Francis had selected a panel consisting of a technology expert (myself) and a couple of people who were interested in living a more simple life. One of these, a chap called Duncan who had come all the way from Brixton on a recumbent bicycle was an expert on transition towns – listeners to The Archers will know about that idea – while Tracey Smith is the person behind International Downshifting Week and is full of bright ideas for things to do that don’t involve going out and spending money (staying at home and cooking naked pizzas seems to be the new going out).
Looking at the panel, and the exhibition as well, I detected two distinct strands emerging. One is the down shifting/simplicity type movement which involved sewing your own clothes out of bits of rag (I’ve seen people do this in the slums of Howrah as well) and living a simple life after the manner of a 17th century Hebridean crofter. The other solution seemed to involve shoving batteries in things, card, bucycles etc, or making things including, intriguingly, a bicycle made out of compressed waste paper. So we have simplicity versus technology in a rather crude home made sort of way. Both have their attractions too – a lot of basic skills such as cooking or mending clothes have been lost to the current generation, so I can understand the thrill of discovering that you can do things for yourself. On the other hand driving a plastic battery powered car might make you feel good, but the bill for the new battery after five years and the life cycle carbon emissions will probably make you feel a but queasy.
The Brixton Transition Town project is based on building a local community with its own currency, independent of greedy/misguided central banks, and based on the premise that everything can be done locally. I can see how this would work in rural areas where you have plenty of agricultural produce to barter, and it worked pretty well in the iron age, but London is a big place and the only things you can raise here are pigeons and rats, and I don’t care how sustainable they are, I’m not eating those. A new Brixton Fruit & Nut (and two tomotoes) map may help broaden the diet, but I don;t think Tesco will be too worried. While I applaud the idea behind it, it is at best a very small scale project which not everyone will opt into, perhaps a kind of 21st century collective urban farm? I hope I’m proved wrong.
What shocked me the most was the views of my co panellists. I’ll spare the blushes, but after both had talked about the power of doing positive things for the benefit of the planet/humanity one of them said “The economic crisis is great – it will force people to change” while the other gleefully cried “Peak Oil and the Credit Crunch – Bring It On!!!!” Come on, is it worth the misery and social deprivation, the homes reposessed, the families split up and the spike in violent crime caused by a recession just to set up a sustainable vegetable trading scheme in Brixton? And they called Margaret Thatcher heartless…
But the point that, hopefully I managed to make was that technology and living in harmony with the planet don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Technology has produced almost all the economic growth of the last three hundred years, and in answer to a question about why we need growth I suggested we contrast quality of life in London and Lagos. Given that everyone is aware of the green/sustainability/carbon/fossil fuel dependence agenda now, many businesses are seeing this as positive thing rather than a millstone, and there is a wonderful opportunity to use technology to make the world better – LED lighting, one of the things on display is a classic case of something where technology can make a huge difference at a low cost. I have a lot of LED lighting at home, it’s better than the dim low energy bulbs, and when mixed with halogen lighting it is possible to fiund an acceptable colour balance.
From the audience, if not from the panel, I took home a sense of frustration with the slow progress being made to reduce emission and tackle environmental issues. Pondering this as I walked across Hyde Park on my way home, a flock of geese flew low overhead, heading for the Serpentine, and I realise that we have already made a lot of progress. The Yorkshire I grew up in was one of black grime caked buildings, belching mills and slag heaps from the mines, it looked like Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies. Most of our rivers were dead and filled with a chemical sludge and the only bird you ever saw in Bradford were starlings and the seagulls who lived on the rubbish tips. While there are bits of China that still look like that, the rate at which China is adopting clean technologies means that their industrial revolution will blight the landscape for a fraction of the time we had to put up with in the UK.So I suppose we are moving in the right direction already, we just need to pick up the pace.
Looking at the sustainable products in the exhibition, most of them seemed to both more expensive than the non eco versions you can buy and perform rather badly. My instinct is that by using technology rather than rejecting it, we should be able to produce some quite incredible products at a very low cost to both the environment and the consumer. Perhaps the real reason that the whole green economy isn’t quite working is that most of the products seem to have been designed by teepee dwellers with as much idea about economics as Gordon Brown? Swapping organic rats for Tibetan prayer beads won’t change the world no matter what that old hippy tells you.
But in the end, I think I’m a convert to the green cause. Not because of people who think that riding around on a funny bicycle for the rest of your life and eating roadside weeds will save the planet, because compared to a couple of new power stations in China it won’t make any difference at all. What did it for me was realising that the vast majority of perfectly normal people at this event just want to ensure a nice future for their children, who are worried about running out of resources with no alternatives in sight, and who are less interested in smashing the global financial system than having a system that ensures some kind of sustainable and prosperous future.
An almost final question from the audience was “what would you do in the next twenty four hours to make a difference?” I think I’ve just done it, so let’s pick up the pace!