Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Quakers and Transition

Last weekend around forty Quakers met at Woodbrooke to look at the links and potential synergies between Quakers and the Transition movement. 

The facilitator team, who started planning this event a year ago, consisted of: Catrina Pickering from Transition Network; Sunniva Taylor from Quaker Peace and Social Witness; Jasmine Piercy from Living Witness and Quaker Voluntary Action; Gordon Matthews from Evesham Quaker Meeting and Transition Evesham Vale; and me from Woodbrooke.

Participants came from all over Britain, with one visitor from the USA also joining us. About half the group came representing their local or area Quaker meeting, and about half came on their own account. Many had been involved in environmental issues long before Transition appeared on the scene, and were bringing their previous experience and knowledge to the movement.

There was a strong feeling in the group that Quakerism and Transition had a lot in common, as well as real differences, and a lot to offer each other. One group looked at visions for how this might look a few years from now. The flip-chart sheets from this session included:

• Food Co-ops and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) in Meeting Houses
• Free Transition Libraries sited at MH
• Meetings very enthusiastic and supportive of Transition Initiatives
• Pockets of Quakers orchestrating all the above activities
• Quaker land grows food
• Recycle, reuse site at Meeting Houses
• Solar panels on Meeting House roofs
• Workshops including conflict reduction
• Carbon neutral Yearly Meeting Gathering
• Greening the Meeting House
• Solar panels, insulation
• Sharing transport
• See what else can be done
• Suggest get backing for making our Meeting House an eco-centre as well as pushing the “greening” of the Meeting House faster
• Create “T” group (Transitions) within Meeting House
• Setting an example of how to live simply and positively
• Awareness raising
• Organic vegetable gardening at Meeting House
• Have Living Witness group, if not already there

Many Friends said they felt quite alone and isolated in their meetings, in relation to sustainability issues in general, and Transition in particular. However, there were also many encouraging signs:
- Common elements living in Quaker testimony and Transition principles
- Many people involved and overcoming similar challenges – not alone – a network (of Quakers) to call on / contact
- Encouraged by a growing emphasis on community-building on existing initiatives and developing cooperative effort with local councils
- Others are doing great, diverse things so we could too, given the ideas and projects these examples offer
- People are carrying on despite set backs, negativity, reduced energy and enthusiasm

One group looked at Quaker values, and how they might inform the work of Transition. One example given was from Transition Stratford, which ran a “Have a happier Xmas” event, trying to put across messages about avoiding/rejecting the materialistic values promoted at that time of year. Questions considered included: would sessions on understanding and changing lifestyle and values be useful as part of a Transition initiative? How might Transition initiatives work with organisations, such as faith groups, on values and Transition? Should Transition projects or activities be designed to promote values – and if so, how might this be done?

On Sunday morning we held an ‘open space’ process to pick up issues and questions either remaining, or which had been generated by the event. The report-back sheets from that included:

Actions/Proposals from Open Space
- Political actions
- Love – risk it, share it, don’t cling to it!
- Hold “Be the Change” symposium/events: for Quakers, Transitioners, other faith groups…EVERYONE.
- Go home fired up – tell others, but find the right words

How to start up a Heart and Soul group – ideas
- Proselytising – beware!!
- Silence? – introduce to meeting if we feel we need it eg can we – pause – take a moment
- Small groups – to share feelings/emotions
- Start at centre and work out – acknowledge anxieties/fears about ‘unknown’
- Simplicity – do something together eg craft and talk

Prompting more corporate Quaker action
- Theatre/Poetry/Music to communicate the serious and hopeful visions of future. (Themes around equality etc, consumerism, competition)
- Visions of future and transition and just for fun to bring people together.
- Inner transition and consumerism workshops – how to attract “outsiders” to this
- Must think about ‘self-selection’ of type of people we wish to attract

In very first session, many people indicated need for strong government policy, yet my impression is both Quakers and Transition either don’t relate to policy at all, or have basically cynical/oppositional attitude. Is this true? Is it a problem? if so, what could we and/or government do about it?
- Government legislation vs local actions – how much of each do we need and how best to do
- Cynical? Maybe just sense of powerlessness. Very varied views on importance of politics vs local action.
- Need to build coalitions respecting others’ interests and motivations
- Role of business relationship eg around consumer desire for low-carbon products
- Is role for government of ‘society’ in driving demand for low-carbon products?

