I broke all personal records travelling to town on Saturday 5th December. Sitting high in the saddle, arms outstretched, I was freewheeling most of the way, literally gone with the wind. Those coming the other way with painful grimaces on their faces and heads turned to the north as the sand blasted their skin like a sadistic exfoliator. Dunes were accumulating in front of cars parked in the side streets. I thought to myself how quickly parts of the city might disappear if weather like this persisted.
A fitting backdrop then for COP3, the third in a trilogy of 6 hour events focused on climate change in Swansea town centre. The venue was Volcano theatre who run a fantastic hot pot of arts and cultural events. Outside the door while putting some cream on my face I ended up in a conversation with a lovely girl, exchanging stories about the realities of our quite different skin conditions! Both somewhat debilitating in different ways.
I suggested that sharing some of the real issues we’re faced with on a daily basis as mortal beings clinging to the the fragile thread of life would be an interesting icebreaker at these kind of events. Fern Smith, the organiser and founder of Emergence, often talks about the positive stuff that can come out of holding that kind of space for a time with others. Too heavy maybe?
A lovely welcome on the door and invitation to keep my bike inside, it was then an assault on the senses by the fluorescents. It always frustrates me when basics like this are not attended to as good ambiance can make people feel so much more comfortable. After checking in with others who tell me they feel a similar way, I politely ask for some of them to be turned off which they soon were thankfully.
Not to dwell on this but I feel there are some key messages here about how many of us clearly choose to filter out and ignore things that are insulting our senses instead of speaking out. This gives us some perspective on either how desensitised or conformist we have become or how much fear we feel when challenged to speak our mind. How much do these traits contribute to the world we live in today? How many of us are suppressing the issues we see in the world today to a place where they can hardly be felt? How many are following the crowd and keeping quiet because of that fearful feeling inside?
Fern later referred to ‘Blessed Unrest’, a book by Paul Hawken, where the title is encouraging us to acknowledge that uneasy feeling we have inside, contemplate on it, get to know it well and use it as a signpost pointing to a place we need to go, somewhere we've never been and that quite frankly ‘scares the **** out of me’ as Phil often says quite openly.
Phil, Fern’s partner and co-facilitator is a very rare breed indeed! If all the the personality traits mentioned above are the chalk, Phil is indeed the cheese, and some tasty, mature, extra-mouldy blue cheddar he is at that! Phil has that rare ability to stand in the middle of a room of people and speak so openly, frankly and truthfully that it's totally compelling to watch. Most of us, certainly me, have never before seen such an eloquent and naked expression of the self laid bare for all to see.
“I'm feeling REALLY scared”, “I’m feeling REALLY angry”, “I'm in a REALLY foul mood” would be his opening gambit. Then he'd stand there and ask us if any of us feel the same way. Of course several resonated and acknowledged the mutual feelings and then he's off, the forthcoming pre-bottled rant now justified. But this was no ordinary rant. Phil managed to deliver in a way that encouraged participation from his listeners with emotive responses soon interjecting, making this a memorable show of many subjects from dealing with the seemingly hopeless nature of our situation to dodgy analogies involving slowly boiling frogs and quantum theory. As Phil would admit “I haven't got a clue where I'm going with this!”, and we subsequently all burst out laughing.
I really feel like I'm learning something brand new and exciting when I watch (and occasionally participate) with Phil in these sessions. It should be a class embedded at every level in our education system aimed at emotional intelligence, meaningful conversations,and confidence building. What a great antidote that would be to the prevailing British etiquette!
“The ice is behind us”, Phil would declare. Yes that's right folks the iceberg is already behind us. Meaning we've gone past the point where we can safely sustain not just human life, but many forms of life on Earth over the medium and certainly longer term. Between 30% & 50% of species are anticipated to become extinct by 2050!!!
Don't worry, life isn't going to just vanish when we reach some arbitrary tipping point, it's far more likely to be a slow and painful demise as catastrophic climate events increase in frequency and fury and take their toll.
I don't mean to be alarmist, but the reality right now is that there IS NO sustainable future for forthcoming generations. Any of us with kids should be as, if not a whole lot more, concerned than anyone else. The current trajectory, and there is little doubt about this if you care to immerse yourself in the data and evidence, is what some refer to as 6X. That being the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Shall we pause and reflect on that notion for minute.... 1, 2, 3, ... (maybe just enough time for you to Google it) .... 59, 60.
