26 May 2007

Leaders – who needs them?

By Jacqui McCarney

Last week, fellow columnist, Rupert Read argued that we desperately need 'real leaders' for the crisis of our time, namely diminishing oil supplies and escalating climate change.

But what about ordinary people – isn't there a difference that we can make? In fact, are we not the only ones who can make the real difference - more than the politicians!

Of course, it would be helpful, reassuring and very practical to have strong concerned leaders 'showing the way' as we make the momentous shift to a low carbon lifestyle.

Instead our leaders are in disarray, refusing to unite for the national good they waste time on political point scoring. In this vacuum of 'leadership', it's the people who have to take real initiative.

Two casualties from this week's news … Energy Performance Certificates (EPC's) for house buyers have been delayed and diluted because of lack of cross party support. Come on politicians … yet another vital tool for energy efficiency delayed in our so 20th century political process.

Carbon emissions are still rising, yet the Government's new planning system announced in this week's White Paper will make it easier for many catastropic climate schemes – more runways at Heathrow and Stansted, more roads, incinerators and the like.

We may feel we need a Churchill who will guide us through this period of transition, but climate change needs urgent action now! Even if a suitable leader were to appear in a decade or two that will be too late!

We have already lost over three decades during which our leaders have failed to understand the severity of the environmental crisis and act accordingly - instead leading us by the nose to the precipice of climate chaos.

Einstein was right when he said "You can't solve a problem with the same mind set that created it". Business as usual economics and vested interests make it impossible to tackle climate change.

It looks increasingly as if, centralised power revolving around an individual leader is the politics of the 20th century. Devolved power with spokespeople representing local concerns and needs - that is local democracy – should be the politics of the 21st century. This process has started already in Scotland and Wales.

Despite the trends for centralised government and planning power, we should encourage localisation wherever possible to deal with the realities of climate change. Why wait? We all know that if you want something done you had better do it yourself.

The Transition Town movement is encouraging just such local responses to peak oil and climate change by focussing communities on an orderly descent to a low carbon lifestyle. As diminishing oil supplies push up transport costs, long term food security is threatened. The people of Bristol, Totnes and Ashburton are just a few of the communities that have decided to take matters into their own hands by recently declaring themselves Transition Towns.

Recently, four hundred turned up to an 'unleashing' of the Town Hall in Lewes where they too became a Transition Town. This is a radical and popular expression of communities bypassing central government and acting now to protect local people and at the same time reduce their own carbon footprint.

Our infrastructure, transportation system, food supply, businesses, agriculture are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Changing this dependence can not happen quickly enough and these towns are refusing to stand by as the politicians dither. Just as in the war residents are growing their own food and learning the skills now to secure a local food supply, making sure that local businesses and transport are supported so that resources are poured back into the community. And, ultimately these communities aim to become self sufficient in energy with secure cheap, safe, renewable supplies from local sources.

Norwich's green credentials make it a promising place for such a transition project. Already some of our residents are demanding more locally grown food – perhaps we can develop community sustainable energy projects next?

Another example - Modbury in Devon went plastic bag free and has had hundreds of requests from other towns asking for advice on how to do this. Relatively small steps ... but once communities learn how to work together and align their concerns for the environment with their lifestyle, the more irrelevant central Government becomes.

The optimism of 1997 election that secured Tony Blair a huge majority was not just about us all wanting to get richer - it was about wanting a more equal, just, fair society. Now that has to be a low carbon, equal and fair society. Blair has delivered the opposite.

Who needs leaders? The future is local.