Alternative Editorial: Let's Be Scared

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by Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of A/UK

In April 2016, Pat Kane and I attended a workshop led by Roger Hallam, a PhD researcher at Kings College, London. Neither of us knew quite what we were in for, other than that he was the founder of the Radical Think Tank and was offering to show us how to build up political participation from the bottom up.

In the course of the evening we were subjected to a no-holds-barred account of the reality of climate change, similar to the this one offered most recently in The Guardian. But real-time: in your face. My desire to escape the room was extreme (I don’t want to hear this, I can’t bear to hear this). But the possible shame of being caught doing so, kept me rooted in my chair.

Thank goodness. Because what I heard after that was how we were all going to be able to do something about it. Just under a year later, we launched The Alternative UK.

I’m not sure we remembered everything that Roger taught us en route. It was as much disillusion with party politics - peaking with Brexit - as it was the climate crisis, that caused us to join the Alternativet family. But less than two years down the line and after a Summer of unprecedented planetary discontent, his rationale and strategy for stepping up is clearer than ever. In his words:

When the British public wake up to the fact that all that they cherish and love will soon be destroyed, they will turn on the politicians that allowed this to happen…Our political system cannot be reformed from within. In such circumstances citizens have a right and indeed the duty to rebel. We have done it before in our history and we are going to do it again.

A/UK might be less radical than Roger – or more? - in that we don’t conceive of the people rising as an act of rebellion, but as an evolutionary process – a coming of age of human potential. The fulfilment of the democratic vision in which every citizen can participate fully in creating our shared future. But our sense that it can be achieved is similar.

In our first year, we felt like pioneers. Having discovered that only 2% of eligible voters are members of political parties, we committed to showcasing the ingenuity of the 98% and started producing The Daily Alternative. But once we had acclimatized ourselves to this bigger space – literally – we saw that the second ‘crime’ was the lack of mainstream media coverage of these initiatives. With very honorable exceptions (see this week’s blog on the closing of Adiyta Chakrabortty’s Alternatives column), people have been kept in the dark about progress.

Instead, a general hopelessness and helplessness is honed. A tweet that announced Jeremy Corbyn’s promise that Labour would create 400,000 ‘green jobs’ clicks through to a piece newly titled Labour Is Ready To Govern. Too often, environmental policy is touted as PR for that particular party. Looking for more information, I get to Reality Check: Labour’s Green Energy Plans which ends with a desultory "Successive governments have failed to persuade enough people to insulate their homes, even if it is for free." The whole emphasis is on whether or not we can believe the politicians and very little on what is practically and scientifically possible.

If more people knew that all over the country, Europe and the world, communities have been experimenting  with cutting carbon, building greener sources, exploring personally and socially healthier lifestyles with very encouraging results – would not the ground swell of citizens stepping up to meet the Paris targets be much greater?

If you are not familiar yourself, try these: Mayors Are Doing it For Themselves; How People in Europe are Helping Lead the Energy Charge; Bringing Solar Power to the People; Gangster Gardening; An Atlas of Utopias in Water, Energy and Housing. And just about anything you read in the global Transition Town Network and movement.

The most direct way to shift the mood, is to get people involved in ways that offer them a more general sense of belonging, meaning and purpose, in the places where they live. Instead of party-politics, this is more like a place-politics, coming together in the face of established tribal divides to own and protect the community they inhabit. In our collaboratories, once the participants begin to find relationship with each other the mood is often quite defiant: refusing to give in to expected conflicts, determined to find a new commonality. It’s their right to do so and increasingly urgent post-Brexit.

One of the signs of acceleration that Roger Hallam told us to look out for was when the women with children stepped up in any given area. At the forefront of this kind of community activism are often the women who have held the local networks together in the past. They’ve done so for reasons of family security or care for the vulnerable – or even as membership secretaries to the football clubs. Today they are just as likely to be Urban Gardeners – like Tess Wilmot of Take a Part. In our strategy group in South Devon / Plymouth, the women easily outnumber the men.

So once those citizens networks begin to emerge, what’s to stop them developing their own local energy and food plans? Until recently, this seemed impossible as no one city or even region could generate enough energy locally to see themselves safely through the Winter. Thus they were forced to sell any surplus energy they had to the national grid, who, subject to market forces, sell it back to them at significantly higher rates. But that deadlock would come to an end if the people rising was linked directly to community resilience, as it is beginning to be (see above).

Some would say this is hopelessly naïve. That whatever the locals do, the parties always have the option of withdrawing subsidies as they did in the past, to favour nuclear or fracking solutions. Or because the money earmarked for subsidy was never going to be enough to faciliate the revolution.  In addition, even broadly supportive governments can mistake a lack of uptake for green solutions, as lack of interest – rather than poor marketing or zero relationship with the communities they represent - and begin to focus elsewhere for the answers.

It is precisely this over-reliance on government to do the job that has to change. The promise of this moment is that people, locally and maybe regionally, can begin to act more autonomously in the interests of resilience. A word that might have meant very little at the turn of this century, but means more to us every month of every year.

In Frome one of the first things that the Independents commissioned when they came to power was a ‘response to the Paris Agreement and the call to limit the average rise in global temperature to 2 degrees, preferably 1.5’. Measuring the energy that Frome uses today and might need in the near future, researchers then worked out how that figure could be met by local, green sources of energy.  A Clean Healthy Future for Frome: How We Get There found that Frome could be ‘fossil free’ by 2046. 

What’s to stop Frome setting about that target I asked Pete McFadyen, former Mayor and still a member of Frome Town Council? It was the day after Frome had hosted Roger Hallam at the Town Hall themselves. Nothing, he said: we’re on it. “The first thing anyone would answer to the question, `what do you, as a citizen, want from the Council?’, would be: a future”.