Derby, beneath us, around us and yet to be ?
Standing on the dark slate tomb of some long-forgotten eighteenth-century family, (children dead in infancy, parents living no more than 30 or 40 years), our bright red and stainless steel community apple press looked, even to us, a little…well…."incongruous”.
From a portable wood-burning stove to our left, another community group was serving delicious home-made soup - and lively music was emanating from brightly clad musicians in a portable gazebo structure over the graves of some plague or epidemic victims on our left. The old stone walls were brightened with banners and messages inviting and welcoming the living. So, there we were: a Transition town group at a lively food festival in the middle of Derby, crushing apples in a churchyard, making delicious juice and serving it to passers by in the sunshine of an autumn Saturday. Our location didn’t seem to worry anyone – right in the centre of Derby’s shopping district: Anglicans these days are committed to “shrinking the carbon footprint” and there was nothing sacrilegious about it. In fact, I suspect that the inhabitants of the graves beneath us would have recognised a lot of what we were doing. They might have enjoyed the food and drink on offer. They might have shared our harvest-time appreciation of local, organic food - or as they might call it, “food”.
They held similar events themselves - and possibly even in the same place since churches have long been focal points for whole communities in a way that they rarely still are today. But, what if stepping out of the churchyard, right in the centre of Derby, our visitors from the past had looked across the pedestrianised road in front of us, what would they recognise there ?
The large BHS store, directly opposite the churchyard, would not escape their notice - then the rest of the brash 21st century shopping mall in which it sits, would meet their eyes. I think, though, that they might also look at the people going past and marvel at their clothes, their electronic gadgets, their sheer numbers, their vast material wealth (by any previous generation’s standards): even the “poor” ones, apparently “better off” than the poor of their own day. And if our visitors spoke to the people going by : how might the attitudes and any existential angst that they found, contrast with that of their own times ?
We Transition Town apple-pressers of today sometimes try to “Re-imagine the High Street”. We are not, however, trying to put ourselves in the position of those rising from the graves beneath our feet a few hundred years back. I’m not even sure if we are trying to imagine something as it might look even just a few years from now as global resource depletion really begins to bite. Rather, in our “re-imaginings” we want to better understand the processes of change – and in doing so, maybewe can hope to influence those processes positively. And there’s the problem that I keep running into.
I’ve been involved in several such reimagining sessions now – including one at the New Economics Foundation earlier this year, and another during the REconomy day at the 2012 Transition Network conference. I’m the type of person who hasn’t got a lot of time for anything I consider to be impractical or unrealistic, over-simplified, simplistic or just too cosy and “fluffy”. “Re-imagine the High Street” by all means, but if we don’t set the context and objectives for these exercises carefully, we tend to end up with visions that seem to involve 23 independent vegetarian cafés, several yoga and similar establishments, a couple of tailors, a bakery or two, a holistic health centre, an organic veg shop, an organic brewery, and a Steiner school perhaps. I exaggerate, but we’re lucky if anyone identifies where the energy for these High Streets comes from, how sewage is collected and disposed of, how fresh water is provided, where or how the dead are buried, where things are made that the local community cannot resource for itself and how inter-community trade is conducted.
If you acknowledge this point of view, the most valuable “imagining “ exercises are those which are bound by some likely or realistic constraints. it is not enough for Transitioners to imagine some mythical post-consumerist future where everyone is vegan and no-one has any significant impact on planetary resources. Much more valuable is to “get real” about the scenarios we can expect - much like many businesses and organisations do, in fact. Check out Shell’s public version of its scenario planning for example: but don’t forget whose scenarios you are reading !
If we at least acknowledge Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and also try to take a “whole “systems approach, then the Transition “High Street” exercise begins to provide some genuine insight into economic and social change in light of the big global drivers. Imagining and modelling the changes we can expect is far more difficult but it becomes a whole lot more useful as a result. There is another key question too. Given the precarious vulnerability of all economies to sudden disruptions to oil and food supply, should we be exploring the “disaster” scenarios as well as the hoped for ideal of a smooth Transition ? Disasters, as our forebears knew, and we easily forget in our generally fossil-oil enabled comfortable lives - happen.
I’m here in Derby, standing on a slate dark tomb imagining a sustainable future, getting out there, making a difference with our apple press, but what will we really have to go through on our high street – and how can - or should - we prepare for that ?
Pictures: all Derby Real Food Fair (Graham Truscott)
Graham Truscott is an occasional guest blogger with a background in publishing and working for international corporations including IMI plc and Rolls Royce before coming to the Transition Network as a practitioner with Transition Training and Consulting. Involved in launching the Derby Carbon Initiative and developing carbon-neutral energy technology businesses like Air Fuel Synthesis. Founder member of the Reconomy project.