25 August 2012

Postcard from the Edge of Democracy

This month, two towns in Britain were engaged in a fierce battle to keep the corporate chain, Costa Coffee out of their high streets, Southwold in the East and Totnes in the West. A hundred people were thrown out of the council chamber in the normally quiet sea-town of Southwold as the local council voted in favour of the chainstore (following Tesco and WH Smith earlier in the year). Here Transition social reporter Jay Tompt in Totnes, looks at the process whereby outside developers and corporate interests outweigh the interests of local people and businesses, a pattern than prevails thoughout the modern world.

All politics is local but not all local politics is democratic. This fact hit home on Wednesday when over 100 Totnesians marched through the centre of town up to the local seat of power to demonstrate loud and clear that the town of Totnes overwhelmingly opposes the economic invasion by a large corporate coffee chain.

Follaton House sits just a mile outside the town centre and is the home of the South Hams District Council. The Totnes Town Council is virtually powerless. All decisions of any import concerning Totnes, as well as all other towns and villages in the district, are made here by councillors and bureaucrats, the vast majority of whom commute to this comfortable, self-contained estate, surrounded by arboretum and parkland. These commuters have little reason to visit the town and, for the most part, they don’t. If they had, they wouldn’t have been surprised to see their council chamber fill with citizens determined to make their collective voice heard. But actually, they weren’t surprised, just dismissive.

For three months, independent shop owners, community leaders, and citizens have built a strong case for keeping our local economy independent, resilient, and sustainable. They collected over 5,700 signatures from people opposing corporate coffee chains and in favour of supporting the over 41 independent coffee outlets in the town. They sought guidance from planning experts who found that several aspects of the Localism Bill and the new National Planning Policy Framework heavily supported local decision-making power on matters concerning sustainable development and the character of the town.

Strangely, even David Cameron is on our side: “For our high streets to thrive they must offer something new and different. But for this to happen it is local people who must take control, developing the vision for the future of their high streets and putting their energy and enthusiasm into making it a reality.“

Even more strangely, the South Hams District Council’s own development and strategic planning policy documents clearly spell out the strategic vision aimed at promoting locally-directed sustainable development and community vibrancy.

So, where’s the disconnect?

About 30 marchers were allowed in to witness how the wheels of local democratic government turn. The chamber is officious with judicial-style dais, the chairman of the Development Management Committee presiding in the centre and above him hangs the obligatory still life with queen and consort. He was immediately flanked by the clerk and head planning officer, and on a lower level by the solicitor, secretary and the youngish planning officer, sporting sharkfin haircut and stylish suit, who would present his recommendation in favour of Costa’s application. The next three rows supported the councillors, their backs to the audience. All in all, a scene that’s probably repeated hundreds of times a week in council chambers across Britain for those charged with conducting the people’s business.

The planning officer made his case making slowly and methodically, making it clear in his first-person testimony – “I surveyed...I decided...in my judgement...I recommend.” He pointed out several times that regardless of the change in use of the property, the fact that it was Costa Coffee makes no difference, it’s not material, it’s not part of planning procedure, and not covered in planning policy.

Speaking on behalf of the people of Totnes, town councillor and community leader, Jill Tomalin, spoke eloquently for the need to reject the application on several material grounds, referencing current planning policy, as well as new NPPF guideline and the Localism agenda. After the Costa representative made his case, claiming that Costa Coffee outlets add to local character, generate more footfall, and give a boost to local shops, the floor was opened to the councillors. Local district councillors and allies then spoke forcefully for the application to be denied, citing the language in NPPF, Localism Bill and SHDC’s own strategy and development documents. Repeatedly, the planning officer and his boss made the point that the fact that it was Costa was not material and could not be considered. The council solicitor also weighed in to remind the councillors that the fact that the applicant was Costa could not be considered.