Attracting people with energy to your transition initiative
- Go out to other groups to find people
- Talking to people
- Find and ‘harass’ people who have time and energy
- Back people in pursuing their dreams
- Create openings for people to choose their roles
- Listen to the cues (people don’t like to be rejected)
- Articulate the roles needed to be filled
- Offer/encourage (especially new) projects
- Reward involvement
- Give people their head
- Make it fun!

Defining Transition
Transition is about experiment. Requires patience. But there is huge urgency.
Quaker meetings are doing a lot – need more networking and communication.
Inner transition.
Transition as journey – as something we are part of.

Quaker offers:
Professional expertise
Consensus decision making
Conflict resolution

OK – that’s probably enough of our report-backs! But I hope you can see the kind of thinking and energy that was emerging. This event was a first time co-operation between Woodbrooke and the Transition movement, and generated openings for futher joint work. The next opportunity is a special interest group at Yearly Meeting Gathering in Canterbury, and Woodbrooke will host a further Quaker/Transition conference towards the end of next year.
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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Transports of delight?

On Monday, my day off, I spent part of the day helping to staff a stall for my local branch of the STOP HS2 campaign; and today The Guardian carries a special supplement on transport planning (it's a sponsored supplement so, unfortunately, the content isn't available freely online).

HS2 ('High Speed 2') is the proposed new rail service between London and Birmingham (initially) - so called following the name High Speed 1 for the Channel Tunnel rail link. The government's official 'roadshow' is visiting places along the proposed route and on Monday and Tuesday this week it was in the town where I live. It was a very big, slick, expensive PR exercise, so the anti campaign made sure we also had our stall there - albeit a much smaller and hand-to-mouth affair.

People who know my 'green' involvements are surprised that I'm strongly opposed to this rail development - don't we need more public transport, more trains? Indeed we do, but we don't need trains going at 250mph ploughing through towns, villages, farmland, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and much more. I won't bore you with all the arguments against - they're all set out well on the campaign website. More to the point, the Department for Transport itself produced an alternative plan to increase capacity on the congested west coast line - it's Called Rail Package 2, and interestingly, the original official report has disappeared from the web - all the links are broken, includng to the location where it's supposedly archived. At a time of swingeing spending cuts it seems to me to be obscene to be spending tens of billions of pounds on a major new infrastructure project (that won't even generate many permanent new jobs) when a practical medium-term alternative exists, at a tenth of the cost.

In the long term, there's a bigger question - will we either want, or be able, constantly to move large numbers of people around over long distances at high speeds? Will the pressure drastically to reduce carbon emissions lead to less travelling, substantially less fast travelling, and more use of electronic communications? Faster travel uses more energy per mile and the energy use climbs more steeply than the speed (so if you double the speed, you more than double the energy demand). In the rich world, we've got accustomed to getting what we want and getting it quickly. Whether it's instant food, a credit card that 'takes the waiting out of wanting', fast broadband speeds or fast travel . . . we want it all and we want it now.

But we can't carry on having everything fast-and-now. We don't have to stop travelling but we do have to stop assuming we can travel fast - it's much more carbon-expensive. Many people are starting to appreciate the benefits of 'slow' - from slow food, which is good food, to the wider slow movement. These movements link to issues and concerns around localism and community.

Developments such as HS2 move us a step towards more transport 'apartheid', where the rich can travel far and fast and the non-rich (not just the poor) can't. We already have some of this - buses are used mostly by poorer people, and it is poorer people, without access to alternatives, who are most affected when buses are withdrawn. HS2 would extend this - only wealthy people, or those on business trips, will be able to afford tickets; either that or every taxpayer in the country will be subsidising it for evermore.

