CHE Voices

 CHE Voices — the Centre’s blog — is a space to deepen and reflect on the themes touched on in CHE’s ongoing community education programme, and current thinking and practice in human ecology.


5 March 2020

A Long Time Gone, Memory and Mining from Silesia to the Ruhr

by Christopher Silver, reblogged with permission from


“During the industrial era people were forced to endure long and bitter conflicts in their struggle to participate in the political system…It remains to be seen whether the transformation of traditional industrial societies will be accompanied by a regress of democratic structures or whether progress towards more democracy is already culturally anchored and irreversible.”

Information panel, Ruhr Museum, 2019

Never one to miss out on a seminal moment, in 1790 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe travelled to Upper Silesia, then on the fringes of the Prussian Empire – where he witnessed the first ‘fire-machines’ – or steam engines, to operate on the continent.

Goethe penned a few lines of advice to his hosts on what was then an isolated frontier, asking them: “Far from educated people, at the end of the empire, who helps you, find treasures and bring them to light?.”

The polymath’s answer was succinct: “only understanding and honesty help; the two keys that lead to any treasure that the earth holds.”

For Goethe, rational humanism, technological progress – and the ever-greater task of getting riches out from underneath the earth – could be conceived of as a single project.

But despite two long centuries in which traditions of empiricism and scientific inquiry seemed to move in step with industrial expansion and growth – this deep narrative that undergirded capitalist development has, in our time, arrived at an abrupt end.

Its end can be seen in the brave new world of carbon-nationalism – humming dissonant old tunes that drown out concepts of the planetary or the universal. It can be heard in the words of an Australian Prime Minister who watches vast swathes of his country burn, but encourages fireworks displays through the smog, “to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are.”

Coal has become, in recent years, bound up with belief in carbon-as-saviour. This represents an argument with scientific method – in so far as national truths become incompatible with basic ideas that have shaped modern industrial societies. Rejecting complexity, this belief centres on the nation as the only whole collective body we can recognise: a place that has heartlands, where honest nationals once did tough honest work.

In 2015, when US senator Jim Inhofe brought a snowball to Capitol Hill for a debate on climate change, he wasn’t simply arguing with a demonstrable reality, he was asserting a belief in the nation as a greater, religious, truth. Just as there are no sacrificial rituals dedicated to science, there is no planet in the minds of these men – just one tribe under god.

In Europe’s coalfields, from Upper Silesia by the waters of the Vistula, to South Wales on the shores of the Atlantic – mining is seen as a vital old tradition; not quite, but soon to be lost to history. Solidarity and the raw truth of this work – with its dirt and its danger – are regional bedrocks of tradition.

But coal is more present than it has ever been — both in terms of the amount of carbon that now sits in the atmosphere, and in our continued dependence on a world in which cheap fuel and cheap labour are the basic players in the global economy. But coal is also very old. Too old, in fact, for many of us to comprehend.

This point is not lost on the curators of the Silesian Museum, which opened in 2015. Sited on a former colliery – the glass façades of its spectacular new structures are decorated with images painted by former miner Ludwik Holesz, in 1968.

Holesz’s painting was inspired by a fossilised leaf imprinted on a piece of coal from the Carboniferous period and his painting depicts the flora and fauna, compressed through millennia, into the riches and energy that made Upper Silesia.

There’s a humility to this work too, with its inquisitive-eyed creatures darting with vivid colours from behind ferns. All of that colour and imagination, leaping from out of a primordial darkness, speaks to the kind of perspective and vitality required to place the significance of carbon in context.

From Upper Silesia I travel some 600 miles west, to another heartland: the Ruhr valley. I see familiar uniforms, part of a mining culture that followed Prussian expansion and bedded down in both regions. One small legacy of that state’s military and bureaucratic might – underpinned by coal itself.

The fire machines which so impressed Goethe in the 1790s brought in their wake vast movements of people. They would soon transform the regions where their power was put to use beyond recognition.

Steam meant movement, a new animating force for the age. The race to industrialise, and get all that cheap energy out of the ground, brought Germans to what is now Poland, Poles to the shores of the Rhine, and many other peoples still. However much the ensuing centuries might have refashioned the flags, borders and ideologies that ruled above ground – underneath it, coal held sway – a magnetic force for the uprooted masses. By the 1890s, the population of the Ruhr stood at around two million, compared to three hundred thousand in 1850.

If you transform the land, it sets the masses in motion. This is a basic fact but one worth noting. Here’s another to sit beside it: half of all the industrial carbon emissions in our atmosphere date from 1988. This is not something that has to be explained to the Chinese farmer’s son working at Foxconn, but the tragic coincidence of our times is that the observable planetary condition is as present at it is distant and unknowable. These truths invite a shrug: anyway, who can really know a whole world? We are all anchored to some small patch of it – and it is the genius of carbon nationalism to convince people, in their hearts, that they don’t have to move, even as the flames scorch the fringes of the homestead.


There are few monuments to the awesome power of coal and steel as spectacular as the Zollverein Industrial complex – with its iconic double winding gear. Closed in 1986, it was once the most productive mine in the world, today its vast, strange, beauty has won UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Now housing a range of cultural facilities within its cavernous surroundings, the air around these Bauhaus-inspired structures is clearer than it once was. This is frequently remarked upon by visitors from across Germany, many of whom still view the Ruhr as a smoke-black region of incessant noise and movement.

My guide, Frank Switala, whose grandfather came to the Ruhr at the end of the 19th century, explains how this perception was grounded in reality.

“I remember days in my childhood, where everything was polluted by smoke: my grandma tested the wind in the evening and then she decided if she could leave the washing out or take it in.”

Frank, a child of the post-war boom years, also recalls that this moment of intensive industrial expansion saw the Ruhr became something of a cosmopolitan heartland – a necessity given German industry’s thirst for labour.

“When I was kid after school, you could just throw your ball in the back and whistle and get ten or twelve kids around you and that team was as international as Liverpool FC is today.”

My guide is also eager to tell me about his travels to Wales during the miner’s strike: “my personal impression at that moment when I was there I thought, hey, this country’s close to civil war.”

He contrasts this with the German state’s willingness to subsidise local coal at the time: “what we did was we bought social peace.”

Part of that legacy is Zollverein itself. Near the entrance to the Ruhr Museum, within the complex’s former coal washing plant, is a lump of coal from the last shift at the last hard coal mine in Germany, closed in 2018. Visitors are then invited downwards into the depths of the region’s pre-history – via a glowing orange stairway inspired by molten steel that befits a passage to the underworld.

“I find this is one of the best examples for the transition going on. And we try to keep up with the future, because there’s one day that will be coming when coal mining is a long, long time gone.”

“We’re still in transition. This is something that has not completed. Yes. 150 years of industrialization. You cannot undo it in one or two generations,” explains Frank.

