‘Breathing new life into the concept of resilience’: the notes from my ‘Four Thought’ talk
February 17, 2012
‘Breathing new life into the concept of resilience’: the notes from my ‘Four Thought’ talk
Here are the notes of the talk I gave that went out just now on Radio 4′s ‘Four Thought’ programme. You can download the podcast of the programme here (which also includes the Q&A that followed as a bonus feature). I hope you enjoy(ed) it.
“It’s generally considered unwise to use props when speaking on radio, especially on your first appearance on Radio 4. However, this talk will contain two props, and here’s the first. It’s a £10 note from Brixton in London, but it’s a Brixton Pound. Rather than the Queen’s head, it features David Bowie’s. I’ll tell you more about it later, but it matters because it leads us into what I want to discuss this evening, the question of resilience.
The former Crystal Palace manager Iain Dowie once described resilience as ‘bouncebackability’. In our own lives, and in the lives of those around us, when we encounter difficulties, we either respond with resilience, or we don’t. Sometimes we are able to adapt to enforced changes, to ‘go with the flow’ as it were, and at other times everything falls apart. This applies to us as individuals, as communities, and as entire economies. The degree to which we are resilient matters very much.
But one key question is “resilient to what?” There’s a conventional view of resilience, but I take a very different view. The UK Cabinet Office argues that it is up to each community to determine what they build resilience to, but then sets out what it sees as being the key areas of risk the nation faces: floods, pandemics, terrorist attacks. In this context, resilience is a very practical matter of ensuring we have enough medicines, emergency responders and sandbags in the event of a disaster. In this context, resilience is about the ability to adapt. It’s about having the flexibility to get back on our feet.
I take a different perspective though, and what I am presenting in this talk is a kind of ‘Resilience 2.0’ (to use computer language). The World Economic Forum, whose job it is to advise governments on risk, are clear about what they see as being the key ones: climate change, volatility of energy prices and the economic crisis. These require very different, and more far-reaching responses, responses that go far beyond sandbags.
Here’s what I think we need to be building resilience to. Oil prices have quadrupled since 2003, and prices are becoming increasingly volatile. At the same time, North Sea oil production fell 22.5% last year, a record fall. The cost of importing oil into the EU has risen from $280bn in 2010 to over $400bn in 2011, and it is clear that the price of oil will strangle any possibility of a revival of economic growth. Cheap energy underpins most of the goods and services that we depend on in our everyday lives. You can’t do economic growth without cheap energy, however many bailouts we throw at it. The two go hand in hand.
Without cheap energy, globalisation goes into reverse. If petrol and diesel becoming more expensive teaches us anything, it is that far away really is quite far away. 5 years ago, I found myself deeply worried about these issues, and about the kind of world I was leaving for my children. I wondered whether in seeing resilience just as something we do in order to be prepared for a crisis, we were missing a trick: that we might instead see it as an opportunity. How might our settlements look if we began to think in terms of resilient food, resilient energy, resilient economies? Might this shift in thinking actually contain the potential for an economic and cultural renaissance for the places we live? It felt to me to be a powerful question.
So, I looked around for people to work with to kick off an experiment. It is clear, when the government argues that the supply of cheap oil to the UK isn’t even an issue for another 20 years, that they are not going to take the lead here. So, myself and a few others set out a simple template, a simple set of principles and tools, and more importantly, an invitation; an invitation to be part of an historic experiment. You may have heard of the result, Transition initiatives, or, as they are more popularly known ‘Transition Towns’. The ‘towns’ bit is a bit of a misnomer: there are now Transition villages, cities, islands, hamlets, streets, schools. It has spread like wildfire. There are now many hundreds in the UK, and thousands around the world, in 34 countries. The idea at its heart is that of ‘resilience-building as economic development’, that by keeping things local we can build richer, stronger and more resilient communities. It is inspired in part by my friend, the economist David Fleming who died last year, who said:
“localisation stands at best at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative”.
Many people have ideas, theories, models. Those who have helped to shape this approach have been fortunate enough to have see it gain some traction, indeed to go viral around the world. It has been a self-organised process, and like Open Source software, has been shaped, refined, deepened and evolved by those who pick it up and try it out. It’s not our idea any more, and that’s how it should be. It’s an exploration of what ‘engaged optimism’ looks like as the driver for change.
The idea that making our communities more resilient is the opportunity to also make them more skilled, more diverse, more grounded, better connected, more entrepreneurial, is an idea whose time has come. Indeed, when I look around myself today, as the economic unravelling gathers increasing pace, it often looks to me like the only viable idea on the table. I want to tell you some stories of initiatives you may not have heard of but which have arisen from Transition groups around the country and which I think hold the seed of our economic future, one which still trades, but mostly in things that can’t be produced closer to home.
A few months ago I stood in a field on the edge of Norwich as the sun went down, visiting Farmshare, a Community Supported Agriculture project started by Transition Norwich, from an idea that emerged at their launch three years earlier. The farm has 70 members, and it produces local, seasonal produce for them. They are recreating the model that supported us until relatively recently, farms on the edges of our towns and cities, sited close to where people live. It has been a steep learning curve, but here they are, modelling in practice a key part of a resilient food system, learning a huge amount by doing so, and building a strong sense of community at the same time.