The rationale for faster travel (by whatever means) is that it 'saves time', which is deemed to be good for the economy. In the HS2 proposals the government bases part of the business case on the 'fact' that time spent on the train is 'unproductive', and therefore a faster train brings automatic economic benefits . . . I sometimes think that the people who write this kind of thing have never sat on an inter-city train and counted the number of laptops and smartphones that come out as soon as the passengers are seated. The only people these days for whom a train journey is 'unproductive time' are those who choose it to be so.

And in fact, it has become clear that faster travel doesn't 'save time', we just 'consume more miles', by whatever mode of transport. This an example of Jevons' Paradox. Anyone who lives near a major bypass road will know that it doesn't help users of the previous route to complete their journeys faster . . . it attracts hordes of new users who previously would not have considered the journey; the same is true of  motorways. So not only do we use proportionately more energy, because we are travelling faster; we travel further as well.

It can't continue like this - the planet cannot afford it. Transportation is one of the top emitters, globally, of carbon dioxide.

The philosopher Pascal wrote that, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."  As Quakers, we might want to sit quietly in a room together, of course!
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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

It’s time to get serious

I have in front of me a great heap of newspaper cuttings from the last week or so and, taken together, they paint a grim picture that tells us one thing: if we weren’t serious about sustainability until now, then now is the time to get serious.

But I start just a little further back with an article in New Scientist. Under the heading ‘Renewable oil?’ (21 May print copy; 18 May on their website – full article accessible only to subscribers)  the author writes:
Biofuels have been around for a while. [This] system is an unusual member of the "third generation" of the technology. The first-generation fuels stalled largely because they had to compete with the food industry. Their feedstock, a mixture of sugars, starches and oils, came from sugarcane and corn. The second generation produced fuels from inedible cellulose and non-food crops, which are difficult to break down cost-effectively into the simple molecules found in fuels. The latest biofuels are derived from microbes that can live on land unfit for crops and generate nearly engine-ready chemicals . . . But what works in theory might not work in practice: so far no company has been able to mass-produce fuels using engineered microorganisms . . . Promising as these technological advances seem, commercial success is not guaranteed.
The whole approach of the biofuels industry being discussed here is to try to find the ‘magic’ system – the one that will allow us to continue business as usual by other means, so that we can continue to drive our cars and fly our planes as if there were no problem. But there are problems – plenty of them – and business as usual by other means is not an option.

So now I move to the end of last month. On 30th May The Guardian  carried an ‘exclusive’ headlined ‘Worst ever CO2 emissions leave climate on the brink’:
Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency. The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" – is likely to be just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions . . . John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said time was running out. "This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world's last remaining reserves of fossil fuels – even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don't put out a fire with gasoline. It will now be up to us to stop them."
Government repesentatives are currently meeting in Bonn, for the next phase of climate change talks, but there is little hope of breakthrough

Damian Carrington, on his environmental blog, writes, ‘Time to re-engineer the world economy right now’
After the banking crisis of 2008, the cooling of the global economy had appeared to have given our wheezing, warming world pause for breath. As GDP went into reverse, so did energy use and the pumping of planet-heating gases into the atmosphere. Attempts to agree global action went into reverse at the same time . . . But while the global economy has roared back to life, the UN's negotiations remain on life support, and with little hope of recovery.

Two truths emerge from this mismatch. First, the link between economic growth and carbon dioxide must be broken. The world's economy runs on energy, and while most of that power continues to comes from coal, oil and gas, global GDP and carbon emissions will be bound together in lockstep. The latest data show a near perfect correlation, and that shows how little impact, in a worldwide context, renewable and nuclear power is making.

Second, the rich industrialised world and the poor developing world must align their hopes and fears: they inhabit the same planet. All nations are united in understanding that unchecked climate change poses a grave threat in every part of the world.
Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the moves to reduce dependence on nuclear raise the prospect of burning more oil and coal to keep the electricity supply going, on which all our lives, in the developed world, depend.

