MCFly co-editor Arwa Aburawa has mixed feelings about the “What if… Manchester was as sustainable as Havana?” event at the Manchester Museum on Thursday 14th June.
First to speak was Nadine Andrews of the Transition Network. She started off by looking at the general principles of the transition movement (spiritual fulfilment, social justice and ecologically sustainability) and also mentioned some research she is carrying out which explores the value of the local economy in Manchester. The most interesting point she raised was that, according to the Centre for Cities, Manchester is the most unequal city in the UK and also that if Mancunians spent just 1% more locally in terms of their food shopping they could contribute £22.6 million to the economy annually. With that in mind, Andrews said we need to explore new business models – not in an inward-looking, survivalist mentality but in terms of getting more bang for our Mancunian buck.
Next up was Liz Postlethwaite, who we have interviewed in-depth here, She talked about her experience looking into sub/urban agriculture network in Havana and how it operates. She spoke about the changes that Havana made following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s which meant they lost huge economic support. In these difficult circumstances, Havana managed to launch an impressive agricultural revolution which was not only lead by the masses but also supported by government policies. People got trained up, communities became self-reliant, cut waste and took ownership of their food production which normally meant organic food on the cheap for all.
Whether this model is replicable is the million dollar question says Postlethwaite, although spending time in Havana and talking to experts there suggests that Manchester needs to come up with its own unique solution to the sustainable food question. Next up to deal with the ‘What if….’ question was Emily Morris of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, and I think her admission that she knew very little about Manchester summed up what wasn’t so great about this event. There was very little said about Manchester – my co-editor may insist that there is very little to say - but there wasn’t a genuine effort to engage with the question. Given the time constraints and the fact they were trying to get information across about Manchester and Havana, I wonder if it would have been better not to pose such an ambitious questions and then effectively sideline it.
By the time Morris has whizzed through the special set of circumstances that led to sustainable agriculture in Cuba (one of which is that Cubans are more used to participatory politics than the British) there was no time to talk about Manchester. Still, it was interesting to hear how life expectancy rose after the crisis in Cuba and that one minister lost 14 pounds in weight due to food cuts – as she notes, she’d like to see a British politician lose weight due to the economic downturn in the UK and really show that ‘we’re all in this together’. She also hinted that there are tensions in terms of environmentalist championing green strategies in Cuba and those who see the current mode of operation as temporarily necessary and open to change once the right opportunities come along.
The final speaker was Tyndall Centre climate scientist Kevin Anderson. Anderson started off by arguing that although he was supportive of Manchester become more like Havana, he was troubled by concept of a greener, more sustainable ‘city.’ He argued that boundaries are too permeable and things like waste and water are too widely connected to make it possible for a city to be sustainable in isolation. More interestingly, he talked about a tension between the concept of sustainability which he noted is long-term and participatory, and dealing with climate change which he remarked needed coercive action right now.
Anderson said that we are so locked into certain behaviours and our physical infrastructure that we need legislation to start taking our choices away. Not bad legislation that we don’t need but good legislation that sets real, enforceable standards in the way to consume and choose goods. So as well as the bottom-up thinking around sustainability, he argues that as we have abjectly failed to cut our emissions, we need legislation to help us move away from a choice-based society. He added that the ingenuity shown by the Cubans also makes him hopeful that we have the scope for change within us.
Overall, an interesting event. None of the speakers over-ran significantly, however, by the time the floor opened to questions people started slowly making their way to the exit. One way the organisers could have avoided this energy lull would have been to get people talking- either at the start of the event or after the speeches. It was also rather ironic that the top question on their feedback form (for which they should be praised) was about ‘connecting’ people. Still, I think that lots of other people left the event with a lot more questions then when they first came in (not necessarily a bad thing) but not many answers. For example, do we really think that Manchester would ever be willing to learn and embrace radical food growing policies, which forgo economic gain, before a devastating crisis hits the city?
- Manchester Climate Monthly #5 out now (manchesterclimatemonthly.net)