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Transition Culture - an evolving exploration into the head, heart and hands of energy descent

Mike Small on the Power of When Lots of People Do Stuff

You may feel as though your efforts, working in your local Transition initiative or doing other community resilience work, is just a drop in the ocean.  Yet there is a huge power in it, especially when you look at it from the context of what happens when you add all that stuff up.  The Fife Diet in Scotland is one of the most inspiring examples of this.  What can we learn from them  about The Power of Just Doing Stuff?  A few weeks ago, they put out a press release, one that has huge implications.

 It began:

"Today the Fife Diet releases it's Carbon Food Report it shows that if everyone in Scotland was on the equivalent of the Fife Diet, we could collectively contribute to 60% of the Scottish Government annual saving target, only by changing the way we eat. 

Statistics released by the Scottish government last week revealed that, for the second year running,Scotland has failed to meet the legal targets it set itself to reduce carbon emissions. Emissions in 2011 were 848,000 tonnes over the target. Emissions fell by 2.9% between 2010 and 2011, but fell just short of the 2011 target for adjusted figures, which take into account the EU Emissions Trading System. 

But Fife Diet estimates that our 5,000 members saved 10820 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012-13. If everyone in Scotland made similar changes to their food habits, up to a million tonnes of carbon could be saved". 

Their report gives a sense of the Power of Lots of People Doing Stuff, of the potential that comes from lots of people taking measures in their own lives.  If you aren't familiar with the Fife Diet's work, here is a short video about it:

A couple of weeks ago I caught up with Mike Small, Fife Diet's Project Director, to discuss this in more depth.   

You recently wrote a blog post responding to Jay Rayner’s piece in The Observer, the one that declared that “New Zealand simply has a better landscape and climate for rearing lamb and apples”. Now that you've had a few weeks to digest it, what are your thoughts on the arguments he put forward in that piece?  

I think he's been trying to peddle back considerably since then. In the article he said this is the "final nail in the coffin for localism" and "these people need to be told". It was all very bombastic. He was also really trying to sell a book, but it doesn't really stand up to any critical analysis. In a sense I'm not so worried about the actual specific report [that he cites] because I think you can or can't prove this or that good may have a specific carbon saving. 

I think the fundamental premise of what he was trying to do was wrong, because the task, as we all know, is to drastically reduce carbon, not to take two very high emitting sectors and say “look, one is marginally better than the other”, which is essentially what he was doing.  It seems to me that he lives in a rarefied atmosphere that's about television and fine dining and he's not really engaged with the political task, which is about the transition to a low carbon future. 

I think that the arguments for localism, as we know, aren't just about carbon savings. They're about re-shifting our economy into a circular economy, building resilience, creating local cultures. So I thought it was a massive missed opportunity. I think people like Jay have a certain amount of responsibility because they have such a high media profile, and I suppose he just missed that and it was kind of irresponsible. 

It seemed extraordinary, the argument that the UK which has a history of growing 3 or 4 thousand different varieties of apples, where apples are so interlinked with our culture and our history, that it could be a lower carbon solution to import them all from New Zealand. 

Yes, it's extraordinary and goes against any kind of common sense. He was quite odd about shipping as well, saying that these aren't flown they are shipped. But if you look at the emissions from ships they're extraordinary. Transportation by ship produces a billion metric tonnes of CO2 emissions and uses 11 billion gallons of fuel a year internationally, so it's not some kind of benign mode of transport. 
 
Fife Diet

You've been doing an experiment in Fife for five years now, and you've just published a report which sums up of the experiment and your achievements so far. Could you give us a sense of what's in there, what you feel you've discovered? 

It's specifically our carbon accounting. We asked people to take 6 pledges.  To create more sustainable food systems there were six things that we asked people to do: 
  • eat more organic
  • eat less meat or different meat
  • to compost
  • to waste less
  • to eat locally
  • to grow some of their own food.