Now the 21st COP (conferences of parties) currently being orchestrated in Paris is, as I understand it, trying to come to some agreement on how the world's nations will collectively keep the global temperature below that of 2℃ above what they call pre-industrial levels, meaning the 1880s. We're at about 0.8℃ now.
This seems TOTALLY crazy to me to be trying to avoid some target set well into the future as we already know 1987 was the last year that we stayed under safe limits to sustain life on Earth. I'm talking in terms of carbon in the atmosphere. 350 parts per million (ppm) to be precise. And where are we now? Depressingly, we celebrated the passing of 400ppm earlier this year. To really grasp the extent of this rise, take a glance at this graph.
‘This Changes Everything’ was the fitting title to the film we watched which documented the battle between Capitalism and the climate. In short, capitalism is based on the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs. In turn profit primarily looks at financial reward and unfortunately there is little or no accounting for the wellbeing of people or the planet! Consequently it's perfectly legal and normal (unbelievably!) for you and I to set up a business today that makes us a tonne of cash at the expense of people's health or a pristine natural environment and the habit of other animals
The film followed examples of local communities and their David & Goliath plight to protect their communities, ancestry, local economies, children's future and natural environment from massive industrial projects such as gold mining in Greece, electric power plants in India and the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, now the largest industrial project known to man and sprawling over 140,000 sq/km!
The inevitable devastation from these projects is clear to see and in each case fueled an uprising of coordinated collective action from local people, often with surprising results. Displaying our strength through “democratic cooperation” was one of the core positive messages I came away with and one I'd like to see more of and be part of in Swansea.
All this has given me renewed vigour to progress some democratic projects I've been involved with for a while now but also for some new seedlings that have emerged more recently around geographic cooperatives of citizens to take more ownership and responsibility of the places where we live.
These citizen's - or people's - cooperatives would provide a mechanism by which we can organise ourselves more effectively, share and replicate ideas and projects more efficiently and express our collective strength in numbers when necessary to lobby against damaging policy - or to crowdsource local initiatives such as services and buildings which can no longer be supported and threatened with closure.
It's clear to me that a core aspect of our evolutionary journey as humans finding our way on Earth at this time is one from centralised and closed power structures to new distributed and transparent systems that imbue us individually with a strong tangible feeling of empowerment.
We see this transition in almost every sector with new emergent services such as local energy coops (now over 1000 in Germany), Bitcoin and the block chain (with an estimated 7 million users), food coops (paying farmers approx 80p/£ where the supermarkets pay only approx 7p!).
As Fern pointed out at each of the workshops and while referring to much of Joanna Macy's work, the answers lie largely with systemic change and I wholeheartedly agree with this outlook. I'm confident the issues we face are not with the people themselves but with the systems we operate within as they have such a profound influence on shaping our behaviour. One chap piped up with the fact that the 5p charge for plastic bags had reduced their consumption by 80%!! Such a simple initiative clearly deriving massive impact.
Educating young kids, helping to reconnect them with the natural world and installing new ways of doing things that they will then naturally permeate into the world was also a clear priority in the room. Also acknowledged was the role of women and what incredible leaders of communities and healers of the earth they can become when empowered to do so. I believe we must do much more to nurture this.
To cultivate these themes of democratic cooperation, systemic change, empowerment, education and projects that will deliver both social and ecological benefit as a priority over financial, a grand plan has been hatching recently to take on the 6,000sq/ft space above the Volcano Theatre.
Coastal Housing, the landlords, have already been very generous in offering the space at a very modest rent so all that remains is for interested parties to express their interest and to crowdsource the space into existence. I'm massively excited about this prospect because it means I might get to see all those lovely people again that I've met over the past 3 weekends who I feel like I share a meaningful and common bond with.
Thanks to Fern and Phil’s decision to stay in Swansea and create a space to inspire local people through their Emergence initiative instead of stomping the streets of Paris, a community of kindred spirits has had a brief chance to get to know one another and some chemistry has been set in motion. Clearly this is just the tip of the iceberg and I don't think it'll be long before we experience some tangible alchemy.