Practical Transition Responses To Fracking
Fracking it seems is not just a controversial technology, but it has also provoked lively discussions within Transition, as explored recently by Rob. While we describe Transition as being 'more like a party than a protest', for some this is taken to mean that we should not engage at all with objecting to environmentally damaging projects, even to the point of not responding to Environment Agency invitations to comment on planning applications. In the UK it's easy to live under the impression that the fossil fuel we use to drive our cars, heat our homes and light our homes and power our devices is clean. Petrol forecourts are bright and shiny often with food shops attached. The Appalachian mountaintop removal that provides coal to Europe happens so far away that we can remain unaware.
So at what point do we feel moved to become involved directly? Back in 2011 when Transitions Cowbridge and Llantwit played a part in fighting a proposed gas fracking site, Adrienne Campbell commented that "there are times when action of this kind is necessary to enable our communities to stay resilient"
For many around the conservative West Sussex village of Balcombe, less than 10 miles from Forest Row, that point arrived when exploratory drilling began this summer. Among many reasons, with Ardingly reservoir very close by, many saw this as a direct threat to their water supply. Over the course of the summer, over 120 people were arrested, including Caroline Lucas MP who "risked arrest at Balcombe to send the coalition a message on climate change".
As a local spokesperson for Transition and someone who has often spoken publicly about energy, I felt there was an expectation among many in Forest Row that I would be involved in some way with what was happening at Balcombe. Although I am not averse to taking direct action, at first I was reluctant to become directly involved, partly since initial reports showed some of the protest apparently being directed towards the police rather than the cause itself. However it also became clear to me that many of the protestors, or community protectors as they came to be known, were showing signs of burnout. Camping beside a busy main road is hard enough, but with the noise from all night drilling, huge police presence and frustrations of the campaign itself, it was no surprise that in spite of a huge amount of local support, some were showing signs of strain. So I decided that the best contribution I could make was to create a space there to offer 'the Work That Reconnects' workshops, and invite others to come and do the same. Initially on the top edge of the camp, these two domes became a listening space where people could come to talk and feel heard, something that was sometimes hard to do near the drill site gate with all its buzz and police presence. By hanging out there it also enabled me to see many of the people who were coming and going to the camp. This showed me that many of the people who were coming along were some people who were involved in Transition but also many who were not. Fracking it seemed had been something of a tipping point of involvement.
As the days went by, the camp grew and grew to over a hundred campers plus many more coming for the day, with 1,000 plus on event days. But there was another crisis looming at the camp that took me away from continuing to offer workshops myself. While it is said that an army marches on its stomach, a camp needs good loos! The initial generosity of Greenpeace to provide a block of chemical toilets was running out - partly on cost grounds but also because they did not want this to be more than a short term solution.
One of the key elements about Transition for me is how we get along with each other and how we reach decisions. The camp had a strong ethos of group decision making and no hierarchy, but what that meant in practice wasn't always taken on board by everyone. For example although a no drink or drugs policy was agreed at the camp, some felt that they should make their own decisions on the matter. Although the date for the removal of the loos was coming soon and not negotiable, and their funding for building compost loos from Lush, no one seemed to be taking it on as a project to make it happen in time. It seemed to me that someone who was a camp resident would/should take it on, but as the days went by it became apparent that this wasn't happening.
One of the first things I learnt about compost loos after I put my hand up and said I would take on the project, and have had to repeat to others often, is that a compost loo is a process not a thing. With a portaloo all you have to do is raise the funds and the company concerned take care of everything - just like the loos in our homes are 'flush and forget'. Funds had been offered and someone was available to build a set up compost loos, but a solution to what would happen to the deposits was becoming urgent. Finding some land nearby that would take it to be composted proved dificult to find. Finally someone agreed, albeit further away than ideal. So the next hunt was to find someone who had a vehicle that could (and would) transport the wheelie bins humanure and pee bales. Again with many taboos around dealing with poo this proved not to be so easy. The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle was installing the loos on site and getting agreement from the campers as to where they should be put, and not just from those campers who went to the meetings! Then of course the loos have to be looked after daily, kept clean, topped up with saw dust and so on - as I said earlier, a compost loo is a process not a thing.
It's clear that fracking is not going away anytime soon in the UK and is not an issue that can be ignored. For starters the government is betting the farm on it, giving the industry "the most generous tax regime for shale in the world", making new planning guidance so drilling sites can't be refused (while allowing objections to windfarms to block them) and granting licenses to frack across most of the UK countryside. According to George Monbiot this is because politicans have "a macho fixation with extractive industries."
So how might Transition initiatives benefit from news of fracking in their area? Firstly, it is the opportunity to share one of the unique things about the Transition movement which is Inner Transition. As well as the Work That Reconnects, this can is a wide range of our social tools such as Conflict Resolution, Effective Groups, and so on.
The second is to bring and support practical projects such as compost loos and rocket stoves, but also it can be a place to learn first hand how pop-up groups can self organise and deal with the challenging issues that arise.
Finally there have been tangible benefits locally from the threat of fracking. Firstly is the big rise in awareness of the power of community. Plus there is a lot of interest now in finding more about where our energy comes from and looking at ways to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Next week Forest Row will have its first meeting to establish a Community Energy Project. Hopefully this will become a tangible demonstration that there are alternatives and that we don't have to wait for anyone else to make it happen.
by Mike Grenville, Transition Forest Row
Image credits: Mike Grenville
Images: Poet Simon Welsh, Balcombe resident and organiser of Belt It Out at Balcombe singing events; Workshop; The compost loos