Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White visited the Planet Local Summit, finding in its examples of urgent work around the world to foster being and acting locally a cultural turning towards nature as antidote to climate and ecological breakdown.
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Once in a while I’m fortunate to attend a gathering — truly in this case an in-gathering of a community — that is so warm and focused that my intuitive heart knows that this is a real crystallisation of the worldwide urgent work going on, and that this will be a big impetus for it to flourish, broaden and deepen.
Helena Norberg-Hodge, inspirational founder of Local Futures, the organising NGO, spoke in her opening address of the Planet Local Summit of all attendees being part of the ‘bacterial mycelia’ seeding the crucialness of acknowledging our local belonging. This felt a deep truth and, as I write and reflect, still feels the best take-home gift. I left Bristol feeling energised to return home (currently Cambridge) with many gifts, new and old connections made and refreshed, and a strong motivation to keep working at a local level. I returned specifically to co-host a public engagement event called Dear River, of which more later.
Planet Local – our need for connection
Helena set the term ‘localisation’ as the antidote to the twin threats of climate and ecological breakdown, happening at speed now in every corner and continent of our planet, and the death march of the industrial/economic system that capitalism has wrought upon the human world. By acknowledging, being and acting locally — in terms of fostering community, emphasising well-being, local food growing, and community care — including finance staying within our local systems, Local Futures describes localisation through these actions as “a cultural turning towards nature” and “an expression of our need for connection — both to others and to all living beings.”
This was the first post-pandemic gathering for me that I felt called to, due to both the high-profile speakers in-person and the sessions sharing case studies of specific local actions and issues. From Helena, Bayo Akomolafe, Morag Gamble, Iain McGilchrist and Charles Eisenstein to many other brilliant engagers, thinkers and philosophers, pragmatists, growers and weavers, the hall at St George’s, associated spin-off rooms — including the cafe/bar, and various rooms at the nearby Folk House venue, and The Tobacco Factory arts centre to which the summit relocated on day three — were all humming with conversations and ideas brewing and being dissected and unpicked.
The big evening conversation on the Friday, a much-hyped conversation between XR co-founder Roger Hallam and ex-Government Minister Zac Goldsmith felt almost a dampening of the enthusiasm during the day: neither seemed to absorb the energy of the gathering, and while they found a kind of middle ground around failures of policy, and the potential of coming bloody revolutions (and the history of previous ones), neither could really offer any threads to hold hope upon.
The community-building that XR and Just Stop Oil has created is hugely commendable and needs anchors and deep seeding across all levels of our societies. I recently heard about an elderly couple who watched Chris Packham’s incisive and timely documentary struggling with his conscience about being arrested for activism and using his powerful voice; and they are now inspired to act, in whatever local way they are able.
On the other hand, Goldsmith’s tale of woe and pressure from lobbyists, including in one notable case the National Farmers Union, against plans for environmental support he was proposing is simply insane, and needs calling out. This is the industrial death machine of chemicals, vested interest, power; the insecurity of the human mind, tragically, that has created this huge schism in a world with so much staggering beauty, potential, and constant flux and change. The next day, Charles Eisenstein’s words — “The idea that the change can happen with the right person in charge is inherently wrong” — reminded me of Goldsmith and Hallam, and also the pedestals and stages we create for leaders to stand on (and fall or get kicked off, because we’re fallible humans!).
Belonging in the human and the natural
It was a joy to hear philosopher Iain McGilchrist reflect upon the theme, both alone and in conversation with Bayo Akomalafe and then Helena. I’m struck by his phrase:
“We are here to respond to the values of the universe, both in belonging ourselves and as part of the human community; to develop and expand our relationship to the natural world, and, partly as a result of these two practices, to live within divinity.”
A one-to-one conversation with Iain became a beautiful engagement around the theme of grace, which is an enduring talisman for me to hold. I recommend Iain’s The Master & His Emissary for an erudite scientific dissection of the schism in our body-brain and how this permeates across human history.
Food and farming, and the systems that support them, was a key theme of the Summit. With another hat on, I’m a member of the team making Six Inches Of Soil, a new documentary on regenerative agriculture and new entrant farmers, which will be premiered at the Oxford Real Farming Conference early in 2024, so I’ve an interest here, as I hope we all have. It’s increasingly clear that knowing our local farmers and buying direct or from local farmers’ markets, with local supply chains, is vital to planetary health and soil-human survival and potential thriving.
