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something wicked this way comes ....

I am writing this from a cosy little holiday cottage in West Cornwall, a cottage with foot thick stone walls, oil fired central heating and a wood burner. As it happens it’s pretty mild (I was about to put seasonably, but what does that mean any more?)  but these ways to keep warm will become very important when the cold wind starts to blow in from the sea. I’ve visited this part of the world before many years ago, but against a backdrop of transition thinking and the current ‘hot topic’ (for politicians at least) of energy prices I am seeing it through new eyes.

asvert for a new development in a tin mining areaI’m here with my husband and kids and yesterday we decided to visit Heartlands, a 30 million pound development of the type that has local politicians raving about economic regeneration and which is actually a triumph of marketing hype over substance and a poverty of ambition that makes your heart sink – “19 acres of cultural candy” anyone? Not quite turning the Clyde Shipyards into a shopping park but pretty close – a venue for consumption dressed up as a homage to the industrial past of Cornwall. Sure it looks good and it could be argued is better than a derelict post industrial site and its great for the local kids with its adventure playground but they really could have had a better one for a fraction of the price.

However one thing that made it worth the trip was a 270 degree film called State of Mined which evocatively tells the story of the tin mines, celebrating the science of engineering and the innovation of Trevithick’s Puffing Devil and creatively documenting the proliferation of the tin mining industry which grew to the detriment of all other livelihoods, particularly agriculture. It also doesn’t hold back on the brutal nature of the work and the ‘tommyknockers’ - miners who have been trapped in cave-ins and pound on the rocks for rescue long after the victims had died.

dramatic coastline cliffs and fielded area betweenThis is only a short film but builds a picture of the dilemma of a community hugely reliant on one form of industry which is hard, dirty work and makes a few people very rich but builds unity and the reality of there being nothing to replace it when its gone. There is a quote which ticker tapes around the three walls which brings this into sharp relief, a piece of graffiti left on the wall of the last working tin mine in Europe, South Crofty, which was to be found near Camborne until its closure in March 1998:

"Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?"

Another quote from the film stays with me and when we head out for a walk along the beautiful but unforgiving Atlantic coast, it pops into my head as we pass the Geevor Mining Museum (a working mine till 1991) and walk through an estate of poorly purpose built housing for miners:

“for many Cornwall is a retreat to a tranquil haven but to many residents the reality is cold homes and a struggle to make ends meet.”

To me all of this epitomises why the ideological austerity agenda we appear to be powerless to affect through democratic means is so wicked. People who have literally been left with nowhere to turn, an unsustainable post industrial past given only hope by a future economy predicated on the same unsustainable economic growth paradigm and exacerbated by a narrative that is not about livelihoods but jobs –often seasonal, lowly paid and with zero hour contracts. People living in cheaply built housing which leak heat, paying for energy at peak prices on pre payment meters or in off gas situations where bulk buy oil schemes are impossible due to the up front costs. And this is being played out, not just in Cornwall but across the country – particularly in places far from the seat of government – places like the “desolate North East” – taking with it an identity, which whilst unsustainable gave a pride which is being fast eroded.

two men dressed in overalls in a window bay one up a ladderHow can it be that we are in a situation where people who have been marginalised in this way, who have managed for so long with so little and are the most vulnerable are now being crucified by rising energy costs and ideologically driven austerity ‘measures’. How can it be that many cannot afford to feed their families and heat their houses, who have to choose between the two before they can even think about any other needs they may have? Of course we all know the answers to these questions and that there is no easy, painless solution for this, we know because we talk about them exhaustively, sometimes I feel almost punchdrunk with fearful wonder at how this came to pass. But all this poses a bigger question for those of us working in transition, how do we continue to pursue our work to build a positive future which addresses the need for energy descent against the backdrop of an austerity agenda which could make us open to accusations of being a Trojan horse.

When Ed Davey said on Newsnight earlier this month that he wore a jumper at home it was widely reported as being uncaring, and out of context it was, but he also said:

“We do need to help people with these bills, I'm extremely worried about them. We can use competition in the way we have but we can also make our homes warmer and we can use less electricity and gas by going energy-efficient”

volunteer carrying bunch of bananas beside big trays of fruit and veg ofAnd herein lies the rub for us, the deeply caring people in Transition.  For many, particularly those of us who work in the heart of communities obliterated by unemployment, but increasingly becoming an issue in all of our ‘patches’ as prices rise and wages fall, our work is often seen out of context, and at worst as exclusive middle class tinkering which dishonours the incredible work going on out there. I know that when I have conversations where we are accused of this in TTT I feel my heart literally start to ache because I know how hard we are all working and just how much we are sacrificing along the way and I also know from conversations that I am not alone.

How do we find a way to stay true to our principles of addressing the fundamental structural problems of the world we have created whilst meeting the urgent needs, not only of our planet, but also of our neighbours and friends? How do we find a way to do this which means we can sustain ourselves for the long term? This is something I would welcome a broader discussion on, a discussion that acknowledges the complexities, doesn’t shy away from the criticisms and enables us, in the time honoured transition way, to share and celebrate the solutions.

Photographs:  Heartlands Development, Geevor Tin Mine Cornwall, Belsize Park Transition Draughtbusters, Laurel from Food In Community (a Totnes based project which redistribur=tes surplus fruit and veg to community initiatives)

Guest Blogger Frances Northrop is Transition in Action Manager for Transition Town Totnes.


Sophia Wildman-Gurung or just Bob's picture

Heat rises.

I'd like to see Transition working to help people affected by fuel poverty far more and less focus on helping middle class home owners reduce their energy bills with discounted solar panels and grants to improve their home. After all, its well known that there's no such thing as "trickle down" when it comes to economic development and everyone knows that heat rises! Saying that though, perhaps the focus should be shifted to rewarding (but not finacially!) landlords who provide energy efficient homes and encourgage those who don't  to make changes to the homes they rent out that will benefit those most in need. Similarly l feel there needs to be huge campaigning presuare put on planning departments and builders to step up, rather than duck out, of building properly insolated affordable homes with greener forms of heating, and shouldn't be just something reserved for high-end eco-palaces for the rich. Let the rich home owners insulate and cover their own homes with solar panels - they can afford it, its those who can't afford it that need Transition's help.