Shifting the paradigm

I’m transcribing interviews from last weekend. I’ll not post extensive quotes; however, here is one from Anthony Hodgson of the International Futures Forum.
bq. The word steward implies that one does not own and in a capitalist society ownership is everything; so stewardship is a difficult perspective for most people to adopt because we are deeply inculcated that “if it’s mine, I can do what I like with it” mentality. But, in an uncertain world, ownership is up for grabs—it doesn’t mean the same thing as what we’ve assumed. Stewardship is a holistic concept; good stewardship is always looking out for the whole on any scale and trying to be responsible in the micro, meso, and macro levels. I think the deeper meaning is more reflected in indigenous societies; I’ve been recently studying the Peruvian shamans and their language of Pachu Mama, the Mother Earth. Whereas we got thrown out of the Garden of Eden and have been fighting nature ever since, in those societies nature is the provider, the Mother, the being in whom we live and have our being. Stewardship without a paradigm shift in capitalist views or communist views or all the “usual” philosophies, to me, is going to miss the point. I don’t know what the new paradigm is—but I know we need one; so a constant checking of what the foundations are in which we are placing this idea of stewardship is important. The thing about this new paradigm is that it will certainly include a gift economy or gift transactions; where the reason things are done is because of where it fits in the scheme of things not what its cash value is or how it contributes to our various prides and vanities.

2008 Big Tent Festival

Last weekend I attended the Big Tent Festival Scotland’s Festival of Stewardship (seemed like an apt place to research my dissertation topic). I basically wandered around the festival sticking a microphone in people’s faces and asking about their concept of stewardship. There were some surprising answers (one of the exhibitors had no idea what a steward is; she thought it was just the person directing traffic at a football game). Most people though had some personalised concept of stewardship (either they thought of themselves as stewards or could verbalise what the responsibilities of a steward would be).
In a discussion with one of my professors (sitting by hay bales at the organic food stall), I had a bit of an epiphany concerning my research; at the outset, I had hoped to come up with a definitive definition of stewardship—something that would be applicable in any context. However, it is such a personalised concept that this might not be either possible or desirable. It’s rather like discussions on faith; if you are dogmatic and say it is just this one thing and nothing else, the discussion becomes closed and static. If one allows an “amorphous” definition of stewardship that can evolve and become personalised, everyone can come to the table and share in the idea.

The festival itself was—refreshing; it didn’t have the dizzying noise-filled atmosphere of many festivals, there were not stalls of cheap plastic toys made in China, the food was generally local and organic (if you are going to pay festival prices for food, it might as well be good food), people seemed generally at ease and enjoying themselves. There was a whole area set aside for lectures and debates on the environment, a poetry tent, yoga, massage, a tent for food demonstrations, several demonstrations on how to improve the efficiency of one’s home or install home solar or wind energy. Plus, and this is why many people came to start with, the music was fantastic! There was a “main” stage where the big um…amplified…bands played (though, thankfully, it wasn’t amplified to some ear-bleeding level. Most of the attendees were not the ear-bleeding type). There was also a small folksy tent music venue for groups that were just getting together to jam or singer-songwriter types. Plus, of course, people were just sitting about in the grass or in the campground playing instruments together. (An aside on the campground: my tent was about ten metres from the compost toilet—compost toilets are great! By the end of the weekend, though hundreds of people were using them, they had no smell whatsoever. In contrast, the porta-loos reeked! Plus, the compost toilets were these pleasant wooden structures, a place where one might enjoy spending a bit of time for…doing the thing one does there.)

I spoke with a range of folk in interviews: from academics who have devoted their careers to thinking of these things to a housewife who is trying to bring her children up as stewards in a disposable culture to a small-scale organic farmer (who started his work many years ago “traditionally” but became ill from the pesticides and decided to go organic). Each of these people have their own idea of what it means to steward. There was much discussion of community involvement and returning local “ownership” of communities; I think this is probably the beginning of a new sort of stewardship as communities begin to (or return to) local production of food, energy, etc. (considering the rise in energy costs and environmental concerns, one of the first issues discussed at the festival was local production of renewable energy).

I’m not sure how to define it, but I sensed a genuine feeling of connexion between people at the festival. There were people walking around who were obviously “upper class” as well as funky folk with dreadlocks and handmade clothes—and everyone seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. There is something happening around this idea of stewarding—a growing awareness of our care or neglect of the place around us—that doesn’t depend or divide down the lines of class or income. I find that very encouraging and exciting.

