Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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14 Oct 2008

Weaving the Magic Number, 350, into Transition

I had the great pleasure over the weekend of attending the 2008 Schumacher Lectures in Bristol.  I will write more about it tomorrow, but one of the highlights for me was a talk by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (one of the most distressing books I ever read) and Deep Economy (one of the most exhilarating).  Bill’s current project is, which aims to press politicians to acknowledge that 350ppm was the climate change tipping point, and the level we should commit in policy to moving back to over time.  Bill’s rousing closing speech argued that we ought not focus on building the new post-oil, low carbon world, rather we must focus all our energy on tackling climate change first.  His analogy was if your house is on fire you tackle the fire, you don’t start designing the new house to replace it.  It is not an analogy I agree with, but clearly the 350 figure is key.

Here is the film from that communicates the campaign’s basic message…

And here is a talk by Bill, setting out the reason why 350 is “the most important number in the world”.

At the Schumacher event, Bill argued that 350 is the one key fact we need to remember with regards to climate change.  He argued that as part of bringing politicians to their senses and getting them to actually take the necessary steps, 350 has to become the mantra, and that rather than embarking on practical steps to start rebuilding our local economies, we need to do symbolic actions which communicate the message and the number 350 in as many creative ways as possible.  A look at their website shows some of the ways people are doing this around the world.

Clearly the need to communicate 350 is key, and I agree entirely about its importance as a target, James Hansen has argued this entirely convincingly elsewhere.  Where I disagree though, is on the question of the need for purely symbolic actions.  I think that with the peak oil question, and the economic implosion issue woven in too, the need to think forward, to vision the future, is key.

If  we want people to see the move to 350 as something that they really want to aspire, we need to help them to see that place as a potentially healthier and happier place than where they are now.  We need to give them, through planning for that future, and through practical projects that give a tangible taste of it, the feeling that 350 is both about intrinsic survival and also about moving to something preferable, healthier, more life-affirming, a world which is, ultimately, happier.

My sense is that the case for 350 is so important, and that the way Bill argues it, it is clear that 350 needs to be the number everyone thinks about in relation to climate change.  This set me thinking about how we might weave it into the Transition movement.  When I had to sum up at the end of the day, I commented that I thought that merely symbolic actions were not enough, and that there was no need for either/or, that there is no reason why Transition initiatives can’t do practical actions that also embody the 350 element.

Some ideas that came to me included planting 350 walnut trees (or whatever), donating 350 local currency notes to something, creating 350 new allotments, installing 350 solar panels, getting 350 people to commit to driving less, using local currency or starting an edible window box, producing an Energy Descent Plan that costs £350 a copy (that’s a joke that one…), distributing 350 low energy bulbs, I don’t know, I’d love to hear your ideas as to how that figure might be woven in in creative and imaginative ways.

Of course, if you do these things and don’t tell anyone it is somewhat akin to the tree that falls in the middle of the forest with no-one around to hear.  Doing 350-themed events and promoting them at is a very powerful way of also communicating to people who read that site that the Transition movement is engaging creatively with this and that there is no reason why actions have to be entirely symbolic.  I rather rashly said that I would plant 350 onion sets next spring.  As I sit here looking out at my raised beds, I sense that the result of that might be somewhat monocultural, but I think that engaging with this is very important.  I welcome your Transition/350-themed ideas…

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Mari Shackell
14 Oct 2:08pm

Strikes me that 350 is nearly the same number as days in one year. So a good personal target could be one decisive and effective new action for 350 days of each year. Or maybe you could set the target at 365 (or 366) and reckon to do a bit over the top!

