29 May 2008

Rare Earth

I've had this week in my diary for a few months now, blocked off as 'beach week'. This gives me a thrill of liberation - the sense of getting off the treadmill and lying in the sun. In reality I've spent two days in a windswept campervan and two days at home hiding from hyperactive emailers. But in my mind I'm on the beach - and that does count for something.

And what a beach! Why would anybody travel further afield when the beautiful, mystical county of Pembrokeshire lies so tantalisingly close. I was camped at the walker's equivalent of the edge of the M4 - right next to the coastal path where hardy walkers tramped through the worst of the gales.

Welsh nationalists claim their country as the first colony. I would beg to differ. In fact it was Pembrokeshire that was 'England''s experiment with expropriation and oppression, although at that time of course it was Norman not Saxon England. This explains the lower rate of Welsh speaking in Pembrokeshire.

The colonial mentality continues. Pembrokeshire is a place the wealthy English refer to as 'little England beyond Wales' and you have to endure their horse-faced complacency around the towns and villages. The nation's major oil refinery is placed on the wonderful coastline at Milford Haven, leading to oil spillages like that caused by the Sea Empress and allowing the countryside to be desecrated by a pipeline that rips through it to supply the economy with energy.

It is also a major site of 'defence' establishments - although quite what is being defended from whom remains unclear. A walk along the coast path is interupped by booms from the artillery range at Castlemartin. The navy's arms dump at Trecwn is just nearby, as is the air force's training establishment at Brawdy.

This incursion of 21st-century warfare and destructive capitalism into the peace and mystery of the land of Celtic saints and bronze-age monuments seems incongruous. But perhaps it is best that we are reminded of the consequences of our unbalanced and unjust economy even on holiday. The destruction of nature is a necessary consequence of our lust for energy, just as the need for armaments and warfare follows inevitably on our inability to share fairly.

24 May 2008

Sharing the knowledge

Now that universities have become corporations and higher education is just another sector of our globally competitive economy, why should we co-operate with each other and share our knowledge. Shouldn't we rather be hoarding it and selling it for the highest price?

This is a particularly disastrous strategy for knowledge management at a time of crisis when knowledge about how to manage our affairs sustainably needs to be spread as rapidly as possible. A recent conference of researchers exploring the Transition Towns in the UK came up with an answer to this problem: the knowledge co-operative.

Many well-motivated researchers laugh in the face of intellectual property law and proudly proclaim their willingness to give away their knowledge. This is missing the point in two ways. First, if you have signed a standard university contract your knowledge doesn't belong to you anyway. Even though all our best ideas arise in the bath or on the bus everything you have ever thought belongs to your employer.

More seriously, if we don't try to maintain control over this knowledge, then others probably will. Just like the neem tree, vital insights into how sustainable communities actually work could be controlled by corporations and sold back to us - just as our research papers are. Nothing could be more iniquitous than the fact that we review each other's work for free, edit our own work, format and typeset it - but then cannot gain access to each other's work without subscribing to journals whose profits go to publishing corporations.

The sustainability knowledge co-operative will be a membership organisation which academics and research centres can join. They will undertake to share knowledge freely with others in the co-operative who will not make a profit from it. Their own contributions can be protected by creative commons licences so that if somebody is likely to make a profit from their ingenuity then they can negotiate a share. Some knowledge will be so important that - like Volvo's three-point seatbelt or pencillin - it will be given to the world for free, but it will not be available for others to copyright.

Knowledge is a common resource, and knowledge created by publicly funded universities should belong to the public. However, in a free market, we cannot leave this knowledge floating freely. We need to constrain it legally in a way that facilitates its sharing and empowers those who create it rather than the corporate knowledge factories which employ them.

17 May 2008

Time to do the Maths

The last estimate for the amount of public money going to Northern Rock was £50bn. For that price we've bought ourselves a bankrupt bank. It isn't clear how many of the other banks are also teetering on the brink but the government is sufficiently concerned to oblige us to buy their worthless assets (euphemistically known as 'mortgage-backed securities') to the the tune of another £100bn. or so.

