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Thursday, 24 November 2011

The need to Transition Wandsworth

Let me start with a challenge.

As you sit and read this take a moment to cast an eye over where you’re sitting. If you can, try and identify as many objects in this space that weren’t manufactured, finished or transported using some sort of fossil fuel. Unless you’re lucky enough to own some antiques or discerning enough to have sourced handmade objects and had them brought here on foot or bicycle (which of course would still had to of been manufactured with inputs of energy), the chances are that, in common with most people of the Western world, you’re surrounded, clothed and fed by materials that would not be possible without easy available oil.

In fact it is impossible to overstate the impact, good and bad, this resource as had upon humanity and the planet. An energy source so rich – just one barrel of the stuff equating to 25,000 hours of human labour (12.5 years at 40 hours per week)1  - it was inevitable that we would make use of it to ‘progress’ to where we are now. However, nothing in nature is infinite and it now seems that we are close to a ‘peaking’ in the worldwide supply of easily available oil. No major discoveries have happened in the last two decades and existing reserves are by and large located in politically unstable and/ or hostile regimes. What that means is the cost of extraction will become increasingly costly, diminishing return on investment and pushing up prices on everything. You may have already noticed what reverberations in the price of oil can do to the worldwide economy following the price spike of 2008.

Peak oil, the theory that most of the cheap and easier to extract oil has already ‘peaked’ in terms of discovery and extraction, has slowly gained ground over the last few years; tellingly the October 2008 report of the UK government’s ‘Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security (ITPOES)’, plainly sets out its expectations for a supply ‘crunch’ around 2011 – 2013.  These realities, coupled with the ever present challenges of climate change, have resulted in a decisive shift in recent years towards clean technologies and sustainable, local commerce.

But you don’t even need to be familiar with this concept or buy into climate change, or even economic collapse (although the latter is probably very much visible at the time of writing), to see the evident need for some sort of change in the way we’re doing things. Only the most obstinate observer would deny that fairly shattering problems seem to arise with startling regularity; you might ascribe that to ever prevalent media or you might just have noticed that the writing is very much on our collective wall. Whatever your point of view, its plain that there’s no time to wait for someone else to take care of business; plenty of people are already starting to do something about the way we do things currently.

Given the current and continuing trajectory of industrial society, it might be a given that most resources are going to be in much shorter supply in the years to come; collective institutions such as governments and the all powerful markets—which are geared to the fantasy of perpetual growth—are unlikely to change direction until it’s too late to do anything useful. Looks like individual action focused on learning to get by with much less is therefore essential to any viable path to the future

The model that Transition Town Wandsworth, and its collective decision makers have elected to follow takes lead from the (now) worldwide transition movement, originally conceived as a student led ‘social experiment’ formulated by Rob Hopkins in Kinsale N Ireland. His thesis was to see if a population could formulate a workable strategy to adapt to resources shortage thereby ensuring a degree of ‘resilience’ in the face of the challenges resulting from climate change and/ or peak oil. . It might be noted at this point that every single natural process on this planet has such alternative strategies as part and parcel of its makeup.

The experiment was a success through its conception of a 12 point ‘energy descent action plan’ – a formula for rebuilding structures focused on local food production, education, transport etc that could be designed, and carried out by, individuals within a community framework. Accordingly, transition initiatives have sprung up throughout the land. Its proponents don’t easily fit into a single camp, which indeed is the beauty and efficacy of the concept. One of the reasons the movement may be gaining ground so quickly, maybe because it manages to neatly sidestep obsolete and useless right-left divisions associated with conventional politics. By appealing directly to the individuals’ specific interests and skills; requiring nothing more than a sharing and inclusion it manages to reach most people ‘where they are’ now.

Picking up on this trend in from back in 2008, residents and community groups in the Wandsworth area decided to try and combine their local knowledge and neighbourhood spirit to address and tackle these issues by volunteering their time for projects, workshops and skills swaps in the Wandsworth Town area. Transition Town Wandsworth, spurred on with support from the burgeoning movement, began to formulate ways for local people to take a direct hand in planning their local resilience for tomorrow by getting involved in sustainable projects today.

Right from the beginning it seemed appropriate to conceive a project in which everyone could get involved with, and be passionate about, regardless of experience or skill. The answer was one very in-keeping with the transition ethic of relocalising food production - a community garden. Beginning with an approach to the council in Nov 2008 followed by continual consultation, proposals and information sharing, the site for Wandsworth first ever community garden was finally arrived at: Bramford Rd community garden (the project earned its founder Dan O’Neill the Wandsworth Green Champion commendation in 2009 and was named winner of 2011 Green Champion Award). Starting on the land in May 2010, the site is anticipated to be awarded permanent status any time soon (indeed the groups original assertion right through the consultation period was that ‘we may have to lobby the council now but give it a few years and they’ll be asking people to take projects like this on’ – we shall see)!

