Transition Culture

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

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22 Jun 2011

Why localisation is a key part of the answer. An article from today’s Guardian online…

Transition Network empowers local groups to promote sustainable issues by Rob Hopkins (appeared today in the Guardian’s online Sustainable Business section).

Last week it emerged that the Department of Energy and Climate Change, whose official position remains that “we do not have any contingency plans specific to a peak in oil production”, was actually stating in internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that “it is not possible to predict with any accuracy exactly when or why oil production will peak”.

Energy bills are going nowhere other than up, with knock-on effects across the economy. The fossil fuels of the future will be dirtier, more expensive and from less accessible places. At the same time, the need to decarbonise is urgent. The world’s carbon emissions increased in 2010 by a record amount, in spite of many of the world’s economies being in recession, and 19 countries recorded their hottest ever temperatures.

In March, Mervyn King, Governor Bank of England, said: “This is not like an ordinary recession where you lose output and get it back quickly. You may not get it back for many years, if ever, and that is a big, long-run loss of living standards for all people in this country.” When something isn’t working, it behoves us to question whether a different approach might be more appropriate.

One such approach, spreading around the world with great vigour, is the Transition movement. It suggests that within the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and our economic troubles lies a huge opportunity. In the same way that vast amounts of cheap fossil fuels made globalisation possible, the end of the age of cheap oil will inevitably put globalisation into reverse.

Yet, at a time where most communities across the country are scratching their heads and wondering where the economic development of the future is going to come from, it is argued that a significant and meaningful shift to thinking in terms of localisation contains a large part of the answer.

While the government speaks of localism, a devolution of power to local government or local communities, Transition focuses on localisation, on meeting more core local needs from things produced more locally, and on increased local ownership. Perhaps, Transition argues, we need to start thinking of localisation as economic development.

“Localisation as economic development.” It’s a phrase that contains a very big idea. At present, our local economies function like leaky buckets, into which pour wages, salaries, pensions and so on, but most of it pours back out again, through chain stores, supermarkets and so on, and its potential to make things happen is lost. Yet every outpouring is a potential local livelihood, local business, training opportunity. “Plugging the leaks”, as the New Economics Foundation calls it, has huge potential for economic regeneration, as well as for making communities more resilient in increasingly uncertain times.

So what are Transition groups doing on the ground in 2011 to make this happen? Lewes recently raised £307,000 from a community share launch which will create the UK’s first community solar-power station on the roof of a local brewery. Transition Town Kingston has set up a new food co-op delivering vegetable boxes to local households. Transition Norwich is building a new flour mill and new community farms, having carried out a strategic study called “Can Norwich feed itself?”

Transition Town Totnes, through its Transition Streets project, recently helped 500 local households reduce their carbon emissions by 1.5 tonnes each and build new social connections with neighbours, a project that was recognised with an Ashden Award last week. In Malvern, a Transition group known as the Gasketeers, is retrofitting the town’s historic gas lamps so they use 84% less gas, create no light pollution and need a fraction of the maintenance. The group plans next to set up an an anaerobic digestion scheme and run the lamps from local food waste. Portobello Transition Town (Pedal) in Edinburgh has set up a new Farmers’ Market and is planning the UK’s first community-owned urban wind turbine.

Ten Transition initiatives are now part of REconomy, a scheme run by Transition Network which offers them support to turn ideas into viable new social enterprises. This identifying of the new economic opportunities presented by localisation is seen as where all Transition initiatives go next. What would it look like if meaningful investment were to be brought in to support these emergent enterprises? If, as in San Francisco, urban planning regulations were changed to recognise intensive urban food production as being as valid a form of urban land use as, say, car parking or housing? How would the world around us start to change?

A short film soon to be released by Transition City Lancaster opens with a slow pan around the landscape of the city, with a commentary by a woman who talks from 2030 about living in the powered-down Lancaster of the future. “Work started this week removing the motorway” she reports. “The county council said ‘demolishing the M6 link will create thousands of jobs, return much-needed land to agriculture and improve food security and climate safety’.” While we may be sometime from the UK’s motorways being broken up to reclaim much-needed farmland, it beautifully captures how the decisionmaking and the everyday decisions of what Michael Klare calls “The Age of Extreme Energy” will be profoundly different from the age of cheap and easy energy that has shaped our lives.

The Transition movement is clearly not the only thing we need but, in acknowledging peak oil as a reality and designing and getting on with bottom-up solutions to it, it is way ahead of central government, whose official position is that we need not even start worrying for another 15-20 years. A more localised future may feel like a huge shift, and indeed one might question whether it is even possible. However, as events accelerate ahead of us and our dependency on the cheap fuels that enable globalisation becomes a key vulnerability, it may well prove to be our most promising strategy.

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


22 Jun 3:12pm

Hello, something shocks me a little in Totnès. I agree: the peak oil arrives. It’s time to prepare the after peak. Furthermore, gases of car are responsible for the global warming and for the discharge of the CO, the mortal gas. But also fine particles (cancer and problems in lungs) and heavy metals (cancer and Alzeimer). Now, when I look at a video on your city, I see cars everywhere. It shocks me. The good afternoon.

Trish Knox
22 Jun 10:03pm

How about “localisation as community development” and within that is a sustainable economy.

Community is an ecosystem where the parts cooperate and coordinate for the good of the whole. People can learn to behave in this way once they express and experience heart to heart connection.

Emotional intelligence is part of our community development process. I see it as a learning curve that we are on as a species.

