8 Jan 2009
Carolyn Baker Reviews the Transition Handbook
The Transition Town Movement: embracing reality and resilience. By Carolyn Baker.
Sunday, 4th January 2009
For several months I have been meaning to write a review of Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, but other things got in the way-like a planetary economic meltdown and out of control climate change that exceeds some of the most dire predictions by climate scientists. I should have spoken out earlier in support of this movement, but I didn’t. Now, as we commence this new year, I am.
I will begin this book “review” by telling you that I find nothing-absolutely nothing wrong with The Transition Handbook. If that then makes this article into a commercial for the book instead of a review, so be it.
For nearly a year I have been emphasizing in my writing that a positive vision must be held in consciousness alongside all of the abysmal events unfolding around us. Even as I have been insistent on staring down the collapse of civilization, I have embraced at the same time, what could be and have held in my mind and heart the threads of the new paradigm that so many of us are working to create.
Thus it has been with great pleasure and relief that I have looked deeply into the Transition Town movement and found it to exemplify everything that I believe comprises effective relocalization and the shaping of alternative economies and vibrant communities. Not only am I in awe of what the people of Totnes, the first Transition Town in the U.K., have accomplished, but more so, that the Transition Town model has become contagious and is spreading to a variety of places throughout the world, in the United States, and closer to my own local community here in Vermont. I’m additionally pleased that the Transition Handbook is now being distributed here in the U.S. by a Vermont publisher, Chelsea Green.
The Transition Town movement is all about preparing for energy descent and climate change and addressing the relationship between the two by essentially viewing them as two different aspects of the same problem. James Howard of Powerswitch in the U.K. states:
Peak Oil and Climate Change are a bigger threat together than either are alone. Our biggest hope is to similarly converge our understanding of them, and how to deal with the problems they present. Peak Oil and Climate Change must be fused as issues-an approach is needed to deal with them as a package. If we are looking for answers, the environmental movement has pushed suitable ones for a long time. Peak Oil presents a tremendous chance to push those solutions ahead; failure to incorporate a full understanding of Peak Oil into the solutions argument for Climate Change would be an abject failure.(38)
Fundamental to the Transition Town movement is the notion of resilience. It is defined in the Transition Handbook as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” (54) In other words, resilience does not mean putting a fence around one’s community, refusing to allow anything in or out. It means “being more prepared for a leaner future, more self-reliant, and prioritizing the local over the imported.” (55)
Three requirements for a resilient system are: Diversity, Modularity, and Tightness of Feedbacks. Diversity simply refers to the number of elements in the system-people, species, businesses, institutions, and sources of food. What matters is not so much the number of any of these entities but the connections between them and the diversity of responses to challenges, the diversity of land use, and the diversity between systems. Not only does an analysis of the diversity of the place make top-down approaches redundant, but it reinforces the wisdom of “working on small changes to lots of niches in the place, making lots of small interventions rather than a few large ones.” (55)
Modularity of a structure refers to the parts of the system that can re-organize in the event of a shock. It is a key facet of designing an energy-descent plan because the more modularity, the less vulnerability to disruptions in wider networks. As the Transition Handbook states: Local food systems, local investment models, and so on, all add to this modularity, meaning that we engage with the wider world but from an ethic of networking and information sharing rather than of mutual dependence.” (56)
Tightness of feedbacks analyzes how quickly and strongly one part of the system can respond to changes in another part. Globalization and national systems can weaken feedbacks, whereas in localized systems, the results of our actions are more obvious and allow the community to bring the consequences of its actions closer to home. (56)
In summary, it is possible that a future with less oil could be more positive than the current addiction to fossil fuels, but only, says the Transition Handbook, “if we engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination” which is indeed what the handbook is all about.
The format of this mini-workbook sized manual is extremely appealing. It is printed on heavy recycled paper, designed with simple, natural color tones, and is chock-full of exceedingly practical group exercises for clarifying and practicing its principles.
