19 May 2011
Might peak oil and climate change outlive their usefulness as framings for Transition?
Here’s a kind of half-formed thought that might possibly go somewhere if I start writing about it. This September sees the fifth anniversary of the Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes. We were deeply flattered the other day to receive a somewhat premature but very welcome plaque from the Town Council bearing the inscription “Transition Town Totnes: to celebrate their first 5 years of activity within the town”. I’ll probably write a more detailed ‘Totnes: some reflections after 5 years in Transition’ in September, but this post was prompted by an email from a friend in Totnes, who grew up here in the 1960s and is very much a pillar of the community. He had valiantly read my dissertation, ‘Localisation and Resilience‘, cover to cover and wrote with some reflections. In his email he makes a very interesting point:
“Another conclusion occurred. Further mention of climate change, peak oil and sustainability is probably pointless. Again, you are either preaching to the choir or the resistant. By now everybody has heard of those terms and must be intimately familiar with them. I don’t think there is anybody left who can genuinely call themselves undecided”.
I thought this was a fascinating observation. Although it is peak oil and climate change that initially inspire Transition initiatives and form the underpinning for much of the initial awareness stage, might it be that an initiative reaches a point where continued focus on those issues could be counterproductive? His point is that most people have by now made up their mind as to whether they agree that peak oil and/or climate change are important issues or not. Beyond a certain point it could be that continued highlighting of the issues actually risks dividing and alienating people rather than including them?
At the moment, the outward focus of TTT’s work is more explicitly about economic regeneration and social enterprise, rather than on promoting the issues of peak oil and climate change. We are promoting the concept of ‘localisation as economic development’ and about to start work on an ‘Economic Blueprint’ for the town, working with the Town Council, Chamber of Commerce and other local bodies. We are seeking to support emerging social enterprises and to create new mechanisms for inward investment. While all of this, clearly, is underpinned by an understanding of peak oil and climate change, we haven’t actually held a talk about peak or climate change for a while.
In the forthcoming ‘Transition Companion’ (out in September), Transition is described has happening in 5 stages:
- Getting started: this is the beginning stage, where a group of people come together and form a group, inspired by the principles of Transition. They start awareness raising and networking in their community
- Deepening: here they start to become ‘Transition wherever’, a recognised initiative which begins to embark on distinct projects as well as becoming more organised in how it works
- Connecting: then they start to go deeper, reaching beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and deeper into the community
- Building: this is about embarking on the practicalities of intentional localisation, thinking strategically about creating new institutions, new infrastructure and supporting the emergence of new enterprises that ground the concept of ‘localisation as economic development’ in the local economy
- Daring to Dream: what would it look like if every community had a vibrant Transition initiative and they were all actively transforming their local economies? Here we step into the speculative and wonder about where all this could go.
In the first stage, peak oil and climate change serve as the absolutely vital framing, the inspiration and the motivator. In stage two, an ongoing programme keeping them out there as issues is also vital. By stage three, you are beginning to get into the field of the people who are open to knowing about it will probably already have picked up on it, and the rest of the people might be starting to feel a bit like you are ‘that lot’, like Transition is not for them, and starting to feel excluded from what is supposed to be a community-driven process.
By stage four, ‘Building’, while any strategic thinking, such as an Energy Descent Action Plan, a local economic blueprint or whatever, clearly needs to be underpinned by peak oil and climate change, as well as the end of economic growth, the focus starts to shift to economic regeneration and enterprise. As the plaque from Totnes Town Council shows, at this point it is possible to be well and widely respected, but this is the stage where people are expecting great things and are expecting you to live up to the expectations you have created.
Shifting the focus to ‘localisation as economic development’ offers the opportunity for those who felt excluded by the peak oil and climate change focus to step in, and for your Transition initiative to be seen as addressing local challenges as perceived by most people (lack of employment, skills and training, lack of affordable housing and so on). By this stage, awareness of peak oil and climate change are diffused into the DNA of the organisation. As TTT nears its fifth birthday, this is certainly our experience. People with great expertise and skills in business and livelihoods are coming on board to help drive forward our work in a range of initiatives and projects who may well not have done so before.
In Topsham in Devon, Transition Town Topsham began in the usual way, showing films, holding events, doing some practical projects. They found though that engagement was only going so far. “Is peak oil the thing that will unite and inspire this community?” they asked. Probably not. “Climate change?” Again, probably not. “Beer?” Ah now you’re talking. Topsham Ales was funded by £35,000 raised in shares being sold to 56 members of the co-operative they created. It is rooted in the concept of localisation (uses local hops, spent hops go to local pigs, beers and labels celebrate local place and history) but not explicitly so. Might there be a lesson to be learnt from Topsham Ales in terms of the need, at a certain point in the evolution of a Transition initiative, to shift its focus? Discuss….