climate change lifestyle peak oil transition towns

A dispatch from the New Home Front

A few months ago I was inspired by a great exhibition called The Ministry of Food, at the Imperial War Museum. The exhibition, which has now finished, documented the huge social movement that mobilised the British population during the war. The country was far too dependent on imported food, and people had to learn to grow their own, to reduce their waste, to recycle and to conserve fuel and materials. The changes were brought about by huge public information campaigns, community support groups, and of course, the motivating factor of a clear and present Nazi danger.

As a transitioner, I couldn’t help but see all kinds of parallels with climate change and resource depletion. British society needs to change as fundamentally as it did in the 1930s, and it was hugely educational to see how that sort of change was catalysed.

So I was intrigued to see the launch of the New Home Front this month, a project to learn from that era and see what lessons we can apply to today’s predicament. The idea was dreamt up by Caroline Lucas, parliament’s only Green MP, and the first report was written by Andrew Simms. You can read it here (pdf).

The report asks two big questions – how can we motivate real and lasting action on climate change? And what practical lessons can we draw from those who lived through the time? “The scale of transition we face has few historical precedents,” write Simms, “but the example of wartime Britain is exceptional, instructive, and illuminating. Our future efforts will be different and unique to our new circumstances, but we would be foolish not to learn from the past.”

There is no underestimating the scale and pace of change that happened during the war. Coal use dropped by a quarter, general consumption fell by 16%, car use dropped 95%. Sacrifices were made, but as people ate less and often ate better, levels of health and fitness rose accordingly. Infant mortality and the suicide rate fell, and spending on entertainment was one of the few areas that grew.

The enemies are different, but the need for change is as stark. The report suggests there are three main areas to address: 1) Switching to green energy, 2) rapid de-carbonisation, and 3) reducing inequality to maintain social cohesion.

Can we do it? Sure, but the steps we’re taking as a society as not big or fast enough. At this pace, climate change and peak oil will bite before we have created a sustainable economy. Perhaps a crisis is what we need to motivate the change, or perhaps we can get ahead of disaster with campaigns like the New Home Front.

There isn’t much on the website at this point, as the project is just getting started. It is kicking off with a design competition, which is fitting – the war years gave us a wonderful legacy of iconic images, phrases and characters, from ‘dig for victory’ to Rosie the rivetter. (I have the ‘use spades not ships’ image on my wall at home.) Click here for more details on the competition, and we will watch this space for more on the New Home Front.

11 comments

  1. Jeremy back the they did have an enemy and they could all pull together. I’m not at all sure that people will makes sacrifices when first the enemy is a weather related abstraction and two when other people won’t change. I tend to think game theory would say change won’t happen until it smacks them in the face.

  2. I agree with Simon – human nature stands in the way. The danger is not “clear and present” but rather abstract and remote instead. The globalized market smoothes out much of the felt effects of resource depletion and climate change. What we in the rich countries feel are rising costs while people in other regions already are starved. Nobody starts a revolution in Western Europe because the butter price rises by 25 % – neither when the oil price rises 300 percent (which already happened over a few years). Human psychology stands in our way. A human enemy with an ugly face and character is something tangible. A storm is not. Neither is an “increased frequency of extreme weather events” or, to speak with Lovelock, “unexpected atmospheric events”. There was no doubt that the Nazis were the enemys. There always will be doubt about the causes of climate change. People tend to get apathic in the face of big and slow and complex forces that do not have a clear-cut nature. One day the supermarket shelves will be empty, and people will simply go home, hungry. One day the heating oil will first become unaffordable before finally it will be gone, and people will begin to rapidly burn the remaining forests to keep themselves warm in Winter. Until they, also, will be gone. Humans are like that. We do not bahave reasonably – in fact we (mankind at large) cannot even agree what reasonable behavior actually is. The most twisted lunatic probably assumes he behaves reasonably, and worse: he will find supporters. History is proof enough. I am with you and your ideals and most of your insights, only I am not overly optimistic. But perhaps the techno-optimists will be right in the end and human ingenuity together with the ominous dark forces of the infamous invisible hand will come up with a miracle technology that saves our butts. I doubt it. But I have been known to err.

