Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Kitchen Table Sustainability

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SFU City Program lecture

Wendy Sarkissian talked about the new book she and four others have written. You can download of the first four chapters of “Kitchen Table Sustainability” for free or order a copy, if any of this grabs your attention. I must admit I found it a bit difficult to grasp the subject and the death of the battery on my notebook did not help. I am working from scribbled notes and hope that I can do her presentation justice.  The presentation was video recorded so will be on the SFU City program web page eventually.

All of us, she says, feel a bit overwhelmed because we are facing a huge problem – climate change  (and that is just one aspect of sustainability) – and very little seems to be getting done about dealing with it. As individuals we may have made what changes we can but obviously individual actions are not nearly enough. So how do we start to get people organised into action? This is known as “community engagement” – the idea being that if enough people all start getting together and doing something we can get a political shift. And the most recent positive sign of such change is the election of Barack Obama. One observer at the inauguration remarked “What impressed me was the suddenness of it” . Dr Sarkissian hopes that something similar can happen and sustainability will enter “normative value space”.

She cited Peter Newman’s Resilient Cities and the Western Australia Sustainability Strategy (2003) and Chet Bowers and David Orr who think we need to “rewrite metaphorical templates”. She said that we need to deal with “denial and collusion” and to do that we will need new stories to shift our thinking about how to change our world. It need no longer be taken for granted that environmental degradation, poverty and social injustice are inevitable. Arne Naess, who developed the idea of  “Deep Ecology” said,  “I hope we can have a conversation that we might not be the pinnacle of evolution”

The book is designed to provide a set of tools and support for community members: it has a model summed up by the acronym “Eating”

  • Education – so that we can have an informed  conversation. This may be thought elitist but no discussion is possible if there is no understanding of what research has now revealed to be happening
  • Trust – which is easily lost – but is needed to heal the expectation of betrayal
  • Inclusion – we are all members of the community, including children and we should not adopt “risk management” strategies that exclude those who cannot accept the basic principles
  • Nourishment – first we need to heal ourselves and our own relationship to the planet
  • Governance – unfortunately this is one of the least regarded but most important components. Currently the bureaucrat’s response is “Your input will be taken on board” but that means almost nothing happens. Jack Kornfield wrote a book calledAfter the Ecstasy, the Laundry and “there’s a lot of laundry that is not being done” ( i.e.  there’s a lot of reports being written but being ignored).

“We are just the community: we must help ordinary people get a grip on the problem. Only we can do it. We cannot leave this to the experts or the mandarins.”


Q –  Can you provide an example where the kitchen table made a difference?

A – Aurora in Melbourne was the last big greenfield development project. At the initial team development workshop a group of “cynical middle aged men” all experts in their fields solemnly built a figure to represent non human nature so that it could have a seat at the table. Community artists can have considerable impact. In Redfern the community eventually decided it would rather build something than argue

Q – The Club of Rome tackled population growth but we now seem to think that if we all adopt third world consumption patterns the world can accommodate a lot more of us because we would live at greater densities

A – It is not true that we do not tackle population issues in the book. Population control has to be part of the solution and the Club of Rome is increasingly being seen to have been right. Since we must transform our relationship with the rest of the world then you must think about population policy

Q – “Deprofessionalizing conversations” – how do we keep them going?

A – The Kitchen table is a symbol of a place where it is okay not to know all the answers. She noted that in Australia there is no professional training for planners in community engagement as there is in Canada.

Q – Two working example of this process: Be The Change Alliance and Pachamama Alliance

A – It is imperative to include all comers. The present processes of community involvement is “drab and insipid”. The “who on earth cares” initiative in Australia is another good example

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Posted in sustainability

2 Responses

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  1. Stephen,

    You do Wendy’s lecture a great kindness. Cuz I was there and it was the weakest lecture I have seen in some time, especially since the City program has a great track record in bringing in engaging speakers.

    Wendy meandered all over the place, from musings about the “team” that wrote the book to vague motherhood statements about sustainability and community engagement, then to her own childhood, finally summing up EATING in a way that gave no sense as to how this could merit a $700 two-day master’s training course.

    The crowd was bleeding out the back doors from about ten minutes in. A shame because it was a packed room of folks who understand the issues at a pretty high level and wanted some substance. A former director of planning for the City of Vancouver and his wife took off about halfway through. Personally, I think my time would have been better spent back in the Darwin lecture across the way that I mistakenly walked into upon arrival.


    February 6, 2009 at 11:42 am

  2. It seemed to me to help get the message out I should concentrate on the content and not the presentation style. It seemed to me that this was more a book launch than a lecture – and people seemed to like the memoirs of Norgate Park (which of course I have never heard of). Perhaps it worked as a way to sell books and tickets to workshops.

    I think she may well be right. But since I did not buy the book – nor will attend the workshops – it is hard to be sure.

    Stephen Rees

    February 6, 2009 at 12:31 pm

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