Travelling across Germany,  it’s striking to consider that the country that worships Goethe’s mix of enlightenment humanism and romantic obsession with prelapsarian nature, is facing political crises and a wider sense of angst about its future. The engine room of Europe’s economy is on a collision course with the contradictions of growth and development, and the consequences of great wealth on a volatile planet. To crib a theme from the great man’s canon – looking back, it all seems a bit Faustian.

Cheap coal underpinned social democracy and the wonders of post-war economic recovery in West Germany. It also lies just under the surface of contemporary divisions — in the poorer East, the country’s green credentials are all too easily presented as just another urban fad — and the opportunistic nationalism of AFD is happy to portray climate change as a hoax. Similarly, as a recent scandal concerning a satirical song about a carbon guzzling grandmother shows, the demographic strains occurring across an ageing populace, are part of the picture too.

The Scott Morrisons and Jim Inhofes of this world would like our memories to be short, and our imaginative sense of history as narrow as a national anthem. Increasingly, carbon-nationalism pits the traditional idealised image of the miner against the migrant – forgetting that, so often, they have been one and the same.

But far from being bound up with tradition, much of that carbon is fresh – in 1988 the world produced 8.75 billion tonnes of carbon from coal, compared to 14.57 billion tonnes in 2017.

All those tonnes of raw energy were some 300 million years in the making. The great anxiety of all those absurd old men, preaching national optimism and holding up coal as the authentic saviour, is a desperate desire to avoid confronting our mortal, finite, condition. Because even in the current orgy of burning, coal reminds us, above all, of our own irrelevance. Something that every miner, mixing his sweat and breath to unsettle awesome geological forces on a day to day basis, learns as an apprentice.



17th January 2020

Coal Mining in the National Film Archives

by Dr Maria Antonia Velez Serna, based on her contribution to CHE’s event ‘Invading the Skin of the Earth: COAL

Image: People Will Always Need Coal (BFI National Archive)

The histories of film and resource extraction are interlinked in material and symbolic ways. Materially, the technologies of cinema – from its photographic origins to the digital present – have depended on rare metals and large amounts of energy. Stories of colonial conquest and domination of nature have been popular subjects for film and TV. Visually, the spectacle of explosions, fast-moving machinery, enormous structures and risky work makes for compelling viewing. Furthermore, the private companies and state agencies responsible for large-scale extractive projects have been keen to use film as a PR tool.

As a consequence, there are lots of films about coal mining, most of them optimistic, celebrating the economic importance of its derivatives and the heroism of the workforce. These contemporary views contrast with the more negative image that mining has acquired in the UK, particularly since the closure of most pits in the 1980s. Looking at these films again is then a way to try and understand history as it unfolded, as a lived experience. I am interested in finding out whether these archive films can play a role in discussions about post-coal futures.

In the UK, the majority of coal-related films are from the National Coal Board period (1946-1987). At the screening we saw a recruitment advert from the latter part of that period, which presented coalmining as the way towards individual prosperity and prestige. Most of the NCB films were less flashy, including many training films intended for miners, and importantly a monthly newsreel, the Mining Review, which was shown in cinemas in mining areas until 1983. These films are looked after by the National Film Archive at the British Film Institute, and many have been digitised. The collection of coal-related films available to watch for free on the BFI Player is well worth the while, containing several episodes of the Mining Review, alongside strike fund appeals, slices of everyday life in mining towns, and even a Tory advert against nationalisation:

Alongside the well-made propaganda films with their authoritative voice-overs, it is always fascinating to look at the smaller films – those without industry funding or big names attached. The film we chose to screen was one of those, made for screening in schools rather than for commercial cinemas. In fact, Coal mining in Central Scotland was made in 1937 by a group of Lanarkshire schoolteachers who had formed a filmmaking group as part of the Scottish Educational Film Association. This was one of Scotland’s several pioneering initiatives in the use of film in education, and it aimed to select or produce films that would be suitable for the classroom. The teachers would have had received some support and film stock from the Association, but would have short and edited the film themselves. The mine that they chose to present as a typical colliery was Kingshill, near Shotts. This was the largest of the eleven pits owned by the Coltness Iron Company. By this time, the company employed 5000 people for an annual output of 2 million tons of coal.

Coal Mining in Central Scotland – watch online at the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive:

The style of the film is simple and direct, starting with schematic maps of the coalfields and travelling with the miners from the surface to the coalface. This plain structure was appropriate for school use, where the teacher would explain and narrate. However, this is not only a film about the process of extraction, but also about the workers – from the hewers crawling into the seam, to the young screeners at the pit head. Its most memorable sequence was that in the baths, an intimate and unguarded glimpse of the otherwise stoic men. The pit baths at Kingshill had opened in 1929, and were a significant contribution to quality of life for the men and their families. That the film spends some time in this space suggests that the teachers wanted to talk to kids about the life of a miner, perhaps a likely occupation for the pupils and certainly one with which they would be familiar. We don’t know where the film was screened after it was shown to teachers, but it became part of the Lanarkshire schools film library, so it would have been screened in local schools. How many pupils recognised a brother or an uncle? How many had worked at the screens, or ran up the bing to slide down again? Coal was at the heart of Lanarkshire communities, not just a topic for geography books, nor a romantic notion about patriotism.

The sheer amount of films about coal that exist in UK archives is evidence of the fascination that coal held throughout the 20th century. In some cases this fascination has been a form of extraction, when the labour and the bodies of the miners are shown as a spectacle, dehumanised in their heroic symbolism. Many of these films, before and after nationalisation, conflated coal-mining with national progress, serving to justify both extraction and the capitalist state. There are, of course, more radical perspectives, but as a counterpoint to the chauvinism of ‘King Coal’, a bunch of guys in their bath towels laughing at the camera is a good place to start. It’s the end of the shift, and everyone’s made it out alive today.

17th January 2020

Coal and Koalas

by Mike Small, based on his contribution to CHE’s event ‘Invading the Skin of the Earth: COAL, reblogged with permission from Bella Caledonia

The Australian bushfires tell us much about where we are in climate breakdown and responses to it in the developed world. In an article in The Atlantic, Bianca Nogrady, a writer based in the Blue Mountains asks: “How Long Will Australia Be Livable?”

“Australians pride themselves on being battlers, on facing down terrible odds and triumphing against whatever this land of droughts and flooding rains—and bushfires—can throw at us. Yet one of the single most defining moments in modern Australian nationhood was actually a retreat. In one of the greatest military-campaign failures of World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the ANZACs—staged an ingenious escape from the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 after a bitter, futile eight-month battle with Ottoman forces.”

“This is our Gallipoli; this is our bushfire Gallipoli,” says David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania.

The facts about the crisis are stark.

The bushfires have burned in every state, have claimed at least 24 lives, have destroyed nearly 1,800 homes, and have turned more than 8.4 million hectares of land into charcoal. On January 4, 2020, western Sydney became one of the hottest places on the planet, at 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 degrees Celsius).

“That’s uninhabitable; you can’t live in that,” one local said.

