"To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing." - Raymond Williams

Transcript of Radio Ecoshock interview

by Shaun Chamberlin on June 9th, 2010

a-Infos Radio Project

Christopher Fraser of London Transition has kindly transcribed the popular interview with Canada’s Radio Ecoshock that I posted a couple of months back. I’ve also added links at a few pertinent points.

Alex Smith, Radio Ecoshock: [addressing audience] You know we’re going to run out of civilisation’s lifeblood, fossil fuels. And if we burn what’s left, the climate may tip into a mass extinction event. Meanwhile barking madness seems to be the only growth industry in some places. Is it time for more pills, booze or Endtime religion?

Our next guest says there may be some hope left. Shaun Chamberlin’s blog is called Dark Optimism, and that may be as good as it gets. Shaun is part of the Transition Movement in Britain; he’s the author of the new book The Transition Timeline for a local, resilient future, and co-author of an upcoming report for the British Parliament on a scheme to give everyone an energy quota. Shaun, welcome to Radio Ecoshock.

Shaun Chamberlin, Dark Optimism: Thanks for having me, Alex.

AS: OK, well let’s start with what is Dark Optimism?

SC: [Laughs] Well, it all started talking with a friend of mine who was trying to work what kind of person I am, what kind of a thinker I am, and I was lying in bed that night thinking about it and it sort of came to me in a flash that I’m a dark optimist. And over time it became the title for the work that I do, but really it’s looking at life and not being afraid to look at it when it’s dark, when it scary, which as you well know if you look into the future it certainly can be at the moment, but with a faith that if we explore the unknown we often find that when things are unknown they are more scary than when we look at them. In all the horror movies you will find the scariest monsters are the ones you never see and you just imagine, so looking into the darkness is a tool that brings us realism that we can then use to create a better future than the one that we’re left with by running away from that darkness.

AS: Yes, and you’ve been looking less for a technical fix and more to some of the stories we tell ourselves. How can that help us out?

SC: Yeah, well this ties in a lot with my book. When I was doing the research for that it was a project that came out of the Transition movement, and various of the transition communities were trying to write their Energy Descent Action Plans – looking 20 years into the future of their own communities. And they found that was very difficult because they needed to know about some of the big scale issues that were going to affect their communities, but which maybe they couldn’t themselves directly affect. So things like climate change and peak oil, but also government policy decisions, national food supply, things like this.

And as I looked at the shape of our future I realised that it’s really shaped by the cultural stories that we tell ourselves, the narratives which flow throughout our culture, and really I found in my opinion there are three dominant stories which really shape our ideas. And one is the idea that the future will basically look like today, that we’ll just carry on much the same, and you see that a lot in government documents for example that assume this has happened up until so we assume that this line, that trend, will carry on into the future. And a second story that is very powerful is the apocalypse story, whatever that looks like, whether that’s religious apocalypse or The Terminator, or the Age Of Stupid. Whatever form that takes that’s a narrative that we see throughout our culture. And the third one I think, as you have just hinted, is the techno-utopia idea that science and progress will save us all and that we’ll move onto this maybe Star Trek kind of a future. And those three stories I’ve found when I was talking to a huge diversity of people about our future I could usually categorise them quite easily into one, or more than one sometimes, sometimes there’s a compound vision based on a couple of those. And so one of the things that we are trying to do in the Transition movement is create a fourth story of our future – a story that is based around realistically looking at the limits, the environmental limits, that we’re starting to really bump up against and creating a better future within that realist context.

AS: It seems to me at times that the denial movement or just letting things keep on going the way it is, may be the way it turns out. Did you work out in your book what that world would look like in 2020 or 2030?

SC: Absolutely. I mean one of the things I really learned in writing the book was about Resilience – which is one of the core concepts in Transition – that it is very important not to just create a single vision of the future but rather to explore adequately a set of different visions. And so what we did in the writing of the book was explore four of those scenarios, based on each of the four stories I’ve just talked about, and look at a timeline for each of those out to 2030. I like to say resilience is humility in action. We have to accept that as the Chinese say “when men speak of the future the Gods laugh.” We have to accept that we don’t know what’s coming and the most sensible things that we can do are things which are useful in a range of possible futures. So absolutely, that’s something we explored, looking at how each of those cultural stories would pan out taken to its logical conclusion, but then looking in a lot more depth at the Transition Vision, for the simple reason that that doesn’t have a lot of traction in our society at the moment, and I think it really needs fleshing out so that people can feel that’s it’s a real vision that can get them out of bed in the morning.

AS: I find it interesting that while you’re advocating and talking about joining a community movement at the local level to get away from fossil fuel dependency, you’re also helping with a national action plan by the UK government. Can you give us a peek into the upcoming report on Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) and maybe start by explaining that those are?

