Category Archives: Viral Shah

Transition towns: future or failure?

Devon in the UK was world's first Transition Town. Picture by Bernard Blanc.

Devon in the UK was world’s first Transition Town. Picture by Bernard Blanc.

In 2011, Transition Town Totnes won the Ashden Green Award for its attempts to slow down climate change. “Town of the future”, wrote the Guardian, referring to the community in the UK. Is this label just; can local initiatives make a global change, or is Transition doomed to fail?

Even though Transition Initiatives are small-scale, their popularity certainly isn’t. In times of increasing concerns over the environment and decreasing faith in governments’ ability to fight it, it seems no surprise that local initiatives to counteract environmental damage are on the rise. One of the most prevalent examples can be found in the Transition Network, which consists of a wide range of community-led activities around the globe that all share one hallmark: their goal is to reduce greenhouse gasses and to prepare for the post-carbon era. Since the foundation of the first Transition Town in 2005, Totnes, no less than 476 similar initiatives were taken in all continents, as is shown by the Transition map.
What characterizes Transition Initiatives is their bottom-up organization, explains Fiona Ward, Project Manager of Transition Town Totnes, to the Guardian. “It starts with someone coming to the office or ringing us to tell us that they want to start a project. They are the ones who then actually go and recruit all their neighbors. We don’t go out and knock on people’s doors, they are the ones who do it.”

As a result of such bottom-up organization, strategies for a more sustainable lifestyle and economy differ widely. Initiatives range from the use of renewable energy sources – the Scottish Island of Eigg create 90% of its electricity through renewable resources – to the creation of local currencies as an alternative to the Sterling, such as the Bristol Pound. The aim is to increase local trade. After all, when long-distance transport of commodities is avoided, CO2-emision can be reduced. And thus, the mayor of Bristol is entirely paid in Bristol Pounds. At present, six cities in the UK have followed Bristol’s footsteps. Together, they have an estimated circulation that equals 54.2 billion Sterling, according to The Transition Network website. For a grassroots movement, the Transition movement has grown and sustained relatively well.

When enthusiasm fades
Yet it is not all roses in the Transition Garden, as is shown by a recent study by Giuseppe Feola and Richard Nunes from the University of Reading. Even though Transition Initiatives are usually presented in terms of their potential, creativity and originality, both internal and external difficulties make their effectiveness unsure. “One of the key challenges for Transition Initiatives has been around group governance. Because of the diversity of the movement there are often conflicts. You cannot think of it as having consensus all the time – there can be frictions with competing agendas”, explains Nunes. This is mostly because the Transition approach is not one-dimensional and clear-cut, but rather involves a wide scope of activities, from food production to political activities. To find an approach that the group as a whole supports is often no easy task.
Disagreements can be hard to deal with, tells Charlotte Du Cann, editor-in-chief of the Transition Free Press. “The start-up phase of initiatives is often exuberant and exciting. People are attracted to the buzz, full of hope and expectation. But at some point ideas and fancies turn out not to be the reality. Those big words fade in the light of day. You realise that you have to get on with other people. Power struggles happen and things don’t go according to plan”, she writes in her blog. As a result, drop-outs are no exception. This is especially problematic because of a lack of funding, causing the organization’s almost exclusive reliance on volunteers who are only bound to the project by their own dedication. When the participants lose their enthusiasm, trust and confidence, projects risk failure. “The sense of defeat or powerlessness can be a big struggle”, says Du Cann. Yet, this willingness to ‘fail’ is a natural part of the experimental learning process in this new kind of movement.
On top of that, there are socio-cultural factors that decrease the likelihood that a Transition Initiative survives when the initial enthusiasm fades. It is for instance hard to truly get rid of conventional ideas, explains Du Cann. “We have been educated our entire lives to think in a certain way. Changing your entire attitude – because that is what it comes down to – is very hard, because there are so many things that you take for granted without even realizing it. And even if you are aware of the cultural presumptions that you have, it takes courage to fight ideas that are generally accepted.” Individualism is another culturally achieved attitude that hinders the initiatives, adds Du Cann. “We are used to think about our own success, but that is not how collective initiatives work.”

