gorgeous grey-green dappled mackerels and the white, soft bellied whiting were giving their life for me. I said a little prayer as I put each one away and thanked them as I was gutting them back at home.

I now understand the lure of the sea, the magic of that suspended time with the wind, the waves and the fish. I hope that dreamy state will stay with me for some days yet.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

blessed are the bread makers

There’s a big discussion going on in our house and it’s all about bread. It started during my week of being a locavore, eating within Sussex, when I discovered that the artisan bread sold in Lewes is made from flour from the other side of England (plus at £3-ish a loaf, it’s expensive). During that week I started making sourdough bread from locally grown and milled flour. An authentic Lewes loaf.

But my children don’t like the sourdough. The crust is too hard and they don’t like the slightly sour taste. So I got a toaster from Freecycle, hoping that would entice them. But they’re still complaining and are now asking for lunch money on a daily basis, not feeling like eating the bread on offer. Despite being hardy in terms of my own food choices, I do sympathise. So we’ll probably continue with both artisan and sourdough, at least until I manage to make an acceptable loaf.

There are now four households cooking sourdough on a regular basis in my area of Lewes. We’ve started to wonder whether we should investigate building a community oven, much like the new one at Wowo campsite, which can hold 40 loaves at a time, maybe at Lewes New School? My friend Grace and I went to the brilliant Baking Communities event at the Town Hall last night. While munching on goodies spread on bread from our four artisan bakers – Flint Own, Lighthouse, The Real Patisserie and Infinity Bakers – we started to mull it over with a baker – Michael - who also builds bread ovens and helps groups of people learn about baking. I can’t wait to get started!
Later in the evening Andrew Whitley, author of the bread bible, Bread Matters, and Real Bread Campaign co-founder, described his vision of 25,000 bakeries (we currently have 3,000), supplying bread through all sorts of supply chains across the country. Real bread is a far cry from the industrially grown, Chorleywood process-enhanced bread that makes up most of our loaves in the UK. And it’s hard to see how a real bread culture can take off when so many people are still so wedded (or should I say addicted) to supermarkets.
But as Rob Hopkins says in this fascinating article about the connections between Transition and the Occupy movement, transition is about occupying our own lives, our own communities. Reclaiming abundance, skills and relationships back from the corporate sphere is something that we can each do in tiny steps. And bread is a good place to start.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

fuel for thought

I’ve spent much of the last week researching Canadian tar sands and Norman Baker’s alleged attempt to derail a flagship environmental fuel standard being set by the EU. Canadian tar sands are the second largest oil reserve – after Saudi Arabia – in the world. Allowing them to be burned will mean, according to James Hansen of Nasa,  ‘game over’ for the climate.

The research has caused me to feel thoroughly emotional and it was in that state that I went to see Norman in his Newhaven surgery last Saturday to ask him what he was up to. He spent 20 minutes with a group of us during which he confirmed the facts but was unable to explain his stance in a way that I could accept, given the MEP briefing papers I’d read. So I continued my research.

In December member nations will vote on an amendment to the Fuel Quality Directive that aims to reduce European transport greenhouse gas emissions and will effectively price tar sands, shale oil and other ‘dirty transport fuels’ out of Europe’s forecourts.

Norman, in his role as Transport Minister, initially supported the amendment as it was in line with Britain’s commitment to CO2 emissions reduction. However, intense and aggressive lobbying by the Canadian government and energy companies, as shown in this comprehensive Friends of the Earth report, has caused the government to backtrack. Now Norman is now not only blocking this important initiative but has also stated he is lobbying his equivalent Ministers of Transport across Europe in a hope to quash the vote in December.

Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative say that Norman’s volte face coincides with a visit by David Cameron to Canada, where our PM opened Canada’s fourth Trade Consulate in the offices of  Suncor Energy. Suncor’s website claims it was the first company to develop the tar sands (they call it oil sands). Norman told me when we met that he’s had no direct contact with David Cameron or the Canadian government on this issue.

Although the amendment is supported by all the Lib Dem European MPs and many others, both Norman and the Canadian energy company lobbyists say it is discriminatory. It doesn’t include other kinds of fossil fuel which, because of the energy, pollutants and environmental ravage required to get them to the pump, are deemed to be more greenhouse gas intensive. Norman’s department instead proposes a new measurement methodology. The Cooperative and other NGOs say that this ‘discrimination’ tactic is untrue: other kinds of heavy fuels such as shale oil are already included and more can be included as research is finalized. They say this new methodology proposal is a ‘wrecking’ tactic that could set the initiative back years.

I think part of my strong emotional response to this has been because I’ve fully realized that we’re not going to make a calm transition to renewable energy now that we have reached peak oil. Instead, there is a powerful, dirty lobby of energy corporations and government which, now that unconventional sources of energy are now economically viable, is gearing up for a race to the bottom in the name of energy security. Tar sands, gas shale through fracking, underground coal gasification: there is plentiful dirty fuel - Extreme Energy as some are now calling it - out there that will kill our climate many times over. We need to all wake up to this issue, just as we are waking up to the role of the bankers in wrecking our economy.

The front page of yesterday’s Independent wrote of a Cabinet split as to whether to prioritise economic recovery or the environment. And while I realise that Norman’s under enormous pressure to toe the party line, I know he’s a man of conscience and trust that he will, ultimately, do the right thing.

Photo courtesy of the Pembina Institute. More here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

oats and beans and barley grow

It’s fascinating to see what happens when you step out of your comfort zone. Eating locally from within the borders of Sussex has thrown up all manner of experiences. My kitchen has turned into a laboratory as I incubate new skills, literally new cultures. Sourdough bread and cider are two, and I made my own salt from the sea.

It’s clear that we can eat a healthy, mixed diet from within the borders of Sussex. Meat and dairy abound, as well as vegetables of all kinds both from the fertile greensand soil of the Downs and the glasshouses of Fletching and beyond. Boathouse Farm has its own potato fields, and pumpkins grow well in a good year. Apples and other fruit of course are traditional from around here. Sussex is covered with wheat fields and there are farmers who grow grains and pulses such as barley, oats and field beans for their animals, so the skills and equipment for growing all our food needs are there, in the heads and hands of Sussex farmers.

