I have broached the issue of climate anxiety previously and was inspired by the advice that one way of addressing our fears and despair is to take action. But what does taking action mean, other than separating our recycling and asking for takeaway coffee to be poured into our own reusable cups?
I spoke to Abigail Woodman and Nathan Miller, Chair and Trustee of the East London Waterworks Park project, about how they are taking action to create a better world. I learnt that joining others with shared values in a grassroots community project can also fight despair, build resilience, and inspire hope.
Celebrating a milestone
East London Waterworks Park is celebrating a milestone. The project has raised over half a million pounds via their Crowdfunder campaign, to transform an industrial site in East London into a community-owned natural oasis and rainwater-fed swimming ponds. This represents a significant step on the journey towards purchasing the land and creating a new bio-diverse community space.
It’s not hard to imagine the benefits for the community. Spending time in nature is good for us. Open-water swimming is beneficial for our mental health. But the unhealthy reality is that rivers such as the Lea River in East London, which swimmers flock to in hot weather, are polluted with raw sewage, carrying risks of disease.
The mere image of an inclusive, free space for people to meet, spend time in nature, and bathe in clean rainwater ponds is soothing, and the concept of green therapy runs through it. Nature’s needs and people’s needs will be given equal priority in this microcosmic brave new world. It is clear that the end result will be of value and support the physical and mental health of the community. However, as I listen to Abigail and Nathan, it transpires that the journey towards this goal is an awe-inspiring tale of community empowerment and collaboration.
From activism to world-building
The project originated with a campaign to oppose a planning application for an ex-Thames Water depot site on metropolitan open land — which should be protected from development unless in very special circumstances. Having successfully blocked the development application, Abigail and others from the Campaign for Protection of Rural England London and Save Lea Marshes decided to shift towards creating a positive campaign. In 2019, a public meeting was held to ask the community, "If we could do anything we wanted, what would we want?".
Abigail explains that this visionary, blue-sky thinking approach has become part of the essence of the project, and has attracted new people.
"Everything we have done with this project has been asking what would we like to do first, and how do we do it second. And that’s how we’ve created something quite unique and special".
As the group grew from a few people sitting in a pub to a project entirely made up of 174 volunteers, they adopted a system of governance called sociocracy, which suits organisations that want to self-govern with the values of equality.
“We are all volunteers and it’s quite decentralised. People have working groups, and each working group has an area of responsibility and is empowered to make decisions in that area. Anyone can get involved at any level.”
World-building, solar punk, and civic imagination
Nathan Miller tells me about the concept of world-building, or "creating an imagined world", which he has brought to the project. World-building originated in the writing of fiction, with authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien describing the importance of creating an "inner consistency of reality" to make their stories believable. Now, the concept is crossing over into our world, and it can be good for our well-being as well as our creative thinking. Civic imagination involves imagining what a better world might look like, and seeing yourself as an agent for change. An example of this is Solarpunk, a hopeful movement that has sprung from the sci-fi genre and imagines equitable worlds with a sustainable future. For Nathan, this crossover brings his interest in sci-fi together with a call to action that reduces eco-anxiety.
"East London Waterworks Park is a Solarpunk project in many ways. We are developing a vision for humans and nature coexisting in what is currently a fenced-in concrete-covered depot. This vision and the associated art has drawn people in, who volunteer to help build it with us. We used to think that 'the right volunteers just happened to arrive at the right time' when what has actually been happening is more a reciprocal process of worldbuilding the nature-connected world we want to live in, and aligned people joining us to help build out that vision".
I can see how this open-minded and creative approach liberates people to contribute and dare to create their own vision of the future. Abigail imagines that the initial dream has become an "organic being" that evolves and grows over time, with the people that get involved and doesn’t belong to anyone. The idea has a power and life of its own, and a feeling of serendipity runs through the project. Abigail shares her vision with me:
"What we want to do at its very highest level is create the world we want to live in. We want to create a new, biodiverse park, where nature is put first — which it isn’t in most decision-making scenarios. We want to show that the community is able to manage land and organise itself, and to reintegrate ourselves with nature, ourselves with land, ourselves with each other".
Building agency, connection and resilience
Just as Nathan found that building a better world was beneficial for addressing his own eco-anxiety, many have found that getting involved brings a sense of agency and hope, as well as opportunities for socialisation and connection. This is a stimulating, hopeful project, open to anyone anywhere. By helping to create a better world, we can help ourselves and each other.
Abigail is convinced that involvement in the project is an antidote to loneliness, despair, and climate anxiety.
"This is a way to say, 'I am doing something. And I am doing something substantial. And I am working with other people'. Knowing there are like-minded people out there and you can work together to create something helps. Hope is an incredibly powerful thing".
She and other key volunteers like Nathan are working phenomenally hard on this project, usually fitting it around substantial day jobs. I ask Abigail how she has been able to persevere, and she explains that the process has been overwhelming at times but embodies and teaches resilience.
"Sometimes, with any project, you just don’t know what to do, and just face an impenetrable brick wall. I see it like you get your little hammer, and you just start chipping away at the wall. And if you can keep chipping, the wall will collapse. And it does collapse, it always does, but you just have to keep chipping away".