5 Nov 2007
Transition Initiatives in the Latest Ecologist Magazine.
This month’s Ecologist magazine is one of the best editions yet. It contains a superb piece called ‘Power On’ which offers a refreshingly frank assessment of the UK’s energy situation in the light of peak oil and climate change which is essential reading (I’ll link to it when an online version becomes available). It also has a long piece about Transition Initiatives which presents the whole approach in a very positive way. The Ecologist have kindly given us permission to reproduce this article below;
**Local Hero: Rob Hopkins, Transition Town Totnes. By Ed Hamer.**
**From creating its own currency to relearning lost arts, now one man is helping a community respond to the threat of peak oil.**
Totnes is a town rapidly re-branding itself. Renowned as the alternative capital of Britain’s greenest county, the town’s name traditionally conjures images of crystal healing, new age culture, beards and sandals. It may come as a surprise then, that this dreamy pastoral backwater is the location for what has been dubbed ‘the most significant and potentially ground-breaking social experiment of our time’.
Transition Town Totnes, as it has more recently become known, is the first initiative of its kind in the UK attempting to reduce the carbon footprint of an entire community in a way that is imaginative, fun and engaging. Over the next 12– 18 months the project will develop a community-led Energy Descent Action Plan setting out an achievable timetable for reducing the town’s dependency on fossil fuels.
On first impressions you may be forgiven for thinking that Transition Town Totnes is an idealistic proposal reminiscent of the utopian sixties counterculture. You may also believe that our inevitable transition to an oil-free society cannot possibly be cultivated at community level, but instead must be led by industry or government. If this is the case, you will certainly not have attended one of the many talks given across the UK over the past year by the man behind Transition Culture, Rob Hopkins.
Rob is not your average Bohemian Totnesian. He also disarmingly humble considering what he’s achieved since moving here just two years ago. We meet on a drizzly Devonshire afternoon in the Field Kitchen of Riverford organic farm a handful of miles to the west of the town. Rob grins broadly as we sit down with a glass of local Luscombe ginger ale.
‘We came here a few weeks ago for my wedding reception’ he tells me, ‘We held the ceremony at a youth hostel near Totnes, which we all got to by going up the river on a boat’. Eccentric, perhaps; you get the impression however that Rob is the kind of chap who simply lives what he breathes; low impact living.
Rob’s conviction is rooted in the idea that ‘A town simply using much less energy and resources than at present could, if properly planned for and designed, be a more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable place to live’. His passion is inspired by a pioneering approach which has applied the principles of permaculture design to the inevitability of the peak oil crisis.
The term ‘permaculture’ was developed by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s, to describe the practice of observing natural ecosystems to identify remedies to man-made problems. Originally applied to agricultural systems (permanent agriculture) the concept was soon adapted to energy efficiency, building design and resource sustainability.
Rob’s first introduction to permaculture came while travelling in India in the early nineties. On returning to the UK he enrolled on a two week permaculture design course after seeing Bill Molllison give a talk in Stroud. ‘I remember being blown away by the realisation that permaculture actually provides us with a toolkit for earth repair. The course and the talk had a big influence on my degree in urban planning at Bristol and has inspired my work ever since’.
Following his graduation Rob moved, with his young family, to Ireland where he began teaching permaculture and pioneered the Practical Sustainability course at Kinsale Further Education College. The course quickly evolved to become the first two-year full time permaculture course in the world. It was while teaching at the college in Kinsale that Rob and his students were introduced to the uncomfortable realities of Peak Oil.
‘The Transition Towns initiative was motivated by my initial sense of shock after first watching the DVD The End of Suburbia and a lecture at the college by Colin Campbell, who wrote The Coming Oil Crisis’ explains Rob. ’We were amazed to discover that no-one anywhere had really been thinking about it that much. Being a permaculture course our immediate response was “right then, what shall we do about it?”’.
Together with his students on the course Rob set about applying the permaculture principles of energy efficiency, resource substitution and redesign on a scale never attempted before. Dividing themselves into working groups they set out to construct an Energy Descent Plan detailing the practical steps required to wean Kinsale from its dependency on fossil fuels.
‘The Kinsale Plan was really a prototype. It wasn’t until after we had published it that the consequences of what we had created began to sink in. People from all over the world were contacting us saying “this is incredible”. I think it shocked a lot of people into realising how desperately unprepared we are to face the challenges ahead’.
Over this period Rob also took personal steps to reduce his own ecological footprint by designing and building his family home. With the help of volunteers, using entirely renewable and locally sourced materials, he constructed the first new-build cob house in Ireland for over 100 years.
The project was followed by thousands of people via an online photo-blog and hailed for demonstrating that affordable rural housing could be provided with minimal building-miles. Tragically however, the house was deliberately destroyed by fire just three months before it was completed.
Such a traumatic incident obviously influenced Robs decision to leave Ireland. However, the wave of community support which followed the fire took him and his family by surprise and inspired a new beginning for the seeds of Transition Culture.
