youPEC 2008 (Part 1)

YouPEC was a truly extraordinary and stand-alone experience for me- the 6 days encompassed many things both good and bad, although the majority were good!

The week started badly, in fact, it couldn’t really have got much worse: I forgot my suitcase.

Participants were expected to arrive by 3pm on Monday the 30th of June, however I had also enrolled on my annual 3 counties big band course which was up to, and including, the 29th– the concert was due to finish late that night.

Also, due to the lack of overnight travelling facilities on a Sunday in the UK, the nearest place I could get a train to London from, was Bristol.

So, thanks to my mum who probably sensed how important this was for me, offered to take me to Bristol as there was no other way of getting there. Immediately after the concert had finished we set off, completely forgetting I’d just watched my Dad load my suitcase into his car and driven the hour and a half home. (We were too busy consuming cherries and singing along to my ‘driving CD’ I’d compiled to keep Mum awake in the early hours of the Monday morning.)

Luckily, once again down to the kindness of my parents, we drove all the way back to get it, as I had remained tearful throughout my Mum’s assurances that I could borrow some of my God-mothers clothes when we got to her house in Bristol, and buy extra essentials along the way- the sustainable solution. Eventually though, vanity won through and we headed back to meet my Dad half way to retrieve said suitcase.

This was lucky because as my journey panned out there was no time for stopping to buy things along the way-however essential, I was on a strict timetable, and I would have arrived with little more than what I was wearing.

My journey had essentially started the minute I walked off the stage at the end of the concert in Tenby, but I really felt it had begun when I left the comforting confines of my god mother’s house, to get into a taxi at 4 in the morning; driven by THE biggest, widest, and as it turned out, coolest black man I had ever met. Just in case you were left in any doubt of his size, he was wearing a black puffer jacket too: just to emphasise the point.

He shortly dropped me off outside Bristol railway station, a familiar sight, although closed at 4 in the morning. Skirting the edges were various homeless people in sleeping bags on benches and the dim light revealed a few heads of tired Glastonbury-ites poking out of piles of bivvy bags and wellies. Unfortunately I managed to sit myself down next what turned out to be a drug dealer, frequented by “passing strangers” at 4am. To my relief after half an hour of not really daring to move or look up, the station opened and I soon found myself comfortably seated on a Virgin train bound for London!

I alighted at St Pancras, and wove my way over to the Euro Star platform, feeling very much as though I was in a Harry Potter book. Having never been to St Pancras I couldn’t believe the grandeur, and surprisingly, how chic it all is!

The experience of travelling on the Euro Star doesn’t even compare to flying; the waiting spaces are modern, beautiful and friendly (especially Brussels), the trains are stylishly and classically fitted out-and I, a mere country bumpkin in comparison to some of the passengers- felt particularly accomplished a) not to have been mugged, and b) to be sitting there reading a classified “communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament”, with the intention of joining the declaration group on arrival.

I was on my way!

I easily found my way onto the ‘economy’ train from Brussels to Amsterdam. It was full, with a variety of people and nationalities. I just sat and blandly looked out of the window, observing the speedily passing architecture and landscape. Soon enough I had company, a 30 odd black American man, dressed as though for the “colonies”! As I was looking out the window he said “Good day” to the back of my head, I turned resigned to a conversation I wasn’t keen on executing. It turned out that this man was diamond dealer! My initial response was “Are you joking? We’re not in a film you know?!” He wasn’t joking. Of course I offered to model his wares but he said he was more the person who committed the vast amounts of money on behalf of companies. I alighted that train knowing considerably more about diamonds than I did when I got on.

The calm atmosphere of trains and stations soon dissolved into mad panic as soon as I found myself in Amsterdam Centraal, the main railway station of the Amsterdam city. I proceeded to follow the bus symbol out of the station, across many a metro track, and around building works to find a bus to Castricum station, half an hour from Bakkum, the host town of youPEC 2008.

However, after collecting a number ticket and waiting a very precious 15 minutes (it was 2.30 by then) I was told there were no buses to Castricum- I had to get a train.

