The View from the Observation Car

A guest post by Rob Elliott, food writer, traveler and co-proprietor of the green, organic, real food B&B Aspen House in picturesque rural Herefordshire, where they pride themselves on the locally produced, seasonal, organic food they serve. Rob’s books The Food Maze and How to Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow are available from Real Life Publishing. Rob also blogs on Food, Life and All That.

Around five years ago, the new social movement of Transition Towns sprang into life.  Its stated purpose was to raise awareness that human society faces two enormous challenges – peak oil and climate change.  Its vision was to create resilience at a local level in order to move from where we are now to where we need to be.

Five years on, and the Transition network has grown dramatically.

According to their website there are 382 official initiatives, with a further 458 about to fledge, across 34 countries.  There is also a growing library of Transition books.  The movement is obviously on a steeply ascending graph and it can’t be denied that it is indeed a brilliant idea.

Yet for me it still doesn’t quite hit the spot.

Having been involved with several local Transition initiatives from their inception, I observed that steering committees are quite often set up by self-motivated individuals keen to promote their own agendas, leaving other would-be Transitioners feeling disconnected and lacking in motivation.  Maybe the problems of peak oil and climate change are simply too overwhelming and remote.  None of this seems to be a problem in Totnes, Stroud, Lewes, Fife, Machynlleth and a handful of other places that have been promoting an alternative world view for decades.  But what of the others?  Perhaps many of them are only holding together because of the dedication of their hard-working steering groups.

As with any organisation, the 80/20 rule applies, with 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people – but Transition is supposed to be different.  At the very first meeting we attended, the organisers made it clear that as a ‘steering group’ their role was going to be a handholding one in the early stages, and that the responsibility for bringing the spirit of Transition into the community would soon involve everyone else in the room.

Unfortunately not so – there was no gush of egalitarianism, no devolution across the board – in fact, no apparent willingness on the part of others to take on any responsibility at all.  This shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise – most people prefer to be told what to do and have an innate fear of taking the initiative.  So those few stalwarts who set up the idea four years ago are still the people who make it happen today.  They may no longer call themselves a steering group, but that is still their role and, without them, the initiative would collapse.

Where is all that promised excitement, community spirit, optimism and desire for change ?

With nebulous concepts such as peak oil or climate change, it is difficult to focus and translate it into something personal.  Peak oil might be a serious issue, but most attendees at a Transition meeting will become defensive when required to think about their own use of oil. Where there should be excitement, instead weariness sets in amongst those who see nothing but a long hard road ahead of them.

To Sally and me, it seemed obvious that what was missing was the glue to bind everyone together.

We thought we had cracked it – food !

The global industrialized food system is arguably the biggest contributor to the peak oil/carbon emissions problem, but food involves everyone, so it has the potential to be the core of the solution.  Part of the Transition answer to the problem is to buy local food.  It is disappointing therefore that, in the Transition Companion, the real reason for this is not fully explained.

The Transition Companion doesn’t tell you which way to go or what your journey will look like, but suggests there will be  some especially good views along the way. I cannot see how this is helpful.  We don’t need a Bradshaw’s Tourist Handbook, we need to be told exactly what is going on.  We don’t need to be told about the ‘good views along the way’, we need to see the whole picture.

Quite rightly Transition highlights all the inspirational food-related projects that are increasing in number every day – the Community Supported Agriculture, the land share schemes, the community orchards, the guerrilla gardening, permaculture smallholdings and individual garden plots.  All this is effective, essential and extremely encouraging, but still alienates those who, for one reason or another, cannot get involved in these kinds of initiatives.

How useful it would be if Transition showed us how we call all make a positive contribution to the solution simply by changing the way we shop for food, by removing our custom from global to local.

In the few minutes it has taken you to read this, world population has grown by another 1500 or so. There are nearly 16 million more mouths to feed since we passed the 7-billion milestone at the end of October last year.  A large proportion of these hungry people live in China and India, the latter adding 1.5 million to its population every month.

If the global economy goes belly up sometime in the next decade, China is a country with money in the bank and will be well placed to buy up all the commodity cash crops available.  Profit-hungry global corporations are not going to supply the bankrupt West.  They will go where the money is.

