Last week I posted a birthday video on YouTube – 5 years has passed since August 2008 when Transition Town High Wycombe formed. It was time for reflection. A lady I spoke to at Wycombe Harvest told me that she had lived in High Wycombe 30 years but had never heard of Transition Town High Wycombe. I shrugged. Such was our failure to break out into the broad-lit uplands of the public consciousness.
The nice lady added “…but I have heard of Transition Town Marlow“. I should have had the presence of mind to ask “how?” but I delivered a long list of TTHW achievements as my answer. I will let my reader speculate. [The YouTube video is over four minutes long. It was edited down from about 9 minutes of material. That 9 minutes was a small fraction of the material I had available. Those materials were a log of pictures taken at various events, ie, the events where someone took a camera along. It is actually quite hard to boil down five years into four minutes. Try it for your own life. It is tough. Why four minutes? Well it was the length of the 1980’s hit record “Harvest Home” by Big Country that I had chosen as a soundtrack. We could have made a movie but four minutes is enough. A taster.]
Transition Town High Wycombe started in 2008 because we didn’t wait for someone else to do it. That is the spirit of “just doing stuff” we embraced. Don’t wait for permission. Just do it. We hold a candle for Transition still in High Wycombe but it was like a firework. Brief flame, colour and excitement – all over too quickly just leaving the lingering odour of cordite. Anybody, to this day, can pick it up and run with it. But it is not a burden for one man or women to bear. It deserves some energy, respect and a little TLC. Transition continues in High Wycombe because people work together. It is not a prop for other ambitions because Transition doesn’t belong to anyone – it is YOUR Transition… It is an idea…. And to borrow a phrase from the movie “V for Vendetta”; “…ideas are bulletproof“. Transition here is an open door. It just needs “the right people” to push it open yet “the right people” don’t yet realise that THEY are the right people.
The reason why these things are difficult is because we don’t all want the same things. I recently read the Andrew Simms book “Cancel the Apocalypse” (ISBN 978-1-40870-236-9 published by Little, Brown in 2013) which pummelled into me the author’s idea that consumption = bad. This way of thinking teaches us that materialism is evil. It extolls the virtue of a return to the good life of voluntary simplicity.
I have deep sympathy for some of this but I chuckle at the bewilderment when these ideas don’t become mainstream. They blame the media, they blame the banks, they blame corporations, they blame politicians, they blame advertising, etc, etc… Yes, they all play their part but we have to be honest about the real problem: it is us (& our hypocrisy). We always point fingers at other people as if it is THEM who over-consume. It is THEM that have the over-population problem. THEY are engaged in conspicuous consumption. THEY are materialistic. But is it simply… us?
I have read a million words that have convinced me that material goods are not a source of happiness but I remain partially unconvinced. This is too simplistic. Having stuff is not a bad thing in its own right. Having stuff could be quite sustainable. It depends on what the stuff is for starters.To get things into context you have to pick up on an idea that the Union of Concerned Scientists explored; the environmental impact of your latest gadget is in proportion to it’s weight. Hence your home has a bigger footprint than your car. You car is more environmentally unfriendly than you computer. You computer is less benign than a copy of the TV Times. And so on. Big things matter. This is why you should have a small car, an energy efficient home and a very small computer. Beyond that you really should learn to stop worrying.
Not only is it size that matters but it is our relationship with the goods we own. Personally I have quite a few material items. Every one I have treasured. I still listen to CD’s I bought when I was in my early twenties. My bookshelves have the same well-thumbed works that I have had for twenty years. In my early years I would enjoy thumbing through other people’s music collections only to come across items with price labels on. When I questioned why, the collector would admit that he or she had never listened to that CD. Some people buy items on a whim for an instant fix of gratification. This, I guess, is the big difference.
If I take myself, as an example, I used to religiously listen to every CD about 50 times to get my money’s worth. Whether I liked it or not. I have a good selection of well used DIY tools. Not for me the power drill only used for twenty minutes a year. Mine has drilled a thousand holes and is good for thousand more. This defines two entirely different relationships with consumer goods. The difference between truly valuing an item – as worth having, NOT as a brief distraction from the daily grind. If you have wholly intrinsic values you will value the world around you and gain nothing but enormous pleasure from the things you own. You will make them last for this is a reflection of who you are. This sort of person can be happy with lots of possessions or very few. Material goods can make you happy and keep you happy – but they won’t deliver nirvana.
The other sort of person will never be gratified – but they tell themselves they will be. For these people hell is a full shopping mall and an empty wallet. No wonder there is so much consumer debt. But who amongst us will admit to being this sort of extrinsic personality? Not I. We all rationalise away the stuff we own. We are not honest with ourselves. I include myself. I simply cannot decide whether some of the stuff I have is good or bad – it is just stuff I collected because experience showed me that these things would be really, really useful – and I like having them. They really do make me happy. They are on a list which includes my family first & foremost, but some material possessions are there too – just a bit further down. Am I deluded?
Being happy or unhappy is about who you are. We can be happy with less stuff and smaller stuff but let’s not pretend that living in a mud-hut with only a Pat Boon record for company is a persuasive advert for a life in Transition. Simply telling people to turn down their thermostat and do without is not a tool of mass engagement. But those tools are out there. They come in the shape of NCT sales, EBay and Freegle. The things we buy can live on and on and on – long after they have ceased to be of use to you. This is not an excuse for mindless moments of instant gratification. Make sure you need what you buy and then treasure these items. However we all grow out of the things we own. Your life changes, you move on. There is no shame in giving an object a good life and then giving it to someone who can reciprocate.
What really are the limits to the stuff we have? Those limits are set by nature and our own ingenuity. One is bounded within this one little planet & the sunlight that falls upon it, the other is infinite [yet we still cannot overcome the laws of physics]. Our civilisation can achieve a steady state of consumption; a cradle to cradle existence easily as fun and exciting as the culture we have today. What has become key to me over the last few years is this: can everyone else share?
Most people on this little blue speck cannot consume like we do. Most people will NEVER be able to because the wealthiest people are consuming natural capital that cannot be replaced in our lifetimes. THAT realisation places a limit on what we do. It is, in the end, an ethical decision.
I hope that one day all seven billion of us can have a nice home, three square meals a day, a mode of transport, a method of instant communication with loved ones and a meaningful, secure existence. The road THERE is not the one we are on. My Transition would see us shifting to that track. Not only because we deserve it, but because so many other people deserve it too.