What did I do during the holidays? A really, really bad thing!
First I’ll start with some apologies. It’s part of my nature, a defence mechanism, to try and make light of serious issues so I’m sorry if you find this discussion (and the title) a little flippant.
My aim is to raise a serious subject without depressing anybody, but not to pretend this isn’t an important matter. I also half-apologise for asking more questions than I give answers for and fully for not being clever enough to break up the text with some images!
A few weeks ago I sat at my laptop and booked a flight to Cuba. I felt guilty and hypocritical about that before I bought the ticket and I still do – but I clicked the buttons anyway because alongside the negative feelings I also felt really excited.
So why am I going to Cuba? Every two years there is an International Permaculture Convergence and this year it’s in Havana. The five-day convergence is preceded by a two-day conference and a two-week Permaculture Design Course, and I’ve signed up for the whole lot. Studying this subject in Cuba fits in with my favourite definition of permaculture: "Permaculture is Revolution disguised as organic gardening" How ironic would it be if Cuba's ultimate and enduring contribution to changing the world was not Castro's revolution but the new ground they've covered in permaculture?
So I’m off to Cuba to do a course that I could do in England or Wales or even some sunny place in Europe I could reach without flying. And would I be so excited about attending a permaculture convergence if it was in Hull or Halifax instead of Havana? Probably not. Actually, to be honest, definitely not! When I was 18 (in 1971) and had just finished reading Che Guevara’s ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War’, I wrote to the Cuban Embassy offering to help with their sugar harvest. Fortunately they said ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ But, despite the fact that I now have a more critical attitude, I’ve never given up the idea of visiting Cuba. I just never expected to have to wait until I had a beard as grey as Hemingway’s.
So if you think this trip is just an excuse to do what I’ve always wanted to do you are probably right.
What else can I say in my defence? Well, I’ll be doing a presentation at the convergence about the Transition Homes project we have down here in Totnes. This is a development of 25 low cost, low carbon homes built with associated food production, water and energy systems. The whole project is being designed on permaculture principles and a key aspect is that it should be exemplary, a model that others can copy, learn from and improve upon. Telling people from around the world about Transition Homes is a great opportunity – but does anyone really need to go to Cuba to achieve that?
There must be something else I can say? How about the fact that other permaculturalists from all over the planet will also be flying to Cuba? If they are going it must be okay. Mmmm – not even the faintest ring of truth about that argument!
I’ve travelled by train to the heel of Italy, the south of France and to the far reaches of Scotland when it would have been far quicker and cheaper to fly. I’m not after any awards but want to make the point that I do avoid flying where possible and it just isn’t possible in any realistic sense to get to Cuba without flying. I have great respect for people who renounce flying and was moved to tears the first time I heard Seize the Day perform ‘Flying’ – take a look here if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Non-fliers set an important example but it’s not a commitment I’ve ever made…
…and there are worse climate crimes than flying! What about having children? A return flight to Cuba adds the equivalent of 2.5 tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. The lifetime emissions of a child born in the oil guzzling developed world could easily be 1000 tonnes. My partner and I have 8 children between us, that’s 8,000 tonnes of carbon if they live average lives, but I don’t feel guilty about that so why do I feel bad about the 2.5 tonnes?
One of the organisers of the convergence and a teacher on the design course is Roberto Perez. Roberto appears in ‘The Power of Community, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’. A few years ago Roberto toured the UK and spoke at various Transition events, including a meeting here in Totnes. The experience of Cuba coping with their own version of Peak Oil has been used to promote Transition Groups on countless occasions. It’s an inspiring and instructive example but will seeing it first hand really make me a better transitionista?
Way back in 1986, when few people really appreciated the negative consequences of flying, I visited Nicaragua on a fact-finding trip for the Nicaragua Health Fund. Before committing to the trip I asked if it was really necessary to go there? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on healthcare supplies? ‘No’, replied the Sandinista government, ‘we want eye-witnesses to our revolution and the improvements we have made in healthcare’. The Sandinistas understood the power of first-hand experience. They were right. When our team returned to the UK we were extremely effective at fund-raising and sent medical supplies worth many times the cost of our self-funded trip. Through public events, articles and work within the trade unions we also effectively helped to make true the claim by Oxfam that the real threat from Nicaragua was ‘the threat of a good example’.
But is this a fair comparison? Will the work I do as a result of this trip offset the damage done, not just by flying but also by being seen to fly? Like it or not we all become role models whenever we make the case for a different way of living and try to put it in practice – and role models inevitably fall off the pedestal somewhere along the line.
I don’t know the answer.
Rob Hopkins recently agreed to fly to the US because he judged the benefits outweighed the negatives. I think it was a good decision but one that only Rob could make. So while I am in favour of reducing fossil fuel use, especially aviation because emissions at altitude are probably twice as damaging as those at sea level, I’d be wary of denying people the right to fly.
So how to resolve this conflict? Carbon rations could do it. Imagine having to to balance flying against heating our homes, travel by anything other than foot or cycle, foods not grown locally by organic methods, use of electricity and many other things that contribute to the quality of our lives. What a difficult decision it would be to fly off to Cuba. But oh, how wonderfully guilt-free it would be
Transition Town Totnes