Localism: strength or weakness?
Even when Transition Towns manage to deal with struggles of internal organization, motivation and attitude, their future survival is not self-evident. The people that get involved in Transition in the first place, are usually people of a certain age, tell Feola and Nunes. “There’s a lot of volunteer work there and older people tend to have more time on their hands.” The question is whether younger people will take over the Initiatives when the current generation retires.
Ideally, different generations should be involved simultaneously, as the study suggests, because each age group brings different advantages. Feola says: “Older people have more time – which is in fact a key factor of success – but younger generations are more accustomed to social media and therefore facilitate communication and online networking. They are possibly also more creative.” He continues: “Initiatives in diverse communities are more successful, because they have access to more resources and can build that critical mass that is necessary.”
By referring to the critical mass, Feola touches upon another issue faced by Transition Initiatives: their small-scale, local focus may open up for new ways of thinking, but it also decreases their overall influence on a global scale and thus their ability to make a change. As a result, the opinions on cooperation with governments differ. Whereas Du Cann beliefs the local focus to be a strength – because “the only way to change the status quo is by working around conventional political structures” – Feola and Nunes emphasize the potential of up-scaling through cooperation with existing institutions.

Transition of tomorrow
The viewpoints on cooperation may differ, but one thing is sure: expansion is considered necessary by the members of the Transition Network. According to the Network’s website, 76% of the initiative-takers consider problems in “attracting wider interest” as their biggest obstacle. Yet, expansion may not be easy to achieve. Feola: “There is the risk that there is a ceiling, in a sense. The base of people that participate in this type of movement and initiative is limited.” Moreover, urbanization may be an impediment, as Feola and Nunes found that urban Initiatives tend to be less successful than their rural counterparts. “That might be due to the greater dynamics of moving in and out of cities. People identify less with the place and are less motivated.” In a rapidly urbanizing world, the future success of Transition depends at least partly on the movement’s ability to make Urban Initiatives work – and there are plans afoot to do so.
With so many factors of influence or limitation, the success of Transition Initiatives is not obvious. Yet, even though Transition Initiatives frequently face struggles and failure, the topic is often avoided. “We live in a success culture. Failure is something we don’t like to talk about,” explains Du Cann. “But failure is a natural part of trying something new. It is not about having the solution ready, it is about finding one.”

By Nele Goutier and Viral Shah

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The London Underground strike in Tweets

London’s underground is midway through five days of transport disruption, after discussions between the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union and the London Underground (LU) collapsed.

After strike action in February, the RMT again took strike action from 9pm (BST) 28th May over two days and will do the same from 5th May for three days.

The RMT expected a station-by-station review over the London Underground’s plans to close all ticket offices by 2015, to see if there is merit in keeping some ticket offices open. The proposed plans would lead to the loss of 953 frontline jobs. Yet, the LU did not conduct a review of the closures, leading to the current impasse.

The RMT has been circulating the following advert in its campaign to stop these changes, which the London Underground argues is vital to the modernisation of the underground system. They also used Storify to document its members during strike action.

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The LU plans to transform ticket offices into ‘customer service’ centres, which means it is automating the sale of tickets to machines. According to Transport for London (TfL), fewer than 3% of tube journeys start with passengers visiting a ticket office.

Furthermore, TfL says six major central London stations will have special customer points to help tourists and that every station will be staffed while the tube is running, with workers moved out of ticket offices into station booking areas.

While media focus remains on the general disruption to commuters, the original reason – the loss of over 900 workers’ jobs has been somewhat overlooked. This included UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who labelled the strike as ‘unacceptable’.

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Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, when running as a candidate in 2008, opposed ticket office closures, and even signed a petition in 2010 for the same cause. He broke this pledge in late 2013 to back London Underground’s modernization plan.

