Thursday, 21 April 2011

Unexpected joys

One of the perennial pitfalls of being engaged with any aspect of campaigning, or working in other ways, to change the world (or, at least, some aspect of it!) is the tendency to become so completely focussed on the wrong that one wishes to right, that the pleasures and delights of the world get relegated to the background. Allowed to continue for too long, this is a sure recipe for the dreaded 'burnout' - fatigue, depression, disengagement, world-weariness . . .

The antidote (if you'll forgive the Pollyanna-ishness) is joy and gratitude for the gifts and delights that are all around.

And I received one such unexpected gift in the small hours of Monday morning. I should have gone to bed long before, but I was still at the computer long after midnight . . . and an email arrived from the totally wonderful Norwegian Institute of Recorded Sound. This is a public body (in the city of Stavanger) that is now the custodian of an extensive archive of recorded music. Its goal is to document the interpretation and performance of music in European 20th century culture through its recordings. The old recordings are being digitised, so the original physical recordings can be preserved, and the digitised versions are made available to the public in a variety of ways.

I first happened upon this organisation towards the end of last year, but I can't now recall how or why. However, what I discovered was that the staff were distributing daily links to a series of recordings (both voice and instrumental) of music suitable for Advent and Christmas - in other words, a musical Advent Calendar.

I signed up, providing my email address, and each day through Advent an email arrived with a link to a sound recording. It provided me with four weeks of pleasure - a moment in each busy day when I stopped and listened to a piece of music that had just been given to me. Many of the recordings are from old 78rpm records, complete with all the hisses and crackles, and bringing a sound that is clearly from the past - not just the scratchiness, but a style of singing and voice production utterly different from what we are used to hearing now.

I knew that, now they had my email address, I would receive the links again at the end of this year, for Advent 2011.

But today, a suprise - they've decided to make available a series of recordings for Easter, and the first link arrived during my later session at the screen, unexpected and unannounced, and doubly pleasurable as a result. They write:
"Throughout Easter we will publish arias, choruses and orchestral pieces from Handel's Messiah on our web site. All the music clips presented are from the same recording, which was made in London in 1906 and released on 78 records in various editions since then."
We have perhaps got used to hearing Handel's Messiah at Christmas, but it is not really Christmas music. Its theme is the whole sweep of God's relationship to humanity, exemplified by the prophecies, and the life and death of Jesus. It used to be the case that many amateur choral societies would perform Part 1 of the oratorio at Christmas and Part 2 at Easter.

And all the work of conserving, interpreting, disseminating, is offered freely (political note here: public services are wonderful!). They have a 'donations' page on their website . . . it's for recordings, not money!

You can sign up to follow them on Facebook, or you can email the Director, Jacqueline von Arb at
to receive the links to this Easter's music, and whatever other delights they send out in the future. You can find all the Advent 2010, and all this Easter's links on their exhibitions page.

A small political ps: Norway can afford its excellent public services because of its substantial oil wealth. In the UK, the revenues from North Sea oil and gas were, scandalously, frittered away on tax breaks for the already well-off, and other purposes, and they weren't invested. The Norwegian government is investing its oil revenues in renewable energy infrastructure - so, when the oil runs out, Norway will be ok. Unfortunately, everyone else gets to burn their oil in the meantime, adding to climate change. It's a bit like the game in the radio comedy panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, in which the panel members alternate with 'the good news . . . but the bad news . . . but the good news . . . but the bad news . . .'
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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Linking up with Transition Network

This week's post is a re-posting (with permission) of a post that Ben Brangwyn put on the Transition Network blog towards the end of last month.
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The faith movie we've all been waiting for!

Published on March 25, 2011, by Ben Brangwyn

If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it - faith leaders speaking with one voice on the ecological and social crises of our time

Earlier in the week, I was lucky enough to get invited to an exclusive "rough cut" screening of a 45 minute film that will, in my judgement, have a dramatic impact well beyond the rainbow of faith communities represented by the faith leaders in this movie.

In a world where conflict between faiths looms large in our history school books, this movie truly demonstrates that these disparate faiths have far more in common with each other than differences. And they demonstrate how all and any of these differences will be swept aside in their collective efforts to address the bewildering ecological and social crises engulfing both the developed and the developing worlds.