These numbers are nice and round. If we round the population of the UK to 50 million we can see fairly easily that we have recently spent around £3000 per head on bankrupt banks. This does not feel like a very good long-term investment that is going to serve the public interest.

Let's compare it with the post offices. Here we paid Adam Crozier £1.3m last year and bonuses to board members came to £4.5m. in total. This is a reward for closing 20 per cent of our post offices this year - 2,500 are due to close by the end of 2008. One of those is my local post office in Uplands. It is a profitable business but post office managers have closure targets to meet in order to receive their bonuses this year so it is on the list.

The cost of keeping my post office open is a mere £24,000, so if I could find eight other people and ask them whether they would rather give their £3,000 to keep the post office open or keep some degenerate banks afloat I could raise the cash in half and hour or so. Of course, although we apparently live in a democracy, we don't have that choice. Instead, we are probably going to have to put our hands in our pockets as a community here in Stroud to subsidise our post office.

At least our postmaster is resisting the hefty bribes on offer for redundancy packages. Many others, especially the old and tired, are taking the money and creeping off to retirement. As with the pit closures, they are being offered a good deal now and told they will get nothing in the future if they refuse it. Our money is being used to bribe people out of their livelihoods.

This week we saw Housing Minister Caroline Flint having to remind herself that she should put the interests of the British people first. Just like the rebranding of the Post Office as 'the people's post office' this sort of doublethink is only necessary becase it is no longer the truth. What is happening with the Post Office is symbolic of what is happening to our democracy - we are allowing it to be stolen from us by profit-driven corporate executives. And the solution is the same too: use it or lose it. If you vote for one of the parties that have prostituted themselves to corporate interests (or don't vote at all) you only have yourself to blame.

14 May 2008

Timelessness is Bliss

Having studied philosophy at university I tend to shy away from it now. However, it seems we need to have a little think about time. The woman who taught me philosophy was actually a specialist in the philosophy of time. She dwelt at the top of a flight of concrete steps in a brutalist building in my college grounds. She was immensely small with an oversized head and nobody has ever better exemplified for me the philosophical thought experiment of the brain in the vat.

Imagine our amazement when she upped and left one day - ran away with a male philosopher she had met at a conference. Whispering sweet nothings about Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein had clearly led on to more bodily interests. Good for her! And perhaps she was on to sometimes that I wasn't able to grasp as an opinionated 21-year-old.

Ecofeminist Teresa Brennan has said that ‘nature is the source of all value, and ultimately of all energy, but the inherent dynamic of capital is to diminish this value and this energy in favour of time and technology.’ This seems to imply that if we spent more time in country walks we would begin to see through the hollow sham of our technotopia and probably find we had more time on our hands too. I can't be the only person who finds that when I work less I feel as though I had more time - and sometimes get more done too.

Rethinking time is valuable when it comes to rebuilding a local economy. It is clearly irrational, if you take time for granted, to bother to do anything for yourself at all. The rational response is to work a large number of hours, for the highest rate of return you can negotiate, and purchase everything in the market. Thus a fixation on time strips everything of value out of human lives.

E. P. Thompson pointed out that one of the hardest things for the early capitalists was to train people to respond to factory time rather than natural time. Like laboratory rats they were trained to respond to a system of bells and whistles. Over time this seeped into the culture: we were trained to believe that 'time is money', we were softened up for having our lives stolen from us via working time directives and by the Time-Life Corporation.

In 'The World as Will and Representation' (great title!) Schopenhauer wrote that 'the will transcends time and space, which together constitute the principle of sufficient reason of being. Time and space are conditions for manifestations of the will, but the will itself is unconditioned by time or space. The plurality of things in time and space is an objectification of the will.' And remember he also had a dog called 'World's End'. Nothing helps to re-evaluate time like an awareness of how short our span on earth is.