Comments from those who would in moments vote in favour of Costa reflected party ideology and a pre-agreed message strategy. Nearly every one began with the reminder that “as the Development Management Committee we’re bound to consider each case ... blah ... blah ... irrespective ... blah... blah...blah”. Some asked for further clarification from the planning officer, his boss, the solicitor – “we can’t consider who owns the business, can we?” A measure or two feigned angst: “I don’t like it anymore than you do, but our hands are tied.” One councillor pulled a Marie Antoinnette: “Over five thousand signatures in a town of six thousand? That’s ...uh...um. Well, I don’t see why so much fuss over a cup of coffee. Humph.” And finally, an absurdly sarcastic councillor predicted that once it was in, Totnes would be thrilled with their new Costa. The entire chamber erupted with laughter.

The final vote was 17-6 in favour of Costa, who will soon move into the largest retail space in the lower part of the town, across the street from the Old Bakery. They’ll have 70 covers and will be in prime position to intercept plenty of tourist footfall. The landlord is based in London and refuses to lease the space to a local shop even through there have been three who wanted it and could afford the high rent. And now, apparently, the landlord is evicting a family who have lived above the shop for the last 20 years. But the No to Costa in Totnes campaign has not given up the fight, not by a long shot.

Fair enough some might say. Diving into the arcane “discipline” of planning policy is not for the easily bored. That’s part of its purpose, as is much in the way local regulations are developed, consulted, and propagated. But diving in might reveal that, in fact, the nameless, faceless bureaucrats were just doing their jobs, that the councillors hands were tied, that the system worked just as it was designed to do, minimising the fallible human element and maximising the smooth function of the free market.

But nameless, faceless bureaucrats and managers do make fallible human decisions without regard to justice, democracy, economic fairness, wisdom, compassion, collateral damage. It happens in every state government, in every multinational corporation, in every large organisation of just about every type, basically decent human beings, who love their families and want better lives for their kids, fill out the forms, tick the boxes, processing the inputs and outputs that keep the big machine running and the fortnightly direct deposits flowing. In their cubicles or corner offices, the ends of the chain of events in which they participate are perhaps so removed they’re not real, abstractions from a different department or continent, tangibly delinked from this pencil pressed to paper marking X in this box. And it’s in this incredibly innocuous harmless anonymity where it’s just a job and a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee where anything is possible. Anything.
Jay Tompt

Images: march on the High Street (Jane Brady); arrival at Follaton House

Article orginally published on the Social Reporting Project - Transition stories around the UK

18 August 2012

Don't Let The Dust Settle

The dust is beginning to settle after the excitement of the Olympics. Concerned groups got their message across to the organisers and sponsors about the human rights of all those contributing to the success of the Games – especially of those in exploitative working conditions in sweat shops around the world making trinkets, trainers and sportswear for the thousands of athletes and millions of fans.

However, there is another human right that I would like to mention and today – August 19th : World Humanitarian Day - is as good day as any to talk about it. There is an element of ‘dust’ – both settling and air borne - in this story too. It is about Depleted Uranium (DU). The UKMinistry of Defence (MoD) describes DU as “a dense heavy metal, almost twice as dense as lead, which has the ability to self-sharpen on impact with armour making it highly suited to use asa kinetic energy anti-armour penetrator.” The MoD loves it goes on to say: “At present, no satisfactory alternative material exists to achieve the level of penetration needed todefeat the most modern battle tanks”. This is not necessarily true. The International Coalition to Ban UraniumWeapons (ICBUW) in their paper entitled “Overstating the case: an analysis of the utility of depleted uranium in kinetic energy penetrators” states that both the US and Germany have been carrying out research on modern tungsten alloys to replace depleted uranium use in anti-tank shells - and that the non-DU system used by Germany is more effective at penetration. Therefore “it is technically possible to design weapon systems that are equally as effective as DU, using alternative materials. All that is required is the political will for change within user states”.

