17 Nov 2008
‘Apocalypse Now? We Can Handle It’… from today’s Times 2
Climate change is upon us and the oil is running out. Is mankind’s darkest hour really approaching? If so, a growing army of local heroes is determined to turn it into our finest
Luke Leitch (original article here).
In Sandpoint, Idaho – birthplace of Sarah Palin, who really wouldn’t approve – residents have prepared the community garden for its first winter and plans are under way for a local biomass-fired power plant.
In Bell, a district of Geelong, Victoria, Australia, they are making wood-fired pizza ovens in each other’s gardens and have negotiated bulk-buy discounts on solar power equipment for local residents. They have also planted more than 150 trees in a push to become the “fruit and nut tree area of Geelong”.
Viewed in isolation, these well-intentioned community efforts are laudable, yet insignificant. But Sandpoint and Bell are two examples of something much bigger – the Transition Initiative, a movement barely two years old that claims to have the answer to sustainable living in a world without oil.
In some 700 towns, villages and cities worldwide, Transition is under way, and more communities are signing up every day. Most of the groups are “mulling” – Transition-speak for gearing themselves up – but 114 have launched publically, or “unleashed”.
Of those, 83 are in the UK, as are a further 486 “mullers”. One, Lewes in East Sussex, has just launched its own currency, the Lewes pound, in an effort to encourage townsfolk to reject Tesco and spend their money at purely local shops.
All the 8,500 £1 notes – bearing a handsome picture of Lewes castle on the back – were snapped up in 24 hours. The project was only slightly undermined when notes were put up for sale on eBay by currency speculators.
At the unleashing in Brixton, South London, last month, the Transition Initiative drew about 300 people to Lambeth Town Hall. Fuelled by organic vegan stew (made from Brixton-grown ingredients), reflective jackets tucked safely into their bicycle helmets, they settled down to listen. “This is a historic moment,” said the co-ordinator, Ben Brangwyn, from the stage: “Perhaps in a few years people will ask each other ‘were you there?’” A few seats down from me, a woman gently ululated her accord.
Even Ambridge, as listeners to The Archers will know, has toyed with Transition. Now, say its supporters, is the time to start thinking about it yourself, because it could make your future much more comfortable.
“In all respects – every waking hour – this has completely taken over my life,” says Rob Hopkins, the Englishman who started all this and whose central text, The Transition Handbook (printed in Cornwall on recycled paper, some 15,000 copies sold since May) is converting so many, so quickly.
Hopkins was a lecturer at a college in Kinsale, Co Cork, when he first saw The End of Suburbia, a documentary about the notion of “peak oil”. Put simply, the idea is that, while the world’s supply of oil is finite, our demand for it is growing all the time, and at some as-yet-undetermined point – which some people believe has already been reached – demand will overtake supply. There won’t be enough oil to go round, so we will either have to pay a lot more for what remains, or learn to get along without it. As Hopkins says in his handbook: “Climate change says we should change, whereas peak oil says we will be forced to change.”
Since it was first drilled by Edwin Deakin 159 years ago in Pennsylvania, oil has revolutionised our lives. Your toothbrush is made of oil, your car and easyJet flights run on it, and it is thanks to oil that cheap food from Britain and the rest of the world is delivered from farm and factory to your nearest supermarket.
Without oil, Hopkins realised, Kinsale would have to become a very different place. So, helped by his students, he worked out something called an Energy Descent Plan: a series of measures that the town could implement to anticipate declining oil supplies. Then the town council had a eureka moment and adopted them as policy.
The key to whether your town survives or thrives after peak oil, Hopkins maintains, is what Transitioners term “resilience”, defined as “its ability to function indefinitely and to live within its limits, and able to thrive for having done so”.
To become resilient, a village, town or city needs to be able to depend on its own resources to as great an extent as possible: the more food, power, and other necessities you can produce in your area, the less you rely on imports.
Hopkins defines the essence of Transition as the idea that “the future with less oil could be preferable to the present – but only if sufficient creativity and imagination are applied early enough in the design of this transition”.
He is determinedly upbeat in the face of Armageddon, and scathing about those who are not. “The environmental movement has been enormously naive for 40 years in assuming that the way you make people change is to give them depressing, distressing information,” he says. “Take that approach and all it does is to breed apathy, or it feeds a sense of powerlessness. At this time in history the last thing you need is people feeling powerless.”
Hopkins moved to Devon and, in September 2006, started Transition Town Totnes – the world’s first Transition Initiative. Since then, the Totnes Transition trainers, Naresh Giangrande and Sophy Banks, have given their three-day course to more than 400 people – sometimes in Totnes but more often in the towns where their willing pupils live. This month Giangrande is off on a four-month US tour to train still more people. “We couldn’t possibly train everyone who wants to be trained,” he says, “so we are starting to train other trainers.”
