Tuesday 26 May 2015

A Tale of Two Conferences by Anna Pigott

In 2012 I went to two very different conferences.  (I know this doesn't sound like the beginning of an interesting blog post but please bear with me..)

The first conference, a huge international gathering in London called 'Planet Under Pressure – New Knowledge Towards Solutions', focussed on the idea of the Anthropocene, a concept which describes the enormous influence that humanity now has on Earth. The conference left me feeling both overwhelmed by the enormity of what the Anthropocene sets out (what can I possibly DO?!) and underwhelmed by the proposed 'new knowledge'.  Over 3000 delegates attending an array of workshops during the conference were churning out this knowledge but … where was it going, and how could it all be joined up to produce the changes that were needed?  Something was missing, but I couldn't put my finger on what.

Later in the year, that something hit me between the eyes (quite literally, as I danced around a mini exploding volcano made of sand. As I said, this one was different): At the Emergence Summit in September 2012 it became joyfully apparent that there is something that connects all the problems of the Anthropocene – it is us, it is culture and, as Paul Allen has said, it is the stories that we tell ourselves about where we've come from and where we are going.  From our culture and values everything else flows, with no 'behaviour change programs' in sight. 

So, my question became 'how does culture change?', and this led to my current PhD research at Swansea University.  By my desk I have pinned a quote by the Welsh academic and novelist Raymond Williams which I think sums it up beautifully: “Culture is ordinary. That is where we must start.”  It is easy to take for granted the everydayness of our culture, so much so that it is often difficult to step back and see what shapes it.  I think the role of art is both taken for granted and seen as a 'luxury add-on' in this sense.   What Emergence has shown me is that art is much more than something that is just 'done to us' (or for us).  Being an 'artist' shouldn't be a title reserved for those who do it in exchange for money.  If we cook, if we garden, if we fix things, if we think and imagine, if we talk, if we play – we are being creative, we are artful.  This is how art and creativity make – and change – culture.  As Bertolt Brecht said “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”.

I have become especially interested in how 'meta-narratives' can influence cultural change. For example, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has described how the Industrial Revolution in western societies was underpinned by a narrative of aspiration and progress in which people self-identified as pilgrims on a long journey of collective endeavour for a better world.  These days this narrative has collapsed under conditions of environmental crisis, uncertainty and perpetual change, such that people behave more as tourists than as pilgrims, snatching at fleeting experiences rather than committing to shaky long-term aspirations.  Our problem now, Bauman argues, is that we can't imagine a better world, let alone aspire to one. 

Being on somewhat of a journey of discovery myself, Satish Kumar's activism is quite new to me, and I have been struck to find that he, too, advocates a 'pilgrim' approach, and also advises on how to do it.  He passionately and enthusiastically urges us to slow down and to take care of ourselves, a prerequisite of taking care of the Earth.  He also calls for a more holistic view ('soil, soul, society') which recognises our membership of an Earth community, not just a human one.   This brings me back to the concept of the Anthropocene and reminds me of philosopher Donna Haraway's suggestion of replacing 'Anthropocene'  – a term which puts humans centre stage – with the (albeit unpronounceable) 'Cthulhucene', a term which describes the tying together of human and non-human ecologies in a kind of 'responsible symbiosis', an approach which might better sustain us in, as she says, “staying with the trouble on Terra”.

Staying with the troubles on Earth and finding ways to transform them is likely to be a long pilgrimage, and whether we choose to embark on it will depend on whether we have the appropriate stories, visions and creativity to sustain and inspire us along the way.  In Wales, some examples of such visions include the One Wales One Planet manifesto initiated by Jane Davidson, which led recently to the Welsh Government's pioneering Well-Being of FutureGenerations Act, and CAT's Zero Carbon Britain Project which Paul Allen outlined in his previous blog post. Satish's meetings with Jane Davidson promise to be an exciting opportunity to explore and ignite conversations that are just beginning in Wales, and elsewhere, about where we've come from and where we want to go.  And although I can't wait to listen to them, wait I will have to, as all pilgrims must… 

Emergence is crowd funding to make a Landmark Series of documentary films of Satish Kumar in conversation with Jane Davidson. Click this link to find out more and help make this legacy project happen.

