I had an interesting experience yesterday at the ACRE conference on Rural Life, largely a bunch of rural development workers gathered together at Keele University. We had been invited to share the experiences of the Transition Towns, Rob Hopkins as an introductory plenary speaker and then both of us in workshop sessions.
As many will know, Rob is a great and very entertaining speaker. He started by telling a joke. He has worked in permaculture for many years and also eco-building. The use of local, natural building materials has inevitably led to an endless stream of jokes about the three little pigs, to which Rob's response is that the moral of the joke is not to avoid building with straw but to make sure you don't let pigs build your house!
The conference was encouraging from many points of view. The culture is changing and new lines of conflict are being drawn. There are fairly conventional people now coming to understand that it is the economic system and especially the growth addicition that is the underlying problem. One speaker who is part of the government's Academy for Sustainable Communities (don't ask!) took issue with Burberry's decision to move production to China (see blog of 31st January) which he concluded was bad for rural communities, bad for the environment, but good for profits.
Rob's presentation was full of humour. He quoted one proponent of the Peak Oil thesis who had suggested that using biofuels as a substitute for petroleum offers us the tempting prospect of 'starving to death in a traffic jam'. Some of the oral histories they have gathered in Totnes and the futuristic thinking from schoolkids, including a visionary episode of Top Gear from 2030 where the presenter compares the relative merits of different piggyback rides, had the crowd roaring.
Rob's own take on the need for shifting the economy in Totnes to a position with more local resilience was summed up in his analogy of a cake. We used to make the cake and import the icing and cherries; now we import the cake and only make the icing and cherries. He ended with a quotation from Vandana Shiva: 'the uncertainty of our times is no reason for the certainty of hopelessness'.
Humour emerged in the workshops too: a lady from the Peak District explaining local confusion over the concept of 'peak oil', and a chap from Derbyshire describing local planners as coming from the late Cretaceous and long overdue for a meteor strike. The conference was a tribute to human nature. To our ability to laugh in the face of disaster, to share hopes and fears and to respond to challenge with creativity and enthusiasm. No wonder the presentations about the Transition Towns went down so well.