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Jeremy Williams (Luton)

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Communities, Councils & a Low-Carbon Future: What we can do if governments won't
Communities, Councils & a Low-Carbon Future: What we can do if governments won't
by Alexis Rowell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

4.0 out of 5 stars An invaluable guide to the mysterious workings of the council, 3 Nov. 2012
Like the other Transition titles, this is a big colourful square book exploring a relevant topic for Transition initiatives. After similar titles on food, money and housing, this one addresses the tricky topic of local authorities.

Rowell speaks from personal experience, both as a councillor and a local campaigner. He brings an insider perspective and paints a useful map of the landscape of your typical council. He has plenty of tips about how they really work, where the power lies, what councilors and council officers can and can't do, and which levers to press to get attention.

If you want to engage with the local authorities, you need to know what makes them tick, the kind of approach that they can respond to and the kind of things to avoid. Just reading the opening chapter or two here is enough to avoid a whole pile of common mistakes and misunderstandings and would be useful to anyone who wants to make a difference in their local area. Later chapters deal with specific issues such as energy efficiency, procurement, planning and so on. These may not all be relevant to everyone, but the book would make a good reference when issues come up that require you deal with a particular department.

One nice thing about the book is that it shows just how much change one person can create when they know how to go about it. It doesn't need a big team or lots of money. Many of the case studies here, and there are many, involved just one patient and ecologically minded councillor.

It also demonstrates the possibilities for action on climate change at the local level. Rowell is convinced that councils can move much faster and be much more ambitious than the national government. "If the government will not or cannot or does not lead the way on the transition to a low-carbon future," says Rowell, "then communities and councils can!"

A word of warning - the government has changed since this was published, which means there will have been changes in the meantime. There's a great section on national indicators for councils for example, but those have been swept away since the book came out.

Still, I learned plenty, and it made me wish I'd read it two years ago.

How to Change the World (The School of Life)
How to Change the World (The School of Life)
by John-Paul Flintoff
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring, funny and wise words to help you change the world, 3 Nov. 2012
Before I go any further, can I just mention what a beautiful little object this book is? The book is a pleasing fawn colour with bright green highlights, it has room at the back for notes, and rounded corners so it doesn't go dog-eared in a rucksack. It is three-dimensional proof that the ebook hasn't made its paper cousin obsolete just yet.

Anyway, with a title like How to Change the World, you could be forgiven for rolling your eyes. Roll not. This is a more practical and modest treatise than you might expect. It begins by blowing away the notion that changing the world is about big important matters, dismissing the popular conception that "history is about the action of dominant individuals." Far from it. History is composed, as Tolstoy said, by "an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions." We all influence the world around us every day, in dozens of little ways, whether we like it or not.

The key is to be more deliberate about how we influence things, to aim higher, to be more intentional. That means overcoming inertia, summoning our courage, and taking a first step. If you know exactly what you want to do, you might want to strategise a little. If you don't have a particular goal in mind, you can still get on with changing the world in little ways, right where you are.

There's lots of good advice here about how to make change happen, how to convince people and get them board with your cause. There are personal stories and historical asides that show just how much change can come from relatively small actions. Rosa Parks, Flintoff reminds us, played a major role in ending racial segregation in America by sitting on a bus.

Drawing on a wide range of sources that includes Gandhi, Iris Murdoch, and the Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God, Flintoff concludes that changing the world is an ongoing process, a state of mind. It's the decision to open ourselves to the world around us and take responsibility for what's wrong. Those that do it best are those that do it out of love. "If we are really interested in changing the world" he says, "we have to put others first."

How to Change the World is short, wise, and inspiring. It's frequently humorous, and full of encouragement. Appropriately for the topic, it comes with homework.

How to Grow Perennial Vegetables: Low-maintenance, Low-impact Vegetable Gardening
How to Grow Perennial Vegetables: Low-maintenance, Low-impact Vegetable Gardening
by Martin Crawford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A host of exotic new crops to experiment with, 3 Nov. 2012
There are lots of good reasons to grow perennials, as this inspiring book demonstrates. You don't have to till or dig, which is good for gardener's backs, healthier for the soil and keeps CO2 in the ground. They allow you to extend your growing seasons and harvest food all year round. And since perennial plants tends to have deeper and more extensive root systems, the food is often richer in minerals and nutrients too.

