Krakow, Poland 20-22 May 2010. SURE, a pan-European initiative for sustainable urban-rural development concluded its two-step program with a conference to explore how at policy, regional, commercial and local level the people of Europe could connect with the challenge of sustainability and to respond in a way that European society can adapt and thrive.
The conference was given its own stark reminder that facing climate change increasingly means dealing with extreme weather. As the rain continued to flood rivers, twelve were reported dead in the north of Poland. The floods blocked attendance of several delegates. Sustainable development may have been seen earlier as a green “nice to have” or a moral obligation to “tread lightly on the Earth”. At this conference however, there was a seriousness I have seldom encountered before: the growing understanding that we must begin to move rapidly to a sustainable way of life or face dire consequences.
The conference attendees, including rural development groups, European MPs, and two representatives of the Transition movement, worked in world café form (simply described – dialogue in small groups) to identify sustainability challenges in food supply, energy supply and social equity and demographics.
The ultimate aim was to produce a statement to urge the EU, businesses and citizens to rise to the challenge of climate change, energy depletion, social disparities, globalization and demographics.
I could discern that rural groups throughout Europe have several concerns about trends that run counter to sustainability: rural areas are losing their vitality and cohesion as services are reduced and centralized. The availability of cars since the end of WW2 has meant that people travel from their local area to their place of work, to shop, for recreation, and for essential services. Industrial scale agriculture and commerce now out-competes local food production and people close down shops and move to the towns. Services like post offices and local shops close down too.
From a resilience point of view, this gives cause for concern. Traditional methods, despite being regarded as too burdensome for us today, carry with them a vast body of knowledge of how to create food and shelter on far less fossil fuel. As we face the inevitable change to a lower carbon economy, these skills and knowledge will be invaluable. The Transition Towns approach of honoring our elders and reviving old practices is a good example of how this can be tackled.
There is also the loss of the cohesion that comes from people in a town or village just simply not getting to know each other. Facing sustainability challenges at local level is far easier with people you know and have built up trust with.
There seems as well to be a good-intentioned but misguided idea that cities provide an answer to sustainable development. Focusing attention on making cities sustainable (most efforts seem to be to remove fossil-based heating and electricity supply) takes energy away from rural development, which has the ability to provide low carbon food and fuel supply as well as offering a vast pool of knowledge and skills.
There are initiatives going on that offer hope. A field trip later in the conference presented the KOLPING society that works to promote Catholic Christian values and crafts and handicraft. Kolping in Poland are looking forward and raising capabilities around small scale solar installations and promoting knowledge of traditional handicrafts as a pool of competence for the sustainable future.
We were also privileged to hear about the Crown of Northern Krakow association, which has engaged some 36 of the 42 local associations in activates to drive social cohesion, starting with a citizen’s survey asking what they would like to happen in their area. They have developed a local logotype, now on some 20 of the region’s products, and they set up historical cycle routes and walking trails. They are proud to show off a local agro-tourism farm.
Connect to Transition, Cheltenham, UK, is an initiative founded by Wendy Ellyatt, working to revive the spirit of community in the town. Currently, some 1000 members are engaged in groups based around the themes of “go green”, “buy local”, “develop skillsspace” and “build community spirit”. The connect initiative bears most of the hallmarks of a transition initiative, but has grown out of the need to create community cohesion rather than an awareness of the challenges of Peak Oil and climate change.
We heard as well from several initiatives to provide local areas with electricity and heating from wind and solar power. And they are working. As one delegate put it “we remind our customers that the sun does not send us bills”.
As the conference progressed, I realized the scale of the challenge the group was undertaking: taking the voice of their respective organizations, from 14 countries, to craft a clear, concise message to citizens, EU, businesses and civil society to start the transition to resilient sustainability. It is a massive undertaking yet badly needed. The current story of austerity, based on rather abstract financial notions does not reflect the situation most ordinary citizens see today: we have fossil fuel supplies, well-educated and skilled citizens, with a legacy of well thought-out infrastructure from previous generations. We in Europe HAVE the capability to feed and house all citizens with dignity, even if our supplies of fossil fuel are restricted and the climate throws all kinds of challenges at us.
The final session brought all texts together to be hammered out into a final draft. In a long plenary session, words were weighed, calls for action added, thoughts were formulated. We are now waiting for the final linguistic editing before signing and presenting to the European Parliament.
The Transition movement is about local action, and one could wonder what I was doing at that conference, but in a way the Krakow declaration IS local action. It is action from all the rural networks, the transition towns, the local action groups etc., in sending their voice to Brussels and throughout Europe to call for us to come to our senses, and abandon Business as Usual before it abandons us. The result may just be a more human, equitable, pleasant place to live not just for us, but for future generations.
It is my hope that the declaration is translated and made available throughout Europe in a way that citizens, local action groups, business associations and others can sign and present to their networks and authorities. I will be keeping you updated on progress.