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Imagination: an antidote to the plague of austerity

Austerity

"What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination.... If I sit still and don't do anything, the world goes on beating like a slack drum, without meaning. We must be moving, working, making dreams to run toward; the poverty of life without dreams is too horrible to imagine."

Sylvia Plath, from Notebooks, February 1956

Our theme for November is austerity and Transition responses to it. It is a subject that our Social Reporters are exploring with great gusto at the moment. Caroline Jackson recently documented what the unfolding of spending cuts look like in her community in Lancaster, concluding with the question "there’s a challenge for us in Transition here – I wonder how we will respond?" That's what I'd like to explore here, and to ask "what is Transition's unique contribution to the challenges of austerity?"

In the UK, as elsewhere, debates around austerity tend to polarise along political divides. The Right argue that the economy is saddled with huge debts and that we have to "get our house in order" before anything else, cutting back in all areas of government expenditure (although whilst also bailing out the banks, cutting taxes for the rich and not collecting corporate taxes). The Left argue that's really the last thing we need to do, that actually what we need to do is to borrow more money in order to stimulate growth and kick start economic growth again. Both miss the point completely. In The Power of Just Doing Stuff I quoted FEASTA's Graham Barnes who wrote:

“The austerity versus Keynsian spending debate is about as useful as arguing whether the Earth is flat or sitting on the back of a pile of turtles.”

The reality is we have reached the end of the age of cheap energy, and, almost certainly, of economic growth. Our urgent imperative is to begin a steep reduction of carbon emissions (10% a year, if Kevin Anderson is right), and we stand atop mountains of debt accumulated in the process of generating GDP (creating one dollar of growth in the 1970s required $1.74 of debt, it's now $5.67) and an increasingly fragile economic system. Under such circumstances it's not about how we recreate the kind of blunt, “gross value added” growth that both left and right have long used as a measure, rather how we get real about our situation and respond accordingly. Whether austerity is the right approach or not, the reality is that as a government-led approach to the economy, it looks likely to be here to stay for some time to come, with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls pledging to match to coalition government's spending cuts.

I could spend this entire post delivering a long rant about austerity: how there is easily enough money to overcome it, and to tackle the climate crisis, locked up in offshore banking accounts (beautifully explored in Nick Shaxson's latest report 'The Finance Curse'), how in the US (and almost certainly in the UK and elsewhere too) the bulk of what little economic growth there has been over the past couple of years actually goes to the rich, not to everyone else, or in pointing out, as the Red Cross did recently when looking at austerity across Europe, that it simply doesn't work as an economic approach:

"Whilst other continents successfully reduce poverty, Europe adds to it. The long-term consequences of this crisis have yet to surface. The problems caused will be felt for decades even if the economy turns for the better in the near future … We wonder if we as a continent really understand what has hit us."

I could bring it closer to home, stating how the use of food banks in the UK has increased threefold on this time last year, up to half a million people over the last 12 months, how some families receiving food parcels from food banks are sending them back because they are too poor to be able to afford to heat the food the parcel contains, or how, in the case of council funding cuts, the drastic cutting back of public services has only just begun. Newcastle City Council has spoken of how it is being forced to make "bloody great cuts", cutting all arts funding, and showing how by 2017 it looks like it will be unable to even meet its basic legal responsibilities as a Council. At the same time, bonuses in the City of London are up 64%, and RBS and Lloyds are enjoying combined half-year profits of £3.5bn.

The rise of the food bank.

It's shitty and grim and however much we might rail against it, it looks unlikely that a change of government (all the major parties at least) would do much different. The reality is that the age of cheap energy is over, and our living off the fat of a hundred years of surplus energy is coming to an end. There are, of course, activist avenues open to you if you want to use them, campaigns for transparency in international finance, UK Uncut and so on. I think we need something else though, something that sits alongside those more campaign-based responses, something without which we will never make any headway.

