My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms. Continue reading

Theatre Peckham take two

Six months after the Royal Court brought two quite brilliant new plays to the Bussey Building in Peckham, V-Day London put on an equally exemplary performance of the Vagina Monologues and an accompanying play written in 2009 by the same playwright.

Yes, I know, visiting four plays in six months hardly makes me the connoisseur of a thriving theatre scene, but I hear the Royal Court are bringing their Theatre Local project back at the end of May with two brand new plays and more workshops which I won’t want to miss.


The Vagina Monologues performance was all the more impressive given that it was performed by a mix of trained actors, amateurs and doubtless all shades in between. I went to the wrap party on Saturday with my friend Bob – a source of fun for some of the actors given a certain monologue concerning a man called Bob – to talk to some of the actors. I spoke to one who lived locally and had never really acted before, chatting with another trained at Brian Timoney (at least I think that’s what she said!)

Since watching the play on Friday evening I feel as though my preconceptions have been unfolding in reverse; I arrived as a blank slate but left feeling surprised, as though I expected something more monotonous or strident. Today it struck me that the monologues were part of a common project with Theatre Local’s two plays, revealing the intimate thoughts of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The fun thing about the Vagina Monologues is that the people and their lives sounded deeply ordinary, but by becoming emboldened to talk frankly about their vaginas they became quite extraordinary. In Truth and Reconciliation, people who had been through extraordinary terror and pain spoke in a context that suddenly made them seem quite ordinary.

It’s a refreshing contrast with the more neatly structured narratives of plays that are out to tell you something in the voice of the playwright. I’ve high hopes for the next two plays.

Trip Stylist review: stroll around the City

A mere eighteen months after it had been given to us, Rachel and I went on our Trip Stylist day out around the City of London, “exploring hidden corners and treasures“.

We started out with brunch in a very nice little café tucked so well away that it made me wonder how anyone could find it without a tip. It was a very chilly morning, so a warm start was just what we needed. Rachel had mushrooms and a poached egg on soda toast, I tucked into a savoury pancake mountain.

Our brunch, just the ticket to start the day

We set off on full stomachs along narrow streets and past a few recommended parks in nooks and plaques in crannies to the Museum of London. I’ve cycled and walked past it innumerable times, that odd bunker in the middle of a roundabout, but never entered before. The exhibition design isn’t all that easy to follow, but it took us from the days of the hippopotamus wandering around the unpopulated Thames valley, through our hunting the aurochs to extinction, past Saxon and Viking and Roman and Norman invasions… well you get the idea.

A good mix of social history and Great Figures, including a fascinating collection of newspapers, pamphlets and placards from the turbulent early 20th century. I’d never heard of the Green Shirts, a left wing movement who wanted to end wage slavery and free man from the machine so we could enjoy more leisure time!

We then walked via a few other hidden treasures to the Guildhall Art Gallery, an altogether more establishment view of the world. The collection featured the usual heroic battles and religious scenes telling the ruling class version of English history, along with Victorian representations of classical scenes such as a large striking portrait of Klytaemnestra shortly after she committed her gory deed.

Our late afternoon stroll took us to the ruined church of St Dunstan-in-the-East, a lovely little haven and a reminder of the City’s deep and convoluted roots. Built in about 1100, it sheltered black death sufferers, was damaged in the Great Fire of London but saved from destruction by local schoolboys, expanded with designs by Christopher Wren, rebuilt again in the early 19th century, bombed out during the Blitz, and finally turned into a garden in the 1960s.

St Dunstan-in-the-East church in the City of London

From here we were advised to take the bus over to Whitechapel for our evening meal and drinks, but having time to spare we kept walking. It was surprisingly enjoyable strolling around an area I’m normally scurrying or pedaling through. The curry, at Tayyabs, was of course delicious, rounding off a fun day out.

The only thing I missed was a street map of the wider area. We occasionally hit temporary road closures, or got slightly confused, or needed the loo, or wanted a cup of tea. Knowing where to nip off to would have been a great help. A tool that could print off a map taking data from OpenStreetMap with just this useful info would be the perfect complement to the guide.

