The TESS (un)conference (unofficial) summary
On the 27th May about 80 European researchers, policy makers and community activists met in the contemporary-Georgian surroundings of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation to participate in the TESS project’s ‘unconference’ – entitled “Can the transition to a sustainable future be locally led?”
With such an open and exciting topic, and in the traditions of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment past the day aimed to break down barriers and allow free, open and ‘respectful’ dialogue between those with differing views. The audience was varied in interest, background, age and viewpoint, and the day enabled conversations between them through a number of formats including workshop sessions to formulate queries for an Any Questions-style debate, time for Any Answers in response and plenty of networking time.
Perspectives on transition: Key note speakers from science and practice
The unconference brought together keynotes from a leading climate change economist, a transformative vegetable gardener, an Oxford University lecturer on nature and society and a reader in alternative economies from the University of Liverpool. It also included ‘four minute pitches’, six different views on the role of community-led initiatives in the transition to a low-carbon world. In keeping with the TESS emphasis on communication and engagement, the day surprised and delighted many by starting and ending with poetry from Emily Hinshelwood, who wrote a very popular rhyming reflection on the day (more below).
The day’s discussion was framed by an introductory presentation by Professor Jürgen Kropp of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, director of TESS research, who set the scene with the latest climate science and role community action could play in reducing emissions.
An inspiring vision: Ottmar Edenhofer advocates for the atmosphere as a global commons
The day’s highest profile speaker was Jürgen’s colleague from the Potsdam Institute, leading climate change economist and co-chair of the IPCCs Working Group III on mitigation, Professor Ottmar Edenhofer. His intelligently delivered presentation gave a global perspective on rising GHG emissions, the need to limit rises to 2ºC maximum, the ‘renaissance of coal’, especially in the industrialising world, and his economist’s desire for a global carbon price as an essential policy lever. Professor Edenhofer connected effectively with the community-led proponents in the room through his appeal for the atmosphere to be recognised as a ‘global commons’, with joint and several responsibility by all polluters. Significantly, he said, the words ‘global commons’ have been included in footnote in the Working Group III’s latest report (2014), having been omitted in the past on the request of some countries, worried that it would bind them to stringent cuts. “Revolutions come from the footnotes”, Edenhofer added wryly.
Insights from the grassroots: How Pam Warhurst’s initiative transformed Todmorden
Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET) gave the counterpoint to this global perspective, wowing the audience with her sheer exuberance and demonstration of what local activism can achieve. The initiative has stimulated the planting of a number of food growing spaces in the Yorkshire town of 15,000, providing green amenity spaces, food and most importantly to her, community cohesion. Pam stressed repeatedly that IET is not a food project, but a means of engaging people through food. It was impossible not to applaud the power of her personality in inspiring true grass roots activism, and “giving permission to the town’s councillors to create change” as she modestly put it. Click here to see a video of Pam Warhurst’s presentation.
Rethinking monitoring and evaluation: Kersty Hobson “illustrates the possible”
Kersty Hobson of Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment posed and ‘troubled’ a series of questions to get the audience thinking about how to measure the impact of community-led initiatives, and shared her experiences from the ESRC-funded Knowledge Exchange Project. She used the provocative example of successful urban renewal through building refurbishment by artist, Theaster Gates, who was asked by replicate his success by city majors – you can guess his response! The point is that many community initiatives are specific to a time, place and individual, and are not identikit solutions. Her research tested a number of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) approaches with communities, and concluded that they need them to be flexible to individual needs, and to come hand in hand with other types of support such as mentoring (and not use the term M&E, which is universally disliked!). She ended with the challenge to researchers of making all these endeavours meaningful in a variety of ways, to “illustrate the possible”. Click here to see a video of Kersty Hobson’s presentation.
Liverpool reinvented: Pete North talks about alternative spaces and economies for prosperity
Changing the focus to the level of cities, Dr. Pete North, from the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Liverpool, put local responses to global change in wider context. His starting point echoed that of Pam Warhurst, in arguing that what is needed are better places to live, and different ways of thinking about prosperity. Particularly in poorer parts of Liverpool, issues of livelihood and quality of life easily trump green concerns. Thus, the way to make progress with local government was to focus the discussion around ‘prosperity’ and how to make interesting places to live in an uncertain future – rather than debates about growth or capitalism: “Capitalism doesn’t need to be ecocidal”. Touching on themes raised in the ‘four minute pitches’ Dr. North pointed to examples of how he has worked with local authorities and city planners to bring together ideas and desires for alternative spaces and economies, while using this as leverage to attract funding and investment in new technologies and ways of governing. As a historic centre of mercantile capitalist power, Liverpool is receptive to efforts to re-invent itself. Click here to see a video of Pete North’s presentation.