But. And it’s a big one. Our infrastructure for bringing this food from field to fork is woefully lacking. As I wrote last week, wonderful Plumpton Mill is only one of three flour mills left in Sussex, with a capacity of 50 kilos of flour an hour. Abattoirs have been closed in the last two decades by red tape, so meat is harder to manage at a small scale. Smaller farms, providing dairy, meat and veg, close through lack of customers. 

The biggest barrier of all is in our minds: the way we source our food. People have become utterly dependent for feeding on big daddy supermarkets, with their grotesque money-based way of pushing farmers, nature and all the living beings that nourish us to their limits. And sorry, but Waitrose is only better by a small degree than any other supermarket; there’s no real ethical refuge there behind the tasteful marketing.
I find myself raging about this, about the stupidity of people all around me who just want to go on with the dream – or is it a nightmare – of convenient industrial food and who at our collective peril neglect the farmers and the shop keepers, the wonderful land, sea, food and drink around us that are our true ecosystem, our resilience and our real sustenance.

  Picture by Erma Shutter

Thursday, 6 October 2011

salt of the (sussex) earth

It’s day six of the Lewes locavore diet. Always one to jump in the deep end I decided to see if I could eat a normal diet just from Sussex. Since then, only food and drink from Sussex have passed my lips. I have to admit, it’s been tough. I have risen to the challenge and made my own salt; I’m starting to like its bitter taste. I miss pepper. And I’m getting physical withdrawal symptoms (headaches, aching joints) from the green tea I thought was so healthy. I can’t make salad dressings without lemons or vinegar, which as far as I can tell, is not produced in Sussex. And I simply can’t find anywhere that grows oats, which makes life rather sad, without oatcakes, porridge, muesli etc. Without imported rice and pulses, my mainly vegetarian diet has become more animal-protein based, so, lots of eggs.

When you start to break down the food you eat, you start to realize how much we depend on imported food and also preserved food, and unconsciously become part of the corporate food chain, which really doesn’t exist to feed people as much as to make money.

I managed to track down Sussex flour, though, from Plumpton Mill - restored by its owners; it was cited in the Domesday Book a thousand years ago. This water mill is a wonder to behold, one of only three now milling flour in East Sussex. It can produce 50 kilos of flour an hour; I strongly encourage people to buy this lovely flour, whose wheat is biodynamically grown at Plaw Hatch near Forest Row. Appallingly, though, despite half of Sussex seeminlgy growing wheat, it's all part of the industrial food machine: Plaw Hatch, I believe, is the only farm to grow wheat for local consumption. 

To complete the local cycle, I got some sourdough starter from my friend Grace and have made two handsome loaves of sourdough – it’s so easy. As I write I’m mentally peppering this with exclamation marks. I suppose what’s emerging from this diet is that despite the hardships, I’m also finding that eating from my terrain is terrifically exciting.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

going locavore

I’ve decided to go Locavore. Just dipping my toe into the water, for the 10 days of Lewes’s Octoberfeast, starting tomorrow. This means sourcing all my food and drink from my East Sussex terrain.
Most of my diet is already based on the animals and vegetables that grow plentifully round here. Local farm shops provide lamb reared on the South Downs, biodynamic eggs, organic veggies from my allotment and several local farms, Golden Cross goats cheeses, and I can get delicious unpasteurised milk and even Sussex Downs butter in paper wrapping from the Lewes Friday market.

Starch-wise I’ve ordered a sack of Boathouse potatoes from the Ashurst veg box and I’m going to drop in on Plumpton Mill later today as I hear they mill wheat and rye grown by Plumpton College. Interestingly, a lot of the real bread we eat locally is made from wheat from Shipton Mill in the west country. I’m finding it much harder to source oats, which we eat daily in porridge, muesli and oatcakes. Dried beans, too are almost non-existant in Sussex; in the longer term that would affect the diet of the vegetarians and even more so the vegans in our family. I’m not sure one could be a vegan locavore in Sussex.
In terms of drink, there are several local wines, I hear, though Harveys sadly won’t be included, as the malt and most of the hops come from out of the region. I drink green tea, and will have to give that up in favour of the herb teas I’ve been collecting this summer. That’s probably my only real sacrifice.
As far as condiments grow, I’ll sadly have to do without pepper. Which would be hard long term. For now there’s horseradish ready to harvest from my allotment, dried herbs and chilis I got at last weekend’s great ChiliFest in Southease – Adrian there grows dozens of varieties in his unheated greenhouse.
The one and only thing I could not do without, even for a week, is salt. I’ve researched the matter and realised that there is no place in Sussex that creates its own salt. So I set off on yesterday’s Indian summer day to Bishopstone to collect 10 litres of sea water.
I strained the murky water through three layers of muslin before setting it on to boil on a charcoal/wood burning stove set up outside my back door.  After about five hours, the salty water was reduced right down and started to gloop and spit. I transferred it to a shallow bowl, where it’s sitting in the sun, turning into salt. It’s a bit grey, and strangely bitter. But it’s about a cup’s worth, plenty for my 10 days as a locavore.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

life preserving

Boy, I’ve been working hard! I’m spending all my spare moments storing food for the winter. All the apples, pears, plums and quinces from the allotment, the runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes, onions, beetroots, and other people’s windfalls too, as well as foraged berries, are being wrapped, chopped, boiled, pickled, jammed, brewed, frozen and stored away for the winter months. Why? Perhaps because it’s been an abundant harvest, perhaps because I’ve reached a new level of competence/obsession. It’s extreme.

As I spend yet another evening with my face over splattering vats of vinegar, I often ask myself whether it’s worth it. I can pop down to the shops and buy this stuff, for not much more than it costs me. Certainly, if you build in my time, it’s not worth it at all. So what’s it about? Part of me wants to develop skills that I feel we’re going to need some time soon. Part of me is almost invoking the spirit of my pre-supermarket forebears, who had to do this to alleviate winter food boredom, and I can also feel their joy and gratitude for the food that sustains our lives. 

But mainly, increasingly, I want to preserve food for its own sake. As we live more and more from the food I grow on the allotment I can feel in advance the taste of sunshine in the autumn raspberries taken from the freezer in February. I can taste the summer echo in my tomato pickle eaten with a root stew in March. The damson jam will be brilliant on hot toast on a cold day. And of course some of it will go as presents.