Theatre takes root in Peckham

It was probably the Peckham Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that cemented Peckham’s place in London’s art scene. Since then there has been a steady flow of journalists, hipsters and artists dropping in to study contemporary sculpture and relax in a trendy campari bar. But this art world has made little effort to reach out to, and integrate with, its host community.

So it was with some scepticism that I made my way to the brilliant Bussey Building for the launch of Theatre Local Peckham, the Royal Court’s second outing into a south London community to stage plays and theatre workshops. They’re hosted by Mickey Smith’s CLF art cafe, an unkempt converted factory normally home to drum and bass nights, community meetings and art fairs.

But I was wrong to be sceptical. The Royal Court’s artistic director spoke before the play of their Sloane Square theatre being exclusive, a place that many people might enjoy but would never visit because of its location. This emphasis on place ran through his talk: he wants the project to build a relationship in the community that will extend beyond the run of the two plays; the plays themselves being about how people live together.

Truth and reconciliation

The play we saw, by Debbie Tucker Green, was an unforgiving series of quiet – but sometimes explosive – confrontations.

A Rwandan woman repeatedly threw pleading questions at the man who killed her husband, challenging him to respond while he remained silent, shifting his body at first in unease, then in defiance, then unease. Three generations of a South African family waited for their enemy to appear, caught in a loop of concern about the hard chair while the mother stood apart, unable to sit until she got answers from the man who killed her eldest daughter twenty years ago. These and more stories wove around a dark, bare set of chairs and spotlights in the middle of the room.

This was not a play about the process of reconciliation so much as the pain and agitation that would form its backdrop.

I spoke after the play to Ivanno Jeremiah, who played the accused Rwandan man, about his background, the play, and what he thought it might mean to a Peckham audience:

Taking root in Peckham

I also managed to speak to Ruth Hawkins from the Royal Court, who had found my blog and invited me along to the launch. She put to rest any lingering doubt I had about this theatre landing in Peckham. Sorry about the sound quality, it was a noisy evening!

What I particularly like is the work with local schools. I spoke to a couple of local teachers – unfortunately the video is too noisy to be watchable. One, a drama teacher, told me her pigeon hole is “full to the brim with marketing from touring companies, theatre companies and site projects” trying to sell her tickets or workshops, so “it takes quite a lot to persuade us”. What sold this to her? The free writing workshops for kids being put in in their local area, connected to a play put on by a top notch theatre company.

Get down there yourself

The two plays are running until the 19th November, and you can pay what you like to see them. It would be great if this project was a real success, both for those putting the effort in and for the impact it might have on other arts groups looking to use Peckham’s cheap space.

Matchmaking open data geeks and local mappers

Two parallel worlds are starting to rub up against each other – open data enthusiasts and local activist groups. As Sam Smith has pointed out, embedding the power of open data in other worlds such as local activism has barely begun.

Maps are one medium where I’ve been trying to bring these worlds together.

Stepping into the ring

In the left corner we have people like Rob Hopkins, who has just written a great summary of Transition Town groups mapping wild food, local groups and visions of the future. This wonderful work makes use of relatively open tools like Google Maps, but (so far as I can see) they make absolutely no use of open data, and keep all of their data in their own separate mapping systems.

In the right corner we have open data crowds like OpenStreetMap, and after some prodding from me the Greater London Authority and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Together we have stacks of open data on renewable energy generators, allotments, recycling bins and more. But so far we haven’t made it easy for activists who aren’t super-geeks to do interesting things with this data, nor to use platforms like OpenStreetMap to store data they gather.

This is a great shame because both camps believe in the value and power of co-operation and collaboration.

Here in Southwark (south east London) I have found several local groups, the council and the Greater London Authority all trying to map local food growing, or at least interested in getting the results. Why not all work together on one open dataset that everyone can then use?

With OpenStreetMap it is possible for everybody and their dog to gather data of interest to them, and put it all in one place. That way you don’t duplicate effort, and you benefit from other people’s work.

It should also be possible to share the tools so local groups don’t need a resident geek to reinvent the wheel. Google Maps enabled people to make maps of local fruit and nut trees with ease; sadly OpenStreetMap has required too many geeky power skills to do this.

