3 Oct 2011
A whistle-stop tour of Belgium and the Netherlands
How’s this for an interesting sign of the times? I travel to Brussels on Eurostar, I arrive and write a tweet saying “just travelled to Brussels on Eurostar, very nice it was too”, and almost immediately get a tweet back from them saying “glad you enjoyed the journey”! Didn’t expect that one. That’s either really great or a bit scary, I haven’t decided yet. Anyway, I am just back from a mad-dash tour of Belgium and Holland. It was fascinating to see the level of interest in Transition in those places and to meet some of the people involved.
When I arrived in Brussels, I had 4 back-to-back interviews waiting for me, the most fascinating of which was for Belgian business television. It was a fascinating experience telling them that we have reached the end of the age of cheap oil and the end of economic growth, but that every end of a new beginning, and that this is a historic new beginning, if only we are able to base our thinking on more realistic assumptions about where we find ourselves. One question was “can we live without oil?”, to which I replied “I don’t think we’re going to have much choice”. Be fascinating to see how the final piece turns out.
The evening event in Brussels was fantastic. Over 600 people packed into a hall on a very hot and sweaty evening for the event which had been a sell-out for weeks. First they heard from people in different parts of Belgium about what Transition stuff is happening there, and then I talked about Transition and about the ingredients. The idea of a community-owned brewery seemed to go down especially well! It was also great to be able to note that it was the evening of the launch of the Brixton Electric Pound, going on at the same time in London, a very significant evolution in the emergence of local currencies. Here is a short clip of my talk filmed by ‘itsandyjb’…
The evening was the product of an unprecedented coming-together of different groups, Imagine Magazine, MO magazine, etopia, oikos, Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth), Transition Brussels and Transition Flanders. After my talk, representatives of some of those groups asked questions, and then it was open to the audience to ask questions. Lots of people had questions afterwards too, and it was great to meet people doing all kinds of interesting projects. As a ‘thanks for coming’ gift from the organisers I was given a hardback copy of ‘Asterix in Belgium’ and some seed bombs. I love doing Transition.
Stayed that evening at a really cool artists’ community in Brussels, with my host Fabien who is a trainee permaculture teacher, as well as doing a lot to promote Transition. He showed us his ‘window farm’ (see right), a hydroponic system for growing strawberries suspended in his south-facing window, which grew strawberries in clay pellets fertilised with the liquid from his worm composting system, and also his home biochar unit. Stayed up for a while chatting with various artists and permaculturists drinking beer in the courtyard. They gave me a copy of the French edition of the Transition Companion, and suggested that, seeing as I had signed theirs, they all sign mine, a signed copy I will treasure. Slept like a log in a huge bed.
The next day started with a mad and exhilarating ride on the back of a motorbike through the Brussels rush hour traffic to the station for the train to Holland. In Rotterdam I was joined on the train by Jan, who runs the publisher who produced the Dutch version of the Transition Handbook. He got me to Utrecht, where we got off the train and did an interview with a journalist from a voluntary simplicity-themed magazine, before we got back on the train and on to Deventer.
Deventer is one of the most established Transition initiatives in the Netherlands, as well as being a very beautiful town. The project has done many things, including a very successful community solar project that has led to over 600 households installing solar panels, and several community gardens throughout the town.
When we arrived, we went to see a community garden which they had helped to establish. A group of local people decided they wanted to turn a local park into a food garden, and asked the Transition group for some training and support. The garden is now used by 25 families, including many Turkish families who grow plants they use more in their cooking, such as aubergine and paprika. They had also planted an area of fruit trees and shrubs.
While we were there we also did an interview with a reporter from one of the country’s leading papers, before heading off again to the venue. ‘Transitie Conferentie 2011’ was a national gathering of Transition folks from across the country. The first day was packed with talks, and the second comprising more of workshops. The venue was a beautiful old synagogue, and at least 200 people were attending the event. The presentations were all in Dutch, and so went rather over my head, although it was nice to see Fransje de Waard, a Dutch permaculture teacher I last met in 1995, still going strong doing permaculture stuff.
There was a very powerful and moving video talk by Awraham Soetendorp, an elderly rabbi (which Dick very kindly translated for me), about the power of doing Transition and rediscovering community, which I am trying to encourage the producers to give English subtitles as it was very moving. I then gave the first of two talks, focussing particularly on stories of how Transition initiatives in the UK are working with their local councils. After my talk, Paul Hendriksen and I signed a symbolic large version of the Memorandum of Understanding between Transition Netherlands and Transition Network (see right) to much applause.
At 5.30pm there was a big and rather delicious meal for everyone, sitting out in the back yard in the unseasonally warm early evening sun. After that I went for a walk around Deventer. It is a town rich with old buildings, big public squares, bars, trees, and with people sitting out, drinking and chatting. At 7.30 the evening session began, featuring 4 speakers. The first, Jan Juffermans, talked about ecological footprinting and its value as a tool. The second, Peter Polder of ASPO Netherlands, gave a crash course in peak oil and how we can tell that it is near. Then Anna Schoemakers talked about the work she is involved in, working with a range of organisations supporting them in responding to climate change.
I gave an introduction, as I had done in Brussels, to the concept of the ‘ingredients of Transition’ and ran through what they are and how they work, illustrating the talk with lots of stories of what projects are doing. After my talk, the four of us did a panel-type thing, taking questions and thoughts from the audience. I did an interview with a woman who is launching a national radio station called ‘Transition Town Radio’. People stayed around for a long time afterwards chatting and asking questions, and I eventually got off to bed by about 12.
It was a fascinating trip. It is so interesting to meet Transition folks from different places, and to see how they are translating Transition into their place, to their culture. How Dutch Transition is different from Belgian Transition, which is different from English, Welsh or Brazilian Transition. I started each talk by making it clear that I hadn’t come to tell anyone how to do Transition, but rather to learn about how they are doing it. This, for me, is one of the beauties of Transition, the way in which it is open source enough for people to be able to make it their own, yet clearly-defined enough that people can ensure that it is distinctly Transition.
My huge gratitude to everyone who made this breakneck trip possible, especially Amber, Paul, Jan, Fabien and my hosts in Deventer whose names I can’t remember! Thanks all.