Really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Next year I’ll just have to make sure I set aside time in September to focus on preserving, just as I prioritized vegetable growing in March and April this year and bees in May and June.
Such deep pleasure, even just in anticipation! Is it possible that by simplifying we are inviting more abundance and happiness? It’s all a great mystery.

Pic by MG Montoya

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

finishing touches

I’m just putting the finishing touches to my permaculture diploma, which I’m presenting for accreditation this Sunday. It’s the culmination of nearly five years of work, during which I was designing and creating resilient systems in response to climate change and peak oil. When I took the introduction to permaculture course about 25 years ago, followed a few years later by a two week design course, it revolutionised me. Here was a holistic, systemic approach to life that had a brilliant ethos at its core: earth care, people care, fare share. That ethic applies even more today when the problems identified then are now threatening life on earth.

Five years ago, when I left Lewes New School, which I’d co-founded, I wanted to devote myself as a permaculturalist to the urgent issues of the day and decided to take on this self-managed learning course, which includes meeting with tutors and fellow designers. In five years I’ve helped establish Transition Town Lewes, and have been deeply involved in several of its projects, including the Lewes Pound and communications. In that time I’ve also co-started a community car club, made our house more energy resilient and also a generator of both heat and electricity. I’ve established several growing places, including my allotment, woodland and small forest garden near our house. I’ve become a natural beekeeper. And I’ve written about all this for Viva Lewes online. It’s been fun.

I’ve been able to focus on this work mainly without pay by reducing our costs –  we buy very little stuff any more – to the point that we can live on one income. For me, whether I’m paid or not, recognised or not, successful or not, it’s my path. I’m deeply grateful for permaculture as a practical way of making sense of life.

Three people are accrediting in Lewes and two in Worthing this weekend – all leaders who are helping design resilient communities. You are welcome to attend. 2 – 5.30pm this Sunday 4 September at Lewes New School. You can read my 10-module diploma here.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

nature is my cathedral

I’ve been on a quest all year for silence, the natural kind. I found it on midsummer night on Mount Caburn, in a bivvy bag surrounded by rain and wind and a host of fireflies. I found it on the Isle of Wight in a hotel on the beach, waking up to the sound of waves and sea. Then I had a whole glorious week of it in a secluded, off grid, yurt in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, with only my family and cicadas for company. We swam in the mountain rivers, we bathed in the intense heat, showered with water pumped up from the spring and cooked together in a simple outdoor kitchen overlooking a valley. Graus, the nearest town had only Spanish people in it; the sound of Spanish people chatting over a beer in the square in the coolness of the early evening is somewhat like a natural sound and it rang in my ears for some days. We visited hillside towns that had been abandoned, and some that had been squatted or reoccupied by young people starting a life on the land.

It was a little shocking to return to Barcelona to catch the wonderful and inexpensive overnight train hotel back to Paris. So many tourists visiting the Gaudi places, his work is impressive, particularly the Sagrada Familia with its architecture and decorations inspired by nature. But, personally, nature herself, especially wild nature, is my cathedral. 

I’m off to Sunrise Off Grid festival in a mo, where I will be offering a workshop on low-carbon food storage and preservation in the ‘Off-Grid College’ - a 13 module series of presentations and talks looking at various aspects of sustainable, locally resilient, low impact, off-grid living.

Friday, 22 July 2011

nutritious soup

I was reading a permaculture manual last night in which the author describes needing to put some time and effort (and muck) into a new food garden before things went ‘pop’. I laughed as I realized that this describes what has just happened in the forest garden that takes up a third of my allotment. In a permaculture design you’re advised to put 80% of the work into the design and initial structure so that you only need to put in 20% of your energy into maintaining it – unlike most systems which are the opposite. After two and a half years (and some before that by Chloe and Tilo, the previous owners of the allotment) of mulching, feeding, planting and weeding, I now have a garden that is more of a steady state, where weeding will become reduced as the perennial clovers and self sowing bee-attracting understory of phaecelia, annual clovers, borage and poached egg plant have settled in.

That ‘pop’ view of systems reminds me of my friend Mike Grenville’s talk to Transition Town Lewes last week. Change doesn’t happen slowly, incrementally along a timeline, he told us. Rather, the pressure to change builds up when an old system resists change. The more it resists, the more the pressure builds up, until it can’t resist any longer and it inevitably ‘pops’ or flips into a new state, with a period of turbulence in between. So Transition, he said, is totally different to the old environmental model of trying to persuade more and more people to change. That doesn’t work. Most people don’t want to change until they are forced to. Transition Towns are about engaging people, when they want to, to help each other create resilience in their own communities: preparing for the pop, so to speak.

He told us a story that’s apt for this time of sudden and unexpected change: The Hungry Caterpillar. When a caterpillar is nearing its transformation, it begins to consume ravenously (sounds familiar?) It becomes bloated, shedding its skin many times and, unable to move, attaches itself onto a branch, forming a chrysalis. Within the chrysalis, cells which biologists call ‘imaginal cells’ begin to appear. These are completely different to caterpillar cells. At first the caterpillar perceives these new cells as foreign and attacks them. But the imaginal cells increase, bonding and clumping, until the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed. The caterpillar’s body then becomes a nutritious soup for the growth of the new butterfly.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

trouble in store

I’ve started to store food. I feel slightly embarrassed to admit this, because it’s  not normal behaviour. Last year our family waterproofed our under-street coal hole, turning it into a dry, cool store for both fresh and dry food. In the autumn I stored 12 squashes from the six plants on my allotment. This year I’m growing 15 squash plants for the winter store: Uchiki Kuri, Potimarron, Turk’s Turban, Butternut, Crown Prince. They’re as exotic to eat as they sound, making golden, warming, nutty soups and pies all winter. 

But why, when you can simply feed your family for fifty quid from the supermarket? Because big change is ahead andThe World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Assessment shows that the greatest risks facing us in the coming decade are climate change, ‘extreme energy price volatility’ and fiscal crises. Some say that high food prices are here to stay. I’m not saying that we’re going to go hungry in the south east of England, but I do want to live in a world where responsibility for feeding ourselves doesn’t lie with multinationals; I want to get more food skills under my belt; and  as food prices rise and our income is vulnerable, we might just be happy to have some hearty food to hand.

