Be the Change

Decision time. Off we go. Over the top. I’m going to concentrate on showing what can be done and how that is an improvement over the status quo. I’m going to focus my time in Berkhamsted with the Transition Town. In that way we can get on with making the necessary changes without the need to butt up against climate change dogma (pro or anti).

Berkhamsted - small

I will publicise what we do to show to the wider world what is possible. Optimistically, this will give others who want to do the same an example to draw upon and the motivation to take steps forward themselves. Pessimistically, it will highlight how our systems are geared up to stall progress. Either way, it will be a move forward.

At the same time, I recognise that motivating around benefits only might not provide the pace of change needed. When Hitler was threatening to invade Britain, Churchill didn’t motivate us to build lots of spitfires by extolling the economic benefits to the aerospace industry (although it did have that side effect).

So I will do my own research into quantifying the effects of climate change and what the size of the response needed will look like. I will engage with individuals and organisations to see what can be done to provide an unbiased, objective, peer reviewed source of information that is known as the place to go for information on climate change.

To publicise widely I will use social media as per this blog and will expand the audience of the blog via my new contacts with other organisations. I’ve got some ideas for publicity stunts to draw attention – how about a mass walk to London, or a very public open bet on the reality of climate change?

I will also need to start earning some money to allow me to keep going with my personal change of lifestyle. To that end, I have established a small company in an unrelated industry (passenger demand forecasting for the UK rail industry) to put bread on the table.

All in all, the aim is to get on with the move to a low-carbon future, and to show just how attractive that future is. I’m looking forward to it, are you?

I’d love to hear what you think, good or bad.  Last chance to influence!

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


Status Quo

What would happen if we ignored climate change and carried on as normal?

The share prices of the energy and oil companies are based on the amount of coal, gas and oil that they have the rights to extract.  Let’s assume for a minute that we go ahead and extract and burn those reserves.  In this future the opportunities for new technology to reduce the carbon footprint of power generation and the potential for finding new reserves balance out with one another.  That is a reasonable assumption because of the time required to roll out a large change in the energy infrastructure vs the potential for finding new reserves (shale gas, Greenland, under the arctic etc).

Let’s look at some numbers for a moment.  Scientists agree that to have a 50-50 chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we need to keep the average global temperature increase to no more t350-Mathhan 2°C.  Let’s examine that – if we manage to keep temperature increases to 2°C or less, then you can flip a coin – heads we just get OK climate change (I guess that means not much worse than what we’re getting at the moment – Superstorm Sandy and the like), tails it is catastrophic.

Keeping to a 2°C rise means emitting no more that another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

The scary bit is that we are planning to burn another 2,795 gigatons.  That’s right – 2,795 gigatons.  The share prices of the oil companies are based on us doing just that.

But let’s say we did burn those reserves.  That would mean a temperature increase of about 6 °C.  The difference between the depths of the last ice 20-metresage and now was 6°C.  The last time temperatures were that high, sea levels were 20 metres higher.  Our lives would be completely different.

Worth the risk?

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Woe is Me

In an earlier post I discussed my thoughts as to why people in developed nations are likely to want to ignore the issue of climate change.  Life is comfortable and easy; no-one is starving, so anyone or anything that comes along to disturb that will be in for a short shrift.

Also many of those to whom I’ve spoken about what I am doing have mentioned that persuading people to take action now focusses on the benefits of change rather than the potential risks.

This all adds up and makes sense.

As soon as you try to persuade someone to change what they are doing and have done for as long as they can remember, people will resist.  That resistance will grow further if there is a hint that what they are doing is actually a bad idea.  So it makes sense to avoid that conversation, that impasse, that conflict; to align with people’s values and demonstrate the benefits of change.


While I recognise that as being sensible, I cannot but help think that the pace of change that can be achieved if all that is incentivising us is the potential benefits of green energy and other climate change mitigations, that the pace of change we will achieve will be too little, too late.

From what I understand from reading around the subject, we are fast running out of time to make the drastic changes needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  Climate change is already having a profound effect on our lives with only a 0.8°C change, and there is another 1°C to come that we cannot avoid, stored up due to the delay in the climate system.  There are tipping points out there that when reached will mean we lose any chance of redemption.

So maybe the message I should try to push is:

Look how great our lives could be if we embrace these changes – race to adopt new technologies, learn to enjoy each other’s company again and spend our time and money more wisely.  And bear in mind what we are letting ourselves in for if we don’t.  So let’s get on with it, there’s no time to waste.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Role of the Transition Network

When we all pull in the same direction, change can happen.  We’ve seen that over the past few years with the changes of regime in the North of Africa, and throughout history.

In the UK, though, and I speculate in other western cultures as well, we are too disconnected for change to have a chance.  Yes, we are increasingly widely connected via the web, but there is a lack of human contact within our local communities.

For an example, take Berkhamsted, where I live.  The town is of medium size, with good access to London and to the north.  A large proportion of the residents commute to London.  They spend the day at work, come home on the train.  They then spend the evening in their homes, watching the telly.  Sometimes they will go out in the evening and they may know a few people in the town via a couple of clubs and the kids.

Therefore there isn’t a great sense of being part of a community, as our lives are largely insulated from those around us.  We are more likely to compare ourselves with the neighbour than we are to lend them a lawnmower; more likely to complain about the litter than get together to pick it up.

Our personal health and well-being and the quality of our lives are improved if we spend more time with each other.  You may recognise the feeling of not having enough energy in the evening to do anything much.  You may also recognise the fact that even when you feel tired if you go out and meet people then you have a great time and feel energised.

Arguably the greatest benefit of the Transition movement therefore is to re-build and cultivate that sense of community.  The aim of the Transition movement is to help move us to the low-carbon future, addressing issues such as resilience to the effects of climate change, peak oil and financial austerity.  This is a big ask and not one that can be achieved without a community in place that is capable of acting as one.

I have been involved in Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB) for a number of years, and was elected co-leader in May 2012.  It is a very rewarding movement to be part of, plus of course a great challenge, as so few are motivated to address the issues.

The Transition Network or Transition movement encompasses about 1000 different communities around the world.  The communities, dubbed Transition Towns, might be a neighbourhood or might be up to a whole town or district.  About half are in the UK, where the movement started, the rest are spread over the globe, in particular in the states.

This might be a good focus for my time.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

What’s on your mind?

OK, the last post was a bit of fun, now for the serious part.  Thank you to Matt Gitsham for his insights, which have largely inspired this post.

What frustrates me most about climate change is widespread ignorance of the issue, denial that there is a problem, and for those that understand the issue, a combination of apathy or even wilful inaction.  Matt helped me make sense of it.

It makes more sense when you liken our addiction to fossil fuels to a substance addiction.  The obvious things we could do to tackle climate change feel like self-denial , so there are good reasons that this analogy would hold.  Don’t drive the car, switch off the lights (or use “dims”, as energy saving bulbs have been dubbed in my mother’s house), eat less meat and so on.  It doesn’t have to be this way, by the way.

Thinking about it like an addiction can help understand how to change mind-sets.  The documented stages of addiction are tellingly: obliviousness; denial; preparing to do something about it; doing something about it; and finally relapse.  Crucially, it usually takes an emotional jolt for someone to move from the denial stage to preparing to do something about the addiction.

Given that the effects of climate change are inherently uncertain (we are predicting the future), you can begin to see why we remain stubbornly in the denial stage.  The science is conclusive that climate change happening and its cause, but there is inherent uncertainty in the long term effect, how quickly they’ll come about and in linking individual events to the cause of climate change.

On top of that we have the psychology of “prisoner’s dilemma”.  Tackling climate change will need the global community to work together, but we tend to act selfishly, as individuals and as countries.  We tend to think that if other people and other countries aren’t doing enough, then why should we?  It might not seem obvious, but this is another aspect of denial.

So someone wanting to de-rail action against climate change need only sow any doubt or excuse and we’ll buy it.  As uncertainty is inherent, the job of denying climate change is easy.

That is why there is focus on the benefits of doing something about climate change rather than trying to kick our addiction by showing adverse effects.  If you want to do the latter, you need to leave no room for doubt, which is impossible.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Bringing you up to date

In my last post, I gave a hint as to the direction I am starting out on in my pursuit of helping our society adjust to the realities of a changing climate. I mentioned that my first steps will be towards creating a credible, reliable, up-to-date, well known, trusted source of information for the layman on the realities of climate change, relating that back to day-to-day life and the effects of the decisions we all make. It would be presented in cogent laymen’s terms, so you don’t need a scientific background to be able to understand. It would need to link through to the scientific research demonstrably, so as to have that credibility and allow an interested reader to check the facts for themselves, and to read further.

That feels like a good direction in which to start.

But … I do feel like a toddler, learning their first steps in what is, let’s face it, a very complicated area. No one wants climate change to be real, whatever they believe about the science.

So I’m starting out on my journey, fully aware that the route will be difficult, and with my eyes wide open to the possibility of changing course or even the destination. It is for me a true adventure.

To that end, I have discussed my idea with a number of people, to get their reaction and see where that takes me.

The first person I talked to (other than family) was Prof Chris Rapley MBE, former director of the Science Museum, former head of the Antarctic Survey and current professor of earth sciences at UCL. I’d read his article in the FT as a call to action for the science community to step up a gear and actively promote the science on climate change, and then his letter in Nature magazine along similar lines. We’d met previously at an event at St-Martin-In-The-Fields with the Environment Audit Committee. His feedback was simple – the website I was describing could be part of the jigsaw, but the idea needs tightening up. He suggested I talk to those that currently provide similar sorts of information and see what they think is missing.

So that was my plan; is still my plan.

Next person I spoke to was Matt Gitsham, who is Director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at Ashridge Business School. He’s a friend, someone I’ve met via Transition Town Berkhamsted. His feedback was that when selling the idea of doing something about climate change, the tack has changed in general to describing how money can be made from a more sustainable approach. He also described the similarities between kicking our addiction to fossil fuels, and kicking an addiction to any drug – but that is a subject of another post.

Then I spoke to Patrick Hort, Director of Savoy Systems (providing ticketing software to cinemas and theatres). He’d been thinking about this area a lot, and his feeling was that a positive message as to the fantastic quality of life we could have if we moved to a more sustainable future would be the way to go, i.e. to try to make sustainability sexy.  Wise words; and quite different to my ideas of spelling out the seriousness of not doing so. Is there room for both?

Most recently, I spoke with Mark Stevenson, comedian, public speaker, author and entrepreneur. He has a grand vision of the future, and suggested that maybe the right way forward would be to concentrate on transitioning Berkhamsted to the emerging future, in a way that it could be held up as a beacon of what can be achieved. He may be right.

So – what shall I do? Answers on a postcard, or better still comment on this post. I’m going to carry on walking this road and talking to people, and I’m sure the way forward will crystalize along the way. As I said, a real adventure!

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

The adventure begins…

My name is John Bell.  I am a father and am happily married, have a mortgage, a “normal” 9 to 5 job (working in the rail industry).  So far so normal, so everyday.

Until recently.  I have done something unthinkable – I have quit my job.  I have no other job to go to, and didn’t leave due to stress and was not pushed.  In the current economic climate, why would someone leave a comfortable, steady job, especially with a young family and no other earnings in the household?

For me the reason was that I have become more and more aware of the dangers of climate change, and more and more aware of the ineffectual nature of the response that we are making as a species to this incredible threat.  I can’t just carry on as normal, be one of those zombies traipsing to work every day, being a cog in the system that perpetuates this potentially disastrous sequence of events.  I just wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t do something about it.

I have just read a very short article in the London Metro describing an interview that Prince Charles did on ITV’s This Morning recently.  He evidently feels exactly the same.  I have been involved with the Transition movement for the last few years, and know many others who feel similarly.  I have also talked to many people, many other ordinary folk, and have realised that the vast majority are not aware of the reality of the problem, not aware of the extent of the potential damage or of the changes we will need to make.  Either that or they are aware, but do not believe in their own ability to do anything meaningful about it.

So, I have resolved to put my back into trying to change that.  I don’t know where this journey will take me, but I am starting out on it with optimism and my head held high.

My starting point is to create a well-known, credible source of day-to-day information on climate change and the effects of our actions as individuals, available for the layperson.  I’ll be getting I touch with people who currently provide this sort of information, and those that use it, to see what’s missing and how we can work together.

Wish me luck, and follow me via this blog, or on Twitter or Facebook.  I’d love to hear from you to understand what you think, so please do drop me a line and let me know – good or bad.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

PS – There is a very good reason I can afford to take this step.  The steps I have taken to keep the imprints of my shoes as light as possible have meant little in terms of the life I lead, but a lot in terms of the savings in my pocket.  As a family we use relatively little gas, electricity and water, walk and cycle when we can, grow our own food and holiday in this country.  Crucially, we try not to throw anything away if there is more life in it.  This means we live well within our means, and as a result I can afford to step out of the rat-race and my run-of-the-mill job and spend time on those things that really matter in life.  Could you do the same?