Warning bells have been ringing regarding Climate Change for over 30 years now. There are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide but none so predominant, this being primarily the consequence of burning the planet’s stocks of carbon-based fossil fuels so heedlessly since the Industrial Revolution. Some experts hold that this human activity has not significantly affected the climate at all or, at the other extreme, that we have set off a chain reaction that remedial efforts can no longer influence. Either way, global weather systems are becoming increasingly chaotic, and whatever the cause we still have to plan to adapt to the consequences. It should also be observed that whatever we might be doing to the upper atmosphere, there is a miscellany of harmful pollutants at ground level that still need urgent attention.

Another more imminent crisis is that the modern consumer-driven, global economy – dependent on economic growth and powered by all this fuel – is itself no longer sustainable. The near-collapse of the global banking system shows how vulnerable the super-systems by which we are organized and controlled have become. We will be keeping a watching brief on the complex interrelationship between environment, energy and economy in The Herbarium, in what will surely prove a rapidly changing landscape.

Meanwhile, ‘Transition Herbal Medicine’ is all about herbal medicine’s own contribution to the quest for solutions. We are grateful for the inspiration lent by the Transition Town movement – based on the ideas that individuals within their local communities can address and make a real difference to these problems by asserting greater responsibility for themselves, fostering a process of relocalisation, and reducing environmental impact. It’s at this level that we’re most likely to be able to learn how to consume less without it all being doom and gloom – there are genuine positive outcomes to be had as well. There is more, of course, so do please look at the Transition Town website (www.transitiontowns.org) and also check what Transition activity is going on near you.

So, what part are herbalists going to be playing in this new low-carbon, environmentally responsible, relocalised, community-based habitat? Quite an important one, we’d guess, if we grasp the nettle. Inevitably our ideas are formative, but will firm up as theory becomes practice.

Restoring and adapting our knowledge base

Herbal medicine’s great strength is that it remains an effective and viable medicinal therapy using the most basic technologies, with minimal demand for energy or external supplies and resources. We need to synthesise the best of the ‘old ways’ with the best of modern knowledge and skills. We need to return to making our own medicines for ourselves with low-energy processes based on organic, locally grown herbs. (This is in sharp contrast to the globally sourced, industrial processed herbal products that projected legislation would compel us to use). We need to turn aside from the exotic imports so familiar on our dispensing shelves, and revitalise our understanding and use of indigenous herbs. This is not just a case of reviewing the knowledge of the ancients, but in exploring herbs as a local resource we reconsider them in the face of changing patterns of health and illness.

It also has to be said that mainstream herbal medicine has become debased of late by the pressure for us to work in a more doctor-like fashion, diagnosing according to orthodox syndromes, and treating according to evidence derived from scientific research – as opposed to traditional knowledge. This has demonstrably lowered the ceiling on what can be achieved with herbal medicine, and we urgently need to re-skill (right now, let alone in the future!) according to vitalistic principles and holistic perspectives.

Fortunately, these are all readily achievable objectives. Herbal medicine is blessed with a huge archive of relevant recorded material and thankfully, here and abroad, there are plenty of experienced practitioners who have continued to work as the custodians of herbal medicine as a living tradition.

Herbalists as a community

Current projected organisation of herbalists, like so much else, is based on centralisation of control and increasing bureaucratisation. First, we must work to arrest this flight in exactly the wrong direction or, if needs must, simply ignore it. Instead, we would be better organised in small groups of neighbouring practitioners who work in close harmony to maintain and enhance our skills base, share medicines and resources, assist and support each other, and celebrate together. The originators of The Herbarium have already been working in this fashion for some time. As a learning curve it has not always been plain sailing, but nonethless productive in all areas, growing in effectiveness, and enormously rewarding.

We are in danger of thinking of such collectives only in terms of practitioners associated with one particular stream of training or the ‘style’ of one pre-existent professional association. We really must put these professional jealousies aside and view herbal medicine as a whole. We must also acknowledge that, particularly at the extremes of very rural and very urban environments, there exist considerable numbers of lay herbalists who we must also engage with, support, and have the humility to learn from.

Herbalists within their local communities

Central to Transition Herbal Medicine is the acceptance that we can no longer treat our job as the mere seeing of patients, but must also start working within our local communities. What exactly does this mean?

First and foremost, the everyday habits of basic self-care that used to be part of a successful household’s knowledge base have been all but lost. Herbalists can help restore this, not just by teaching the appropriate remedial uses of plant medicines, but also, for instance, by teaching good home nursing and first aid. But let’s not be over-concentrated on cure – a routine element of our consultations is to advise on diet & lifestyle, and we need to help spread these primary principles into the community at large. In short, we need to advise, encourage, teach and lead others to become more self-reliant where their own health is concerned.

We should also assist our communities in re-engaging with nature and the use of plants as a valuable resource. The initiative of setting up and using community herb gardens has already started, many herbalists already conduct ‘herb walks’ on local public land, run ‘potion clubs’ for young and old, and so on. We need to learn from these formative experiences and work to spread them. Because of herbalists’ interest in nature and tradition, we often have a broader range of skills to offer – beekeeping and wool spinning, gardening, wild foraging and woodcraft, producing our own food, drink and entertainment, assisting with community formation and group dynamics, giving advice on organics and sustainability and so on. These surely go into the community pot as well.

All this would not ring true as an exercise in sharing if we were not also recipients. Growing, gathering and producing herbal medicines are time-consuming and very hard work, difficult to sustain without help, and we should not be too proud to ask. By the same token, no individual can ever be completely self-sufficient – we too will need the knowledge, wisdom, support and resources that a vibrant local community can offer us.

Changing patterns of health and illness

What is likely to prove the greatest challenge to 21st century herbal medicine is the treatment of acute conditions – something that we are no longer known for, is no longer taught, indeed in the present climate is actively discouraged. Without this we cannot take our place in primary health care, where we will clearly be needed. Regardless of other factors that inform the transition process, we are moving rapidly towards an age where antibiotics are no longer effective – whilst herbal antimicrobials, and the conservative support of the human immune system, still gain in effectiveness. There are many other areas in which one anticipates the decline of allopathic treatment of self-limiting conditions, with little more than herbal medicine to fill the breach. Fortunately, there are a few herbalists who have made it their business to continue working in acute medicine, and their experience can be augmented by useful texts, and the sharing of information internationally.

There are other areas – for instance, childbirth & neonatal treatment, treatment in extreme old age and terminal care, life-threatening and in-patient situations – that most herbalists have limited experience of or access to. Nevertheless skills in all these arenas do exist, which can be taught and augmented.

One also has to anticipate changing patterns of health & illness in a transitional world. Herbalists have already proved themselves more than able to adapt to the extraordinary changes of the century past, so this should hold no fears for us. We have been treating a population with an immoderate and poor quality diet, a polluted environment, little exercise, superficial relaxation, reduced sleep and that most modern of phenomena, excessive stress. These are mainly consequences of the over-centralised, energy-rich, consumer-driven mass culture that is surely drawing to a close. Despite the privations in its wake, we might even look forward to assisting people who are able to practise better self care, are becoming leaner and more robust, less stressed by work and environment, and happier in themselves.

Herbal medicine within the larger healthcare community

It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen to the NHS or the availability of drugs. It’s unlikely that either will remain ‘free at the point of access’, be able to sustain anything like the present level of activity or effectiveness, or easily adapt to transition. The biggest problem is that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most globalised, energy greedy super-systems of all, and its products almost wholly dependent upon petrochemicals. There is one amusing prospect, albeit in a somewhat radical scenario, that GPs of the future may have no choice but to resort to locally sourced plant medicines in their prescribing – in which case they would do well to consult with the experts! Nevertheless one hopes and prays that orthodox medicine will neither collapse nor fail to regroup – hopefully by cutting all the red tape, and then concentrating on what it does best – which, coincidentally or not, is usually concerned with things that no-one else can do.

What will happen to everybody else in complementary & alternative medicine? Which nutritionists will manage if they have to change their focus from supplements to home-grown staple foods? Where will aromatherapists source their essential oils? Who amongst the homoeopaths will make their own potencies? What fate will befall TCM & Ayurvedic practitioners, reliant on an imported materia medica? Surely there will remain a place for everyone with a modicum of medical knowledge if they’re prepared to step up to the plate and adapt.

The ideal is that thing which we’ve never entertained in an over-competitive society – co-operation within the health care community – allopaths, herbalists and complementary practitioners alike. Perhaps this may prove more viable in a relocalised environment, where communities may simply insist on it. Before leaving this slightly utopian vision, we are all so often guilty of forgetting the role of nurses – in a transition environment they may well be the ones that lead this sort of integration.

Lastly, with medical treatments as a diminishing resource, attention must be diverted from cure to prevention – not the prevention envisioned by the pharmaceuticals of taking pre-emptive drugs indefinitely, but the promotion of robust and resistant good health. This is and always was the mantra of herbalists, and a set of ideas that once again has its time.

A bunch of carrots

One of the complaints about the process we’re exiting from – the centralised control of herbs and herbalists (along with practically everything else) – is that it was ‘all stick and no carrot’. It could too easily seem that the new austerity we are both apprehending and recommending really doesn’t sound like much fun either. In most respects this is probably true – the consequences of the current crises will inevitably include poverty and starvation, general privation, climate-generated disasters, competition by brute force, social injustice and acts of consummate folly. But out of crisis rises opportunity – the best of human nature is to insist on getting every bit of good to come out of the bad. This is not just theory – one example in the UK, in living memory, is that out of the horrors of WWII rose the camaraderie and community cooperation of the ‘war time spirit’ – which remains amongst the most cherished memories of the generation that went through it. It’s when we have our backs to the wall that we’re often at our best.

One senses a small but growing phenomenon amongst ordinary people that an ancestral memory is being rekindled by the current doom and gloom – reflected in a yearning to return to a simpler, more people-friendly existence which, if we can’t quite recall as a tribal existence, is certainly accessible to our imaginations as the village experience of a not-so-bygone age. Of course, then as now, we will still need organisation by areas, regions and nations, but when these interfere with our everyday lives only as much as is needed to protect our security and to serve a common good, we seem to be at our happiest.

It should be no surprise that the mindsets, lifestyles and workstyles of traditional, indigenous herbalists hold them uniquely ready and able to work to these transitions. Historically herbalists are always at their best when they’re pioneering – breaking new ground to plant new seeds. As much as anybody we’re able to see that if humans are going to survive the destruction they’ve caused they must remake their relationship with the planet as one of harmony. The biggest carrot, and the one that allows us to dream our dreams, is that we might first have to learn to live in harmony with eachother.