The launch of the third Zero Carbon Britain report – told through updates on the day

Throughout the launch day yesterday the ZCB team were busy tweeting and updating to Facebook. In case you missed it, we made a Storify of the events.

The Zero Carbon Britain team would like to say a big thank you to all the supporters and contributors who made this report happen. The work continues (some might say it is only just beginning!) as we enter into the communications phase of the project.

The ZCB team outside of Parliament


Can biomass help meet the UK’s energy demands?

Reposted from Science Omega online
As the world’s supply of fossil fuels dwindles, the search for alternative energy sources is vital. Biomass is one such energy source that is being touted as a good alternative to conventional fossil fuels. However, it is not without considerable opposition from those who argue that biomass could do more harm than good in the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Biomass is energy created from the burning of biological materials such as plants and non-living things such as biodegradable waste. Anything that is alive or was alive a short time ago can be categorised under biomass, therefore trees, crops, animal and plant waste are all included.

The attraction of biomass in the fight against climate change is that it is carbon neutral. Unlike the fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal, which when burnt add to the net amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the CO2 that biomass produces when ignited is absorbed from the atmosphere by the crops used to make it, and so the net atmospheric amount is not increased.

“It is clear that for biomass to be part of a zero-carbon energy future, strict safeguards need to be in place to ensure that only sustainable sourcing occurs. “

Currently in the UK there are 20 dedicated biomass power plants that are producing a total of 1,092MW from a variety of sources including poultry waste and woody biomass. There are around another 30 at planning stage with a combined capacity of 5,000MW.

Given that 1MW can sustain 1,000 homes for an hour, that is a significant contribution to the UK energy mix. However like many energy sources, it is also controversial, as there are both advantages and disadvantages.

In recent years numerous organisations have issued warnings about the potential impacts of the mass production of biomass. UK-based organisation Biofuelwatch is currently protesting against plans by Drax power station in Yorkshire to convert half of their coal-fired power station to run on biomass. Whilst in practice this sounds like a green idea, “highly biodiverse forests in North America are already being clear cut to make wood pellets for UK power stations. This will only get worse as the industry expands.”
Biofuelwatch say that communities in South Africa are already losing access to land and water because biodiverse grasslands are being destroyed for monoculture tree plantations, some of which supply Drax.

Drax has the capability to produce 12.5 per cent of its output from renewable and sustainable biomass – the equivalent output of over 700 wind turbines. Drax says that ‘burning biomass at this level saves over two and a half million tonnes of CO2 each year.’

Wood has always served as a fuel source for fires and ovens, however technological advances mean that burning biomass can produce energy for everything from a power plant to an engine.

The advantages are that burning biomass is said to be carbon neutral, in that by growing and then burning it there is no creation of additional carbon monoxide. Biomass products are abundant and renewable; since they come from living sources and life is cyclical, these products potentially never run out, so long as there is something living on earth and someone is there to turn that living thing’s components and waste products into energy.

Another benefit of biomass is that we can use waste and thus reduce landfill to produce energy. However there are concerns that incinerating household waste depresses recycling and wastes resources, releases greenhouse gasses, and is often forced through against strong public opposition. Instead of promoting zero waste, incinerators rely on material for feedstock that should be recycled or composted. Incinerators create toxic emissions and hazardous ash, and therefore pose significant health risks.

It is clear that for biomass to be part of a zero-carbon energy future, strict safeguards need to be in place to ensure that only sustainable sourcing occurs. Otherwise, as the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Freya Stanley-Price points out: “We are getting rid of one environmental problem and replacing it with another.”

Friends of the Earth suggest a number of measures that include keeping the scale of biomass to the size of domestically available resources, using anaerobic digestion for the treatment of food and animal waste and focusing biomass use close to production.

In addition, there must be a joined-up, integrated approach to energy planning that considers the most efficient use of any energy generated and looks forward to managing energy demand.

“There are many things that have to be carefully considered and weighed when determining if biomass energy is a viable alternative energy source,” Stanley-Price says. “In a zero-carbon future we must make sustainable use of trees as fuel, and replant them as we harvest them – creating a continuous carbon cycle. Growing our own fuel also creates jobs and is ideal for strong, local economies.”

