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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.


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