A turbine for the community

This is the second discussion session I attended at Friday’s Transition Town meeting.
A community wind farm turbine purchase
This session was on the community purchase of a wind turbine in a new development in Fintry (Scotland). A developer approached the community with a plan to build a 14 turbine wind farm; the community proposed an additionality that they would purchase a 15th turbine and receive income from the electricity generated. They found funding and purchased the turbine for £2.5 million (turbine was originally expected to pay itself off in roughly 15 years; however, as electricity prices are increasing, the return on investment time is growing shorter. It will, again depending on electricity prices, generate an income of £50 to £100,000 a year till it is paid off then £400,000 to £500,000 a year for the community).

Fintry is a rural community that is trying to become carbon neutral; they are connected to the national grid but are without a gas mains connexion (and therefore most homes are heated with wood or LPG). They are looking at renewables as a means to achieve this carbon neutral target. David Howell of Fintry Renewable Energy Enterprise led a discussion of the community’s efforts to purchase the turbine and some of the issues and opportunities communities face when considering renewable energy. These are some of the main points of the open session:

  • The community hired a solicitor and wind industry analyst to ensure due diligence through the whole process (to show accountability to investors and make sure the wind farm developers were presenting accurate information to all involved).
  • Are the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) essentially good for renewable development? The argument for is that the government is supporting renewables through this program and encouraging developers to make the necessary investment as well. However, the question arises about the financial sustainability of such programs (if the next government suddenly decides that this is not a plan they want to support, what happens to the viability of renewables). Or, rather than relying on grant support, should renewables be financially viable from the outset (there was no argument that they are viable over the long term). Of course, the nuclear industry is heavily subsidised as well; the fear voiced is what will happen if nuclear energy is classified “renewable”? “It will hoover up all the available funds for wind, solar, and hydro” into large scale centralised solutions.
  • The main objections are aesthetic; however, the stereotypical objector in rural Scottish community is the incomer who wanted a quaint get-away cottage and can afford higher energy bills to begin with. Communities have to balance aesthetic concerns with long-term economic and environmental viability. (Argument is that we can put another coal or nuclear plant somewhere else and pollute the rest of the planet or place our energy generation on the hill outside the village where we can see it and know it’s not doing harm—plus receive an economic benefit rather than depending on the variable prices of carbon fuels).
  • Nothing is completely neutral; yes, a big concrete base is necessary to anchor the turbines and there will be power lines (though the communities can advocate that these be buried rather than on pylons). The important thing is to be completely up front and involve the community in the discussion. Community “buy-in” is primary as the decision to install a wind farm will set the agenda for the next 25 years (the planning licence for a farm); the decision to not install a wind farm will also set an agenda. Discuss and consider the consequences of both; there is not a one size solution.
  • There are opportunities for landowners to bring in income for otherwise sub-optimal land (land not readily usable for agriculture or forestry); however, there is the danger of falling into old power paradigms between communities and landowners.
  • The weak point here (in Scotland) is the lack of grid infrastructure to deliver generated energy in a balanced way (to send wind generated electricity to the places where solar is not generating, solar to the places the wind is not blowing, etc.).
  • The government tends to support large scale centralised projects (because, generally, they are easier to control). However, renewables make more sense as de-centralised locally controlled idea. So rather than having a few gigantic wind, solar, and tidal farms, how can each community have a mix of microgeneration with a small local infrastructure? How can we meet our renewables target by doing less—in a big way?
  • Also, will energy wealth become the central issue with devolution and independence?

Think before consuming

Over the past few days I’ve been at The Big Tent: Scotland’s Festival of Stewardship. On Friday, before the festival started, I attended a Transition Towns meeting. I’ll present notes from two discussions; first is a conversation about consumer culture:
Think before consuming
The session was mainly concerned with how to raise awareness about waste and energy involved with the production and packaging of “plastic rubbish” (this term was used several times through the conversation to indicate anything from flat-pac furniture to toys that are used briefly and then thrown out). We considered the social implications of becoming “that mother who doesn’t want her children to give or receive gifts from the store” and what misunderstandings and opportunities might arise from taking a “non-consumer” or contrarian stance on this issue.

The discussion was round-table with participants forwarding ideas in a free-flowing conversational manner. As “consumerism” is a fairly broad topic with many levels of participation (or options for opting-out), we covered a range of interrelated ideas. We began with a discussion about gifts and the expectations placed on people when they give gifts. I think the most straightforward way of presenting the discussion is in a list format with comments.