Food security is as important as peak oil and climate change, and we have too little of it - if the wheels come off the global food supply system, we too risk going hungry.

Gazing from the green observation car on this branch line at all the views along the way will only distract us from the mainline express currently hurtling towards oblivion carrying all the world’s money-mad, consumer-drugged, GDP-obsessed profiteers, the drivers partying along with the passengers.

So here’s a suggestion for all those involved in Transition groups: call a new meeting and ask the question, “If there were no supermarkets, how would we feed ourselves and where would our food come from?”  Then make a list of all your local food suppliers, open the discussion and work out how you are going to use them as your only source of food.

We can build a truly resilient alternative to the flawed global food system, simply by changing the way we shop and eat.

Photo by Loco Steve via Flickr

The End of Coral Reefs ?

Coral reefs are remarkable ecosystems, home to over 25% of the world’s known marine species, providing valuable tourism income, and even more crucially, vital food to remote fishing communities around the world – coral reef fisheries support around 275 million people, many with few alternative sources of food.

But coral reefs across the world are dying – being destroyed by a combination of local and global impacts.

Overfishing, pollution and rising ocean temperatures and increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide are progressively causing coral bleaching and subsequent death.

Several authorities suggest that very few healthy reefs will be left by 2030, and virtually none by 2050, unless the world manages to control both local and global threats to these valuable, but vulnerable ecosystems.


Photo from USFWS, via Flickr

Life Without Water in La Paz

A series of ‘Foto Friday’ posts focusing on the lives of people living in extreme poverty around the world. Over 1 billion people across the globe live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day to meet all their needs. Being more aware of the lives of the world’s poor can help  us reevaluate the extent of our own hardships and build empathy and compassion.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and it’s cities are also some of the most water stressed in the world. The situation is often even worse in rural areas, drought and the melting of mountain glaciers used as water sources, driving large numbers of rural farmers into the rapidly growing cities – further adding to the demand for water.

Civil unrest occurred in parts of Bolivia in 2000 (sometimes referred to as ‘the water wars‘ ) following the privatization of water supplies and subsequent large increases in charges, which left many poorer communities without water. The water supply was renationalised with the election of a new President, and the cost of water reduced again, but the underlying issue remains – Bolivia, along with many countries in the world, is rapidly running out of water.


Photo from Szeke

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Saving Tomorrow, Today

It sounds a little like the script of a bad science fiction or James Bond film doesn’t it:

” . . . and so all the nations of the Earth came together to try to agree limits to the climate changing gases they were releasing into the atmosphere, trapping solar radiation and threatening to melt the ice caps, cause widespread droughts and floods, and potentially change the world as we know it forever.”

Flash Gordon, Thunderbirds, Doctor Who, or perhaps Bruce Willis in a spacesuit, would arrive in the final few minutes and utter a few cliched, yet heart-spun words, before saving the Earth. Hurrah !

Unfortunately, there was never much prospect of a superhero saving the day at the recent climate talks in Durban, and indeed the nations of the world were left to their own devices.

What appears to have emerged is neither as bad as many had feared, nor as good as some had hoped.

If you’re interested on whether the world has been saved from impending doom, then pick your headline:

UN Climate Conference Approves Landmark Deal – Al Jazeera

Durban Deal Will Not Avert Catastrophic Climate Change Say Scientists – Guardian

Climate Talks End: New Global Climate Change Regime from 2020 – The Times of India

Too Little, Too Slow from World’s Unambitious Leaders – WWF

Durban Deal Prevents Next Decade Emission Chaos – Russia Today

Last Minute Talks Produce ‘Historic Deal to Save the Planet’ – The Telegraph

A Deal in Durban – The Economist

Huhn Hails UN Climate Deal that will Cost UK Taxpayers £20 Billion by 2020 - The Mail

Three Sleepless Nights in a Global Emergency – ABC News

Climate Deal Fails Poor People – Oxfam

The good news is that  all countries (including the US, China and India) have agreed to negotiate a new round of emission cuts by 2015 resulting in a protocol with legal force (not quite ‘legally binding’). This protocol would come into force in 2020.

