In today’s fast-paced, consumer-driven world, it’s no surprise that one of the things changing fastest is the climate. Heightened temperatures, rising sea levels and unpredictable natural disasters are all symptoms of a much wider problem, with a potentially devastating effect. But an overwhelming and oftentimes hopeless-looking reality does not require a quiet acceptance of doomed fate. Which is where organisations like Transition St Andrews enter the picture. Started in 2009, Transition St Andrews is part of the wider Transition Network. Since it began in 2005, the Transition Network has spread to 50 countries, with communities all over the world helping to create a more promising future. Transition St Andrews focuses on the themes of Smarter Travel, Sharing, Repair & Reuse, Local Food, Climate Know-How & Action, and Green Spaces & Wildlife within both St Andrews and the wider Fife community and aims to promote more eco-conscious living through community engagement. Alistair Macleod is the project manager at Transition St Andrews. He sat down with The Saint to discuss the current climate crisis, as well as what can be done to help prevent it. The Transition Network itself is just one of many groups focused on increasing awareness and efforts to be more sustainable, but it still has its own individual strengths. Macleod said, “I don’t think we’re that different from everyone but the Transition town movement was looking at resilience. Building resilience to big stresses that could come from fuel shocks or economic shocks or environmental shocks.” He added, “We have an approach that enables the most amount of people to do the most amount of work in this area.” The people that Transition St Andrews work with come from all sorts of backgrounds with varying and diverse viewpoints. With the student body of the University of St Andrews at its fingertips, Transition St Andrews doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of such a valuable resource. And students have proved instrumental in some of Transition St Andrews’ programmes. “We’re always inspired with, I guess, the talent. That enthusiasm for really bright young people, bright young minds that have ideas for new approaches and vision for change, and giving those young people the opportunity to explore new ways of working. Creative thinking is a real key to what Transition’s about, enabling them to take action to put in place their ideas and taking them on. I’d say that the majority of our projects come from students who over the years have tried things out, through the Transition sort of group started projects with very little funding, and then these maybe developed or we’ve maybe been able to to get funds which have paid for a worker even. And then that has then become a programme of activity that we’ve run for ages. So the gardens, the Bike Pool, Reuse, all our big programmes have all come from students and have all started with very little funds or just a bit of support from us,” Macleod explained. And while people of all ages are interested in protecting the planet, young people have been at the very forefront of the issue, being some of the most well-known voices in the pro-environment movement. According to Macleod, it’s a heightened sense of anxiety and frustration that is driving this engagement. He said, “We see that young people in every nation, in every culture, in every locality are aware of the issues and are really scared. And a lot of the time we know within our student community there’s a lot of anxiety and concern and that is manifesting itself as anger and frustration. And quite rightly, but also there’s that strength and vision for a different future as well, knowing that there's something better that’s possible and not being afraid to explore that. Whilst young people have always been the voice of change throughout forever, right now there's a very strong commitment to the change that's needed for the environment, for the future of the planet, because if we don’t do it we know that our future is not good.”
Such a pressing issue can seem a daunting one to tackle, which is why it’s important that sustainability is both accessible and approachable to as many people as possible. That starts with an open-minded and welcoming approach to those who may be skeptical about the sustainability movement, or who aren’t quite sure where to start.
“As humans we make decisions which aren’t always logical, they’re subconsciously driven, and so there's always going to be those areas and problems. Everybody, I think, within our group, within our network, we try not to hold people to blame or castigate them because they’ve had to take an option or made a choice that was maybe not totally aligned with what we know we need to do. Whether that's... it could be buying stuff, or taking a flight, or whatever. We have to live within those limits. We can’t blame each other,” Macleod said.
He added, “It's about the person having that knowledge but also a desire to sort of do things differently, and the desire can't come about by a stick approach. It has to be a want and a direction of travel that is encouraged.”
In other words, the road to sustainability should be made as painless and inviting as possible. Macleod used the example of the University of St Andrews’ VegSoc to illustrate this point.
He said, “I always think of a good example when I first joined the university, and working with VegSoc or Vegan Soc there, it was quite doom and gloom. It was very much focused on animal welfare and animal rights, and it was quite... they didn't have a great membership and they didn’t... I hope they don’t mind me talking about this, but it was, you know, it wasn't the most popular stall at the, say, Freshers’ Fayre. And then over the years they gradually started running more cooking events and demonstrating how food, how vegan food, plant-based food, can be made tasty. And cooking together was a great fun activity and suddenly they were getting 150 people along to a weekend cooking event. Cooking together, eating together, celebrating food and having fun. And actually enjoying the food they’re making.” Macleod continued, “You've got to sell it. You've got to sell the solution in a way that’s driven by a desire, and bring people along with it by giving them good options.” And options should be more than good, they should be an easily accessible part of daily life, almost seamless in a way. This effect can be seen in halls of residence at the University of St Andrews, where plant-based food is made accessible on a daily basis. With the more eco-conscious option so readily available, more people may be inclined to take it. Macleod said, “We used to have, ‘We want Meat Free Mondays.’ Right we’re just going to put more macaroni and cheese on the plate. And macaroni and cheese, as much as people love it, having that every Monday might not be the real selling point for a Meat Free Monday. In fact, it’s not that low carbon either. But now our cooks within the halls of residence are being trained by plant-based chefs. They’ve got a better repertoire, they cook really good meals that are plant based, and they don't need to sell Meat Free Mondays because every- day plant-based food is on the menu, and it’s great tasting, and more people are eating it because it's great.” Importantly, these are efforts which everyone needs to be involved in. From the individual, to the community, to the decision makers. And while it can feel like an impossible task, pushing for change can in fact yield results. The recent protests on 24 September are an example of this.
Macleod said, “We need the decision makers to be on board, but it's the communities that kind of drive the decisions and make the decision makers change their minds, or raise it at Parliament. And we saw that just on Friday. Our community turned out to say, ‘We’re gonna draw a line in the sand’, and we got the decision makers and our elected representatives in front of us, and we were able to listen to the things that they were going to do on our behalf. And it was a challenge to them to then take that away, and we know that those elected representatives are going to hopefully, well we've seen it in the past, that they have used that action to speak to Parliament and speak about why change is needed. And that's what we want, we want to give them that agency to go and represent us and make the highest change. So I’d say definitely, as an individual, you do have the power and you do have an important role in doing this. And those communications you have, those conversations you have, and actions that you make all have a really important role.” But despite all that has been done so far, and the potential advances to be made, optimism still seems out of reach. Macleod certainly thinks so.
“It goes up and down, I think on a day,” he said. He added, “I probably haven’t been that hopeful in a few years. But on a day I can be very optimistic. If I think about it too much I do get quite worried.”