  • The Freecycle concept is good but how might we organise it in smaller groups (more geographically specific with clearer categories of “stuff”)? What are the options for food co-op and borrowing networks? What role can the Transition Town initiative can take in organising these things?
  • Communication: the key thing is getting the word out on what tools are available to communities to reduce dependance on outside resources; also, how do we “sell” non-consumption? It is difficult to withstand, even for people who are aware of it, the draw of advertising and move from a “wants-based” economy to a needs-based one. How can we encourage such a transition in communities that might not necessarily welcome or see any need for it? What are the tools we have to make the “not buying more stuff because most of it is crap and made shoddily by people who are underpaid and living in environments that are polluted so we can have shiny new toys for less money movement” more accessible and less of a mouthful?
  • There will always be room for people who think creatively—noting the importance of beginning with children and teaching them craft as opposed to teaching them how to be consumers and how to not think about their own ability to create. If children can be taught craft and the importance of craftsmanship, they will recognise poorly made things and find no satisfaction in them. We have to invite them to become involved in decisions about purchasing as well; rather than succumbing to social pressure to send the child with a purchased gift to her friend’s birthday party, what options might there be for her to choose something of her own that she treasures to give as a gift instead, etc.?
  • The finding and repair of damaged things is enriching to one’s life—recognising the history of something and making it your own (and passing it on to others—stewardship).
  • How might we reenforce the positive? E.g. rather than presenting oneself as a contrarian crank who wants to burn down Tesco, how do we let people know that gardening is relaxing and fresh produce makes a great gift? How might we note the importance of growing and living gifts?
  • How might we consume more efficiently? (E.g. rather than driving out to the shop to purchase milk and eggs, might someone else already going pick them up? How might this be organised?)
  • “A gift is something that comes from the heart–not something made of plastic”.
  • How and when might we use opportunities to tell people we don’t personally need more material things. Example given was a couple who do not want purchases made for their wedding; what can the couple do so people can fulfil a desire to give gifts without putting a burden on the couple (in terms of un-needed items, loads of packaging, etc.)?
  • Taking damaged goods and fixing them is good for the soul. A child who gets a beat up metal wagon and learns to paint and personalise it has learned both skill and stewarding rather than just seeing it as another disposable toy; if you take the rejects from the charity shop and fix the holes, you’ve brought things from the brink of the landfill (and free clothes).
  • It’s important not to come across as a ranting loony—however, this is less likely as the economy and environment changes (must remember that, 60 or 70 years ago, in a time of relative austerity these ideas were commonplace).
  • Most importantly, how do we reduce the “distance” between ourselves and our neighbours and what opportunities might sharing and trusting one another with our “things” bring to build community. (How might the focus on trust and community help us to step back from such a consumer focus in the things themselves?)

Blank pages

I am determined to actually write something today on the dissertation; I’ve spent the balance to time so far determining methodology (which is actually what I will write about today) and reading all manner of supporting literature.
I’m not actually performing the major research aspect of my dissertation till later this month; however, I’m getting a bit edgy not having anything down on paper as yet. Arguably it is difficult to write something concerning the research before gathering the material itself!

Academic writing is problematic for me. I can sit down and write many words without difficulty; but the whole interwoven research/analysis bit is much more demanding. It will come together—positive thoughts—positive thoughts.

Dissertation Proposal v8

Here is another version of the Dissertation Proposal (for all of you eagerly awaiting the updates).
Dissertation Proposal v8

However, since writing this, I’ve received some more excellent feedback from my supervisors and will be revising once again this week. Most of the revisions now concern technical points on the methodology and data compilation.

I’m planning to gather much of my data through semi-structured interviews at the Big Tent Festival later this month. I met again last week with Lord Ninian Stewart who continues to offer an array of ideas and suggestions for how to hone things down. (I may have to just stop meeting with him as it gives me too many ideas to work with!)

This week with mainly be more literature review and contacting folk for interviews; so much of dissertation work is just the logistics of finding and processing data (whereas one assumes the balance of one’s energy will be devoted to the writing itself; I think that will almost be an automatic thing once I have all the information to work with…or maybe I’m hoping that).

Saving Paper

I have recently devised an innovative way of saving printer paper—make printing documents a convoluted involved process! Earlier this year I salvaged an old Apple Laser printer from the bin at school; the test page said it had printed only a bit over 7000 pages (which is nothing for a laser printer). However, it uses the old AppleTalk networking standard which is incompatible with my shiny new laptop. So, it sat patiently under a table in my room biding the time till its re-awakening. Last week I spotted a (truly ancient) Macintosh in the bin at school and brought it home. I plugged it in and it booted right up with the happy Mac sound (its 18 years! old and I found it sitting out in the rain; the last time a file was modified on it was 1996). But it connects right up to the printer and everything works in harmony now; the only hitch in the system is that I have to convert the document I want to print into a .pdf, save as a raw PostScript file in Adobe Acrobat, put it on a floppy disk, open it in the old computer and print it from there. I think this will ensure that I consider carefully what I want to print before doing so. But, I saved some working stuff from the landfill and got a decent laser printing set-up for free (and the old computer is so quaint looking sitting here by the desk—I might just write some of my dissertation on it’s tiny little black and white screen—or, no, that would not be such a great thing on second thought).