Here's how this is broken down:

We have surveyed our members and monitored behaviour change since they joined us. In 2012/13 the Fife Diet achieved a total saving of 1820 tonnes CO2e (based on an average carbon saving of 0.78kg CO2e per member per diem)

The figures are broken down by behaviour as follows:

Source,   Kilograms,      Tonnes,     Proportion
organic    416773.80         416.77     0.228941
meat        8260.30            8.26         0.004538
compost     85835.99       85.84        0.047151
waste        934123.31      934.12      0.513130
local          368053.53      368.05      0.202178
grow          7394.50          7.39         0.0040

We then take analysis of those pledges and do some carbon analysis on it. We surveyed our members and monitored their behaviour change since they joined us. In 2012-13 the Fife Diet achieved a total savings of 10820 tonnes of CO2 emissions produced (based on an average carbon saving of 0.78kg CO2e per member per diem).  

These facts just make a nonsense of Jay's claims.  That's a quite significant saving and our report shows that we could take some really significant steps just by rethinking the way we do food and creating a sustainable low carbon food culture. It's something that we can all be part of. There are some problems out there that you need an external agency to help you with. Food is the one that we can be part of, a restorative culture. It's quite exciting for us.

We are now, through your work, through Transition Network's Economic Blueprints and others, developing both a carbon case and an economic case for a more localised approach to food.  What do you think top-down, government support for this might look like? 

It is a good question. Part of this is a cultural shift, part is about international law and structures. I was getting a lift to football the other day and the people in the car were talking about how they used frequent flyer miles. I realised that that this was not just status, but it was also actively encouraged, hard wired into the system. The more you flew was good, something you should aspire to, something you got rewarded for. 

We need ways that we can embed into our culture the opposite of that, so we have infrequent flyers, and the same in our food systems. If you look at Denmark for example, their taxation laws benefit organics, so that high-polluting, high carbon-costing food systems are now taxed at a different level. They've flipped the idea of organic being more expensive than non-organic. Why should you have to go to a specialist shop to buy healthy food, or an organic shop to buy organic food? 

It's kind of ridiculous. Those are some things that you can do at a national level. I think there are also things that you can do about changing the food infrastructure so that some of our kit like mills or abattoirs or dairies are on various scales and not as at present going more and more towards bigger and bigger which has an impact when right the way down the line. 

The Fife Diet advocates a shift to an 80-20% split in our diets between local food and imported food.   Do supermarkets have a role to play in this? Do we need to be building a parallel economy which is completely independent of supermarkets or could an enlightened supermarket have a role to play in this? 

No, I don't think they do have a role to play really and I don't think we're going to switch round from the 97% domination of retail that they currently have to nothing. We do need to stop their further monopoly in other sectors. In our Food Manifesto we argue for a moratorium on supermarkets and for them to have to make the case.  What happened is that when economic times get more desperate, people just flail about, so if a supermarket says they're going to open somewhere, everybody supports it, that's fantastic, and we don't think about the consequences for the local economy. These are organisations that are built around low-skills, poor paid, part-time temporary work. ASDA are now operating stores without any checkout people at all. The idea for jobs, even though they are temporary and low paid, is now less there. 

What we've proved is there is a real appetite for change and people want to be part of a community of change. But we can't just pull the rug out when people have become quite dependent on these systems. Absolutely we need to create a parallel for people to go towards, and I think that's what we can do and want to do increasingly.  It needs to be based on real food, not based on niche food – it has to be your basic food at an affordable cost. 

I remember going to one of the Soil Association conferences where a guy from one of the supermarkets stood up and said “I can feed a single mother on an estate in Middlesborough for £40 a week. None of you lot can”. Of course there's all the arguments that you're more likely to end up with more single mothers on £40 a week if supermarkets take over a community and there's plenty of evidence to support that now, but how do you get around that “local food is for people who can afford it” accusation? 