What are the problems with DU weapons? ICBUW’s definition gives a hint: “Depleted uranium weapons are chemically toxic and radioactive weapons designed to pierce armour. Upon hitting their targets, DU penetrators release a fine, radioactive dust which can be inhaled and lodge in the lungs or travel to other parts of the body irradiating surrounding tissues with serious consequences that may not be revealed for years”. Studies have shown that DU can turn cells cancerous, and that it can cause chromosome damage, leukaemia, genomic instability, alpha-particle-induced cell transformation - and DU can also pass on damage to the next generation.

Watch this short film: “When the Dust Settles”

These weapons are known to have been used by the US and UK in the Balkans wars and the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003. There soldiers, civilian populations and the environment were all exposed to toxic residues from these indiscriminate weapons. Because DU weapons cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians, between animals and the environment, they are illegal under International Law. Their radioactive dust contaminates everything it touches.

Much research has been done on the huge increase in foetal damage and cancers in Iraq. As I write, the World Health Organisation, in partnership with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, is carrying out a pilot assessment of congenital birth defects in six Iraqi governorates – including Fallujah. This is long overdue. Significant international concern has been generated over reports from medical staff in cities such as Fallujah and Baghdad of spiralling rates of congenital birth defects. Fallujah, has become particularly notorious and civil society organisations have been arguing that the increases in monstrous birth deformities are linked to environmental contamination from the US-led attacks on the cities in 2004.

What is the position of the UK Government on the use of Depleted Uranium? The Government wishes to keep using DU on the upgraded version of its anti-armour tank rounds –called “Charm3”. On 10thOctober 2011, the UK’s armed forces minister, Nick Harvey, assured Katy ClarkMP that a review had been carried out into the legality of Charm3 and that the use of this weapon was “permissible on humanitarian and environmental grounds under the Geneva Conventions” – to which the UK is a signatory, having ratified Article 36 – Additional Protocol 1 in 1998. But this turned out not to be the case because the MP asked to see the review and on 26 October Nick Harvey had to admit that no such review had ever taken place and he apologised for misleading parliament. On 31st October, Mr Harvey ordered a review. On 12 July 2012, he told Parliament that the review was complete and that “Charm3 is capable of being used lawfully by UK Armed Forces in an international armed conflict.” This leaves Britain isolated in its unswerving loyalty to its Charm3.

In 2008, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on DU use – which was supported by a massive 94% of the MEPs. The UN passed a similar resolution in 2010, which was supported by 148 states. Only four states voted against the resolution, of which the UK was one. The US also has a record of voting against resolutions calling for the banning or suspension of DU weapons.

However, this October 2012, the UN General Assembly will vote on a fourth resolution on DU weapons.

The ICBUW and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) have launched an online petition, which calls for the US to stop opposing resolutions against depleted uranium – and is urging supporters to sign-up on line. This October resolution won’t ban DU weapons outright but with good support it will get us closer to that goal. Just four states are arguing against the resolutions: the US, UK, France and Israel. Of these, the US is the largest user of DU weapons.

Please add your signature to this important petition:

12 August 2012

It's the Legacy that matters

No I’m not talking about the Olympic Games, but the much wider issue of what kind of legacy we are leaving our children and future generations. It’s a natural human instinct for people to make sacrifices for the benefit of their children; who doesn’t want to think that they will have better lives, more opportunity, greater success than was available to us. But is it what we are really providing them with today?

A few months ago I attended an event at which Jonathan Porritt, former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission – a body which our government in its wisdom decided we no longer needed – and co-founder of Forum for the Future, lamented the fact that the green agenda had failed to create a compelling story to inspire people to live a more sustainable life. This failure has left sustainability and environmentalism as peripheral issues in a world which continues to be dominated by an obsession with economic growth.

I think a key element missing from the green story may have been a failure to challenge the economic approach to securing our children’s future. Get a job, work hard, buy a house, raise your kids, push them to work hard at school so they can go to University, so they get a better job ... repeat ad infinitum. It’s a recipe which in recent generations has played out positively thanks to the rapid economic growth we have achieved, but it’s a very narrow definition of success and one which doesn’t work in a world of lower or zero growth. All the focus is on the material aspects of life, little or none on the unquantifiable elements of relationships, happiness, connection to society and the natural world.

