First things first


Monday, 10 November 2008

Post-oil Westcombe - do we have what it takes to survive and thrive?

How well will Westcombe Park and its people manage in a world of more scarce, expensive oil? Is our neighbourhood simply too urban and too dependent upon the black goo, and might it - and much of the rest of London - have to be abandoned because it simply can't provide enough of its basic necessities for itself?

Everyone will have a different view on this, and it would be interesting to hear them. For now, this is just my musing. But starting with the area's physical resources, here is what we might have going for us:


Despite being in what is officially an inner London borough, we live in a famously green part of town. There are many big houses with many large gardens. In the early 90s, when the international blockade of Cuba really bit hard, that country went through a very difficult couple of years. But now? Now Havana provides 60% of its basic food needs from not just Cuba but from inside the city itself, thanks to its extensive network of allotments, kitchen gardens and community gardens. That's a remarkable turnaround, and while there's an argument to be had over whether our society can so quickly do what a socialist command economy could organise, it shows that physically there could be the capacity to feed ourselves.

Less lawn, more veg, fewer fuschias and more marrows, would not be a great sacrifice. For flat dwellers, there is an embryonic trend for garden-sharing with those unable to tend their gardens, and we could see more partnerships like that to ensure that everyone has access to food-growing land and that no potentially productive land is wasted.

Parks and heath

Blackheath, Greenwich Park and a scattering of smaller public gardens and parks are on our doorstep. Greenwich Park, while its status is now sacrosanct - see the high emotions over using it for the 2012 equestrian events - is there as a massive green space if needed.

The heath may not be good growing ground - I don't know, but I suspect that that is why it is heathland in the first place, rather than having been put to productive use - but it is worth researching what we could grow there. Could we grow willow or other fast-growing wood for fuel? And I can't be the only one who's been buffeted crossing the heath and thought there must be the wind resources there for a couple of turbines to provide us with a useful, if not huge, amount of electricity. We should find out.

We know that in the heath gravelpits, just south of the Vanbrugh Park estate, the ground is good enough for medium-sized trees, including healthy cherry trees, so perhaps we could use that ground for a community orchard, with apples and pears. Transition Town Totnes has declared its aim to become the 'nut tree capital of Britain'. Can we let them get away with that? I say a bit of healthy competition from us would do us all good.


There could be another golden age of rail dawning, as the individual motor car becomes too expensive to run. We're lucky to be well served by a series of railway stations - a very good thing if these remain operational, allowing us to get some of our food and other supplies from the countryside surrounding London. We also, of course, have good access not far away to the mighty Thames, whose importance as a transport and trade route might enter another golden age of its own as road and air freight succumb to prohibitively high fuel costs.

Skills and knowledge

This is possibly the area in which every 'developed' society has to do the most work in order to prepare for and thrive in an age of less oil. Skills such as food growing, basic carpentry and even herbalism were once handed down from generation to generation. For the first time in human history, last century that large-scale inheritance of knowledge has been decimated. Most of us have lost the basic skills such as pulling food from the ground. Most of us do highly specialised jobs and have not had the time to apply ourselves to learn other skills. But they are out there - there are talented gardeners, DIYers, builders, engineers and many other useful people in our communities, in our families. It is time for us to get together to start spreading around and teaching the skills we do have.

Other issues

Oil is so all-pervasive in our lives that it seems almost impossible to list all the ways in which scarce, expensive oil will affect us, and there are many important subjects that I don't have the knowledge even to speculate on. For example, will our water and sewage systems be affected, and if so how do we cope and set up alternative systems? How will we be able to treat the sick and care for the vulnerable? All this will become clearer if we put our heads together.


Do we have a sense of community strong and secure enough to take on this often daunting task of adapting to a life after easy oil? Or might we turn on each other in a desperate resource grab?

I've only lived here a few years, so I can't answer definitively. London as a whole is an attraction to many people because of the anonymity it gives us - we can each get on with our atomised lives with minimum interference from others. The downside is that many of us aren't rooted in our community and don't know our neighbours. At crunch time, that means we care less about each other's mutual welfare and don't have the local knowledge of what skills and resources are out there that could help us collectively.

In Westcombe Park I hope it is not as bleak as that. Many of the local houses are so big that they will not be economic to heat. Many seem like fortresses with their high walls and their residents who leave the area by car in the morning, returning in the evening. And many of those jobs that we commute to will no longer be viable.

But we have some real assets. We have the Westcombe News keeping us in touch with each other, we have fairly quiet streets to allow interaction between neighbours, we have amenity societies and 'Friends of' groups dedicated to protecting the community. We have local businesses where many of us know the shopkeepers' names, we have Mycenae House as a useful meeting place to bring people together.

I think the main thing to make us optimistic about our prospects is that we know we have a community - both geographical and human - that is worth caring about. That's a great head start.

What will be really interesting is if others join this conversation, bringing their own skills, resources, local knowledge, connection, friends, neighbours and imagination to this debate - and then begin to make our ideas a reality. And the sooner we start, the better chance we have of shaping the future that we actually want.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

'The transitions of Addison county'

If we are able to get a Transition Westcombe process off the ground, how might it look at the beginning?

Hopefully as positive and exciting as this account of a transition-style event which was held in Addison County, Vermont last month.

It shows how motivating the process can be, asking people to imagine how they would want their community to look in 20 years time in an age of oil scarcity and much lower energy use - and then to plan for those desirable changes. Rather than wondering what can be salvaged from a doom and gloom scenario, it acknowledges that life could be better in many ways.

As one of the facilitators put it:

I remember hearing David Suzuki speaking once about some of these necessary changes. At the end of the lecture, someone put up their hand and said, Do you really think people in a country like this are willing to lower our standard of living? And his answer was, "I'm talking about raising our standard of living."

If we could liver closer to where we work, in larger, multigenerational groups, if we could grow and cook more of our own food; if we could transport ourselves much more with muscle power, if we could provide more of our entertainment, we would be moving in the direction not only of land stewardship, but of pleasure, shared pleasure. Not just sitting in heavy traffic in a really expensive car.

It's a good read, do click through to the article. And if you're interested, here is the Addison County transition website.