How to grow perennial vegetables is a simple guide to this wonderland of `low maintenance, low impact vegetable gardening'. It begins with a guide to growing them, with notes on co-planting, mulches and planting patterns. There are useful lists of plants that fix nitrogen, or that are good in the shade. That's the first quarter of the book.

The rest of it is an A-Z of perennial vegetables, and it's an exotic collection indeed. There are hedgerow plants and wild foods like ramsons or rosebay willowherb, common crops from other parts of the world that we don't traditionally eat here but could, like mashua or oca. There are perennial versions of other vegetables, such as leeks, garlic or cabbage. There are plants that may already grow in your garden that you didn't know were edible, like iceplant or hostas. There are some proper freaks too, like the water caltrop, which grows tubers that look like horned bats.

As usual with such books, it is written with the zeal of an enthusiast and your definition of edible may not be the same as the author's. I was surprised to read that strawberry leaves can be eaten in salads for example, and promptly put the book down to go and try them. Suffice to say that I'd need to be pretty desperate before I eat strawberry leaves again. My only other complaint is that while there's no shortage of roots and bulbs and `proper' vegetables, the book is slightly unbalanced towards leaves and spinach-type plants. Don't let either of those negatives put you off however. I'd be surprised if any gardener could browse this book without scribbling down a few things to try.

Is there a binding issue? Yes, but I've based my review on the content alone. That's because I've worked in publishing and I've had this happen to me. It's hugely frustrating, not least because these reviews will stay online long after you've taken your printer to task, organised a second print run and fixed the problem! If you get one that falls apart, I'm sure Green Books will replace it for you.

No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change The World
No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change The World
by Greg Sharzer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

11 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A marxist masterclass in missing the point, 3 Nov. 2012
Greg Sharzer is a Marxist, and this diatribe against localism essentially boils down to this: localism isn't marxist enough to be useful. It is doomed to tinker around the edges. "Class struggle," says Sharzer, "is the only force that can overturn capitalism."

It's fairly predictable that a Marxist would dislike localism, since they are almost opposite approaches. Localism is a very general set of principles, a fluid and relational idea that emphasises the practical over the theoretical. It lacks a central figure and a coherent literature. It makes it up as it goes along and believes in getting on with it. Marxism and Localism, it turns out, are pretty poorly equipped to talk to each other.

So what Sharzer does is just lump everything together, and that means lots of generalising. `Localists' think this, he will say, and then quote Barbara Kingsolver or Bill McKibben. If one person is utopian, all localists are utopian, or Malthusian, or middle class snobs. This is rather wearing, heckling a caricature of `a localist' in the absence of a defined movement.

Unhelpfully, Marxism has a category for that middle class do-gooder caricature. These are the `petite bourgeoisie', an intermediate class between the workers and the rulers who believe they can make progress as individuals and won't commit to the revolution. Localism is a petit bourgeois philosophy because it avoids conflict, believes in the small scale and most importantly for Sharzer, it is individualist. Except that it isn't. The localists I know are passionate believers in community. Still, Sharzer ploughs on, asking bizarre and patronising questions like "why do localists want their shopping trips to include personal conversations?" (Because they're lonely in their petit bourgeois world, obviously.)

I'm giving No Local two stars rather than one because it isn't without insights. Sharzer shines a light on the optimistic idea that ethical consumption can genuinely undermine big business, and there are some interesting ideas around nostalgia or catastrophism. He is right in his central premise that capitalism has to grow and it is set up against small alternatives.