At this exact moment, the UK government is accused – by a coalition of green groups – of caving in to the Cananda lobby by stalling on the tar sands ban. Britain is being accused of undermining a European-wide drive to ban forecourt sales of petrol and diesel derived from the carbon-heavy tar sands of Canada. Canada's tar sands are the world's largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia but can require up to three times the amount of greenhouse gases to extract from the earth. They often need steam to be injected into the heavy bitumen before it can be broken up and brought out of the ground – unlike traditional oil extracted through drilling a well.

Campaigners, who also fear the 'fracking' process will poison underground aquifers, have long claimed that fully exploiting Canada's tar sands alone would be sufficient to take the world to the brink of runaway climate change.

Meanwhile, in Britain, we have our own ‘fracking’ controversy: the explorations into the shale gas deposits near Blackpool are reported to have triggered an earthquake there, as well as raising local people’s fears of water pollution from the methane released in the extraction process. 

As if this were not enough Steve Bolze, from General Electric’s power and water division,  predicts that a glut of cheap gas will undermine investment in renewables. Gas is being positioned as a low-carbon fuel – burned in a power station, it produces about half of the carbon associated with coal. However, this is not the whole story; a recent study showed that shale gas (the most common form of unconventional gas) produces as much carbon as coal, because of problems with its production.

Again, the point is that we have to move beyond the search for business as usual by other means.

And the day after all of this was reported, the next issue to come to the fore was food – again. British companies are buying up agricultural land in Africa to grow ‘2nd generation’ biofuel crops, and Oxfam reports on increasing food insecurity in poor parts of the world as a result of climate change. The UN warns of impending food riots as current drought conditions push prices up, and calls for regulation to stop commodity traders speculating on food prices, increasing costs for the poor while making vast profits for themselves.

On the political and economic front, European airlines are predicting a trade war with the US, Russia and China if the EU goes ahead with a carbon trading scheme that will include airliens, and increase prices for passengers and freight.

And Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, moves from the financial pages to the main ‘Comment’ slot with a piece on what he calls the ‘triple crunch’:
. . . it takes an emergency to lift policy makers (and the public, for that matter) out of the default setting of complacency and torpor. The prevailing belief is that the global economy had a narrow escape in late 2008 but has emerged pretty much unscathed. Job done. Time to go back to sleep. Only wake us again if there is another chance that the banks might run out of money. Actually, as the news from the past few weeks has illustrated, it could be worse than that. It is not just that the global economy remains severely unbalanced or that it is business as usual in an unreformed financial sector. It is not even that the euro area could trigger the sort of mayhem last seen in the autumn of 2008. It is that oil prices have been rocketing and greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year. There is the potential there for not just one crisis but three: a situation where the ATMs freeze up, the planet warms up, and the lights go out.
The three components here are an economy in serious difficulty, Britains’s dependence on imported energy, and climate change.
So that's the triple crunch. It's not pretty but there are at least four possible choices. Choice one: do nothing because modern financial capitalism is robust and self-correcting, there is more oil in the ground than we think, and global warming is a fantasy. Possible, but given that it was the same mindset as prevailed in financial markets pre-2007, fraught with risk.

Choice two: argue that there is an incompatibility between growth and sustainability, so the big developing countries cannot hope to aspire to western levels of consumption, which need to be reduced anyway. Perhaps true, although the deep green road map for getting from A to B is somewhat sketchy and currently lacks political support in both the developed and developing worlds.

Choice three: bring human ingenuity to bear by investing heavily in new forms of low-carbon green growth while at the same time negotiating a binding global climate change deal. Tough, expensive, and open to the objection that green growth is pie in the sky.

Choice four: file under "too difficult" and hope it is not too late to respond when the crisis breaks.
Eiott ends by saying:
Personally, I'd go for choice three, while accepting that choice four looks most likely and that choice two may eventually be forced on us anyway.
His preference comes at the same time as a call from the UN to ramp up technology that will suck CO2 from the air, because cutting our emissions isn’t succeeding fast enough. 

All this in the past 10 days! But the message is clear, simple, and very unpalatable: we have to change our behaviour – all of us, immediately, and significantly. Nothing and no-one is going to rescue us from our own folly.

Business as usual is not an option.
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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.

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