We are not separate from one another or any part of creation. This unity through diversity is seen in our soils, our waters and our sky.

It’s time for us two-leggeds to harmonize in community.

Gunnar Rundgren
22 Jun 10:34pm

You wrote: “In the same way that vast amounts of cheap fossil fuels made globalisation possible, the end of the age of cheap oil will inevitably put globalisation into reverse.” I just posted something about how improvements in transport are very similar to the effects of globalization, and certainly cheap fuel has a lot of importance for “improvements” in transport.

Doug Atkins
23 Jun 12:16am

Eloquently put, Trish. Localisation, as you say, is less a question of locale, and more a question of systemic community relations, though the two interdepend in practice. Systems ecology and pro-naturalism are the heart of this transition, more than simply (needed) economic revisionism. Face-to-face, multi-faceted genuinely communal relationships are the answer; these generate freedom from corporatism and bureaucracies, which are what really tie us to the old model.
A good read here is M. Taylor’s Community, Anarchy and Liberty.

Jeff Mowatt
23 Jun 6:55am

Maybe of interest. An extract from the paper which was to pitch localised people-centered economic development to President Clinton. From here, after Russia’s economy collapsed in 1998, came the opportunity to deliver proof of concept in sourcing the Tomsk Regional Initiative which came in behind Harvard’s disastrous efforts to implement laissez faire capitalism.

‘Top-notch education is leaving the confines of physical campus and four walls. A student in remote Zaire, given an Internet connection, can become a Duke-educated Master of Business Administration, while remaining mostly in his or her home village to the village’s benefit. The prospect of such decentralized localization of education and economic activity allows a great deal of autonomy, freedom and self-determinism in the village’s own character and identity. It need not be a risk to cultural heritage and integrity to benefit economically; the means by which such benefit will occur, how local citizens can have food, shelter, health care, and a basic sustaining human standard of existence can be determined at the local village level and then communicated at the regional, national, and global level simultaneously at virtually no cost via the Internet and a web site. It is this basic level of human sustenance, coupled with self-sustaining enterprise to provide this basic level of support, that I refer to as sustainable development — which is just another way of saying “people-centered” economic development.

The P-CED “type” of firm demonstrates how a for-profit enterprise can be created and operated for the benefit of those who need the profits, and who will not have access to financial markets otherwise. In effect, those in poverty would benefit much as if they were actual stockholders in the enterprise. Networking with business development organizations enables the poor to develop their own business enterprises. Microcredit, or microfinance, organizations have proven to be very effective tools in fostering small business development in cash-starved locations. A very successful loan program in the US, Good Work, Inc., has operated in Durham, North Carolina since 1992, with the aim of providing loans and microloans in amounts from $500 to $10,000 to people who would not be able to find money otherwise. Business planning and management training are provided to applicants to ensure loan viability and business success. Good Work reports a business survival rate of more than ninety percent.

Clearly, profits can be used very effectively in ways other than traditional investment and profit outcomes. Moreover, this is not charity, it is business–good business. One P-CED firm could be expected to spin off dozens of new firms and businesses, all of which create new jobs and all of which operate under traditional free-enterprise practices. That is, if a spin-off business were to profit a million dollars a year, the owners can bank the money for themselves and their stockholders as is the normal practice. There is nothing wrong with individuals becoming wealthy. It is only when wealth begins to concentrate in the hands of a relative few at the expense of billions of others who are denied even a small share of finite wealth that trouble starts and physical, human suffering begins. It does not have to be this way. Massive greed and consequent massive human misery and suffering do not have to be accepted as a givens, unavoidable, intractable, irresolvable. Just changing the way business is done, if only by a few companies, can change the flow of wealth, ease and eliminate poverty, and leave us all with something better to worry about. Basic human needs such as food and shelter are fundamental human rights; there are more than enough resources available to go around–if we can just figure out how to share. It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day.’

Jeff Mowatt
23 Jun 7:13am

Unfortunately, in practice, this proves to be far from easy, as I relate to my local council after 5 years efforts to leverage localisation initiatives. They are clearly not willing to collaborate, going as far as shutting me our of a local task group such that afaics, the localisation alternative was excluded. Much the same can be said about the regional development agency who after 7 years, still say ‘we’ll get back to you’.

It simply will not work in such a crony culture.–get-out-of-the-way-_43.html

24 Jun 7:39pm

‘The world’s carbon emissions increased in 2010 by a record amount, in spite of many of the world’s economies being in recession…’

Further more 2010 has also seen sharp spike atmospheric methane, which originates mainly from Siberian and other arctic permafrost beginning to de-frost and that is a killer.

If this trend continues in 2011 then the inescapable conclusion will have to be that we are too late to save the planet from catastrophic global 6C plus warming through a series of self reinforcing positive feedbacks starting with melting ice being replaced by heat absorbent dark surfaces and now also be melting permafrost releasing methane.

If this development is confirmed in 2011, it will be necessary to re-evaluate our approach to Global Warming, since that becomes unstoppable. We shall have to redirect are meagre efforts to adaptation rather than attempting to restrict CO2 emissions.

To be clear, adaptation includes over time vacating all areas 20m or less above current sea levels, abandoning the majority of the current surface area of the planet as it turns to desert and instead inhabiting sufficiently high ares of the Siberia, northern Canada and Antarctica.

No amount of localisation will stop the loss of coastal areas to the sea and much of Africa, America, Asia and Southern Europe to the heat.