SC: Well Tradable Energy Quotas is a concept which has gone by a lot of names, things like carbon rationing and energy rationing very much among then. I think at the moment, certainly among green circles, there is a lot of backlash against this idea of “tradable” in that with good reason carbon trading is something which is deeply mistrusted. But when it comes to looking at the practical detail of how an energy or carbon rationing scheme would operate, tradability becomes essential to the concept, because unlike something like food which certainly here in the UK we have living memory experience of food rationing, but food is something that people need basically the same amount of each, roughly speaking. Energy is not quite like that in that certain professions, a country doctor, say, or perhaps a farmer, require more energy than other lifestyles, and so if we just gave everyone a [strict] equal entitlement of energy then we would end up with all the above-average energy use professions in the country ceasing to exist overnight, which obviously would not be of great advantage to the society.

So the idea of Tradable Energy Quotas is essentially that once you’ve got your constraint, whether that’s a nation carbon budget or whether that’s a national oil depletion or gas depletion problem perhaps, that gives you a declining budget which you can then lay out over say a 20 year period. Then that budget is turned into essentially rations for the economy, and those are giving out on an equal per capita basis to every individual in the country, while the proportion that is relevant to industry and organisations is auctioned to those organisations. And this means that all the energy and carbon within the economy can be captured and accounted for and the carbon budget can actually be achieved, which is something which is really lacking in our international negotiations at the moment — there are all sorts of promises with very little idea of how to achieve them. So those can actually be achieved without the need to measure tailgate emissions on cars or specific emissions from a particular factory because it’s done at the national scale. [for more information see www.teqs.net]

And as you say it sort of does seem like there is a contradiction between addressing things at that level and the community scale, and I think my personal journey was that maybe five years ago or so when I was wonder what I could do about this global situation my first thought was I need to get involved in the Conference Of Parties process, the UN Copenhagen, Kyoto type process because that seemed to me where the big action is at, that’s where I can really make a difference. And there was a quote from my now-colleague David Fleming which really changed my whole perspective on that. He said “large scale problems do not require large scale solutions, they require small scale solutions within a large scale framework” and the more I think about that the more I see the truth in it. And so really what I’ve been doing since then in my life is working at the small scale, working on those small scale solutions, trying to support the wonderful diversity of solutions, not just Transition Towns, but the huge diversity of local solutions that are out there, but also recognising that we really do need those frameworks to harness all those individual efforts and ensure they are sufficient for the scale of the challenges that we face. Otherwise, you know, obviously something like climate change is a problem where if one group does their bit and another group doesn’t then we don’t have a solution.

So we do need these frameworks, but I really feel that without a focus on the local and individual levels the frameworks are empty. Actually, the real realisation for me was when I thought ‘what is the point of something like Copenhagen?’, I mean if Copenhagen had produced the kind of treaty we all dreamed of, really that would have meant nothing if it didn’t stimulate change at the local level. I mean that’s where all the emissions come from, that’s where all the energy demand comes from. So all of the international and national level stuff only exists as a way to stimulate and support changes at the community level and once that sort of clicked in my head it became very obvious that the community level would become the focus of my efforts, while still trying to contribute to getting some kind of reasonable framework at that level.

AS: I can see how these Tradable Energy Quotas would give the individual more of a chance to figure out their own solutions, but I think we all have the worry, and does this address it, that somehow the fat cats are going to keep flying around and driving in limousines and wasting energy in huge houses, while the poorest among us will have trouble getting enough energy for heating their homes if peak oil comes around and if there’s a shortage of supply. How do we get around that?

SC: Sure, I mean that’s obviously the fear with the tradable ration rather than absolute rationing. I think the key thing to remember is that in such a scheme it’s absolutely true that the rich would be able to buy surplus rations from the poor if the poor found that they had surplus rations. And really that is just a consequence of the fact that we live in a capitalist system. This is not a suggestion that overthrows capitalism, and it is a fundamental fact of capitalism that if you’re richer you can consume more stuff – but really the critical thing about this scheme is that it changes the current picture. Whereas currently if oil for example is in short supply it goes to either the person who can bid the most or the person who moves the quickest and gets to the gas station first. Under this scheme, if the rich did consume more [than their equal share] they would actually be paying the poor directly for the privilege, so it would actually be redistributing the wealth from the high consumers to the low. So not only would it create a very strong incentive for people at all income levels to reduce their [consumption] it would also ensure that people were compensated directly if there was an imbalance in energy usage throughout the economy.

AS: Recently in the United States there are been threats of revolution and rage over a very basic plan for health care coverage. Imagine the furore if gas happy citizens are told that big government is going to ration your energy supplies. That’s going to be real problem, and yet when I look at Saudi Arabia and Kuwait building up their own energy and using their own oil supplies and I look at what’s happening in China – all the car sales and everything – it looks like rationing is almost inevitable sooner or later.