Johnson also suggested that a new Tory government would curb the right of London Underground workers to strike. The Mayor introduced the comparison to New York, where some public service workers cannot strike, adding that “The number of people participating in the ballot should be 50%.” The ballot turnout for the current strike was 47%, with the RMT union stating that 1,000 staff had backed the action 3-1.

The RMT denied that the strike was a result of internal politics, with elections on the horizon to replace the late Bob Crow as general secretary of the Union.

The proposed changes to the underground includes 24-hour service on certain lines over the weekend from 2015, Wi-fi coverage across all below-ground stations, and disabled access at a further 27 stations.

There are also plans to introduce contactless bank card payment to make it easier to pay for tickets, although this makes the future of the Oyster card unclear. Some have argued that if the Oyster card is eventually phased out, then those without contactless bank cards will be forced to pay the full ticket price, while tourists will be vulnerable to international exchange rates.

These changes all come under the context of the fact that the UK government is cutting £80m from the TfL over next two years. These cuts, a part of the coalition government’s austerity measures, will delay spending on improved infrastructure and value (i.e. closed ticket offices) for money. In January, passengers saw a 4.2% increase on average in fares across the Tube, buses and trams. London’s metro fares are among the costliest in the world, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The response to the strike was strong on UK social media with #tubestrike and #TubeStrikeMakesMe both trending. Reactions of London commuters varied from blunt disdain for strike action, to more considered responses and supportive tweets.

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There were wider comments on economic inequality in the UK, celebrity spotting and typically British misanthrophy.

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By Viral Shah

Picture credit: London Underground and Westminster by Doug88888

UK students react to marking boycott

picture: Roger Blackwell

picture: Roger Blackwell

UNIVERSITY LECTURERS  in the UK have agreed to postpone a ban on marking essays or exams, after employers presented a new pay offer.

The new offer now being reviewed by the University and College Union (UCU) consists of a 2% pay rise. The union said the previous offer of a 1% rise still represented a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2009.

The original marking ban was scheduled for the 28th April, but is now being moved to Tuesday 6th May while lecturers decide to vote on whether to accept or decline the new pay offer. UK lecturers and academics last used a marking ban in 2006 in a previous pay dispute.

With tuition fees increasing incrementally since then, and now up to £9000 annually, universities appear to feel they cannot let the marking ban pass over this time. According to the Independent, this is “because they feared students or parents could take legal action if they failed to try and ensure degrees were marked on time” in light of greater expectations fostered by higher fees.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), who negotiate on behalf of the universities, said they would dock the pay of lecturers participating in the boycott: “HE institutions have long had clear policies not to accept partial performance of duties and would be deducting pay from any staff who chose to take part, precisely in order to limit the impact on student’s education.”

According to a UCU study, “despite our higher education system being ranked second out of 50 countries for the results it produces, […] pay for UK lecturers is outstripped by all other countries except New Zealand. The figures showed UK lecturers were paid 45% less than Canadians, 34% less than American lecturers and 16% less than their Australian contemporaries”.

In addition, there is also a huge disparity in income for support staff in university libraries, administration, catering, cleaning and security. Unison, the union representing such workers, estimated that some 12,500 university employees were paid less than the living wage.

The success of the recent independent ‘3Cosas’ (three things in Spanish) campaign by a group of largely Latin American cleaners, supposedly backed by Unison, highlights this income inequality. The cleaners, employees of Balfour Beatty Workplace (BBW), who have been subcontracted cleaning duties by the University of London, were fighting for holiday, sick pay and pensions on par with university staff.

Furthermore, a recent Times Higher Education report noted that four-fifths of universities refused to release minutes of remuneration committee meetings, where the pay of vice-chancellors is set. Given that salaries and benefits for vice-chancellors rose by 5.5% in 2012-13, the argument that the money isn’t there for basic pay rises for university workers lower down the scale is unconvincing.

The reaction to the proposed marking boycott has led to mixed reactions from students across the UK. The marketisation of higher education and tripling of tuition fees has led many students to consider the situation more as consumers.

