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Stories of community transition

Nathalie Brown

We have a lot of fun in what we do in trying to save the world.

Nathalie Brown is a journalist living in Oamaru. She tells us how she first found Oamaru a “wondrous place”, and on returning decades later, an influx of artists and artisans had breathed new life into the town. She is involved in the Natural Heritage Society and is busily unearthing stories of people doing their bit to create a positive future.

Talking points

Oamaru became home 11 or 12 years ago, it really is the most extraordinary and remarkable place, I just love it.

I came back to Oamaru and found people in fabulous tartan kilts, with feathers in their hair…extraordinary people with wonderful life and I thought this is for me.

There’s something about the energy of the place that you don’t find in other places.

I don’t know if the people created the spirit, or the spirit created the people. I think the first thing was the built heritage. The establishment of the Whitestone Civic Trust in 1989 brought new blood into the town.

It was resisted strongly by some of the local people – you’re used to living in a certain way…”all these people dressed up in fancy costumes, who do they think they are?”

I was always socially aware, leftie, greenie, but I didn’t really have anything to pin it to.

The implications of climate change and peak oil…something’s not right, what can we do about it? what can anyone do about it other than throw your hands in the air and being in despair?

We have a lot of fun in what we do in trying to save the world…

There’s more than a lifetime’s exploring to do here.

I love encountering people in their workplaces and their homes, and talking to them about what gets them out of bed in the morning.

You have to be curious. You find unusual people doing extraordinary things.

What have we got, how can we make the most of it for everyone?

(Success in last couple of years?) Being here for my aged parents, and being at my mother’s bedside while she was dying – the most extraordinary, magnificent, wonderful , phenomenal experience I’ve every had.

(Activist?) Yes. In terms of getting involved in groups and committees. If something really gets me going then I’m going to pursue it – seeing where I can take this social justice issue of the workers in the residential care social places – I will be pursuing that.

(Motivation?) Compassion.

(Challenges?) Learning how to earn a living.

(Miracle? or smallest thing that would make the biggest impact?) Some kind of universal will to do something about the effects of climate change.

The nuns taught us, if you have a sense of moral outrage, then you can do something.

Who would have thought that apartheid would collapse? it was just one of those things that is. If we could get a political will at the next climate change meeting – we’ve stuffed it up, what can we do to keep it under two degrees? What can we do? Let’s do it. It would be a miracle, but it could happen.

What’s Oamaru going to be like in 20 years time? What’s the world going to be like in 20 years time – it could be fabulous. But on the other hand it could be absolutely dreadful.

(Advice for listeners?) Learn to meditate.

This series of conversations in Oamaru was prompted by discussions with Phoebe Eden-Mann following her OU Geography field trip to explore Oamaru as a transition town.

We are very grateful to the helpful folks from 45 South Television for the use of their studio.

community transition towns

Transition Oamaru

Gail May-Sherman

I would like to do the sorts of projects that 30 years down the line, if the world has gone to hell, people will say “thank god we did this”, and if 30 years down the line nothing has gone to hell and everything is fine then people will say “oh my god, I’m so glad we did this”.

Gail May-Sherman is chair of the Natural Heritage Society – the group behind Transition Oamaru and Waitaki District.

Talking points

There’s a group of people here who shared our ideals and really wanted to make a difference.

We need to interact with people – we need to be unified in times to come.

We are preparing out community for changes

Trying to get people to understand that lifestyles need to change and it needs to change pretty rapidly

Realisation that just organic farming wasn’t enough – we need skills

We don’t expect everyone to stand up and be warriors

Whether these changes happen or not, I’m want to able to say I’m so glad we did this.

Our criteria for a course in the Summer School is that it has to help our community either by keeping certain skills in the community, or by helping people reach out and become more connected to each other.

Music brings people together

in the Summer School, we’re not trying to convince anybody of anything, we’re trying to offer things to make sure our community has these skills. Whether these bad things happen in the community or not, it will still make our community a better place.

I would like to do something positive, regardless of what the future holds.