So surely this is fertile ground on which those of a green/progressive persuasion should be building. For all the economic growth of recent decades, studies show we are no happier than we were in the 1970’s. The Happy Planet index, calculated by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) based on life expectancy, experienced well-being and ecological footprint; doesn’t have Switzerland, the UAE, America or any of the other richest countries in the world at the top, but rather Costa Rica and Vietnam. The distribution of wealth in our current society is becoming increasingly unequal, yet everything points to people being happier when such inequalities are smaller rather than greater.

Perhaps most crucial to my mind is the state of the Earth that we are bequeathing our children. This may not be something which parents have traditionally given much thought to, but perhaps they should. Do we want future generations to live in a world without large wild animals – the populations of almost all are collapsing at an alarming rate. A world with no fish in the oceans – without action all major fish populations could be fished out by the middle of the century. With no ice in the Arctic in the summer – goodbye to polar bears and walrus – and this year there is a record low ice extent for the time of the year. With rainforests replaced by palm oil plantations.

What will it benefit our children if we do manage to drag the growth machine back for one last encore – which is what all the major governments of the world are obsessed with doing – if we continue to destroy the planet as a result? 

The message of sustainability should be uniquely well adapted to talking to parents about their hopes for their children and grandchildren. Now has to be the time to seize on the failure of the current economic model and offer a better future for everyone. One focused not on material wealth but on what really makes us content in our lives.

8 August 2012

People of the Butterfly

By Charlotte Du Cann

This is a piece I wrote originally for the on-line activist magazine STIR, It's a review of the second documentary about the Transition movement, which holds its annual conference in London next month on the theme, Building Resilience in Extraordinary Times. STIR is presently raising funds to print a free book, featuring a selection of their most inspiring and transformative stories, and will be distributed to the campaigners and activists who are working towards social change.

In an abandoned lot in Pittsburgh a boy is selling lettuce. Down Tooting High Street a carnival is in full swing. In a village in Portugal two men are walking in a field beside horses. In a fire station in Moss Side a film preview is taking place: “There was silence. You could have heard a pin drop. And then a sound, kind of like a pin dropping. There it is again. And again, many times in rapid succession. Then silence. Nothing.” This is Joel Prittie, writing about his experiences previewing the film, In Transition 2.0, simultaneously with eleven other initiatives worldwide in February. He’s telling us how the machine jammed, how he resolved the dilemma, and how everyone cheered at the end.

It’s a small story. These are all small stories. You might not know they are happening or take much notice of them. But if you were curious, you would discover how that lettuce came to be growing in such an unlikely neighbourhood; why everyone in the carnival was wearing clothes made of rubbish; why the elders of the village were teaching the young people to plough; why Joel Prittie, ex double-glazing salesman, knocked on 1100 doors in the rain in Manchester. If you pulled these stories together, you would notice they all had a common thread. That’s the moment you realise it’s a big story. The story in fact. The story of how people are coming together in the face of difficulties and making another kind of future.

That’s the story of Transition 2.0.


The Transition movement began in 2005 in the market town of Totnes in Devon and since then has sparked off 900 initiatives worldwide. There are initiatives in cities and rural villages, towns and bioregions. Originally billed as a “community-led response to climate change and peak oil”, Transition provides a structure for communities to engage in order to become resilient in the face of these challenges. The term, borrowed from ecology, means the ability for systems to adapt and survive great shocks.

Living within a dominant corporate monoculture where communities are often fragmented and there is little mainstream media attention on these global realities, this is a big ask for most modern people. Every aspect of our industrialised lives has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. We live, however, mostly in the dark about these facts, or the effects of our daily actions on the environment. Or if we do know them, we see them as information and do not take action.

