50 years of environmental campaigning with Lesley

Lesley has been involved in environmental campaigns and community groups in the North East for about 50 years. We caught up with her to find out more about her inspiring life.

Let’s start with ‘why’. Why have you devoted so much of your time and life to these environmental campaigns and community groups?

I’ve always been an “outdoors” person and cared about nature and wildlife, and I suppose that’s why I got involved. I studied for a degree in Geography and so (even then) learned a lot about the impact of humans on the environment.

Whilst I was working (mostly as a social worker, community worker and trainer) I didn’t have much time to get involved, although I was in a couple of Friends of the Earth groups (in one, we volunteered at the very new Centre for Alternative Technology, planting trees which have now grown tall). Then I became involved with Tyneside Anti-Nuclear Campaign, which was part of a (ultimately successful) campaign to prevent the building of a nuclear power station at Druridge Bay. In those days, climate change seemed a long way down the list, we were just starting to find out about it. Recycling was radical; we were unusual in our trips to the dump!

Fast forward 20 years or so to when I retired about 10 years ago and was much more aware of the threat of the climate emergency. I felt like this was how I wanted to use my time and energy (although I do have other bits of life too!) It seemed to me that the main problem was to get “ordinary” people to understand about climate change and the need to change how we live. Politicians and, even more, big business concerns have more power and more responsibility for the problem but they won’t take action if there aren’t votes or markets in it.

You helped to set up TWiG. What does it stand for and what does the group do?

I’d been reading about the Transition Movement (Rob Hopkins) and liked that it was local, practical and positive. It seemed like a way to engage with people about what was happening in a non-threatening way. I met Diane Cadman at a creative writing group and discovered that she lived near me and had been in a transition group elsewhere and was keen to set up another one. So we got a few people we knew together and set up Transition West Gateshead (also known as TWiG). Each local Transition group is different but they’re all about supporting local communities to become more resilient as we transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels. You can find out more here – https://transitionnetwork.org/

TWiG has now been going for about 8 years. For the first few years, we organised an annual Local Food Festival at Blaydon Burn Farm (whose owners are members of TWiG). We featured small food and drink producers and retailers, had eco information and activities and great live music.  We have also organised (and continue to do so) a number of events with the theme of reuse, reduce, repair, recycle – each slightly different depending on the time of year and the venue (we make sure that the events happen in different parts of W Gateshead as public transport isn’t very joined up round here). The events always feature a “Give and Take” swap table for unwanted items and then we have repair stalls, local community groups, activities etc. depending what’s going on at the time. Where possible we hold the events jointly with local community groups. We have various other activities from time to time – we’re always open to new ideas. We hope the impact of everything we do reduces carbon emissions, but also skills people up to be more resilient in preparation for the future. You can find Transition West Gateshead on Facebook or email info@transitionwestgateshead.org for more information.

I had a bit of a diversion from TWiG when my Council, Gateshead, made a Carbon Zero declaration. Lots of our members, but also other local environmental groups, wanted to know what this meant and how it was going to be implemented. In TWiG, we thought of having a Zoom forum (it was during lockdown) for community activists to communicate with the Council. This lasted for about 6 months but took a lot of energy and resources and due to a complexity of reasons it had to close down in 2021. This did mean that TWiG (and I) could go back to doing what TWiG does best.

You spend your free time volunteering at Gibside Community Farm. What is special about the farm? What is your vision for more local growing projects such as this?

My retirement also coincided with a move to establish a local veg growing project, now Gibside Community Farm. I was quite involved in the initial stages of setting the project up, but nowadays I’m mostly just a pair of hands one day a week. The farm grows organic vegetables on land that was threatened with opencast mining, so it’s a win-win. We’ve planted a huge shelter belt of over 1,000 trees (one of the things I’ve most enjoyed doing) and practise agroforestry. By supplying local food (including garlic, which is usually grown abroad, including in China!)  we’re reducing food miles and helping people to learn the skills to grow their own veg. You can find Gibside Community Farm on Facebook or email gibsidecommunityfarm@gmail.com for more information.

You’re also really involved in a local pension divestment fund. Could you tell us more about this and how to get involved?

Recently I’ve got involved with the campaign to pressure my Pension Fund (Tyne and Wear Pension Fund) to divest from fossil fuels. This is a huge fund covering this area and it invests in several fossil fuel giants including BP and Shell. We are arguing and taking action – demos, petitions, meetings, lobbying politicians, moving part of our pensions to Recyke y Bike. In November 2022, Gateshead Council agreed to write to the Fund asking them to review their investments in the light of findings about new Fossil fuel exploitation and the impact on 1.5 degrees .  This doesn’t seem like much but we hope it’s a lead that other Local Authorities will follow. We’re planning a series of events/ actions around Tyne and Wear on Fri 24 March 2023 on the UK Divest day of Action. You can find Fossil-free Tyne and Wear Divestment Campaign on Facebook or email divest.TW@assembly.org.uk for more information.

Your lifestyle choices speak volumes about your values. Some would say that is more than enough. Do you feel personal life decisions are important and if so, which are the most important in your opinion?

My partner Garry and I try to live as green a life as possible, mainly because we enjoy that life, but we’re not perfect. We’ve always grown some of our own veg, we’ve been vegetarian since the mid-70s and we rarely buy anything new if we can help it. We have insulation, solar panels, an old electric car. We still have a way to go to remove gas from our house and give up all dairy (although we have cut down). Thinking of the steps I’ve taken, I would think the 2 most effective ones have been making sure, as far as possible, that my money isn’t paying for fossil fuel exploitation, and giving up flying. About 25 years ago, I read an article about the contribution that aviation makes to global heating and realised that all my little token gestures were pointless if I carried on flying on holiday. My friends were shocked and everyone thought I was weird, assumed I was frightened of flying, so I’m glad to see Flight-Free UK taking off (while not leaving the ground). We’ve had some fantastic holidays by train and ferry, seeing places we wouldn’t have seen if we’d just flown from a to b.

Do I think personal life choices are important? I think all action, at any level (short of violence) against the Climate Emergency is important. We’re all part of the current system and the system’s part of us. If we as citizens and consumers change, then politicians and businesses will follow, and vice-versa. I’d like to live in a society where money and power don’t exist, but in the meantime I’ll settle for a world that’s drastically cutting its carbon emissions.