Monday, 20 September 2010

Conference reflections - big society

On the opening evening of our national conference this year, we had two speakers; Ken Livingstone who provided us with few surprises and a fairly safe speech for that audience and Phillip Blond, who is the architect of David Cameron's big society idea and one of the most provocative speakers you could wish to hear.

Now provocative doesn't necessarily mean good and a lot of the time people were just tearing their hair out at the stuff he was coming out with, such as re-legalising hunting as a way of ensuring conservation of the countryside and the fact that Tories have always been caring with the rights of those working the land very well looked after through history (sorry don't remember the exact details, but it was dismissed by some knowledgeable friends, anyway). I should watch it again to remind myself as the links to both talks and the Q&A session are available here.

However, some of the things he was saying were actually quite sensible - about talking to people about the areas around them and ensuring they feel they can have an effect on those things they care about. The trouble is that he didn't seemed to have a clue that this is what FoE is all about anyway and thought that we were just another environmental campaigns organisation who only ever talk about climate change in the big scary international sense and don't talk to people about local environmental justice.

The other problem I had with what he was saying was that in all the talk of rolling back the state and creating local control, he also acknowledged the need to get away from the big business model, but there was nothing to suggest how this could be achieved unless by state regulation. It's all very well talking about mutuals and cooperatives, with local suppliers helping each other, but when they're constantly faced with poorly regulated, incredibly wealthy multinational companies as competition, it is very hard for them to succeed.

This can be seen with the demise of local shops and smaller businesses all over the country and especially the terrible state of the farming industry being dictated to by supermarkets. A really important test of whether the green measures we take will lead to a better, fairer society will be whether there is a proper Green New Deal with sustainable local jobs created, or whether big business will steamroller in and take all the profits, while employing people on short-term contracts and then discarding them as soon as possible.

If the Big Society just means cutting the state, putting millions of people out of work and expecting business or volunteers to take over all of this socially valuable work that is currently done by public servants, it will not create any kind of just or sustainable society. If, however, it is done as a reshaping of the way we value control over business practices to ensure justice and freedom from exploitation, with curbs on the power of corporations and a move to more cooperative and mutually beneficial models of business, that is something many of us would sign up to.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth has always done the volunteering part of the big society, because we recognise the value you get from interacting with people and making a difference to your surroundings. What we want from government is support in that for all third sector organisations who do amazing work around the country, not funding cuts and also a recognition that the real power is financial not political. That means the first priority to creating a just society where people will want to take part is to use state power to create those business conditions that favour local small-scale enterprise and to ensure that the most polluting, unsustainable industries do not leave all of us to pick up the bill in future generations.

Joe Peacock

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Birmingham Canal Canter 2010

I had been wondering why so few of our volunteers were up for entering this event, but now realise what a serious undertaking walking 26 miles is.

The idea for The Canal Canter came up last year as a way for Birmingham FoE to raise money and give the Heart of England LDWA some extra volunteers to make it run smoothly on the day and help in promoting the event.

Organiser Dave Powell said that he wanted people to see parts of Birmingham that they never normally do and see a whole different side of the city and he certainly achieved that on this walk. The first half of it was an absolute pleasure with a real variety of different places to walk through and a heart full of optimism, but the second half was much harder to appreciate as the legs began to give way and the novelty of canal towpaths began to fade.

We started at the Alexander stadium (home of the Birchfield Harriers) in the North of the city, where the first challenge was to get up onto the canal towpath through the nettles and very steep slope. For the first few miles, underfoot was grassy and rough with not enough room to walk side by side a lot of the time. We passed under some big roads, including spaghetti junction which the council once had a mad scheme to light up so it was visible from space) where the noise was incongruous with the pretty green surrounding down by the canal.

Then we made our way down through town (spotting herons and some amazing black and white ducks on the way - sorry no pics) to the Ackers where breakfast was being served by BFoE volunteers (porridge or toast with tea, coffee or cold drinks).