The Sydney News reports:

“Near 50C Heat in Sydney : Flames as high as 50 metres in Australian Bushfire Hell” and reports “Black Saturday” – “Saturday is turning out to be completely devastating in Australia. Massive fire fronts are burning from vast inland bush areas right to the Ocean south of Sydney. Towns are covered in thick smoke, as daytime becomes night.”

In an echo of the Gallipoli retreat, thousands had to be rescued from beaches by the Australian navy and air force.

The tragedy exposes several strands of climate breakdown.

First – Australia is an extreme first world country, a colonial experiment of exploitation where extraction of natural resources and imperialism go hand in hand – they are baked into the Australian mindset. This has very specific consequences: by displacing indigenous people Australia has not only engaged in ethnic cleansing but lost land and place knowledge.

Secondly, the political establishment is in deep denial.

Only a month ago Prime Minister Scott Morrison has argued there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of fires ravaging the continent, even suggesting Australia could increase its emissions without making the current fire season worse.

He’s continued to double-down.

Under pressure due to a record season of early bushfires and the accusation by a coalition of former fire chiefs that the government has avoided the issue of climate change, Morrison said on Thursday there was no “credible scientific evidence” that cutting Australia’s emissions could reduce the severity of bushfires.

He even argued: “the suggestion that any way shape or form that Australia, accountable for 1.3% of the world’s emissions, that the individual actions of Australia are impacting directly on specific fire events, whether it’s here or anywhere else in the world, that doesn’t bear up to credible scientific evidence either”.

He echoed the arguments of some Scottish nationalists who are argue that stopping North Sea oil exploitation is meaningless because of Scotland’s size, saying:

“But I think to suggest that at just 1.3% of emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season – I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Third, coal is at the heart of this story and this tragedy.

Katharine Murphy, an award-wining Australian journalist reported on the moment when – in 2017 – Morrison then Treasurer – brought a lump of coal to Question Time:

“There is no way you can write the sentence, “The treasurer of Australia, Scott Morrison, came to question time with a lump of coal on Thursday,” and have that sentence seem anything other than the ravings of a psychedelic trip, so let’s just say it and be done with it.

Scott Morrison brought coal into the House of Representatives. A nice big hunk of black coal, kindly supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia.

“This is coal,” the treasurer said triumphantly, brandishing the trophy as if he’d just stumbled across an exotic species previously thought to be extinct.

Morrison represents not just old-school reactionary denialism but something worse. It’s not just climate inaction but an all-out culture war on environmentalists.

In November, while the fires raged, the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack dismissed climate change as the concerns of “inner-city raving lunatics.”

A new report from the University of New South Wales concludes: that coal from the six biggest miners in Australia produces more emissions than entire economy.

“In the latest report to estimate the role fossil fuel businesses play in driving the climate crisis, researchers from the University of New South Wales calculated the total emissions from the coal and gas produced by Australia’s top carbon companies, from extraction to the resources being burned for energy, mostly overseas.

Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions“They found the top six coal producers – BHP Billiton, Glencore, Yancoal, Peabody, Anglo American and Whitehaven – were in 2018 linked to 551m tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Total emissions from all activity within Australia were 534m tonnes.”

Yet, as Lizzie O’Shea writes for the Jacobin:

“Politicians have been permitted to peddle conspiracy theories about environmentalists without being meaningfully held to account. Fire mitigation work has been subjected to funding cuts, and the practical knowledge of traditional Aboriginal approaches to fire and land management — which boast a track record of effectiveness for at least 60,000 years — have been ignored.”

“In all this, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has been weak, and at times complicit. Though it formally speaks the language of climate science, and recognizes the damage that man-made climate change has wrought, it simultaneously equivocated on its support of the notorious Adani coal mine in Queensland. If built, the Adani Carmichael mine would be the largest in Australia, slurping up 12 billion litres of water annually to produce coal that, when burned, will generate more emissions than many countries do in a year.”

She concludes more positively:

“It is possible to shift politics in favor of sustainability and against a conservative populism.”

“In recent days, Morrison has bowed to public pressure and cancelled a planned trip to India, where he was expected to discuss our significant coal exports to the subcontinent. This cancellation is the direct result of the sustained pressure being applied from an angry public.”

“A just transition with the support of the union movement can help to build a red-green alliance from the grassroots up. Under capitalism, the gains from climate change are privatized while the costs are socialized.””

Now is the moment to push for the adoption of a moratorium on coal and gas, coupled with an investment in communities that will experience the economic consequences.”

The reality is that climate denialism has been rife in Australian politics for decades.

According to CJ Werleman: “For nearly two decades, Australia’s conservative governance – the Liberal Party – has made climate change denial party orthodoxy, with the country’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott branding the science behind it as “absolute crap”.

The Murdoch-owned Australian is at the heart of a nexus of climate denying media that props up the right-wing political establishment.

As Werleman points out “Since 2011, mining and energy corporations have donated $8.4 million to the conservative coalition’s state and federal branches.”

Madeline Peltz outlined the extent of the Murdoch impact. She writes: “A recent segment from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation rounded up examples of the climate denial pushed by conservative pundits in the Australian media, most of whom work for outlets owned by News Corp. For example, Peter Gleeson, a commentator at Sky News Australia and a columnist at The Courier-Mail, attacked a former fire chief who connected the fires to climate change as having “joined a cult” and “been brainwashed.” Sky News Australia host Peta Credlin not only denied the role of climate change in the fires, but also claimed that “there is no doubt … that two decades-plus of climate change activism is making them worse.” Sky News Australia host Chris Kenny called the debate about the role of climate change in the fires “dumb,” “reckless,” and “offensive.”

As Carbon Brief outlines the media coverage of the catastrophe looked very different inside Australian and beyond it.

Fourth, industry knowledge of climate change realities decades ahead of general public awareness puts their actions (and disinformation) into a new light.

“Exxon knew.” Thanks to the work of activists and climate journalists, those two words have become part of the lexicon of climate change in recent years. As DeSmog has recorded investigations revealed the extent to which Big Oil were aware of the danger of rising greenhouse gas emissions even as they smeared the work of scientists.

But the coal industry knew, too — as early as 1966, a newly unearthed journal shows.

Elan Young has the story at the Huffington Post:

“In August 2019, Chris Cherry, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was drawn to a 1966 copy of the industry publication Mining Congress Journal; his father-in-law had been in the industry and he thought it might be an interesting memento. Cherry flipped it open to a passage from James R. Garvey, who was the president of Bituminous Coal Research Inc., a now-defunct coal mining and processing research organization.”

“There is evidence that the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is increasing rapidly as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels,” wrote Garvey. “If the future rate of increase continues as it is at the present, it has been predicted that, because the CO2 envelope reduces radiation, the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere will increase and that vast changes in the climates of the earth will result.”