Tim Hunt, Commissioning Editor with Red Pepper magazine, in an article for Adbusters, writes:

“Britain reels from a lack of a creative left. We need some hope, some inspiration, something that shakes us out of a dismally predictable downward spiral".

A recent article by Naomi Klein in New Statesman talks about "a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner" who gave a presentation at the most recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union called "“Is Earth F**ked?”, his answer to which was "more or less". But as Klein states:

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it "resistance" – movements of "people or groups of people" who "adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture". According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes "environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups".

I want to use this post to focus on one of the key and most valuable roles I believe Transition can play, and is playing, in these times, that of keeping alive imagination, that Silvia Plath so cherished, at the community level. Austerity can tend to shut down what Hunt refers to as "some hope, some inspiration", to close avenues of possibility, bring our focus more and more to the here and now, rather than keeping our gaze on the horizon. I don't agree with Klein and Werner's analysis that "resistance" should be only taken to refer to the same tools that oppositional politics has always used. For me, Werner's "certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture" needs to be viewed more broadly.

Austerity

And that's where Transition comes in, with its core focus on imagination and the telling of different stories. Local councils, under such huge pressure to cut spending, rarely have the time or capacity to think creatively about ways forward. In Caroline's piece she documents how, as a city Councillor, she is part of making decisions about budgets and where cuts should fall. Little room for imagination there. The Left, as Hunt identifies, in spite of the unpopularity of austerity, "without a party or a coherent mass movement, appear unable to capitalize on the situation". Even Russell Brand's glorious outburst on Newsnight this week was big on calls for "revolution" and a passionate laying out of what isn't working, but rather lacking in terms of an imaginative exploration of what we might do instead.

What I want to argue here is that Transition groups can have a powerful role to play in firing the imagination, what Plath describes as "making dreams to run towards". It's not just about ideas and campaigns, it's about doing stuff, showing that a more just, lower carbon, more localised and resilient approach can not only work in practice, but also can meet our needs better as people, as families, as communities. It's about modelling community resilience as economic development.

Over this month we'll be hearing from a range of people with useful insights on austerity. Among others, we'll hear from Jeremy Leggett about energy and austerity, from Dr Tim Lang and Felicity Lawrence about food and austerity, Pam Warhurst about the potential for urban agriculture to be a key strategy for responding to it, and from Jason Roberts of Better Block who says,

"If we are experiencing austerity, create visions. Let’s have a better place together, even when things start getting taken away. We still ultimately want to have a better place. There’s got to be a way. We all know that we get really creative when there’s something we want to have and we just don’t have the money ... We typically try to do what we do with as little money as possible. We like to show that if you want innovation, take a zero away from your budget, and if you want ultimate innovation take two zeros away from your budget".

The only way, it seems to me, to inspire the new structures, new enterprises, new networks, new connections that will enable us to overcome the grinding, wearing, energy-sapping drag of austerity, is through sparking imagination, and imagination that makes tangible, physical, visible differences to peoples' lives. I see that imagination at work in Transition initiatives all over the place, and in many other places besides, and when it comes together with a “can-do” and “will-do” attitude, magical, extraordinary and desperately-needed things happen.

There's the emerging New Economy movement, Jason's Better Block work, the local food movement, social entrepreneurs, initiatives such as the community of Berlin striving to bring the city's grid into community ownership and push for 100% renewables, to name just a few. There's also the powerful role the arts can play in bringing the imagination to life and giving it form and expression, as will be detailed in Lucy Neal's forthcoming Playing for Time book.  One of the key insights from my recent trip to the US was that, contrary to what one might imagine from outside, so much was going on there, so many amazing projects and initiatives, but in a nation where the media is controlled by about four companies, their stories are never heard, their potential to fire the collective imagination goes mostly unrealised.