Chris Smaje, smallholder, writer and food activist, based outside Frome, and Jyoti Fernandez, farmer, activist, and co-founder of the Landworker’s Alliance, are tremendous forces for good in this sphere. Both are making change, standing strong against big farm companies and food/meat manipulation and galvanising opinion.
It was refreshing to hear from Nelson Mudzingwa, a Zimbabwean farmer who has struggled to gather seed sovereignty and organic certification across his land and the African continent. By open source seed saving, his collective is developing crop resilience to climate change in their region. Words of hope from a country known for bitter political struggle. Farmer, former head of the Soil Association and now founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden chaired this session with passion and aplomb, though I found his constant allusions to connections across the CEO worlds, including Bill Gates, distracting and pretty irrelevant given the brilliance within this audience and panel.
Speaking from a new story
A day and a half in, however, I was chomping at the bit for news from really local actions, initiatives and community building from these isles. As a former Bristol resident, I know that this city is bursting with creative social enterprise and strong community efforts, particularly around peri-urban food growing and combatting poverty. It’s a gritty sprawl of communities, and I sadly heard there had been a stabbing that led to a fatality in a neighbourhood nearby on Friday.
I had expected to meet the Street Goat Project bringing their furry troupe up the steps of St George’s to engage with us all. However I found the answer in a brilliant presentation from three members of Frocal in the village of Forest Row, Sussex: in a nutshell, asking themselves “what it might be like if we all lived and acted more locally?” They gave examples of their success and failures and acknowledged that it was a work in progress, albeit a vital effort for these times. I will visit friends there and investigate shortly. Frocal feels like a really valuable and catalysing project.
Other takeaways for me include the theme of colonisation of the mind as well as land and countries and continents: Vandana Shiva in her pre-recorded video highlighted this, reminding us that just 600 men created the East India Company treaty (that our monarch signed and sealed) to sail off and colonise that part of the world. Anthropologist Darcia Narvaez picked up on this with her fascinating presentation on her work on Nestedness, agreeing “we are all colonised”, and how might we respond to that knowing? Her thesis continues in the knowledge of our connectedness to, and acceptance of, our heritage.
Keynote speaker Charles Eisenstein delivered a meandering wander through his response to the topic — “ I trust the deployment of the intelligence that my gifts will be useful for” — and concurred with the broader theme that we “need to speak to people from a new story”. He brings a wisdom to our human need to really acknowledge that “technology is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of what it means to be human” and that our “common goal is to rekindle our connections”.
Sadly, I had to leave after two days, and the third and final day of the summit relocated to another Bristol venue, and I suspect drilled down more into very local UK and Bristolian specifics.
What called me very strongly back to my locale was an event I co-hosted to celebrate water and river systems at this time of waking up to the sorry state most rivers are in, and specifically how they are being abstracted from, and our human sewage dumped within. Dear River was a locally-organised gift to our community, to meet the issue with creativity, grief, and space — space to gather, to listen, to respond, and to ask “what can we do?” After two days of deep stimulation at Planet Local and then this event, I suspect that asking this question is our fullest human response.
Find out more
The Planet Local Summit took place from 29th September to 1st October 2023, in Bristol, UK. You can find the full programme, find about the speakers and watch the livestream recording on the Local Futures website.
James highlights Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master & His Emissary (2009). You can find out more at Channel McGilchrist, and James shares his experiences taking part in and filming a retreat with Iain in a post for James’s Finding Blake project on William Blake: Exploring the Divided Brain.
You can read about the work of Water Sensitive Cambridge, the local organisation James has helped create and which organised the Dear River event that took him away from the final day of Planet Local, in this piece from Cambridge Independent: ‘We need to make the shift’: Water Sensitive Cambridge joins Accelerate Cambridge programme’s new cohort.
And Six Inches of Soil is the film James has been working on: “the inspiring story of British farmers standing up against the industrial food system and transforming the way they produce food — to heal the soil, benefit our health and provide for local communities.”
And here on ClimateCultures, you will find many other pieces by James, including his review of fellow member Susan Holliday’s book, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.