“Such changes in temperature will cause melting of the polar icecaps, which, in turn, would result in the inundation of many coastal cities, including New York and London,” he continued.
Yet as recently as 2015, Peabody Energy argued that carbon dioxide was a “benign gas essential for all life.” Peabody Energy is the largest private-sector coal company in the world and the largest producer of coal in the U.S.

“While the benefits of carbon dioxide are proven, the alleged risks of climate change are contrary to observed data, are based on admitted speculation, and lack adequate scientific basis,” the company wrote in a letter that year to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

At the heart of Big Coal’s denial campaign was Fred Palmer, Peabody’s senior vice president of government relations from 2001 to 2015.

Peabody’s denialism would soon morph – as it became unsustainable to long-suppressed scrutiny – into variant arguments for “clean coal”.

If coal and mining are at the very heart of Australia’s psycho-geography: heroic, conquering, masculine, they are also at the heart of the extractivism and blind exploitation that is also at the heart of our ecological crisis, and its colonialism is no accident.

Yet all is not dark.

El País reports:

“Spain has taken just one year to reach a goal that was expected to require a decade. The government had predicted that by 2030 coal would no longer be used in power plants to generate electricity, yet this objective was all but achieved last year. The country has dramatically reduced its reliance on coal-fired power, and as a direct result, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity generation fell 33.3% in 2019.”

Last year coal-powered thermal plants contributed less than 5% of all electricity generated in Spain – 85.6% less than in 2002, when coal power was at its peak.

Remarkably too, even coal-mad ole USA is shifting rapidly away from coal:

These examples show how it is possible to rapidly move away from coal dependency.

Finally, some of the imagery and symbolism from mining is transposed in crisis to the firefighters. Both are hyper-masculine, heroic and nature-conquering. But another aspect of this is the iconography of Australia’s animals. Koalas are the new Polar bears.

Whilst Polar bears for years have been the environmental movement’s cuddly standard-bearer, neatly re-positioning the climate catastrophe into a crisis for animals elsewhere, so too do very cuddly-looking Koalas.

But focusing on these animals is some odd behaviour.

There’s a new meme of Koala adoption “What do you think of the koalas my friends and I have adopted?”

The climate crisis – a systemic failure of our economic system – is re-packaged as an issue of animal welfare. If only we can get water to the singed koala – all will be well.

Saving individual animals is much more manageable than creating a viable economy and facing the reality we are in.


Finally, the catastrophe exhibits the very adaptability that may be our downfall. In Sydney we see people in orange glow drinking beer on the beach with face masks to cope with the fumes.

A few years ago images circulated of Beijing so polluted the sunrise was broadcast on a giant screen instead. And here, from Katoomba, in New South Wales, the news journalist Tom Lowrey tweets:

“The smoke is so thick in Katoomba tourists are opting for photos with billboards, rather than the Three Sisters themselves.”


If we can live with a simulacrum of places then we are over the edge into a new reality. Maybe we will choose that rather than change ourselves or demand system-change, we’ll just take travel the world taking pictures of what earth used to look like?

The Australian experience puts the relationship between colonialism and climate breakdown at the forefront of the global debate, and reminds us of the indigenous movements role in the fight for climate justice. It also speaks to our extreme alienation from the natural world and is “shocking” precisely because it is happening to “people like us” when the global south has been suffering for years without catching our gaze.


5 March 2018

The winds of change for education

By Dr Anne Winther

Transcript of a speech at the “Education for young people: Revolution or Evolution?” Firestarter Festival event,
Edinburgh College January 31st 2018

Twenty-five years ago, I left university excited about embarking on my graduate career. Ten years later, I abandoned that career – disillusioned with corporate life and heart-broken with the state of society and the planet. Since 2002, I have been exploring the causes of our environmental, social and economic crises. I have come to the conclusion that education, especially tertiary education, is a significant contributor to these crises.

I ask you this question: what is the purpose of secondary and tertiary education?

Is the purpose of education for the betterment of the individual, to pursue wealth and social status?
Is the purpose of education for the betterment of society: the communities in which we live; the generations that come after us; the environment on which we rely; and our collective wellbeing?

The first purpose is competitive – it is the notion of we must get on, as described by Ulrich Beck. It emphasises the extrinsic values of money and status, creating elites in society, who have the ability to create, but also to destroy: destroy society through inequality and pursuit of the self; and destroy the environment through consumption, squandering valuable resources and creating toxic waste that is destroying the planet.

Those with the highest qualifications, who end up being corporate achievers, tend to have the biggest ecological footprints. I have witnessed the scrum of the Oxford graduates competing for the coveted jobs at the highly paid big banks and FTSE 100 companies – some of the most qualified and brightest people are going to these companies, yet most of the companies won’t feature on an ethical investment list. Many of my peers went to Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Co, UBS, Aberdeen Asset Management and me Exxon Mobil. Why is so much of this graduate talent going to businesses that are contributing to global inequality and planetary destruction?

What is wrong with our education that when faced with the biggest multiple crises of humanity we educate young people to perpetuate our planetary and societal destruction? Why doesn’t education encourage young people to challenge the systems and institutions to adopt different values and co-create innovative and beautiful alternatives– alternatives that might actually save the human race from the crises of biodiversity collapse and uncontrollable global warming?

This year is the 50th anniversary of Paolo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I have a feeling that Freire would criticise our education system by asking why does it not:

  • pursue justice (both social and environmental)
  • foster peace and love for humanity and our planet
  • embrace and nurture the questioning of our society, the one in which we live, that causes such destruction

So, I ask you as educators and leaders, why is education failing our society? Why have the people who have been educated at primary school to ask critical questions through Curriculum for Excellence, end up pursuing wealth and self-advancement? What has happened to people in secondary and tertiary education to lose this ability to be critical and live as responsible citizens, building human capacity and wellbeing?

What can we do? In my view, education at all levels must

  • First, incorporate intrinsic values and world-views to enable ethical, joined-up and holistic critical thinking.
  • Secondly, foster the passion for service to society, rather than service of the self;
  • Thirdly, nurture deep listening skills and listening with the head and the heart; and
  • Lastly, build courage to act with ethical conviction and to co-create change in service of society and the planet.

I hope Paolo Freire would agree with me.

Earlier this month Otto Scharmer summarised it well. Comparing 20th and 21st century education, he said that “The modern [20th Century] university has been based on the unity of research, teaching, and application. The emerging 21st-century university, I believe, will be based on the unity of research, teaching, and civilizational renewal.” Otto Scharmer, Jan 2018.

The winds of change are blowing across Scotland and this is being recognised internationally. There are many people, networks and organisations working for civilizational renewal, such as:

I ask you to feel the winds of change in Scotland and either seek out or build networks for change. We’re running out of time for humanity and the planet, but if we act now, there is still hope. Be honest and look into your heart. In your work, are you destroying civilisation or fostering civilisational renewal?

