Tapping your spoke to turn the Purbeck wheel – and how Poole dolphins can help too 

Guest Post by Ian Curtis, support staff at the Environmental Change Institute, at Oxford University

“I know” she said. “But I want to be able to say that I was here”. The village hall was full. The first time for decades. 

In fact, it was bursting at the seams. I had gone outside to let newcomers know they wouldn’t be able to get in. Down the side alley was the young mother. Gently rocking a pram she was looking in through the window. I went down to tell her too. I want to be able to say that I was here…. it was the inaugural village meeting on low carbon. Over 150 people had come to save the planet. 

That was fifteen years ago this spring. Since then the county where I live now has over 150 green community groups. A very substantial local green economy is growing every year, community-owned solar is everywhere, and there are plenty of events, reports, conversations and media coverage. I’ve been lucky enough to watch and/or be involved with some of these initiatives and this article tries to come up with a few insights which might be of help to the fantastic people growing Planet Purbeck. Including why the Poole dolphins might have something so special to offer! 

Here goes… 

1: Make a Map!

We, humans, love maps. They are incredibly eye-catching. And they are an extraordinary multi-purpose resource. They provide a huge amount of information visually and very quickly. They tell a story. They’re easy to update. You can experiment with new ideas: where could we plant thousands of trees, have new housing, green transport, flood risk, where are our community groups? And maps join dots.

But most importantly maps get everybody to look at where they live. Indeed, that is the first thing we all do (“where’s my home?”). Then we pull back and engage with our collective shared place (and space) that is Purbeck. And maps are interactive, everybody can touch them, add to the map, whether it’s physical stickers and pins or online clicks. I can be one of the dots.

We made a big map, six feet by four feet. But it was a roll up, light and portable. So we took it everywhere. We hung it on walls. We laid it on the floor. It had tramlines so you could play snakes and ladders. Or business suits could be on their knees moving lorries, trains, cars and bicycles around new transport ideas. Using a satellite-style image made it look very real. There is immense creative energy among a group of people standing together sharing “that’s what we look like from above”. 

What we really wanted also was a big 3-D one. Imagine a Purbeck model, with one of the world’s largest and most stunning natural harbours (perhaps you’ve got one?). A local company with us had a small town-based Lego one. They used it to show how water flows around us, including scary stuff like floods. 

Whatever you make, make them beautiful. By local artists, crafts people, technicians, computer whizzkids: “This is us and we’re proud of Purbeck!”

2.  Have a tool box

Touch, feel. Handle, pick up. Fiddle, move. Alongside our maps, one of our most successful resources was a box of things. These “things” are great ice breakers, especially for new groups and new audiences. 

Most of the time – especially at events - you end up listening to somebody. Which is fine and important. But a tool box helps with talking and conversation. It also provides practical memories. 

We were mostly low carbon so this defined most of our tools: low energy lightbulbs (quite revolutionary 15 years ago), bits of solar panels, smart meters, insulation, recycled products, thermal images. But we also had giant dice and a string of knickers.

Planet Purbeck is obviously much more than low carbon, so as well as above you can add a lot more variety. They can be simple too: seashells, leaves from local tree species, recipes, bug hotel, a list of local green suppliers, local books, mini-wormery, etc.  Three particular suggestions: 

  1. Press cuttings: a powerful commentary from the real world (local and more widely). They’re up-to-date, dynamic, authentic, flexible – and cheap. And the vast majority of people haven’t seen them. We almost gave up printing our “literature”, flyers, etc.  Not just to be green but because they just became out-of-date confetti. People engaged much more with press cuttings.
  2. Multi-coloured strip of LED lights: Planet Purbeck will be successful because of the individual and shared efforts of thousands of people. It will not be about silver bullets but about joining dots and providing the energy to connect these dots. The modern cleantech of a strip of LEDs is a neat analogy. 
  3. Model of a brain: if you do nothing else with my scribbles, please remember this. Label one half: “LEFT - logical, analytical, methodical” and the other half: “RIGHT – creative, emotional, intuitive”. And on the back of your hand write “Two half brains make the whole world better”.

3: Use a Wheel

Quiz master, vicar, scientist, beer brewer, artist. Something really important happened at that low carbon village launch event in 2007. Unique contributors made it a unique occasion. And soon after there were more. Our local freelance journalist had the lead article on page 2 of the Guardian. The carpenter carved giant sunflowers for publicity at Glastonbury. We had street champions, solar geeks and bike repairers.    

A lot of us joining green initiatives worry that we can’t make a difference, that we haven’t got much to offer. Our experience over the last 15 years has been exactly the opposite.  

Because you can turn a wheel two ways. The ‘powerful’ push big heavy pedals. But everyone can tap a spoke. Our green challenges need solutions right across society and the economy – everywhere. We need accountants, artists, builders, farmers, lawyers, mechanics, shopkeepers, storytellers, teachers - and tea&cakemakers! We need people doing low carbon housing, healthy food, rewilding gardens, recycling, reducing pollution, repairing clothes, pond creation, tree planting, transport design.  Planet Purbeck needs to keep inspiring people to find their special spoke – one or more - and join with willing others. 