Read more:

What really happened on Any Questions held at ‘eco loon central’ on Friday Night?

Following ‘the rowdiest’ Any Questions in programme history held at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth – complete with anti badger culling and anti wind turbine protests – James Delingpole wrote a blog, published in the online Daily Telegraph, attempting to clarify his side of the story.

As someone who works at CAT, my take on the evening was unsurprisingly a little different: the real shock of the programme was not the anti wind farm cheering or right wing loon James Delingpole! It was something a whole lot more sinister. Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson was asked if he agreed with James Delingpole’s opinion that climate change was anti-scientific, ideological nonsense. His response might come as something of a surprise given this man’s role in the UK government. Apparently the climate and temperature have not changed in the last 17 years. Jaws dropped in disbelief, and Peter Hain managed to splutter a reply: “and this i s the minister for the environment.”

It was always going to be a lively programme: from the moment word got out that Any Questions was happening in Machynlleth both pro wind farm and anti wind farm groups started ringing up for tickets. The news that Owen Paterson was going to be on the panel excited everyone, and when James Delingpole was announced it seemed like a BBC set up. Bring two wind turbine hating public figures to Europe’s leading eco centre, pitch them against socialist, republican, Welsh nationalist Leanne Wood, and well, let’s see what happens.

Earlier on in the afternoon a small but vocal group of people dressed as badgers had started a demonstration in the car park. A brief blockade of ‘badger killing’ Owen Paterson’s car followed, but all in all it was a good-natured affair. Those ‘desperately earnest and well meaning’ volunteers, so well described by James Delingpole in his blog, did their jobs of showing people to their seats and generally being welcoming and polite.

As the evening began, the atmosphere was electric. Encouragement from BBC warm up man Peter Griffiths and then Jonathan Dimbleby for audience participation was perhaps not necessary, given how the evening unfolded. The audience were opinionated, lively and more than willing to respond to answers from Leanne Wood, Peter Hain, Owen Paterson and James Delingpole.

There were a lot of interesting moments, much cheering, some booing. It was a pleasure to host the event at the Centre for Alternative Technology, not that we imagine that BBC Any Questions will be coming back in the next 40 years!

But those few words, buried amongst the cheering, booing and angry badger man’s outburst, stand out in my mind as the most disturbing revelation by BBC Any Questions on Friday night. Cabinet Minister for the Environment – not Welfare, Education or Defence – clearly stated “The real question is: is climate change influenced by man made climate change? The climate, the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years.”

Unbelievably, the UK has a Secretary of State for the Environment who believes that climate change is not happening; you couldn’t make this stuff up. It‘s absurd that as the level of carbon emissions in the atmosphere reaches 400ppm, as people around the world struggle in the face of adverse climatic conditions, as India bakes and Central Europe floods, as think tanks and NGOs advise that climate change will cause food shortages, political instability and rising sea levels, the Secretary of State for the Environment for the UK can sit glibly in front of an audience, on national radio, and say that climate change is not happening.

What’s more, when asked if local protests against wind farms should be able to stop developments from going ahead, he responded with a clear message that from now on landscape, topography and heritage should take precedent over national energy targets. Leanne Wood’s valuable point that this should be rolled out to include all energy generation stations was a little lost on him. For him it’s the wind turbines that are the problem.

It was shocking what happened on Friday night at BBC Any Questions. Any illusions of “greenest-ever” governments or intentions to tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions in the UK were shattered into pieces.

I thought that James Delingpole was going to be the right wing loon on the Any Questions programme on Friday night, but I was mistaken: it was Owen Paterson. The problem is that his ramblings are not confined to the back pages of the Daily Telegraph – he is a cabinet minister and he is responsible for the environment.