Gardening is only the cornerstone of Transition Town Wandsworth though. The group also hosts skills share workshops and music & culture events (such as last years ‘Low Carbon Carnival’ hosted at the Battersea Arts Centre), and is committed to creating projects and finding ways to engage everyone from the area; to strengthen the community and educate on the issues.

As people increasingly recognise the need for action to tackle these pressing issues directly affecting their everyday lives - dependency on cheap imports, increasing instability in fuel markets and unsustainable levels of consumption - Transition Town Wandsworth believe the community holds many solutions to the local manifestations of these problems, that some of the answers to the Boroughs most pressing concerns are likely to be found with the people.

Although working with pre-existent initiatives to create community gardens, growing projects, green transport solutions and skills share projects, whilst recognising the need for close cooperation with the local authority, Transition Town Wandsworth want as many volunteers from the community as possible to come forward, join in and make Wandsworth a model of cooperation and sharing. For example, many members of the Borough’s older generation may hold skills, such as clothes repair, beer brewing and kitchen gardening that are lost on today’s generation – now’s the time to pass them along!

Already comprising members of the Wandsworth Environment Forum and Food up Front, the initiative is committed to involving every member of our diverse community in its plan to provide local resilience against climatic or oil ‘shocks’ for Wandsworth in the coming years.

We should all become well acquainted with the people and possibilities of where we live. Pretty soon we may have to find allies in the former who can help us fully make use of the latter. If we strengthen our ties to our locality, we're all the more likely to ride out any big waves of change headed our way. Natural systems employ a lot of redundancy, in our love affair with ‘efficiency’, which is its opposite; we’ve left ourselves exposed from many angles. Some might say that its simplistic to believe that getting to know your neighbours and community could make a jot of difference now that so many of our bridges are already burned? Transition towns believe otherwise. And really, even if every doomsayer prophecy or scientific prediction turns out to be way off base, there are only great things to be gained by working together.


Friday, 11 November 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

You'll fine a fine specimen that will make your stomach cramp, your mind warp and your consciousness exit....

Although it is generally considered poisonous, deaths are extremely rare, and it is consumed as a food in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America after parboiling. Amanita muscaria is now primarily famed for its hallucinogenic properties, with its main psychoactive constituent being the compound muscimol. It was used as an intoxicant and entheogen by the peoples of Siberia and has a religious significance in these cultures. There has been much speculation on traditional use of this mushroom as an intoxicant in places other than Siberia; however, such traditions are far less well-documented. The American banker and amateur ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson proposed the fly agaric was in fact the Soma talked about in the ancient Rig Veda texts of India; since its introduction in 1968, this theory has gained both followers and detractors in anthropological literature