So back I went round the building site, across the metro lines, and eventually I got a ticket, found the right platform, and boarded a double-decker train (another asset Britain lacks) despite an offer of a handsome ticket guy, who said if he could he would take to Castricum personally! I would not have complained.

When I found the taxi rank at Castricum Station, I was stopped by two youngish men, older than me: one with knobbly knees, a large nose, sparkly eyes and wearing a lot of beige carrying a leather holdall; and the other with a suitcase twice the size of him, massive sunglasses, an eyebrow piercing and tight jeans.

“Are you going to youPEC?” the former asked in a French accent.

“Yes” I confessed, “How did you guess? Do I look like that much of a hippy?!”

Needless to say we arrived together, half an hour late, but much elated (especially me) , and went to join the proceedings in the sweltering “blue gym” outside the orphanage next door to the youth hostel that youPEC was taking over for the week.

To my dismay, after the long introductions, we immediately were sent to various lectures based on choices we had made online. As there were roughly 137 of us, we were always given a choice of 5 lectures to attend. I had chosen Martin de Wolf this time, on the subject of Population Dynamics-should we have kids?

I promptly fell asleep and every time I was startled awake I realised my nose was running, I also had a mother of a headache.

Of the parts of the lecture and discussion that I did catch I realised the enormity of the question, especially to governments and environmentalists. Should we really bring anymore people into such and overpopulated and unstable world? And who are we to stop people from doing it? This is something I write in greater in depth about elsewhere.

As the night went on and supper was had – a delicious vegetarian meal cooked by Pieter, the Dutch Viking, more on him later though- and the “meet and greet” was done, I began to feel increasingly awful. My nose was running, my eyes watering, my head and bones aching! And of course I was tired from the journey having effectively done an all-nighter after a 5 day music course where sleep is not essential or to be recommended, and then travelling overnight to get here.

As Nationalistic ties tend to, I gravitated, in my hour(s) of need, towards Sophie, also from Wales. She was in a girls dorm, despite all the others being mixed; something I would, under normal circumstances have zealously subscribed too.

So I joined her there, amongst 2 Turkish women, a Portugese girl who forgot her towel and shampoo, and a married Romanian woman with a very long plait and rucksack full of clogs for her mother.

That night I came down with a fever, tossing and turning, in fear of waking everyone else up: I did not sleep, and coughed and sneezed a lot. I woke up in a pool of my own sweat, feeling like my time had come.

Breakfast was a whirlwind of the most unlike-tea-substance-claiming-to-be-tea I’ve ever tasted; dense and fairly dry brown bread and muesli. Fiberific!

That was the least of worries though, by now I could hardly see out, my eyes and nose were flowing so freely. When you have the flu, in a humid foreign country where you litrully know no one, it is miserable! The meal and break times that everyone else was using to get to know each other and make an effort to start a conversation in, bypassed me completely as I had neither the energy nor as it turned out the power of speech. Not only did I look a bit odd: streaming from my facial orafices; I also seemed withdrawn and probably boring which demoralised me further! Plus, by now it was getting to the point where it was hard for non native speakers to decode my croaky voice with n’s that became d’s and t’s that became d’s- and I was meant to be a native English speaker!

Anyway, my first lecture was so unmemorable I had to look it up just now to be able to tell the subject, which was ‘The role of environmental education in consumption.’ I chose this as I thought I would be able to contribute something about peer education in the discussion. However, despite the promising write-up, the man seemed to be advocating not a slow down in growth, but replacing a consumer’s current consuming with the sustainable options-due to better education. It is at this point that one can argue that ‘sustainable consumption is a juxtaposition- a hypocritical term. How can consumption be sustainable was the argument brought to the forefront of the debate. In my mind I have reached a compromise. I would argue that to stay alive we have to consume a certain amount of resources; therefore we cannot ban consumption all together, however, this basic level of consumption can be sustainable (local organic food, raw materials locally sourced etc), justifying the existence of the term ‘sustainable consumption’ as more than inaccurate greenwash.

