Thursday, 12 February 2009

The revolution will not be electrified

Perched high above the rolling hills of Vigo lies an expansive university complex. It’s a stunning location, an inspired choice by people who must have realised what a special setting they have: a bay that forms a natural port, protected from the ravages of Atlantic winters, surrounded by hills on all sides, a city built on gentle, wave-like undulations.

The only other place it reminds me of is Sarajevo, with its beautiful streets and house-dappled views from one hill to another. Of course, Vigo hasn’t been used for sniper practice in quite the same way as Sarajevo, nor is it adorned with towers to three fundamentally different religions – once co-existing happily. But it does have another buzz, a panache, a promise of great creations.

After several visits as a family that showed us little, except a second hand shop (because they don’t seem to exist in Portugal) and a seriously styling beach front with sunset views to die for, I finally had a meeting lined up, with César.

César runs the Galician straw bale building network, and runs, or works within, a local NGO called ARBORE that buys local produce and sells it through a shop in Vigo. But they also have been asked to look after an old water mill in an old residential area, hence our gathering.
So between straw and watermills we knew we had enough in common to get together, even if we didn’t speak each others language. Portuguese and Galego are so similar it’s our lingua franca.

We met at the hill top university complex and piled into his chip-fat fuelled runaround. I liked him already: a car with books and interesting things strewn about, plants ready to go in the ground stuffed in the boot. I had overdressed thinking I was meeting some professor dude. César was not dressed for a job in a bank, lets say, had huge square glasses over intelligent, sincere, pensive eyes, and a two day beard.

We drove down to the watermill. I’ve seen so many now it was just another one. In good order because the local community council got it renovated to prevent it falling to rack and ruin. But the channel was full of silt and leaves, the tailrace equally blocked. (Tailrace: a techie term to describe channel from mill / turbine back to river course, with enormous comical potential. Hard not to picture some Tom and Jerry antics involved).

I was more interested in the people that showed up. An ARBORE Commission, César informed me, to decide what to do with this mill. And if I wanted I could join (me? What do I know?). Honoured, I would be, I assured him. I was to look at the energy options and get back to them. I was panicking already. I haven’t even been able to build one of our own site yet. But the offer is good and I will be willing to share whatever I can.

I found myself chatting away, having to pinch myself. I can’t speak Spanish. What’s going on? This hybrid Galician Creole seemed almost easier to understand than Portuguese.

Moreover, we talked the same idioma, the language of transition: the horrors of modern architecture, town planners who must be either mad on the pockets of property developers, the sorry state of food supply to the region, the thermal properties of a straw bale wall; why some King decided back in 1580 that ALL the olive trees across Galicia should be cut down to avoid competition with a neighbouring state (!), and so on.

We took the conversation to coffee – in a local casa de cultura, music school. The lady in charge greeted us with outrageous gusto. Did she know us? Me not, surely. We ordered café con leches. César had an elven tea.

They were talking about something to do with economic chaos. It seems that Spain is suffering deeply: 1 million unemployed in the last 3 months alone. There are some 900,000 families with not one single breadwinner, struggling to survive. How do these people get by?

We talked about biogas, biomass, solar heating and other innovative but all really quite obvious solutions to people’s energy needs. Why, I asked, doesn’t the city take on as many of these that it can. Its swimming pools, schools, public buildings. After all, these systems exist and are proven to save oodles of cash, carbon and foreign fossil fuels – so what’s the issue here?

The big quiet guy was getting heated up to this: “They would never listen. There’s no profit there, the massive multi-laterals are not getting their cut, and they run everything”. I know this line of thinking, and he’s not wrong. I came across the same resistance in Edinburgh trying to get a primary school to change its 1970s electric heating for anything else that used hot water and radiators instead. The council, on the one hand saying all the right things, and PR drivel such as “northern Europe’s fastest greening city”, producing a stream of reports, guidelines and so on. On the other hand, when it came to a real individual project, they were terrified of the change and all that it implied. Even when we showed them the tens of thousands of pounds saving within 5 years.

Change, Monica tells me from her recent bit of inspired post-peak oil state of communities book (Sharon Astic, 2008, Depletion and Abundance) does not come from the leaders, but from the people. Our leaders, Astic apparently writes, will follow when a groundswell of public opinion sways one way. (Did Obama come in that way? Hope/Change: is that what the people wanted or did they just kinda dig the message, and the guy?).

But when, in this super modern world of multi media messages do the people, the masses, get to articulate something that’s not already beamed to them through so many televisions and commercials?
I suppose this did happen recently: in the global protests against the invasion of Iraq. That was something, but as we know was roundly ignored.

And Monica has just suggested that perhaps that’s what an open democracy is all about: politics representing the views of the people, our representatives gathering our opinions and aspirations; our collective vision. But is this really happening?

I found myself scribbling down a flow diagram of sorts for my Galician hosts; attempting to articulate that now it could be different because the language used by global, regional and local “leaders” presents real opportunities to develop zero carbon communities. Look at Europe’s 20-20-20 message (by 2020, 20% of Europe’s energy will come from renewable sources while it will reduce it’s CO2 emissions by the same amount). Portugal has similar objectives, and the UK goes further in its recent climate bill with 80% CO2 cuts by 2050 and 3% per year (or thereabouts).

Surely, I argued, if we use this language, extract objectives from their very own policies we can draft some serious proposals for dramatic shifts in the way we design our communities – that facilitate these very goals.

The discussion continued. I looked over to César at some point suggesting we need nothing short of a social revolution to take all this forward. He concurred, though in his own way is already sowing the seeds for such a movement.

Revolution it is then, though this is a term too bundled up with bloodied streets and misinterpreted ambitions. Instead we need a new vision – of communities that are capable of living within their means, that find their entire energy sources (from power to food, heat and transport) from their local area. Sources that won’t drive us further into planetary climate chaos, nor survival on the backs of impoverished and maltreated workforces in forgotten sweat shops in Tropical far-far-away lands.

So it is up to us then to present to Vigo’s High Council – and representatives wherever we live – viable strategies and models for innovative and radically different ways of running things.

The alternative will be akin to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burns, referred to as “heedless and irresponsible behaviour in the midst of a crises”. There can be little doubt now that we sit on the downward slide towards economic, climate and energy crises, all unfolding more or less simultaneously.

Now would be a good time to start outlining that new vision.


Stephanie said...

There's no doubt that ultimately politicians in a democracy have to go with the will of the people but it can take a long time. Too long perhaps.
However there has been a groundswell in many, many countries which has been steadily building for years and is now accelerating. Maybe it's like the Arctic meltdown: each year it increases way beyond scientific predictions. The word exponential springs to mind.
The Transition Handbook echoes all of what you say and much much more. People ARE forming communities (Totnes has even printed its own money!) and it is incumbent on all of us to make an effort. When it is impossible to get a large town to join up to these ideas then try your local community, and if they won't play ball, then a group of neighbours or even just yourselves, as a family, as you are doing Moona, and let the wider community see how you will benefit.
But the urgency is frustrating, isn't it?

Quinta das Abelhas said...

goncalves said...

what the "oficial news" say is different from what is going on already

so to get more people to build "news communities- networks" is also important,
to make conections - create links.
this is a suggestion for you blog