(Aldo, Mary and Ben in the kitchen with Roxanne and Beth serving drinks outside)

At this stage everyone was still fairly bunched up and the runners (who started an hour after us walkers) were just going past. I did the walk with my dad and we decided not to stop for too long there to keep the momentum going - we started pretty briskly and were feeling fine, so we left before quite a few people at this stage.

The next part of the walk was the one I enjoyed most, as I was still feeling fine and we went through some absolutely lovely green spaces. Firstly, the grounds of the Ackers were a joy to go through and I would recommend that a place for a walk for anyone in the area. Then we headed down through the Shire Country park (Tolkien land) past Sarehole Mill and down to Billesley's wonderful green spaces (the seven wonders of Billesley) where BFoE successfully helped local residents defeat a planning application for an access road through one of the parks last year.

All along this section of the walk there were loads of sloes and other berries that would be of interest to those who like mapping where food grows in the city, such as Abundance Brum. We are doing an event on 2nd October called Edible Birmingham to look at sustainable local food, too.

Lunch was at the Horseshoe pub on the Alcester Rd where we had sandwiches and pieces of pineapple with squash (I don't think I've drunk as much squash as I did on this day for years).

(welcome food in the pub's garden)

At this stage we were still going fine (12.8 miles) and after an 8.30am start left the pub at 12.40 full of hope and thinking "this long distance walking's a good thing - perhaps we'll do more". The next section was almost all along the canal and we got some interesting views of different boats moored along there - they have very odd names, including one called "John Thomas"! I'll let you make your own jokes about that.

Despite it only being 5.6 miles to the next stop for cakes at Maple Bank, this part went a lot slower than the previous section as our legs tired and the variation in things to look at along the route was not so great. We went alongside the railway line through Bournville, Selly Oak, over a section where they were digging under the canal to build a relief road by the Hospital and there were lots of cyclists zooming along with no manners to say excuse me or thank you when you needed to get out of the way. As a cyclist myself, I always thanks people for getting out of the way on a shared space with pedestrians and heard a lot of walkers moaning about these rude people. It doesn't take much, so come on cyclists, please.

We made it but were very sore at the cake stop (18.4 miles) and I took my boots off to see if there were actually any blisters as my feet were hurting every step by then. Also, we knew the last bit was 8 miles - the longest of any of the 4 sections! If it hadn't been for the sponsorship I'd been given, it would have been easy to give up then and save myself the agony of the last bit. I wanted the sense of achievement, but I really didn't want to let people down even more.

Foot-sore we set off towards the city centre. This was not the nicest bit because there were so many people that we had to dodge around and wait for as we went past the Mailbox, the ghastly Cube, Brindley Place and the NIA. If you've never been to Birmingham before this might have been interesting to see, but for those of us who live here, these crowded places are normally avoided if you're doing a walk.

From there we headed back up towards Spaghetti Junction again trying to talk about something else other than how much our feet hurt, but this was pretty hard now, especially when there were lots of ups and downs (the most painful things for tired legs). It also started raining to compound our joy and make the cobbled down-slopes of the little bridges even harder to manage.

We grabbed a quick drink and a sandwich at Spaghetti with 3 miles to go and then headed off along the uneven muddy part we'd already done (going the other way when we set off in the morning). Gritted teeth and determination (along with knowing there was no other way out by then) go us to the finish, somehow. I'm not sure I remember ever having so much pain in my legs or feet before (apart from when injured during football - but that's a different pain).

[My dad and me with our certificates for finishing]
I'm glad that I did it and that I've helped raise money for Birmingham FoE. If you'd like to add a bit more to my total for this, there's still time if you go to this link.

Next year they are planning to do it again and I think that as we got very nearly 200 people doing it this year, that's a great idea. However, for the less experienced walkers (most of our volunteers) I'd like to suggest that there's a shorter walk as well as the marathon-length one. If we start at Ackers (as I believe is planned), it'll be a lot nicer and provide more options, including a possible short children's nature walk - any volunteers to help organise that?