Everyone up and at 'em

There have always been doers and there have always been talkers. The former seldom let setbacks stifle their plans; lack of money, know-how or endorsement puts no brake on an idea once cooked up. They change things.  Talkers may eventually get around to putting an idea into action, but more often than not are content for others to show them the way, particularly if the trail that needs blazing is too steep.  This might be just the way the world is, but it means we miss out on the talents and skills of a whole lot of people just when we could really use them the most. There has to be a way to get more people up and at ‘em?
Everyone knows where we are right now:  we cross one tipping point after another seemingly every week, myriad ecological crises are converging and money continues to disappear into a deep abyss of debt. Whether or not you buy into concepts such as climate change or global warming only the wilfully blind would deny that we’re up to necks in problems resulting from human actions. To be fair, there’s not much the man in the street can do about the latest Middle East revolution but if we could make up our minds to switch to a more sustainable way of life, simple acts and altered choices may be all that it takes to make big differences; as long as this action is collective.   Many actually do want to do something; they just don’t have the faintest idea where to start pushing back against all the bad news. A little direction would be invaluable.
Enter some serious go-getters offering ingenious, online originality. They’ve an infectious commitment to putting something back and their one goal is to make it easy for you to do the same.
The DoNation
Shoulders to the wheel
Back in 2009, after the rigours of University, Hermione Taylor felt like getting away. A keen cyclist and sustainable seeker, she decided on a cycling break; but Hermione being Hermione it was never going to be just any old getaway. Wanting to push her limits, she and her friend Sara hit upon the idea of pedalling from London to Marrakesh, a knee cracking 3,500 miles.
Whilst she was at it, wouldn’t this be an ideal opportunity to raise sponsorship to support the environment?
Realising quickly that none of her friends had any money, she decided that the most useful thing to ask from them was a pledge to action, a promise to try something sustainable for instance. ‘Unlike most other charitable causes, the environment needs our action more than our money’.
Thus, with the help of 216 friends, who promised to do something green if she managed the ride, the concept for The DoNation was born. Hermione completed the journey, her friends changed their behaviour and over 16 tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of 84 flights from London to Morocco, was saved. Good work.
‘We got tired of listening to all the talk of what would solve this environmental problem or that, so we thought the best thing we could do was build a model to follow for people who actually wanted to do something. You take on a challenge and your sponsors ‘pay’ you in green pledges – the currency is carbon not pounds and pence’.
The results speak for themselves. Since The DoNation went live, 61767 KG of carbon have been pledged - and therefore kept from the atmosphere – and it has cost no one anything besides the effort to go green.
‘Individuals are at the root of the environmental solution, not research institutions or international aid organisations, and we simply need to act’.
Project Dirt
Growing the grass roots
Mark was a green virgin working as a chartered surveyor. Nick, his friend and an economist by trade, was involved with ‘Balham Composters’, 5 or so folk looking, as you might expect, to compost locally. They both knew they could do more so took the ‘composters’ and used them as the first project on their website designed ‘to make environmental change happen’. That was in 2008. Today, has over four and half thousand members comprising 605 projects throughout the greater London area.
‘Our motivation for creating the site was pretty clear right from the start’ says Mark, we wanted to connect people who were already out there making change happen, help those who, like us, wanted to do something green but didn’t know where to start and to provide real life case studies that others could use to build their own initiatives’.
Anyone can join the site and find out what’s going on in their neighbourhood. Alternatively, if they have a bright idea they can use it to get others onboard. Members get their own page, can post events and are free to join any project listed. ‘Transition Towns’, City farms, Beekeepers, Orchard groups and just about any other incarnation of a community group you can think of sit happily side by side. 
‘We’re immensely proud of what we’ve been able to achieve so far, but we know that the heroes are our members. They’re out there every day making a difference to their street, their community and of course, ultimately to the planet. We’ve lost count of the community gardens, the skills shares, the river cleanups but we’re thrilled to be making a difference’.
With a plan to re-launch the site so it’s even easier for people to join in, Mark and Nick now look to take their green band of ‘dirters’ nationwide to further ‘grow green ideas’.

Beetroot Books
The word on the street (and garden)
‘There’s no shortage of places to get books online at knockdown prices and honestly, we don’t expect to appeal to everyone, we’re just passionate about the positive stuff in life so the aim is to focus on providing a thought-out collection of books - hand-picked - and giving back wherever possible’.
Having instigated a community garden in south London, becoming involved with various environmental groups and maintaining more than a passing interest in the leftfield ideas of Consciousness writers like Daniel Pinchbeck and Terrence McKenna, Dan O’Neill found himself frustrated at having to source the books he wanted from ‘corporate owned commodity sites’. Unsatisfied at the practices and generic, nature of stores that wouldn’t care if they sold you philosophy or fabric conditioner, he figured the needs of progressive communities and those interested in new ideas, would be better served if there was an alternative place to get all the right titles. If there were others who shared similar interests: environmentally savvy, free-thinkers with open minds and the need to get out in the elements from time to time, surely it was also crazy for them to use sites so thoroughly at odds with their professed ethos?
Just by buying from Beetroot Books, named for something else earthy and interesting, customers can take the opportunity to contribute to children’s literacy and disabled gardening charities and even buy trees to pay back the planet some way for the resources used to produce the books. But it’s not only eco-warriors, mothers and seekers who’ll be into it.
‘When I go visit some of the well known independent bookstores in the US, your Left Bank books in Seattle or your City Lights in San Francisco, I’m always stuck by their collection of titles. It’s like someone there instinctively knows what you’re going to like before you’ve even heard of the author or the title, browsing is a pleasure and you seem to always end up with a treat, no matter what you originally went in for – that’s what I wanted to achieve with Beetroot Books’.
The site also promotes and sells works by unpublished authors and writers looking to work with a more authentic purveyor, something offered by the few when money is the bottom line for many.
‘There are lots of people out there looking for a change. We’re concentrating on people who enjoy making differences to their lives, the lives of their families or to the wider community. That’s why we’ve picked out books for all ages that can point the way. Books can connect all the dots, but they should connect us to each other and the planet too’.