Please be critical of what you do and take action

Thanks go to
Nicky Bolland, founder of CAMINA – my critical friend –
and to
Matthew Stibbe, founder of Articulate Marketing – for starting this conversation ten years ago

Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage, London.
Beck, U. 2000. “Living Your Own Life in a Runaway World: Individualisation, Globalisation and Politics”. In On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism (eds. Hutton, W. & Giddens, A), pp.164-174. Jonathan Cape, London.
Crompton, T. 2014. No Cause is an Island: How People are Influenced by Values Regardless of the Cause
Crompton, T. 2015. Perceptions Matter: The Common Cause UK Values Survey
Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, New York.
Harvey, D. 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.
Harvey, D. 2005. A Brief History of Neo-liberalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Scharmer, O. 2018. Education is the kindling of a flame: How to reinvent the 21st-century university.


15 January 2018

By the Belly of the Beast: Degrowth Summer School 2017, Germany

By Svenja Meyerricks

On a warm Sunday in late August, I cycled through the sleepy Rhineland village of Holzweiler on a borrowed bicycle, past the traditional village farms which are typical for many regions in Germany, but mostly no longer operational. I overtook another cyclist, an older man, and decided to ask him for directions. “Excuse me – how do I get to the viewing platform of the open cast coal mine?” The man didn’t know. “I live here,” he replied. “I went to nursery and school here. But I’ve never been to the mine. I don’t want to see it!”

Garzweiler — the mine in question — begins only a couple of miles away from the village and stretches across an area of 3.096 ha. It is only one of the gigantic open cast coal mines the energy concern RWE runs in the Rhineland region, where up to 40 million tons of coal are extracted every year (source). After cycling past several warning signs informing me about the proximity of the edge of the coal mine, I arrived at the public viewing platform. There were a couple of policemen on motorbikes and a couple of climate activists on bicycles, taking in the view. An outdoor exhibition about the mine was designed by RWE to demonstrate their sustainability efforts and the benefits of the mine to the region and to Germany as a whole. Behind it, like a gaping wound in the earth’s crust, the mine stretched as far as the eye can see – and far beyond.

Image of open cast mine

The sounds of the conveyor belts transporting some of the byproducts of the mining operation interrupted the shimmering silence of the summer day. The gigantic excavators were looming in the landscape motionless. Attached to the fence surrounding the outer edge of the platform were a few padlocks on which lovers publicly declared their affection. A striking juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos, life and death, romance in the face of climate breakdown.

 Desolate image of mine with vehicles Image of red padlock attached to fence, with the mine in the background

I took the detour to Garzweiler open cast coal mine while I attended Degrowth Summer School, which took place at the Klimacamp (climate camp) in a field only a few miles away. The camp, which was attended by around 3,000 people, combined talks and workshops around climate change and a wide variety of related environmental, social and political issues with camp life, art and culture. The camp culminated in the “Ende Gelände” act of civil disobedience to blockade the train tracks which supply Germany’ s dirtiest coal-fired power plant Neurath with coal. The messages and actions of the camp and Ende Gelände, under the slogan “system change not climate change” had as an ultimate aim that coal, often dubbed by campaigners the dirtiest fuel, is phased out in Germany altogether as a source of energy because of the scientific consensus about its significant contribution to climate change as part of the energy sector. However, so far the German government is clinging firmly to its continued use of coal as a major energy source.

Image of a red and yellow striped marquee in a filed with lots of parked bicycles. More tents and people can be seen in the background.

Now in its third year, the Degrowth Summer School was attended by over 300 people. Infused and informed by the proximity of the “belly of the beast” of the extractive economy, short courses, workshops and panel discussions took place over four days which covered scientific topics, practical skills and activist strategies around building Degrowth societies. The summer school was run by the Leipzig-based think tank Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (concept new economy), which faced a major headache as 46,000 Euros of funding were withdrawn due to its proximity of acts of civil disobedience. It managed, however, to fundraise most of this money in a short period of time through the generosity of its benefactors.

In a nutshell: What is Degrowth?

We pump oil out of the increasingly hard-to-reach fossil layers, we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we pump freshwater out of the ground faster than it can be replenished and we pump money out of our communities and into the 1%’s financial stratosphere. With our lifestyles dependent on extractive industries, our planetary limits have been increasingly pushed or exceeded. While local decimations of forests and wildlife forced people to migrate throughout human history, awareness of global limits has emerged only relatively recently. At the Club of Rome meeting in 1972, the paradoxical doctrine of infinite economic growth on a finite planet was problematised for the first time. Nonetheless, in the more than five decades that have passed since, the prevailing economic paradigm has remained fixated on growth. Not only in the global market, but also in the universities and colleges that teach future generations of economists. Meanwhile we have continued and accelerated the depletion of global resources and pushed or exceeded more ecological limits.

Voices calling for an end of economic growth have become louder in the last few years, while advocating ‘Degrowth’, defined as the “downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet” (Schmelzer, 2014). The Degrowth movement gained momentum especially in several European countries, where international Degrowth Conferences in Paris (2008), Barcelona (2010), Venedig (2012), Leipzig (2014 – the largest with around 3,000 delegates) and Budapest (2016) were key for enabling activists and academics to converge and discuss, develop and refine the discourse. While there is a wide spectrum of political positions and priorities, proponents of Degrowth argue for alternative models of organising society and the economy, either because they believe that a slowing down of economic growth is inevitable, or because they promote the goal of stalling or shrinking economies, at least in the global North.

Degrowth discourse advocates decreasing production and consumption in the global North and alternatives to ‘development’ in the global South; a good life for all, measured not in GDP but in wellbeing indicators determined by research around human needs; different work patterns and ways to organise time which allow for working towards, for example, self-sufficiency, shared childcare and commons resources; democratic decision-making processes and regional interconnected circular economies. In the global South, the discourse tends to revolve around critiques of mainstream development models. Alternative pathways include Buen Vivir (‘the good life’), a concept emerging from Ecuador which is informed by indigenous ways of life; post-development theory such as that by Colombian-American scholar Arturo Escobar, arguing that even new ‘softer’ forms of development constitute a form of cultural imperialism; and Vandana Shiva’s feminist, anti-corporate activism in India.

In the global North, the Degrowth discourse tends to revolve around critiques of affluent lifestyles, which cannot be afforded or aspired to, as this would lead to ecological disaster. This view can be summarised as follows:

“Global justice … can neither be a project of cultural homogenization, nor can it be reached on the economic level alone. It is not the South that has to be ‘developed’, but the North that has to be materially disarmed.” (Nico Paech).

At the 2017 summer school, there was a particular focus on “Degrowth perspectives on the future of the Rhinish lignite region”, “Psychology of change” and “Skills for System Change”. As I joined spontaneously, most of the courses were already fully booked. I joined a course on the role of social movements in a Degrowth society, with a particular focus on Via Campesina. One of the organisers has written up a summary of the experience of running the summer school. A highlight was a panel discussion in the nearby town of Erkelenz around the topic “What comes after lignite? And how to pave a just transition?”, where climate activists and trade union representatives of energy companies were present to discuss their respective points of view. At the end of the discussion, the points of view had not shifted; it was agreed that there was a clash of cultures between the two groups, but that it was good to remain in conversation.

