Loss and Gain

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When you’re a member of a transition initiative, it’s very easy to lose sight of what is important in amongst all the organising of things.

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It made me think that we all need to constantly remember the reasons we became interested and involved in the beginning. It also sometimes means questioning how doing what we’re doing makes us feel. If it makes us feel good, alive, excited, then that is a reason for carrying on. If on the other hand, it makes us feel overwhelmed, negative, jaded, then that should be enough to stop doing it.

Recently, I’ve spoken to several people who have felt that they have become mired in detail and managing, losing some/all of the vitality they felt when they first started. This is a pity, but only a decision that can be made by those individuals. What are the options if you find yourself in a negative spiral? Remove yourself from the situation, change the situation, or accept the situation. That is all (thanks Eckhart Tolle!)

Working towards energy descent is very challenging. It demands much and is unprecedented. There is also a tedency to feel we need to use today in order to create a better future. Well, that might be one way to think about it. What is just as important though, is what you do today. Transition implies a gradual change or shift; it is about a journey rather than a destination. Always thinking of the destination is overwhelming, and might mean you miss the journey itself.

Feeling that ‘if we don’t do it, no-one else will’ is also something I’ve heard recently. Transition Towns are often caught up in this thinking: too few people trying to do too many things. This often then becomes the main reason for taking on too much, or feeling anxious that the whole organisation is going to fall apart if you stop doing this or that. Well, there are times when you need to just say ‘no’. Not all grand schemes happen, and recognising when it’s time to let go of something that isn’t working is not just important, it’s often a way to regain your focus and feel happy again. Anything really important won’t fall apart and anything that goes is not important. This is personal resilience.

I feel like I’ve had to learn most of this the hard way, and have gained much in the process.

Get Back . . . to Resilience!

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Hats off to Geography Review.As a Geography teacher and afficionado, I do occasionally take a peek at the A Level quarterly publication. Often filled with fascinating articles on coastal erosion and glaciation, it is always in tune with some big issues. My interest was exacerbated recently when I noticed that the November 2011 issue contained some brilliant sections on peak oil, the impacts of climate change, and an article entitled ‘Eat Local?’ What really caught my eye was a double page spread on the meaning of resilience.

To me, resilience is a great word. Just saying it feels uplifting, especially when you reach (and stress) the second syllable. It always feels full of untapped possibilities and optimism. It is a word that wants to hang on in there and not let go.

Students seem to get it, by and large, provided it is discussed in the context of a real thing rather than just a concept. So, it can often crop up when looking at the ability of an area of countryside to cope with large numbers of tourists trampling over it, or a rural community dealing with the reality of drought and coming up with responses to get through it.

Anything that raises the profile of resilience has to be a good thing, so the fact that it was featured in the prestigious A level publication was very welcome. The article is called ‘Everybody’s talking about . . . Resilience’.   Resilience is defined as ‘an ability to leap back or rebound following a disruption or a disaster’. So far, so good. It then adds how ‘academics, business leaders and politicians now embrace the word as a catch-all way of characterising the capacity of societies, economies and environments to cope with diverse pressures in a high risk world.’ Well, partly, but not in the same way that ‘sustainable’ has been bandied around for the past twenty years.  Here’s what it looks like on the graph:

However, what else do we learn about resilience? Well, we need to proceed with caution as the article is focused upon a return to ‘normal’ conditions following a stress event of some kind. As shown in the diagram above, any response that deviates away from the ‘growth path’ is deemed ‘non-resilient’. The goal of restoration of ‘business as usual’ is regarded as the defining outcome for resilience, and this goal has been echoed over recent years since the 2008 economic crisis began: how do we get back to where we were before?  Ugg. The more important question should be how do we break away from looking at resilience in ways that cannot see further than ‘business as usual’?  The one silver lining to this cloud was that one strand of the resilience definition in the article suggests ‘the capacity to respond to a crisis through innovation or evolution – the outcome of the recovery process will be a different state from what existed before the crisis’. Ahh, this is more like it. This is the Transition angle on resilience at last. It does highlight the importance of being clear about what we mean by resilience, especially given our current state of economic meltdown. But, this graph model is still obsessed with the ‘growth path’ and is showing innovation leading to even higher levels of growth than existed prior to the crash.  David Holmgren discusses a variety of potential future scenarios in his book, Future Scenarios (very apt title, no?) There are parallels here with his ideas, except there is no investigation of what this ‘innovation or evolution’ might look like. In Future Scenarios, this future scenario is the permaculture/transition to a low energy society.  Working on the second draft of Worthing’s EDAP has raised the question of what do we actually mean by resilience. Is it to ‘get back to where you once belonged’? And if so, where is that? What is ‘normal’? Is there a difference between what is desirable and what is possible? We need to be clear about resilience as being a defining characteristic of a community or society within an energy descent future. In other words, a future which has seen a real shift away from the business as usual model, or even business as usual with a few tweaks (aka ‘greenwash’).  The moral of the story? We need to be careful to explain what we mean by resilience to avoid it losing its importance in the area of energy descent. Making this really clear by bringing in some resilience indicators would help, and they will look very different to our business-as-usual ways of measuring where we are on this graph.  Finally then, anyone fancy having a go at re-wording the lyrics to Get Back to an energy descent theme? No? Oh well.

