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Transition Plymouth

Some of the most extreme weather patterns - the driest, wettest, hottest and coldest months ever recorded - have occurred in recent years. The Arctic is warming dangerously, much quicker than scientists predicted, weakening, and changing the course of, the Gulf Stream bringing Britain erratic weather and disrupting agriculture. It has brought home to all, except the most head in the sand sceptics, the urgency of cutting greenhouse emissions. But, paradoxically, it has occurred at a time of heightened economic crisis when the resolve of governments and corporations to act to avert global warming is diminishing. Since the collapse of the Intergovernmental talks on climate change in Copenhagen 2009 all pretence at tackling climate change at an international level has been dropped.

Transition Plymouth is part of the wider Transition movement, a grassroots initiative to act locally in practical ways to create a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations. It recognises that neither the impoverished urban populations of rapidly industrialising countries in the developing world, or the struggling working classes of Britain, are going to take lessons in sustainable resource use from former imperial powers whose ruling class grew rich, and continue to grow rich, by exploiting their resources and people. Therefore, from the outset, a deep examination of ‘values’ and ‘beliefs’ has been an intrinsic part of Transition Plymouth – the challenge of promoting sharing and co-operation as opposed to the individualism and competition, which is the dominant  ‘common sense’ ideology of our times.

Smaller places, such as Totnes, can be wonderful exemplars of what can be achieved, spreading and disseminating ideas and techniques, but it is in the extent to which these ideas are adopted by much bigger towns and cities that a more sustainable future will be achieved. The ability of a relatively small group of people, with limited resources, to act upon the lives of the 250,000 people who live in Plymouth is limited, but together with other environmental groups, and campaigning forums, such as the Plymouth Climate Council, we can act as a catalyst for change.

Transition Plymouth works through a series of groups: the planning group, food group, education group and the transport group. In addition we have hosted one off talks – sustainable housing, green fascism, anti incinerator.

Planning Group
Conceived as an umbrella group to administer resources and provide a framework within which the theme groups can operate, the Planning Group has devoted a lot of time to discussing ethos and values, accommodation strategy, publicity and communication issues.

Ethos & Values
Autonomous movement ideas, open membership, non permanent hierarchy and consensus decision making, familiar to some members from Climate Camp and similar events, have been dominant but they have not been accepted uncritically or operated without problems.

We obviously need to involve more people and grow our influence if we are to gain the scale of traction required to reduce the city’s carbon emissions and improve the quality of life for ourselves and our neighbours. Open membership, is a prerequisite for growth, but how open? Does the organisation belong to those who could attend the last meeting and what happens when an important decision arises where we can’t all agree by consensus, or there simply is insufficient time to build the consensus? The larger the organisation, the greater its resources and more complicated its affairs, the more difficult it will be to manage in this way.

In the early days of ‘mass’ meetings, before the planning and theme groups were set up, it was sometimes difficult to move beyond initial principles and get business done as consecutive meetings involved significant numbers of different people, who often started from a different points. Those who have committed considerable time and effort to building TP in the past, may resent those with a more fleeting involvement ‘hijacking’ the reputation of the organisation, or ‘squandering’ the resources that it has worked hard to build.

The non permanent hierarchy, rotating co-ordinator positions, has had the strength in giving different members experience in setting agendas, ‘chairing’ meetings and writing minutes. But it has also demonstrated weakness in terms of accountability, consistency and efficiency. Self selecting individuals inevitably emerge dominant – usually those with most time to prepare/ attend lengthy meetings / have most to say – but lines of responsibility have sometimes been blurred leading to confusion and occasionally umbrage being taken – especially when it is linked to poor email communication.

In the early days there was an intractable dispute with a member who opposed the use of money and refused to agree to the opening of a bank account. The majority clearly wanted a bank account. If that member had been allowed a absolute veto, it would have made it difficult for the group to progress beyond a meeting of friends. The consensus issue was fudged, the bank account was opened and the member left the group.

Accommodation Strategy
Transition Plymouth has maintained a network of members and has benefited from the generosity of those who have offered their houses as venues for meetings and parties. Supplemented, on occasions by use of the Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, for public meetings and Voodoo Lounge public house for parties the organisation has managed to demonstrate that it can survive without a permanent home. But a step change in our profile within the city occurred when we were able to secure the use of No. 171 Armada Way, through environmental charity Healthy Planet.

No. 171 Armada Way is a large, disused, former bank building located in the city centre on the corner of Armada Way and Mayflower Street. After much hard work, particularly from Pat Bushell, power, heat, water and second hand furniture were installed and we held a grand opening party. For a while No.171 became a regular venue for meetings, film shows, art projects, distribution of information and second hand books. More activities took place, and other community organisations also benefited from the use of our venue.  Transition Plymouth derived significant benefit from having its own venue.

Unfortunately it was a real set back when we had to leave the premises last summer.

Without an obvious venue, the profile of the group and the amount of activities undertaken has, inevitably, declined. However, recently two initiatives have provided hope for the future: a sympathetic collective has bought a discussed public house, ‘The Trafalgar’ in Ebrington Street for its ‘Bread & Roses Project’ and has promised use by community groups such as Transition Plymouth; and ambitions of our own premises have again been rekindled by ‘Healthy Planet’ who have offered us another empty city centre premises at 147 Armada Way.