So, it’s time to get resilient, no matter that the politicians, corporations and popular media would prefer us to be shopping. Over recent months I’ve deliberately created more time for growing food and learning how to preserve it. I’m growing most of our vegetables for about ten months of the year from my allotment (apart from potatoes, onions and carrots, which can be grown in fields and stored in sacks in my basement). Now, as summer brings abundance, I spend some time each day growing, harvesting, drying, pickling, fermenting, freezing and storing.

And I’m about to take another step: next time I put in my bulk order with Infinity Foods, instead of a five kilo bag, I’m going to order a whole sack each of rice (25kg for £28), chick peas (£35) and lentils (£36) – all from Europe - and I’m going to store them in our food store. I know that I’m only as resilient as my neighbours are, and I'm not planning on defending my stash. Maybe I’m mad, or a decade ahead of my time; maybe in ten years our town will have a huge food store under the castle. Who knows. But my gut is telling me to do this and it feels really good.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

this is evolution

There’s talk about a change of consciousness ahead that will help us humans move to a new way of living. It seems popular to imagine that a ‘rapture’ type of experience will happen on 21 December 2012 and until then we can talk and read about it and speculate, in fear, hope, whatever. There’s a whole new age industry focusing on these transcendent ideas, and I view this as another form of escapism and denial of the real issues facing us. 

But what if a change of consciousness is already happening? I was having tea with my friend Jemma recently and she told me about a recent article stating that Ikea’s 2008 cotton harvest in Pakistan used the equivalent of the drinking water of Sweden over 176 years. Such shocking information had led her to question her use of cheap cotton products, just as watching Food Inc had led to her changing her diet to one that’s more local and healthy. Yet, she said, many of her friends had the same information but didn’t choose to do anything about it, often saying that one person couldn’t make a difference. Maybe Jemma's consciousness is changing. She reads information and she takes personal responsibility by acting on it. 

It’s not a high-faluting spiritual thing, this, but it’s based on common sense, ethical imperatives and a feeling for the collective, the whole. Perhaps we are moving to a more global, tribal mind, where it’s widely unacceptable to live in a world where 15% of the world’s population use 85% of the world’s resources, and where we see every living being on this planet as an Earthling. 

Although it can be isolating and even confusing at this time to be undergoing the consciousness shift to a global mindset, it also helps to make sense of what’s happening. As this Hopi elder says in this short video, ‘America is dying from within because they forgot the instructions for how to live on earth. It’s not negative to know there will be great changes. This is evolution.’

Thursday, 30 June 2011

queen of the sun

We’re coming to the end of the lime blossom nectar flow, with the trees casting their heady scent across Lewes. With friends I’ve been gathering the flowers to dry for my winter linden teas – great for calming nerves and for heading off colds. Part of the heavenly experience of harvesting the blossoms is the intense sound of the bees that cover the trees during the short nectar flow. Lime blossom is a major food source for honeybees during a hungry gap between the spring spurt of blossom and the long-flowering brambles and ivy that they forage for winter stores.

It’s great to connect with all the bees at this time of year – their intensity seems to match the height of the sun. I can and do sit for hours watching the entrance to the beehives I keep in Lewes. Unless the weather is making them agitated, they let me sit nearby because as a natural beekeeper I don’t interfere with them – basically we see the hive as their home, as though a body – to be left undisturbed. And once a year, if there’s enough, we might take a few combs of honey, for medicine.

I’m delighted that the Linklater Pavilion is promoting the marvel of the honeybee and to see so many visitors at their recent Bee the Buzz event. But why are the bees being kept in such an artificial ‘observation hive’ with their frames laid out in two dimensions and with sugar syrup being permanently fed to them? There are more indignities I won’t go on about, because I feel strong feelings of outrage, despair and shame when I think about that hive. Surely a centre of ecology should be modelling the natural, holistic approach at all times? There are other ways of observing bees that don’t involve sacrificing them to the cold glamour of science.

In a lovely film I are hoping to show in the autumn, Queen of the Sun, biodynamic beekeepers point out that we owe our very lives to the honeybees, as they pollinate most of our food. Most ancient cultures saw bees as sacred beings, not just for the work they do for us but because, as anyone who has encountered bees on the bees’ own terms will know: they have so much to teach us.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

be not afraid

Over in St John's Sub Castro’s churchyard a little area of wild is regrowing, protected from strimming. It’s where I keep my honeybees. All around them grow wild grasses, flowers and weeds, tall and lush despite the lack of rain for two months, where many other beings live: small insects, birds and mammals. At the other end of the churchyard, only daisies and lawn-level grass are allowed to grow. The few trees remaining when a dense copse was thinned a couple of years ago have now died, the soil around them dried out from the lack of shade, their leafless branches bearing witness to an act of pointless interference.

Alan Watts once wrote: ‘You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.’ This terrain, my body, is not only interconnected with but continuous with all other beings. The Lakota native Americans acknowledge this in their prayer Mitakuye Oyasin - ‘all our relations’.

I’m still struggling with feelings of outrage and grief from the dire news this week, including the announcement that the world emitted more CO2 last year than ever before. Being alive today is a challenge to my sanity and my physical health, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes I just need to return to the wild places around Lewes, such as the rewilding church yard over the road.

As Wendell Berry writes in The Peace of Wild Things

‘When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. 
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.’

Thursday, 26 May 2011

swarm catchers

Last Saturday I was working on my allotment, near my bees, and heard a loud hum. I looked up and saw a swarm of bees that quickly moved over my head towards the woods beneath Landport Bottom. I jumped on my bike and tried to follow them but they were too fast and disappeared quickly towards their destination. They were not my bees but from another colony, excitedly and purposefully creating new life.

The air is warm, the nectar flow is on and swarming season is upon us again. Perhaps because of the decline of the honeybee, we now have over a dozen new natural beekeepers in the Lewes area. They keep their hives, often home made, in gardens, allotments and on roofs. Seeing themselves as ‘bee guardians’ rather than ‘honey farmers', they work on a very different basis to conventional beekeepers. They leave most of the honey for the bees to overwinter on, they try not to open up the hive without good reason – especially taking care not to disturb the brood chamber - and allow their bees to swarm as a natural part of the cycle. As a result, swarming is on the increase, thanks to natural beekeeping, as well as from the increasing number of wild bee colonies in Lewes trees, chimneys and eaves. So swarming in May and June will become a more common occurrence.

