Feasts for the Future at Sustainable Earth 2018

I was delighted to represent ‘Feasts for the Future’ at Sustainable Earth 2018 on the 29th of July by leading an interactive workshop. I told the story of our first Feast for the Future, organised together with Regen, which brought together people from community energy groups across Devon to discuss better futures and alternative presents over a shared meal. I also described the work of our artist/carpenter Barnaby Stone, and the role we hope the creative arts will continue to play in the Feasts as the project evolves.

This was an interactive session, and since the project itself is so open, with the tendency to raise questions rather than answer them, we began to discuss my own research questions that have arisen since I joined the project in January. The first was the question of whether telling stories about utopia, better futures, or alternative presents, can be proven to be more motivating and effective than the scare stories we so often hear in the media when it comes to the environment and other sustainability subjects. The Sustainable Earth workshop was a great opportunity to get people thinking more about potential solutions and what the world could be like, and less about the grim projections that are based on the damage we have done and continue to do in the present. Could it be that a positive focus makes us feel better, and that people who feel good, do more good? Could it be that a negative focus makes us feel depressed and powerless, and inclined to give up?

I asked participants whether they thought the informal gathering of the Feasts, in contrast to more contrived networking events, might provide more fertile soil for the building of productive relationships and successful collaborations? This led to a discussion about our need as humans to communicate our deepest fears and desires in stories and anecdotes from personal experience, and about how these stories might flow more freely and authentically over shared food and drink. Trusting and cooperative relationships formed in this informal way might translate into the workplace and into community action.

As a historian, another question that intrigues me is whether or not research into the history of feasting, its varied practice and its historical impact/significance, could give us precedents that might reveal what the impact of our current project is likely to be (or has the potential to be). Many historical feasts have had religious significance, and this led to a discussion about different and potentially incompatible visions of utopia, and whether today’s Feasts for the Future could bring together people from across cultural and religious divides, helping them to work together on an agreed sustainability agenda.

Importantly, while we acknowledged the usefulness of ‘feasts for the converted’, we also explored the possibility for feasts that would reach out to include not only those already involved in sustainability but those policy makers, business communities and members of the public who have not yet engaged meaningfully with sustainability issues.I also raised the possibility that such feasts could build foundations for community kitchens, which would help communities transition to a more ethical and efficient consumption of food.

Could these feasts even help to alleviate loneliness and mental health issues associated or exacerbated by social isolation? One of our participants explored this idea in her picture below. She described how many people in her urban community live very close to each other but because they rarely spend time together, they are often lonely. The picture below shows of all of her neighbours getting together for a feast, organising a community garden on the flat rooves of the blocks of flats in order to provide the food, and enjoying much fuller, happier lives as a result.

It was important to talk about the difficulties and challenges of measuring the impact of the Feasts in order to answer the many questions raised. How can we track spin-off events, further feasts and changes in behaviour? How can we determine the extent to which the feasts led to various actions/benefits when there are so many other factors to take into account? We discussed the difficulties of gathering accurate and meaningful feedback data from public engagement projects like this, including the pros and cons of surveys and questionnaires, informal interviews and ‘hands up’ or other creative feedback methods.

The first ‘Feast for the Future’ focused on innovation in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in local communities because our guests were from community energy groups such as South Dartmoor Community Energy and Plymouth Energy Community. A key question of mine coming into this particular workshop, was whether people would think the Feasts for the Future model could prove useful to those in other areas of sustainability as well as in community energy. Participants were confident that it would. Coming from varied backgrounds in terms of their subject knowledge and experience, they were well placed to come up with exciting feast ideas in several areas of sustainability.

With the help of handouts; one on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and another listing the questions on utopia that we used to stimulate conversation at the first Feast, I asked participants to create an image, mind map, word cloud, plan or other representation of the kind of Utopian feast they would want to attend or might even consider organising. I suggested they choose one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to focus on, according to their own interests, knowledge and expertise, and think about who they might invite, where they might hold the feast, what they might discuss and so forth.

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

I also provided the following ‘Utopia Questions’ for further inspiration:

Is there such a thing as utopia? Whose utopia, yours or mine? What will England look like in 2100? Where is the world really going? Who will lead us to utopia? Can we agree on a utopian vision? Can the nations agree on a utopian vision? What is a utopian feast? Can talking make a difference? Can we eat and drink our way to utopia? Are we too late? What part will you play? Will technology save us? How much will utopia cost? Optimism, pessimism, realism, which one will you choose? What really matters? Will our children save us? Should our children save us? Which is easier to imagine, utopia or dystopia? Is human nature fatally flawed and doomed to self-destruction? If so, is there a way to fix ourselves? Will there be a police force in utopia? Ethical food, shipped across the globe – still ethical? Is it unrealistic to think the planet isn’t doomed? We know what needs to change – why doesn’t it? You’re magically granted one wish – what will it be?

Here’s another of our creations; a mind-map, based on the 4th UN Sustainable Development Goal, ‘Quality Education’. It shows how Feasts for the Future might be organised for educational communities at schools, colleges and universities.

At the end of the workshop, I invited the participants (these included fifteen researchers and academics from a range of disciplines and representatives from community organisations) to contribute to our project blog in terms of articles and recipes, and to email me with their ideas, and of course, any plans for future Feasts! All expressed an interest in getting involved and possibly holding feasts of their own for their neighbours, friends, colleagues and students, which was really exciting! There were also some great examples of other ‘feasts’ such as Eden’s Big Lunch, and the story of a one-off workplace feast where everyone brought two ingredients and together found ways of making them into a meal. There was also mention of other people who might be interested in the project at the University of Plymouth, Dartington’s Schumacher College and further afield.

I very much look forward to receiving further comments, ideas, feedback and recipes. Do keep them coming!

With thanks to the organising team at Sustainable Earth 2018!

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