Profile and communication
Under the auspices of the Planning Group, although in reality only thanks to considerable hard work from Barbara Hanson, the group has produced an excellent local leaflet, introducing Transition Plymouth for use on stalls and at events, such as the Mayday and Freedom Fields festival.  The leaflet features our logo, Plymouth’s famous Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse made into a wind turbine, to demonstrate commitment to sustainability.

The group has a webpage, and regularly uses email communication. This cuts down on paper usage (and postage). But confusion, the scope for misinterpretation and the anonymous nature of electronic communication have demonstrated that this can only ever be a supplement, never a substitute, for talking with each other face to face.

Food Group
Perhaps because it is ubiquitous and accessible, food - its production, distribution and consumption - has long been a significant strand in Transition Plymouth. The food group is probably the most active. In discussions and debates we have tried, but not always succeeded, in moving beyond the personal to consider the implications of current patterns of food production, distribution and consumption.  

We do debate the big issues of food production. Water distribution: flooding and desertification. Population increase, which some (like Malthus) consider unsustainable, whilst others strongly argue that the problem is not with the number of people but inequality of access to good food and poor distribution - commodity speculation on the stock exchange. The displacement of food crops by soya and bio-fuels. Protein produced from animals and fish uses more land with implications for resource use. But dispensing with farm animals has significant cultural implications - certainly West country landscapes would look very different devoid of farmed animals.  Use of GM crops increase yields, and are now used in most of the world’s continents, but give control of seeds to giant corporations.

Sometimes tensions develop between a ‘back to the land’, new peasant tendency, and those for whom such arcadias represent drudgery and insularity. However, there is strong agreement on practical matters: that more food should be sourced locally, for use of food that’s in season, supplementing what is purchased with home grown and foraging.

TP has encouraged food production in a city, mainly by raising awareness of other initiatives. These include better use of existing urban land for food production, different techniques such as Permaculture, guerrilla gardening and educating people about what is available, seed exchange cutting out commercial producers, harvesting wild food, ensuring that apples growing in local parks are picked and eaten and that even the smallest urban courtyard has scope to grow herbs. We have talked about putting pressure on the council to provide more allotments and to ensure that new housing has sufficient sized plots to produce food.

Four supermarket chains have a dominant position on food sales and distribution. We have supported initiatives like fair-trade, the use of independent shops and the local Fairport bulk buying initiative. But as austerity bites and increasing numbers of people in the city become dependent on food banks, the impact of wealth upon diet becomes more pronounced. On average, residents of the more affluent eastern part of the city live ten years longer than in the poorer eastern part. Diet is not the sole determinant of health, but it is a significant part. Fresh food is generally more expensive. Those who are poor tend to eat less well. Obesity is growing. Transition food group promotes healthy locally sourced diets, but it is an uphill battle against the pernicious impact of commercial brand advertising, particularly on kids.

Food consumption has also proved quite divisive within the group. The group contains committed carnivores, and proselytising vegetarians and vegans. No member of the group is indifferent to animal welfare, but clearly the gap between a carnivore member’s concern for better animal husbandry, ‘humane’ killing, and consumption of less but better quality (organic) meat, and a militant vegan who believes all consumption of animals is wrong is unbridgeable. The debate as to whether vegetarianism is trailblazing a future for mankind, or essentially an ‘ethical life style’ choice for a minority continues, in Transition Plymouth and elsewhere.

Refreshments and snacks at our events have generally been really delicious vegetarian or vegan – although the topic is regularly discussed. We also have links with the excellent Earth Café Vegan food / green talks / music (usually the 3rd Saturday every month, ‘Fortescue’ public house, Mutley Plain –check Green Events list for details – no disabled access)

Education Group
Meets regularly. A talk is planned around the potentially controversial subject of sustainable parenting

Transport Group
Meets from time to time to discuss how we can reduce the number of unnecessary journeys and ensure that journeys that should take place use sustainable methods. Better public transport - affordable, more frequent services, safer with integrated transport hubs.

Cycling - more dedicated lanes, improved safety, storage facilities. Reduce dependence on private cars – smaller more environmentally friendly cars. Car share schemes, cheaper railways, re-opening of closed lines locally to Tavistock and pointing out the adverse impact of air travel as a counter to the popular local campaign to reopen Plymouth airport.

Conclusion
Transition Plymouth has brought together a group of committed people, with different backgrounds and ideas to try and do something practical in response to the challenge of climate change in our city. We have learned to work together and trust each other – pioneering, in a local context, some of the debates that are going to be the hot topics of wider conversations and actions in the future. The visioning session, held at Devonport Guildhall on Saturday 19th January was a good natured, relaxed affair that set out the direction of travel for the future.  

Jeremy Guise - an active member of Transition Plymouth.

Images: Transition Plymouth logo; Hardwick Tea with members; The Stonehouse Time Bank; poster for Celebration Social

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