    The war scenario has another fundamental flaw: it is based upon martial law. And perhaps the situation will indeed become so extreme that martial law at one time will have to be installed in order to keep the hungry, freezing masses at bay. It is well within the future scenarios for the next 50 odd years.

  3. Yes, there are plenty of differences between the scenarios and a clear enemy is one of the biggest. It’s much easier to identify with a personal enemy than an abstract one. It explains why the US has spent trillions fighting terrorism, while American deaths from terrorism have averaged single figures in almost every year since 2001, and only millions on fighting the much bigger threat of climate change.

    I suspect that you’re right, and it will take a crisis to kick off any serious action. I thought the financial crisis would be enough of a shock to trigger some reform, but apparently it wasn’t quite big enough to shake the vested interests. An oil crisis might do it, as it affects real people in a much more immediate and tangible way. What’s interesting though is that many people didn’t believed Nazi Germany was a real threat either. That’s another reason to look back at the history – how were people convinced? What was it that swayed public opinion conclusively?

    As for martial law, I think it was declared in both Germany and Japan at the end of the war, as the civilian governments had collapsed entirely. I’m pretty sure it was never required in the UK. Even at the worst of times the government continued to function. And looking at Britain’s armed forces now, I don’t think the military has the scope to run the country even if they wanted to.

  4. To the first two writers – although I to some degree agree with you, I have seen many people already changing. Many people do see the clear and present danger of climate change, and fear for the future of your children (whether the government is on-board or not) is a big motivating factor.
    Yes, some people won’t change – but in WW2 some people also did not change their ways. But as more and more people join the cause, the greater the social pressure gets.
    I do think the WW2 lessons are relevant and present a great example. I do think the “enemy” is clear, and I think it could be made much more so if government or big media decided to join in.

  5. @Jeremy: the story’s about “Late lessons from early warnings” are legend (see the EU report with that very title). And the big problem here is that the process of global environmental change has an enormous inertia. In 1990 I attended a lecture by Paul Crutzen, who then estimated that within the next ten years (by 200) global greenhouse gas emissions would have to be cut by no less than sixty percent to avert a long term disaster. No such thing happened, as we all know. But I do think that if we would get into a real long-term recession followed by some sort of anarchic cultural decline governments would resort to totalitarian style ruling to stay in control. Not necessarily martial law, but authoritarian governance, a police state, strict enforcement, total control, cameras everywhere…

    @Paul WWII certainly is an important lesson. Goodness. And what a lesson. And yes – the danger is clear enough for those who are well informed. However – believe me: the majority of Earth’s population is quite unaware of what is going on. The issue is too big for our little mammalian intuition.

  6. “Can we do it? Sure, but the steps we’re taking as a society as not big or fast enough.”

    Absurd as this may sound – if not perversely paradoxical – I keep wondering if the real way to go is to keep our solutions small and slow. Just as less is sometimes more – and more is not always better – may there not be weird places in human experience where a kind of slowness – and patience – may actually buy us time? Particularly the kind of slowness that requires our doing things on a more human scale, and more in real than in cyberspace. Whatever happened to loving a particular place, and everything in it – as opposed to being militaristically “proud” of it – simply because it is ours? Or even just because we live there?

    In any case, I wonder if it isn’t sometimes a good thing to try to keep our solutions as different as possible from the underlying problem – in method (and degree of forcefulness) of approach as well as in content of ideas. Simplistic as it may sound, hasn’t our “big and fast” approach to the globe been one of the factors that’s helped us to reach our present advanced state of (seemingly) uncontrollable momentum? I always get the nagging sense that behind every one of our most “urgent” problems there was once an equally urgent, simplistically comprehensive solution.

    1. The more I learn about the world, the more convinced I am that E F Schumacher was right – small is beautiful, and that human-scale technologies are where we should be putting our energies.

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