Here are a few stories from the Transition network that, for me, represent the use of imagination in response to austerity. If you'd like to tell us about others, please use the comments thread below. In London there's the great 'Edible Bus Stop' initiative, captured beautifully in the video below. Crystal Palace Transition Town are one of the groups involved, working on an 'Edible Bus Station'! They wrote:

"The aim is to create a high impact, low maintenance edible garden at the far end of the station, where there’s lawn running against the hedge to the park. In spring, planting will start in earnest with plans to plant fruit trees and fruit bushes – Crystal Palace’s very own Edible Bus Station Orchard".

It's an amazing project for focusing the imagination, stimulating the question "what if every bus stop were like this?" It opens the possibility of using land in a different way in the setting of one of the places during many peoples' daily routine where they have little else to do than sit and wait.

 

There's Ajudada in Portalegre in Portugal, a city that has been hit hard to EU austerity measures. Ajudada was an event attended by many hundreds of people that explored the resources the city has that aren't money, and how they might be better connected and better employed in shaping the city's future. The whole event ran with no money changing hands. Here's a film about it:

 

It's what the REconomy Project's Local Economic Blueprints/Evaluations do so powerfully, opening the imagination to the possibility that economic development can actually come from building on and strengthening community resilience, rather than discarding it. I also love the story of DE4 Food in Derbyshire, a "co-operative social enterprise made up of small-scale local food and drink producers and their customers", formed by a group of women in Derbyshire who had no previous experience of running a businesses who were inspired to do something to improve local access to affordable, local, fresh produce, while at the same time offering the opportunity for people to generate some income from their back-garden/allotment food growing. As Helen Cunningham from DE4 told me:

"I think we all just really wanted to change the way we live, and change our own personal lives and to change things and live different lives ourselves as well as a different life in our community".

DE4 recently added the local Tansley Primary School Gardening Club to their list of local producers.  What a great project, giving young people the opportunity to not just imagine contributing meaningfully to the local food economy, but to actually make it happen.  

Primary school kids growing potatoes for the DE4 Food food hub.

In Totnes, the Food in Community CIC (see photo below) has taken a different approach to tackling food and austerity.  Feeling that Food Banks can deepen a sense of dependency and sense of inadequacy, they opted for a different approach.  Collecting 'grade out' fruit and veg from the nearby Riverford Organic Farm, they now supply it to projects in the local community, over 5,000 kilos since January.  Their thinking is that distributing the food can be a catalyst for so much more than Food Banks do.  The same day they collect, the produce is delivered to 10 organisations who work with people in community settings who use food and cooking to bring people together.  

For example, the Children's Centre uses it in their after school cooking sessions, which encourage families to eat and cook together, a Nursery School uses it to improve the food they feed their children, they work with a cafe for adults with mental health issues and their carers, and has led to one young volunteer getting cooking lessons from the chef at the Riverford Field Kitchen.  They supply a primary school whose parents took over the school's catering use the produce to make money go further and to increase the quality of the meals.  They recently teamed up with Transition Town Totnes. To quote from the local paper:

'Cooking Up A Treat' will take place in the refurbished Civic Hall kitchen, and offer groups cooking and food sharing sessions, where people can come together, learn new skills and enjoy food and company. Transition Town Totnes will also benefit from the award with support for its hugely successful free skillshare events.

Future plans include creating an enterprise to provide meals on wheels and school meals.  As Laurel Ellis from the group puts it:

"Having the vegetables encourages people to learn to cook, share meals, join in, eat well or sometimes, just eat".  

David Markson (left) and Laurel Ellis (right), with volunteer Sandi Spalding.

During this month we'll also hear from Chuck Collins of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition in Boston, seeking to widen the imagination of his community in thinking about its economic future:

"We ask the wealthy people in our community to re-establish a stake in our locality. It's both a personal and an organisational ask. We invite them to make investments in local businesses. Move their money out of Wall Street and into the local intermediaries that invest in the community. Take your money out of the fossil fuel sector but also put it into the local new economy businesses. We're trying to move the resources that have moved out of our community, to bring them back or to hold them".