Finn Jackson
14 Oct 3:45pm

I’d like to adapt the 350 walnut tree idea…

How about 350 fruit trees planted in a Climate-Saving ORCHARD?
People in the community could pay to ‘sponsor’ a tree. Have their name on a plaque.
Sequesters carbon, provides food, creates community, creates jobs, is visible day after day after day…

On behalf of Transition Town Farnham

Sook Holdridge
14 Oct 9:04pm

Got it. We need the power meme replication. 350 is okay. My goal with is to get people to interact around eight key areas for fundamental change — MINDSHIFT, AWAKENING, MEASUREMENT, INVENTION, QUALITY OF LIFE, REDESIGN, ABOLISH WAR, and SUSTAINABILITY. I’m open for suggestions for bringing these conversations alive. Sook Holdridge

Joanne Poyourow
14 Oct 9:43pm

Hey Rob, the 350 onion sets don’t all have to be in one place! You can put some here, some there, in a forest garden type of approach…

When I think about what McKibben & crowd are doing, as differentiated from what you & Transition crowd are doing, it reminds me of your post about the Joanna Macy talk at Findhorn – the 3 elements of the Great Turning. (24 March 2008)

Much of McKibben’s work has been directed in the category Macy called “stopping actions” to prevent further destruction. Transition Towns, in my mind, are clearly “creating new structures.”

Macy reminded us that all 3 elements are necessary. Thus McKibben’s politically-oriented projects are necessary alongside the Transition’s community-oriented projects. (And might I offer that perhaps some personality types are better suited to one kind of project over another.) The house-on-fire analogy lays claim that one element of the 3 is more critical than the other two, but this disregards Macy’s wisdom about the need for balance.

The other problem with McKibben’s house-on-fire analogy is, while it’s great to raise awareness of the 350 number, the only viable way we’re going to get back to that 350 number is through power-down. focuses on political action and legislative influence — that might eventually help with the huge emitters (corporate manufacturing, etc), but many of them are banking on some form of techno-rescue to allow “business as usual” to continue. (Recall Holmgren’s statements about the techno-fantasy scenario.)

That’s where the Transition approach is so marvelous — it folds in a “how to” on power-down, through many facets of people’s lives. And it ends up working on the third of Macy’s points: consciousness change.

How about 350 attendees to reskilling classes? Or getting people to offer 350 reskilling sessions throughout a particular section of the country?

15 Oct 8:34am

Here’s something we’re doing in Scotland:

It’s not so symbolic (hopefully!) but is using the combined clout of communities who are trying to do something about climate change to exert some pressure on the government… we’re launching it in the next few weeks, so watch this space…!

David Lashley
15 Oct 10:33am

I was at the Lunar Society’s debate on climate change last night. The most impressive, eloquent and urgent message came from Prof Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre. Given his words on the size of the challenge we face, perhaps the 350 could be represented by 350 different positive actions to reduce (or eliminate) emissions in various areas? Then we might be approaching the scale of change needed to make an impact…

Steve Atkins
15 Oct 12:20pm

350 degrees… (in angles).

Each angle could be a dedicated pathway for a specific subject,
The path (a line) would radiate out from the centre with whatever is considered the greenest/ most positive step closest to the centre.

1 degrees = transport: —-walk —-cycle—-bus—-train—-car share—-service vehicle—-less frequent journey—-drive slower—-fly—-

2 degrees = food: —-homegrown—-local—-less meat—- etc, this one would finish with Tesco ; )

Mike Grenville
15 Oct 4:51pm

Rob just get 350 people in different Transition Communities to plant an onion on your behalf which also links us together.

You are right – this is no longer the time for just symbolic actions. While symbolic actions have their place, we also need to engage in the practical visioning of how this will all happen in our communities and start taking really practical actions.

Our whole way of life needs a great deal of new thinking. Symbolic actions seem to imply that it is someone else that needs to change and not us.

Jeff Jones
15 Oct 9:14pm

350 new coal fired plants in China for 2009 on the build schedule. Not one of them has scrubbers on the stacks. I say we build a large billboard with 350 switches on it and start each switch with a digital counter that counts the tons of carbon that each plant generates in real time…. every other day we all go to the switches to “turn another one on” by the end of the year we have all these counters flying with dizzying numbers… day and night…. night and day…. do you get the point… YET? We have to get it in their faces day and night…. the word crisis has lost all of it’s value….