Touching knuckles

Which is why I have been working on the grandly-titled Sustainable London Map (ta-dah!) with much-appreciated help from another Sam Smith, Shaun McDonald and Andy Allan. This offers two tools for local groups:

First, easy access to the data we hold. My tool generates KML files with nice pointy clicky icons for all sorts of data related to low carbon power, waste, transport, food and culture. It pulls fresh data out of OpenStreetMap every hour. You can use these KML files on your own map or desktop programme, and you can embed the map itself if you don’t already have one.

Second, a customised editor (using Potlatch 2) that focuses only on the features that the map shows and that makes the presentation of all the OpenStreetMap data a little less overwhelming.

If every community group, charity and government body in London used OpenStreetMap then we would all be contributing to one definitive map instead of all doing our own thing ignorant of each other.

I have extended a hand to friends and contacts in my local Southwark who want to map food growing and renewable energy generators. Through various emails and pub meetups I hope they will begin to use the maps on their web sites (as Peckham Power have done) and to use the customised editor to enter new data.

I have also started discussions with staff at the GLA (who lead on Londonwide food strategy and projects like Capital Growth) and Southwark Council. To my slight surprise, they have been very enthusiastic about the potential of this work. If our tentative first steps in Southwark bear fruit, there is interest in rolling this approach out across London.

Pulling my punches

Given that this is a hobby, competing with a life and my Green Party responsibilities, I’m taking it all quite slowly. I know there are good reasons whymany groups will want to stick with the tools they already have, perhaps because they don’t have the time to make the switch, or because we don’t yet offer something they need.

But if you’re involved with any mapping exercises for local community groups and would like to find out how you could make better use of open data, or if you’re an open map data geek interested in helping bridge the divide with local groups, get in touch by leaving a comment below.

Last of the year’s “garden” work

After packed weekends at weddings and the Green Party conference, and with my fiancee away for a week, I’ve spent a very nice weekend doing those things I always mean to do.

Top of my list was to build a cold frame-come-greenhouse for overwintering my herbs. One salvaged broken chair, a trip to the DIY store and a few hours work later and I had fashioned the rather nice frame pictured opposite. It is sitting on our small balcony, the only space available to most Londoners. I’m not really sure which of the strawberry plants, rosemary, mint, coriander, broad-leafed parsley and the chives will survive the winter but at least they now have a cosy little added help.

In between ironing, cleaning, sit-ups and press-ups, I’ve also caught up on some of the debate following the autumn Green Party conference. No mention online of my motion introducing policy on Community Land Trusts being passed, but there is plenty of chatter on the Bright Green Scotland group blog and a very nice roundup from top blogger Jim Jepps.

Thanks to Jim I stumbled across Molly Scott-Cato’s defence of her motion on living within our means; I spoke against this, and have left a comment outlining my reasons. What is interesting is that she ascribes all opposition to “an influx of socialists who are understandably disillusioned with the Labour Party”. Now that certainly does not include me though I have noticed a growing number of self-described socialists, particularly in the Young Greens.

No, what I enjoyed about this conference was the growing number of people interested in policy relevant to our MP, MEPs, London Assembly members and councillors, not just to those who like to think in terms of broad political theory. After weeks of theory and politics crammed into my working day, evenings and weekends, some time with a hammer and saw has been very nice indeed.

Five years of mapping (and why I started)

According to my profile, today marks my fifth anniversary of OpenStreetMapping. When my friend Robert introduced me to this useless web site I wasn’t too excited. It only really showed about half of the British motorway network if you waited long enough for the very basic map to load, and editing, well, that took a lot of patience.

But curiosity and Rob’s enthusiasm got me hooked, and in August 2008 I organised my first mapping party. Here is a blast from the past showing us adding in the first coverage of Reading, England:

What followed were five years interspersed with many pleasant hours mapping parts of Reading and the surrounding countryside, St Albans, Criccieth, south east London, Hackbridge, Shrewsbury, Dumfries & Galloway and countless little excursions for walks.

As a keen cyclist, I particularly enjoyed entering some of the first London data to create a really useful web map for cyclists.

I’ve produced an “ethical map” of Reading, co-created a green map of Sutton (London), dabbled with various custom cartographic styles (e.g. ye olde, waterways) and most recently tried to create links between the community and government, first in Southwark and then across London.