The movie is really a challenge to all men and women who profess to hold humanitarian beliefs, religious or otherwise. It challenges each of us to think very carefully about the choices we're making in all aspects of our lives, and how those choices might either exacerbate or mitigate the converging crises of ecological meltdown, economic downturn and increasing inequality within and between nations.

And all this at the very time that accelerating fossil fuel depletion threatens to dramatically reduce our collective and personal resilience levels.

What's remarkable about this movie is that it isn't in any way preachy. I'll repeat that: these religious leaders are not demonstrating any sanctimony or self-righteousness whatsoever. What also surprised me was the absence of oneupmanship - I was half-expecting to see some competition between the faiths as they touted their green and social justice credentials. But it didn't come across that way.

It helps that there's almost an equal number of women and men in the movie, but that's not the key to the complete absence of a "holier than thou" sentiment.

It was, in fact, the personal, emotional and intellectual honesty of each of the faith representatives as they spoke to the camera about what they are doing at the personal level; how they're empowering their communities to act positively; what they're doing to challenge the counter-prevailing forces; how they're breaking down the barriers between faiths; how they're personally struggling with living in a world that makes doing the right thing the most difficult thing; how they're reaching out beyond their immediate flock; how they're helping us navigate the inevitable contradictions arising from a realisation that each of our lives has to change and the frustrating length of time it takes to put those realisations into effect; and how they're helping us unearth the wisdom inside that will stop us taking the easy options and reverting back to the ways that edge us closer to crucial tipping points in the earth's ecological and climate systems.

Particularly moving was the account that one of the men of faith gave of his own journey of realisation - from not really understanding what all the fuss was about to being deeply engaged with these epochal problems.

He described it as if it were a traumatic truth that he'd protected himself from. When all rational avenues for his denial had been disproved, he'd then reluctantly slogged through an irresistable and painful path through anger and grief all the way to acceptance and action. It was a narrative that surely will be played out by the millions if we're to align our efforts and work together.

It's clear that the audience for this movie is not just those of us in developed economies - to whom it issues an unequivocal challenge. It's also a warning to those nations heading in the same direction that we took. It asserts that the path of high consumption, the worship of money and status and all those extrinsic values espoused by those societies that are causing the greatest ecological impact is not a path to human fulfillment or wellbeing.

I'm not a conventionally religious man myself, and I have well-developed hypocrisy antennae that become super-sensitive around any kind of religious event or activity. That sensor was knocked right off course by one of the most unexpected moments in the movie - a person of no religious persuasion at all is given equal prominence to voice her views and aspirations on these critical matters.

So in this movie we have Priests, Rabbis, Imams, Bishops, Buddhists, Christians of every stripe, Hindi Mahasaya, Sikhs, Quakers and even a non-faith person helping us catch a glimpse of what most of us understand at a very deep level. That every single one of us has a vital impact and role in our species' most monumental challenge - turning the tables on a converging set of crises by walking shoulder to shoulder through the valley of denial, anger and grief to reach a place where we are free to act together as we know we must.

Show this movie to your mum, your dad, your brothers and sisters, to the owner of your local newsagents.

Step for the first time across the threshold of a mosque and engage the imam in conversation, hand him the DVD and let him know if he shows it you'd like to bring your family.

Take a deep breath and step into the hushed spaces beneath the soaring arches of the church you recognise from your childhood, find the person who leads that congregation by example and convince her that this movie will give each person a sense of purpose and mission that will move mountains.

Better still, look the landlord of the local pub right in the eyes, smile and invite him to give his flock a thrill that no soccer fixture can equal - making sure, of course, you choose a day when there are no FA cup matches.

If we're going to be doing a bit of leading ourselves - and we'll have to - we all have to step out of our "comfort zone" and into our "learning zone". But let's go gently and not be too bold and step blithely in the "panic zone" - no one'll accompany you there, and you'll need people right by your side. We all do, especially now.

How to get hold of this movie

There is one other key point about this movie. It hasn't been made yet.

