Report from Schumacher Conference, Bristol

Transition Farnham member, Robert Simpson, recently attended the Schumacher Conference in Bristol.

It was a new style conference, chaired by Jonathon Porritt, with multiple discussion and debate sessions followed by similar practitioner workshops sessions.

The overall theme of the day was, as the advertisers like to tell us, that “Less is More”, and Robert spent the day finding out whether we really can live better by consuming less.

I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what the answer was, but you can find out more by reading his report, below.

Bristol Schumacher Conference 2008

Notes on a day spent learning that Less is More and trying to answer the question Can we really live better by consuming less?

It was a new style conference, chaired by Jonathon Porritt, with multiple discussion and debate sessions followed by similar practitioner workshops sessions.

The keynote lecture, 350ppm CO2 & the Quest for Human Satisfaction, given by Bill McKibben focused on the 100 months left before the positive feedback loops triggered at the 350ppm threshold become irreversible.  Call to prioritise “fire fighting” with globalised political agitation culminating in Day of Action on 24th October at start of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference.  McKibben asked that efforts to envision a “better world” be subordinated to this immediate imperative to achieve political action on climate change mitigation.  He referenced campaign website and the potency of digital networking to deliver a global message about 350.  His other theme, the quest  for human satisfaction,  focussed on the “how” of “how do we change our way of being” and need to develop and deploy the insights of ecopsychology.

Four participating facilitators Rob Hopkins, Ann Pettifor, John Naish and Eugenie Harvey then had five minutes apiece to sketch their discussion themes for the following sessions.  I ended up hearing Bill McKibben discussing The Quest for Human Satisfaction with Paul Kingsnorth and Simon Hooton all over again (I had intended to hear Andrews Simms and Solitaire Townsend discuss Consumerism and Sustainability are like Chalk and Cheese but found myself in the wrong council chamber).  Paul Kingsnorth’s website is definitely worth a visit.

In the first part of the afternoon I joined the practitioners of Transition Bristol to do an Unleashing of the Collective Genius of Communities using the Open Spaces technique.  Dividing into thematically selected groups, our group had then to subdivide to discuss “How much less can we do with?”  My suggestion was that we can’t do without functional ecosystems; that we were at risk of losing the biological complexity/richness necessary for functionality and with simplifying/impoverished systems there would be increasing need for human intervention.  The strand wasn’t picked up, another time around perhaps.  Do visit for open spaces online.

I really enjoyed the next practitioner’s workshop, led by Claire Milne of the Bristol Food Hub Using Food to Reach Beyond the Usual Suspects. Very different to my expectations: all about transforming peoples’ relationships with food to play a positive role in both communities and environmental sustainability. Claire enthusiastically described the hands-on workshops and campaigns. She fielded challenging questions about food security and food sovereignty in the context of trade with developing countries. (Refer to work of Prof. Jules Pretty on modelling sustainable local agriculture for the developing world.) We learnt about the Bristol Grow Fund that brings gardeners together and funds gardening workshops with schools; also learnt that Bristol may soon have a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) project. Find out how to use bicycle power to make the best smoothie possible! Visit

My final discussion & debate session was with Rob Hopkins Engineering the Transition to a Sustainable World. He stressed the interrelatedness of Peak Oil & Climate Change, but without detail. Suggested that high oil prices have driven us to depression; that this is the first ever depression underpinned by an energy crisis. He emphasised the massive need to de-carbonise and explained the various Transition Town strategies promoting inclusion and openness: mentioned the schools programme on You Tube;  the engagement with local businesses to asses their vulnerability to peak oil; engagement with local landowners etc.  He talked about the keystone idea of resilience;  how highly he placed the market gardening profession; that the London allotments used to produce 45 tonnes per hectare and quoted David Fleming on localisation.  He sees the Transition Town movement as a catalyst that empowers communities through practical action eg. tree-planting, food directories, garden share schemes, skilling up to powerdown, solar panel clubs, energy descent action plans, creating a plan B to the local LDF.  Though a question from the floor made it clear that he did not know the Sustainable Communities Act was not mandatory on Local Authorities, but only adoptive.   Visit

Useful websites from the various stalls around the venue:

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