Measuring Local Resilience

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After setting up our first meeting of TTW’s newly created EDAP group, I have made a list of all the obvious bits and pieces that we need to complete and add to the growing document that will eventually become Worthing’s Energy Descent Action Plan (I’m sure the non-obvious bits and pieces will come to light in the coming months too!)

One item that we have only scratched the surface of so far is ‘resilience indicators’. What?

Well, you know, ‘resilience indicators’ sounds much worse than they really are. It’s how we could/can measure how resilient our town is/could be.  As soon as we mention the word resilience, I’m just hoping that people’s eyes don’t glaze over. I mean, I think it’s a great word, and I tend to use it all the time, hoping that the more I do, the more people will absorb it through some kind of verbal osmosis and be tuned in . . . Back in the real world, we all know that it doesn’t tend to work like that.

The way that I have most recently heard resilience defined within the Transition movement by Rob Hopkins is by quoting Iain Dowie, manager of Crystal Palace FC: ‘bouncebackability’ (!) The Urban Dictionary.com defines ‘bouncebackability’ as ‘the ability to bounce back usually implying a fighting spirit’. Now, not being a footballing fan, I can still appreciate the sentiments involved in the word. Being a geographer, I am quite excited by made-up words (studentification being a great example of this – meaning an area of a university town which has become populated by large numbers of student residences). My own preference would be to refer to Alan Partridge and his first autobiographical attempt to regain his position in the world of light entertainment, ‘Bouncing Back’

In terms of a town, resilience becomes the ability of that place to cope, deal with, and respond to a shock or impact, such as economic meltdown or sky-rocketing petrol prices (both of which a re entirely plausible in the short to medium term). If Worthing was hit by one or both types of shock, how would it cope? At present, the answer is probably ‘very badly’ as Worthing has little in terms of a thriving local economy or food production.

‘Bouncing back’ is probably quite apt for Worthing, because in 2011, it is a long way off being resilient. Just a quick peek at the shops in the centre of town show three key areas of growth: chain-stores; mobile phone shops; and closed-down shop premises. I’m sure this is a similar picture for many towns in the UK. In recent months, even a few of the national chains have been closing high street branches down as they relocate to out-of-town sites (e.g. Currys, November 2011).

Worthing has the feel of a town that has nowhere else to go, but ‘bouncing back’ as transition-related projects take root seems appropriate. This is especially the case when you consider the Worthing of living memory. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Worthing had huge areas of market gardens growing tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers. Local shopping areas were filled with family-run small businesses, and local dairies supplied the population with milk and cheese. We had a degree of resilience 60 years ago. Since then, it has gradually been eroded as we have come to rely on road transport, imported mass-produced goods and food from anywhere but the local area.

So, how could we begin to measure how much resilience Worthing has? How can we assess whether or not the town has ‘bounced back’? Some ideas have been coming in following our EDAP World Cafe back in June:

  • Percentage of locally owned businesses in main shopping streets.
  • Number of people working locally and at home.
  • Number of people commuting in and out of Worthing.
  • Percentage of food grown within a 30 miles radius of Worthing
  • Number of schools teaching basic gardening and food growing skills
  • Number of school/college leavers who have practical skills (e.g. construction, carpentry, plumbing)
  • Number of productive domestic food gardens
  • Amount of energy produced by community-owned renewable energy generation
  • Percentage of domestic and public buildings with solar PV generating capacity

The Transition Handbook (2008) sets out resilience indicators like this:

Carbon footprinting and the cutting of carbon emissions are clearly a crucial part of preparing for an energy-lean future, but they are not the only way of measuring a community’s progress towards becoming more resilient. In the Transition approach, we see cutting carbon as one of many ‘Resilience Indicators’ that are able to show the increasing degree of resilience in the settlement in question. Others might include:

    • – the percentage of local trade carried out in local currency
    • – percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius
    • – ratio of car parking space to productive land use
    • – degree of engagement in practical Transition work by local community
    • – amount of traffic on local roads
    • – number of business owned by local people
    • – proportion of the community employed locally
    • – percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius
    • – percentage of local building materials used in new housing developments
    • – percentage of energy consumed in the town that has been generated by local ESCO
    • – amount of 16 year olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetable to a given degree of basic competency
    • – percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius

Clearly some of these indicators are easier to measure than others, but we can start to build a image of what a resilient, ‘bouncing back’ community might look like. Worthing’s EDAP group are continuing to develop a range of measurements that have relevance to Worthing. The starting point is to determine where we are now, taking the measurements as a 2011 benchmark. Progress on these would then show whether Worthing is becoming more or less resilient over time.

I quite like to use different images to explain how transition can work. The image I’ve used previously for ‘resilience’ is that of a tree blown down in the Great Storm in 1987 in southern England. Despite have being uprooted with only a third of its roots left in the ground, the tree has just got on with sending out new shoots and getting on with the business of being a tree. Other images included an oil drum (obvious), a book (hmmm), a chisel (cheeky), and Johnny Rotten (challenging). Answers on a postcard to the usual address!