We need a deeper analysis of what's going on, because that's just not the case. If you look at the whole allotment tradition, it comes out of working class culture, it doesn't come out of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall culture. That whole thriving and reviving tradition is certainly rooted elsewhere. 

The issue is really about processed food. That is where you make profit.  If we can join the dots between our problems in health, our health epidemic and local food, we can make some inroads here. For example if you grow some simple produce like potatoes and leeks, and make leek and potato soup, there's no profit in that but it's very cheap and is going to grow in our climate and it makes food available. We need to look at that. 

We also need to look at the kind of cons that are happening psychologically when people enter supermarkets, because although they can provide lots of cheap processed food, they also con people into buying lots of other food and other items that they don't need. That's why you get the horrendous situation with food waste that as we discovered earlier this year, runs at about 50% in our system. 

What is your sense of what a joined-up, strategic push to grow the local, independent food economy would look like? 

Two things are crucial to move us beyond the possibility of remaining quite marginal and 'fluffy.' It needs to be connected to the movement for land-ownership (in both urban and rural settings) and it needs to be connected to the movement for food sovereignty.

It's difficult not to be intimidated by the supermarkets’ dominance in retail but at the same time they are quite fragile. They're reliant on systems that are very close to the margins so as we saw when there was a really harsh winter 2 years ago, all the major supermarkets just stopped delivering to Scotland. They just drew a line across the country and said "we're not going to go there any more!" We were like "what, to Edinburgh?!" And they said "no, not to Scotland at all". It's because they have this next day delivery system. 

The New Economics Foundation printed that document a few years ago, 9 Meals from Anarchy when the oil supply was threatened. The whole system ground to a halt. We need to be clear about how it is very dominant but also based on some very dodgy structures. What we're building across the country, not just in Fife but across Scotland and across the UK is a much more solid, resilient,  nuanced, movement that has people really regaining some kind of sense of food sovereignty. 

I think we need to strengthen that, unite that network and allow that network to learn from each other so it's a kind of critical culture.  There are some real lessons that can be learned and shared. I think we're going to do that with our Carbon report, and we're hoping to tap into some of the things that are happening in Herefordshire and elsewhere, to make the case for the economic argument.  We find that when we're engaging people, they want to hear both of those arguments. One on its own isn't going to do it. I think we're becoming a mass movement and I think that's key. 

Food banks are growing exponentially as the austerity measures impact families on low incomes.  Have you done much in the Fife Diet in terms of linking what you do up with food banks? Is there a way that we could link food banks with Fife Diet/Incredible Edible/Transition stuff and do you have a sense of what that might look like? 

I think they're really unhelpful, but they're essential because of the coalition effect on benefits. You can really chart that as the changes to benefits kick in.  Some people are in really desperate situations. They are really disempowering and I think they fit into a narrative about the poor that the right wing has been developing over a decade: helpless, feckless, useless, poor. This act of charity feeds into that whole narrative. 

I think instead - there's a project in Edinburgh, in the Grassmarket, a church project that used to work as an old-fashioned soup kitchen but they're transformed in the last few years how they do that. Now, people who are often homeless people, people who are destitute, have instead run this project and they learn how to cook and grow and cater for people. 

They've set up their own social enterprise to do catering now, and they've really transformed the soup kitchen from a kind of powerless top-down handout to a much more empowering system of change. If we could do that with food banks, that could be really interesting. It is at all levels about claiming sovereignty and food sovereignty and reclaiming some authority. 

Lastly, what's next for the Fife Diet? You've been at this for 5 years, what does the next 5 years include? 

We're launching a project called Blasda (blasta is Gaelic for 'taste') which is going to be a food festival across Scotland. It will be launching in the Island of Coll on the West Coast and we're having dozens of local food celebrations right across the month.  We’ll also be operating our Seed Truck, which goes up and down the country helping people grow their own food, doing community projects with schools. So those are two national projects which are really exciting.

The Seed Truck