We all live downstream

I went to Balcombe today, to join day 1 of the Great Gas Gala.

Thanks to people who got there a lot earlier than me, the first truck delivering drilling equipment to the site was stopped in its tracks.

blockaded truck at Balcombe fracking site

I was there in time to hear the announcement at around 2.30pm that it was to be driven away and no further attempts to bring equipment onto the site would be made for the rest of the day.

It’s always heartening when peaceful, human-scale resistance scores a point against the big, faceless, intangible forces of industrial capitalism. But despite the carnival atmosphere at Balcombe today, everyone was aware of the power of those we were challenging.

The site was guarded by Gurkhas.

Gurkhas guarding the gate

Sign warning: firearms in use

Behind the chatty police liaison officers, there were two police vans parked just down the road. This is not a little local difficulty. The government has taken the extraordinary decision to offer tax breaks to the fracking industry, preparing to sacrifice even the rural Sussex Tory heartland to keep the multinational energy companies happy.

This morning, there was some discussion on my Twitter feed about the way the campaign against fracking in Balcombe has resonated with people in the Hanover neighbourhood in Brighton, where I live. There were at least six Hanover residents supporting the protest in Balcombe this afternoon, and two streets in the neighbourhood have already declared majority support for a frack-free Sussex.

A local Labour Party activist on Twitter expressed irritation at fracking having been mentioned on Green Party literature in the recent local byelection. Labour Party commentators have also recently criticised Caroline Lucas for raising “non local” issues in Parliament.

I find this line of attack very curious. If you want to have a go at environmental campaigners, it’s easy – they are either NIMBYs or they are not concentrating enough on local issues. But that misses the point – and fracking at Balcombe is a very stark example of this – that there are no purely local issues in a world in which we all depend on a single fragile ecosystem, and we all live under a single global economic system.

All of Brighton’s drinking water comes from under the ground, where it has been filtered through the porous chalk of our downland landscape. This is the same ground into which Cuadrilla have a licence to drill for shale oil, over an area of 270 square miles. Where similar rock formations are being exploited in the USA, the density of wells is now reaching four wells per square mile.

Gas and oil wells all over the world have been found to leak, contaminating the surrounding soil and water. Why would we risk the safety of our water and food by allowing this destructive industry to get a foothold here?

The Labour Party’s national position on fracking, apparently, is that more research needs to be done into the safety concerns.

But even if the exploitation process were completely clean and safe, extracting gas and oil from the shale under the ground would still be a phenomenally stupid thing to do. It’s not difficult to understand why. This infographic makes it clear:

There’s no such thing as safe exploitation of additional fossil fuel reserves. Campaigning on environmental issues is not a luxury – in fact we don’t have the luxury of ignoring them for a moment longer. The same politicians, companies and media organisations who have been trying to sell us benefit cuts and the privatisation of the NHS are now trying to sell us fracking for shale gas and oil as a serious proposal for future energy policy. That’s no coincidence. Both policies serve only the interests of the 1%, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There’s no need to pursue extreme energy sources. Putting a stop to this suicidal plan means taking on a global issue, right in our back yard. Like ordinary people in Poland, Australia and the USA, the residents of Balcombe are defending the land they love and depend on. Our government has shown which side they are on. The official opposition have forgotten how to oppose. It’s down to us to do something about this.

crochet flowers at the gate


Living by our own lights

I’m just back from a refreshing week in the Cornish sunshine. One of the accidental themes of the holiday was discovering a series of stories about individuals who lived their lives in defiance of the conventions that surrounded their status as women, or perhaps simply without reference to those conventions.

At Tate St Ives, we saw an exhibition of the work of Marlow Moss.

Marlow Moss was born in 1889. She studied art, against the wishes of her family, and lived alone in London, Cornwall and Paris. In 1919, she began to wear jodhpurs, jackets and cravats, cropped her hair and changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow. She lived in Paris from 1927 until the outbreak of war, where she found love with a Dutch writer, Antoinette Hendrika Nijhoff-Wind. When the war made it unsafe for her to stay in Europe, she returned to Cornwall and lived the rest of her life at Lamorna, visiting Paris frequently.

Marlow Moss

The exhibition at the Tate included some heartbreaking letters written by Moss to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during World War II, when she was living at Lamorna and they were at St Ives, just a few miles away. She invited them for lunch and wanted to work with them to promote abstract art in Britain. They never replied.

It’s not possible, from this distance, to apply current labels to someone like Marlow Moss. She didn’t follow expected paths, but made her own way in the world, living by her own lights. For that she found herself excluded, by fellow artists and critics alike, and this exclusion has persisted since her death in 1958. The most complete account of her life and the significance of her work can be found in this excellent thesis by Lucy Howarth.

Just a few miles from Lamorna, another determined individual was living an unconventional life at around the same time. Rowena Cade was the driving force behind the creation of the Minack Theatre. She built it herself, alongside her two gardeners, and worked determinedly on the project from 1931 right up to her death in 1983.

The theatre is built into the cliff face at Porthcurno, with stone and concrete seating and the sea and sky as a dramatic backdrop for each production. It looks both natural and preposterous. The physical challenge of building anything in that location would have been overwhelming for most people.

Minack Theatre 7149

There’s a frustrating lack of information easily available about Rowena Cade’s life other than her work on the Minack. Maybe she really was that single-minded. Maybe she was fiercely private. Who knows? It seems pretty certain that she was not a person who took much notice of convention.

Rowena Cade

At the Minack last week, we saw Brighton Little Theatre’s production of A Woman of No Importance, a play that’s all about how women in Victorian society were punished for breaches of convention, while men’s transgressions were forgiven, even celebrated.

Oscar Wilde’s character, Mrs Arbuthnot, didn’t choose her unconventional life. She was seduced and abandoned to bring up her son alone. Unlike Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade, her position as a mother and lack of inherited wealth meant that she couldn’t simply reject society’s norms – instead she had to internalise the shame and quietly create a respectable life for her child.

When the secret is finally exposed and she is expected to accept an offer of marriage from her son’s father – a mere 20 years too late – her defiant refusal is stirring.

It’s easy to see how much things have changed in Britain since 1893, when A Woman of No Importance was first performed. For my children, it’s difficult to comprehend the significance of a child being born out of wedlock. The marital status of people’s parents is simply not an issue for them and their peers.

The difference between the world Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade knew and the one we live in now is also vast. Wearing short hair and trousers is hardly a transgression for women where I live (though women are not so free everywhere, of course).

And yet, these rules and conventions are very resilient. Even though people resist, break, bend and ignore them, they persist and reassert themselves in new forms. What women choose to do with their clothes and hair remains the subject of intense scrutiny and judgment. The tabloid demonisation of large families claiming benefits is a direct descendant of the shaming of fallen Victorian women. Single mothers still find their choices curtailed by being left with sole responsibility for raising their children.

Now the government wants to give Victorian values a boost by attaching a financial incentive to marriage. A £150 tax break for married couples where one partner does not work is a purely ideological proposal. Like Section 28 in the 1980s, it’s more about appeasing the religious right within the Conservative Party than anything else. But the message it sends could have damaging repercussions for people already on the sharp end of vicious cuts to social security.

Being married is not a more or less worthy way of living than any other. Unmarried people – like Mrs Arbuthnot, Rowena Cade and Marlow Moss – have always contributed plenty to society. Imagining – and living – their lives outside of convention is in itself an inspiring contribution.

As Brighton Pride approaches, and the same sex marriage bill inches towards the statute book, let’s not forget our debt to all the outsiders, queers, mavericks, eccentrics and weirdos who helped make the unthinkable possible for us. I think people should be able to marry whoever they want, but it’s more important to me that people should be free to be whoever they want – whatever that looks like.

Last night I watched Amanda Palmer sing this song on Brighton beach, after an exhilarating gig with the most diverse Brighton audience you could possibly imagine. Brighton has always been a refuge for people who needed to escape the stifling conventions of their time and it still is. That’s what Brighton Pride represents for me – not a celebration of some of us being allowed in to the citadel of respectability, but a statement of defiance against all the conventions that aim to channel and restrict people’s lives.


Byelection issues 4: What a waste

This is my last post of this little series. I’m casting my postal vote and going away for a week, so I’ll miss the nail-biting last few days of campaigning in the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection.

I have no complaints about the conduct of any of the candidates, though the overall quality of “debate” on the #heg13 Twitter hashtag has been just as lamentable as I expected. I was encouraged to see Emma Daniel making a good effort to use twitter to amplify issues and questions raised on the doorstep by local residents but slightly disappointed that she didn’t seem interested in following up with debate on her own policies.

I haven’t been able to attend any of the “meet the candidate” events that have happened in local pubs, but I was pleased to hear they were happening. I’d be interested to hear what any local residents who did attend thought of them.

Anyway, I’ll end my series with another look at waste, which has become a big story in this last week of the campaign. How can it be that recycling rates have gone down under a Green council? (I’m not discussing the rise in CO2 emissions reported to Policy & Resources Committee this week, since the committee papers clearly state that it occurred in 2010 and Labour’s gleeful reaction reflects much more badly on them than on the Green administration.)

The truth is that waste management in Brighton and Hove has been abysmal for decades. In the early 1990s, other cities (Leeds, for example) were successfully running kerbside food waste collections, while Brighton & Hove couldn’t even manage to collect recycling. Since 2003 our city’s waste (after it’s been collected and processed) has been managed by a private company, Veolia.

What’s not recycled is taken to Newhaven to be incinerated. Of that “residual waste” over a third is food waste. A further 25% is garden and other biodegradable waste. All the nutrients, energy and water that went into producing that food are literally going up in smoke. Talk about waste!

Food is a resource, even when people don’t want to eat it. We really shouldn’t be burning it. There’s plenty of evidence about how to manage a food waste collection. 47% of local authorities are already doing it. Why aren’t we?

In fact, there’s an example of a successful food waste collection even closer to home. Magpie combined food waste collection with their Green Box recycling scheme for a few months last year. I was lucky enough to be in one of the participating households – it was great. We put out half as many binbags as before; they were lighter and less likely to be ripped open by seagulls. The people behind that initiative have a new plan, outlined on this somewhat cryptic website.

Following the links to their facebook page, you come across this table of prices. It’s from this document, one of many that make up the council’s 25 year contract with Veolia. I’m no expert, but I think there’s something going on here that needs to be explained. As the Verdiculture people point out:

“The less we dispose the more it costs? We cannot afford zero waste. Contract has minimum fee so if we disposed of one tonne it would cost hundreds of thousands”

Is this why we don’t have a food waste collection scheme?

I’ve just read Brighton & Hove City Council’s Waste management strategy. It’s a curious document. It identifies waste minimisation as the highest priority. Among its objectives, it includes

“engage with local retailers and trading standards to encourage reduced packaging”.

It states correctly that

“Effective waste minimisation requires action at source, for example, by manufacturers making their products more durable or re-usable. It also requires retailers to reduce packaging of their products and consumers to change their behaviour, for example, by buying products with less packaging and buying more durable items plus re-using items where possible.”

But all this builds up to the anticlimactic admission that

“the council’s powers to reduce the amount of waste are limited to encouraging customers to change their behaviour.”

The strategy continues with page after page of exhortation to residents and appeals to the miracle-working powers of the voluntary and community sector. But there’s nothing about how the council will engage with retailers, or any other businesses for that matter, to minimise the wasteful use of resources.

Does the council, a major landowner, really have no leverage at all with businesses located in the city? Can the city not involve tourism businesses in a concerted initiative to cut waste, while selling our city as a place that is serious about its commitment to One Planet Living? 8% of our residual waste is nappies. Can the council, as public health authority, not fund a free cloth nappy loan scheme? Why is it left to voluntary groups to take action on the food waste that happens before food even reaches the shops?

Frankly, focusing on recycling rates is looking at this issue from the wrong end.

Manufacturers and retailers don’t sell disposable products or use excessive packaging because they are ignorant. Veolia didn’t negotiate a higher price for lower amounts of rubbish by mistake. They do these things to make a profit, but we can’t afford to carry on treating those profits as an inevitable part of the landscape.

Our planet’s natural resources are simply not disposable. Using precious oil and water to manufacture takeaway cartons that get used once and thrown into the street is grotesquely stupid.

I don’t know if it’s worth asking the Hanover & Elm Grove candidates this – they seem to have given up answering my questions. But I would really like to know, from anyone who has any part of the answer:

Can Brighton & Hove seriously approach zero waste, and if so, how?