Thursday, 5 November 2009

'A Zero Growth Economics?' - the follow-up weekend at Woodbrooke

Six weeks after the day conference in London, we held the follow-up weekend at Woodbrooke, 30 October to 1 November. It was a mammoth event, stretching Woodbrooke’s space to its limits, but it all worked, assisted by the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants. We had over 90 present, including Area Meeting representatives, QPSW staff and central committee people, and Woodbrooke staff, workshop leaders, Turning the Tide Facilitators, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who chaired our London conference day.

We started on Friday evening with Jocelyn reminding us of what we had heard in London, and then we split up into groups to talk about what we had each got from the day. Suzanne Ismail, from QPSW, then introduced the ‘talking wall’ to continue conversations that would inform the work of Economic Issues Group. The ‘wall’ was very well-used during the weekend! Anne Wilkinson from QPSW reminded us that the purpose of this weekend was to plan for practical local work that Friends to initiate or be engaged in.

On Saturday morning the conference split into choices of option groups, everyone being able to attend two different groups. This was an opportunity to hear about examples of local action that had been tried and tested – hopefully to be inspirational.

Caz and Tom Ingall, from Canalside Community Food, talked about their initiative creating a Community Supported Agriculture project on their farm in Warwickshire. They started full scale vegetable production from Spring 2007, and are now producing weekly shares of seasonal veg for over 90 local households.

Laurie Michaelis gave his groups a way into the kind of work promoted and enabled by the Living Witness Project (LWP), which aims to support the development of Quaker corporate witness to sustainable living and explore ways of taking it to the wider community in Britain and elsewhere.

Jan Copley invited Friends to think about how they make choices about spending their money and the wider social and community impacts of that, in addition to the economic effects.

Roger Sawtell with a long history in the co-operatives movement, led his groups to look at co-operatives as an alternative economic model to the dominant shareholder/employee paradigm.

Gwen Prince led a groups sharing their experience of Transition Town and allied activities. Gwen and another Friend from Llanidloes Quaker Meeting started LLES ( Llanidloes Energy Solutions). Llanidloes has currently been designated a 'Green Town', part of a Low Carbon Communities Project which though not part of the Transition network is working towards similar aims.

Ian Care led a group looking at how to run local community businesses – an idea suddenly topical for Archers listeners, who will know that this is a new story-line in the saga of Ambridge! You can find out about community shops from the Plunkett Foundation.

Tony Weekes ran groups on LETS and other Local Currency schemes. While Tony was a research fellow at Woodbrooke he wrote a pamphlet called The Economic Crisis: a Quaker response (Woodbrooke Journal no. 24, Spring 2009). You can buy the printed version from Woodbrooke, price £4.50 (phone 0121 472 5171), or obtain a pay-for-download PDF version direct from the website, price £2.50.

After lunch on Saturday there was free time or a choice of two activities (plus participant-organised discussion groups). We set up a Skype link to Canada, to interact with Geoff Garver, one of the authors of Right Relationship: building a whole earth economy published by Quaker Institute for the Future (this is a link to their blog – the link to their homepage seems to be broken at the moment). Geoff talked with us (and we asked questions of him), and he gave a powerpoint presentation which you can view on the Friends House web pages.

The parallel activity was a chance to view two videos – The Power of Community: how Cuba overcame peak oil (53 mins – you can buy the DVD from the Green Shopping Catalogue); and Annie Leonard’s wonderful animated film The Story of Stuff (20 mins) – you can watch this online. Independent viewing of other DVDs we’d made available included A Farm for the Future (changing a farm over to permaculture) – made as a BBC documentary and now watchable online in five parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

From Saturday afternoon, Turning the Tide facilitators divided the conference into six smaller groups, and took them through a process of identifying real, practical on-the-ground changes that could be made by, or in relation to, our local meetings.

In the closing plenary, we identified a desire for more technical-but-accessible input on economics for non-economists. Don’t forget the Quakernomics blog.

You might also like to find out about FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability). Additionally, in the ‘Very Short Introductions’ series, there is Economics: A Very Short Introduction by Partha Dasgupta.