There’s fear and projections attached to swarming bees but really they are almost always docile. For example, last year I captured with my bare hands a perfect swarm hanging low from a small tree on Talbot Terrace; the children loved watching me do that; it was a community event. Swarming is abundance itself, the honeybees’ natural way to reproduce and break disease cycles. So if you see or even hear about a swarm of bees, stop to celebrate and marvel at them, and note where they land. Then ring one of Lewes’s swarmcatchers, who will transfer the bees to one of the many Lewes people who are waiting to start keeping bees naturally. Write these numbers down: swarmcatchers Adrienne Campbell 07774793158 or Mike Millwood 07971216075

photo: Natural Beekeeping Trust

Thursday, 19 May 2011

a riot of flowers

There’s a riot of flowers going on and it’s hard to ignore. Roses and honeysuckle hanging over the twitten walls flood my senses with their smells and gorgeous appearance. It’s blissful – just imagine how a honeybee feels on a day like this.

I’ve been so distracted by fear for the future of life on earth that I’ve been hooked out of the pure pleasure of existence. And yet I’m getting reminders that the future isn’t a linear scenario. Although I feel sad that the starlings who normally chatter in the lime tree near my house are no longer there, and the housemartin who has inhabited my neighbour’s roof for a decade hasn’t returned this year, I’ve also been pleased to see some species return. In my woods, the small pearl bordered fritillary, a butterfly that had shrunk down to only a few mating pairs in Sussex, has made a delightful comeback – I saw about 30 on one day last week.

My friend Persephone sent me an article about the reappearance of a red tree rat in Colombia which had been thought to have become extinct a century ago. And I’m over the moon to hear that the Great Bustard was reintroduced to Wiltshire from Russia in 2009 after a long absence from the UK. I last saw one of these amazing birds, which can grow to a metre tall and weigh 20kg, a while ago - stuffed - in the Booth Museum in Brighton and had never forgotten it. So perhaps, even if species  withdraw, they can return given the right conditions, and this has to be one of the future scenarios.

The problem with fear is that it makes me (us) ill and that’s why I got cancer a while ago. I choose to live. So I’ve come up with a plan: no newspapers, keep the internet to a minimum, and take a break from the stories of mass extinction for a while. Of course, I’m still going to live simply, because that’s what makes me happy anyway. I’m going to smell the roses for a while.  
Picture by Nick Robinson

Friday, 13 May 2011

web site

Take a walk towards the bridge out of town, preferably with spookable children, and you’ll come across an enormous web created by ermine caterpillars over entire trees. A notice from Lewes District Council warns us not to touch the exotic caterpillers, which have stripped bare the trees and are hanging in clusters of web bags.

I find the notice, like the one at County Hall I mentioned last week, rather condescendingly human-centric. The reality is that we humans are as endangered as those beings we well-meaningly seek to protect. We utterly depend on all life to sustain us, not simply as ecosystems services, such as soil to purify water, plants to anchor carbon and willows to soak up flood plains, but as beings in their own right.

A Guardian editorial this week wrote that ‘although the cost of conserving biodiversity will be considerable, the price of not doing so could be truly terrible’. And the Funeral for Lost Species being held this weekend by my friend Persephone is all about remembering the ones who have gone and perhaps cherishing a little more the ones who are being obliterated by us.

Meanwhile, an eviction notice (court attendance Tuesday 17 May 9-11am, Brighton County court) has been served on the people occupying the land at St Anne’s School to prevent its demolition and sale, without consultation. If you care about this 3.5 acre of biodiverse wild land which should really be kept as a park or growing space for not only the humans but for all the other beings of Lewes, please come and help out (entrance at Rotten Row) or email or turn up en masse at 9am outside the court.

Photograph courtesy of Abbie Stanton.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

whose land is it, anyway?

At the climate camp last week there were discussions of what to write on a banner to drop off the side of County Hall. ‘Get off my land’ was a popular choice: after all, whose land and whose council is it anyway? 

The Climate Camp passed peacefully and met its main aims (see this sweet short video): to practice and demonstrate living lightly together on the land as well as carrying out peaceful direct actions against nearby climate ‘offenders’. But, as one interesting column asked, is that all that Climate Camp is for? Is there a call to work more deeply with locals on their issues? And a Lewes academic reminded us of the role of local in preserving things we value when democratic routes fail.

A consensus at the closing of the camp agreed that a group of people – activists, homeless people and local residents – stay on the site as long as possible to buy time for Lewes residents and councils to allow us to have a say in the future use of the three acres of prime ground in central Lewes. We put in some Freedom of Information requests, with the help of a government employee codenamed Puffles, for information about what has been discussed, planned and surveyed for its future. Rumours abound from within County Hall that demolition of the buildings had been imminent. We need to know. Whose land is it to dispose of for building, car parks and the like? STAND – St Anne’s Diggers – is forming around this issue and will be putting a call out for participation. The grounds are open for any resident visitors or campers as well as every Sunday a picnic from noon and community meeting at 3pm.

Last week, as I was scouting St Anne's boundaries with County Hall, I came across a little sign hidden in the undergrowth  next to one of County Hall’s car parks: ‘Designated Biodiversity Area’. This was a thin strip of cow parsley and long grass, a portion of which acted as a dumping ground for the clippings from the lawns. The huge County Hall site itself is probably 98% buildings, car park and lawn. It says a lot about the mentality of our council that it even trashes, unopposed by any employees, the tiny area allocated to ‘biodiversity’.

Because biodiversity means ‘wild’. It means the place that many other beings live, because they can’t live on concrete and lawns. That’s what’s so lovely about the St Anne’s site: it has been kept secret and virtually unused for seven years, allowed to grow and stretch into itself. Having spent 10 nights on this land, belly to belly, I have started to fall in love with it, as have other Lewesians coming onto it for the first time. Strong words, but a completely natural response to a gorgeous terrain. It’s this visceral response that helps us to care about natural places, especially wild places which are inhabited by the other beings such as trees, bats, birds, hedgehogs and bugs and which makes us grieve when those places are ripped up and turned into money. 