I grew up in Colorado – changes in the climate are much more obvious there than in New Zealand. When I was a little girl, if you planted a garden before the 1st of June, there was a really high probability that you would lose everything to the last frost at the end of May. By the time I left, if I hadn’t planted by garden by the end of April, I wouldn’t get a harvest. Because not only had the frosts left by the middle of April, but by the middle of June temperatures would be 37-40 degrees C, and they would stay that way for three months, with effectively no rain – and watering restrictions because of droughts, extreme droughts. Gardening became an entirely different thing. I have two children. I saw these changes happening to where I grew up. I used to read the newspaper…I saw what was happening with politics and finances, and I saw people around me becoming desperate, living amongst relatively affluent home owners, but still people were struggling, yet the prices of everything were increasing, and there was this tremendous pressure to keep buying. And then we learned about Peak Oil, and the US without cheap oil will be a disaster. So I slowly but surely felt like a person chained to the rail-road tracks and saw the train coming. I felt like myself, and my family, and everyone I loved was in terrible peril, because I couldn’t see any way of making where we lived a place that could survive the kinds of changes that seem to be coming on us. So when we decided to leave, I promised myself that wherever we went I didn’t ever find myself in that position – that I felt totally helpless.

The US is a place that’s on a track and I don’t see it going off – it’s going where it’s going, and I don’t think you can change it – I’d be delighted for someone to prove me wrong. But here you can make a difference.

Anywhere you go, you find the same mix – people who see what is happening and who are afraid and want to do something about it, and people who either don’t see it at all or see it and are afraid and therefore want to pretend it doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t want to speak for anyone, but I do believe that that there are a large number of people who simply choose not to believe it because believing it is too hard, too scary.

We can complain, or we can see opportunities. It behoves us to make the best of the opportunity, because that’s the way it is. Turn challenges into community vision and do something really valuable.

I would like to see Oamaru become a city where community members are connected, and know each other and take care of each another. Where we can supply our own basic needs – our food, shelter and clothing. Where our energy requirements can come from non-polluting – or at least, less polluting – more long term sources.

There are all these challenges about reducing our fossil fuel consumption, while not forcing people to go live in caves – a phrase I hear a lot “you guys just want us to go live in caves” – but that’s exactly what we don’t want. So we would like to see Oamaru use a lot of solar and wind power.

A town like Oamaru has very few energy needs that cannot be met through alternative energy sources if we put our minds to it.

The biggest factor is getting people to remember how to take care of each other – to me that’s the biggest goal, to get rid of that social isolation that is such a part of modern life.

Being old isn’t such a tragedy if you are surrounded by a community that cares for you. being young having children isn’t so difficult if you are surrounded by a community that cares for you.

Pick one project, Get people together even if only half a dozen, and get that project working and visible and strong, and you will get more people interested and eventually you will be able to spread your fingers into other pies. The school connected us to a wide variety of people with a wide variety of skills that have now taken off with other projects – so it helps if your project connects a whole lot of community members to begin with.

(Success?) Summer School, community garden propagation, food forest project. In the last few months we’ve taken on at least five new projects.

(Activist?) Kind of. When I think of activist I think of people who go with signs and protesting – and I do that from time to time. I guess I’m an activist but I do it more with an idea of cooperation. When I think of activist I think of people who are trying to make conflict with a particular source that aggravates them – I am not a very conflict oriented individual….I am activist that works through cooperation rather than conflict.

(Motivation?) the future I see my children having. I watched the Soylent Green dystopian vision when my son was about six months old. In the movie one of the characters is an old man who remembers life back when energy was plentiful and food was plentiful and there was flowers and trees, and it suddenly occurred to me that my son was that old man – he was the generation that was was very likely to be the last ones that would remember that kind of world. Unless we change something dramatically, by the time my son is an old man things could be very much worse. And now my daughter is about to have her first baby. Not only would I like my old age to be relatively pleasant, I would like their old ages to be relatively pleasant too. That’s probably the biggest thing that motivates me.