10 May 2008

From ethical to bioregional consumption . . . and production

As we move towards a world of less trade we need to be thinking about how we will get hold of the things we really need. We can start making the adjustment now in our own consumption. This has two big advantages. First, it means that when the changes come - and they may be sudden and rapid - we will already be mentally prepared. Secondly, we can support the development of the markets offering the kind of goods we will be buying in the future, thus easing the transition.

Here are a few examples. I have a beautiful mug that I bought at a Christmas fayre. The local potter had just dug a hole near the college where she teaches and burrowed out some clay. She had spent a long time refining it and then turned it into a mug. This is an exceptional mug because she usually buys in clay from Staffordshire. She was as delighted as I am to see the exact colour of pottery made from Stroud clay. It is also unique since she only made one.

I also have a rush hat made by Sheila Wynter. Sheila goes every year in the right season with her son to the river Avon just above Tewkesbury. Here they dabble in the mud and cut the rushes. She brings them home and dries them in her workshop before weaving the hats. They have a curious rustic look which my daughter points out is just the look of the hat worn by the artist in the famous Van Gogh portrait.

For me these items exemplify everything about bioregional consumption. Obviously the first and most important factor is that they are made locally with local inputs. But there is the depth of relationship between me and the person who made the item that fills me with delight every time I have a cup of coffee or go out wearing my hat. Of course for me they are also object lessons which people I meet - unfortunately for them - cannot escape.

Perhaps most importantly of all, they are expensive. In the global economy you seek the lowest price. In the bioregional economy the adman's slogan 'reassuringly expensive' may be a better guide. My rush hat cost £24. Given the amount of work for Sheila in cutting the rushes, preparing them, and weaving the hat this is an absurdly small amount of money. But if it had been made by a Chinese slave it would have cost a fifth of this price. So when you consume bioregionally you will have much less stuff, but it will be of vastly better quality.

It's not just about consumption; it's also about production. I came to know Sheila because I am learning basket-making from her. If you are the sort of person who bemoans the fact that there is so little available to buy from local producers you can start by choosing to buy what there is and paying a just price. But the next step is to start making something yourself - the guidelines are that it should be something that is genuinely needed in the community and that you can find the materials locally.

And remember the other hint from Robinson Crusoe: use what the global economy has already invested energy in to the maximum before you resort to buying new of any sort. So patching and mending and buying from charity shops is a good solution for stuff your local economy doesn't provide yet. Why not go for showy, artistic patches: make a political statement with your darning!

3 May 2008

Vegetable virgins

There is a line in Look Back in Anger where anti-hero Jimmy Porter tells somebody that, having never seen a dead body, they are suffering from a rather serious case of virginity. I share that virginity - as I've blogged elsewhere, watching the death throes of chickens was the closest I've come and that was horrifying enough.

It seems to me that a more serious case of virginity is being suffered by those who have never grown a vegetable. And a much more dangerous one too. As food prices rise around the world, the rush to get hold of an allotment has turned into a stampede. But the consequences of always buying your food in a plastic bag may run deeper than having to tolerate the vagaries of the global marketplace.

A dear friend I've met through the Transition process here in Stroud, Helen Pitel, works at a closed hospital for the criminally insane. She is a permaculture gardener, a pioneer of the Centre for Alternative Technology, and she is employed to share her love of growing living things with the inmates. I was concerned that they may be mad, bad and dangerous to know but Helen says that are rather torpid and hard to raise from their chairs to lure into the garden.

She told me of the amazement many of them have when they first understand that a small seed, placed in dirt, will produce a lettuce, cabbage or carrot. This complete dislocation from their natural environment seems to go a long way to explain their mental disorientation - a total lacking of grounding must surely lead to madness as well as badness.

I have a soft spot for Jimmy Porter, odious and self-pitying though he is, because it was via him that I learned what is still my favourite word: pusillanimous. I wonder whether he might have been a little bit less angry if, instead of going to grammar school, he had spent more time with his father on the allotment?