Carolyn – Blackdowns EcoHub/Transition Group
“Ever since I came back to the UK from Belgium, my friend Terry and I have been saying that we should do something for the community. I realised that land in particular is really valuable, and if we want to build resilience, we need to build it on land, food, soil… all the things that are in a really bad state. Soil is currently one of the most depleted resources on Earth. So, what if we created the first CEC, an Eco Hub that would be part of the Climate Emergency Centre Network?
Terry runs a wholesale nursery, and he has been having problems with the rooting of plants; compost was quite poor in the first Covid lockdown and there have been challenges since the removal of peat, so although the plant was looking healthy on the top, the actual root system wasn’t very good. We had both been looking a bit into biochar because it can bring a whole range of benefits: sequestering CO2, reducing reliance on fertiliser, improving the plant health of green walls, so many things. Terry knew of a guy who made biochar retorts (Rob from Exeter Charcoal Company); there was one rusting in a field at the donkey sanctuary in Sidford and so we said, why don’t we try and get hold of that and do something? Farmers are burning the brush in fields, in open bonfires. But we could be using it to actually replenish the soil. So, we’ve got a polytunnel, a field, and the retort, and we’ve started to make the biochar. Now we are working hard to raise awareness about how biochar can be used.
There’s a guy in Plymouth University who has been leading the research on thermal green walls who we spoke to about how biochar can support the growth of the plants on the walls. This is a great solution for improving the resilience and efficiency of the old housing stock that we have. And now we’ve met a guy working for a building company in Exeter who is helping us to set up four trial walls. We’re going to see what happens when biochar is added. The results so far are extremely positive. I have had to introduce biochar to many people, but it is becoming more widely known. I’m getting people saying things like “oh, my husband was talking about this, or my daughter knows about it”. Some people are still unaware and may need more convincing, so the research findings will be important in showing its benefit in different contexts. The findings also need to be in small chunks with pictures to grab people’s
It’s shocking how many people think that the climate crisis isn’t going to affect them, so we need to do something locally to build awareness around what’s happening. Farmers in the Blackdown Hills and the older generation feel like they don’t have to make changes and will instead continue the way they always have. It’s a massive mindset hurdle, and the best way to tackle it is through planting seeds of change in people’s minds, little drips and drops going in different places with different events. All the work I’ve done for the past two years has been building awareness across local and national communities. We’ve just held a two-week exhibition in the local library called climate curious with local artists. Children from local schools created posters about what they think the climate is to them. Taunton has now become partners in the Eco Hub so we have joined a land CEC with a town CEC. It’s important to get people out of echo chambers, to mix people who are aware of the situation with those who aren’t – in one space.
Originally, I started volunteering because I was so angry about Brexit. I knew I have to channel my anger towards something positive. I’ve also got skills and contacts across Europe. I’ve done so many different things, so I can do something here locally. Before, I was in an environment with like-minded people, people who took the climate crisis seriously. It’s not necessarily the case locally. But I have always been involved in innovative and new approaches, so I don’t find the resistance and unawareness demotivating. It’s really not their fault. It’s a total lack of education.
The main challenge with the project is finding and reporting funding. The data, the writing, the reports… are very laborious, and only bring us very small amounts of money. I used to run conferences with 500 people and outdoor training sessions, but I have never filled in a risk assessment form in my life. Doing this now takes away from the time that I should spend working on the actual project. Also, the average age of the transition group here is around 75, so the majority have no idea how to make an Excel sheet. It is also difficult to find volunteers at the moment; with living costs rising, they need to go back and work. The only reason why it’s still going is because I stepped in as secretary. But I need to go back to doing some paid work.
The work that I do isn’t for me, it’s for the planet, for the soil. All my working life, I’ve only done things that I was passionate about. I’ve always taken on work that can push boundaries, that can do things differently. However, most of it was making a difference to people as opposed to the planet. Of course, people are integral to supporting the planet. If you’ve got people who are already fighting over toilet roll, what on Earth is going to happen when there’s no food? My whole aim is about building resilience through relationships, getting people supporting each other and moving away from the mindset of individualism. And I can already see resilience starting to grow through our biochar project.”