The variety of courses and approaches reflected that there is no blueprint for what a Degrowth society could look like, and many of our discussions revolved around the question whether ‘Degrowth’ is a social movement at all. The discourse is characterised by regional differences and priorities, and the pluralistic, international and inclusive outlook was reflected in simultaneous translations of the panel debates – all in the spartan conditions of a circus tent. Many, if not most, of the participants were young people from Germany and other European countries – especially students who sought to engage in discussions not offered in university courses.

I returned from the summer school refreshed and inspired by the dedication and passion of the organisers and participants alike. In Scotland, and in the United Kingdom as a whole, there is no discernible movement or major public discourse around Degrowth. While the concept is known on the fringes, not even the major think tank New Economics Foundation lists Degrowth on their website. This is perhaps surprising, given that ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ was published in 2009 by Tim Jackson, who then was the Economics Commissioner for the Sustainable Development Commission, a governmental advisory body which closed down in 2011. The descendant of the UK-wide Climate Camps, Reclaim the Power, focuses on campaigning against fracking, to prevent yet another extractive industry from emerging in the UK’s energy sector.

Yet the need for an interconnected analysis of the economic root causes of the social and ecological crisis is becoming more urgent. As Brexit unfolds around us, the Department for Energy and Climate Change was scrapped and all around us there are signs that current social and environmental policies will be weakened after the UK has left the European Union. It becomes increasingly apparent that the UK government will not make global ecological emergencies such as climate breakdown and the decline of the biosphere a political priority. While the British economy is facing great uncertainties, economic growth will become a priority before all others.

Given the UK’s current ecological and social trajectory, the Degrowth discourse offers an interconnected analysis of various social, economic and ecological dimensions. The explicit international dimension and focus on present and historical global justice connects the root causes of contemporary issues such as the growing refugee crisis with an explicit anti-colonial stance, which can help address the kind of imperial nostalgia which has at least played a role in the outcome of two referendums – on EU membership and on Scottish independence. In addition, building a movement around Degrowth specific to Scotland and the rest of the UK and each of its devolved administrations would strengthen solidarity between European grassroots movements. As the UK metaphorically drifts a little bit further away from the European mainland, we will need to maintain and strengthen our connections along the faultlines of shared values.

If you are interested in getting involved in organising or contributing to events around Degrowth in 2018, please email the CHE.


16 December 2017

The Co-operative University

By Anne Winther

On the 9th November I had the absolute pleasure of attending the UK’s first Co-operative University Conference at the Co-operative College in Manchester. I was expecting a small gathering, so I was blown away by the large loft style conference venue full of approximately 80 delegates from across the UK and Europe; all had the same dream of creating a Co-operative University. Representing the Centre for Human Ecology, I thought I was the only attendee from Scotland, but by chance sat next to the group of students from the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative, who own and operate their own student lodgings in a city which has some of the most expensive accommodation in Europe.

There’s an array of adult and higher educational institutions in the UK that are already operating co-operatively outside the traditional university system. It’s not just CHE, but the Free University Brighton, R.E.D. Learning Co-operative, Social Science Centre Lincoln, and Leicester Vaughan College are all examples of co-operative institutions that wish to become co-operative universities. Some already have graduate and post-graduate level courses, but none have acquired the official title of “university” and the ability to award degrees. Obtaining this coveted accreditation is no easy task requiring: evidence of five years quality education; a minimum of £60,000 to pay for the academic and financial scrutiny; and the Privy Council to grant degree awarding powers (N.B. the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 gives a new body — the Office for Students — power to authorise a registered education provider to grant degrees, but this is English, not Scottish legislation. One of the actions arising from the conference is to investigate what this means in practice for a UK-wide federated co-operative university.). This makes the dream of being a “university” out of reach for any individual institution, unless it has a wealthy benefactor.

At the conference, we heard how Mondragon University in Spain operates as a federated co-operative university — a model which offers one of many possibilities for creating the UK’s first Co-operative University. In the afternoon, we broke into workshops to generate ideal models for the University’s governance, finances, accreditation and curricula for the Co-operative University. These ideas are going forward to a new Co-operative Academic Board and CHE is excited to be part of this Co-operative University development.

For me 2017 has been full of synchronicities; one of these was the outcome of the curricula afternoon workshop almost identically mirroring Luke Devlin’s synopsis of the CHE’s vision for co-operative education:

I see three elements to CHE’s version of co-operative education:

Education AS co-operation. The structure: hybrid co-op. Multi stakeholders. Worker’s co-op for academic/admin roles. Students join as stakeholders taking responsibility for education and ‘learning by doing’: creating possibilities for work opportunities upon ‘graduation’

Education FOR co-operation. Elements of the proposed curriculum contain needed training and education on co-operative values, methods and history. Overview of history of the movement domestically and internationally, overview of models, methods and ways of working.

Education WITH co-operation. The building of each year’s student learning community is an exercise in applied practical educational co-operation, built on educational principles emerging from the generalist democratic intellect. CHE has a recognised history of this unique approach, often called ‘the Scottish school of human ecology’

If you would like a full overview of this approach — including descriptions of what the courses historically looked like in practice and how they fostered a distinctive type of co-operative education — see the two chapters The Challenge of Radical Human Ecology & Teaching Radical Human Ecology in the Academy by Alastair McIntosh in Radical Human Ecology: Intercultural and Indigenous Approaches (Ashgate 2012).


Cook, D. (2013). Realising the Co-operative University. A Consultancy Report for The Cooperative College.

Neary, M. & Winn, J .(2017). Beyond Public and Private: A Framework for Co-operative Higher Education.

QAA (2016). Degree Awarding Powers and University Title in Scotland Guidance and Criteria for Applicants.


16 October 2017

Good neighbour, bad subject — Solidarity and resistance in the age of Brexit

By Jonathan Robertson

On a large piece of paper in the Pearce Institute is written a Henry Thoreau quote: “I am as desirous of being a good neighbour as I am of being a bad subject”. As part of the Unbrexable conference, Isabel, James and Nicky from CAMINA* took inspiration from this to run a workshop exploring ‘solidarity and resistance in the age of Brexit’: What does it mean to be a good neighbour? And what does it mean to be a “bad subject”?

Participants were invited to respond to a series of photographs – a man in a balaclava filling in a pothole, protestors blocking a detention centre, people helping at a food bank – projected onto the wall. How high a level of neighbourliness did they depict and how high a level of civil disobedience did they portray? Is there a time to stop being neighbourly? Does civil disobedience have to be dangerous? Can an act be both neighbourly and civilly disobedient, as Thoreau aimed for? When people are faced with the multiple challenges of Brexit Britain, whether they see it on the streets or on the news, what are the pathways towards solidarity and resistance. And what are the blocks? “There are many people who dare not participate in a strike or other political actions”, educator Augusto Boal once wrote. “Why? Because they have cops in their heads. They have internalised their oppressions”.