Solar Ovens in Wales

The Centre for Alternative Technology was delighted to receive a solar oven (also know was a parabolic cooker) as a gift from a recent visitor to the centre. Manolo Vilchez, from the social enterprise Alsol, based in Spain, fulfilled a long term goal to visit the Centre this week. He presented CAT with a solar oven produced by the organisation he works with as a gift for use as part of our educational work.

The solar oven

Paul Allen, External Relations Officer at CAT said: “It is a wonderful gift to receive and we have already seen how on this cloudy day the sun is heating the pan, even in Wales.” Alsol works across Europe in providing solar products, with a strong emphasis on co-operation and educational development.

A solar oven cooks by turning light rays from the sun into heat; the sun is the fuel source. Reflectors on the solar oven direct the light towards a dark pot, which helps to absorb the heat.

Inspired by a previous model, CAT’s new oven has been designed and manufactured entirely in Spain.  The parabolic cooker can be used to fry, bake, roast and even cook bread. The ALSOL 1.2 is a powerful machine that uses clean, renewable energy from the sun to produce up to 7 litres of  boiling water daily.

Since solar ovens do not require any fuel other than the sun, they are becoming very popular in developing nations in Asia, Africa and Europe. They are relatively inexpensive so many charitable organisations have begun to distribute them to people in areas without other options for power. Solar ovens can provide an environmentally responsible cooking solution for people all over the world.

Manolo explaining how the solar oven works
Manolo presenting the solar oven to the CAT team

Communicating the Communications Officer Role

The research period for the latest Zero Carbon Britain report is coming to a close, and we are now looking ahead to the communications phase of the project. We are recruiting for a Communications Officer to work alongside the current ZCB team, co-ordinating the communication of the new research findings, aiming to build awareness, stimulate debate and discussion, and catalyse further action amongst our target audiences.

Paul Allen, CAT’s Director of External Relations, talks about the roles and responsibilities of the post…

“We’re coming to the stage where we’ve completed the most recent year’s research. Because the 2010 report had such an impact in that lots of people were using it, lots of people were talking about it, the dialogue that came out of that made us recognise that there were some things where we couldn’t answer people’s questions. Not because what we’d got was wrong but because we hadn’t got enough detail. Particularly things like land use, diet and dealing with variability and balancing supply and demand. We recognised we needed to do some more work.

So we’ve been researching and burying our heads in data and looking at outputs from actual offshore wind farms, not theoretical models. Correlating them against actual Met data and scaling it up to give us an indication of what the profile of energy generation would be, and then comparing that with the demand profile and coming up with a new report which will be much much more detailed.

Paul Allen and Peter Harper discuss the 2010 ZeroCarbonBritain report

The new person’s job will be to run a communications strategy based around that research. We’ve got a draft aims and objectives of the communications plan and their first job is to go through that and add more detail to research into the different markets, look at the mapping that we’ve done, look at where the different target groups are now and what tools and resources we might need to develop. But primarily I think it’s looking at communicating it through CAT, because CAT’s clients are the people who are interested in this in any case and we’re surrounded by the sort of infrastructure that helps bring the point across.

It’s also about getting it out to other groups who can act as amplifiers of the message, particularly through developing the ‘ZeroCarbonBritain and…’ two-pagers, which seem to have worked very well in getting other people to think: ‘well what would it mean for refugees’ or ‘what would it mean for Egypt’ or all sorts of other things. So they will be building on that, developing more of those and so bringing in more groups. Also working with arts, creative practice and we’ve put some money in a budget to have ZeroCarbonBritain activities happening on the site, and it won’t be just kids activities, it’ll be family activities for the adults as well as the kids. And the new Comms role will be managing that, working out how we can take Laura’s Larder or Tobi’s energy game and do it this summer, for real, with the visitors…

It’s a chance to find somebody who is technically fluent, who’s got a science or an engineering background, who isn’t going to be completely flustered by somebody asking questions. I think it’ll be a really interesting job for whoever gets it. It’s the chance to work on cutting edge, state of the art thinking about how we grapple with 21st Century challenges. It means not having to beat on about the negative side of Climate Change and the worrying side for frightened looking polar bears on diminishing icebergs but to spout on about exciting visions of positive futures where we can cross the changes that we need to make to decarbonise with changes that can increase well-being, or more habitat, or economic recovery, or the jobs part of it. So there’s lots of positives there.”

