1 Nov 2007
What Future Brighton? An article from the Brighton Rocks Magazine.
One of the first **Transition Cities**, following in the footsteps of those noble conurbations, Bristol and Nottingham, is (are?) Brighton and Hove. Despite, according to the latest Transition Network newsletter, being better known for hosting the 2007 World Beard and Moustache Championships, Brighton is now home to a rapidly growing Transition Initiative, as the excellent article below, from the Brighton Rocks magazine, explains.
**What Future Brighton? Written by Sarah Lewis.**
Published in Brighton Rocks, Friday, 31 August 2007.
“I have become increasingly concerned about climate change and sustainability over the years,” says John Bristow, a selfemployed psychologist who lives on the Brighton and Hove border. “Particularly in the last five years, and it’s a kind of hell. It leads to despair. What can I do? There is such a sense of powerlessness.” With ever-increasing references in the media to climate chaos, catastrophic tipping points and irreversible climate change, who can blame him?
The language of climate change is not just that of unusual weather patterns, it is a glimpse into the future, not 100 years from now but a much more immediate time when, worryingly, we might actually be here to see it. As the language we use becomes ever more doom-laden and panic stricken, so too our hopes begin to fade.
And it was from this feeling of powerlessness that John discovered the Transition Town project. “I thought, ‘my goodness, this is exactly what is needed,’” he says. Transition Towns are a rapidly growing network of places – towns, cities, villages, even a forest in one instance – which have decided they cannot wait for governments to take action on peak oil – the moment oil production peaks and goes into irreversible decline – or climate change, but nor can people do it alone.
The idea is that through workshops, meetings and education, the whole community can be gathered together to work towards a gradual reduction in fossil fuel dependence, based on a 12-step programme developed by permaculture and sustainability teacher Rob Hopkins.
Transition Brighton is in its fledgling stages, having met, at the time of publication, just three times. Members of the core group are very keen to point out that while they plan to adopt some form of legal status in the future, perhaps as a charity or trust, they do not even want to be described as an organisation yet. A ‘freeform collective’ is perhaps more appropriate, yet the exuberance of the 150 people who attended the first meeting, and the 145 who are already signed up to the email newsletter, belies such a nebulous moniker.
Kat Neeser, a 35-year-old face painter and dressmaker who lives in the Brunswick area, started the clothing and textiles group.
She says, “The first meeting was so fantastic. It was really energetic with a creative feeling about it, and a real mix of people too. I loved the willingness to get involved and put ideas forward, I just sat down and started talking and saw who joined me. There is so much that needs to be done I did feel like there was no way I wanted to do it on my own, but it made me realise what an amazing resource people are. Suddenly, it really felt possible.”
The Transition Town phenomenon began two years ago in Kinsale, Ireland when originator Rob Hopkins developed an Energy Descent Action Plan with students from Kinsale Further Education College. With the time of peak oil growing ever closer and some people saying it has already been and gone, the plan set out a step by step guide of how to move from a high-carbon society to a low one.
When Rob moved to Totnes in Devon, he took the plan with him and set up the very first Transition Town. Despite the bleak reasons for the TT groups coming together, it is an impenetrably optimistic movement. The view is that with everyone working together for a common cause, with proper planning and design, a post-peak oil, post-climate change world could be a far better place than the world we have today.
Right from the very start, the ecologists who coined the phrase ‘energy descent’, Howard T and Eugene Odum, said, “That the way down can be prosperous is the exciting viewpoint whose time has come. Descent is a new frontier to approach with zeal… Millions of people the world over, if they see the opportunity, can be united in the common quest.”
Mari Martiskainen is a researcher on consumer behaviour and energy demand at the Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) unit at Sussex University. She says, “There are lots of examples of different communities getting together to tackle climate change. If you look at Denmark and Holland there are concepts called cohousing where people live close to each other, everyone owns their own house but share communal areas, gas and electricity. There are also global eco-teams that meet once a month, like an eco-Weight Watchers. They measure their waste and energy use and through the team can save 50 per cent on their gas and electricity use. Often people who do it know each other, they are friends, young mums, pensioners. It is nice to do it with other people and they trust each other.
“Here, we need to seriously look at the way our society is formed at the moment. We have lost the community aspect, our living is individualistic, but these little hub groups allow frustrated people to do something.”
A large part of the community aspect of the Transition Town model is that it does not allow for hierarchy in the traditional sense. Instead, people form themselves into groups of interest which would examine, for example, food, transport or education. A central steering group is set up but with a built in autodestruct. After part five of the 12 steps, this group disbands and is reformed with a representative from each sub-group. Decisions are taken not through a rule-and-obey structure but through education, scientific input, discussion and negotiation.
“This requires a degree of humility, but is very important in order to put the success of the project above the individuals involved,” say the ‘how to become a TT’ instructions. It is easy to think such a format could not possibly work on a large scale, but the TT model has, in just two years, gone from a student project to an international network of driven, enthusiastic people working on everything from building relationships with governments to teaching basket weaving. The first conference took place in May this year and was attended by 80 people representing 38 Transition areas.
John says, “What a network like this does is allows me to join with others and make changes happen. It keeps me from denial or from turning off because I can’t take it anymore. Now I can think on the issues because there is a network with which I can make it happen.”
This coming together of communities can have powerful knock-on effects. All too often problems such as anti-social behaviour and family breakdown are blamed on the gradual degradation of community values, but bringing people together for a common cause and forcing them to communicate can act as a catalyst for solving such issues.
Sam Watts is a quality assurance manager who lives in central Brighton. He went to the first Transition Town meeting partly out of curiosity, and partly out of allegiance to family tradition: his aunt set up the Brighton and Hove City Council recycling scheme. Now he is involved in the Business Group, whose focus is to encourage the city’s businesses to move towards more sustainable running, and also the team who are creating and maintaining the group’s website.
“Community is incredibly important to any aspect of life,” he says. “Not just Transition Towns. It is something often neglected by councils and the communities themselves. We are increasingly living in a country obsessed with individualism and oneself rather than our neighbours. What better way to get people acting like a community again than to bring them together through positive change?”
John points out part of the appeal is the way it brings unexpected people together and the sense of achievement and satisfaction of working with someone new. “Whatever we decide we need to do is going to be a challenge, a lot of things will require new skills, but when you get people working together like this other human needs fall in line. Things start moving forward and you don’t have great conflicts between a nice way of living and environmental needs.”
The Transition Town project has clearly got something right, with urban areas across the country, and even the tiny Forest Row in East Sussex, working on their Energy Descent Action Plans, people are responding in their droves.
John says, “It is something people recognise is needed. I like the way it is led, the network, the scientific input and a focus on solutions in cooperation with others, local business and government for example, rather than being a campaign organisation. Campaigning is fine, but we don’t need any more campaign groups. It is focussed on how to be more of a community. It is a different kind of movement because it brings people together and creates solutions and preparations.”
Building a transition culture on a massive scale is new ground for a project which started in a market town of 8,000 people. It may seem hopelessly ambitious in a city of 250,000 but it is a project based on turning around what many see as a hopeless situation.
In just three meetings links have been forged with local Government, businesses, community and existing environmental groups and if it continues, this is just the beginning of a far-reaching and very important story.
As Odum and Odum said: “The alternative is a world of selfish battles for whatever resources remain.”