Ben Okri

Alma Robinson / allactiondigital.com / Alma Robinson / EMPICS Entertainment

What political or moral issue do you feel most strongly about at the moment?

The loss of our sense of wholeness, of vision, of a centre. I‘m concerned that we always try to change the surface of things without stopping long enough to look into the heart of our predicament. This could be the crisis facing the economy, the environment, Africa or the Middle East. We paper the cracks, we strengthen the pillars, we fix the roof, but we don’t look deep into the structural heart of the great issues and sort them out from the steadiness and truth of profound contemplation. It could be any issue; the problem is we suffer the consequences of not looking deeply enough.

When you moved from Britain to Nigeria as a child, what were the biggest contrasts that struck you?

I was struck by the vitality of Nigerian life, by the rich presence of stories and myths, and by the multidimensional quality in the air. There was, of course, a rich social and cultural life, but there was another level as well: something semi-spiritual, semi-legendary. What struck me about England was the order, the clarity and strength of the society, the coherence, the logic. In Nigeria I saw something approaching chaos, but it was richer for that. I have since found myself in dialogue with these two poles, and have come to the tentative conclusion that both poles need each other. Chaos needs order, and order needs some myth to make it richer. But at the moment the learning goes only one way. Nigeria is learning from England, but there is a lot England can learn from Nigeria too.

Who or what irritates you the most?

People who only see what there appears to be; people who insist that all there is to the world is what you can see. They perpetually resist the possibilities of the imagination. They hold back all kinds of progress with their limitations. These people are valuable because they compel us to make our dreams evident, but they reduce much of the marvel of existence – marvels increasingly revealed by science, marvels of the spirit. They are the ones who point to Africa and say, ‘Look at this mess, there is no future here’. They are the reducers of possibilities and there are a great number of them.

What do you wish journalists would ask you and never do?

The thing about journalists is that they ask very searching questions, but are not that interested in the deeper fundamental questions, partly because they take time to answer. But without asking the deeper philosophical questions, much of what is done is not thoroughly understood. The deeper words are not as newsworthy as the superficial words. That’s a shame, because there are deeper roots to what one does, and those motivations can be taken for granted. I’d like to take folks down and show them the good, strong roots that underpin things. But that’s not really the work of journalism: that is more philosophical investigation. From time to time I like the questions that you can roll up your sleeves for.

Can you describe your new book, A Time For New Dreams, to us?

It is a suite of short poetic essays, a meditation around the challenges and possibilities of our times, large and small. It is a contemplation of the relationship between the way the world looks and the core values that have given rise to our contemporary crisis. I have a strong sense that we are living in earth-shaking times. And by ‘the earth’ I mean our certainties, beliefs, dreams and social structures. All this is being shaken. We are being compelled to re-examine many of the ideas that underpin our society. The book is about the fact that we are in A Time For New Dreams. Our old dreams are exhausted. Throughout the world there is a cry for a new way of being, a new freedom for social justice and fairness. One of the most fundamental cries springing from our hearts is that these earth-shaking times are in fact giving us a new chance to re-dream our lives, and we should take it with courage.

A Time For New Dreams by Ben Okri (published in the UK by Rider Books) is out now.

Monica Ali

What political cause do you feel most passionate about at the moment?

This year is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Since 1911 we’ve come an awfully long way. But why, in 2011, are women performing 66 per cent of the world’s work, producing 50 per cent of the world’s food, and yet only earning 10 per cent of world’s income and owning one per cent of the world’s property?

When I started at senior school we had a woman Prime Minister, the Sex Discrimination Act had already been passed, and it seemed that the need to fight for equality would be over by the time I had a daughter of my own. But when I walk around with my daughter, who’s 10, she sees billboards of virtually naked women and she asks me, ‘Why has that woman got no clothes on, mum?’ And then she answers her own question – ‘It’s to sell, isn’t it?’ And she’s right, of course. But it’s also the wholesale sexualization of the culture, and it’s been dressed up in terms of female empowerment and individual freedom, and I think it’s very hard to be a little girl growing up to see and make sense of that for yourself. So putting feminism back at the centre of the agenda is what I feel most passionate about right now.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear personally is not having enough time to do everything I want to do. In terms of the wider world – where to start? There’s so much to worry about: poverty, climate change, pollution, the arms industry, the oppression of women, over-population… the list is long. I think one of the biggest worries is that the problems can seem so overwhelming that people disengage and switch off, as if there’s nothing that can be done. But no problem is totally intractable if the political will is there. So I think that’s the challenge – to keep engaging people to make their personal contribution, and not see it as too small to count.

Do you believe in multiculturalism?

Yes. One of the brilliant things about living in London is how diverse it is. One of the weaknesses of the ‘official’ multicultural model, however, was the way it encouraged different groups to compete (for instance for funding) by emphasizing their differences. It’s great to have differences, but there also needs to be some emphasis on the things that bring us together.

