Future? What Future?

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My original interest in Transition was fired by thinking about the future. Not the future of doom laid out in dozens of Hollywood movies where ‘it’s all gone wrong’ or even ‘all gone’; this future was radical because it was more boring. Not boring in that nothing happens, but in that we don’t collapse/destroy ourselves/meltdown into some dystopian oblivion before it’s too late.

Having become a new dad in 2011, I have tended to shy away from watching those awareness-raising films which seem to to the job, but sometimes make you feel like you’ve hit overload. You know. There’s only so much reality you can take.

All that 2012 end of the world stuff. It’s enough to make you just want to turn it all off and wait for it.

Anyway, Transition Culture recently did a great top ten Transition films (complete with a cheesy countdown voiceover). It made me wonder how best to approach the awareness-raising issue within Transition Towns and other initiatives attempting to build local resilience. My own experience with Transition Town Worthing between 2009 and 2011 showed that people often turned up for a screening, but they were usually the same people, and ones who already knew most of this stuff already.

I recently watched a great little animation called There’s No Tomorrow. Well, I must say, when I first saw the title, I thought ‘Oh dear . . .  how depressing.’ Then I thought back to my reading of The Power of Now and thought ‘no, hang on, not actually a bad title’ and so began my renewed exploration of the state we’re in. We don’t experience a tomorrow, only a today.

A bit of searching brought me into contact with the superb, yet heavy The Crisis of Civilisation. Sometimes, I need a film like this to draw it all together. All the threads about climate change, economic meltdown, peak oil, and the general ‘grinding-to-a halt’ of things need a way of making sense together, rather than as loads of disparate items.

Finally, how about this one? Life at the End of Empire . . .

Having become switched on to the writing of Derrick Jensen in 2008, the themes of this film still hit a nerve, although it’s not an easy watch. Read Endgame for a shattering critique of mainstream environmentalism, and a glimpse at a radical alternative approach.

The thing is, gripping as these films might be to some of us, the ‘end of the world as we know it’ is not an easy message to stomach. My experience of a Transition Town is that people can be turned off by too much of this. So . . . my favourite film, balancing a message about ‘nasties’ with a look at lots of wonderful Transition projects has still got to be In Transition 1.0. It’s the one I can watch as the parent of a 16 month old and still feel optimistic for the future.

Why? It’s about beginnings rather than ends.


Stories of Energy Descent Part 1

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It’s 2030 and Worthing has changed. Without cheap oil or other fossil fuels, we’ve had to find new ways of doing things. From how we heat our homes, to how we get around, or how we feed ourselves, Worthing in 2030 is very different to Worthing in 2011. In fact, Worthing is a thriving, vibrant community, but how have things changed? What will we do? What will we be nostalgic for?

AT the end of 2011, Transition Town Worthing ran a creative writing competition which asked budding local writers to think about what Worthing might be like in 2030. And, yes, how on Earth could Worthing turn into a thriving and vibrant community (I thought that might prove a tall order . . . )

Anyway, here is one of the final entries. See what you think.

‘From The Sea, Plenty’ by Ben Ellis 

Detective Gray: Beginning interview with Mr Joseph Mannings. The time is 11.15am on Saturday 21st September 2030. Present are myself, Detective Gray, and Sergeant Hickman. Mr Mannings has forfeited his right to legal representation. Mr Mannings, are you aware that you have access to legal aid?

Mannings: Yeah, I’m alright. Gray: OK, can you confirm you are Joseph Mannings of 34 Mordinges Drive?

Mannings: Yes, that’s correct.

Gray: And you’re a licensed taxi driver for ‘Sunlight Cabs’?

Mannings: Yep, for over 15 years. Now, if this is about the dodgy batteries I used to pass off at the solar battery stations, I’ve already paid that fine…

Gray: No, this is nothing to do with that. Anything else you want to confess before I put the first question to you?

Mannings: Undeclared earnings?

Gray: For the benefit of the tape, I’m showing Mr Mannings Exhibit A1, a photo of two gentlemen. Do you recognise either of these two men, Joe?

Mannings: No.

Gray: At least look at the photo Joe! Let me remind you, you’re not under caution, you have not been charged and you’re not a suspect. We need your help Joe, it could be vitally important for the whole town.

Mannings: No, they don’t ring a bell, what more can I tell you?

Gray: I’m showing Mr Mannings exhibit A2, this is a CCTV still of the same two gentlemen walking out of the Maglev terminal at Worthing Station yesterday evening at 6.23pm, heading towards the taxi rank.

Mannings: OK, OK, now I’ve got them pegged. That one bloke with the orange suitcase, I remember now. What bloke walks around with a bright orange suitcase, you know what I mean?

Gray: Slowly, Joe, talk us through the journey with them.

Mannings: Well, I tried to help him put the suitcase in the boot but he insisted on doing it himself, whatever, I ain’t going to make a point of lifting a heavy case. He doesn’t say anything though, it’s all the other guy. Both of them look Middle Eastern but the guy doing the talking sounds like a Brummie and he translates everything to the other guy. I’m no language expert but I’m guessing it’s Arabic.

Gray: Where did they want to go?

Mannings: The seafront, which is a little strange because visitors usually want to go straight to their hotel. Anyway, the traffic’s a nightmare because of the World Kite Surfing Championships this weekend and some kids decided to kite-skateboard through town causing mayhem. The foreign bloke, the Arab, is examining the inside of the car, leaning forward trying to see how I’m driving it. I ask the Brum, ‘What’s he looking for?’, he says it’s the first time he’s been in an electro car, they still have petrol ones where he’s from. There’s more chatter and then the Brum says the other guy wants to see me change a battery at a solar station. So we go; I point out the big solar panelled roof, remove the battery and swap it for a fully charged one, pay and then off we go again. I take them to Worthing Marina, park up and they offer me more money for a little tour and a few questions.

Gray: What did they want to see and what did they ask?

Mannings: They were interested in the Worthing Wind & Wave Turbine Array out in the bay. I told them there were tours to the array from the marina and I could get cheap tickets from my mate Bazza for a private tour so I gave them his number. Bazza uses his staff discount, it’s nothing dodgy.

Gray: And then what?

Mannings: The Arab gets his phone out and takes photos whilst the Brummie asks about stats and all that malarkey. I’ve got no idea about the specifics, all I know is that Worthing is selfsufficient. The Brummie translates a question, something like, is Worthing the only town like this? I said not for long because foreigners are here all the time seeing how things are done. The Arab ain’t happy and wants to leave.

Gray: Where do you go?

Mannings: They’ve got rooms booked at ‘The New Beach Hotel’. The Arab babbles away on his phone all the way there. Obviously I don’t know what about but he weren’t happy, I can tell you that.

Hickman: Why was your in-car CCTV switched off?

Mannings: I wondered when you were going to pipe up. Busted innit. The taxi company ain’t paying to fix it and I can’t afford nothing until after the New Year.

Gray: Sergeant Hickman is from the Anti-Terrorism Squad. You got any reason to believe these men were engaged in any reconnaissance?

Mannings: Casing the joint? They took photos but then visitors do that all the time. Why would they want to blow up anything round here? They got a severe dislike of Lawn Bowls or something?

Hickman: Like you said, this town is fully energy self-sufficient which has got the Chinese, the Indians and others interested which is upsetting the apple cart. What was in the suitcase?

Mannings: I’m an honest cabbie officer plus it had a bloody great lock on it.

Gray: *** SOUND OF DOOR OPENING *** For the benefit of the tape PC Bragg has just entered the interview room.

Bragg: Sir, they’re not at ‘The New Beach Hotel’, they left early this morning.

Hickman: Damn! Gray, get everyone on this we need to know what’s in that case.

Bragg: Also, a body was found at the marina today. He’s been formally identified as Barry Jacobs.

Mannings: That’s Bazza!

Hickman: It’s kicking off! *** CLASSIFIED ***

Bragg: One other thing, sir, maybe connected. An hotel have phoned in a complaint about a kite surfing team leaving without paying and get this, they left an overturned barrel of oil in the room, it’s made a right mess.

Hickman: They’re going to head for the array!

Gray: Interview terminated at 11:34am.

Car boot sales, airports, and the future

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A few weeks ago, I did a car boot sale with my good friend, Mark. The location was Ford Airfield, near Arundel in West Sussex.

Arranging our stall at Ford Airfield: roll up, roll up!

If the term ‘car boot sale’ doesn’t mean anything to you, my guess is that you’re either not from the UK, or you are too rich to notice that these highly organised markets of discarded personal possessions are all over the place. The idea is that you load your car up with your junk (the stuff you’d either want to ritually destroy, throw away, or take to the charity shop), drive to some field or other place (usually an expanse of unloved concrete), and haggle with strangers over pennies whilst trying to sell as much of your detritus as possible.

It depends on private car transport, roads, disposable items (numerous within a consumer society fuelled by cheap oil and labour). It also depends on communication, haggling, swapping, and a certain anarchic/independent spirit.

Typical car boot sale in the UK, circa 2011.

Well, apparently some people do this all the time. Some people make a lot of money. Some people love it.

I don’t think I’m one of those people.

Gateway to the skies! Ford Airfield’s iconic entrance: a defunct Hunter jet guards a defunct airfield. What does this mean?

