Saturday, 26 March 2011

2 Men Inhabiting Different Worlds

On Tuesday I attended 2 events organised by the city council. Firstly there was the Birmingham transport summit where we had many flashy presentations on Birmingham's future connectivity and the importance of international links to bring inward investment. Then, in the evening I went along to receive an award for the green community work we'd done through our Faith and Climate Change project and also heard a talk by Rob Hopkins of the transition towns initiative on how we need to re-localise our supply chains and move away from a dependence on oil.

At the transport summit we had a new cabinet member for transport leading it, in councillor Huxtable, and there was a marked change from the previous incumbent. Cycling was mentioned far more times than last year and there was more of an emphasis on walking, too, but still the main overarching obsessions are with large-scale vanity projects, such as HS2, the airport runway and the new “gateway” station at New Street. It is a bizarre world that the leader of the council, Mike Whitby, lives in when he talks about the need for consistency and there not being contradictions in their policy, yet can talk about cutting CO2 emissions and sustainability and doubling the number of passengers at the airport by bringing in more people from the South East in one breath.

I asked a question in the second part of the event (after Councillor Whitby had left, unfortunately) about the rise in oil prices due to the problems with supply and the unsustainable nature of planning to use motor cars and planes in the (relatively near) future. Cllr Huxtable passed this question on to an officer who had been to Abu Dhabi recently and I was surprised by his frankness when he said that supplies are likely to run out in 2040 or 2045 and that although there are other ways of powering motor vehicles, planes are much more difficult. How any sensible leadership can put all their eggs in a basket that is going to be empty in less than 30 years seems incredible – what legacy are they leaving behind them?

The quote that they put up about leaving the city a more beautiful place than they had found it felt rather like a sick joke in this context.

In the evening Rob Hopkins spoke eloquently about the transition movement and the projects springing up all over the country where people are trying to re-connect with their local areas and that, as much as being an environmental movement, this is a social movement too, as people who've done it talk more about the friends they've made than the carbon they've saved. Once again we saw figures about how quickly oil is going to run out and some reminders of the ridiculousness of how our economy works at the moment with the same goods travelling back and forth from country to country needlessly, wasting precious resources and disconnecting consumers from the producers.

There certainly are some impressive things being done with local currency schemes, energy generation ventures and food growing initiatives, although he admits that it's only a small part of what needs to be done. He also spoke of his admiration of the work being done by Localise West Midlands in promoting real policy solutions on the economic changes that are needed. On how to fight the power of supermarkets, I found his answer a little unconvincing, as at the moment there seems to be no stopping them and getting people to change habits when their local shops have already gone is very hard indeed.

In the question and answer session I once again got my question in, this time about the need for campaigning when it comes to trying to stop politicians doing the stupid things that they are prone to, such as those mentioned above. He admitted that this was very much needed too, but he had become burned out after doing this for a few years himself, so different types of activities are all needed.

So, are we doing the hard stuff here at BFoE and leaving the nice fun stuff to the transition groups? We used to do a lot of practical things, too (and still do in places), but when covering a city the size of Birmingham, cannot keep such a focus on small areas as a transition group for Kings Heath or Sutton can. It is a real challenge to get people involved in campaigning and policy work as it's not as glamorous, nor are the results as immediate, but it really is a crucial area of work, so we appreciate all the volunteers who get involved with our group to help it happen.

We also got an award on the night for our work in being a green community organisation. Here's a picture of me getting it from Rob Hopkins:

When the leader of your council lives in such a state of denial as ours and his deputy (who was there to introduce the event with Rob Hopkins, but didn't stay to hear what he said) claims to be a champion of climate change and sustainability, but goes along with all those policies too, you need a strong campaigns group with a positive alternative vision of the future. The difference we can make depends on the support we get, so please come along and get involved if you can, or if you are unable to contribute your time and expertise, become a financial supporter instead.

Joe Peacock

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