Anna Pigott is a PhD student at Swansea University, researching how visions of the future are created and represented in Wales and how they relate to social and political change.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Making Pilgrimage by Lucy Neal

I lived in a house called the Hopgarden for a couple of years as a child. It had a huge garden and I loved it. We only lived there a couple of years before moving on and on the day of the move, I went to school as normal, but realised as I left the house, it would be for the last time ever, as my parents spent the day transporting family life to our new home - actually quite near by.

Leaving the house, I raced back in again and in an improvised fashion marked my farewell to the house by walking steadily down each step of a long, curving staircase, counting as I went, cherishing life lived in the house, sad to go, knowing by instinct honouring, celebrating, paying attention to change was more than important, it was crucial. I think the number (not really the point of the excercise) was 68.

I feel I have been marking my life with such ritualised stepping ever since and walking has been an essential means to this. I spent a week walking Offa’s Dyke to kneel at my mother’s grave after she died: it was the first time I absorbed fully into my whole heart and soul, that she had gone. I walk around Tooting Bec Common every day to watch chestnut trees explode into bobbing white candles; I have had the grandest of privileges of participating in not one, but two of Emergence’s Land Journies: one in a graceful ellipsis around Machynlleth, north to Cader Idris and one along the open-hearted paths of the Gower Way. Both, marked enormous changes in my life: a growing awareness of a role I might have to play in the historic shifts our societies must make by the minute, by the day in service to life on Earth for the next millenias - cherishing, honouring, celebrating the life that dwells in the thin, rich, layer of our biospere.

Sometimes change is happening to us and we are not fully aware of it, but we pick up a few signals here and there that seed themselves for future provisioning in our lives. When I first met Satish Kumar in May 2003, I was co-director of the London International Festival of Theatre. A visionary colleague, Julia Rowntree, had invited Satish’s lifelong friend and co-activist Vandana Shiva to speak at the Natural History Museum on the subject of Biodiversity, cultural diversity and celebration: intimate links and matters of survival. Vandana’s lecture, staged with her audience seated beneath the famous Museum Diplodocus was part of a LIFT Festival series I was responsible for presenting called: Imagining A Cultural Commons. It was a stupendous evening: Peter Sellers made a noble introduction to Vandana who then spoke - without notes - for an hour or so. She pointed to the botanic plants painted on the tiles on the ceiling and made the connection between bio-diversity, cultural diversity and art’s role in survival on the planet. She ended by saying ‘..we don’t want to go the way of him’ pointing to the dinosaur. I listened to every word  but was possibly too embroiled with the intense, busy and immensely rewarding activity of running a wonderful festival, to listen with my whole heart and body. That took a few more years, and co-incided with my second meeting with Satish when I spent a residential week at Schumacher College. Standing one night with my back against the grand chestnut tree, something cracked within me: the vastness of space, my immeasurable smallness of lifespan, my sadness at the unwellness of the Earth and lack of certainty about how future generations and species could thrive, all collided in me.

From then on, my stepping has been more careful about how to live with the universe and let it act upon me and one day, I’d like to go on a pilgramage to mark such stepping. Where would I go? what would I go on pilrimage for? What would be risked? what changed? to what end? Having just finished a long, big project, writing Playing for Time - Making Art As If The World Mattered,  I am not 100% sure at this moment. I need to wait around on street corners, looking, observing, kind of hanging about for a while, picking up the signals, looking backwards and forwards.

"As we step into a new geological age of a four billion year process on Earth, called the 'anthropocene', it is hard to imagine as humans we are accountable for reimagining our world on behalf of ourselves, subsequent generations and all species. We need celebratory social spaces to look backwards and forwards in time, where our collective knowledge, intuition and a sense of wonder at what is possible can come together."

Satish’s pilgrimage from India has been a huge inspiration, not simply the miles of walking, and the engagement with intention and action along the way, but the knowledge gained about how the universe provides for us, if we trust it. We can travel openly, trusting in what uncertainty brings: we can let the universe act on and through us.  We can create the social, celebratory spaces. The conversation between Satish and Jane Davidson will provide a very grand one of these and I shall listen to every word, with heart and soul.

In the meantime, I take smaller walks, building into a grown up, intentional pilgrimage - or maybe not! maybe the daily, smaller walks are indeed a pilgrimage of their own. Each step, each day. Today I went for a walk near my father’s home in Wales. Campion in the sun; bluebells, dandelions and hawthorn peeping: the joy, the energy, the spring in the universe. I noticed numbers printed on the sheep’s backs - animals stamped as man’s possessions.  A lamb jumped about: 68 printed in red on its back, jogging my thoughts about what it is to belong to an abundantly rich world of all living things and journey through it.