Maybe it was just the doing of the car boot sale, but it felt like a little post-apocalyptic standing there behind an old wallpaper pasting table with the breeze blowing dust and litter across the wide expanses of concrete. My used possessions set out like a museum display of my life over the past few years (an old GPO telephone, used baby clothes, a fish tank, a broken dehumidifier), and passers-by examining items with semi-vacant expressions as they weighed up whether they had need of a free bag of disposable nappies (yes, I was giving them away free – well, they’d been given to us, but I know this is possibly considered some form of heresy at a car boot sale).

Getting in the ‘zone’

I couldn’t help thinking to myself several things:

  1. That this was not a great way to spend four hours of my Saturday
  2. That even if you said that you only wanted £1 for a push lawnmower, people would rub their chins deep in thought and say something along the lines of ‘hmmm . . . . I’ll think about it’ before moving on to ponder items on the next stall
  3. That this might be the future

A post-oil world might look a bit like this. Regular organised markets with the salvage of the industrial age being bought and sold, despite much of it broken and worn. As we struggle to maintain even the most basic infrastructure without sufficient resources to keep it working, how might our concrete and tarmac landscapes be re-used?

I read an interesting piece last week by Chris Martenson which touched on a similar issue: The Demise of the Car. The article looks at the escalating costs of the infrastructure needed for road transport and how the industrial system has massive overcapacity for car manufacture. The amount that governments have invested in developing this network for oil-based transport makes it difficult to let it go, despite increasing evidence that car sales have been in decline for several years in Europe and North America.

Well, the same could be said about airports. In the UK, the debate continues to ebb and flow over the capacity of airports around London to compete with European neighbours for an estimated increase in air traffic over the coming decades. Whether or not to build a third runway at Heathrow continues to gather newspaper column inches, culminating in George Monbiot suggesting in the Guardian that 28th August was ‘The day the world went mad’ as the record ice melt in the Arctic hardly registered in the UK press, compared with the airport expansion debacle. Fair point, George.

Anyway, back to Ford Airfield car boot sale. Ford was a functioning airfield between 1939 and 1958. Now it is predominently used as a site for selling old possessions out of the back of cars. Times change and I’m guessing that no-one in 1939 would have considered that 73 years later, the airfield would be used for a motorised flea market. Using the legacy of our oil-fuelled and built landscape will evolve as we move further into the 21st century, perhaps with some weirdly bizarre scenes and arrangements. I’m sure Heathrow runways would make substantial spaces for car boot sales in 2030, although maybe the cars will be slightly less than mobile by that time. Who knows?

Technology and the future at Ford Airfield, 2012

One thing I do know is that it’s going to be a while before I’m ready to embrace the magic of the car boot sale again. Mind you, haggling is probably one skill that might be handy in an energy descent future . . .

We are running out of french fries and burrito coverings. But I got a solution.

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Last night was a real treat. I watched Idiocracy on DVD.

Urban landscape in USA, 2505

Idiocracy is set in a future dystopia in which things have fallen apart, but not in the apocalyptic collapse implied in The Road and dealt with in The Day After Tomorrow. Rather, this is established in the opening scenes as a prolonged decline/descent over 500 years. A descent into stupidity. Idiots rule the world.

The narrator of the film sets the scene: ‘As the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest, reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.’

Possibly it’s just me, but as I was laughing (actually guffawing), I was also disturbed by the bleak vision of the future where the average IQ has dropped after 500 years of ‘evolution’ in which stupidity triumphs. The basic idea is that those with low IQs have lots of children, whilst those with high IQs don’t have any (or too few to count). Over time, the average IQ level drops until you end up with a situation where nothing works properly. A military experiment gone wrong leads to the hero (a very average Joe) being put into suspended animation and waking up after a centuries-old mountain of rubbish collapses, therby dislodging the capsule he has been in over this 500 years of decline.

Who needs water when you’ve got Brawndo?

Plants are ‘watered’ with BRAWNDO: The Thirst Mutilator! It’s what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes! Needless to say, the plants don’t grow. People talk in dumbed-down language. Cars drop off unfinished bridges and crash. Marketing is reduced to a very direct approach, making liberal usage of basic Anglo-Saxon terms. The US president is a wrestler who carries a machine gun and flips the bird at his public as a victorious gesture. Rather than dealing with the causes of this malaise, scientists of the future research restoring hair loss and prolonging erections. Rise of the corporations. And more. You get the picture.

What really got me about this film was not just the connection with other films of a broken future (Planet of the Apes, Age of Stupid, and WALL-E), it was the idea that a descent had occurred over a long period, and what’s more, the people were too stupid to realise it. Now, clearly the film was out and out satire, but the cover is almost enough to be fooled into thinking this might be a documentary.

Think about it in this way: there’s an old story about putting a live frog into a pan of boiling water and watching it jump out, but if you put it into cold water and heat it up it’ll boil to death.

A world run by idiots? Total fantasy.