What has possessed me these past five years? Well at first it was a friend’s enthusiasm; then it was an interest in all things free software / culture / data (at the time I was heavily involved with Creative Commons and started one of the first local arts projects promoting it); then I grew to enjoy the practice of walking and cycling around strange streets getting to know my local town or suburb in every intimate detail.

Most of all, I liked to beat the commercial competitors!

These days it is an automatic obsession to try and “complete” my local area and evangelise all the benefits open collaboration can bring.

Why so concerned about tax?

The chart below shows a breakdown of where my monthly gross income goes. I’m earning in the region of £30k/year, above the London average but not exactly an enormous sum.

One of my favourite adages is that British people want Scandinavian public services with American tax levels.  Raising taxes to tackle the deficit is treated as something approaching political suicide. But do we pay all that much in tax?

Put aside the fact that at 36% of the UK’s GDP, the current tax level is lower than under Margaret Thatcher (when it dipped to 40%) and much lower than the Swedish level of around 50%.

How does tax affect me? Well my income tax and council tax, which pay for all the basic public services, the roads, waste collection, public transport investment, welfare for people in harder circumstances and much more account for less than my rent, which pays for my half of a flat with my fiancee. My national insurance and pension contributions that are hopefully securing my retirement add up to much less than my rent as well. Since I don’t spend a great deal on clothes, cars, TVs and the like, I’m not too affected by indirect taxes like VAT either.

After all those taxes and basic life expenses, I still have 35% of my gross income left over for fun, holidays, personal savings and the like.

If I were to get pissed off about someone taking all my money, my first target would be the property market. Look how much money I have to spend just to afford a reasonable flat in an area I like! Then there’s my inability to afford to buy a home making my future less secure, low interest rates on my ISA bond and in the short term the likely rises in bus and train fares due to spending cuts.

Yep, all things considered I think tax is the least of my financial worries.

Anyone on similar or higher incomes who crows about tax levels should stop for a moment and think about the majority who earn less and stand to lose a great deal from public spending cuts.

Growing the Cossall Estate

After a week speaking at a digital rights demonstration, a free map meeting, a 600-strong Critical Mass and lots of electioneering capping off days at the office it was quite a relief to complete the weekend with a spade, wheelbarrow and several tonnes of soil. Growing Southwark, who I first came across last September, have been running a community food growing project on the Cossall Estate in Peckham.

I planted my broad beans at the event in February – here’s a pic of me with my pots – but this time the work was much more heavy going. Residents, Growing Southwark volunteers and a team from Veoila with 2 master carpenters worked together from Thursday-Sunday to erect a 18×1.5×0.6 meter raised bed. When I got there on Sunday they were filling them up with 16 tonnes of organic soil and soil improver.

Volunteers and residents filling the raised beds

Volunteers and residents filling the raised beds

After a couple of hours lugging large quantities of soil around in wheelbarrows, including racing back with kids giggling away in the empty barrow, I finally got to plant my fledgling broad beans. They look a bit sad here because I didn’t have any stakes to tie them to, or water to cheer them up, but I’m assured by growing legend Lesley that they “are looking good”.

My slightly sad looking broad beans

My slightly sad looking broad beans

Back home, after a lengthy phone interview with Benjamin Mako-Hill about my involvement GNUPedia (one of the predecessors to Wikipedia), I added the raised bed to OpenStreetMap, bringing my week full circle.

Tracing OS maps in Scotland

Way back in July – goodness, that seems a long time ago! – I went on holiday near Kircudbright in Dumries and Galloway, which is in south west Scotland (I had no idea either). The landscape is actually quite beautiful. Not breathtaking like the higher Scottish peaks, but almost deserted beaches with warm seas for swimming and really gentle hills for walks.

We went for a hike up one and I put some basic details into OpenStreetMap when I got back. But now somebody has scanned in a set of OS 7th series one inch maps from the 1950s and the results are very clear. Maps go out of copyright after 50 years so it’s fair game. I’ve spent a few evenings winding down from work by tracing streams, forest, woods, salt marshes and correcting the coastline. Given that the “no names” map style is currently very out of date, you can see what a difference it makes between this and this.

Now over to others to, you know, map every last burn and loch in Scotland!