On 25 May, I went to Portobello, three miles (5 km) east of Edinburgh, along the coast of the Firth of Forth. I went to interview Eva Schonveld, in my view the most influential Transitioner in Scotland. This is the short version!
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got involved with Transition?
I got involved with Transition in about 2005 when I read an article by Rob Hopkins in Permaculture News. I had been trying to set up a climate change awareness group in my community, and been failing disastrously, and was thinking “maybe you can’t do this”. And when I read the article, I said “yes, this is fantastic. We could do this!”
Portobello has the feeling of a small town – we have our own town hall and a still-functioning high street – although it is completely attached to Edinburgh now. It is relatively well off in that unemployment is not a huge issue and while it’s not wealthy, people are motivated to do stuff. So when an application was lodged to build a superstore on a big site at the end of the high street, there was a lot of public opposition to it. The community raised thousands of pounds to take a case to court against this planning proposal. We won, on a technicality, and that’s very unusual. There was a real sense of community power and that’s when I read Rob’s article – we had just won and there was a real feeling of “OK, what’s next?” It was a good moment to come along and say, “What do we want?” We formed the Portobello Energy Descent and Land Reform group (PEDAL) and apart from some people thinking we’re a cycling charity, a door-to-door survey revealed, to our surprise, that PEDAL has quite a high profile for doing environmental and social things.
Once PEDAL got established, I wanted to know who else in Scotland was doing similar stuff so I set up a Google group called Zero Carbon Zero Oil (ZCZO). Around the same time, I went for a job looking at carbon active communities – and didn’t get it. I was devastated because I really, really wanted it. I knew that this was the work I wanted to be doing so I spoke to Ben Bragwyn and Rob Hopkins and offered to be the contact person in Scotland, a central point of reference, and I carried on doing this for two years.
The Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) was just being formed. It was established by the Scottish Government in partnership with the Scottish Green Party in 2008 and provides funding for communities who are tackling climate change by reducing their carbon emissions. The guy in charge of setting it up wanted to support Transition. He came to me, because of ZCZO and my role as the Scottish Transition contact, and asked me how CCF could support Transition. And that’s how we got funding for Transition Scotland Support (TSS).
What is the most rewarding aspect of Transition for you personally?
There’s two sides really and one is making things happen. The feeling that I can change my community and move us towards living in a different way. That’s really exciting and empowering and feels worthwhile. The other side is that the other people who are involved are just really good people. I feel understood, I feel that my concerns about the way we are living and my love for the planet are acknowledged as being important. There’s something incredibly heartening about knowing and meeting other people who share those same values.
In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of Transition?
I think the importance of Transition is providing an alternative and showing that not only is it possible to think differently, it’s also possible to take actions in the world which change things. It’s important to give people a sense that we could make a different future because one of the biggest things that we’re up against is that the majority of people can’t see beyond the way that we do things now. Whether they think that’s great or whether they think it’s rubbish, there’s a real feeling of people not having any hope that things could be any different. And many don’t want to change.
People are so wedded to their cars and their consumer lifestyle that to say that this way of living is unsustainable and damaging is incredibly unpopular. But if what you’re saying is that there’s another way of being which is really rich and enjoyable and vibrant and here’s how we do it, then that’s a different message. It’s not saying you have to give up your car; it’s saying you can make where you live absolutely fantastic and you probably won’t need your car so much. So it’s that positive side of Transition which I think allows you to paint a different kind of picture for people, one that isn’t about loss.
What do you find most frustrating about Transition?
Again there are two things which I find very frustrating. One is that you can’t do it fast enough. There’s not enough time, there’s not enough money, there’s not enough other people involved and even if you have all of those things, you still can’t do it fast enough because it’s a mammoth task. But it’s also to do with the perception of time; when you look back at what you’ve achieved, you seem to have done a lot in a short time but it feels very slow because you so much want things to change so quickly.
The other side for me is how hard it is to build networks. The funding I received from CCF was for a three year project to build a Scottish network of communities in transition, called Transition Scotland Support (TSS). The idea was to build communication, discussion and action between groups in Scotland. However, people active in local groups are up to their ears in what they’re doing and don’t generally have the time to think about regional or national gatherings, although they enjoy and benefit from such events. They don’t have the time to think about how their community can move forward together with others. Now that the CCF funding has ended, I no longer have the resources and my impatience for that to happen has to be managed. But if there was a desperate need, I think groups would find a way to work together, so maybe the time for Transition Scotland is not now.
What have you found attracts people to Transition?
I think a lot of people like the positivity of it. They like the fact that they can feel that they’re addressing the simmering environmental concerns that a lot of people have. I think a huge number of people have underlying worries about the environment and the planet and the way it’s going, and 99% of them feel completely and utterly powerless to do anything about it. Then they hear that they could be doing good things in their community, getting together with other people and doing quite social things. This is not the same as having to give up their car or their washing machine or being told that the way they are living is crap. It’s just saying that we can do a whole range of enjoyable things.
Then I think there are people, like me, who are much more aware of their environmental and social concerns for whom Transition felt like a really good, positive way of doing things. And then I think there’s also a whole raft of people who don’t get into Transition as such, but who get into a particular project that Transition groups are doing. We certainly have people who are involved, particularly in the orchard, who don’t do anything else. We don’t call it ‘the PEDAL orchard’, or ‘the PEDAL market’, so people don’t necessarily know that these are things we’ve done. But quite a lot of people want to be involved and help it happen just because they like that particular project and see it as a good thing.
How do you explain the energy crisis to the uninitiated? The term ‘energy crisis’ could be interpreted as ‘the need for Transition’.
I have 3 slides which mostly do it. I have a slide which shows Egyptian slaves working on some big project, and I use that to talk about what an amazing fuel oil is and how incredibly powerful it is. I also use the Growing Gap graph and talk about the fact that we found loads and it’s really clear that we’re not finding so much now. And also the fact that we’re exploiting tar sands and the deep sea – we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t have to because it’s horrible, it’s awful in every way.
The third slide shows the processes which are gone through to get a loaf of industrially produced bread: ploughing, planting, spraying, reaping, drying, and eventually you get a loaf out the other end. I use this to make the link between the availability and price of oil and your food because they don’t obviously connect. Oil’s not going to run out but is going to get more and more difficult to access and so more and more expensive.
Is there anything you use to counter the question “what has this got to do with me?”
I tend to take it back to food because that’s where my concerns are and it’s what I’m most interested in. I guess for people who don’t appear to have any environmental issues, then I tend to talk about the social side of Transition. It’s about making our communities better places to be, and it’s about building community and creating stronger relationships with the people you live near. All of these things are known to be good things so I tend to focus more on these. I also go through phases myself of thinking it’s better to be positive and to just talk about the good things. But for me, the fear side of things is such a good motivator.
It’s important to speak from the heart, to speak from your real self and your real beliefs because there is nothing you can say which will cause everyone in the room to say, “oh, I get it”. I tend to manage my need to do the kick up the arse bit early on in a talk, and keep it short, and spend a long time on the solutions. I think that most people are worried about the environment, they just don’t want to be. And I think most people are worried about the economy and are quite aware that it could all crash, increasingly aware. You look around and places are crashing; places you’ve been on holiday to are now in the midst of recessions that they might never come out of. We’re seeing the economic impact of peak oil happen before our eyes.
How would you describe your personal Transition?
I’ve gone through different ones. The one which occurs to me most strongly is that I burnt myself out doing the work for TSS, and I knew I was doing it at the time. I just worked every hour I possibly could and did it completely voluntarily and willingly. About a month after finishing the work at TSS, I basically collapsed and I couldn’t get through a day without going to bed; I couldn’t make it, I was just so tired. What I wanted to do was go out and garden, I didn’t really want to do anything else. Anything which required any kind of intelligent thought was practically impossible. I couldn’t follow conversations. It was quite unpleasant.
So I ended up going to get some acupuncture, which helped a lot, but a year later I still feel that I’m struggling with exhaustion. Although I don’t regret what I did, I know that if I’m going to re-engage with anything more than community level work I need to find a different way of doing it. I don’t quite know what that would be as I’m a bit ‘all or nothing’! Since the funding for TSS ended, I can’t do very much anyway. And I’m not pushing myself. There was not enough momentum or capacity in other people this year to have a national TSS gathering. If there’s not enough energy elsewhere in Scotland to get Transition Scotland underway then it’s obviously not needed enough. We do still have the website, and we use Facebook a lot as well.
Who inspires you?
Lots of people. I think the thing that I miss the most about TSS is going to visit other local groups. I invariably felt very inspired by visiting people who are doing Transition in their community. In a way, you can see it better in someone else’s community than you can in your own because the knowing of people and your own opinions of them don’t get in the way. You just see people having really good ideas and really positive energy and getting on with things and it’s incredibly inspiring.
There are a lot of people in Transition Network who I find really inspiring. I guess Rob Hopkins, Ben Bragwyn and Peter Lipman (Chair of Transition Network) in particular, especially Rob when he’s talking. The way they’ve handled the whole explosion of Transition is quite extraordinary. It’s not authoritative, it’s confidence, I guess, in knowing that what they are doing is right, yet they are also, very open to everyone else’s contributions.
And finally, Eva, I have to ask this. I am the Cheery Pessimist, after all! Will we make it?
Will we make it? Christ knows! It’s hard because my kids want to know that too. For me it’s sometimes best to adopt the Buddhist approach and live in the present because I don’t know. I might get run over tomorrow or I may die of some horrible disease in two years time. We don’t know the future and to spend too much time thinking about that, for me is too stressful. But I think there is a chance we will make it and that’s enough.
Mandy Meikle lives 25 miles south-west of Edinburgh and is delighted to see that the late-returning swallows are building a new nest on her shed. Mandy has been speaking on peak oil issues since 2004, writes an increasingly-occasional blog as the Cheery Pessimist and gives talks on energy issues.