But there’s a second way that the wheel can help – the front wheel, if you like. Steerage of the process. Planet Purbeck’s strategic success will be enhanced by actively engaging with a conscious and purposeful process, taking the local society, environment and economy from A to B.

One version of such a process can be shown by these four quarters in a wheel: build awareness; create change opportunities; create supportive cultures; deploy solutions. Each of these quarters has several spokes which tie in with the above idea of different roles, skillsets and interests. For example, for any specific topic large scale or small scale (and by no means covering all the bases): 

  1. build awareness: campaigns, research, education, media, social media, local knowledge
  2. create change opportunities: new ways of doing things, new techniques, new technologies, new markets and consumer choices, policies and regulations, 
  3. create supportive cultures: organisers, connectors, community groups, teams, art&creatives
  4. deploy solutions: investment, grants, crowdfunding, logistics, manufacturing skills, supply chains, replication, scaling up and down

The nature of a specific project will affect the prominence and importance of different spokes. But the point of the process is to help make plans, maintain momentum and keep the wheel moving, with many revolutions.   

4. Be honest about the Tough Mud

So, as I mentioned above, we’ve got 150-plus community groups on my patch. Probably nearly 5,000 events a year, 80,000 attendees – and more than 50,000 volunteer hours. A powerful green economy, brilliant scientists, greenish politicians. Not bad!  But we’re still losing – badly.

This decade will be a rollercoaster, exhilarating and scary. In 2009, Sir John Beddington, the then Chief Scientist to the UK Government, suggested that by 2030 the world will be facing a "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources. This week’s Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum has – for the first time  - a top three of: climate action failure, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss. And locally, you will know about your own tough mud. 

The people of Purbeck – and everywhere else – are not going to wake up one morning soon to find we’ve cracked it.  Next year, in 2023, the world’s population will go past 8 billion. Nation states are stuck with today’s problems – even before Covid.    

So, take a deep breath and accept you’re playing at least for the rest of this decade. And that’s probably just to half-time.   

The exhilarating bit is “local” – like Purbeck - is powering along. Free from the shackles and inertia of nation states, communities across the UK and across the world are moving.  Re-creators are teaming up with re-organisers. And from my experiences, solutions are as likely to come from kitchen table chats as from science lab benches. 

5. Recruit the Poole Dolphins

An equally tough lesson from the tough mud is that while local might be a surging catalyst, “the few” are not going to cut it.  Playing with less than half a team doesn’t win.  

It is great to see that Planet Purbeck is buzzing with activity and supporters. But, with over 150 community groups on my patch, it still feels like we’re just scraping the surface. We need A LOT more people. Quickly. Secondly, think about the 4-quarters process on the wheel: you need as many as possible of these new recruits to be different from those who you already have. Extra skills, experiences, contacts, ideas. 

The best way to recruit is through partners. Planet Purbeck already has a great group of these. But now think SCALE and DIFFERENT. Looking for big fish as an outsider, I’ve spotted two: Poole Community Group (Facebook 18,500) and Poole Town FC, aka Poole Dolphins (Twitter 13,700). [For comparison, Planet Purbeck is fb: 1,360 and tw: 200]. 

Lets take a look at the football fans. Madness? But I’m writing this on the day that Sir Jonathan Van Tam - aka “JVT” – has just stepped down from his pioneering COVID public engagement, where he was renowned (indeed, THE champion) for engaging people through his football analogies. There is also a tweet today entitled “Could mobilising football fans be a key climate action”. At COP26, the biggest new participant to attend was global sport. In the UK look at things like Planet Super League and Pledgeball. 

What can football fans bring? Well, they live with some impressive insights on life: the unique role and opportunity of individuals within a team; performing at key moments, but also knowing when to pass the ball; coming back from losing; committed to crossing the white line again next week, regardless of what happened today; training, effort, injury, respect, anthems, cheering, pride, legacy, defeat, victory. The list goes on. 

Above all, football is about hearts and minds. Every player, every fan, every official wants to because they’ve bought in emotionally. Why does this matter for the environment? Because, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said: “Successful movements are built on passion, they aren’t built on guilt.”

And if Arnie doesn’t get you going, try this from the Queen: “It is as important as ever to build communities and create harmony, and one of the most powerful ways of doing this is through sport … I have seen for myself how important sport is in bringing people together from all backgrounds, from all walks of life and from all age-groups. …. This sort of positive team spirit can benefit communities, companies and enterprises of all kinds.”

On your doorstep, think about the creative opportunity between Poole Town’s two-legged Dolphins and the tail-bearing ones in Poole Harbour. (Sustainable Wareham and Swanage & Wareham Rugby Club have already blown their kick-off whistle, with a batch of tree-planting this month – Note: press cutting!)   

The real point for your recruitment champions is “go bold, go for big and different partners, go creatively”. You could get a surprise. 

So, that’s it. Maps, a tool box, a wheel or two and Poole’s dolphins – some ideas that might help. And one more, if I may. What Planet Purbeck has started is something about people re-imagining how they live with their surroundings.  It is about where you are now, where you have come from and where you are trying to get to. It’s a story and we need to tell more stories. About creativity, emotions and intuition as well as logic, analysis and method. And about a group of small green giants tapping their spokes to turn the wheel so that they can say “I was here”. 

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