The Exeter Tab quotes Jenny Bird, a third-year English student, who said: “The strikes had caused many of my lectures and seminars – things I paid £9000 for – to disappear. We are inadvertently caught within the centre of their talks, when it isn’t our fight. Leave us out of it.”

In February, History students at Warwick University were organising their own replacement lectures, for those cancelled due to strike action undertaken by lecturers regarding the aforementioned pay dispute with the UCEA. Alexander Bunzl, a second-year History student, told The Boar that they are not replacing “the hard work of our excellent lecturers and tutors” but are demonstrating “entrepreneurial spirit”.

Elsewhere, Peter Clarke, of Bangor University’s student newspaper Seren, writes in defence of the striking lecturers: “After looking at what is being fought against, the effect of a strike on students is minimal. By causing a disruption in order to highlight the necessity of the worker, the teacher in this case is the purpose of strike action, so the disruption to the classroom is minimal”.

This pay dispute – setting institutions against workers, and students against staff –  is set against the backdrop of increasing wages for the upper management of universities across the UK, where the average vice-chancellor’s annual pay packet now stands at £254,692. Negotiations on the postponement of the marking boycott, affecting staff and students alike, continue on.

Viral Shah

UK “Erosion of Civil Liberties” as Proposed Bill Attacks Right to Protest

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Viral Shah explores the ‘culture of censorship’ that has been created in British public life, most recently with the proposed Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, representing an attack on the right to assemble and the right to protest.

The UK, perceived as a bastion of democracy, has seen a massive erosion of civil liberties and free speech under the coalition government. From the proposed royal charter to regulate the press industry, Prime Minister David Cameron’s utterly misguided attempts to filter the internet to stop pornography, and revelations of mass surveillance conducted by the NSA and British equivalent GCHQ, a culture of censorship has been created in British public life.

Possibly the most troubling issue yet is the proposed Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Bill passed through the House of Commons, and is currently at the Committee stage in the House of Lords, the final stage where amendments can be proposed.

The extraordinarily wide-ranging and vague phrasing of the bill represents an attack on the right to assembly and the right to protest – akin to the incarceration of Michael Chessum the President of the University of London Student’s union. There are two especially problematic aspects of the bill – IPNAs and PSPOs.

IPNAs (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance) will replace ASBOs (Anti-social Behaviour Order) and can be handed to anyone over the age of 10, if the “respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person (anti-social behaviour)”. Anything could constitute ‘annoyance’ or ‘nuisance’ – as some have pointed out, it could even theoretically include “People who stare at me on the Tube or fart in the local sandwich shop”.

PSPOs (Public Spaces Protection Orders) are of strong interest to student protest movements, which is why it is surprising that prior to this proposed bill becoming law, there hasn’t been more coverage on it. The description of PSPOs is also poorly-phrased, as highlighted by Clause 32, which describes dispersal powers given to the police.

This means the police can remove you from an unspecified ‘locality’ for up to 48 hours, as long as the police officer present feels that members of the public in the ‘locality’ are being harassed, alarmed or distressed, or  that crime or disorder is occurring in the ‘locality’. Again, this implies that the police could ban protesters pre-emptively from assembling, encroaching on their right to protest.

The excessive powers used by UK police in the past few years were recently explored in a radio show by Novara Media, a media collective consisting of a number of further education students. In a discussion of the failure of the 2010 student movement against the marketisation of higher education and rise in tuition fees,Aaron Bastani, a Phd candidate at Royal Holloway, noted the effect of police brutality on protest movements.

Citing the cases of Alfie Meadows and Jody McIntyre, and the psychological effects of being charged with violent disorder if one complains against police actions, Bastani argues that this stopped a lot of people from continuing on with their protest movements. He notes that 15 of the 16 people charged with violent disorder were let off with no charge.

Elsewhere, the recent story, broken by the Guardian, of police trying to infiltrate student movements in Cambridge points to a wider and dangerous trend of censorship and an erosion of civil liberties, not just in student movements but all protest actions.