(Challenges?) Getting our community to recognise a need for a change in the way the economy works. We need to start realising that the emphasis on stuff has to go away. We need to learn to live without growing – you have to learn to live with what you have. The last 150 years of growth brought to us by the fossil fuel industry has been fabulous, but we can’t do that any more. We need to change our priorities so that rather than having more and more and getting bigger and bigger, we can live comfortably with where we are.

(Miracle?) Change in attitude. Having people recognise that we can’t keep exploiting things – we have to live in balance. If I could make the fossil fuels go away in a single whoosh then I would, but only if I could be sure it wouldn’t make everyone’s lives hell. That’s the problem with magic wands – you never know what the consequences are going to be. So I don’t want to say there’s one little thing, but if I could just make people see that we can still live wonderful happy lives, they don’t have to be tarred and horrible and miserable…without constantly getting more stuff. If I could get everyone to see that could be not just as nice but could quite easily be preferable as a lifestyle, that would be the wand that I would wave.

(Advice?) If you think that these issues are a problem then you need to start acting on that, it is time for everyone to act. You don’t have to start whole movements, but you need to start making changes, and you need to start supporting other people in making those changes.

This series of conversations in Oamaru was prompted by discussions with Phoebe Eden-Mann following her OU Geography field trip to explore Oamaru as a transition town.

We are very grateful to the helpful folks from 45 South Television for the use of their studio.

transition towns waste

Relationships of waste and people.

Marian Shore

What we’re really doing is resource recovery of people, we just happen to be using the waste stream.

Marion Shore is the energy behind the Waitaki Resource Recovery Park in Oamaru. She is also involved in many community initiatives, including restorative justice and Transition Oamaru and Waitaki District.

Talking points

Oamaru is known historically as the organic capital of NZ

We’ve achieved a critical mass of like-minded individuals

When I got here, there was no recycling, and I thought “that’s a good thing for me to do”

A workshop I went to by mistake…organics in waste streams…he said the most hazardous material in the waste stream is organic matter – that didn’t make sense to me. I know now that the organics breaks down – but that’s the problem…a chemical soup leachate problem.

I thought “that’s really simple, we’ll just change the system”.

The most profound thing for me was the potential to create significant social benefit using the waste stream.

Mentoring at risk youth, long term unemployed, PACT…creating a social hub.

We’re able to create the social benefit for no additional cost to the community.

What we’re really doing is resource recovery of people, we just happen to be using the waste stream.

Not having kerbside recovery is actually a good solution, it means that wasters pay, recyclers get benefits. Rather than subsidising people who don’t recycle, the wasters pay and the recyclers get the benefit from either buying responsibly or disposing responsibly.

We’re like a filter, significantly extending the life of the landfill by diverting materials

There’s been some serious challenges to our existence over the years, but the community responded – marches to support the park. There was a year that they were changing the waste plan, and we weren’t a part of that, but there were 2000 submissions in favour of us.
The primary goal is reuse of recycling, anything in the bins is just stuff we haven’t currently found a recovery pathway for.

It’s good to look in the bin. At one stage the majority of what was in the bin was big furniture. So we found a market for foam. So then we dismantled to wood, wire and foam – we could sell all of that.

All the time we’re looking at local markets. Because our material is hand sorted we have a much higher quality, and so a broader range of markets are open to us.

What is really frustrating is new packaging. You’d think that packaging would have come with a system to manage the other end – but there isn’t.

If it’s mixed it’s rubbish, if it’s separated it’s resource.

While there’s a lot more awareness, there are other things that are not helpful.

We divert about 86% of what comes on site from landfill (but this isn’t the community figure as there is also kerbside rubbish collection).

Ideally we’d have systems that would do us out of business – I’d love to be redundant. But we’re treading water.

There’s no vetting of packaging, especially in cheap imported goods.

Waste crosses boundaries, everyone has it, and intrinsically people want to do the right thing.

We really push respect

We have a high staff turn-over and I’m really proud of that…we pick people up from the bottom…

We’ve created an environment… as we lose social agencies…we’re able to replace that in a way, in the real world.

