11 Sep 2008
‘A Peak into the future’, from yesterday’s Guardian
A peak into the future.
Described as ‘a social experiment on a massive scale’, the Transition Town movement offers positive ideas for low-carbon living
Sarah Lewis, The Guardian, Wednesday September 10 2008
When Waterstone’s recently asked 150 MPs about their favourite summer reads, number five on the list was a book from an environment group that only two years ago almost no one had heard of. But in that time, the Transition Town movement has grown from a classroom idea to a sprawling international network, which many think holds some of the answers to our environmental problems.
The idea behind transition towns is simple: if you have no faith that governments will take meaningful action on climate change and “peak oil”, then you can come together as a community to do something about it.
It’s an idea gaining rapid ground. Last week saw the second anniversary of the setting up of the first transition town, in Totnes, Devon, and also the arrival of the 100th, Fujino in Japan. Communities in each have committed to break free from oil addiction and move, over a period of 10 to 20 years, from a high-carbon economy to a low one. Meanwhile, there are 900 “mullers”, people considering setting up their own “franchise”, including Ambridge, fictional home to Radio 4’s Archers.
It began in 2003 with Rob Hopkins, who while lecturing on sustainable living in Kinsale, west Cork, worked with his class to create an energy action plan in response to the problems posed by the advent of peak oil production. It was adopted by the local council as policy, and when Hopkins came back to England to finish his doctorate, he initiated Transition Town Totnes.
“This isn’t what I was expecting at all,” he says. “All it is is a very simple idea and a proposition: maybe the future could be like this, so here are some tools you might use. But there is something about it that is really sticky, it really grips hold of people, like burrs. We are all in this together – it’s a challenge that calls for us to come together on an unprecedented scale, rather than fracture down further and further. Rebuilding our communities is going to be pivotal in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Transition Network, the coordinating body, cheerfully states that it has no idea if it will work. “It is a social experiment on a massive scale,” says its website. But it presents communities with a 12-step guide to a low-carbon economy. Step one is to set up a steering committee to take the project forward. Steps two to 11 are about raising awareness, setting up working groups to discuss topics such as food and fuel, and liaising with local government. Step 12 sees the creation of a unique energy action plan.
In Lewes, East Sussex, the transition group’s co-founder, Adrienne Campbell, says: “Doing it with other people is really important – this way it is like an adventure, a collective challenge. When you look at the issues on your own, it can really destroy you.”
The Lewes initiative started when five people got together and rallied hundreds more for a year of talks and films on peak oil and climate change. They now run “reskilling” days, teaching clothes’ mending, foraging and gardening – skills we have lost but may well need again in a leaner future. Some 20 working groups meet regularly to work out how they want things to change. Regular liaison with the town council makes sure their ideas will leave the paper and get put into action.
The original working group has now formed itself into the Ouse Valley Energy Services Company Ltd, and with the help of government grants is rolling out subsidised renewable energy technologies across the area.
Lewes is planning on following in the footsteps of Totnes, which last year launched its own currency, accepted only by local businesses, in order to support the local economy and to start people thinking about the way they spend money.
The whole thing has been described as “a party rather than a protest march”, and it is to this concept that Hopkins attributes the movement’s success. He says: “It is positive and doesn’t start out by trying to identify whose fault it is. It looks at what the opportunities are around peak oil and climate change, not the problems.”
Campbell believes so fervently in the idea that she has taken to working full-time and unpaid, supporting emerging groups in south-east England. The region, she says, has been particularly inspired by the Transition Town movement, with between 40 and 50 groups starting up.
Just down the road at Transition Brighton and Hove, John Bristow, a steering committee member, says: “The key thing is that we are increasing resilience in the face of future shocks. Times are getting harder with [problems of] food and energy security. As people face that and work together, you create a stronger community. We need shared experience to pull us together, to realise that, rather than waiting, we can prepare for the future, or create the kind of future we want.”
The movement is rapidly spreading beyond its grassroots. The Scottish government has agreed funding to encourage transition initiatives, and in July, South Somerset district council voted that it “fully endorses the Transition Town movement and subscribes to the principles of the organisation’s goals”. It has promised to offer support to all those wishing to join the initiative, with the goal of becoming the first transition district.
Ultimately, it is the movement’s optimism that gives it its momentum. It is filled with people who, rather than fear the onset of climate change and peak oil, see it with a sense of anticipation, as an exciting challenge, and a reason to discover values that are perhaps less tangible than a new car or flat-screen television, but are immeasurably more precious.
“The way we are doing things at the moment isn’t working,” Hopkins says. “During the oil age, success and wellbeing were measured in how much oil you used. But now people are seeing that the future prosperity of where they live relies on them not being oil vulnerable. The imagination that kicks in when people realise that is extraordinary, and to see that in communities up and down the country is humbling. That is what gives me hope for the future.”