I’ve seen a strong desire to interact with this place, to tame it, plant it, inhabit it with treehouses – turn it into something for our use – and County Hall says it has a fiduciary responsibility to make the most money possible from land. But my personal sense is, for now, let’s leave it, let’s visit it lightly, let’s go gently and leave only footprints. Because, whose land is it, anyway?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

pass it on

I’m sitting in the far corner of the grounds of the disused St Anne’s School in Lewes. It’s 6am and the blackbirds are just ending their chorus. I’m on gate duty, part of a 24 hour rota guarding three gates. Climate Camp South East, who is occupying (squatting) the 3 acres of unused land, is meticulous about security: past climate camps have taught us that the police can behave aggressively and unlawfully. 
Climate Camp came to Lewes last Thursday and is spending a week modelling how to live lightly on the land, working collectively using consensus; inviting local people to visit; and training in creative direct actions culminating in a non-violent direct action on one of the many climate crime scenes in Sussex: perhaps the proposed biofuels plant near Shoreham , oil drilling in ancient woodland in the National Park or the Newhaven incinerator. One of the benefits of climate camps is that people learn to self-organise and self-manage – an essential skill in the coming age of less stuff and more connection.

Bizarrely, soon after we occupied the site, we heard from several sources that East Sussex County Council, the owners of the site, had recently condemned the building and that demolition was imminent – apparently common knowledge in County Hall. ESCC even, we were told, believed we had occupied the site in protest of the demolition. 

So the climate camp called a community meeting on Tuesday, attended by 70 people including a representative from all three levels of Lewes councils, to discuss the issue. We sat on the land, outside. By the end of the meeting it was dark but it was clear that although ESCC was evasive about demolition, Lewes District Council was prepared to do everything in its power to prevent the building from being demolished and that Lewes residents wished to use the land and start to vision for future interim uses, which ESCC said it would be open to proposals. 

Although it seems likely that ESCC will try to maximise the money it can make from (our) land by intensive development deals, possibly already in the pipeline, it does seem possible that Lewes resident activists can make a stand. Indeed, the residents at the meeting formed a group called STAND – St Anne’s Diggers. Their first events are a Royal Weeding this Friday and a Beltane Picnic on the land at noon on Sunday. Everyone is welcome. Pass it on.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

escape like squirrels

It was incredible to witness the level of support for community energy generation at the launch this week of Ovesco’s share issue for Britain’s first community-owned solar power station (see photos here). The launch raised the amount pledged close to the £200,000 mark, with a total of
£306, 000 to be raised by the end of May. I feel so glad to be part of a community where big visions are held and then realised together – despite all the power struggles going on at government level. There’s still time to make a pledge at the Ovesco website.

For those who also like to agitate in a more physical way during these strange and disturbing times and the tipping points of climate chaos loom ever nearer while our leaders procrastinate, a week-long Climate Camp is coming to a place near Lewes this weekend. It’s shaping up to be a brilliant event for anyone who would like to become a little more radical. In true Climate Camp style, the venue will be a surprise: watch this  wonderful website closely for news and directions, and come along for a cup of tea and a spot of creative direct action.

DH Lawrence: ‘When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality and get into the forests again, we shall shiver with cold and fright but things will happen to us so that we don't know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in, and passion will make our bodies taut with power. We shall stamp our feet with new power and old things will fall down, we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper’.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

solar so good

It was odd last week to have two Viva Lewes columns with opposing views about solar pv, with me singing its praises and The Trouble With feeling quite grumpy about it. At the risk of boring some readers, I’d like to address TTW’s concerns one by one.

Our demand for electricity is in the winter, when the sun shines less.

Sorry, but this is irrelevant. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced by renewable energy, summer or winter, is a kilowatt hour not produced by fossil fuels. Both CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain and David McKay’s excellent online book Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air outline how Britain can power itself renewably through a spread of technologies, including solar photovoltaics (pv).

Solar PV is too expensive.

Partly because of feed in tariffs (FITs) being taken up with gusto in 40 other countries, prices are falling, fast. Industry statistics show that the price of modules has halved in the last ten years with most of that drop in the last three years (see graph here). There are plenty of developments documented in the technical press that ensure there will be further drops as long as the market keeps growing. Even without FITS, solar pv is becoming affordable: on a good, medium sized roof a 3kW system can be installed for £10,000. Given industry projections for the cost of electricity, the payback for that is 18 years. The cost of electricity is rising by 6% a year (the average over the last 10 years) and set to rise faster, as fossil fuels deplete.

The rest of us subsidise the Feed in Tariffs.

The total cost to date of the FITs has been less than 1p a month to domestic bills and meanwhile thousands of new green jobs have been created along with tax and national insurance income to the government. In fact the inverse is true: those people who continue to use electricity from fossil fuels are being subsidized by those of us who use renewable energy. The cost of climate change is enormous; according to the influential Stern Report, the financial cost to society of not going renewable is far greater than the investment costs of renewables. FITs are a way of shifting costs to the polluters.

We should spend the money on alternatives to fossil fuels.

To get off fossil fuels we need to invest in a spread of renewable technologies, including solar pv, according to the sources sited at the beginning. If TTW is talking nuclear, David McKay cites a 2008 statistic of the cost of simply decommissioning – let alone building - UK’s nuclear power stations as up to £73 billion or £1200 a person. Out of the Department of Energy and Climate change budget of £3 billion and falling, nuclear decommissioning alone will cost £850 million this year, £950 million next year and £1.1billion the year after. And that’s just the financial cost.

Is shareholding in a local solar power station a good bet?

Well, TTW, that’s up to you to decide. Myself, I am investing (£250) not just because of the money but because it’s something I want to help make happen. If you want to find out more, the full share documents will be issued at Ovesco’s launch of the share offer next Tuesday 19 April, 7-9pm at Lewes Town Hall. Anyone’s welcome, investors or not, to the event, which will include an Energy Question Time and free refreshments. There’s an incredible energy revolution beginning here and I’m proud to be part of it.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

the sun is up, the sky is blue

...and the solar panels on my roof are chugging away – or would be if they had moving parts, generating just under 2 kilowatt hours peak, which is why we bung on the washing and cook the weekly oatcakes because all that electricity is free to use. The Feed In Tariffs of 41p per kilowatt hour mean that our roof is earning us about £900 a year, making the payback period for the panels about 12 years based on their cost of £11,000. 