Playing for Time - Making Art As If The World Mattered
Is published by Oberon Books

Promotion code: ONPFT2015 valid until June 30

Tuesday 5 May 2015

The relationship between human beings & energy is in crisis! - guest blog by Paul Allen

In our second guest blog, we're delighted to welcome Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology. Paul has been a huge inspiration to us at Emergence from the very beginning and his paradigm-shifting work on alternative technologies is leading the way to a new relationship to our world and how we live in harmony with it.

Humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with energy presents us with some big challenges, not only for our technology, but also for our culture, society and democracy. Paul Allen takes a look at how this relationship evolved and where it went wrong - and how Satish Kumar inspired him to be part of creating positive visions for a sustainable future.

Paul Allen
The extraordinary story of humans and energy began over 400 million years ago with the formation of fossil fuels. Early human societies, unaware of this energy deposit of ancient sunlight, lived on our annual sunlight ration for many thousands of years, with only soil, canvas sheets and wooden poles to harvest what all we needed. Then the discovery of fossil fuels transformed how we see ourselves and our relationship with our friends, family, communities and the natural world.

On one hand this transition has helped deliver incredible advances of medicine, science, education and entertainment. But on the other hand, the relationship between human beings and energy has become dysfunctional, if not abusive and is now resulting in self-harm.

We all must now live with, or bury, the pain of the destruction, exploitation and capitalisation of our natural spaces and the decreasing ability of both present and future generations to inhabit them.

Although it has become a deeply pervasive source of anxiety, society has created taboos against the public expression of anguish, leaving many paralysedoverloaded and sleepwalking through the shopping malls. Nowhere is this better reflected than the priority of these issues in the current UK general election debates and party manifestos – explore this yourself via the Centre for Alternative Technology's ‘Manifestometer.

Over recent years, this deeply buried collective anxiety that we know there is a problem and we know we are not solving it has transformed the way contemporary culture portrays our future: from an exciting new world of progress to one of darkness and uncertainty. Whenever contemporary culture looks ten or twenty years ahead, we now paint dystopia and ecological collapse – clearly something is broken.

A powerful tool in healing any broken relationship is to be able to see a positive way forward. The Zero Carbon Britain project has been developed by CAT to help us to think differently. Our most recent report, ‘Re-thinking the Future’, shows that physically, we have all the resources and technologies we need to transform our living systems but we are locked into the fossil fuels paradigm, so change must be driven by a cultural shift. We know once triggered, cultural norms can shift quickly; as we have seen with attitudes to the banks that backed apartheid in South Africa, to gender discrimination, to health and safety in the workplace, to smoking in public places or to the unacceptable sexual conduct of celebrities. Once a cultural shift is catalysed, legal, political and administrative frameworks follow suit. We must now how we think about our relationship with energy.

We should, of course, acknowledge that fossil fuels have enabled a fantastic transformation: fuelling the embryo of human society, much like the yolk of an egg fuels the development of the chick. But we know our relationship with fossil fuels as it is today cannot go on forever, as burning them releases the massive amounts of carbon dioxide locked away when they were formed. The science is clear - to stabilise the climate and stay below the globally agreed limit of 2ÂșC, our relationship with energy must allow us to rapidly eliminate our emissions of greenhouse gases.

The next chapter the relationship between humans and energy must begin now, our yolk is used up, we must now bust out into the sunlight. But today, our tools for energy capture are now no longer limited to soil, canvas and wood; we now have an incredible array of renewable technologies that can capture enough energy from our annual sunlight ration to more than meet our global needs.

The conclusion of story is still unwritten, but is has become clear that our 21st century challenges can no longer be met with a 20th century approach, including how we think about the future!

I am deeply appreciative of the inspiration by Satish in leading me to this story and my exploration of how we can heal this dysfunctional relationship.We first met in 1979, right at the opening of my career, when I was taking a year out before university, working in a Watermill in Cumbria. His evening talk as part of his ‘No Destination’ UK walking tour inspired me to not just think about a different way of living but to really 'live' these ideas and to make real, practical and enduring changes - especially as he was, quite literally walking his talk! His inspiration took me to the Centre for Alternative Technology, where I have now been working for 26 years.

Paul Allen FRSA

Thank you, Paul. You can be part of making our documentary series about Satish by going to our Indiegogo campaign page. We have until Friday 29th May to reach our target. Help us make it happen!