Multiple perspectives on community-based initiatives and low-carbon transition
The lightning pitches covered a lot of ground in their four minutes, which will be the subject of later blogs. In brief, these included: the current gap in country emissions reduction pledges and how this could be filled, including by community action (Anne Holsten, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research); the negative impacts of globalisation and growth on the planet, and a glimpse of what can result when the obstacles to a sustainable future are removed, leaving the presenter “not entirely without hope, but entirely without expectation” (Bill Slee, James Hutton Institute); the challenge of recognising the difference between direct and indirect impacts of community action in the case of a community bike initiative in Rome (Federico Martellozzo, La Sapienza); experiences and importance of political activism in stimulating community led initiatives and degrowth ideas (Filka Sekulova, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona); the dysfunctional policies that can create a Darwinian landscape of low-carbon solutions, born of necessity, and top-down policies that can in some cases suppress innovation (Jelte Harnemeijer, SCENE consulting); and the political unacceptability of enforced behaviour change and degrowth, and the need for more enabling functions within local government (Silvia Veenhoff, Federal Environment Agency Germany).
Feedback and networking
The TESS team responses to the day were as varied as its multidisciplinary partners. There were a number of comments about its friendly energy and the positive conversations that resulted. Outi Virkkula of Finland’s Oulu University of Applied Sciences felt it: “took a moment of my time, but in a good and emotional way…. knowledge was shared and new insights stimulated…one could witness nice hustle and bustle continuing during the breaks.” Her colleague at Oulu, Johanna Pihlajamaa agreed with this, saying: “the atmosphere was relaxed and it felt like people could easily approach each other”.
Alessandra Prampolini of TESS partner, T6 Eco, called it: “A lively, insightful and uncommon opportunity to see researchers, activists, students and institutions confronting and debating about some of the more challenging questions that we face today. Do bottom up approaches succeed? Do they penetrate society? How can we measure all this?”
Incredible Edible Todmorden was a popular inspiration. Johanna Pihlajamaa said: “Pam Warhurst especially was a great example of “the power of ‘just doing stuff’”. Anne Holsten of TESS lead partner, PIK, said: “Pam Warhurst keeps engagement simple and fun, delivering large impact from the initiative without needing to embed it into the wider sustainability debates and quantify everything.” Two other presentations also resonated particularly for Anne. She said Pete North showed an “interesting conflict between very local activities with possible minor environmental effect, but a high personal identification” versus large higher impact developments such as offshore windparks. On the other hand, Kersty Hobson’s talk raised the issue that communities need support (sometimes time-consuming) to manage their internal affairs, rather than what researchers often believe, namely carbon quantification to then justify impact for fundraising.
The value of the networking opportunities given by the event’s international dimension was also applauded by many in the TESS team. Johanna facilitated a discussion group session, which she thought was: “A great way to give the people in the audience a possibility to ask questions and reflect what they’ve heard, including those who might feel uncomfortable asking questions in front of everyone”. Alessandra also enjoyed the interactive parts of the day, saying: “The quick unfolding of the debate and the frequent opportunities for speakers and audience to interact and exchange reflections and comments made the success of the day, always engaging and stimulating.”
A reflection on research themes was given by Barcelona’s Isabelle Anguelovski, who observed: “As initiatives unfold, it looks like their consolidation and development will involve fruitful internal debates that could be called “fertile dilemmas.” She explained that these dilemmas help initiatives clarify their role, place, and vision, and make them more reflective and engaged, and discussed them in relation to political questioning, the external pressures versus personal values which would drive a community transition and the scale at which they would act. She also took from the day the theme of a risk of ‘fake and weak’ transition, which benefits the privileged rather than promoting equality, or could be appropriated by government or high income groups.
