24 Apr 2007
Transition Values are Catching on Fast – from the Western Morning News. 23rd April 2007.
**Transition Values are Catching on Fast.** Western Morning News.
Original available here.
Geologists and environmentalists warn that the end of the era of cheap oil is nigh, with a change to the world’s dependency on crude likely to cause global upheaval. **Graeme Demianyk** speaks to the co-ordinator of a fast-growing movement, flowering in Totnes, that is adapting to this new world.
Rob Hopkins is optimistic. He paints a picture of the future where there has been a seismic shift in the way we live. But he is optimistic.
The permaculture lecturer is the author of a set of guiding principles that chime in with the hottest political issues of the day. It is known as the “transition culture” and it is a grassroots movement growing like topsy.
There is the long way to describe what this means, and there is the short way. The long way takes you on a journey away from economies sustained by oil to a more simple one where we are free of our “black gold” addiction. This is the “transition”. The climate change conundrum is central to these ideals. Low energy use means reducing the reliance on oilfields, so we reduce our carbon footprint in the process.
But in short, it is a rejection of modern consumerist largesse, favouring instead a return to genuine local communities and self-sufficiency.
Make no mistake, adapting to a world without oil is not as straightforward as turning your DVD player off stand-by. But Totnes, the first so-called transition town and a good friend of alternative lifestyles, could be a much happier, communal place as a result, so Mr Hopkins’ logic runs.
He said: “We have become incredibly disconnected from the people around us. The nature around us. This is because we have moved from being producers, to producers/consumers, and now we’re entirely consumers. The move back to being producers locally – be it food or sewing – is a hugely re-empowering, delightful process.”
Some of the more unsavoury aspects of modern life are underpinned by oil: “We are working longer hours than in previous generations, less time with our family, more overweight.”
A world without oil. It does not match house prices or global warming as a dinner party topic of conversation. So why worry?
Economies the world over are wedded to oil. Our daily lives are powered by the stuff, from transporting food to supermarkets to public services, frying a steak to food production. Barrels of crude have kept the wheels of the industrialised world turning for decades. This has chiefly been because of its ready abundance and modest price.
But the era of cheap liquid oil, we are being told with increasing concern and peer-reviewed reason, is over. Pessimists reckon we have five years until we reach “peak oil” – the moment at which half the world’s oil reserves have been used up. After this tipping point, oil production nosedives and our main source of energy starts running out. The end of the world might not be nigh. But with few energy alternatives, life post-oil could be very different. The ultra-pessimistic talk of famine, pestilence and war across the world.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Warnings over oil shortfalls have been sounded countless times before and commentators argue replacements will be found. Optimistic oil companies, governments and economists predict we have longer to wait for peak oil. Perhaps 20 to 30 years away.
But Mr Hopkins – and those in about 20 other Transition Towns that have formed in the wake of Totnes – believe now is the time to plan their “energy descent”.
“This is a concept of resilience,” he explained in a pub in the centre of Devon’s most bohemian town, with, predictably, Joni Mitchell on the stereo.
“Look at the 1930s. It was much more resilient. If there were shocks from outside the local town, the town provided enough locally. Now we have nothing at all, which we saw with the lorry drivers’ protest. The supermarket is only enough for three days.”
Rather than moan, Mr Hopkins reasoned – as was often the wont of the environmentalist – why not take the initiative and prepare for the inevitable?
Formed in September last year, Transition Town Totnes already attracts between 200 and 400 people to its regular events. More than 750 people have signed up to the e-mail bulletin.
Transition Town Totnes hosts talks and films, such as The End of Suburbia, the 2004 documentary that is spreading the peak oil message in much the same way as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has done for climate change.
Self-sufficiency is the watchword. Peak oil commentators reckon that in the low energy world, long-distance shipping of food and local transport policies will need to be dramatically revised. Mr Hopkins made comparisons to Totnes in the 1920s and 1930s when the strong rural economy supported itself. Today, resources were imported by way of lorries rattling down the A38.
A long-standing environmentalist, he explained there was a big social dimension to what Transition Town Totnes did: “It gets people looking to the town again and talking to people again, because we are going to need each other. It is often said you can live next door to someone for 30 years and you don’t know them. That’s been the luxury of oil. But we are going to need to talk to each other again.”
One of the major projects is the Great Reskilling, a series of workshops to re-equip residents with dying crafts. Sock darning for beginners, breadmaking and sustainable food production were among the first few lessons.
The group has also planted nut trees – two walnut, five almond – and introduced a new currency, the Totnes pound, where 18 local shops will accept the tender, again to encourage local dependency. Schumacher College, the environmental studies institution in the town, has provided a pool of world leading voices.
“Momentum has driven the whole thing forward. We have ten groups looking at things like food, transport and local government. There’s a real sense of something happening.”
It sounds like lofty, idealistic stuff. But it is catching on, and fast. Transition Towns across Devon and Cornwall – Moretonhampstead, Falmouth and the Penwith district – have all formed in its wake.
Stroud in Gloucestershire and the East Sussex town of Lewes have followed suit, and Bristol is about to be the first city to adopt the transition values. Mr Hopkins believed Totnes could be “a powerful laboratory” for this lifestyle to be rolled out across the country. He said: “It has been extraordinary. It seems to be unleashing this amazing energy and drive. Environmentalists tend to talk about what we are against, rather than saying that a post-carbon world is a place where we might want to go.”
The genesis of Transition Town Totnes actually began in West Ireland. Mr Hopkins was teaching permaculture – environmentally-friendly design – in Kinsale, when he saw The End of Suburbia for the first time.
He explained that towns like Totnes were a network of communities interacting, sharing and dependent upon each other. Then cheap oil came along and it was like taking “a pair of scissors” to this well-drawn web. If nothing else, the Transition Towns principles fostered a sense of community once again.
“But we can’t just take oil out of the equation overnight – that’s why it’s a transition,” he said. “It’s a catalyst of how the world could look like without oil. And many of the answers are here in the community.”
He had drawn up an energy descent plan, ways in which the world could wean itself off oil addiction, and set up a website (transitionculture.org) as a forum to articulate their views.
Energy reduction – switching to low-energy lightbulbs, slashing unnecessary journeys – were what most people can do. But people had to be more aware. He said: “The resources they will need are around them. People can get together and work collectively.”
For more information, visit transitionculture.org and www.transitiontowns.org/Totnes