Urban Transition: Interview with Angela Raffle of Transition Bristol

This is a transcript of an interview with Angela Raffle of Transition Bristol from January 2010. I hope this interview will be useful to everyone engaged in urban transition and become the first in series on this subject.

Angela is one of the founders of Sustainable Redland and is a Consultant in Public Health with the NHS in Bristol.

CF: Do you have any thoughts about what might have lead you to Transition?

I think a lot but I'm very task focused, practical and pragmatic. I did biology A level which included ecology and I read Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, and during the 1970s when I was at school the environment was a big issue and there was even a weekly television drama, rather like Spooks, only it was Doomwatch and the heros were the people who went and stopped the villains in big industries from causing pollution.

So that's what started it for me. And I think because the big corporations did such a fantastic public relations fight back that the environment stopped being a visible issue -- they really did a grand job infiltrating every bit of government lobbying and countering every bit of environmental data with carefully crafted spoofs and articles targeted at just where they were needed, like the Financial Times for example, and in America certainly they put programs into schools so that children were brought up thinking progress and jobs and that economic growth trumped everything and that environmentalists were against progress

So I've been a Greenpeace and a Friends Of The Earth person and a letter writer, but I think I had confidence that governments and the NGOs were somehow looking after it and that Kyoto would help. I was aware of the Oil issue, because my dad told me that when I was at school I told him that Oil would become an issue by the end of the century, but I think I just thought that everybody was on the case really.

So there were two triggers for me. One was this very nice neighbour who I knew of but didn't know, who is a very forthright, tall, determined retired teacher. He had one of those moments where he was walking up the street, feeling cross about how nothing was being done and then he thought well what on earth am I doing and so he did a letter to about 400 or 500 households and it was a very clever letter because it didn't say come to a meeting or start a campaign it just said is anyone else feeling like me. And so about 20 of us phoned him up or emailed and said we feel exactly the same. So he booked the friends meeting hall and about 20 of us sat around for an evening with post it notes and doing mind maps. And if you're asked me then what's the chance that would come to anything then I'd have 90% against.

But we stuck with it, we met, we researched, we had lots of talks, we got better informed and we called it Sustainable Redland. We've started a farmers market, joined in a with a local community orchard which was really struggling and is now going from strength to strength, held lots of films and events, the biggest had our MP and 120 people there, we've got a little carbon club, we've been in the news, been on telly, in the evening post and local magazines. We're a brand identity now, and are involved in our local neighbourhood partnership, which is Bristol City councils new way of being more democratic locally.

And the reason I've been able to stick with it is because number one I've been learning all the time, number two the group has been very light touch in terms of we don't have any committee meetings, and number three once you end up with things that needed to be done then the people who slightly drive people up the wall at meetings kind of disappear because they don't actually volunteer to come and do anything. So if we structure all our activities around doing stuff, helping at the market, digging at the orchard, running an information stall at things being done at the local churches, giving talks at the townswomen's guild, then the group you're left with tend to have a shared sense of resolve to really change things. And we're quite a disparate group so we complement each other.

Some are the quiet behind the scenes, absolute troopers, others are the ones who don't mind being the figureheads, other are techy, some have got green fingers, others are just good at making the tea and looking after everybody. And so we're really tiny, and we haven't even tried to demonstrate that we've demonstrably reduce the carbon footprint for Redland which is 4000 households, but I think we have raised awareness and built our reputation and those of us who are really involved and probably a wider circle of 50-100 of us have made very significant changes in their lives, drastic changes in home energy, going car free, joining a car club, cycling more, and then when Transition Bristol came along that made us feel we were part of a wider family, and for me I found that a huge support, because if you're just Redland you feel like how long can we keep this going.

I mean the good thing is Hamish, Robin, Jonny and myself, who are the four who probably put most time into it, will probably stay where we live until we die which gives us stability and we try and make it that youngsters with lots of energy can come in and do something, even though we know they're probably end up going away, you know they'll have children or move house or change job or whatever. But it was a feeling that we were part something that was growing. The Transition movement made us feel far more able to carry on.

I think being involved in Transition Bristol, the thing that has been really nice, really good, I mean you do come across people who have come along because they're incredibly needy, you know they're worried about the world and they want to share their anxiety with you, which just makes you feel, their kind of their kind of negativity is infectious, there some of those and you need to have ways of coping with that, and then there are others there who are just so well informed, so skillful.

I was at a thing yesterday morning in my work capacity, because a bunch of people who regard themselves as business leaders in Bristol, want to do a plan for Bristol in 2050. And although there were a couple of people there who there who I think are fantastic, like Andrew Kelly who has done the Bristol Festival Of Ideas, Bristol Cultural Development stuff, I just felt I've met more inspirational people in the Transition movement that I've met here amongst these business leaders.

So it's that that's kept me involved. What I care about most is the future for me, my family and the community I'm part of. I care about the whole world but that feels too far beyond my control. Once you're aware of the depth of the problem... if you've done Chris Martenson's Crash Course which is on YouTube, it's fantastic, and he does the three Es, Economics, Energy and Environment so he starts by explaining how our whole debt based money system is just a gigantic bubble based on the growth we've had from oil, and it can't go on. And once you do that, you read the books about collapse, you read Joseph Tainter's book, you have to get used to the fact that you're world view has changed and you have to recognise what humans do to the place. I think the one line from Age Of Stupid that I disagree with is when Pete Postlethwaite's character says "previous generations had a pact that they would leave the earth better than they found it, our generation lost that". I think that's utter rubbish. For the whole history of human life, how we're programmed we're very, we take the place over and we consume and we're very good at that. And I think to single out this generation as being somehow less moral than previous ones is utter rubbish. Its just that there are so many of us and we have the oil.

So it's important not to feel guilty for what we've done but we should feel guilty if we're not helping see if we can solve it. Maybe we can't, maybe it's beyond all the tipping points, but the nice thing about transition is you're with people who are so well informed and so knowledgeable that you can have these conversations without them looking like you're slightly loopy. And you learn better the ways of phrasing this for different audiences. There are people for whom you just have to say maybe there's more to this than meets the eye, and maybe our confidence in money needs to be looked at more carefully, and then other people where the conversation goes straight to will there be refugee camps. So Transition is a space for me where you can have the kind of conversations which most people are studiously avoiding over their supper tables, and the reason they're avoiding it is not because they're immoral, I think it's because they feel they can't do anything or they feel it's up to the leaders to do everything.

All our psychologists know the vast majority of our behavior is just instinctively following that the group is doing. I do like that book The Wisdom Of Crowds, and it's only a minority who do see what's coming and start acting even if it makes them look stupid. and there's a minority who will always act as if nothing is going to pursuade them to change ever, but the vast majority they go with the fashion, they don't even know why they do it. So if Solar panels became fashionable they'll want them, even if it's on the north facing side of their roof because that's where they'll be seen.

So transition for me is lovely people, some progress, it always feels far too disproportionally small for what the challenge ahead but as long as it's progress and as long as it's having a snowball effect that's good enough. And I've learnt a lot, and I mean one of the things we all need to learn better is how to work better with people we don't necessarily get along with and there's something about ... I mean human systems don't often work as smooth systems because everyone has slightly different objectives so it's more like a soft system where everybody's doing little adaptive things and it takes something like World War II and suddenly the objectives were clear and common and apart from the few people who were running the black market most people all buckled down and worked together and when you've got to do that, you can work with people, whatever your differences, as long as you have really common objectives and it's clear.

At the moment we're in a slightly chaotic phase and there are all these movements jumping up and down and doing slightly different things and trying to reconcile the global poverty, international aid camp, with climate change, who aren't really that interested in Oxfam, Fascinating times, not easy.

CF: One of the criticisms of modern life is the extent to which social bonds are dissolved, and Transition maybe gives people this another space where they can seek out other bonds of shared cause. Is this part of what you see hapening in groups like Sustainable Redland?

That has been one of the positive things about Sustainable Redland that a lot of people have said they've got to know a lot more of their neighbours. My perception, and I haven't looked at the research, all this cheap oil has enabled us to do is to have our social bonds scattered across the globe. My concept of the human is very much that each of us is like a node in a web, so there are people who I never see, but if they died I would physically and emotionally feel massively different. And I think that's all hard wired in us. For most of human evolution, that web of human attachments that made up each person was physically close to you, but now because we zoom all around the place and phone up people in Australia and we keep up with our University friends even though they're scattered across the UK, we don't need more attachments with our neighbours, because our neighbours are often grumpy gits or snobs or whatever. And I feel that when cheap energy becomes less available, or even when our backs are up against the wall or we have food shortages, we'll actually need our neibours like people do in times of flood. I mean it happened to us when we lived in a little terrace in Birmingham and the whole terrace was having it's roof done and we had the whole terrace covered in polythene and we had the most terrible rains storm and there we all were running around in the dark and the rain, in our nighties, and suddenly they weren't just your neighbours, they were your best friends, even though you'd never even said hello to them before. And I think we will do that very quickly. I mean we're trying to do that with our street, which is big Victorian houses where people don't have to rub shoulders with each other, we're having a street party in the summer as a prerequisite to getting more people involved.

So a bit of it is you get to know your local community better, but in terms of what you were saying about people coming to meetings and finding it shocking, we did a spring event last spring, and Hamish and I were very careful, and when we did the preamble we made a point of sticking to the rules - you be really straight with people, you acknowledge the reason we're here is because we're all a bit woken up to things that do make you lie awake at night and we can't avoid that, but actually it becomes joyful when you're doing things to try and make it better. And we structure the evenings so it's part party, part work, and it was great fun. I think you just have to be straight with people and for some people if you say you know the next 20 years is going to very different to the last 20 years they either go "Oh thank god I'm with people who are acknowledging this" or they think "Oh they're mad" and they never come again. We had Chris Vernon, who is fantastic, give the talk on Peak Oil and Ian Ross, who is climate scientist, gave a fantastic talk about all the myths about climate change and at both talks in the questions we were all like "just before we all jump off the suspension bridge on our way home can you ...", and we just made a joke of it. And once you've gone past what Rob Hopkins call the night of the long knives, once you've stopped clutching at straws thinking maybe "I'll wake up in the morning and they'll say it's not true." then, well, I think it's like my second child, who is 20 now, but when he was three his grandparents were killed in a car crash and we told him and his sister and he looked a bit shocked but then later I was bathing them I was talking to [his sister] about what would happen to their house and which car it was, and [he] said "Granny and Grandpa aren't still dead?" and I think that's still what's going on with a lot people. You tell people that the human population needs three planets the way its going at the moment, and they take that in, but the next morning they're just, well, unless they tell me that again today I don't think I'll believe it's still true. Maybe that's how we survive difficult times, by having that kind of denial mechanism.

CF: I think "space" is a good way of describing what Transition offers people -- somewhere you can actually confront these kinds of ideas. To me Transition has quite a different character to green activist movements of the 80s, where there was strong identification with a particular reaction against everything that was going on, whereas Transition seems to be more about trying to build community response than some kind of personal transformation.

In Sustainable Redland we try and do no blaming, no moaning, no stereotyping, no guilt, because when it starts getting religious of moralistic I'm out of there, really. Some people are fantastic influences, and they may have changed the city's policy on whether they were going to retrofit insulation to old buildings, for example, and as part of that they may fly. So? We're going to use all the oil anyway. I'd prefer someone who is making a difference is flying rather than that its just fueling Jeremy Carkson's car. I haven't flown since 2005 and the BBC phoned me up and asked me would I appear on the politics show as a doctor who has chosen not to fly. So at that point I had then consciously chosen to do so, I'd said it on the BBC, whereas before then it wasn't some firm commitment, I was just in a carbon club.

I think that was partly the corporate PR machine that managed successfully to stereotype environmentalist as miserable zealots. It was a deliberate strategy. There always were eco pragmatists who wanted to work with busines. But the challenge of peak oil and climate change is not about ideology. Change isnt negotiable, it's not a nice to have, it's a must do, it's make or break and not enough people have got that. A lot of people go "well they're going to have to try harder if they're going to make me get out of the car". And I think, who is "they"? And why is it someone else's job?

CF: I think the eco battles of the 80s ended up being fought in the media because you had organisation like Greenpeace starting to campaign about issues and then the industry PR fightback by, but one thing that is interesting about Transition is it's not really fighting in space.

Yes, it's for things, not against things. That's what I really like about it. And certainly, with our campaign against Bristol Airport expansion plans I've worked with them quite a lot, and they are a great bunch of people. But their web site is very red, it's "stop Bristol Airport", I think if we were doing it again it would be very different. It would be about clean air, what we're for, and about the Airport being big enough as it is. And similarly, Friends Of The Earth have been running, fantastically positive stuff around local food -- beautiful PR, gorgeous images, lovely font, lovely positive language but when it's a protest against an incinerator it's all big capital letters and object and stop and against, and there's a danger they wont get the ordinary person in the street onside because they won't understand why the incinerator is bad. But I think they're taking that message on board so the campaign about the biofuels plant they're doing it as Bristol Sustainable Energy positive campaign.

And this new planning proposal we've just got for a mass burn incinerator, it's completely out of sync with all the consultation Bristol City Council has done with local people about how we should be reducing waste and using what little waste that remains for local energy production. This new planning application from outside is completely opposite. Most people won't realise that. I mean my neighbours, who are part of the traditional Redland Amenities Society, they will automatically think - 'well are environmentalists against everything, just how do they think we're going to manage?' So I like that Transition is for things and not against things.

CF: So what is your involvement with Transition Bristol and how does that relate the other Transition groups in Bristol?

Transition Bristol started because a bunch of people went to a permaculture conference, heard Rob Hopkins speak and said shall we try and be the first city. So they setup up as a limited liability company, with an asset lock, with directors and and they ran a fantastic program for a about a year of awareness raising events.

That triggered the start of several transition neigbourhoods, some of which have kept going and there's now about a dozen. They had monthly meetings where we would network with the different neigbourhoods. And then some of the initial people wore themselves out and there was a bit of change of personell and I got phoned up and asked if I would I consider joining what was then called the steering group. So officially I'm now a director of Transition Bristol, I think there's four of us at the moment who are legally responsible if we spend money we haven't got or whatever. And what has settled down now is we want to be a space rather than an institution --- there's enough institutions all fighting for money in Bristol. So at the moment Transition Bristol is the neighbourhoods and we let them organise networking together and there's this tiny little core team, just five or six of us really, and we keep the web site going and newsletter going and we're trying to start themed work and the real success is the Bristol City Council Peak Oil Report and that is entirely down to Transition Bristol. So when the neighbourhoods say, oh nothing happening, the Transition Bristol core team aren't organising any big events, it's because we've kind of gone past big events and we're now on the Green Capital Momentum Group, and we're just trying to influence everybody behind the scenes more. When more people engage then we'll get more projects going, but at the moment we are sort of consolidating.

The Bristol City Council Peak Oil Report is a brilliant piece of work and we have to hold Bristol Local Strategic Partnership and Bristol City Council to account on what on earth are they going to do about it because there's a whole action plan in the back

CF: Do you see the role of Transition Bristol is to take on these projects which interface with institutions and government?

I see Transition Bristol as being a thorn in the flesh of all our public sector and business structures in Bristol. The idea that you can setup some parallel organisation which can run the city is flawed. What you can do is inspire local people, you can inform them about peak oil, and you can be like a squeaky wheel or a broken record going on and on and on at the NHS, local government, emergency planners and businesses saying you haven't factored in peak oil into those plans and you're not actually doing a thing to reduce carbon. And that's what we try and do. And it's really tough, it's really difficult, cities are really complicated. But until everyone wakes up and does something wonderful we'll be in a bloody mess to be honest. But from my perspective Transition Bristol, and I don't take any credit for this, has changed the landscape in Bristol. It's enabled me in my NHS job to say and do things that I would never have been able to without the influence of the transition groups.

CF: In terms of Transition Bristol's role being across all the sub groups does it facilitate the exchange of ideas?

The counter culture in Bristol is so strong that very few people in Bristol who are doing food projects or money free projects, would badge themselves as Transition because everybody is so fiercely individual. There is fantastic stuff going on, But as long as they're all talking to each other and working together it doesn't matter so much what label it has. So most people would say oh now, this isn't a transition project. I mean Transition Redland we're officially a registered Transition initiative, we haven't changed the name from Sustainable Redland because we've already got an identify. And some people say to me "we're not really part of Transition because they're hippies". So people all need to feel comfortable with their identity they've got.

So Transition Bristol hasn't got sub groups at the moment, we've just got a core team of five or six of us and I'm leading on the Health theme. There's also great stuff happening around food but we need to join it all together. We've persuaded the NHS and the City Council to fund a freelance expert to do a report on how Bristol currently feeds itself. You've got to get the evidence, you've got to get good stuff like the Peak Oil Report. I'm sick of people telling me the food system will fall over. I want more facts so that officials can't ignore it. Tell me how it works now in Bristol.

And we're also involved in various community supported agriculture projects, but we don't necessarily get our logo on everything, we're just there, talking and influencing people.

CF: So inclusion is obviously a huge issue ... how does Bristol approach this?

I would say that the social and ethnic mix of people who self select to come to Transition type events is predominantly white. In my heath service capacity I'm involved in lots of grass roots inclusion stuff and to be honest some of the top problems for ethnic minority communities in Bristol are to do with access to services, overcrowding, crime, fear of crime, and economic well being. I will lead the Health theme as best I can and get more people involved, and that will be very much about how do we make sure all our services don't fall over if we don't have cheap energy and that will be how I would do it -- through the health community services which already have on the ground health care workers.

There is also Transition stuff going on places like Easton, which is a really fantastic place full of lots of different ethnic groups, but by the very nature of it doesn't like badging itself as anything. But given that Transition Bristol has already done lots of meetings and events, if anyone comes and says they'll help us we'd be delighted.