Application packs can be downloaded from the CAT website.

More information about ZeroCarbonBritain can be found here.


ZCBlog: Winds of Change


Electricity production from wind power in the UK has increased dramatically over the last few years, as this graph shows.

Plotted using National Grid data, it shows the proportion of UK electricity that is produced by wind turbines, from early 2009 to March 2013. The daily values appear chaotic as wind power output fluctuates between windy and calm days. But the 90 day rolling average shows a clear upwards trend, and this is at least partially due to the completion of a few very large offshore wind farms: September 2012 saw the completion of the Greater Gabbard wind farm off the coast of Suffolk with a 504 MW maximum output. It was the world’s largest wind farm – but only until early April 2013, when the last one of 175  turbines at the London Array (Phase I) offshore wind farm in the Thames Estuary was connected, bringing that wind farm to the top of the global league table with 630 MW.

Research carried out by CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research team (to be published later this year) shows that offshore wind power has the potential to be the ‘work horse’ of a renewably powered future energy scenario, producing nearly half of our energy. So these recent developments are certainly steps in the right direction!

ZCBlog: Educating for a zero carbon future

This week on ZCBlog Sarah Everitt, a long-term volunteer at CAT, describes her work linking between different parts of the CAT team: Education, and Zero Carbon Britain.

Within the first week or so of settling in to the Zero Carbon Britain team I was finding out all about the progress of the research, the schedule for the report and the communications strategy and aims. Having a parent who works in education support I expressed an interest in how we would enthuse young people about ZCB and spread the message through schools.  It then became apparent that a gap existed between the researchers who produce the ZCB report and the Education department who inform young visitors and schools about the work that CAT does.  Therefore, it was suggested that it would be useful to have someone who could provide a link between the two departments, and I was glad to be appointed the responsibility.

The benefits of creating such a link were obvious, in that Education could tell me what they want or need from ZCB to best convey what ZCB is all about – whether it be to better understand what the scenario portrays and advocates, the science behind it, possible resources and ways to communicate the scenario, or specific information needed to put together accurate and informative ZCB activities.

From the beginning of this project, it’s been clear to me that CAT’s Education team has a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity about ZCB and its importance to society.  Deirdre, Ann and Christine have all been working at CAT for over ten years and are lovely people to work with.  They already give presentations and a workshop on ZCB, and have a great deal of insight into the key details they would like to put across, their target audience and how their audience may question things.

In the workshop, several types of activities are based around a giant map of Britain.  The students can interact with the map and use it to present what they would do towards a ZCB and where.  Looking at these existing materials, we compiled a long list of requests for scientific notes, updated information, clearer graphs and diagrams and updated resources.  There were also a few questions about the ZCB scenario that they had received from audiences, which I could then enquire about with the appropriate ZCB researcher.

They were very happy to have someone to whom they can direct their questions, and who has more time to help tweak technical and visual details of presentations and resources.

So far I have enjoyed adding notes to their presentations and adding new slides, and as the report is finalised I will continue to update their ZCB presentations.  I have found it really interesting to see all the work and enthusiasm that goes into producing the Educational material.  Also, in the process I have learnt a lot more about climate science and policy, and the ins and outs of the ZCB scenario.

For example, I have learnt about how the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be explained as the carbon ‘bathtub’ effect.  It is like a tub filling with water, where more water flows from the faucet than the drain can take away. And, as the global temperature increases, the size of the drain decreases as current stores of carbon either cannot take in enough to match the rate of emissions or the stores themselves begin to degrade and release carbon.  This perpetuates the cycle and increases the rate of temperature change. The ‘bathtub’ effect essentially explains the runaway rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations – and with humans pumping vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, the current CO2 level is higher than it’s been in at least 800,000 years (NRC, 2010*).

