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.