In my opinion, the term becomes defunct when the consumption levels reach above basic to comfortable, as there is no real need for this, only desire- it is a luxury. This is where, to reach a position of a sustainable consumption, you don’t just keep feeding the consumer with green alternatives so that the economy and their consumption continues to increase, you (the government, consumer choice etc) force the greener choice to be the only one, ousting the unsustainable ones from the market (by making them too expensive or undesirable) and reducing the level of luxury consumption as much as possible. Long term growth is not something the planet can handle or host, because the planet is not growing too.

Instead of consumerism, we advocate repairing broken things, spending less money and to stop buying unnecessary things, because they, and the planet, can sustain this lifestyle much longer than the previous one. The clue is in the words themselves: sustainable consumption- a level of consumption that can be sustained indefinitely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                 

 

 

 

 

That night a ‘cultural exchange’ was scheduled into our timetables- a 4 minute slot for each of the 29 countries attending to do anything they liked representing their country. Many countries handed out sweets and alcohol, with varying degrees of success, (the bowls of salted liquorice were promptly returned, untouched.) Pierre, on behalf of France, produced some smelly cheese from his leather holdall; Sweden performed their ‘frog dance’, a truly odd and slightly disturbing tradition; Germany taught us all to sing a drinking song that was meant to get faster the drunker you got; and us Brit’s settled for a good old ceilidh, erring on the Scottish side more than any but still, all we had come up with all day was each one of us mimics a typical accent (brummie, scouser, toff, welsh etc), we didn’t think that would fill 4 minutes so we thought we’d get everyone to queue up, demonstrating a particular British tradition. Instead we immediately organised all 150 (us + volunteers who were cooking and hosting etc) people into lines and encouraged everyone to have a go! If everyone wasn’t friends by now they sure would be by the end!

 

The next day I felt considerably better after a good night’s sleep- having said that, I was doped up on Paracetemol to keep my aching limbs at bay. The first lecture of the day remained the best throughout the whole week. It was popular too as it was presented by Chris Dutilh- an employee of Unilever- Holland’s biggest multinational company, owner of companies such as Ben&Jerry’s, Vaseline, Dove and Sunsilk to name but a few. Many people were waiting for the chance to pounce on a multinational employee- here voluntarily! His talk was coherent organised and obviously well practiced, it was also very interesting to see how such a large and potentially unfeeling company views sustainability. The essence of his talk was that Unilever takes sustainability very seriously because it affects them at every financial level. The main issue being the cost effectiveness of transporting large amounts of say, tomatoes, from Australia, to make pasta sauce in a factory in Finland when it’s being distributed in the UK or Spain. To solve this they either change the functions of old factories to suit the latest product or site new factories as close as possible to the demand of the product it’s producing. They have found this not only benefits their transport costs, it also acts as a good sales pitch to be able to say this was made in Britain , or Uncle Rob’s farm in Wiltshire (plus a cosy picture of Rob and his family) contributed the leeks in this tinned soup, which inevitably gains them more demand, proving there is no substitute for familiarity.

Their code of best practice apparently ensures that Unilever does take it’s responsibility to the environemtn seriously. But let’s face it, if that were really true they would not even be producing and selling products like Sunsilk shampoo, Cif an Surf to the mass market. The cocktail of chemicals that goes into a glossy bottle of Sunsliks best is harmful both to the user and to our waterways. Not only do the plastic bottles join the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (see http://theecologist.co.uk/pages/archive_detail.asp?content_id=1169 for more horrible information), but the scariest information comes in the form of an ingredients list.

A main component of Sunsilk is Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate, this is a cheap detergent used because it attacks greasy surfaces and is very corrosive- its used in garage-floor cleaners, car-wash soap, and engine degreasers!! Whether it gets in your eyes or not (now you know why it hurts so much!) the chemical can be absorbed through your skin, and collect in your organs, this is pretty bad because sodium lauryl ether sulphate is a ‘mutagen’- something that increases the mutation rate of cells- making it capable of changing the genetic information in your cells. Eek! Do not be fooled that their “code of  best practice” is anything less than a “code of good economics”. As Chris conceded to us, to them high energy equals low profit margins, therefore it’s as simple as that; it’s in their interest to use as little energy at every point during the production process as possible. I see it as no bad thing, if money really is what makes the world go round, let’s use it to the environments advantage to make people put their green-raving mouth where their money is.