SC: Well absolutely, this is the fundamental problem that environmental thinkers have had for a very long time – really what we’re doing here is recognising pre-existing natural limits and trying to address them in a rational way. And again this comes back to the issue of cultural stories. If our cultural story tells us that there is infinite abundance and that human ingenuity will continue to create energy sources out of nothing forever more, than if anyone comes along and tells you that they want to ration it then obviously they are an enemy and must be opposed.

On the other hand if our stories tell us that we’re moving into a period where we’re really approaching our environmental limits and we need to address that in the most sensible, painless, rational way possible, then suddenly sharing out what is available in the fairest possible way becomes a no-brainer. So really this is why a lot of my work focuses on shifting these cultural perspectives, because as you say the political battles needed to implement something like a national rationing scheme will never be won while the current cultural stories that shape the discourse are in place.

AS: Your report for The Lean Economy Connection gives two reasons for tackling carbon: we’re bound to run out of supplies and it’s wrecking the atmosphere. But I’ve just read in the Guardian newspaper, March 22nd, about a government advisory board giving a third reason – one I’ve been harping on about – the pollution from burning carbon, mostly from cars, is killing city dwellers by the thousands. The committee of MPs estimate up to 50,000 people die prematurely in Britain alone every year due to smog. Will you add that list of motivations to clean up the system?

SC: Well, absolutely. That is a critical thing. It’s very interesting at the moment that our UK Government is seemingly having a bit of a change of heart on its attitude towards fossil fuels. There’s that report you’ve just mentioned and there’s also, just yesterday, a report by a group called the Peak Oil Taskforce, which is an industry group made up of some of our biggest companies, including Virgin — whose chairman Richard Branson is very well known here, I don’t know how well his fame has spread across the Atlantic — and some of our big transportation groups, our rail companies, have launched a report basically stating that as an industry they are deeply, deeply worried that Governments aren’t taking peak oil seriously enough and that they really need some support on this from the government level. And the government put out a statement yesterday essentially saying that they’re a bit confused because on one hand they’ve got the likes of Shell telling them there’s nothing to worry about, on the other they’ve got some of their biggest industry representatives saying that they’re terribly worried about it. So they have now called together a ‘Colloquium’ I think they’ve called it, pulling together some of their biggest stakeholders on this issue to try to get to the bottom of why there is so much disagreement. And we’ve got a couple of representatives from the UK Transition movement going along to that meeting.

It is interesting that whereas a few years ago you were laughed out of the room for talking about the need to get off fossil fuels, these days it seems almost zeitgeisty.

AS: Yes. This is Radio Ecoshock, we’re talking with Shaun Chamberlin, a British author and thinker who’s deeply involved with the Transition movement. And I want to ask you now, how can we use this Transition Movement to turn what looks like despair into better lives around us?

SC: Wow – there’s a big question! I suppose despair, in a strange way, has a certain motivation within it, in that despair is looking at what we expect the future to look like and realising that it isn’t what we want. And I think we can channel that part of despair and if we can make people understand that a different future is possible then suddenly that despair becomes not a sort of motivation to inaction, but a huge motivation to action. I suppose that really is the dark optimism idea in practice. So again it’s about this Transition Vision of what our future could look like, and trying to make that a visible reality that people can see and feel that they can get involved with.

I think part of the beauty of Transition is that it operates on a human scale, and you’re getting together with a group of maybe 15 other people from your local community to work on a particular practical project, and there’s something in us that just functions on that scale. You know, the people who are thinking about the kind of topics that are maybe often talked about on Radio Ecoshock, we’re used to thinking about how can we feed 7 billion people or whatever, but it’s a very hard job to get a human brain to think on that kind of scale. Whereas operating at the human scale soothes that despair by saying ‘well here I am doing something practical, doing something real, and doing it with my community’, and while there’s part of your brain saying “oh, but is that enough, is it sufficient?” that’s soothed by the knowledge that there’s this movement of thousands of communities around the world that are doing the same thing. And given the abject failure of the international political process to deal with the scale of the problems we’re looking at, that’s where the relief from despair can come.

AS: Yes, there’s some healing from learning to grow food or learning a skill or meeting with others to get something done. I was wondering if you can give us some specifics from the Transition community that you’ve been working with?