‘Princess Diana was like a hand grenade lobbed into the heart of the royal family. She stuck two fingers up to the Establishment’

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My kids and my dog, jumping on the bed. Also a cup of tea. Can’t start the day without one. After that, it’s whatever I’m working on. I’m always fired up about something. There’s also usually some sort of campaign on the go. At the moment it’s working on the membership committee of English PEN, which campaigns on behalf of writers around the world who have been imprisoned because of their writing. It’s a charity, and with all the funding cuts coming up, we need more members to secure our future. So the other day I was stuffing envelopes for a mailing.

What’s your earliest memory?

My mother reading The Story of Ferdinand to me and my brother on the flight out of Dhaka, when we left during the civil war. I was three and my brother was five.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a new novel just out, inspired by Princess Diana, and that’s keeping me busy. It’s a ‘what if’ story. What if she hadn’t died? A lot of people on the left sneered at the public reaction when she died. But she fascinated me. She wouldn’t, as she said herself, ‘go quietly’. She was like a hand grenade lobbed into the heart of the royal family. She stuck two fingers up to the Establishment. I wanted to examine the possibility of reinventing a life. Above all, by taking my fictional princess completely out of her old context, I was interested in, as always, the nature of identity: what makes us who we are.

Monica Ali’s Untold Story, a novel inspired by Princess Diana, is published by Doubleday.

Jack Mapanje

Keith Pattinson

What’s your earliest memory?

My father left us for South Africa when I was in the womb. He left to work in the mines and sent us money and photos for a while, but after that he disappeared and found a new family. He never returned. This meant I was brought up by my mother, who was a very good storyteller. We’d gather around the fire to hear her stories; the structure of her narratives still influences my poems now. My mum did what I do – pick up little ideas and link them to a bigger picture. The final bit of the story always had a ‘crunch’ – a final line that sums up the meaning of the whole piece.

Did anything good come from your time in prison?

If you decide to write in a dictatorship you have to find safe modes of expression. When I was in prison I continued to write in my head but I couldn’t publish anything because I had nothing to write on! I produced 25 poems in my head and I thought when I got out I’d get some paper and try and write them out. I couldn’t remember them all after three and a half years in prison, but I remembered the titles. So I sat down with the titles and tried to get them back, but I still have two or three that I haven’t recovered yet.

I remembered one recently in Vienna about when my son visited after I’d spent 22 months in prison. Prison had some positive effects on my writing. I had to develop metaphors that were concealed and not obvious and more imaginative. Most expression is surreptitious in a dictatorship; in prison it’s worse.

What are you politically passionate about?

Truth and freedom. The thing I like to hear about is people’s freedom. I’m writing a poem called ‘Egypt going up in flames’. What’s fascinating about Egypt is that it’s the story of ordinary people: workers and students getting together and saying no. Malawi was the same – the people were stifled. In our case, as in Egypt’s, the dictatorship lasted 30 years. Politicians think people are stupid, but when they begin to ask ‘what are we suffering for?’ everyone knows where the fate of politicians lies.

What’s your greatest weakness?

I take a long time to decide to take action; and I don’t talk about my achievements. If I had more confidence I’d be very famous, but I don’t speak out. Everything I need to talk about is in my poems – all my politics and my desires are there. The only problem is that people don’t read them! If they did they would know all about the politics, economics and society of Malawi. But I remember once reading from a holocaust survivor who said when you get out of a concentration camp, the world doesn’t seem interested in your story. I wish I could speak out more beyond my poetry; Malawians don’t speak out as much as they should. Maybe they think they have suffered enough.

So do you wish you had become a politician instead?

I don’t regret that I’m not a politician. I would like to influence them, but I learnt a long time ago that no matter how much advice you give them, they never listen. The politician and the poet are both looking for truth and an audience to convince, but the politician’s truth is rather shallow. The one the writer seeks is timeless.

Where do you feel most at home?

I feel most at home when it’s raining. Not too loud, but when it’s falling slowly: I like to sit and watch it. Back at home in Africa it came when the leaves were green; it’s very peaceful and serene. In the UK I like it when the snowflakes are falling and I’m watching them, maybe with a cup of tea. The world is very rough, and I don’t like it when it gets like that. I like it when it’s gentle and calm and peaceful. It can’t always be like that, but that’s what I like.

Jack Mapanje’s prison memoirs, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, will be published in June by Ayebia.

Stop the tar sands trade talks

In mid-January a dozen sharply dressed activists confidently swung through the glass doors of the department for Business, Innovation and Skills and occupied the swanky lobby. Their demand? To meet Lord Stephen Green. The former chairman of HSBC had recently been head-hunted by the coalition government to take over the role of Minister for Trade. Unelected, one of his first tasks is to oversee free trade talks between the EU and Canada, which many fear will deepen Europe’s involvement in the ecologically devastating Canadian tar sands oil industry.

The activists from UK Tar Sands Network had expected to be immediately thrown out, but the security guards looked on with interest as the protesters opened up their banners and delivered a noisy teach-in, educating the building’s employees about the trade deal no-one has heard of for half an hour.