This is also the bad news – in a nutshell the plan to save the world is for everyone to meet again in four years and try to negotiate something then.

Whether you think this is ultimately good news or a bad news is going to depend not only on what result you wanted from Durban, but also on what you thought was achievable.

So where does this leave us ?

The models are projecting substantial increases in warming by the end of the century. If this is indeed the case, then it will be the world’s islands states, Africa and the poor and vulnerable worldwide that will suffer most – from increased frequency of extreme weather events, increasing food prices and changes to local conditions that will be difficult for people to adapt to. The Durban agreement, with little prospect of real action before 2020, seems to make this unpalatable scenario more likely.

It can be tempting to blame the increasingly vocal climate skeptic lobbying for the failure to reach a more ambitious agreement, with many citing the rise in climate skepticism among the US public, being behind the unwillingness of the current administration to sign-up for anything more ambitious. I’m not convinced by this. However vocal, the climate skeptics had no voice or influence among the delegates in the hall, all the countries present accepting the central reality of the science . . . . it seems everyone who mattered at Durban does seem to acknowledge ‘the pie’ is going to get smaller.

The real problem, it seems to me anyway, is the same as it’s ever been – human nature . . . nobody is willing to voluntarily give-up a slice of ‘their pie’ !

If we want more chance of meaningful success in controlling carbon emissions and limiting climate change at the next set of talks, then make the most of the next four years – write to everyone you can to help convince them there is a large part of the public that wants to see significant progress on climate change.

I’ve wrapped-up with a couple of impressive videos showing the beauty and fragility of the Earth . . . seemed appropriate.


Photo by NASA

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Cold Cold Wind

This Autumn was one of the warmest and driest on record in the UK. As a result reservoirs are low, harvests were impacted and wildlife became confused.

But as the weather begins to change and winter finally arrives, a different concern returns, one that doesn’t always get the coverage it deserves: the 4 million UK households in fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty is defined as existing when a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on heating, in order to keep adequately warm. Due to rising fuel prices and the economic downturn the number of households in fuel poverty has been increasing rapidly, and shows every indication of continuing to do so. An amazing one in five UK households is now classed as being in fuel poverty, with almost half of those affected aged 60 or over.

The result of people being unable to keep adequately warm is an additional 26,000 deaths in which the cold weather pays a part over the winter. These deaths arise from respiratory problems and also from heart attacks and strokes resulting from the thickening of the blood and associated rise in blood pressure that occurs when we are cold.

Our energy policies are not only failing future generations due to climate change, but also failing many struggling households in our current generation too !

The problem is that these issues are often played off against each other.

Many of the critics of wind farms and feed in tariffs etc argue that they ‘further add to the fuel bills of those in hardship’, and while I sometimes question how genuinely these concerns are felt by those voicing them, there’s no denying it is a issue that needs addressing.

Unfortunately those seeking to defend subsidies for renewable energy sometimes appear unsympathetic to the plight of those in fuel poverty – simply pointing out that the additional cost of these schemes to average energy bills are in fact very low (which indeed they are). This risks missing the real point – that it’s difficult to make a just case why cold pensioners, fearful of turning on their heating over the winter, should pay more for their energy bills – regardless of the amount involved.

Environmentalists who only talk about melting ice sheets and polar bears, can easily appear dismissive of those facing real hardship. Framing the debate as either green energy or warm pensioners avoids the critical issue – both problems are real and urgently require a solution.

What is needed is a system that achieves the necessary decarbonisation of the economy, while allowing vulnerable people to keep warm in their own homes. Environmental issues are almost always social justice issues too.

Of course things are complex.

Real world solutions will need be a mix of price protection and support for those in most hardship, cost incentives to reduce the energy use of those with the ability to pay, grants for insulation, subsidies or tax benefits for energy companies to become more efficient, and, of course, subsidies and incentives to encourage the development of more renewable energy sources.

Government is at least engaging with some of these issues via its proposed Green Deal.

We’ll all have to wait and see if the detail of what’s being proposed lives up to expectations.


Photo by Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr

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