SC: Yeah, I’m based in Kingston Upon Thames, which is a suburb in south west London. And some of the things we’ve been doing, we’ve had quite an engagement with our local allotment group and we’ve people who are working to try and expand the space that is available for food growing locally both through getting more land allocated to that but also things like working with our local council here, trying to get flower beds and things turned into edible flower beds which are still as attractive but also creating more usefulness and creating more local resilience through that. That would be one example where our local groups have been working to do something which feels engaging, which feels pleasurable, which feels like it’s tangible and is building something, but also which creates a demonstration for the rest of the community of what Transition is about. And of course builds up food resilience so that if we do come to a situation where we’re really struggling to get by then we’re creating more resilience to that. For me personally one of the things that I find most important about Transition is that it’s a process which makes sense whether or not we win the fight on climate change, if you like. Whether we’re fighting to avoid the tipping points into unstoppable runaway climate change, Transition has a very important role in trying to win that fight. But equally, if we lose that fight Transition is going to have a very important role to play in creating that resilience against the kind of situations we’re likely to find ourselves in. And I think for a lot of people who are deeply troubled by the fact that we could be losing that fight that is one of the most powerful aspects of it.

AS: You’ve just answered one of the questions I had which was that I’ve heard you say Climate Change may be unstoppable as early as 2016. That only give us five years, so a critic might say the Transition movement is going to be too slow to make significant changes by then, and ditto the slow drop by Tradable Energy Quotas – it might take years just to get public acceptance – so are you finding that you can overcome those fears and still get people going on these projects?

SC: Yeah, as I say I think the crucial thing is if that’s something which is a fear – and it certainly is a fear that I’ve spoken to lots of people who find it quite paralyzing – I think the key thing is to work on projects which, as I say, make sense either way. And Tradable Energy Quotas, yes, absolutely has a role in allowing nations to be able to meet the incredibly stringent carbon targets that are going to be necessary if we are going to avoid unstoppable runaway [climate change]. But equally, even if we cross those tipping points, we’re still going to have an energy problem, we’re still going to have this situation to deal with, and having those systems in place is going to make the response to that an awful lot more rational and sane. I think this two-pronged approach is the thing which can help people remain sane in times which, as you say, can be quite despair-filled for a lot of people who are trying to engage with these issues.

AS: There must be people in these communities who are very apathetic or even outright hostile to changes in their lifestyle? How do we handle that?

SC: Listening, I think, is the straightforward answer. Here in Kingston it’s a fairly affluent suburb on the whole, but equally we have council estates which are some of the most deprived areas of London. And trying to find common ground between the very different perspectives on life here has been one of our real challenges, and I think listening to each other and not feeling like “Oh, I’ve listened to Radio Ecoshock and I’ve heard this answer and I’m going to go out and apply it” but actually respecting the opinions of the different people and the stories that the different people bring and recognising that a diversity of outlooks and stories is a real strength. We don’t need to agree on every aspect of what the future is going to look like, what we need to do is have a diversity of stories from which we can choose and apply the most appropriate if we’re going to create the most positive future that we can.

AS: I sometimes see all these things – Transition, local community building, local food production – as sort of a lifeboat building process. But then again is there anything wrong with lifeboats if we think the ship might be sinking? Is that dark optimism?

SC: [Laughs] I think dark optimism would say there’s nothing wrong with lifeboats whether you think the ship is sinking or you think it will stay floating. Either way they’re good things, so there’s no harm in building them.

AS: [Laughs] OK. We’re starting to run out of time. Is there something else you would like tell our listeners at this point?

SC: Ah, that’s always a difficult question… I think the key thing is really to follow your passions, regardless of where it leads. I mean, if you feel like “ah, this climate change thing really just leaves me cold, and I can see that it’s incredibly important and I can see that it’s this huge world changing thing that is coming, but what I really want to be doing is making documentaries” or whatever that person’s passion is… creating great art… I think it’s very important that we do follow our passions.

There’s a quote that always inspired me which is “don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive”. There’s a guy here called David Attenborough who is a wildlife documentary maker for the BBC, and he has been doing that for his whole life – he’s getting on a bit now – and he’s generally regarded in all the polls on such things as the most trusted figure in Britain because we all learned about nature by watching his programmes. And when he came out in one of his programmes and said something like “the only question remaining on climate change now is whether it’s going to be a disaster or an outright catastrophe”, that was one of the key moments in our country for shifting the whole debate, the whole perspective, because everyone is so used to his word being law on the things he talks about. And I found that so interesting because I thought if he’d given up his passion to be a wildlife documentary maker and gone and spent his life campaigning on climate he might never had made as much impact on that very different issue as he did by doing the thing which made him come alive. So I think would be my one thing for people to take home. Don’t give up on what you’re passionate about. It’ll be useful.

AS: That is a beautiful vision.

I’m Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. Our guest has been Shaun Chamberlin. He’s working on a report to the British Parliament on energy rationing, his latest book is The Transition Timeline for a local, resilient future. And you can get that book, and a lot more of his stimulating views, at his blog: www.darkoptimism.org. Shaun, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us.

SC: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.

(Radio Ecoshock host Alex Smith’s writeup can be found here)

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