‘We almost ran out of things to say!’ reports one of the activists, Emily, who was wearing glasses over her contact lenses to increase her smartness. ‘But it was really important to get the message out there. These trade negotiations are going to undermine all kinds of social and ecological rights, with virtually no public scrutiny.’

The CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) trade talks currently under way threaten to give EU companies such as BP and Shell the right to challenge Canadian environmental and social legislation that might otherwise curb this extremely environmentally damaging means of fossil fuel production. The talks also aim to open up the EU market to imports of carbon-intensive tar sands oil for the first time. As Emily explains, the activists want to stop both: ‘We’re trying to get Europe out of the tar sands and keep tar sands oil out of Europe.’

Although Lord Green was ‘not available’ on the day, officials did say he would meet the activists at a later date. He is yet to return their calls, but the action hasn’t stopped.

On 17 January, the UK Tar Sands Network teamed up with the Indigenous Environmental Network, Friends of the Earth Europe, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees and descended on Brussels to protest outside the trade talks themselves; quite a feat, given that their hush-hush nature meant the campaigners only discovered the meeting’s location on the day itself.

Similarly, when the Province of Alberta’s energy minister Ron Liepert showed up in London to lobby the UK to water down EU climate legislation, a band of UK Tar Sands Network activists were there to make sure he didn’t go unchallenged.

Jesse Jackson on regrets, rejoicing and racism

How has racism changed since you first became an activist?

I was born into segregation in the South and I couldn’t borrow library books, or skate on the same ice rink as white people, or vote in national elections. We won that battle. My parents fought in World War Two but they weren’t treated as equals, and we won that battle. We are a better nation because of it. We won the battle against apartheid in South Africa. All this gives me hope – but the battle is not over. We still have gross inequalities. Police profiling means that black and Asian people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. Banks are still profiling and hype up lending fees because of the zip code you live in. We have to fight racism wherever it exists, be it the police, healthcare or in the banks.

You were born to a 16 year-old single mum. In the UK the current government might classify you as part of broken Britain. Did your family ever feel broken?

Yes. But we have to work hard to overcome the brokenness. We all need strong families, and that means we need jobs for our parents to go into and education for our children. Sometimes you need to rely on extended families. I am where I am because I had a grandmother who looked after me, teachers who cared and had high expectations of me – people knew how to bring me up but not teach down to me. It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a strong and healthy village to raise all children well.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? You have been criticized for being anti-choice.

Define ‘feminism’. I respect the rights of women and I advocate for their human rights. Women have the right to self-determination – it’s wrong to say I’m against freedom to choose. I wouldn’t oppose reductions in the [abortion] time limit or repealing women’s rights. It [reproduction] is a choice women must make.

What’s your biggest regret? Do you wish you’d made the Presidential nomination?

One of my most painful moments was honestly the night that I watched Barack Obama be announced the winner – and knowing that [Martin Luther] King wasn’t there to witness it. Thank God, Mandela did get to see it. When I cried it wasn’t just for the moment, it was for the journey too. I was sad that all those who fought and paid their due couldn’t be there too. As for personal decisions I’ve made? You always wish that you used your time more wisely, but you have to live life to the full and hope you don’t regret. I wasn’t nominated as President even though I ran, but I accept that the role I played was an asset in climbing that particular mountaintop and I rejoice in that.

What do you think of Obama’s record in office? What else should he be focusing on?

He has a great record. He stopped the haemorrhaging of 750,000 jobs after the financial crisis and his election brought hope to people around the world. He provided healthcare to those who were sick and couldn’t afford it, and hope to those who wanted to give up. We are blessed to have him as the leader of the free world. Should he be doing things differently? No Ma’am.

Photo by: Cliff under a CC Licence

What is your relationship like with God?

One of prayer and faith. God is the spirit and God is love and I lean on his understanding. God is everywhere, his love is boundless and his love is my mission. He offers direction and inspiration. Acting out the word of God is heading in his direction. I am in no doubt that I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am without him.

Jesse Jackson was talking to the New Internationalist with Christian Aid at the launch of his new campaign StopWatch, which aims to clamp down on police powers to stop and search and racial profiling in the UK. For more information, visit www.runnymedetrust.org and www.christianaid.org.uk.

Margaret Atwood

George Whiteside

Why do women fascinate you?

I’m fascinated by people – men and women both. Primarily I’m interested in good fiction – hard-line feminism is what some people read into my work. I myself don’t start with theory; though some people imply theories from the things I write. You can’t squash real characters into tight political ideologies without truncating them. Women take up more space in my work because I have easier access to them, being one myself. Women are not a monolithic lump, but the kinds of dilemma they face are different from those of men. Their specific problems vary according to such things as culture, socio-economic status and language, but there are some things they do have in common. Anything to do with the reproductive system, for instance – men don’t menstruate, to put it bluntly.

What is your opinion of human nature?

Our behaviour is often determined by the situations we find ourselves in. Most people would rather do good than evil – we get more of a neurological kick out of doing good. But what if ‘good’ options aren’t available? What if you’re starving and the choice is to starve or steal? People hate having their choices limited and being forced into doing bad things. I’d say that we are a caring and sharing species but we can be sadly affected by our available choices. How people are treated also matters. If people are treated nicely as children they will be nice to others.

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Not in the professional sense. Professional activists are paid for what they do, and that’s all they do. I’m hardly that. I make the odd speech, write the odd op-ed: that’s about it. I haven’t often been a political party member, though I’ve been a Green, and I did join the Conservative Party of Canada so that I could vote for an organic farmer as leader, but he didn’t win. The first organization I was part of was the Writers’ Union of Canada, which we started when Canadian writers had no idea what they were supposed to be paid for their books and there was little communication among them. Where does ‘activism’ come from? I think that fairness is built into the human programme. Whether you’re upset by political oppression, climate change issues, or the economic system your first reaction is that this isn’t fair. It’s a feeling before it’s a thought. This seems to be how humans work – ‘fairness’ is one of the first notions that a child develops.

What do you think of Barack Obama?

It was a remarkable moment when he was elected – extraordinary, given the history of the US. So what about now? There’s a lot of screaming, but in fairness, he inherited a big mess. How will he eventually come out of it? We don’t know that yet. And remember, America’s political system doesn’t make the President a god. There’s Congress to be dealt with, and it’s a very divided country. The election was such a high moment – people expected popsicles to drop out of the sky, immediate miracles. But Obama’s been stuck with some serious foreign policy problems, and two badly advised wars. There are few good choices that he can make about them now.

What motivates you to write?

You may as well ask what makes a doctor work at the hospital. It’s what I do. I started writing in high school, before I knew any better. I probably carried on because I was insufficiently socialized! Then I was told – in the late 50s and early 60s – that women weren’t supposed to write, that they were devoid of talent, but the horse was already out of the barn. The important postwar writers were the Mailers, the Updikes, the Roths – the writing scene then was monolithically male. There were a few women – Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton – but look what happened to them. People in the 1960s were seriously asking me, not whether, but when, I’d be committing suicide. It was as if the only serious woman writer was a dead woman writer. Happily, things have changed.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Who inspires you?

It’s easy to say Mandela or Obama but what really inspires me is everyday people. To do greatness when you’re in the public eye is easier than when you’re doing great things but nobody knows about it. I met a woman not long ago who is in her seventies and teaching older people in her village to use the internet. At that age I’d probably be putting my feet up, but she’s linking older people up to the world and getting companies to donate old computers.

But who inspires you creatively?

Creatively... again everyone says Bob Marley, but there’s this reggae artist, Big Youth – I hesitate to say his name because not everyone has heard of him – he really inspired me. I’ve never met him, but I was really excited by the way he twists the Bible and mixes everything up. A lot of people who are spiritual tend not to think about politics much, and a lot of people who are political neglect the spiritual side of themselves. It’s almost like they think the two cancel each other out. I liked the way Big Youth grappled with them both and threw in some poetry.

If you could banish one person from the planet, who would it be?

At the risk of sounding boring, I’m one of these people who believes that no-one is born evil. People are what they are because of their experiences and who they’ve met. The worst dictators were once little boys and girls in a playground, so I’d rather win the argument than banish them.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not taking school seriously. People say that’s what made me who I am, rebellious and all that. Then I ask if they’re going to take their kids out of school now and they say ‘Oh, no!’ I’m dyslexic and I’m a slow reader. When I do interviews – I’m being very honest here – I wish I could be more articulate.

How important is faith to you?

I’m not keen on blind faith. I’ve got a Stephen Hawking in me – to people who argue against science I say: don’t fly in planes. But although science can tell you everything about How, it’s not very good at answering Why. Only God knows that – to know why is to know the mind of God. I meditate every day. I hesitate to say this – because it can sound very airy-fairy – but when you meditate you feel like there is something more than your body. You sit so quietly that you can hear the blood through your veins and you can’t even hear the planes going over.

What makes you angry?

Tony Blair. I can’t believe he got away with it. Now he’s going around the world smiling as some kind of statesman of the Middle East. What’s that about?!

Are you a fan of Obama?

No. I really didn’t think we’d get a black president elected in my lifetime, so that was a surprise. He’s made some amazing achievements, but first and foremost he’s a politician and he’s going to make the same mistakes as the others. We’ve heard some nice rhetoric but I still think he’s a warmonger. We should be getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan much faster. You can tell war is very important to me. I’ve lost friends on both sides – young men who joined the military because they loved their country and wanted to get fit but didn’t have any politics; and then friends who were victims and civilians on the other side. I’ll never forgive the politicians for any of it. Obama should be a lot more radical – I know it’s different when you’re trying to deal with real politics in the US, but I think he’s got an opportunity.

Can poetry survive the Twitter generation?

Yes. There’s a deep need for people to express themselves in the world, and a tweet won’t suffice. I’ve never done a tweet – if I want to communicate with someone, I’ll talk to them.

Oops, no brakes!

Duncan Green calls it the bicycle problem. If you don’t keep pedalling, you risk collapse. The same is true of the economy – without growth, the system becomes unstable. Capital is reluctant to invest in alternatives, so job creation falls flat. But when we look up, we realize that our economic bicycle seems to be heading towards a cliff. Without a sharp pull on the brakes, environmental catastrophe looms.

Zero growth proponent Tim Jackson from Surrey University sums up this dilemma brilliantly in his book, Prosperity without Growth, where he argues that while de-growth will be unstable, growth is simply unsustainable. Green, head of research for Oxfam, is sceptical of Jackson’s zero growth solution, but agrees that we’re at a crossroads.

The two men have come together to discuss their differences in a quiet green garden in the heart of Surrey, southeast England. Jackson is a small, neatly dressed man with trimmed silver hair and dark glasses. Green arrives with his bicycle helmet under one arm. He’s got bright blue eyes and uses passionate hand gestures as he talks.

From the start, there’s plenty of overlap. Both agree that 150 years of economic growth and material progress has vastly improved human welfare, but that the benefits of extra income get smaller as citizens become richer. And both concur that hyper-consumerism makes us neurotically competitive and obsessively materialistic. In theory, both agree that the ‘ideal world’ would see the poorest countries continue to grow (although they disagree on how many countries that would include) whilst growth in richer countries would be capped. The poor would escape poverty, the rich would reclaim control of their lives and the planet would be saved.

In practice, though, Green has his doubts: ‘The ecologist in me says we need a cap, but the economist and the political scientist in me says, “How the hell are we going to do that?” Technology might be a better way forward. It would take a massive amount of investment to achieve sustainable growth – we’d need something like the Manhattan Project (the World War Two effort by the US and allies to develop nuclear weapons to defeat Nazi Germany) – but it may be easier than limiting growth.’

For Jackson, relying on technology is a non-starter. To understand why, you have to look at carbon intensity – the amount of carbon it takes to produce a dollar of output. If everyone were to aspire to European income levels by 2050, Jackson says that carbon intensities would have to fall 16 times faster than they have done since 1990. In 40 years, in a world of nine billion people, we’d need six grammes of carbon to produce a dollar of output – a carbon intensity rate 130 times lower than today. To continue the metaphor, it would be like expecting the bicycle to develop wings and fly over the precipice.

‘We don’t have a workable model of a decent future,’ Jackson laments. ‘It seems irresponsible not to ask these big questions just because we don’t know the answers. We’re driving towards the edge of a cliff – failing to acknowledge that is just denial.’

Our economic system will not adapt on its own, he argues, because of the bicycle problem – growth is hard-wired into the system: ‘If the economy doesn’t grow, there is a downward pressure on employment. People lose their jobs, output falls and spending is curtailed. A spiral of recession looms. Growth is necessary just to prevent collapse.’

Which leads to the crunch question – if our economic model really is headed towards a cliff and technology can’t help, what on earth can we replace it with? What would a ‘zero growth economy’ look like? And how could it function?

Jackson argues that the approach we need is staring us in the face – albeit on a micro level. Take the UK’s carbon targets. However inadequate, we now have a clear set of CO2 targets for 2050, with a set of interim goals in place telling us how to get there. Trading is freely permitted within these defined limits, but there are penalties for those who go beyond them. What we need, argues Jackson, is a radical extension of that model:

‘The assumption has been that CO2 targets are outside the workings of the whole economy,’ he says. ‘We need to bring carbon targets into the economic structure itself. In effect, we need to apply limits to GDP growth as a whole – not just CO2.’

A zero growth model would also mean redefining the way investment works. Jackson wants to see a full system of carbon accounting that would require every firm to disclose their carbon emissions. The rate of these emissions would then be linked to the return on the investment through state-enforced taxation. In other words: you pollute, you pay. Higher emitters would have their profits shaved; the worst offenders would be shut down – even if they were hugely profitable.

To put it crudely, it was the demand for Levi’s that brought down the Soviet Union

It’s hard to imagine how this model might function without massive state intervention. Green worries about the implications for political freedom and democracy. ‘What sort of a political system would properly enforce this kind of regime? What happens if you go over the resource limit – do you get a letter in the post, or a prison sentence? It sounds like a war economy.’

Jackson admits as much but believes it’s justified by circumstances. ‘There are elements of a war economy, to the extent that the model identifies national limits and uses fiscal and industrial policies to achieve them,’ he says. ‘Obviously, implementing these policies is easier when there is an explicit identifiable threat, but the ecological threat we are facing is just as dangerous – it’s just less tangible.’

Green is not convinced. ‘There is a level of consumer demand that is not artificially created – it’s intrinsic. To put it crudely, it was the demand for Levi’s that brought down the Soviet Union. I’m also worried that enforcing this system takes you down the route of authoritarianism, with a denial of agency and choice.’

But Jackson says the economic transformation he advocates isn’t just dictated from the top down. He also wants to see huge changes at the local level, with communities taking back greater control over their economies. He is inspired by community land trusts, co-operatives and local currencies – models where profitability and ownership work differently, and capital isn’t drained away from local people. How this balance of power will play out against a stronger central government remains unanswered.

Green also worries about the international implications. What economy counts as ‘poor enough’ to be allowed to continue to grow? ‘This model says to China that it will have to cap its income well below the per capita incomes of developed countries. In what world are they going to agree to that? It would be seen as a form of neo-colonialism.’

And what about unemployment? Jackson argues that we’ll need work-sharing schemes whilst encouraging people to spend free time on community-based work. ‘Past slowdowns in economic activity have caused chaos, but we’ve never had planned de-growth – only accidental non-growth. What we need is a managed contraction of the material size of richer countries – we need a new politics as well as economics.’

Jackson doesn’t believe you can ask people to give up the benefits of growth without offering something back. In a zero growth world, he wants to see new and alternative opportunities for ‘human flourishing’.

‘Investing in public space is an idea I like. Our public spaces have become commoditized and second class. I want to see governments at different levels, and community interest groups, build and take control of these spaces – communal agriculture, public gardens. What I’m advocating is a simpler world, but it’s also a richer one.’

In his view the state will be free to play a bigger role in promoting such initiatives. Governments now, he claims, are so intent on pursuing growth that they have no time for anything else. They are too busy liberalizing trade and deregulating the economy. But in a world where that obsession was unnecessary, Tim Jackson believes the state could focus on more innovative ways to work for the greater good.

Duncan Green remains sceptical.

‘I’m now convinced it’s even harder to pursue zero growth. But optimism is an act of will here. You can’t just give up hope – the current system isn’t working for the poorest people of today, let alone the nine billion of the future. It’s much easier to oppose an argument than to put one forward. Tim is much braver than I am – I hope he’s right.’

For Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth and other resources, visit www.earthscan.co.uk/pwg. For information about Duncan Green’s book From Poverty to Power and his blog, visit: www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/

A rural revolution

Alex Kawakami calls himself an agronomist, but really he’s a revolutionary. He works for the landless people’s movement Movimento dos Trabalhardores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), a social movement of some 370,000 people organizing in over 1,000 settlements in Brazil, in addition to 90,000 families living in camps. For them, agricultural reform is more than organic farming – it’s an answer to land inequality, global food shortages and climate change.

In bed with the senators

These rural campaigners are fighting against deeply ingrained power structures. The notoriously influential agribusiness lobby, Bancada Ruralista, plays a part in the formation of all major agricultural policy in Brazil, insuring that large exporting businesses are untaxed where family farmers are forced to pay. MST claims that Brazilian landowners are in bed with senators, and senators are in bed with judges. Meanwhile they say the country’s largest media group Organizacoes Globo, perpetually misrepresents the movement.

‘We say occupation because it’s different from invasion. Invasion is what happened in Iraq. We are occupying lands because they are unproductive, they rely on slave labour or they’re destroying the environment. And we don’t use violence’

Kawakami believes that such corrupt legal and political systems will never deliver social justice or environmental sustainability. MST’s answer is direct action: occupation has been a technique used by MST since it became a national movement in 1984. ‘We say occupation because it’s different from invasion,’ says Kawakami. ‘Invasion is what happened in Iraq. We are occupying lands because they are unproductive, they rely on slave labour or they’re destroying the environment. And we don’t use violence.’

Once the land has been occupied, MST fills it with landless families – who have often lost their farming jobs to modern agribusiness giants – and helps them to establish functioning communities. MST agronomists like Kawakami help peasants construct houses and schools, regenerate the local environment and farm more productively by using traditional, small-scale techniques.

Talking synergy

English might not be Kawakami’s first language, but he chooses his words carefully, anxious not to be misrepresented. ‘We don’t talk about ‘organic farming’, we talk about agro-ecological farming,’ he says. ‘Organic farming is considered expensive and out of touch with ordinary people; agro-ecological farming is about a synergy between the environment and the farmers. It has a social dimension, and draws on traditional knowledge about sustainability.’

‘Food security’ is another term Kawakami doesn’t like to be associated with. ‘Food security is used to promote the agenda of large companies – genetic engineering, nanotechnology and the exportation of value. Food sovereignty is about changing the paradigm of production so that local people can feed themselves.’

The Government has responded violently to these occupations, evicting settlements across the country. The worst case occurred in 1996, when 19 workers were killed by military police after a farm in the northern state of Para was occupied.

What makes these evictions particularly shocking is that MST’s occupations are justified under Brazilian law. After years of campaigning, rural workers managed to get a clause in the 1988 constitution declaring that if land was ‘unproductive’ or serving no valuable social purpose, then it should be given to the people as part of a progressive agricultural and land reform agenda. Kawakami says the reality is very different:

‘Food security is used to promote the agenda of large companies – genetic engineering, nanotechnology and the exportation of value. Food sovereignty is about changing the paradigm of production so that local people can feed themselves’

‘Many large-scale farmers are friends with the judges, so the courts refuse to rule that land is unproductive, he says. ‘We occupy the law and press the Government to abide by their own laws, but they don’t. They continue to use the police to throw families out with violence.’

Today the violence continues. In January this year, 19 leaders of MST were arrested after they occupied the property of Cutrale, the world’s largest orange juice producer, in Sao Paulo. According to Kawakami, such events have become highly politically motivated. National elections are coming up this year, and the right-wing government that holds the state of Sao Paulo is keen to embarrass the national Lula Government, whose left-wing members have expressed sympathy for MST’s cause. After an MST march on central government in August, Lula said he would relook at the classification of productive and unproductive farms, opening up the doors to land redistribution from rich to poor.

We are not thieves

‘The (Sao Paulo) state government wants to portray us as a violent and thieving organization, but it’s all lies. They just want to embarrass the Lula Government out of supporting us.’ explains Kawakami. ‘Meanwhile, local judges continue to criminalize us. Farmers are accused of being thieves even when they can present receipts.’

Activists were optimistic when Lula first won the Presidency in 2002, but so far there has been little change. Seventy-six per cent of the land is owned by just 16 per cent of farmers. And the Gini Index, which measures concentration of land-ownership, reveals that at 0.854 (where 0 = low concentration and 1 = high concentration), Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Where individuals have failed, a grassroots coalition might do better. MST doesn’t have a president, and is highly democratically organized. A simple system manages to represent 90,000 families across 23 out of the 26 states in Brazil. Ten or fifteen local families form a ‘nucleus’ and are given two co-ordinators. In a radical move for a country associated with machismo, one must always be a woman. These co-ordinators feed into national MST discussions, insuring that every family is represented. Although originally funded by Brazilian churches, MST is now supported by international organizations, trade unions, universities and direct contributions from families.

Although this movement remains firmly rooted in local communities, Kawakami insists it has global implications. Just last month he was addressing British activists about how MST’s model could be adopted more broadly. ‘One billion people go hungry every day, and 70 per cent of those people live in rural areas,’ he reveals. ‘Agricultural reform can help with that, and climate change too. We can empower farmers to become self-sufficient and gain autonomy from multinationals. We want to show how we organize ourselves, and support others to do the same.’

Transition towns - the art of resilience

Unlimited imagination: members of Transition Town Brixton have made their garden grow.

Photo by Jonangelo Molinari

Duncan Law is a dedicated transitioner. Standing in the middle of a dark, densely built housing estate in South London, his eyes flash like flint as he points to the winter herbs, vegetables and raspberry plants growing amongst the concrete. As a member of Transition Town Brixton, Law has helped this garden grow in one of the most deprived urban areas of Britain. Local residents dug up the concrete slab in the middle of the estate, filled it with compost, planted and harvested. Now residents come and help themselves to free, healthy, carbon-neutral winter vegetables.

‘One of the local residents created a vision of the estate fully transitioned,’ adds Law, eyeing up the surrounding rooftops for solar panels. ‘We had goats, bicycle trailers, roof gardens, a community centre, right here in the inner city. Once you start looking, the possibilities are endless. That’s the beauty of the movement. It’s not against something: it’s a move towards something positive.’

Transition Town Brixton emerged like most towns in the movement. A small number of individuals forms a steering group and begins talking about climate change and the threats of ‘peak’ – the impending end of – oil with their local community. Brixton now has 200 active members and 1,500 on their mailing list. As their priorities and interests become apparent, autonomous groups set up under the Transition Town umbrella. Brixton has groups on building and energy, food and waste, business and the economy. The only limit to their activity is their imagination. ‘You just put an idea out there and let it run through the bloodstream,’ says Law. ‘The outcomes are beyond our control.’

Network grows

The Transition Network, set up to provide guidance and support, claims that there are now more than 130 formal transition towns in Britain, and another 250 worldwide. Many more are in the ‘mulling’ stages, and others are likely to be functioning below the radar. A giant series of ‘community experiments’, they are hotbeds of potential solutions to some of the most dangerous and impenetrable problems of our time, conducted and run at a local level.

The financial crisis has triggered a new wave of interest, particularly in local currencies. The Brixton Pound is now accepted in over 120 local shops – it can only be used in Brixton. According to Law, 90 per cent of the money taken by chain stores leaks out of the area. Local currencies also offer security – if the Pound Sterling crashed, the Brixton Pound could be pegged to another currency. Law says the initiative is almost too popular: ‘Brixton Pound tourists are coming from all over the world to buy the currency and get it framed. We’re starting to worry about the carbon miles it takes all the visitors to get here!’

The transition towns movement was founded by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher who was living in Kinsale, Ireland, in 2005. He was interested in how communities could build ‘resilience’ and reduce their carbon emissions. When Hopkins and his students published a draft document on how it might work, it was downloaded thousands of times. Clearly, there was hunger for local change.

‘Once you start looking, the possibilities are endless. That’s the beauty of the movement. It’s not against something: it’s a move towards something positive’

‘No-one had done anything quite like it before,’ says Hopkins. ‘It was about moving away from the shocking leaflet or DVD and engaging people with something much better – an experiment in engaged optimism.’

It’s hard not to be impressed. Take Totnes in Devon, the first transition town in Britain. With a population of just 7,500 living in a largely rural setting, it was a perfect test-bed for the movement, and its long list of achievements still inspires other groups.

The food group set up a garden-share project, described by one member as ‘a kind of dating agency that matches people who don’t have a garden with people who are too old or busy to look after theirs’. The economics and livelihood group co-ordinates a car-sharing scheme. The environment group has formed a community-owned energy company, TRESCO, which is looking into buying a site for sustainable hydropower from the local river. The education group encourages local kids to reconnect with their natural environments. The Totnes Pound is going strong.

‘There’s so much going on, it’s hard to keep up,’ says Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network. ‘People are no longer waiting for the politicians or their permission. They’re starting to work together in ways they never knew how.’

Sceptics

Others are more sceptical. They say the movement doesn’t connect with people beyond its narrow social base, or create change on a scale and at a pace that’s desperately needed. One of the most common charges is that it is a step ‘backwards’ towards a more parochial way of doing things, sticking two fingers up at technology.

Hopkins profoundly disagrees: ‘Obviously, if we were proposing to put a big fence around every community, cut imports, switch off the web and stop sharing ideas, that would be a cause for concern – but that’s not what we’re doing. One way of moving backwards is to find ourselves in the middle of an economic depression, suffering from climate change and highly volatile oil prices, with no preparation. Starting to prepare now and build on our opportunities and strengths is far more likely to avoid protectionism and parochial approaches further down the road.’

Certainly, the transition movement was inspired as much by concrete example as by heady idealism. Hopkins was moved by the ‘special period’ in Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba suddenly found itself cut off from supplies of oil, diesel and pesticide – exactly what would happen if we reached peak oil without preparation. But, rather than unravelling, the community came together to put local food and other production systems into place, while still maintaining high standards in health and education.

‘We’re not saying we’re exactly like Cuba,’ adds Hopkins. ‘But it’s a recent historical example of a community adapting quickly to build resilience in a short time frame – and that’s encouraging.’

Cuban inspiration

Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Town (MASTT) in the Colne Valley, Yorkshire, was also inspired by the Cuban experience. Going strong for over three years now, the group boosted numbers by screening the famous Power of Community film documenting Cuba’s achievements. To date, MASTT’s most popular project has been the community-owned Green Valley Grocer. Bought as a co-operative, it’s now turning over more than $5,000 a week selling locally produced vegetables. There has even been enough profit left over for development work, allowing the shop to employ a member of the community to teach gardening to residents.

‘It’s much more successful than we dared hope possible – it continues to take double what we thought,’ says Jon Walker, a dedicated transitioner who has been involved in the project from the start. ‘People bring down their surpluses from their gardens, the community loves it, and reducing food miles is a huge part of the carbon descent plan.’

According to Walker, such initiatives have helped to rekindle a neighbourhood spirit. ‘Our monolithic global society is rediscovering community. I used to go to the supermarket and speak to no-one. Now shopping takes most of the day – I keep bumping into people on the way to the grocer!’

The biggest challenge now, says Walker, is reaching out to a wider community. ‘More and more people are involved, but we’re all the same – the Guardian-reading middle class. We’ve held huge dances in the valley, inviting local rock bands and Balkan groups to attract a younger, more diverse crowd, but there is still a long way to go.’

Another challenge follows the initial bubble of enthusiasm. According to Hopkins, the best way to meet this is through the state. ‘Things get interesting when the Government gets behind the movement and supports it, rather than drives it. Scotland is leading the way on this. The Low Carbon Communities Fund has helped employ four permanent transition town employees, and Transition Forres got £184,000 ($300,000) to set up an organization to promote allotments.’

Signs of interest 

Authorities in other parts of Britain are showing signs of interest too. Back in Brixton, Lambeth Council allows people to pay their local taxes with Brixton Pounds, boosting the currency’s legitimacy. In Totnes, all the local government candidates have committed to an Energy Descent Plan designed by the transition town’s members. Transition Stroud has worked with their council to produce a local food strategy.

Without these commitments – and even sometimes with them – many towns still fail. Transition Oxford started with a bang and then fizzled out, as did Biggar. But, as the Transition Network says, there are no guarantees about these ‘experiments’, and there’s often as much to learn from those that collapse as from those that survive.

However, the overall direction of the movement is up and has even crossed international borders. The Network in Britain has links with similar hubs in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Japan, Brazil, America, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere. And this is just the beginning. The most exciting thing about this movement is its infancy. Just how deep it goes or how far it spreads will be up to local communities themselves.

Rowenna Davis is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to New Internationalist.

An updated document about how to start a transition town in your community can be downloaded from the Transition Network website: http://transitiontowns.org

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