In Transition 2.0 focuses on the moves groups of people are making to look at the future squarely, to make connections with one another and to find ways to thrive in challenging times. In 2012, resilience also means the capacity to deal with Transition’s third driver, the economic crisis. The shock of the shock doctrine — the crushing blow of austerity, as people everywhere feel the consequences of our growth-at-all-costs culture and the increasing consolidation of wealth for the few.

In its typical pragmatic, positive way In Transition 2.0 doesn’t analyse this situation within a political frame. It acknowledges the big picture, and then gets down to work relocalising the neighbourhood. The film lays out the three drivers briefly at the start, then follows the track of the second book, The Transition Companion, dividing its attention on the different stages Transition initiatives go through, from the start up phase — forming a group and raising awareness — to building up local social enterprises. Rob Hopkins, the co-founder of the Transition Network, explains these stages, and the film looks at the projects that best illustrate the way Transition works.

In many ways the documentary is a tool, a showcase for people who may know nothing about Transition’s aims and structures. It is a mild watching experience, with interviews and information, and you might wonder why someone who has been involved in two initiatives and immersed in Transition communications for almost four years would have anything to find in it. What more did I need to know?

But the fact is: this is a big story. Resilient systems enforce their connections by constant feedback. You are consciously connecting with others through a vast communications network, that works like the mycorrhizal fungi in soil. I might know what is going on in the neighbourhood, but I don’t know what is going on in Portugal or Maryland. You don’t know for example that the first Transition initiative in India has created 400 vegetable gardens in Tamil Nadu. You don’t know how the co-operative Handmade Bakery in Yorkshire set up business, how the Brixton Pound (Britain’s first e-currency) works in the market, or that the mayor of Monteveglio in Italy has adopted an energy descent plan for the whole region. Most of all you realise that the crisis which up to this point has seemed academic is now very real in many places.

Unlike the first film which focused on the start up exhilarating phase of Transition, this had a darker, deeper tone. Here are initiatives who are undergoing the shocks of climate change and the collapse of top-down infrastructure. Here is Japan after the nuclear disaster, New Zealand after two earthquakes. Transition groups that had already been working together were able to respond collectively to the crisis. Thanks to the connections already made though the Lyttelton time-bank, the initiative was able to pull in help to deliver water and food all over the devastated town.

“We are setting up structures, pioneering them and putting them in place for the future,” explained Dirk Campbell of Ovesco in Lewes, Britain’s first community owned solar power station (see right). “It’s difficult and takes enormous amounts of effort, commitment and time.”

Facing the crisis

There are many criticisms of Transition. It is not political, realistic, activist enough; it is white and middle class; it lacks structure; it’s too structured, too fluffy and feel-good. It doesn’t fulfill everything. It’s true, it doesn’t fulfill everything. But you would be hard pushed to find another method that can bring diverse people together within a frame of change. There are plenty of adversarial organisations that address climate change (Climate Rush, Greenpeace) and the financial system (UK Uncut, Occupy); there are plenty of low-carbon incentives (10:10, 350.org) and urban growing projects (Growing Communities in Hackney, Abundance and city farms in Sheffield). But what Transition does is address all these aspects simultaneously. It allows for many kinds of people to sit in a room together and work out ways to proceed. What is the most important ingredient or tool in the book (87 in all)? I asked Rob Hopkins at the Twitter launch of the Transition companion. The first one, Working in Groups, was his reply.

Our number one challenge is working in groups when we have been raised in an individualist hierarchical culture, taught to be hostile to the max. The film doesn’t show the struggle that most groups go though in dealing with this, though it does talk about conflict (including the testimony of Chris Hart from Transition Lancaster that collapsed and then reformed itself successfully a year later). Nor does it show the massive fall outs that happen when an old way of doing things (my will against yours) clashes with a new (our way together). How these old structures cling on. How the new ones demand massive inner shifts, but that if you manage to hold together extraordinary things start to happen.