A personal response to the power of community transition was given by Philip Revell of TESS partner, Climate Futures, who also shared this on the day: “For me, the biggest crisis that we currently face is actually a crisis of imagination. The transition to renewable energy is an opportunity to re-imagine a future based on small-scale, decentralized solutions that can unleash the creative capacity of us all to create our own, sustainable and resilient communities, focused on growth in well-being rather than ever growing consumption. If, without waiting for ‘permission’ we can set up local projects that start to spark a new imagination, perhaps we can give Governments the courage they need to take the bold, enabling steps necessary for long-term transformation.
The day was expertly organised by TESS partner, the James Hutton Institute, whose team members each took turns presenting and facilitating sessions seamlessly, too. Liz Dinnie, who runs the Hutton team, had the combination of feelings so many event organisers do: “It was great to see so many people attend an event that we had organised… I found the speakers extremely knowledgeable in their field, and was pleased at the diversity of areas covered, from city-regions in Liverpool, to monitoring of impact and a food initiative that is not about food! Challenging for me was that I did not have time to mix with delegates as much as I would have liked as during lunch we selected the questions for the afternoon debate.” Some others regretted not having more time to see the posters on TESS research and case studies, which were on display in a side room. Others suggested the TESS project could have been more prominent on the day – advice for the project team to consider.
The art of listening: Emily Hinshelwood’s poetic summary of the day
Emily Hinshelwood’s poem summed up and closed the unconference in a colourful, witty and memorable way. Through the day, she was to be seen with huge sheets of white paper with underlined subject headers dotted across them, scribbling a list of rhyming words underneath – the creative process in action. She managed to pull off the impossible and produced a poem which was profound and insightful, serious yet witty. It left a smile on everyone’s face and won the longest applause. Here is its text in full:
So we’re gathered at the Centre for Carbon Innovation
with colleagues from half a dozen European nations;
the conference question for the day is planted in our heads:
‘Can Transition to a better world be … locally led?’
Is it just a question of persuading all the masses
to be a bit more careful when they’re burning greenhouse gases?
Or are we so addicted to our fossil fuel emissions, that we’d
better just sit tight and let our leaders make decisions?
Or is there scope – is there a role
for people – actual people – to take control?
It’s pretty clear that cutting carbon isn’t going very well:
Global markets, Crazy targets
Up the junction, with mass consumption
Tax incentives and entrenched
faith in the oath that capitalist growth
will fix this mammoth environmental threat.
That’s like – trying to cure cancer by prescribing cigarettes!
We heard about Transition Towns
De-growth that gets us all to slow down
Places that went to green from brown
Bikes in cities that were hand-me-downs
back on the street cutting down heat
by a ton of carbon everyday!
That’s local people leading the way!
We heard about Samso Island of Green
where they’ve cut back their use of gasoline.
And projects like the one in Berlin
where they’re grabbing out food that’s gone in the bin.
Hosting fridges, picking out pastries
This is good food and it’s usually quite tasty!
The Finnish farms, the sharing of cars.
Ordinary people leaving the bars,
or the pubs, or wherever it is they’re having a drink
and they’re thinking there’s a chink in this life.
We’ve got to do something if we’re going to survive:
“Wanna do something about Globalisation?
Plant some sweetcorn outside the station!”
It may sound simple but the idea has spread –
it’s just a case of building a few raised beds.
It doesn’t need to be clever or never been done.
It’s got to be simple, it’s got to be cheap
and it’s got to be fun!
This is just a sample,
of concrete examples.
But there’s no silver bullet
there’s no simple rule that
what’s good for Totnes
is good for Liverpool.
Coz everywhere is different
and it would be the case
that things aren’t the same
when they’re in another place.
And what level do we work at?
the household or the state?
Do we aim for adaptation
or try to mitigate?
or just….. wait
for that miracle?
Yet all the scientists agree
that we’re on the path to four degrees.
We’ve got to do something, we’re running out of time
before we pass the stage of no return.
Is it idealistic, is it naïve
that the answer will be somewhere up a politician’s sleeve?
And can we measure and analyse?
Can we question and prioritize?
and ask the whos and whats and whys?
and can we be fair and can we succeed?
and what does it even mean – to Lead?
And while we’re at it, what is Place?
And what is Local anyway?
And who are People and who are We?
and what is Sustainability?
But there is one thing we know – Goddammit –
We’re going to bloody well save this planet!
Post and images by Climate Futures
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/