More importantly for us, every kilowatt of electricity generated by the sun means we avoid burning the same amount of fossil fuels, which create CO2 emissions, which… as we know …  is a serious problem for our planet. When I read research such as yesterday’s – that rapid artic warming is likely to affect the gulf steam, which keeps our land temperate – I am even more committed to creating a renewable future in order to avoid the horrorstories that are already being created by climate change.
Nuff said. 

Third and perhaps more important of all is that oil and gas prices are creeping inexorably upwards and free electricity from the sun creates personal and collective resilience – if enough of us do enough things (including HMG, ahem) we’ll be looking at a clean future powered by the elements.  

Dear Prudence open up your eyes
Dear Prudence see the sunny skies
The wind is low, the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence won't you open up your eyes?

Walking around Lewes I cannot understand why more residents don’t invest in solar pv. Here might be some reasons and my responses. ‘I don’t own my own roof’: ask your landlord to invest in them. ‘I don’t have the cash’: see if you can increase your mortgage or take out a loan subsidised by Lewes District Council from South Coast Money Line. The FITs will more than cover the loan repayment. ‘The planning conservation officer says he will recommend refusal’: I say a polite ‘Bull’. Unless you are living in a listed buiding, don’t be bullied by these council officers whose job it is to be conservative; bung in the application and ask your local councillor to ask it to be referred to the planning committee. All applications put to them so far have gone ahead. And tell them that you don’t need to pay for the planning application because we are in an Article 4 Direction. Contact me if you want some free advice. 

Finally, if you don’t have a south facing roof but want to invest in power from the sun, consider getting on board with Ovesco’s share offer to pay for Britain’s first solar power station – another fabulous Lewes first.  

Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence won't you come out to play?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Last week’s march in London was a blast. Nearly half a million protesting about growing inequalities caused by the cuts to public services, with the backdrop of bonuses for the bailed out bankers and unopposed tax evasion. Such a sense of power and determination.

I went up with a gang from UKUncut, who have their supporters here in Lewes. Our home-grown Lewes Four, who were arrested for peacefully protesting outside Boots a month ago, are themselves going to Eastbourne police station tonight to face charges. Though I truly doubt the police has a good reason to charge them. Myself, I am lodging an official complaint with Sussex Police and will also take legal action for my own small arrest and subsequent ‘dearrest’for not giving my name during the same protest.

Far from being the violent anarchists portrayed by some of the media, UK Uncut were peacefully making their cause known up and down Oxford Street by ‘baling in’ tax evaders and banks, ie conducting sit-ins. The finale was a mass occupation of Fortnum and Mason, who are, apparently, themselves tax evaders. You’d think they could afford to pay towards the country’s coffers. Though, sadly, the arrest of the Fortnum and Mason 138 may signal the end to peaceful protest, says solicitor Matt Foot.

If you are reading this and wondering why the lady doth protest too much? I can only say, isn’t it totally obvious that we need to stand up for what we believe in and if necessary make a scene, ideally as playfully and adventurously as possible?

Do please watch this very brilliant and funny video from Rap News Revolution for some context....

Thursday, 24 March 2011

domestic extremists

I watched the rushes this week of a new film Just Do It, following the lives of some of the climate protesters who are mostly young but who include the awesome Lewes resident Marina Pepper. It’s a pretty moving story of people who literally put their bodies in the way and who have managed to help stop such climate polluters as Kingsnorth power station and Heathrow’s third runway. These activists call themselves domestic extremists, and their clear aim is to help preserve life on earth.

One of the interesting themes from the film is the realisation that we have to tackle climate change at its source, and that is our industrial growth society and the institutions that perpetuate it: corporations and banks and governments that do not regulate and tax them sufficiently. You don’t have to be an anarchist to be saying that now: mainstream institutions such as nef, the Bank of England and the recently CEO of pharmaceutical Glaxo Kline agree that the system isn’t working. Which is why I will be to march this Saturday with UK Uncut - taking the 8.07 to meet up at 8.30 in Brighton and 11 in Kennington tube. Uk Uncut is a very new movement playfully occupying high street corporate and banks to demand that corporations stop evading paying their taxes. We’ll probably all end up on Oxford Street.

I remember Joanna Macy’s story about there being three types of action necessary for humans who wish to support the Great Turning (away from the industrial growth society to the life sustaining society). Holding actions – such as those of UkUncut, Plane Stupid and Climate Camp, trying to prevent further damage to life. New realities - and the Transition Town movement is firmly in this camp by creating parallel public infrastructure. And change of consciousness.

The latter can be a problem as I notice it’s an easy excuse for some of my spiritual pals not to change their behaviour – ie trusting in God without tying up their camel.

But at any one time, it’s good to be wholeheartedly and realistically involved in any one of the above – after all, what are we here for if not to be co-creators of our world?

Thursday, 17 March 2011

where now?

The Lewes Pound CIC (Community Interest Company) held its first AGM last night during which director Patrick Crawford talked us through the story of the Lewes Pound, right from the first small article in the Argus, through the spectacular launch, during the strange week in Septemebr 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the rest of the financial world seemed on the brink of collapse, and CNN had regular updates going out all over the world: Lewes launches its own currency.

A week later, and all 10,000 of the Lewes Pounds printed had been bought and swiftly put up on people's fridges and scattered around as souvenirs. Totally the opposite of the group's plan: to create a workable currency and to keep money circulating locally. The following week, the sold-out Lewes Pounds were selling on ebay for £30 a pop, amid rumours that the whole exercise was just to make money.

After the first year, about 150 traders were interviewed by a university researcher and about half said that it had made no difference to their business and the other half said that more people had come into their shops. The traders encouraged the Lewes Pound group to print higher denominations, which entailed another fabulous launch at Harvey's Depot, complete with pig roast, loads of stalls and even a specially written song.

Now, nearly 2 1/2 years on, circulation of the Lewes Pound has significantly slowed. Recently-polled traders agree, but are mostly still very supportive of the idea and keen to see it adapted or at least for other ideas to be developed to support the local economy.
The annual accounts were presented by the accountants Knill James, who'd done a lot of pro bono work and said they'd been quite chuffed to create the first annual accounts of a British local currency in well over a century. £5,000 this year of the £12,000 leaked funds had been set aside for a local project to reduce carbon and increase resilience but the CIC's call out for proposals had a meagre response.So the five grand will be put in the care of the Sussex Community Foundation until a suitable cause is identified.