The remainder of the session was an opportunity for the participants to be part of an activity created by Boal called ‘Cops in their heads’. The design of this activity was based on a European context where oppression is more internalised and less outwardly apparent than in Boal’s native Brazil. James and Nicky acted out a scenario set in the office of a refugee support organisation. Nicky’s character wanted to attend a rally at a detention centre, which her boss permitted her to do as long as she completed her work-tasks around it. In the end though Nicky’s character found excuses not to attend. After running through the scenario once, we focused in on Nicky’s character and the voices within her head which ‘talked her out of going’. The participants were invited to act out the voices in Nicky’s head — “it could be dangerous”, “I should really prioritise my paid work and my health”, “what difference would I make anyway”…

The final stage of the activity gave space for the other participants to approach and enter into dialogue with the participants who acted out the voices in Nicky’s head. This was a chance to both challenge and reflect on the blocks and self-limiting beliefs that, as Boal says, prevent people from participating in strikes or other political actions. At a time when fresh causes for civil disobedience emerge daily, the ‘Cops in their heads’ activity gives the chance for all of us to really dive into and pick apart the blocks and internalised oppressions that prevent us from acting.

* Critical and Alternative Methods & Ideas Network for Action (CAMINA) is a project which hopes to support and connect critical education activity and those practising critical education, across Scotland and Spain. See


5 September 2017

Emotional citizenry: Building connections with hearts and minds

By Kye Askins

“Good morning, my sister!” Samira beams at me, almost every Thursday morning.

“Good morning to you, my sister!” I smile back, and we hug warmly.

We’ve been greeting each other like this for nearly two years now, at a Drop-In centre in the southside of Glasgow, where we both volunteer on Thursdays. Our verbal conversations haven’t gone much beyond basics, since Samira speaks little English and I speak no Tigrinya. Yet we talk to each other with our bodies: hugs, smiles, eye contact, hands on arms or around shoulders; and we listen to each other’s body language, moods and intentions. As we cook together, do arts and crafts together, drink tea together, sing together, set out and clear up the Drop-In space together, we increasingly build a connection: a bond that is embodied, emotional and thoughtful. I care about Samira, and I feel that she cares for me.

People sitting at a table, doing craftwork

I see this kind of relation everywhere across the Drop-In: between staff, volunteers and attendees; between people of diverse ethnic, age, educational, religious and national backgrounds; between people who come regularly and people who maybe only attend once or twice. People find their way to the Drop-In for different reasons, and come with different support needs, whether volunteers or attendees. It caters to local – broadly defined as the Gorbals and nearby, but open to all comers – people who generally share marginalised and fragile socio-economic positions, with one or more attendant issues across a range of physical and mental health capabilities, housing context, under/unemployment, recovery from alcohol or substance misuse, seeking asylum or settling in as a new migrant, and so on. We are diverse in many ways, yet we come together with a desire to engage, a will to be part of something, a searching for company and connection.

People talking, sitting in a circle of chairs.

So, despite the differences that politicians and the media constantly emphasise through narratives that serve to fragment society – around migration, ethnicity and religion, especially Islam – people have plenty in common (not least precarious financial situations in an era of austerity). Many conversations, including between people who share little common language, revolve around politics, receding welfare support, and care from government. There is deep anger at changes to benefits and the sanctions system, the detention and deportation of asylum seekers, a lack of affordable housing, the use of zero hours employment contracts, and rising mental health issues. Anger at wider structural inequalities amid a concern for each other.

Brexit has been a central topic of conversation. The Drop-In is used by migrants from across Europe and the world, all worried about being less or unwelcome, and about their continuing place in Glasgow. Scottish attendees and volunteers rail against how this wider political landscape and the withdrawal from Europe contradicts how they perceive their country; as Chris says, “We’ve always been a welcoming country, my Scotland is an inclusive Scotland. Now we’re painted, as part of the UK, as xenophobes!”

The thing is, people recognise that, while they face different barriers, having to struggle is what connects them. The Drop-In is a space where people can think about and discuss their positions, planning how to survive and improve their lives; a place where links can be forged through debate and ideas.

People looking at a wall mural with a sign saying "sharing ideas"Shared emotions
This thinking and talking is already caught up with other senses and emotions. At any given time, we don’t necessarily have or experience the same emotions or feelings as each other, but everyone has feelings, and we can recognise each other as emotional beings. We interact through emotions which emerge from the ebb and flow of our talking and listening, playing games, doing arts, crafts and other activities, preparing and eating food.

Jim teases Adama about his recent haircut, Adama rubs Jim’s bald head and says at least he has hair to cut, and both men laugh…

Christine teaches Julie to arrange flowers, and as they both breathe in the scent they reminisce about gardens they remember from before/elsewhere…

Cath is washing up after lunch with Ibrahim, when Scottish country music starts playing in the hall. They both drop what they’re doing and start dancing arm-in-arm round the kitchen, laughing…

Michael, struggling with depression, hasn’t attended the Drop-In for a while; as he comes in, a loud chorus of “Hi, nice to see you” rings around the hall. Dan gets Michael a cup of tea, and they sit sombrely, talking now and again, but mostly just being beside one another in silence. Later, Romy persuades Michael to join him for a game of table tennis, which gets very energetic, ending with smiles and a handshake, though still few words…

Maryam is more talkative, discussing problems with her asylum appeal while cutting onions, standing next to Tanya, also chopping veg. Conversation moves on to Tanya’s issues with her teenage daughter, then a companionable quiet punctuated by both women’s sighs. Later, as they serve lunch, Maryam and Tanya pass plates and pans to one another wordlessly, connecting through the task at hand. Before they leave, they arrange to meet next Monday for a cup of tea at Maryam’s house…

Sonya is talking on her mobile. She finishes the call, and sits down heavily on a nearby chair. Susan goes to sit next to her, and within a moment, as soon as Susan says “Is everything OK?”, Sonya is in tears and Susan is holding her, comforting her. These women met a year ago at a nursery their children attend, and Susan (Scottish, grew up locally) introduced Sonya (from a south African country) to the Drop-In. They now see each other all the time, around the area, and their kids play together…

Making bread, Bob, raises his eyebrows with a comical face, points to his very misshapen loaf and shrugs. He doesn’t need to say anything, we’re being invited to giggle with him. Sandra pats him heartily on the back with floury hands…


Two people hugging, one dressed as a chefPeople cookingFriendships are fostered though activities, through sharing space, through bodily connections, through being, thinking and feeling together. There is a palpable desire to engage, to build local community, and to (re)make society at the local level. We may have uncertain futures, but we are claiming our right to belong.