For all its global reach, the Transition movement has only modest enough premises: a rickety set of rooms above an optician’s shop. Despite its reputation, Totnes is not populated entirely by middle-class hippies. Yes, there are plenty of crystal outlets (credit crunch deal: half-price amethysts) and a notable smattering of ponchos, dreadlocks, VW camper vans and the rest. This being Devon, there are also plenty of elderly inhabitants in beige, tearooms laden with moist cake and, when night falls, teenagers boom up and down the high street in sportswear and souped-up hatchbacks. Lou Brown of Transition Town Totnes reckons that there are about 200 people there “really quite involved”, while the group’s events attract many more. “There’s bound to be some people here who’ve never heard of us, though,” he says. “Environmental groups rarely get to everybody.”
Certainly the town is full of traffic. Hopkins, 38, mentions a recent pilgrim who turned up, unannounced, from Germany: “He said that he’d come all the way to Totnes expecting to find an eco-Shangri-La and was horrified that we still had cars.”
Yet if reliance on the internal combustion engine persists in Totnes for now, Transition is slowly changing things. Early successes include a garden-share scheme – those with gardens but who don’t tend them are partnered with people who are garden-less but want to grow food, and both parties share the proceeds. The Totnes Food Guide is a comprehensive directory of food producers within five miles of the town: buy groceries from them and you are using minimal oil. A scheme with an epic sobriquet, The Great Re-Skilling will teach you how to make your own paint, knit with recycled materials, master clay plastering and build straw bales. And a drive to plant walnut trees – which apparently yield 7 to 11 tonnes of carbohydrate per hectare – around the town has gone well, even though the first saplings were vandalised (“the mistake was to plant them near where teenagers hang around and get drunk,” says Hopkins).
Transition’s widest-known wheeze, local currency, came about when Hopkins saw an old Totnes pound framed on somebody’s wall: “I thought, what would happen if we printed 300 of these? The idea is that if you shop in mainstream shops with mainstream money, when those shops close at the end of each day 80 per cent of your money – according to the New Economic Foundation – leaves your town. If you shop at local businesses, that proportion is reversed: 80 per cent stays in the local economy and only 20 per cent goes. A currency that cannot physically leave is a powerful tool to make that happen.”
Ten thousand Totnes pounds are in circulation and some 70 businesses, from Roly’s Fudge Pantry to Stoned Jewellers, display the sticker signifying that they accept it. Lewes emulated it, and there are plans under way for the “Brixton brick”.
These initial schemes to raise the resilience of Totnes are comparatively easy to achieve. Others, such as car-sharing schemes, will take longer: “If you want to set up a locally owned and managed energy company which hooks up to wind turbines on the edge of town, well, by the time you get funding, planning permission and set up the company, that’s seven years, probably,” says Hopkins.
The Transition Initiative sometimes appears like a well-intentioned, 21st-century version of The Good Life. As yet there is more talk than action – most of the groups in various countries that I contacted were still firmly at the planning stage. Slowly, though, people with more power are taking note. South Somerset District Council has come out in support of the movement, declaring its intention to become the world’s first “Transition district”. This month a government climate-change fund in Scotland granted £184, 000 to a Transition group in Moray – and, surprisingly, The Transition Handbook popped up in joint fifth place, along with Barack Obama’s autobiography, the new Robert Harris and John Prescott’s My Story: Pulling No Punches, in a Waterstone’s survey of MPs’ summer holiday reads.
The concept of peak oil, like that of climate change, was widely pooh-poohed at first but is slowly gaining credence. Last week the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that to compensate for the depletion of existing oilfields and meet a projected rise in world demand from 85 million barrels a day in 2008 to 106 million in 2030, the world will have to find new production equal to the output of ten Saudi Arabias. Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, said: “Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable environmentally, economically and socially. They can and must be altered.” Which reads like a line from The Transition Handbook.
Between 1939 and 1944, food imports to Britain halved – and the nation responded, nearly doubling domestic food production. Peak oil does not concentrate the popular imagination in quite the same way as Hitler did, but at least the Transitioners will be prepared when, as they predict, an energy crisis occurs.
In Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia, people started readying themselves in June. Their two-year low-carbon diet is under way, they have met state Anna Bligh, the state premier, and are consulting on a Queensland Government report entitled Towards Oil Resilience. Bush tucker trees are to be planted around the city.
Maggie Johns, a Hervey Bay Transitioner, signed off her e-mail to me thus: “Before, it all seemed so futile. What was the good in changing a few light bulbs? There are ice-shelves breaking off, for goodness sake! But when you know that more and more towns are coming online with Transition, and each has an army of dedicated volunteers, it seems much more do-able.”