The second part of the evening was a World Cafe session with three questions in which people were encouraged to discuss some of the issues around the Lewes Pound. Basically: What are our values? What's our vision? Where can we take the Lewes Pound next? Some really juicy ideas came out of the session, including the idea of a Lewes lottery; that it be used as a token; that it await a crash and be put into real use; that it transform into electronic form; that the council accept it for taxes; that it help promote development of new social enterprises; that it work with a credit union or issue microcredit. One thing was clear: it was so good to disuss these issues openly, though many more people should have been at the meeting to discuss the future of OUR money.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

be prepared

One of the most interesting outcomes of the revolutions in the Middle East is what that is doing to oil prices. Nomura merchant bank’s commodity team writes that crude oil prices could double to over $220 a barrel causing an oil crisis like that of the 1970s.

Jeremy Leggett, my favourite oil commentator, also writes that we’re entering a time of consequences, that with peak oil now a prospective above-ground situation as well as a below-ground.

‘Nobody – whether individual, household, community, city, government or business – can responsibly afford simply to hope for a comfortable outcome on the peak-oil risk-issue any longer. We all need to be drawing up contingency plans, and taking whatever proactive measures we can.

‘Not all the potential outcomes of this latest human drama are negative. There is upside potential for a road to renaissance beyond, including in Saudi Arabia. But we will be challenged, and we will all need to play our parts in holding society together in the tough times ahead. The more proactive we are, obviously, the softer the landing, and the quicker we can engineer the road to renaissance.’ 

With so much dire news coming our way – including today’s coverage of a UN report of global decline of honeybees – I actually welcome the breakdown of a way of being – caused entirely by the human race - that no longer serves us (and probably never did). The question is, are we facing renaissance – rapid evolution - or revolution? One could be conscious and willing. The other could be bloody, with many losers.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

baby, it's cold outside

So. Fucking February is over (our family swears our way through the month) and with luck this week is the last of the cold snaps before the spring bursts through, as it always does in March. But I do feel a little nostalgic this year for the winter behind me. It’s been a good one, maybe because I’ve been so close to it and have had to work more creatively this year for my comforts instead of simply avoiding discomfort.

We’ve had the central heating on only briefly at the beginning and end of the day (for the kids’ sake, really) and since we work from home have had to bundle ourselves up in rugs, hot water bottles, socks, slippers, hats, padded jackets and all that jazz when working on computers. Beds piled high with blankets at night... Keeping the wood burner fed has in itself kept us warm, as have twice-weekly forays to the allotment. And hot soups at lunchtime have stoked the fires too.

I recently read a fascinating article that describes the body itself as a heating system. Although we talk so much about insulating our houses these days we focus very little on keeping heat in our bodies through good clothing. The article goes into detail about the kinds of clothes we need to use to keep our skin temperature at a comfortable 32-33 degrees. Two layers of long thermal underwear under normal clothes can reduce the need for space heating by 80%, for example.

The only problem with longjohns, I have found, is that as soon as I start moving about and generating internal heat through exercise, I need to take those layers off. And if they’re near the skin, it involves an entire strip, in the cold. It has been quite hilarious this winter turning up to Transition meetings in an overheated pub room and for half the hardy attendees to have to strip off to their undergarments.

Perhaps this sounds a bit holy or poverty-minded to some people, and I have had varieties of sneer-back about this kind of talk. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure that this is the way to go. Maybe it's true what some people say: 'they' will invent some kind of infinte clean fuel. Or, since 'they' don't seem worried, we don't need to do anything yet. I don't know why I actually enjoy pushing my comfort edge. Maybe it's because when I reach the edge, I realise that I am still at ease, still happy and playful in my own domain and maybe that makes me feel less fearful of a future with less, and more excited about all the new creative possiblities it brings.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

the real 'big society'

One of the great things about Lewes is that the Big Society has already arrived in another guise; perhaps it has never gone away. Wherever you slice the cake, you see layers of people doing things for other people for nothing. Take public transport, for example. The uber site for this in Lewes is Travel Log Lewes, an up to date website full of ideas and advice of how to travel around without a car, and which also offers a free monthly newsletter. According to Chris Smith, the (unpaid) editor, there are no less than four different walking groups around Lewes, some, including  Lewes Footpaths Group, offering free walks.

On the cycling front, Cycle Lewes has a great website, full of local information and routes and has created a wonderful hard-copy cycling map, with help from District Council funds, available free at the Tourist Information Centre. They also campaign for more cycle routes, including the Lewes-Newhaven route and completion of the route from Ringmer.

Bus-wise, our hands seem to be tied by the bus companies and East Sussex county Council who seem not to realise what a lifeline buses are to the vulnerable and isolated. I didn’t realise, though, we do have a community bus, according to Travel Log Lewes, whose existence is owed to Ruth O’Keeffe and other dedicated local councillors (who by the way are also unpaid).

Trains, obviously, are operated by commercial outfits, but I didn’t realise that, according to Travel Log Lewes, you can get Daysave tickets from the Tourist Information Office that allows you to travel anywhere on Southern Trains for £10 for one and £20 for four if you avoid the rush hours.

In terms of car clubs, Lewes has two informal, volunteer-run car clubs, one, the Silver Bean Car Club is an informal car club I helped start and which reduces the money and hassle that comes with owning a car. If you want to start your own group you can read about how we did it here. And the District Council has also started a car club, run by CommonWheels CIC, with European money, open to everyone in Lewes.

Most Lewes schools now have volunteer-run walking buses that take children to and from school on foot. The District Council’s Think Air campaign still continues to try to relieve the congestion and resulting illegal levels of NO2 emissions on School Hill and Fisher Street.  And Lewes Living Streets is, I believe, still campaigning for a 20mph speed limit throughout Lewes.

Everything I’ve listed above is run by Lewes people for Lewes people, all for free. In a world where the corporations suck money out of the land and out of communities, and try to seduce us so loudly, it’s easy to forget this huge layer of community expertise and goodwill, our local immune system, underlying our wellbeing and ready to spring in to action when necessary. Let’s remember that this huge, often invisible, source of people power is where our resilience lies.