Also, if you read a newspaper (online or on paper) it’s worth not just ignoring the financial pages. For instance, on the day following our weekend, The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, had a very interesting piece on what’s happening now, in the wake of the recession. His Monday editorial articles are always interesting and accessible to the non-specialist. This one is called, ‘Painful death of the American dream: mesmerised by big finance, policymakers are sowing the seeds of a new crisis’.

Coincidentally, for us, George Monbiot’s weekly column the following day looked at some of the psychological issues behind consumption and climate change denial. It makes sobering reading: scepticism about human-induced climate change is increasing, not decreasing; people over 65 are proportionately more likely to be ‘deniers’; there is already experimental evidence that ‘some people respond to reminders of death by increasing consumption.’ The whole article is worth reading.

And on the same day, a piece about the sacking of David Nutt (until then chair of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs) asked questions about government’s attitudes to scientific advice – a problem that is equally intractable in relation to climate change.

So there is lots going on in the world around us that reinforces the importance of what we were doing at the weekend, and makes sure that these issues will be with us for some time to come. And as I was writing this report, a phone call came in from Eoin McCarthy from Quakers and Business Group, telling me that:
On 24th April 2010, Quakers and Business Group's Spring Gathering is scheduled to be held at Redland Friends Meeting House, Bristol. On the day, we hope to address ourselves to: Prosperity v Growth in the context of the limitations of democratically elected government and the possibilities for financial reform.


  1. I'm sorry there are no photos in this post - I took a whole load during the weekend and tried to include some of them; but I was having major trouble with the text-editor embedded in Blogger and couldn't get the whole thing to format properly. If anyone reading this has any advice to offer about formatting text-plus-photos, please email me at Woodbrooke about it:
    - I'll be extrmely grateful!

  2. Roger Holloway, of Lampeter & Llanybydder Local Meeting writes:

    As I see the way ahead, we have to start with our own lifestyles. Many of us are already doing things to simplify our living and are attempting to 'walk lightly on the planet'. However, it is my view that we lack vital objective information about the science of global warming and food production etc to see the way ahead clearly. Having a scientific background, I have difficulty with the dogmas and some of the activities of Friends of the Earth and to a much lesser extent, the Soil Association. There is a lot going on in Wales, with Transition Towns schemes, local vegetable growing co-operatives and village shop initiatives - communities 'doing it for themselves'.

    The issue for me then is what do we as friends do that we aren't doing now. Do we become more political, be more active in our communities, live more 'in the light' i our daily lives? Probably all of these things.

    On the issue of climate change and sustainable energy, the best source of science based research I have come across is 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, by David JC MacKay. The best objective paper on sustainable food production is a free download from, called, 'Reaping the Benefits'.

  3. What worries me most about the government/public response to Peak Oil is the insistence on exploiting new sources of fuel while refusing to reduce the need by grasping the nettle of lifestyle change.

    However, many people just tune out when they feel they're being lectured, so I agree with Roger: we must "let [our] lives speak".

    Until they see it in other people's lives, many people don't realise the joy, the FUN of being less tramelled by "stuff", by people to see, places to go, the hamster-wheel of consumerism. I believe Friends are well placed to take a lead here, as so many of us already have experience of a simpler way of life.

    It's important to educate ourselves as individuals and as meetings so we're able to explain the issues when necessary but what Friends excel at is the stuff of heart and soul, of engaging with people at a deeper level. And that's the only way that true change will come about.

  4. An Oxfam worker from Oxford is walking from Oxford to Copenhagen. [He is known as Push (Pushpanath Krishnamurthy) with website]. He arrived in St Albans Thursday 19th and left this morning on his way to Hatfield, Hertfordshire. A small group of us joined him on his way, walk-talking. We were able to share views on climate change in the wake of the Cumbria floods, share perspectives on the 'in-transition' town movement and I spoke to others on the Quaker response to climate change and the economy as we had explored at Woodbrooke. What I said was well recieved by others. My understanding of the issues have been greately enhanced through the Zero Growth Economy? confernences and seminars - thank you to all those (and Pam) for making this happen.

    St Albans LM