You can be sure however, despite all this talk of money that Unilever is aware of our emotional needs. They assess a products appeal to a consumer by looking at a graph that puts ‘emotional needs’ on the X axes and ‘basic needs’ on the Y axes; Unilever traces their products value as a directly diagonal line between the two axes. I found that ever so slightly creepy, the thought that when deciding if they would start producing bottles of squeezy butter, they assessed the average human’s emotional needs, with the outcome that myself and others are apparently lacking squeezy butter in our lives, because it fast became their best selling product.

Unilever are also well tapped in to the likes of me and fellow environmentalists, classing us as ‘citizens’ rather than ‘consumers’, sounds good to me, but how do they know?

Well in all likelihood they are in a fair position to judge the human race as they provide us with many “essential” products in our day to day lives-not forgetting squeezy butter. Consequently they receive a lot of complaints from people across the globe using their products-therefore it’s likely they get to observe a good cross section of today’s societies in many different countries.

Unilever says consumers are self interested, concerned about safety, health, taste and price, they are also short term thinkers. Whereas citizens have a broader social interest, they are about waste, the environment and human rights when buying a product. They are also long term thinkers.

Much as I dislike admitting it, I would say Unilever is correct in it’s surmises, it’s also correct in saying that consumers make up the majority of the population, in all countries. This is why I feel schools and peer education are particularly key in influencing future patterns of behaviour amongst future generations. School should be the place that cultivates shrewd thinkers who are socially responsible people in all aspects of their lives. It makes perfect sense seen as schools are places where you receive an education about the wider world, encompassing anything from the weather, to war, to woodwork; you also make friends there, you eat there, and inevitably spend over half your teenage life in school; it has the potential to create waves of change at an impressionable age.

The final lecture of the 6 days, before we moved onto OpenSpace and more discussions, was given by Charly Poppe:- on the role of the EU in world food trade and the consequences of its involvement. This man, a coordinator at Friends of the Earth, was almost as drippy as I felt. He made a fascinating subject so dull and lack lustre I dropped off on many an occasion-at one point waking with a start as my chin hit my chest causing me to snort and be startled awake! His PowerPoint however, did yield some interesting facts.

Apparantly a large indicator that we are inafct in the middle of a global food crisis, is the fact thar over the last 3 years foos prices have gone up by 83% !! The poor (not quite sure who exactly ‘they’ are), spend 50-80% of their income on food; 75% of those living in extreme poverty live in rural areas; and lastly, that the majority of hunger victims in less economically developed countries and famers-something that could quite quickly become a reality in Britain too.

Here the problem cannot be solved with money because it’s a fundamental part of the cause; for instance, the EU offers subsidies to farmers to produce more crops to export, which puts up the cost of food locally and abroad because instead of the nearest farm supplying the nearest people, it’s selling the crop abroad, where they also have to pay more for it because of import taxes, and the supplying country has to import more itself to fill the gap of supply that its exports left! Last year alone, Britain imported 14,000 tonnes of chocolate-covered waffles from all its trading partners and exported 15,000 tonnes. The UK exported 20 tonnes of mineral water to Australia, only to bring back 21 tonnes, what’s the point?!

The other financial cause lies in the increasing costs of agriculture, as oil prices rise the price of fertiliser and nitrates rise accordingly. Whilst the environmental and financial implications of oil are being realised, man feels the need to produce biofuels. According to Friends of the Earth, biofuels are 20-30% of the cause of the Global Food Crisis, because they take land away from food production, hence the controversy surrounding them. Of course Britain has not taken this on board before totally going off in the wrong direction when it comes to the environment, seeking an easy solution to a complex problem; this time by announcing a 5% biofuels target by 2010, Britain has never moved so fast on an environmental matter, unfortunately it’s a misguided leap in the wrong direction, as introducing commercial biofuels to the mass market will never be sustainable.

And so this was the final formal lecture of the week, the second half of week was kick-started by……

 

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