Emotional citizenry

I’ve been volunteering at the Drop-In for over two years, and recently also did some research with people there. The findings resonate with previous research in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, conducted with a befriending scheme that paired more settled residents with asylum seekers and refugees. In that project, we developed the idea of emotional citizenry, which sets out a broader, more inclusive kind of citizenship that goes beyond a fixed status (with passport, based on defined state borders) that people can or cannot achieve. Rather it is citizenry as a process, grounded in the complexities of places, lives and feelings. Such a process is clear at the Drop-In. People encounter one another through everyday practices: emotional citizenry is living as part of interconnecting communities that reach across all kinds of scales, and is already taking place.

People eating a communal dinnerFraming citizenship in this way poses some questions. How might individual relationships anticipate collective change? What policies and actions are required to support living together in the super-diverse and mobile societies of the 21st century (which Brexit cannot un-make)? It points to how grassroots initiatives may disrupt top-down politics and dominant discourses, and to a role for third sector organisations in facilitating social change.

I see Samira and other folk from the Drop-In quite regularly around the neighbourhood, and sometimes in Glasgow city centre. We always wave or nod across a street, and often stop, say “hi” and have a chat. And that’s really important to me. I feel recognised, part of (albeit loose and fluid) community, that I belong.

I feel Unbrexable. We are Unbrexable!

(All photos are courtesy of Magda Kaminsha. All names, other than the author’s, are pseudonyms.)


18th August 2017

Unbrexfast — A Reflection

By Juana Adcock

Brexit by now seems like a giant train wreck that nobody knows how to shift or lift, and which is rapidly becoming an accepted part of the landscape. Any concrete decisions are stalled and the same tired arguments are rehashed time and again, making us feel the opposite of ‘strong and stable’ and encouraging us to lose interest. But through this boredom, we risk missing the important decisions that are being made without us, so events like Unbrexfast are an important way of reigniting interest, providing critical education and reflecting as a means to guide our actions in the future, and helping us imagine ways in which to move forward.

After a round of introductions, we shared a delicious vegetarian/vegan breakfast and chatted away amongst ourselves, before coming back to the larger group and describing some of the topics that had come up: our food system and food security, the aspect of care in our society and how it relates to grassroots movements, and communication and xenophobia. We then split into three teams and each was asked to look at one of these issues: defining it, talking about the resources that were already available, and thinking about what else would be needed to address that issue.

Our food system
This group decided to talk about ‘food system adaptation’ rather than ‘food security’, because the word ‘security’ may have some negative connotations. They also spoke about the local and the global: how to address local issues with global responsibility – for example Fair Trade – and supporting transparency in the food chain.

There is currently a lot of talk about rising food prices, but actually many prices are artificially depressed (e.g., products such as milk have no fair trade standards for a large part of their production). So what we’ll really be seeing is the actual price of food, which will be a shock and could be quite traumatic, especially for people already needing to use food banks. So how do we protect the most vulnerable and educate ourselves about food and its production? Food standards, workers’ rights, permaculture, animal welfare, GM free crops: all of these are needed. Examples given as good models were the Emilia Romagna cooperatives in Italy and the amazing Via Campesina movement that started in a little town in Spain. The main idea was that we should not leave it up to someone else, but that we need to take action ourselves.

Realising what networks we already have locally in regards to food can help us to understand how to better address the issue, and tools like the Green Map initiative can be useful (and has already been done for Glasgow’s West End). But at the moment, there are no easy answers to a lot of hard questions.

The Good Food Nation Strategy came out of the Community Empowerment Act. Every local authority has 2 years to write their food strategy, but currently don’t really know what to do, and are undergoing consultations. Talks are still underway as regards to what a “good food nation” means. It was suggested that the consultation was maybe not asking the right questions, Perhaps the important questions are how we can make food growing relevant to people? How can use this to create jobs? Can we create market gardens? How much food do we need? Do we need a specific target e.g., to produce 50% of our food in Scotland? And how do we link to European peasant movements, as well as the existing local food movement? Overall, more thought needs to be given about how we do things, especially if there is need to scale-up food production in Scotland. For example, a number of community gardens previously maintained by grants have now been abandoned, indicating a lack of joined-up thinking. However, It’s important to note that there need not be a single model for this; several models could exist at the same time, tailored to the specific needs of different communities.

Care and grassroots movements
The group discussed the global trend towards eroding communities, breaking them apart by various political mechanisms: the processes of gentrification, urban planning strategies, and the restructuring of economic activities. This means people become more isolated, feeling very unsafe, at risk of physical violence from other groups, and feeling powerless because they don’t always understand what is happening and the decisions are always being made elsewhere. So it is important to create safe spaces for those affected, offering them the time and resources that will allow them to think about things beyond their own immediate survival.
Community and communal spaces, integration networks, and places like Galgael, provide people with safety in the face of different kinds of vulnerabilities. Although equality policies may often seem paternalistic, and organisations may be seen to be merely ‘ticking boxes’ to adhere to them, they are still worth defending. But it’s important to actively nurture emotional connections rather than just focusing on gestures of solidarity; to support diversity and not just push for integration.

This group had quite a broad discussion, noting that a lot of communication consists of people trying to advance their often rather narrow and set views, seeking to justify those views rather than engage in a dialogue. However, in some communities in Scotland, there’s a growing interest in the Art Of Hosting approach, Theory U and the U lab platform, and the perspective of Living Systems i.e., how people are inseparably part of the natural world but are often seen as being isolated from, or somehow immune to the effects of, natural processes.
In terms of ways forward, there are a number of very active groups around different themes, but what they need to do is to improve their communications. There are a range of really good thinking techniques and practices available, including those listed above and other practices such as Non-Violent Communication (NVC), but it’s necessary to find ways to practice these, and add to them and change them. The notion of “Act as if you own it” was repeated several times, as well as Harry Burn’s theory of “Just do it” (rather than hoping for the government to eventually solve the problems). How can communication be achieved across Scotland, to join up different networks and get a stronger civic voice for Scotland? The problem is that if each network acts alone, they tend to run out of steam, and then 10 or 20 years down the line not much has changed.

So the best chance for survival is if different networks can find ways to link up. More opportunities are needed to meet and engage with those people that we wouldn’t normally meet in everyday life. Training in communication techniques is needed, as well as the space to practice and be supported in using them. Currently in place are the Centre for Human Ecology, Galgael, and the Govan Folk University. These are all a start in creating our own institution of learning; one that truly comes from those community voices and encourages real, engaged communication as opposed to the arid and divided discussion that often arises from party politics.

An ongoing conversation
Through events like Unbrexfast, the CHE is looking to build channels of communication and see where it takes us. The next step is all an all-day Unbrexable event that is taking place on the 2nd of September, which will be more in the style of a conference, with a full day of workshops and more guided conversations. Stay tuned!


The Centre for Human Ecology is an independent academic institute, network, registered cooperative, and registered charity based in Glasgow, Scotland, with an international membership of graduates and fellows. It exists to stimulate and support fundamental change towards ecological and social justice through education, action and research, drawing on a holistic, multidisciplinary understanding of environmental and social systems.