Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Mutual Aid and the myth of self-sufficiency

Do you know the story?

Getting tired of the rat-race and/or realising the futility of it all, you pay to have an eco-house built, or put a solar water heating system on your roof, install a ground source heat pump and maybe a small turbine or a few solar panels. You cook on a nice wood-burning stove, use low-energy light bulbs and have a compost loo. If you drive, you drive a Prius. You keep a few chickens and are able to grow quite a bit of your own fruit and veg on your land; you preserve what you don’t eat straight away. What you can't produce you buy in from ethical sources. Your coffee is fairtrade, organically grown, your clothes are eco-labelled, you are actually a really nice guy and you are "green".

These are all good things to do, but there are problems with this story.

This story is, to some extent, just a re-packaged edition of the consumerist "good-life" that has led us here.

Sadly, I am still, to some degree, captivated by this myth, I homebrew and make my own wild-yeast bread and veggie soap, I forage for some food and hedgerow medicine and am trying to grow at least some of my own food. I do not drive, the flours I buy are organic, often traditional and my coffee is organically grown by a co-operative in Brazil.

But this myth ignores one of the fundamental injustices of our capitalist paradigm.

Climate change will hit the poor first and hardest.

As a tenant in a council or housing association property living on an estate (let alone if you happen to be renting privately or living on the street), it would be difficult to install a reed-bed water treatment system or a compost loo. Installing a heat-pump and benefitting from the feed-in tariff would also be difficult for a non-homeowner. Growing space and conditions may be limited. Organic produce costs a little bit more at Tesco and one's choice of electricity supplier is dictated by one's pocket.

There are other ways.

Skillsharing, a no-money mutual aid system, the freeeconomy ( or freecycle).

Freeganism ie dumpsterdiving and diverting some of the tonnes of food that we waste each day from landfill.

Primitive Living, relearning some of the skills that enabled our ancestors to live within the landscape, making your own glue, cordage, nets, stone tools etc, is a good place to start.

Scavenging/foraging in your local area.

Local Transition groups, after all, it's all about building local resilience.

I think that what I am trying to say is that the idea of self-sufficiency (well-heeled hippies with a 5 acre smallholding) is not the only way or even the best way. I think it is impossible (or almost) in this society, particularly for the not-so-well-off, to be entirely self sufficient and the idea can lead to isolation, and a kind of elitism.

What is essential is to build community sufficiency and to free ourselves from the myth and the divisiveness capitalism has created. In the face of the oncoming crisis, I think that we will stand or fall on the skills and spirit of our community.

As Peter Kropotkin pointed out in his classic text Mutual Aid: a factor of evolution, just over a hundred years ago, the societies which prosper best are co-operative rather than competitive.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

New Year thoughts

Having had a personally very happy Yuletide, now returning to the everyday reality of living, I find myself reflecting on things.

To my mind, the disappointment of Copenhagen has highlighted the disconnection between rhetoric and reality. It has also highlighted the flaws in our paradigm with regard to nations competing economically against each other as well as the way that we have resigned responsibility as individuals to politicians and big business.

While some of the debate at Copenhagen centred around the need for agreement to prevent a 1.5 degrees C rise or a 2 degrees C rise in global mean temperature, Professor Kevin Anderson, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, in an article in The Environmentalist magazine (7 December 2009: Issue 89) is quoted as saying:
"Moreover it is argued that the mainstream climate change agenda is far removed from the rates of mitigation necessary to stabilise at 550ppmv CO2e (3 degrees C)and even an optimistic interpretation suggests stabilisation much below 650ppmv CO2e (4 degrees C) is improbable."
When you consider that he is one of the UK's leading experts on the subject, this is stark!

Also, the findings of the Aldersgate Group (a coalition of NGOs, businesses, think-tanks and individuals) in their report "Mind the Gap, skills for the transition to a low carbon economy" ( are thought provoking. They report that the UK Government's skills strategy is inadequate to meet the needs for a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. They also point out the example that two of the government’s recent high profile announcements, over carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear power, have come at a time when roughly 30% of British Energy's workforce is due for retirement within 10 years, and when the UK has had no investment in coal-fired power for a generation, creating a considerable skills gap.

This skills gap is happening at a time when demand for engineers for major infrastructure projects (such as offshore wind power generation, flood defences, high speed rail services etc) is increasing, when many nations are attempting to de-carbonise at once, and therefore skilled workers may go elsewhere. In the near future this may be a serious issue.

On the issue of resigning our personal responsibility to businesses and politicians, I have commented here often. However, while we criticise governments for not taking strong action on climate change, it is worth contemplating the environmental cost of our recently passed annual consumption binge.