It hasn't been scripted, it hasn't been filmed. No sound technicians have struggled with the acoustics of a church or mosque. No one's doodled on a sketch pad to figure out the DVD cover. No carefully crafted letters have gone out to faith leaders. It doesn't have a name yet and it certainly doesn't have a budget.

Why not? Good question, and I don't know if there's a plausible or acceptable answer. There's just a HUGE vacuum that we need these men and women to fill, collectively, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, in a unified message that holds out a welcoming hand to steady us as we stumble through very difficult territory.

However, this movie has, in this posting, drawn its first breath. Only time will tell if this first breath of life will also be its last. That's in the hands and hearts of the men and women who have chosen to live in service to humanity and to the entirety of what some call "god's creation" and who have vowed to use their own humanity to reflect back to us how we might use our own.

Meanwhile, the shadow moves inexorably across the sundial . . .

This first breath is a call to our religious leaders, all of you, to step up to the challenge and breathe life into this little idea that could show us what authentic leadership is all about, empowering each of us to manifest just such leadership as we reshape our lives, our communities, our institutions and our world. Over to you.
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Many thanks to Ben for this post and for his inspiring idea - please pass it on to anyone who might be able to help make it a reality.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at and I can post it for you.
If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says. 

Monday, 4 April 2011

Energy savings potential continues to be greatly underutilised

This week's guest post comes from Paul Parrish - he's responding to my post of two weeks ago about the current nuclear debate.

Paul joined the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) in November 2010, at a critical time for energy security policy-making in Brussels. A professional atmospheric scientist by training, Paul has applied his education to a range of environmental applications, and is keen to use the expertise gained in these endeavours to advocate a Quaker response to the global challenges of sustainable energy security, climate change and conflict.
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Are we trying to look at how we use energy today, or simply at how we replace it?

Energy choices are at the very heart of the environmental, economic and quality-of-life challenges we face. The sustainability challenge is well identified, and 'business as usual' will not get us there. We urgently need a new appreciation of our energy choices, reflecting the true social and environmental costs.

Yet, if you've been listening to the rhetoric of late, you'd think we didn't have any choice at all, that we were exclusively limited to supply-side solutions. That's the first perceived "truth" to disabuse you of. The second is the contention that expansion of nuclear is key to limiting climate change; it’s more the case that a declining nuclear industry has seized on climate change as a means of reviving its flagging fortunes. There are faster, cheaper, more effective, more flexible and safer ways of getting our emissions down than embracing nuclear. More to the point, the biggest obstacle to sustainability remains consumer demand – fact!

For example, if the European Union reduced its energy consumption by just one per cent, 50 coal plants or 25,000 wind turbine equivalents would not be needed. Moreover, if the EU's 2009 Eco-design Directive were to be implemented fully, the end-use energy savings by 2020 could alleviate the need for another 98 Fukushima-sized nuclear reactors (which is a lot, considering that Europe only has 143 nuclear reactors to start with). And whereas new generation techniques take years to come on stream, energy demand savings and efficiency improvements can be implemented today, with existing technologies and know-how. Just to take one example, University of Cambridge researchers have recently shown that 73 per cent of global energy use could be saved by introducing “best practice” efficiency measures.

While demand reduction is often mentioned alongside supply security, it is rarely a priority for implementation, whether through policy, or through the search for innovation. A much higher political urgency for energy savings and efficiency is essential if we are to have any chance of meeting Europe's Triple 20% climate and energy goals (the three are: cutting greenhouse gases, cutting energy consunmption, and increasing the use of renewables). The result will be lower energy bills for consumers – with potential savings of up to €78 billion annually by 2020 (or approximately €380 per household), the creation of millions of valuable jobs and a massive boost to innovation in low-carbon industries and services.

So don't believe the hype; an overwhelming body of research has shown that behavioural and cultural changes are the most powerful, cost-effective and fastest means to achieving a sustainable future.

A little efficiency goes a long way
While efficiency savings could cut world energy use by 70 per cent, only about a third of the action needed to put European Union countries on a path towards a low carbon economy is currently underway. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if Europe continues to delay the pace of its de-carbonisation agenda, it will miss the most cost-effective opportunity in a generation to clean up its infrastructure.