What it does show is how Transition as a method, culture and network brings people together to work out solutions in places suffering from massive downturn. In the Portuguese village of Amoreiras the initiative held a meeting and asked everyone to dream. The village had suffered the fate of many rural places where most of the population had left for work in the cities. The group listened to everyone’s desires and then put their collective vision into motion. They painted the whole village, set up a local market, organised a working party to bring about better healthcare.

Here is Fred Brown in Pittsburgh, a city that in the 1970s and ’80s, lost 100,000 jobs when steel mills transferred their manufacturing to countries around the world. It’s a city where marginalised low-income neighbourhoods are threatened by incoming gentrification and big businesses. In his community of Larimer, Google have recently built a new facility, benefiting from millions of urban redevelopment funds that were intended to help the residents:

“The community doesn’t need or want more experts telling them what to do. We want partners and we want help to develop and implement our dream. Transition is helping us come together, deepen the vision, create working groups, get practical work done, and understand community-wide needs. It is also giving us language and a process for negotiating with those who seek to take, or to give on their own terms — empowering us to be proactive and co-creators.”

This is the hardest task. We are taught to listen to experts and to obey rules. Transition puts the decisions back into our hands and asks everyone to take the lead, become knowledgeable about how towns and councils work, talk with other local groups, find out about waste, alternative energy, sustainable food systems, how to write a press release, give a talk, keep bees, grow a lettuce. We are discouraged in our every attempt by the status quo. Keep shopping, keep distracted, keep listening to the old story! But there is new narrative out there, what Paul Hawken calls the greatest untold story of our time. Some of this is embodied in Transition. It’s hard work and rarely paid, but it brings rewards you don’t see on the surface, that are difficult to show on a film. These are the invisible connections between people, feelings of belonging, of meaning, of self-worth, boldness and possibility, the simple joy of sharing things, tools, knowledge, apples from your tree.

I feel proud of where I live at and it’s changed me.

Most of all it gives you an opportunity you never knew existed. Here’s next week’s schedule with my home initiatives of Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich: showing a documentary with Waveney Greenpeace in a local barn (Crisis of Civilisation), working in our monthly community kitchen (for a sit-down supper for 50), helping out at our Give and Take Day (free exchange of stuff), introducing people to medicine plants in an event called Walking with Weeds, writing on two community blogs (one local, one national), setting up a newspaper (Transition Free Press).

None of these activities would happen without this small band of people I have been working with for the last four years. We would never have met. History and consumerism and the class system would have kept us separated from one another. Our library community garden would be bare brick. The bee-friendly wildflower meadow would be unsown. Norwich would not have an urban farm. I would never have met any of my fellow transitioners I am in daily contact with, or the many affiliated groups that write in our blogs from Occupy Norwich to BiofuelWatch to the new bicycle workshop off Magdalen Street. I would not be writing this piece. You would not be reading it. The film and everything that happens in its 66 minutes would not be happening.

Except that it is happening: and it’s worth seeing if only to know that these seeds are being sown in a time when everything seems set against us and all life on earth.

There is a story that underpins what we do and sometimes we tell it to each other in the hard times. The caterpillar keeps munching his way voraciously across the green planet. One day he buries himself in a cocoon, and unknowingly begins the process of transformation. His body starts to dissolve and as it does imaginal buds start to appear from nowhere. At first the caterpillar’s immune system attacks and defeats this new form. Then the buds rise up again. This time they link up and the defence system can not destroy them. They hold fast. The old structure dissolves. The butterfly begins to emerge.

It’s a form you would never have imagined, something beautiful emerging in world that appears only to profit the greedy and antagonistic. But sometimes in our struggle we catch a glimpse of the butterfly wing. In the flash of carnival costume, in the mists over a Japanese mountain, in the sound of each others’ voices, in the smile of a boy holding a lettuce grown against all odds.

This piece was originally written for the on-line magazine STIR. You can order copies of the DVD from the In Transition 2.0 website.