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Imagining a better future

Alexis Rowell argues for a political approach to solving the eco-crisis, and in this way he moves beyond the anti-political idealism of the Transition Movement. Review by Susan Jappe.

Alexis Rowell’s new book springs from the urgency of reversing the dependency on oil and the short-termism of governments bent on economic growth at any cost.

It seeks to raise awareness and persuade people of their ability to bring about radical changes to protect future generations from the dual threats of climate change and the the end of cheap oil, which he argues is the basis of the market economy.

He supports the Transition Movement’s view that people must overcome their feelings of despair and inertia by imagining a better future, living in harmony with Mother Earth and increasing a sense of community values. Central to this is striving to take back control from the energy corporations and finding an alternative to an economy based on consumerism in one that is focused on local production for local needs.

Rowell predicts that a continued demand for oil to sustain present trends of growth will lead to wars in competition for declining supplies, so we need to prepare and not stick our heads in the sand. He quotes Martin Luther King who said “if central governments will not act, then local people have to, because procrastination is the thief of time”.

Although Rowell sees the need for “bottom-up” democracy to replace state power,  he believes this can be achieved through existing structures of local government, leaving central government unchallenged.

He draws on his experience as a frustrated ‘eco-warrior’ who then chose to work from the inside, by becoming elected as a councillor in the London Borough of Camden. He says he came to realise the crucial role of local government in planning and control, and worked on ways to overcome the council’s bureaucracy and reluctance to change.

Local councils have some autonomy from central government, and Rowell argues that people who feel disempowered need a manual about working within ‘council culture’. He also calls on more eco-activists to join him on the inside to speed up change. He gives examples of ‘eco-councillors’ who have succeeded in bringing about changes to increase the localisation of food and energy provision, but highlights blockages from commercial interests.

Rowell suggests using existing local government legislation that gives communities rights to take over assets, and in fact the coalition’s Localism Act will take these options even further. Workers will be entitled to propose to take over and run their sphere of council service as a non-profit trust, and communities will be able to apply to take over and run assets like libraries or swimming pools threatened with closure. Of course that won’t close the funding gap, or protect the jobs of those working for local authorities, the idea being to replace them with unpaid volunteers.

Rowell argues that for these ideas to work for the benefit of the environment and sustainable energy use, there needs to be a working partnership between councils and the rapidly expanding Transition Movement, with its key concepts of resilience and re-localisation, to build a grass-roots movement to bring about innovation for a low carbon future.

In A World to Win we would argue that whilst using the new localism legislation is an attractive option, it is in reality impossible to bring about real change through existing structures with their ties to big business, the market in welfare and the coercive national state.

We need to establish People’s Assemblies to replace local authority with local democratic control by the community. This would be not only a means of moving forward to a more eco-friendly localism, it could also remove the power of local authorities to carry out the coalitions cuts. This is an urgent issue because the cuts are already happening, including in the London Borough of Camden where youth centres, older people’s lunch clubs, libraries, and childcare are being shut down wholesale and hundreds of jobs are threatened.

The book contains many examples of attempts to increase biodiversity and green spaces in cities, build houses based on energy efficiency following the Passivhaus model , co-operate with the local council in setting up renewables such as wind-farms and solar panel stations, as the OVESCo group has done in Lewes, or building sustainable housing as in the experimental BedZed community in the London Borough of Sutton.

Rowell also discusses how to persuade councils to ‘buy green’ through the process of procurement, and using local currencies like the Brixton pound to encourage small local businesses to thrive. Other topics covered with a wide range of interesting examples from Transition Towns in Britain and Europe, are recycling, low carbon transport (including the success of local communities and councils in preventing the building of a third runway at Heathrow), water conservation and measurements of well-being such as the ‘living better; using less’ campaign in Caerphilly. These and other inspiring ventures are brought to life by a wealth of photos, and practical advice.

He finishes with this wake-up call for co-operation by Tasmanian ecologist Bill Mollison: “We will either survive together, or none of us will survive.”

24 January 2011

Communities, Councils and a Low Carbon Future: what we can do if governments won’t by Alexis Rowell published by Transition Books, paperback £14.95

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