I am looking forward to creating and updating some engaging resources and activity sheets to complement Education’s existing resources and presentations.  An example of a type of resource used is maps of wind speed and water depth off UK coasts, with a brief info sheet explaining offshore wind turbines. Using this, high school pupils are asked where they would place offshore wind turbines and how many.  This gives an idea of the research behind the scenario.  I will create a more accessible map key and put together a more up to date and visually appealing info sheet.

It is great that in the future there will be more opportunities to create educational resources alongside the updated report.  I hope that there can always be a person there from ZCB whom can give time to work together with education, and provide them with ZCB information and resource material.  An idea for a future resource could be a snazzy, child friendly, information and activity pack provided alongside a presentation or workshop.  Pupils could then take home the ZCB vision of the future and perhaps act on or ponder it, or perhaps even just leave in a drawer and rediscover it a few years later – a spark of curiosity reignited. Some will want to find out more about what is happening towards ZCB now, or maybe discuss ZCB with their parents and decide on some things they can do together as a family to help achieve a zero carbon Britain.

I would like to help develop a workshop package that could be sent out to schools, including a whole host of activity ideas and resources that the school could base a non-curriculum day around (perhaps even a ‘A ZCB Future’ day).  In this way ZCB could be communicated more widely across the UK, even to schools that haven’t yet heard of or visited CAT.  There is great potential for creating this from what education already work with.  I look forward to discussing it further with them, and hopefully to begin creating the package alongside CAT’s enthusiastic Education team.


Are you a student, teacher or someone else interested in learning more about CAT’s educational resources on Zero Carbon Britain – or in helping to develop new resources? Contact Sarah at with your questions!


*National Research Council (USA) (2010), Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change.

ZCBlog: Catalysing the shift we need

As we press ahead with our new Zero Carbon Britain research, we are all motivated by the clear evidence that our climate and energy challenges have not gone away, and in many ways they are getting worse. AT ZCB we are keen to explore new drivers that can help Britain rise to that challenge – and one of the most interesting areas of work is in the development of Tradable Energy Quotas, or ‘TEQs‘ for short. In line with this, the new Zero Carbon Britain report will include a section suggesting and evaluating policies such as TEQs, cap and share, emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes that might be used to achieve a zero carbon future.

Currently, our Government has over one hundred policies that impact on emissions. Yet it has produced, in the words of Parliament’s own Environmental Audit Committee, “a confusing framework that cannot be said to promote effective action on climate change.”

We desperately need a clear, focused framework for reducing emissions in the kindest, fairest way possible. This is what TEQs offer – to unleash grassroots invention and collaboration, to make energy use a visible in people’s lives and to generate a common purpose in addressing these challenges.

“If I weren’t working at CAT I’d go and work with Shaun [Chamberlain]”, says ZCB’s Paul Allen, “he’s doing really inspirational things with TEQs and The Lean Economy Connection”.

The TEQs Board is currently looking for two interns to help research how TEQs can help deliver a radical change in UK energy policy. They describe their work as “a way to address social injustice, climate change and fuel depletion that is politically achievable” – check out the description below to learn more!


TEQ Internships

We are currently seeking two interns to help move TEQs forward towards implementing a radical change in UK energy policy.  Although we cannot offer payment for this at the moment, there may be the possibility the role could progress in the future.

TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) is an electronic energy rationing system designed to be implemented at the national scale. There are two main reasons why TEQs are needed:

1) Climate change: to guarantee achieving national carbon reduction targets.

2) Energy supply: to maintain a fair distribution of fuel and electricity during shortages.

Currently, the UK government has over one hundred policies that impact on emissions levels yet it has produced, in the words of Parliament’s own Environmental Audit Committee, “a confusing framework that cannot be said to promote effective action on climate change.”  Accordingly, nobody currently expects us to meet those legally binding Climate Change Act emissions targets.

We desperately need a clear, focused framework for reducing emissions in the kindest, fairest way possible, and this is what TEQs provides for a nation – a context created to unleash grassroots invention and collaboration across sectors; a context designed to make energy use a real, visible thing in people’s lives; and a context built with the express purpose of generating that elusive thing, common purpose, in addressing our key collective challenges.

At the heart of the TEQs scheme are two things:

1)    The need to respect the non-negotiable limits set by the physical realities of climate change and fuel depletion.

2)    A recognition that if our society is to thrive within any sufficiently tight cap on emissions, it needs to dramatically change its relationship with energy, and that this change can only be driven from the bottom-up.

The principle underpinning TEQs was put perfectly by the late David Fleming, the founder of TEQs:

“Large scale problems do not require large-scale solutions – they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.”

While it is tempting to think of a tightening global cap on emissions as a solution in itself, such a cap is worthless without on-the-ground solutions at the local and individual level – and TEQs facilitates this action in a way that is meaningful to everyone.

TEQs have won supporters from all the main political parties. The UK government funded a pre-feasibility study into the scheme (2008) and 2011 saw an All-Party Parliamentary report in support of TEQs, with extensive international media coverage.  After fifteen years of political and academic study of the scheme, the intellectual argument had been won.

However we now need a campaign to put climate and energy front-and-centre again in the public and political consciousness, and to press for the answer to one simple question:  Given that implementing TEQs simply guarantees that the legally-binding targets set by the Climate Change Act are achieved, are we, or are we not, going to respect climate science and UK law?

If you are interested in applying for an internship, or discussing further details on what the role might involve, please contact Shaun Chamberlin at


Carbon Omissions: why we need to start talking about consumption


Elena Blackmore, a Project Officer at the Public Interest Research Centre, writes about the Carbon Omissions event in London two weeks ago.

If our carbon emissions are falling, it means we’re on the right track, right? And we’ve done it without needing to drastically change our economics (or even our lifestyles). But what if our accounting systems are wrong?

On Tuesday of last week, the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) launched a brand new animation exposing three lies we are told consistently by our government about our emissions. The animation, produced in collaboration with leading animator Leo Murray and acclaimed journalist George Monbiot, is the culmination of a lengthy project by PIRC to ensure the UK’s emissions are properly tackled by the Government.

We currently account only for territorial emissions: those created within our own borders. This conveniently allows us to ignore the emissions associated with everything we consume that we import from elsewhere in the world. Is this such a big deal? Well, yes. It means that, whilst on paper, the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by 19% since 1990, when measured on a consumption basis they have risen by 20%. As ex-PIRC Director Guy Shrubsole showed through Freedom of Information requests two years ago, ministers and civil servants have known about this for many years but (in a shocking show of irresponsibility) have chosen to simply ignore it.

On the panel, John Barrett of Leeds University had also crunched the numbers on whether our emissions were going up because of a burgeoning population – a favoured smoke-screen by many who don’t like to address their own consumption patterns. The Optimum Population Trust (now Population Matters) used to have a scheme whereby you could offset the emissions of your flight by paying £5 that would go towards family planning in sub-Saharan Africa. John’s conclusion? Yes, of course the number of people has an impact, but nowhere near the size of the impact of our increased consumption.

But consumption drives growth, and growth keeps us afloat, and that’s the only way we can be happy, right? Well, no. Welcome to another lie. After a certain level, increases in income have no bearing on how happy we are, as Kate Soper of London Metropolitan University discussed. Focusing on consumption and growth is not only misleading, it’s actually damaging to us and the planet. Misleading because the error margins are often bigger than the miniscule increases or decreases fixated upon by rolling news; before even getting to the fact that GDP excludes most of what we hold dear: how happy we are, how much time we have to spend with our friends, how we treat one another. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, such reductionisms “measure neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.”

Damaging, perhaps more worryingly, because a focus on money and consumerism can actually make us less happy, less concerned about the environment, and less compassionate, because of the encouragement of materialistic and self-interested values. Research shows that these values are in direct, psychological opposition to values centred on concern for community, other people and the environment, as Tom Crompton of WWF told us on Tuesday. Encouraging consumerism is not only harming the planet through its directly destructive use of resources, it is undermining society’s concern about this damage and ability to act collectively to work against such damage.

So what can we do about it? First, maintain the pressure on our government to take our outsourced emissions into account – and start tackling consumption. Alice Bows outlined the need to not get locked into more carbon intensive energy systems such as investing in fracking. Ruth Potts and Kate Soper argued for our need to redefine our relationship with material goods: encouraging collaborative production as well as consumption. John Barrett said we should at least stop talking about GDP before finding an alternative (of which there are many existing suggestions). Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavillion, said we must bring the issues of climate and consumption back onto the political agenda. A recently launched campaign, Leave Our Kids Alone, was mentioned, and the panel were in agreement that advertising – a key component of consumer culture – must be curbed to allow our minds to be freer of clutter and anti-social values.

Audio from the event, held at Friends House Euston, will be available online from later this week. The speakers were Guy Shrubsole (Friends of the Earth), Kate Soper (London Met Uni), John Barrett (Leeds Uni), Alice Bows (Tyndall Centre, Sustainable Consumption Institute), Tom Crompton (WWF-UK), Ruth Potts (New Materialism), Caroline Lucas (MP, Green Party).


The Work that Reconnects: spiraling towards sustainability


What makes CAT special? CAT is so many things to so many people, but in the two months I’ve volunteered here every answer to this question seems to come back to those three words: inspire, inform, enable. Last Saturday these words gained new meaning for me when I went on a bit of a personal journey through ‘The Work that Reconnects,’ a workshop at CAT based on Joanna Macy’s work and superbly facilitated by Jenny Smith and Jenni Horsfall. This was an intensely personal process, and it was inspiring to see people trust each other with their vulnerabilities – so here I’ll only be talking about my own experience. But be warned, tears were definitely involved.

If you wanted a place to be introspective and thoughtful, you could hardly do better than go to the Brook Trust room in WISE. With its big bay windows and pale ash walls, it seemed to concentrate the sunlight into a calming glow.

Unlike the Douglas fir, CAT's birch trees show the rejuvenation of native flora in the quarry

From the south facing window I could see a small Douglas fir pushing its way out of the steep slate scree: a symbol of local natural triumph just as surely as it reminded me of the global wave of human-distributed non-native species. Over the course of the day I found my eyes returning to that evergreen, as if I could call forth from its needles and the surrounding landscape a message of purpose and hope.

Because let’s be clear: from the moment we started the Work that Reconnects spiral by giving gratitude, I was kind of an emotional wreck. This spiral progresses from gratitude, to honour our pain, to seeing with new eyes, to going forth. On an intellectual level I found much to admire in these phases, but in the moment something about the group’s openness smashed down my walls of rational control and paved a road from my gooey emotional centre straight to my tear ducts. Crying off and on all day was frankly exhausting, and I’m still trying to put my learning into words. But I know the workshop helped and changed me, and I’m happy to let the answers emerge organically. In the meantime, you’ll find me reading some of Macy’s books for more inspiration – and hopefully dry-eyed.

There’s much about the workshop and the Work that Reconnects that I haven’t described here, but there’s a whole network to fill you in on the details. One exercise I found particularly useful for thinking about next steps and new projects was called “the creativity cycle,” using the seasons as a metaphor for change. This sort of thinking may not be for the faint of heart, but if you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone I highly recommend it. So many of the problems facing our world – climate change, environmental destruction, poverty, disease, war and so on – are so overwhelming in their scale and awfulness it can be hard to imagine a positive future. But feelings of panic, fear and loss are nothing new, and  the Work that Reconnects reminded me that we are not alone – and that we can turn our pain into new strength.

The 13th century Persian poet Rumi wrote a poem called “Intelligence and Tears” that Jenny read out at the beginning of the workshop. Not even Rumi had all the answers, but poetry seems to me as good a place as any to begin the final part of the spiral, the ‘going forth’ into the world again:

Till the cloud weeps, how should the garden smile?
The weeping of the cloud and the burning of the sun
are the pillars of this world: twist these two strands together.
Since the searing heat of the sun and the moisture of the clouds
keep the world fresh and sweet,
keep the sun of your intelligence burning bright and your eye glistening with tears.