Most of all, though, I'd encourage people to get out and explore different parts of Birmingham now. It's a great city with lots to see and some great places to visit on foot, bike or by public transport.

Joe Peacock

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Conference reflections - biodiversity

One of the sessions I went to at FoE's national conference this year was on "biodiversity in decline", which I felt to be a really important topic that I'd never properly got to grips with. We all know that chopping down rainforest is bad and get the pictures of large mammals thrown at us all the time, but how do we make sure that all the links are there to maintain a biodiverse natural system all over the world, so our eco-systems don't collapse and the land remains fertile enough to support life as we know it?

To start off with we were bombarded with acronyms, as understanding them is part of every bit of campaigning on environmental matters, it seems. Go on then, do you know what TEEB is? How about REDD, NEA or LSC? Once you've learnt the shorthand (or read up on what they are), it does make it easier to talk about these things more quickly, honest.
This is the International Year of Biodiversity, in case you didn't know, and, unfortunately, it's also the year by which the UK had promised to halt biodiversity loss and will acknowledge failure to meet these targets (as mentioned here by the government minister).

So, what did I learn? Well largely that it's an incredibly difficult subject and that no one measure is going to solve this on its own (I guess that's not a shock to anyone, is it?). Is the answer to try and give trees or habitat an economic value in order for them to be offered protection in our market-driven world? That certainly seems to be where a lot of people see salvation for nature, but how can you put a value on something that is so obviously invaluable? Also, in many places land rights are a very tricky subject and laws are not representing the rights of indiginous people sufficiently. However, starting a conversation on how valuable these things are must be a good thing in itself in terms of stimulating more action on protecting and promoting natural habitat.

The Stern report had a huge effect in creating a different view on the value of acting on climate change and although there was some coverage of the report on The Economics of Eco-Systems and Biodiversity (that's the TEEB I mentioned earlier), it hasn't caught on quite as much as some were hoping.

What is most difficult is the whole international financing of protecting forests and focusing purely on deforestation as a carbon emissions issue (that's the REDD I mentioned earlier). Forests are people's homes and trees are worth a lot over a long period of time, both to people and to the planet, which short-term financial models are unable to deal with. Some of the carbon markets seem to benefit the countries that have been deforesting quickest the most by paying them more, whereas the ones which haven't started get less because you're not stopping them from doing it if they're already being good - that makes them think they should start planning to chop it down to get their slice of the cake!

There is a government consultation happening now on the natural environment white paper and everyone should be having a look at that to ensure it's as good as possible. Too much emphasis has been put on protecting small pockets of land in isolation (this is called fragmentation) rather than the whole of the landscape (LSC and NEA both got into this bit). Friends of the Earth are responding to the consultation as are a lot of other environmental NGOs, but it would be good for the responses to come from as wide a range of individuals as possible so that it's not just a few organisations looking at it.

Our campaign on Fixing the Food Chain would help to solve some of the deforestation issues in South America that are caused by factory farms here being reliant on soy feed (often GM) that is grown in that region. Even if we can get the sustainable livestock bill through parliament, there is still much work to do to halt the alarming decline in biodiversity throughout the world on land and in the seas.

Markets and the need for continued economic growth will never show the same concern for the natural environment as people do and from all the things I heard from members of FoE all over the world, what is needed is justice, equity and more of the passion for the environment shown at the peoples' conference in Cochabamba earlier this year. In this country we need to take a lead and show that we can halt the decline in habitat and species loss here, putting in place the kind of policies that can be successfully replicated all over the world.

Joe Peacock

Monday, 6 September 2010

Moseley Folk Festival 2010 - A cow's gotta do ...

Here are some pictures from the folk festival where we were doing a stall to promote our Fix The Food Chain Campaign and getting people to Join the Moovement: