Calm

There was a moment’s peace, with the faint murmurings of the dishwasher in the next room only disturbed by the all knowing pronouncements of Mark Lawrenson in comment on the football World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands.  The children were all in bed, but weren’t quite ready to sleep.

Rowan came downstairs after persuading them to close their eyes, and started to tidy the piles of toys left on the living room floor.  John felt a vague momentary feeling of guilt as he sat and watched, in front of his laptop.

The past few days had been busy and long, with head hitting pillow in the early hours each night.  No contracts had been signed, but there was a lot of work to persuade the railwaymen of Britain to adopt new approaches.  He had to be honest with himself, it wasn’t all slog.  Two of the late nights had involved a spot of food out in London, meeting with friends and colleagues, intent on turning the oil tanker of human society against the drag of willful ignorance about the need to change the way works.

Van Persie scored a wonder goal with a looping header to level the match for the Netherlands.  Holland.  They were playing in Brazil, which is a hot and humid part of the world at the best of times.  In the south of the country, 130 cities are in a state of emergency as torrential rain and floodwater engulf the region, and tens of thousands have been evacuated.

Like a fly gorging on effluent, blissfully unaware of the massive form of the rolled up newspaper poised threateningly above it, the crowds of brightly coloured fans knew little of the trouble brewing just below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.  The Child is awaking, after years of heat building up in the deep ocean.  El Nino is nearly upon us.

El NinoThe much maligned scientists, unfortunate messengers being shot with every new report, have used the technologies at the forefront of the advances of the human race, from vast super-computers to detailed intricate surveys of the extremities of the planet.  Only recently they have finished collating the data, and the news again is not good.  Their is nothing left to stop Antarctica from melting into the oceans, and Greenland is on its way.  The tipping point has passed.  Our oceans will be metres higher, and there is nothing we can now do to stop it.

Interesting times.

John Bell,

Ordinary Bloke

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UPDATE Nov 2018: NOT ANYMORE – see post

NOTE – UPDATE 4 Nov 2018: Ecotopia no longer exists, so you don’t get the £50 vouchers anymore.  Sorry!  But World Land Trust will still get the £50 to buy rainforest and protect it from destruction, so still use my code!

Woah!  I wasn’t expecting that!

Yes, you read it right – Ecotopia heard what I was doing and have said they will give YOU £50 of vouchers to spend in their online shop if you swap to Ecotricity using my code (see the last post for details).

So, if you swap to Ecotricity, you will get £50, I will buy 1/2 an acre of rainforest, and all the other wonderful stuff I put in my last post will happen.

I honestly didn’t know that was going to happen, it has come out of the blue.  And I’d like to say at this point that I am not being paid by either company to do this, and have no affiliation with them at all.  It’s all just serendipity.

SHARE!  SHARE!  SHARE!

By the way, I’ve just decided to use a hashtag for the first time.  Please use #PracticallySavingTheUniverse.

John Bell,

Ordinary Bloke

Unexpected twist

Life is taking an interesting and unexpected turn of late.  It all started with reading the “Optimists Tour of the Future” and meeting the author, Mark, leading me to visions of the engineered utopian or dystopian future we are accelerating exponentially towards.  Then I visited a Fab Lab, under construction, and have seen first-hand how near that future is becoming.  And how dangerously easy it would be for me to jump on that bandwagon and race off into the reddening sunset.

A Fab Lab is basically a workshop for geeks and entrepreneurs alike to get to grips with automated, small scale manufacture of gadgets and gizmos, using a variety of burgeoning technologies such as desktop laser-cutters and 3D printers.  The important part is that use of the facility is free, within limits.  There are hundreds of the blighters appearing all over the world, including potentially one being put in place by a couple of friends here in Berkhamsted.  The one I checked out was in the Enginuity museum-like-place in Ironbridge, which we visited on Tall’s birthday last week while on a break with the in-laws.  The man behind it, Phil, was very enthusiastic and willing to tell me all about it after I asked for a back-stage pass to nose around.

Fab LabBoom.  Whizz.  Bang.  Brain goes off with inspiration and ideas blasting out of every neuron, as I saw Pixar-quality free 3D design software, printed scanned busts of the staff, laser etched key fobs of photos.  I heard stories of 3D printed houses in China          , business cards with videos activated when you look at the card, and everything created by ordinary people on a shoe-string, not requiring the deep pockets of government or corporations.  Collaboration by the likes of you and me.

On the drive home the following day, fuelled by caffeine, the possibilities thrummed through my mind.  I allowed myself to get drawn further into the intoxicating science fiction come real.  With the M54 rolling past, I designed two new 3D printers, with high resolution and colour (my designs are unworkable, I’m sure – and already done for a mere £200K).  How about an online playing field for ordinary people to evolve computer brains with artificial intelligence, building on each other’s ideas and programs?  Why stop there: with the Fab Labs ordinary people can design, share and build any sort of technology, linking together different components to create larger objects.

Mind racing.  Combined with plentiful supplies of local, community owned renewable electricity and fuel generation, there would be no reliance on central facilities for power.  (That might help sort climate change.  Oh, yeah, climate change).

There would need to be some cataloguing mechanism so the latest breakthroughs are easy to find, not hidden by competitors or left on the workbench due to poor advertising.  I parked that, brain not letting me rest on any one thought before moving me on to the next.

Which was about money.  With the idea of sharing technologies and breakthroughs widely, then how would the army of inventors support themselves back in the real world?  How about some reputation system, so useful contributions are recognised?  Food.

We’d need to eat.  When’s lunch?

It was only when I let myself slow down that I started to think through the consequences.  Where would the materials come from?  Maybe centralised manufacture, while putting the power in the hands of a few, does use resources more efficiently.  Unless the resources required are readily available almost everywhere, such as carbon, air and water.  It feels as though this new world will make it more difficult for people or groups to monopolise power and influence, and level the global playing field regarding living standards.  But what about the environment?  Who would look after that?  There isn’t much nature left in science fiction, other than in distant space.

So, both the potential and the excitement and enthusiasm I felt mean that this could be the start of a story about the future that might galvanise society into a move towards renewable energy.  The question is: How to tell it and move towards it responsibly?

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

PS – this short movie shows what is possible with the free 3D software and with a collaborative, open project.  If you have 15 mins to watch it, it also has a moral message about the dangers of pursuing a goal without thought as to the consequences.

The geek shall inherit the Earth

After the third Ashlyns Conversation on Wednesday night, I can’t help but wonder whether there was some mis-translation early on when the Bible was being compiled.  “The meek shall inherit the Earth” has been an eye-catching and thought provoking phrase for me.  I’m wondering whether the “m” was a mistake and it should have been a “g”.

I’ve read Mark Stevenson’s book, and while feeling out of place in a hip pub in London Mark he did take me through his go-to slide presentation.  While there were adaptations in the talk he gave last night to what I’d read and heard before, it was largely similar.  It didn’t stop me letting out involuntary gasps of astonishment as I sat in Berkhamsted Town Hall while he rattled through his bewildering torrent slides, taking the 70 attendees through already existing technologies such as Star-Wars-like thought controlled robotic hands with sensitive touch, to reversing the aging process using telomerase; from successful competitions to find businesses that can make money by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (without government incentives), to the meteoric rise of renewable energy and algae creating petrol from carbon dioxide and water.

Optimist's Tour of the Future

After the talk I gave a lift to Jean to get her home and save her knees, and worked into the evening to prepare for a client meeting today.  A short night’s sleep later and I’m on a train to Derby, thinking.  What I heard last night changes everything for me.  And at the same time it changes nothing.

It changes everything in that I have to admit that I’m much more optimistic about the potential for us defeating climate change.  Technologies are on the way, and they will come sooner or later whether governments get on board or not.  It changes nothing in that the steps I need to take now are to orient myself in moral philosophy, and help to build and inclusive, collaborative and fair community, starting within myself and working out to my family, friends, neighbours, street and town.

I now have renewed insight and belief that the work of the Transition movement is all the more fundamentally important and pressing.  Climate change will knock us to the floor unless we reduce our individual, local, national and global carbon footprint – we need to give ourselves another decade or two to allow these technologies to come through and help repair our battered planet.  Our humanity, our understanding of our place in the universe and our moral outlook need to keep pace with the onset of the world-shifting technologies.  That can only happen if we get to know the Blaneys next door and the Yarkers across the road, talk about the important things in life and yes, dare I say it, love one another.

The world just around the corner (ooh, I like that phrase) isn’t going to wait for our lumbering political systems and unresponsive behemoths of corporations.  Either through Mother Nature showing her hand or through Fred building a self-replicating 3D nano-printer in his bedroom, government and big business are going to get caught napping.  So we need to be there to help smooth the transition and ride the wave of change rather than get swept aside.

The new insights Mark gave change everything in that the destination I now imagine looks very different from the one I had in mind, with just as much nature and collaboration, but a few more gizmos and a lot more algae.

It changes nothing in that we are still at a crossroads in the history of the human race.  Will we race unthinking into that future, use a shiny new monofilament graphite saw too cut off the branch upon which we are sitting.  Or will we allow our humanity to transcend our animal instincts for competition, to move with self-aware assuredness into a collaborative and equitable paradise.

I’ll probably aim for the paradise option, hope that most of us go the same way, and build a bolt-hole in case those that go for the fast lane try to wipe me out.

A massive thank you to Bex in particular, plus Emma, Phillipa and Ivan for organising the talk, and to Mark for delivering such a profound message to us all.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

Queasy Optimism

I’m just getting to the end of “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future”, and my brain seems to be avoiding thinking about the implications.  It’s good that I’ve nearly read the book through, because the author Mark Stevenson is coming to Berkhamsted tomorrow night to give the third Ashlyns Conversation, and I’d feel a little guilty if I’d not read his book, having invited him along.  If you feel like being emotionally and intellectually challenged and uplifted by a former stand-up comic turned saviour of the world, come to the Town Hall tomorrow night (Weds 21 May – booking in advance preferable but not necessary).

Thinking about emerging technologies and the profound effect they will have on the make-up of the world causes my stomach to turn and my heart to soar in equal measure.  Will we live for a thousand years?  Is that a good thing?  There are already too many of us – how would we organise ourselves not to take that to extremes?  Will computers become more intelligent than us, and will we join them as Terminator-style cybernetic organisms?  We’ve already started that, with our ever increasing reliance on smartphones, which are getting ever closer to being physically part of our system.

Can Cows Save the Planet?

My unconscious* threw another googly with an absurd reaction when I read the sections about climate change and the technologies out there that could solve it for us.  It’s not the rapidly reducing costs of renewable energy, including printing solar panels on film, or the farming techniques that are turning parts of the parched Australian outback verdant green without pesticides or fertilisers.

No, it’s the technologies that claim to be able to reverse the industrial revolution and suck all of the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in just a couple of decades.  Why would that make me feel uneasy?  It sounds fantastic, but is it too good to be true?  Will the potential for its existence spur us on to pollute ever more efficiently?

It seems to me that we are in a race against ourselves in a gladiatorial fight to the death.  We need to perfect these technologies on an industrial scale.  They will be mostly distributed in our communities rather than centrally, if we get our act together.  We need to do that before the climate enters an irreversible downward spiral and creates conditions that mean we are scrabbling for resources and lose the ability to save ourselves.

Or we could live a little more simply, with more time on our hands, and aim for happiness and love rather than being a cog in the Gross Domestic Product machine.

And/or?

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

* ah, cyborg again – I spelled that “unconsious”, but my extended intellect automatically corrected it for me via the spell-check on this laptop

A year of Transition

Last year we did quite a bit actually, with the Transition Town here in currently wet and windy Berkhamsted.  The bits I will remember fondly aren’t necessarily those that would grab the headlines.  OK, the headlines I am talking about are in the local rag the Berkhamsted & Tring Gazette.

It won’t be the steering groups and updating strategies that will stick in the mind, even though they have given us the foundations and direction to transition the town as a whole rather than just our own back gardens.  It won’t be the Fresh Local Accessible local food initiative, with the extensive survey of the opportunities, opinion and barriers to local food, mainly because I’ve not personally been involved in that.  I’ll remember singing along while we broke our backs digging up and reclaiming rough ground at the allotment to plant a community orchard with the other allotment holders.  My little bubs running with an excited shout through the runner bean bamboo wigwam thing, and it not collapsing, will stick in the mind.

The work with Safer Routes to Schools, making a difference to plans for traffic so kids can walk around more freely, is great, but I haven’t been involved in that either so it’ll slip the mind.  I will remember finally getting into the habit of cycling everywhere, zipping past Trevor or Kate shouting “hello!” while not being able to wave as I held on for dear life.  It’s great to have got over that initial wobbly stage.

I probably won’t even remember the B-Hive town consultation and all the invention, creativity and scribbling of the townspeople as they designed their ideal town centre.  I’ll not forget how I felt, mouth-agape, as Anna Perry silenced the bustling Civic Centre hall with her breath-taking a cappella rendition of ..?  No wait, I seem to have forgotten that.  I remember the tears in people’s eyes though.  Beat endless meetings with councillors.

I’ll probably forget all of the meetings to organise not one, not two but three big talks – the Positive Money talk with Fran Boait and the first two Ashlyns Lectures, with Ian Roberts and Polly Higgins.  I won’t forget chatting with Ian and finding out we went to the same primary school and that our retired parents are working together on the leisure centre in Beaumaris, or eating Parul’s wonderful vegan curry before being awed by Polly Higgins warmth, wisdom and knowledge.

It won’t be the emails and phone calls organising the first two gatherings of the Transition Towns of Beds, Bucks and Herts that will stick in the mind.  It might be the shared meal with Berkhamsted Transition Towners at Danny and Jo’s understated mansion.

I do like to eat.

I may remember the start of an energy co-operative in Berkhamsted, with the cricket club and potentially one or two of the local schools being lined up by Seb, Tracy, Peter, Tom and John.

The point of this?  I’d like to see Transition Town Berkhamsted grow, not just food, but in numbers and the time we want to put into it, so we can really make the practical steps to live the life we expect to see after the town has transitioned into the future of local energy and food, with less reliance on cars, lorries, planes and fossil fuel and more biking.  Oh, yes, I’d obviously forgotten the Bikefest (but not my 7-year-old Tall cycling out of the Canal Fields car-park without me, onto the main roads and making it up the Bridgewater Road hill without gears during the guided ride – Go Tall).

So my aim for the coming year will be to make the work that we do be include socialising, eating, family, friendship and be attractive for us all to want to spend more time doing it rather than seeing it as a drag .  We can then bring in more members and a lot more will be achieved.

Come to the AGM tonight (Thursday 15 May) at HERE Berkhamsted from 8pm and we can plot a fun year ahead.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

Power Shift UK 2014 – How it happened

It took three hours to get through to London via circuitous route on Saturday, with the trains up the swanny. It was worth every minute to get to Power Shift UK, which after all these months of planning, copious use of skype and the waxing and waning of the team, has now happened.  I feel very privileged to have been part of organising such a historical event.

After buzzing backwards and forwards to London to deliver painting materials for the conference banner and then working late into the night on Friday to make sure we knew the plan for the two days and had some idea of how our introduction would hang together, Saturday morning was about getting the posters, programmes, tea urns and accoutrements to UCL before the delegates started to arrive.

The introduction was due to start at 11am, and I have to admit that as the time drew near and I felt as though the attendance was going to be well down on the 150 people who had booked their places, as I was seeing the same few faces wondering around the building trying to find their bearings that.  I need not have worried, as 130 people of all ages and backgrounds rolled into Lecture Theatre 1 in the Cruciform building to kick off the event.  The other 20 would make an appearance at different times over the weekend.

We had a few inspiring videos lined up to get everyone in the mood for sharing stories and skills and hatching plans to shift the power from those who seem hell bent on destroying our natural world.  We pressed play, and watched some interesting looking pictures of flooding and wild fires, but not a decibel of sound accompanied them.  Veiled panic ensued – all rather annoying given it had all been working beautifully just an hour previously.  Eventually Tom found that someone had sat on the mute button on the remote and the audience were treated to this:

Our carefully planned intro had to be curtailed, which meant my idea was dropped, which would have involved me frantically pointing around while people shouted out a word to describe what they wanted from the weekend.  I’ll have to keep that one up my sleeve for another day.  It’ll be great.

The plenary speakers performed verbal miracles on stage, eruditely communicating on complicated topics, bringing interest and emotion, all without notes.  I have to say that for me personally, it was Fiona Brookes who stole the show, with a speech from the heart about being challenged to accept the innate differences and similarities between each of us.

Power Shift UK - Stretching after Day 1

Only when we are together can we bring about the change in society that is needed for social and environmental equality and justice.  Over the weekend we found out how many different takes there are on how to go about that, and we also recognised how we need to incorporate all of those viewpoints into our thinking.  Once we recognise that we are all part of the same movement, we can move to critical mass.  As George Barda said in one of the opening plenaries, historically it has only taken between 1-7% of the population to be actively following a cause for it to become mainstream.

If the social and environmental movement in the UK can join together effectively, we would have that 4 million activists necessary to change our world for the better.

I was part of Power Shift UK 2014.  Will it be seen by history as one of the steps on that road?  Next – Power Shift UK 2, if the students from Warwick Uni keep their enthusiasm, plus potentially Power Shift Scotland.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke