TRANSITION IN WALES - A PERSONAL JOURNEY
I fell in love with Wales as a child, brought up in the sprawl of the Midlands and escaping to the rolling hills of Radnorshire whenever possible. In 1981 I made the escape permanent, moving to Aberystwyth to study and then research geology. Over the following years I gravitated up the Dyfi Valley, finally arriving in Machynlleth in 1994 where I have lived ever since.
That's the CV done and dusted. I'm not Welsh although some of my Welsh fishing, veg-growing and drinking buddies have told me I am an 'honourary Welshman'. In fact I'm a bit of a mongrel with ancestry traced back to Scotland in one direction and France in the other and, like every single one of us, belonging to a single race that first evolved in Africa a few million years ago, when there were no countries, borders, conflicting religions, money. It must have been great.
Why Wales? Simple. The way of life. As writer Jim Perrin described it in one of his first encounters, “the fable of a society in whose composition doctor and vicar, quarryman, cowman, shepherd, drunkard and fool were distinguished by richness of language, imagination and humanity alone.”
So I muddled along, in this fable of a society, for many years until in short succession climate change and peak oil came into view. A bunch of us started a Transition initiative (Bro-Dyfi) in about 2007 and hosted a series of well-attended events, the usual mix of guest speakers, films and discussions. It was all looking pretty good except for one thing. The relative lack of truly local people.
For me, one of the outstanding moments during our initiative was when we visited a farm further up the valley and, with the family and their neighbours, spent an evening discussing the future. It was the one time that we tapped into something a bit deeper, I felt. Meanwhile in Machynlleth many locals were instead busily campaigning in favour of a new Tesco store.
Had we misread the mood here?
Perhaps - there were, and are, certain things associated with the Transition movement that I personally have issues with. Not the core ideas - they are as sound as they come. But some of the methods, I felt, were potentially alienating. The core ideas are radically alternative, form a vital blueprint for Mankind's future yet are enormous things for anybody to grasp. The way I saw things, these would be enough for people to take on board, without adding anything else into the mix. Readers will know what I am referring to: the “woo-factor”. It often comes up in discussion.
Everybody has sources of literary inspiration and when it comes to campaigning, I would not hesitate to recommend John O'Farrell's Things Can Only Get Better - eighteen miserable years in the life of a Labour supporter. In the third chapter, “Jobs not Bombs”, O'Farrell reflects that although he agreed with everything that CND stood for, he found some of their messaging tactics cringeworthy. He imagines the CIA working overtime to try and find a way of containing the peace-movement:
Then, some colonel working late one night in the Pentagon had a brilliant idea, a way to make CND look ludicrous:
'So what's your idea, Colonel?'
'Yes, sir. And circus arts. Face-painting and circus-arts, sir'
'Well, sir, we send our agents to infiltrate the demonstrations armed with some face paints, a unicycle and basic juggling skills. They get shown on the news and everyone says, “CND – what a bunch of middle-class twats!”
Anyone wanting to start up a Transition initiative ought to read that until they can recite it!
In the meantime, our initiative ran out of energy - it is very easy to get burnt out if there are just a few of you doing everything - and, like an abandoned mine, is currently in a state of “care-and-maintenance”. But that's not the end of the story at all. For some of us, Transition changed our lives.
In early 2009 I took on a garden-swap (or more correctly over 100 square metres of head-high brambles) and over the following months and years went from complete ignoramus to a reasonably-competent veg-grower, so that I now produce well over 75% of the veg that I eat. In the process I implemented many ideas from Permaculture and Transition. 'Honouring the Elders' was one of the most pleasant since it involved time in the pub with local allotment holders - folk who had learned veg-growing from their fathers and who were now passing on generations of knowledge to me. That first year was one of wonder and revelation. This year, my onions have bolted and rot is affecting my chilli plants. The climate is not playing ball - or perhaps it is....
Climate change, or as I prefer to call it climate destabilisation (we only have modern civilisation because in the past 6000 years the climate has been relatively stable), is the single biggest threat to our continued existence as we know it. As it is being driven by wanton, thoughtless Consumerism, then it is the latter that is the cause of the problem. A tired and despondent Franny Armstrong, walking through the empty halls after the end of the Copenhagen climate conference in November 2009, in the final episode of The Stupid Show, put it as succinctly as anybody has:
“I'm of the MTV generation, who have basically been told our whole lives by ten million adverts bombarding us every day that the point of our existence is to go shopping, play computer games and then die...”.
Well, to hell with that, I thought. If that's their game - if that is Consumerism, and I see little evidence to the contrary, then I'm not playing. But in any case, as someone with a scientific background, I had long been outraged and depressed at the anti-science rubbish that infests the media, but had felt pretty disempowered to do anything about it, although there was a deep sense of responsibility to do something. Things changed for the better in 2011 with an invitation to join the international team that runs the Skeptical Science website (motto: getting skeptical about global warming skepticism), an award-winning source of climate information (as opposed to misinformation), founded a few years ago by John Cook in Queensland. In the process of researching and writing posts there, I've learned a great deal about the mess we are busily making of our only home. Will we collectively wake up before it is too late? I don't know, but I am proud to be playing my own small part in raising international awareness.
Had I been asked, before discovering the Transition movement five years ago, what I would be doing in 2012, a lot of the above would have been missing from the answer. I am glad my journey has brought me here.
Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.
(from The Fellowship of the Ring)
John Mason lives in Machynlleth in Mid-Wales, where he still does geological research but is often busy growing veg, sea-fishing , photographing storms and writing. He has his first non-geological book (on sea-fishing) coming out later this year and several other major projects in the pipeline.
Photos: On Cadair Idris - showing Llyn y Gadair and Cyfrwy, our audience at one of first Transition Bro Dyfi Awareness Raising events, garden before and after the brambles were cleared, stunning noctilucent clouds captured exactly 12 months ago, at 0230BST atop the mountain road to Llanidloes. These mysterious clouds are right at the edge of space, 80km up!