24 Apr 2008
Patrick Whitefield Reviews The Transition Handbook
It’s very rare that someone comes up with a genuinely new idea, but the concept of Transition Initiatives is one such. Transition aims to confront the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil at the level of the community – whether town, village, district or city – and for the initiative to come from the people themselves. Rob Hopkins is both the person who invented the idea and the author of this book.
Transition Initiatives are the opposite to environmental campaigning. Firstly, they’re not a cry for the powers that be to do something for us but a pathway for us, the people, to do it ourselves. Secondly, it focuses on the positive benefits of the changes we’re trying to bring about rather than the terrible consequences of business as usual. Both of these approaches are also at the heart of permaculture and it’s no coincidence that Rob worked for many years as a teacher of permaculture before he started the Transition movement. The principles of permaculture pervade every page of this book and Rob makes it quite clear how much Transition owes to permaculture, especially to the ideas of David Holmgren. What Rob has done is to take permaculture and use it to address the two great issues of our time and to do so in a specific way, using the local community as the unit of action.
The book is divided into three parts: The Head, The Heart and The Hands. The Head is a statement of the problem, subtitled ‘why peak oil and climate change mean that small is inevitable’. In short, we can either just let the end of the oil age happen or we can plan for it, but our present oil-dependent, globalised way of life is not an option for the future. Planning for an orderly transition is our only hope of a viable future. This part of the book contains a concise account of peak oil and an update on climate change. There are one or two places here where he assumes some previous knowledge but in general it’s an excellent summary. If you want to know what all the fuss is about or to explain it convincingly to others without having to trawl through long books and obscure websites, look no further.
So much for the problems: the solution is a combination of a lower carbon footprint and developing resilience. We’ve heard all about carbon footprint but the idea of resilience is much less familiar. It means the ability of a community to bounce back in the face of adversity or trauma, such as the end of cheap oil. We live in the least resilient culture ever to exist on the planet. We’re so dependent on fossil fuel energy and the globalised supply chain which it makes possible that just three days without oil would have us staring starvation in the face. Resilience is the key to our survival and the rest of the book about how we rekindle it in our communities.
In a way the second part of the book, The Heart, is the key to the matter of Transition as it deals with our emotional reactions to the challenges we face. Climate change and peak oil are not really physical challenges at all but emotional ones. We know what we need to do to in order to create a sustainable future and we have the technology to do it. What we lack the will. Finding that will in the face of fear, bewilderment and denial is the real challenge. Fear, he says, is an appropriate feeling in the circumstances. We shouldn’t try to suppress it but rather use it as a spur to positive action. They key to this, he goes on to say, is to vision the positive future we have it in our power to create. This future is not only better than the one we’ll get if we do nothing, but one that looks considerably better in many ways than life today.
Much of this part of the book is taken up with his personal vision of the future, writing as though from a future when much has already been done. He’s becoming famous for his insistance that ‘we should make our energy descent plans look like holiday brochures!’ Does he succeed in this? Well, almost. He tells it with humour, but most of the emphasis is on the physical changes which have been achieved rather than the way these changes have actually made life more pleasant and satisfying. But perhaps he wasn’t trying for the holiday brochure effect on this occasion as this book is for activists rather than the general public. As well as visioning this part of the book contains a good deal of useful information on the psychology of change, much of it in the form of an interview with fellow-transitioner, Dr Chris Johnstone.
Part Three, The Hands, tells you how to set up a Transition Initiative in your own community. He kicks off by saying: “the essential message of this part of the book is that we cannot do [transition] as individuals, and that both climate change and peak oil have to underpin both our thinking and our decision making. We need to think bigger, we need to work together with other people and we need very much to accelerate our efforts”. With which he opens a veritable Aladdin’s cave of ideas and techniques for working with people to achieve these ends. There’s everything from detailed instructions for how to use methods like World Café and Open Space to the overview contained in the Twelve Steps to Transition. Many of the ideas are radically new but they also have the ring of down-to-earth common sense. These are techniques and perspectives which have worked in practice. There’s far too much to take in at one reading and I know I’ll come back to this book again and again, not just for the text but also for the copious references which offer more detailed information on almost every topic covered. <
There’s also a full account of the first year of Transition Town Totnes and briefer histories of other Transition Initiatives. Totnes was the first Transition Town (apart from Kinsale, which was more of a prototype) and also the one which Rob himself has been fully involved in. The story of what has been done there is incredible: the number of events put on, the calibre of the speakers, the number of people attending, and the quality of communication going on. In fact I found it so impressive that it depressed me. I know we can’t do so well in my home town. Many readers may have a similar reaction. Behind the sparse accounts of the doings in other towns may lie some stories of much more modest achievement. I feel it would have been more useful to give equal weight to these than to focus so much on the success story of Totnes, which for various reasons many of us will not be able to emulate. This might have made the book even more empowering than it is.
For if ever there was a book that empowered the reader this is it. I’m struggling here to escape metaphors about having a tankful of petrol in my belly, but that’s just what it feels like. Rob tells us that fossil fuels multiply the physical force of each human being by 70 times. Well this book can do the same but in a social way rather than a brute mechanical way and to a positive end rather than a destructive one. It’s not only a powerful read but an easy one too. It flows along like a well-written novel, full of illustrations, well designed and produced. Anyone who has met Rob or heard him speak in public will recognise in its words the humour, power and humility of this remarkable person. The book is of course a product of the cheap oil era. But if we can create things of this quality when the post-peak times come we have little to fear.
This review appears in the latest (and really rather good) Permaculture Magazine, along with a rather good piece about the Totnes Pound.