And now to our Brixton Pound. 3 years ago, I stood in Lambeth Town Hall, watching the launch of the Brixton Pound, (“money that sticks to Brixton”). It is a local currency that operates only in that part of South London. The idea is that it is a tool that helps to plug the leaks in the local economy, supporting local businesses and traders. Brixton Pounds cannot be taken out of Brixton as they instantly lose their value, they can only recirculate. They cannot be traded internationally, nor banked offshore in tax havens. During that event, the then leader of the local council told the packed hall “I want the Brixton Pound to become the currency of choice for Brixton”. More recently they launched a new set of notes and also an innovative system where you can, believe it or not, pay for your shopping by text. The next development is that later this year, the Bristol Pound will be launched, a combination of pay-by-text and printed notes for the whole city of Bristol, keenly supported by the City Council. It is an experiment in what a resilient economy looks like in practice that could have huge repercussions elsewhere.
At an event in Bath a while ago, a member of Transition Bath excitedly told me of their very ambitious plans for starting a community energy company. Many months later, Bath and West Community Energy held its first share launch. They raised over £700,000 in shares and have plans for a range of renewables in the city and its surroundings, and have begun with installing solar photovoltaics on the roofs of local schools.
So, to my second prop. This is a bottle of beer, called ‘Sunshine Ale’, brewed by Harveys Brewery in Lewes in Sussex. It was brewed to celebrate the installation of 544 solar PV panels on their roof by the Ouse Valley Energy Services Company, one of the spin-offs from Transition Town Lewes. They raised over £300,000 in shares from local people. We are talking here about new renewable energy, but owned by, and for the benefit of, the communities affected by it.
In November 2009 I went to Slaithwaite in Yorkshire for a coming-together of Transition initiatives from across the north of England. On a noticeboard at the back of the hall was a poster that read “a fresh idea: a new community-owned fresh local food shop for Slaithwaite”. The local greengrocer was about to close, and members of Marsden & Slaithwaite Transition Town and others were considering taking it on as a community business. Shortly afterwards, they successfully raised £15,000 in shares from local people to do so, and The Green Valley Grocer was born. Business is thriving. The shop has acted as a catalyst, inspiring the creation of a local food-growing co-operative which now supplies the shop, and more recently they, along with other local food businesses, announced ‘A declaration of independence from the global food system’! Although perhaps a tad premature, it highlights the scale of their ambition.
What we are seeing happen in communities across the country is deeply exciting. It is enterprise, but it is enterprise in a context. They are implementing what Lloyds wrote in a report about why businesses need to take oil depletion into consideration. They wrote:
“Energy security is now inseparable from the transition to a low-carbon economy and businesses plans should prepare for this new reality”.
They are going beyond this though, and seeing this change of direction as a huge opportunity. They are not just creating standalone one-off businesses, rather businesses emerging to meet what they see as a very real need to build community resilience. They are not hoping that the challenges outlined by the World Economic Forum will simply go away, they are, without waiting for permission, rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it.
Another key function that many of these enterprises offer is the ability for people to invest inwards into their communities. I visit many of these communities, for their launch events, or other public events they have organised. These are ordinary people, coming together in extraordinary times, to do extraordinary things. To know and meet these people has been one of the greatest honours of my life.
The recent Review by Mary Portas which looked at the future of the UK’s High Streets stated:
“a pound spent in a retailer with a localised supply chain that employs local people has far greater domestic impact than a pound spent in a supermarket or national chain. What’s more, out-of-town developments are often presented as major new sources of employment, but we need to recognise that this ‘job creation’ is often just job displacement”.
Herein lies the tension. The current push for economic growth at all costs fails to determine between job creation and job displacement. It also fails to distinguish between strategies that build community resilience and strategies that undermine it. There is a Big Idea here I think, a vital one, and I hope I have managed to excite you with its possibilities this evening.
I often end talks I give with Arundhati Roy’s quote “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”. I think we might adapt her quote, so that, in the context of this bottom-up drive for more resilient communities, communities better prepared for uncertain times, it is not only a case of hearing another world breathing, but being able to see her around us, already setting up local businesses, reviving her local economy, setting up bakeries, breweries, food hubs, mentoring scores of young people with business ideas, attracting inward social investment finance, creating the models whereby people can invest in their communities and see them being strengthened and supported.
That’s why I get out of bed in the morning, because I feel that the potential in our getting this right is so exquisite that it’s all I can do, and because the grim predictability of what will happen if we do nothing is just unthinkable, especially in relation to the challenge of climate change. If we are able to turn things around on the scale we need to turn them around on, to replace vulnerability, carbon intensity and fragility with resilience, it will be an achievement our children will tell tales about, sing songs about. I hope I am there to hear them. Thank you.
Originally published February 16, 2012 at Transition Culture.