Of the options available to us, the efficiency savings potential in our built environment stands out. The potential efficiency savings are enormous, via widespread retrofitting of homes into passive and low-carbon buildings, with decentralised and renewable energy sources. Not only do statistics show that buildings account for 40% of end-use energy consumption, and 36% of the EU's CO2 emissions, but for every euro invested in the sustainable refurbishment of housing, two euros aren't needed for the production of energy.

Energy efficiency in the built environment offers many benefits for home-owners, tenants and housing associations, including more energy-efficient buildings (warmer), an attractive residential environment (better), and significant cost savings for users (cheaper). If we invest significantly in energy savings, the EU economy will not only be more resilient to fossil-fuel price fluctuations, but also benefit from additional growth and job creation in innovative sectors like the manufacturing and export of clean technology.

A slow energy transition assumes continued cheap energy resiliency
Unfortunately, it isn't happening. According to recent estimates, the EU is likely to miss its modest 20% energy reduction goals by half. And in what could be said to be graphic example of Jevons Paradox, recent efficiency gains appear to have been offset by greater energy consumption. (The Jevons Paradox can be seen in operation in many fields. For instance, when new, faster, roads are built, drivers don't save time; they consume more miles.)

This is a shame, because efficiency involves virtually no forfeiture or loss, unlike measures that call for sacrifice. Mundane though they may be, energy efficiency savings do some pretty heroic heavy-lifting in the service of the EU's lofty energy reduction aims. As the Coalition for Energy Savings highlighted, if someone said there is an energy source which offers all this: save millions of euros, no waste, less fuel poverty, innovation training, sustainable employment, safety, lower import bills, inexhaustible, address social inequalities, energy savings, enhance quality of life, reduced emissions, better health, education, energy security …would you support it? Energy efficiency offers all these, but clearly isn't given the sort of urgency and impetus it deserves.

The risk is that we miss our huge opportunities and enter a disappointing path of economic development with low innovation and low growth. What's more, not only do countries and regions which make early progress towards greater energy efficiency strengthen their competitive position, but delaying of the necessary transformation has the potential to weaken governance institutions, eroding the relationship between the governors and the governed.

In the short to mid-term, the smart approach to sustainable energy security must be local and incremental: an approach that focuses on getting the most out of existing infrastructure and opportunities. Energy savings and efficiency improvements are the credible policy strategy needed for speeding up Europe’s low carbon transformation, and restoring public faith in our decision-making bodies.

The underestimated role of individuals
That could be the end of the story, but what really excites those of us in the Sustainable Energy Security programme of the QCEA, is the obvious potential that the public consequently has in delivering on energy policy. The age of cheap oil is over. Efficiency in both primary production and end-use energy consumption is the cheapest way to reduce our dependency upon fossil fuels and nuclear. Given that a 20% energy efficiency saving is roughly equivalent to 14 (proposed) Nabucco gas pipelines, we've seriously got to consider our existing priorities, and the necessary actions that will bring about genuine sustainability.

The problem is not technology, but our organisation and administration. We need to pull together and make it happen. We must also put faith in learning-while-doing, for there is strong evidence that by simply attempting new things, we become better at doing them. Looking back, it will be hard to image that we collectively couldn't do this. In the words of Robert Schuman, one of the founders of the European Union, "it is no longer a question of vain words but of a bold, constructive act."

To this end, I know several people who live out the testimonies in profound and courageous ways, and others who have a simplicity and an integrity that is not easily matched. These adventurous souls embody the shifting of power away from vertically oriented, hierarchical power structures (as exemplified by centralised, top-down, proprietary and closed nuclear power stations), to distributive, collaborative and horizontal power networks. They are powerfully called to witness a world that is transformed, that is sustainable and that is just, challenging the rest of us to ask just how radical is our vision today.

As individuals, we can all share the joys of a simple, spirit-led life. To do so, we need to develop a new, closer relationship with the energy we use, which will encourage us to value our energy more, and to use it less. In sustainability terms, the key question is not whether we have to accept being powered by nuclear, but how long do we remain too comfortable to bring our careless consumption under control.
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Thanks to Paul for this post.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at  and I can post it for you.

If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says.