In choosing Totnes as the new home for Energy Descent, Rob recognised the potential offered by town’s unique blend of progressive and alternative culture. ‘What we were looking at developing here in Totnes was a much more thorough and deeper version of what we piloted in Kinsale. Totnes also differs from Kinsale in that the community has been involved throughout the process from the very beginning’.
In line with his unique permaculture approach Rob spent his first year in the town simply observing and raising awareness within the community through a series of film screenings and discussions. ‘The way we showed the films and held discussions was carefully structured, we were fully aware that we couldn’t simply tell someone to watch The End of Suburbia at home, by themselves, and expect them to suddenly start growing carrots the next day’ he laughs.
In September 2006 the project was finally launched with: ‘The official unleashing of Transition Town Totnes’. There followed a series of Open Space events where the community was invited to volunteer their skills and enthusiasm. Within six months working groups had been established to focus on the primary aspects of Transition culture; from energy and healthcare to economics and the arts.
‘Unlocking the collective genius of the community’ is how Rob sees the early stages of Transition. ‘One of the first things we did was to consult the town’s older generations, to ask for their experience and advice on how the town used to function with minimal oil dependency. It is important to remember that this concept is not new, as recently as the second World War Totnes was almost entirely self-sufficient out of necessity’.
As the individual working groups gained momentum, the town began to attract enquiries from communities across the globe wanting to initiate the Transition process in their own villages, towns and cities. ’We didn’t have a template for what we were doing in Totnes’ recalls Rob, ‘so when people started asking us how to actually start the process we had to sit down and think about what we had done’.
The Twelve Steps to Transition was borne as a result, and has since been adopted as a blueprint for Transition Culture.’ The Twelve Steps are really not prescriptive but instead intended as a rough guide, all the different communities who are doing this are interpreting them in their own way, but people seem to find them useful as a starting point’ says Rob.
Undoubtedly the single most ambitious venture to date has been the launch of the town’s independent currency earlier this year. The Totnes Pound was launched in March to emphasise the importance of re-localisation and to encourage people to attribute a value to the local economy. Following a trial period where 300 notes were distributed into circulation, 10,000 one pound notes have now been printed and are accepted by more than seventy businesses throughout the town.
‘The Totnes Pound has really grasped the imagination of the community’ says Rob with boundless enthusiasm, ‘I think it is essential that projects such as this have solid manifestations which people can relate to. It provokes discussion but also sets the framework for a post-industrial society in which local currencies are inevitable’.
Rob is currently working on a book for publication in the spring entitled ‘Small is Inevitable’. Designed as a comprehensive template to the Transition phenomenon Rob uses the book to explore what he calls the ‘Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent’.
In an engaging and accessible manner Rob describes the Head as the concepts of peak oil, outlining the arguments for and against localisation and historical examples from a pre-oil dependent society. The Heart refers to the enthusiasm and motivation which already exists within communities and how this can be focused to facilitate change. The Hands are what Rob refers to as ‘the great reskilling’, the practical steps which communities must take to become self-sufficient in food, energy and materials.
‘What the book is really saying is that this change from the grassroots is happening whether you accept it or not, this isn’t a process which comes along with all the answers, it is a process which is about getting people thinking about the right questions’.
Rob’s work has attracted personal commendations from the most unlikely of quarters. In July this year the town’s Conservative MP Anthony Steen used his monthly newspaper column to highlight the importance of the Totnes model and the dangers of complacency regarding peak oil. ‘Rob is clearly very driven by his passion’ says Mr Steen, ‘he has set a precedent which has achieved an enormous amount in a very short time, we are all just waiting to see where it will go from here’.
It is undeniable that Rob’s passion is the catalyst which has sown the seeds of Transition culture, and that he is seen by many as the figurehead of the movement. Although aware of his growing profile Rob remains firmly grounded by more than a decade of working directly with the soil. ‘I seem to be able to inspire others with the way I speak about energy descent’ he says modestly, ‘I prefer to see my role as a promoter of Transition Culture as a positive response to peak oil’.
Transition, it seems, has arrived at a time of change. As Rob points out: ‘The potential of this time is immense and the scale of the challenge is unique, the tools of lobbying, campaigning and protesting are no longer sufficient, Transition effectively provides us with new tools to face new challenges’.
In the last twelve months alone, twenty new Transition initiatives have sprung up across the UK from cities the size of Bristol to tiny rural hamlets. A further ninety are undergoing the initial stages and Rob receives at least two new enquiries every week.
When I ask Rob if the Transition initiative has an ultimate goal or a destination, he hesitates slightly before offering one of his infectiously enthusiastic smiles ‘There are 1000 towns and cities in the UK, 10, 000 villages and twice as many hamlets. Ultimately I have a faith that the ingenuity and resourcefulness that got us up to the top of this peak in the first has the potential to take Transition to every single one of these communities’.
And with that I notice that the rain outside has stopped, the sun is shining and the world suddenly seems a lot brighter.
**Copyright: The Ecologist Magazine. Many thanks for permission to reproduce here. Appears in the latest (November) edition.**