To its credit, this book does not sugar-coat the daunting reality of Peak Oil and Climate Change, but rather, offers a positive vision of preparation and myriad practical steps for manifesting it. An entire chapter is devoted to the somewhat paralyzing terror of everyone’s “End of Suburbia” moment and the resulting “post-petroleum stress disorder”, but also emphasizes that alongside that epiphany, we must cherish not only a positive vision, but one that we can realistically and pragmatically implement.
A fabulous chapter in the middle of the book on the “Psychology of Change” underscores how change happens and how we tend to proceed through it emotionally, emphasizing that “change doesn’t happen all at once. Rather it occurs in increments or stages.” (85) The various stages of change are explored, with emphasis on their characteristics and what may be helpful to move people on to the next stage of the process. Some aspects of addiction diagnosis and treatment are utilized in order to address the depths to which most people in the developed world are addicted to the fossil fuel/consumption-based lifestyle. Fundamental to this addiction, as with all others, is the belief that change isn’t really possible. With remarkable skill, the Transition Town movement utilizes a number of effective strategies for assisting people who are stuck in abject pessimism by helping them envision the possibility of change and the certainty that it can be made.
At the core of the Transition Town movement is the Transition Initiative which is an “emerging and evolving approach to community-level sustainability”, and many of these initiatives are appearing not only in the U.K. but in the U.S. They are based on four key assumptions:
- That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise
- That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany Peak OiL
- That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now
- That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet. (134)
At the core of the Transition concept is permaculture, which while difficult to explain in one sentence, is essentially a design template for assembling the various components of any community-social, economic, cultural, and technical in the most efficient way possible. (137) The 12 Principles of Permaculture, established by its founder David Holmgren, are explained, and examples are given regarding how they have become the foundation of Transition Towns throughout the world. How the principles will be implemented-in fact how any aspect of the Transition concept will be implemented anywhere, depends on the unique people and conditions of that place, which is one of the jewels of this movement. It does not offer cookie-cutter prescriptions but rather, possible strategies that can be uniquely applied to one’s community and region.
An entire chapter is devoted to how to start a Transition initiative, and although not directly related to the addiction to a fossil fuel lifestyle, Twelve Steps of Transition are offered. The most impressive of these for me is the first one: “Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset.” What a relief! No chance of this group becoming an entrenched, hierarchical, power-driven monster; no chance of success unless the entire community is engaged and becomes more effective in bringing about transition than is the steering group; no need for one or two individuals alone to try to save the world.
The last half of the book is primarily devoted to an analysis of the first year of transition in Totnes and some of the practical manifestations of transition there. And finally, the book concludes with the “viral spread” of the Transition Town concept throughout the world. An extensive appendix includes a generous offering of further exercises, forms, questionnaires, and an energy descent action plan.
How does a Transition Town know if it has become resilient? What is the measure of viable transition? Here are a few resilience indicators:
- The percentage of local trade carried out in local currency
- The percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius
- The ratio of car parking space to productive land use
- Degree of engagement in practical transition work by the local community
- Amount of traffic on local roads
- Number of businesses owned by local people
- Proportion of the community employed locally
- Percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius
- Percentage of local building materials used in new housing development
- Percentage of energy consumed in the town
- Amount of sixteen year-olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetables to a given degree of competency
- Percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius.
Are these not the most axiomatic of preparations for Peak Oil and Climate Change? The Transition Handbook offers both stunning inspiration and an assortment of ingenious, yet commonsensical tools, for actualizing the concept of relocalization.
The Handbook concludes with these remarkably uplifting words:
While Peak Oil and Climate Change are understandably profoundly challenging, also inherent within them is the potential for an economic, cultural, and social renaissance the likes of which we have never seen. We will see a flourishing of local businesses, local skills and solutions, and a flowering of ingenuity and creativity. It is a Transition in which we will inevitably grow, and in which our evolution is a precondition for progress. Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were: we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled, and ultimately, wiser.
With all my heart, I want to support Transition Towns in my community and around the world with the hope that their implementations are not too little, too late. Yet, even if they are, I cannot think of a better place to direct one’s energy, time, and passion–regardless of outcome, as we navigate with realism and resilience, the collapse of civilization.