They also run an annual 'State of the Neighbourhood Forum', a huge event (between four and five hundred people, see photo below) which invites people to reflect on the community's needs and to problem solve creative ways forward. The elected city official are invited, but as 'keynote listeners'. It creates a space for imagining, with elected officials, the kind of neighbourhood people really want to see.

JPNET's 2011 State of Our Neighbourhood Forum.

Bristol Pound

The Bristol Pound, that highly imaginative local currency scheme, is starting to move towards measures where it starts to really address the needs of those most impacted by austerity. Being backed by a Credit Union really helps of course, but the Pound is now building on the argument that spending money locally prevents money pouring out of the city's economy. They are looking at setting up a Bank of Bristol, to support people starting new businesses by offering low interest loans. They are also setting up a Farmlink scheme, linking established buying groups in the city with primary producers on the city's periphery so that the Bristol Pound becomes a channel for regional suppliers.

There are tensions here though. Occupied Times recently interviewed Noam Chomsky, and asked him, "Occupy Sandy and these various movements that have come out in the last year, they are double-edged in the sense that they alleviating the pressure we should put on [governments], but they are also desired responses in many ways". Chomsky replied:

"What ways? The trouble with saying “the government backs off” is that it only feeds the libertarians. The wealthy and the corporate sector are delighted to have government back off, because then they get more power. Suppose you were to develop a voluntary system, a community type, a mutual support system that takes care of social security – the wealthy sectors would be delighted".

As governments across Europe continue to "back off", we must recognise that we have a choice to take back what power we can. Or do we just take the moral high ground, watch everything fall apart, see people suffer, smug in the knowledge that at least we are not doing anything that might delight libertarians and the corporate sector? Fortunately that's not what Chomsky is suggesting. He adds:

"I thought the most important contribution of the Occupy movement was to recreate this mutual support system which was lacking in society. But it has this dual character: You have to figure out ways to do it which don’t undermine the broader conception of solidarity".

He puts his finger on a key question for Transition and other community based responses. How best to withdraw support from the structures and businesses we don't want to see, while enabling communities to put in place more resilient systems that they own and manage and which better meets their needs? Keeping a mindfulness around issues of solidarity is vital, as is modelled in the projects set out above. The Evergreen Cooperative in Cleveland is a great example of this:

 

It is taking over work that would would have been done by local government but running it in a way that better serves the community, cuts carbon and builds resilience and solidarity. It is in every way as valid a form of "resistance" as any of the others that Brad Werner identifies, but one which feels accessible and resonant to more, and different, people.

But for all the talk from the UK's government of creating a 'Big Society', obstacles continue to be put in the way of communities and individuals wanting to make this happen, as Social Reporter Ann Owen identifies in her post about Universal Credit. This forthcoming replacement for Working Families Tax Credit will make it very hard for people to volunteer for local projects or to set up the kind of new enterprises we need, entirely the wrong thing to be introducing at this time, potentially leading to what she calls "the rise of the Undercover Guerrilla Volunteer".

In order to be able to create something, first we have to imagine it.  That applies as much to the supper you'll cook when you get home tonight as to social change.  While there is much that Transition initiatives can, and are, doing to respond to austerity, it is the holding of spaces where people, their political representatives and others, can come together to imagine the kind of future they want to see, and modelling this in practical ways, which may be one of the most powerful things we can do in these difficult times.  It could prove to be, as the world seemingly steps from arguing that climate change isn't a problem to arguing that it's too late to do anything about it, missing out that vital piece in the middle, you know, the doing something about it bit, that the "poverty of life without dreams" may turn out in the long run to be the wickest form of poverty.  

 

I'd like to recomment Transition Social Reporter Dr Gail Bradbrook's an excellent post on what she calls Street School Economics, which offers a useful take on austerity.  

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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