The book is subtitled `why small-scale alternatives won't change the world'. That's true, in that localism won't bring about a socialist revolution, which is what Sharzer wants. But perhaps that's not what localists are out to do. The whole point of localism is that you aim to change one specific place, according to the specific needs of that community. That makes sense to me. From the ivory tower of Marxism, it does not, and it leaves No Local tilting at windmills.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 17, 2015 12:10 PM GMT

How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life
How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life
by Robert Jacob Alexander Skidelsky
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Asking the all important question: what is wealth for?, 3 Nov. 2012
How much is enough? is a family effort - Edward is a philosophy professor, his father Robert is an economic historian and cross-bench peer in the House of Lords. The book straddles economics and philosophy effortlessly. It doesn't answer the question of the title in a literal sense, but is rather "an argument against insatiability, against that psychological disposition which prevents us, as individuals and as societies, from saying `enough is enough'."

Their theory is that as consumer society has developed, tendencies that have always been there in human nature have morphed from vices into virtues. Where it used to be frowned upon, the desire for money has become the central motivation of a whole civilization. All through history, people have had a vision for what makes a good life - friendship, leisure, respect, and so on. The difference now is that we no longer have an end in mind; we do not know what wealth is for. The "assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great civilization but our own" they suggest.

The book draws from a wide range of sources, both Western and Eastern. It weaves its logic through Goethe, the book of Revelation, the Brahmasutras. Within two pages you might take in Machiavelli, Milton and Marx. If you enjoy this kind of philosophical rockhopping, it's a real joy to read, and reminds me of Margaret Atwood's writing on debt. If you don't, well, consider yourself warned.

There's one big downside to the book. In the process of critiquing the idea of constant economic growth, there's a chapter on the environment and the idea of natural limits to growth. Although this idea ought to chime with theirs, they have little time for it. This would be fine if they could make a good case, but sustainability is not their area of expertise, and their arguments sound rather secondhand. They also focus their critique around extremist green writers such as Paul Ehrlich or James Lovelock, rather than the hundreds of more moderate and considered writers in the field. Naturally, this prejudices their conclusions.

This uncharacteristically weak chapter aside, it's a fine book. The concluding chapters attempt to define `the good life', and how it could be pursued in policy, including more leisure time, localism, and ending the dominance of finance, amongst much else. Whatever you think of their specific proposals, it's not enough to shrug off the question, say Skidelsky and Skidelsky: "simply to blunder on without having a view about what wealth is for, is an indulgence rich countries can no longer afford."

I agree, and I hope How much is enough? is widely read, because it opens up some interesting new perspectives. Its ecological blindspot aside, it's a very good book.

Co-Operative Revolution
Co-Operative Revolution
by Polyp
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A graphic celebration of the co-operative revolution, 3 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Co-Operative Revolution begins with the story of the Rochdale Pioneers, but it's a much broader celebration of cooperatives and cooperation.

If you're not familiar with the Rochdale Pioneers, this slim volume is as neat a summary as you'll find. These were the industrial workers of northern England who got together in the face of considerable obstruction and started a small shop in 1844. They weren't the first coop, but their model was the one that kickstarted the rise of cooperatives. The context is important, and the novel does a fine job of explaining just how radical the idea was. It's easy to take it for granted now, but what The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was doing was actually pretty subversive.

Does it work as a graphic novel? Just about. There are a few pictures of meetings - hard pressed industrial workers plotting together, cooperative workers being turned away by bank managers, etc. But really, the story of the Rochdale Pioneers is just the introduction. The graphic side of things comes into its own as the book goes on.

The middle section explores co-ops today, from Co-op City in New York which houses 60,000 people and has its own police force, to a cooperative of snake catchers in India. The third chapter looks at cooperation in nature - cooperation, it suggests, is just as much a factor in evolution as competition. The artist is at his most imaginative here, with beautiful ink drawings depicting flocks of starlings, honeycomb, or jellyfish.

There's loads more, but I won't spoil it for you. Suffice to say that The Co-operative Revolution is well worth an afternoon of your time. It makes a fine case for the role of the co-op, celebrating a revolution that rumbles on largely unnoticed, but is increasingly important in the global economy.

No Oil in the Lamp
No Oil in the Lamp
by Neil Hollow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A well researched primer on the energy crisis, 3 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: No Oil in the Lamp (Paperback)
Andy Mellen and Neil Hollow say the purpose of their book is to raise awareness of oil depletion among Christians and to suggest some practical solutions. It does both of those and more besides, as this is a more comprehensive and analytical book than I expected. It is full of well researched comparisons of different technologies, with detailed sections on different renewable energy sources - all described with non-technical clarity. It anticipates questions and common objections and addresses the oil situation in its full environmental and economic context.

It's also a very balanced book. The authors don't delve into the gloom the way many oil depletion writers do, neither do they describe some utopian localist future. They do have a recommended solution though, in the form of the Transition Towns movement. It gets a whole chapter to itself, explored through the Transition tools of future scenarios. And like me, they recognise a parallel between Transition Towns and the idea of the Kingdom of God, both of which "invoke a powerful vision of the future."

The authors dip a toe in the theology, but they admit that they set out to ask if there is "a specific Christian response to peak oil" and concluded that there probably wasn't. The Bible doesn't offer any specific guidance on the matter, being written before the fossil fuel era. What it does do is give us the values that we should be operating by - justice, community, simplicity, stewardship. Those values make oil depletion into an ethical issue that Christians should take seriously.

"The Western world's addiction to oil has led to corrupt governments, economic havoc, environmental destruction and human made climate change. Christians have been complicit in this misuse and exploitation of the earth's resources. However, at its best, Christianity has been a faith centred on simplicity, sacrifice and a passion for social justice. We have therefore much to contribute to shaping a post-oil society."


If we want to take responsibility for our own energy use, there is a chapter of practical approaches, and the authors also address some of their solutions specifically to churches. Many churches depend entirely on cars to get their congregations to services, and they ask if anything can be done about this. They raise the question of short term missions in an age of expensive air travel. There are case studies of churches insulating their buildings or installing solar panels. Both authors are able to speak from experience too, with lots of projects of their own on their respective houses.

No Oil in the Lamp is a great starting point for Christians who have heard about peak oil but never quite looked into it. (If you're wondering about the title, see Matthew 25) But it's also one of the best books I've read on oil depletion generally.

And So It Goes
And So It Goes
by Charles J. Shields
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A satisfying, engaging and balanced portrait, 25 Jun. 2012
This review is from: And So It Goes (Hardcover)
As a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, it's always been something of a mystery to me that nobody had written a biography. Lesser authors have them, and it was high time somebody wrote Vonnegut's. As it happens, Shields took up the challenge just in time to do it with Vonnegut's blessing, though not fast enough for Vonnegut to ever read it himself.

That's perhaps just as well, as it's not a particularly flattering portrait. Vonnegut was a flawed character and the book doesn't flinch in describing his various infidelities, his mixed motives and the darker sides to his personality. The book doesn't delight in the gossip, nor does it make excuses for a literary icon. It feels honest and balanced, and if you've read Vonnegut, you ought to expect a complex character.

What I wanted to know was the genesis of Vonnegut's ideas, where his philosophy came from, the psychology of a man who so perfectly blended comedy and tragedy. And on that front, the book delivers. It's a rich and detailed account, full of anecdotes and asides, telling his story from childhood and university days to his long struggle to make a living as a writer, to his sudden fame and place in American literary history.

There are some remarkable incidents along the way. He famously survived the fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War. Later in life, he and his wife adopted four children after Vonnegut's sister and her husband both died within 24 hours of each other. Like any life, the dramatic incidents are exceptions and much of it is a grind. For Vonnegut, that was the endless trials of the short story market, or working in PR for General Electric. Shields handles the contrast well, avoiding the temptation to sensationalise the drama and communicating the drudgery of the lean years without getting bogged down.

Readers appear to be divided over And So it Goes as a biography. If I had any gripes, it would be that my favourite Vonnegut book, Timequake, is considered a poor and unimportant book and barely gets a mention. That, and there could be more photos. Overall however, I thought it was a great read, engaging for the whole of its 450 pages, which is an accomplishment in itself.

Black Light
Black Light
Price: £11.21

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A kaleidoscope of an album, 25 Jun. 2012
This review is from: Black Light (Audio CD)
I heard this without knowing anything about it, and instantly recognised the vocalist from Tunng. I quite liked Tunng at their best, but I always felt they had too many ideas going on at once and not all of them worked. A solo project from Sam Genders though, well, that could be worth investigating.

And so it proves. Diagrams has the same lyrical surrealism, the sense of experimentation, but delivers it all with more focus and polish and a more electronic direction.

Diagrams seems an apt name for the music, which is all about patterns and detail. Songs build from skittering drum loops and syncopated beats, stabs of strings and synth, repeated lyrics, until you could close your eyes and imagine the music visually, spiraling like a kaleidoscope.

That sounds a bit mathematical, but the songs are grounded by Genders' soft voice, like Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals without the Welsh accent. It gives the album warmth and personality, while the cryptic lyrics lend it a sense of mystery and hint of darkness. There are some strong songs here too, Night all Night being the one that I find myself singing while doing the washing up.

At nine tracks, the album wraps up without overstaying its welcome, and I hope that it isn't the last we hear
from Diagrams.

Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century: Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century
Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century: Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century
by James Howard Kunstler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How to fix suburbia and create places worth caring about, 12 May 2012
In 1994 James Howard Kunstler published his diatribe against suburbia, 'The Geography of Nowhere'. (It was required reading on my cultural studies degree) He was a novelist and journalist and not an expert in architecture or planning, but he struck a chord. Plenty of people were aghast at the physical transformation the car had wrought on the American landscape. The book didn't offer many solutions, so Kunstler went away and looked some up, visited a bunch of them, and talked to some of the leading lights of new urbanism. Home from Nowhere is the result - a book all about fixing suburbia.

All across the US, development has been patterned around traffic. Roads are wide, buildings are set back from them with parking lots in the middle. Zoning laws keep residential areas and commercial districts separate. Density guidelines leave big gaps between buildings. Rental housing, multi-occupancy housing and larger houses are all built independently.

All of this affects the way that people live in those places. You have to drive, as walking is impossible even where there is a sidewalk. Nobody hangs out of the street and there are no useful public spaces, so there is no sense of community or place. Because richer families live in entirely separate districts to single people or poorer families, people never interact with other sectors of society. Main streets wither as shoppers drive out to out-of-town malls. Democracy, community, culture and the environment all suffer, and people live in soulless "places not worth caring about".

It doesn't have to be like that of course. Despite the name `new urbanism', there's nothing new about livable towns. That's how they used to be built and the movement might have fewer opponents if it was called `old urbanism'. Mixed use developments, intersecting streets, shops with apartments above them, garages in alleys to keep cars from dominating residential streets, on-street parking to create a buffer between pedestrians and the road and avoid large parking lots, these are all hallmarks of some of America's most treasured small towns. "The pattern that the New Urbanism models is not the urban slum, but the traditional American town. This is not a pattern of life that should frighten reasonable people. Millions pays forty dollars a day to walk through a grossly oversimplified version of it at Disney World."

There are techniques for building good towns, and Home from Nowhere has lots of line drawings showing ideal road widths, building heights, walkable neighbourhoods. Kunstler argues with surprising passion that vertical windows are more dignified than horizontal ones. Architecture matters as much as planning. Ugly buildings devalue public space, because they don't care about those outside them. They are selfish, only serving the occupants. Good architecture recognises that buildings shape the neighbourhood.

Behind all of this are more philosophical questions. We will build things that serve our vision of a good life. If we have a consumerist, individualist notion of personal success, then plastic McMansions is what will get built. Good towns need a deeper understanding of what makes life worth living, development that values society, culture and beauty. Kunstler insists that these are moral questions and can't be ignored, whatever the planning department might say.

And therein lies a tale or two. Much of the book is given over to real world examples of developers trying to do something different. Many of their projects stall simply because local zoning laws make it illegal to build in a sustainable fashion. Mixed use neighbourhoods are forbidden. If you can get round the zoning laws, there are local residents who see all development as hostile, even though a well planned development can re-invigorate a town. Fortunately, there are success stories too, and there are plenty of great projects and inspirational people. The book was written in 1996, and an updated version would have many more to choose from.

Britain has less space than the US and our land use policies never got so extreme, but we still have a sprawl problem. This is a book that raises a host of important questions about why we build what we build, and it does so with eloquence, humour, anger and hope.

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