Everyone is just volunteers, treated the same. We’ve been instrumental in turning around persistent offenders – there’s a different way to treat people, a different way to behave and it’s OK.

Restorative justice – an amazing powerful process – often profoundly beneficial.

You never know where the trigger is going to to be – what is going to turn the light on.

If we can resolve things locally, it’s about relationships

Innovative solutions that don’t necessarily cost – that brings the social aspect in.

Most often the offender is also a victim.

As a society we need to retrain in how we address conflict.

(Success?) Stories of staff

(Activist?) Introvert activist

(Motivation?) We’re all part of the one – we’re all interconnected.

(Challenge?) Less and less support from central government for social issues.

(Miracle?) That we’ve come up with social solutions locally.

(Advice?) You’re not to small to make a difference.

This series of conversations in Oamaru was prompted by discussions with Phoebe Eden-Mann following her OU Geography field trip to explore Oamaru as a transition town.

We are very grateful to the helpful folks from 45 South Television for the use of their studio.

education transition towns

Resilience, education and community building

Phil K

Doing things differently is an effective narrative.

Phil K runs the Sustainable Skills Summer School as part of Oamaru’s Transition Town movement.

Talking points

Meet people where they are and give them one step forward.

One thing that they could do immediately. Not a hundred things about possibilities – one thing

Live minimally in a way that doesn’t molest the earth – in a way that I think is sustainable and responsible – I think that comes from who I am.

I live minimally because I really like it, there’s things that I love and find satisfying, I’m not about to lecture other people to live like this because it’s going to save the planet, or something they should do, I would say find similar things that mean something to you that you can do and feel are worthwhile and satisfying – then yes, find a way to do it.

Even a small way, I’m not saying that people have to radically change their lifestyle – there’s things that people can do fufil those feeling good criteria, that you can put into your lifestyle.

There’s a really good chance that things are going to turn to custard, and we’ll want people to grow vegetables and share food, and use less, less fuel – don’t know whether that would happen by necessity. I’m not sure if that will be forced upon people.

Logically, we are over consuming, and we can’t keep over consuming for ever.

I thought I was crazy, why isn’t wearing a suit working. I think society has got to change, but that is personal. Do I think society has got to change? Yes, because I think that is the way that is is going, but it’s not like I’m wagging a finger saying “you’ve got to change because you’ve got the wrong way and I’ve got the right way”.

Narrative is incredibly important – you end up living the story you tell yourself.

Doing things differently is an effective narrative.

Commodification of attention

The ethos of the summer school is that individuals and communities will have to be more self reliant. And we get there though community sharing.

Just teach one small thing you know really well.

Summer School offers people seriously going through the door a step in the right direction.

Looking for people to see a wider view from that small thing. A transformative journey.

The way that people change is incremental, so the best we can do is incremental. Whether that is enough, I don’t know.

A resilient community has lots of networks.

The best thing we can do is make non-trivial connections.

People in Oamaru make things happen – they put on events and then they go to them.

We talk about self reliance, resilience, community building – those are all things people can latch onto withou thinking it’s a foreign language or against my politics.

Resilience and community building is a language that connects.

Green, not Green Party – more like earth.

Not ruining things is not the prerogative of any one political party.

(Success?) The way that I live becoming increasingly sustainable.

(Activist?) No. I do this personally as something that satisfies me. I don’t want to push people. I’m happy to live this way.

(Motivation?) Without hippy speak: Love. This is an astonishingly beautiful world. Caring provides the motivation. The cure will come from loving something.

(Challenges?) Physically getting older. Creating reducing systems.

(Miracle?) Cassandra’s dilemma – could tell the truth but no one believes you. My magic wand would have people believe climate change and sustainability message.

(Advice?) Act on things you care about. Stuart Kauffman – work with adjacent possible, what is beside you, possible and feels right. Do one of them, then look for another.

This series of conversations in Oamaru was prompted by discussions with Phoebe Eden-Mann following her OU Geography field trip to explore Oamaru as a transition town.

We are very grateful to the helpful folks from 45 South Television for the use of their studio.