Transition Culture

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17 May 2012

The transcript of my TEDxExeter talk

I posted the video of this a couple of weeks ago, but I am deeply grateful to Vanessa Kroll who has transcribed it, in case such a thing would be of interest/use to anyone.  Here it is:

“Hello.  I want to tell you a story which pulls together a lot of what we’ve heard already and looks at what that might look like in the context of one place. And it’s a story which I think can change the world. It’s a story which already is changing the world. It’s the story of my town, Totnes, in Devon.  A town of about 8,500 people, midway between Exeter and Plymouth.   But before I can tell you the story I really want to tell you about Totnes, I have to get another one out of the way first. 

Totnes was once referred to as the “Capital of New Age Chic”, that’s ‘chic’ not ‘sheep’. The idea of a “Capital of New Age Sheep” is too horrible to imagine. The Western Morning News, the local paper, in an article which I’ll be coming back to later, once referred to the average resident of Totnes as a “sandal wearing, crystal gazing soap carver subsisting entirely on brown rice and organic parsnips”. And Matt Harvey, our local poet, says that when you’ve lived there too long your body starts to secrete a hormone called ‘Totnesterone’, where your masculine and feminine come into perfect balance with each other.

But I think it’s really important that we move beyond the stereotypes of the town into another story that is happening there, which I think is really, really important. Totnes has a much higher than the national average number of families depending on part time work rather than full time work, has 50% more families living below £20,000 a year than the national average, very high house prices, and has seen most of its industry, most of its employment shut down over the last 15-20 years. The bacon factory, the milk factory, the art college, to a point where local businessman and historian Walter King talks about whether what we’re seeing is “the long, slow death of Totnes as a living working town, gathering pace”. And it’s that story, that context that I really want to talk about.

My role in this, I suppose started in 2005 when a friend and myself started showing some films about peak oil, about the idea that we are reaching the end of an age of cheap energy and all that that has made possible. We’re entering a time of increasingly volatile energy prices and that what we need to do with focus, determination, optimism and a sense of possibility is design the way that we’re going to get away from that. Same in terms of addressing climate change.  (Points to slide) It’s the very first talk that I gave in the town and it’s a story that has really started to build from that point because ultimately there is no cavalry coming to the rescue of places like Totnes, of most places where you live.

The current economic situation, these kind of issues around peak oil and climate change, what we really need to do, I would argue, is to harness, engage the collective genius of the people around us and focus on these challenges, seeing them as an enormous opportunity to be more brilliant than we’ve ever been, to do something which is really, really historic.  What I want to do is show you a very short little animation from the film that we’ve just released which is called ‘In Transition 2.0’ which hopefully captures rather creatively how transition approaches making change happen on the ground.

[Audio from video clip] “You can think of the economy of the place that you live as being like a big bucket and into that bucket go pensions, wages, grants and so on, but at the moment things like supermarkets, paying our electricity bills, internet shopping are all drilling holes into that bucket that means that our accumulated wealth and its potential are just draining away. And everywhere that there’s a leak in that bucket is a potential local livelihood, potential local business or a training opportunity for young people. So things like supporting community energy companies, supporting local food where it’s available and boosting that where it is and using local currency are all very skilful ways of plugging the leaks in that bucket.”

So from quite early on of doing Transition Town Totnes as it started to be known, we had a big event called ‘The Unleashing’ which was our launch event and from very early on, very quickly projects started going, people were excited, they were inspired, they wanted to see thing happen where they were. There were projects like the nut tree planting scheme where we wanted to plant productive trees throughout the town. There are now 250 planted, looked after by people who are close to them. A lot of local businesses paid to have them planted. And we had our first harvest of almonds from a park in town last autumn.

The Totnes Pound, the local currency scheme, specifically designed not to fit out through those holes in the bucket because if we take them anywhere else they’re not worth anything. You can’t use local currency, you can’t put it in offshore banking accounts, they‘re not very useful in the Cayman Islands!  A Local Food Directory so people can identify and support local food businesses. A co-housing group looking to build affordable co-housing for people as part of the local development. Awareness raising things like Open Eco-Homes, Open Edible Gardens where people can go and visit other people’s places where they’re already doing that stuff and learn from it. The Garden Share scheme where people who have a garden that they’re too elderly or too busy to use, are matched with people who want to grow food and don’t have anywhere to grow it. And that’s been going really really well.

In 2009, when this had been going for about 3 years, we did a survey and we found that 75% of people in the town had heard of what we were doing, 62 % of people agreed with it, thought it was a good idea, and about 30-33% had had some kind of engagement with it at some point. But stories started to reach us of how it was being picked up in other places. And my favourite was the daughter of a woman who is very active in the local churches went on holiday to Canada, a canoeing holiday. She was out in the middle of one of the great lakes, canoeing along, middle of nowhere, sees another canoe thinks “I’ll be sociable”, I’d better go over and say hello, paddles over, gets chatting “Where are you from?”  “Totnes”. “Oh, Transition Town Totnes?”  And it’s amazing how that story has rippled out.

But very quickly we needed to put some foundations under this, this was something that was starting to grow very very quickly and it had a lot of interest, both within the place and from outside people coming along and saying “What do you do?”, “How does that work?”. So Transition Town Totnes was set up as an organisation to offer project support, it’s a ’do-ocracy’. The people who make the decisions are the people who are doing stuff. It employs one and a half posts at the moment, and has brought in, I reckon, about one million pounds to the town over the last five years, and has rapidly become one of the pillars locally of local culture I think.

When we started doing Transition I was always imagined it was an environmental thing.  More and more I see it as being a cultural thing, really more and more I see it as being a cultural thing.  How do you change the story of the place where you are? And within that there’s a whole process of ’we can start lots of different projects’ but what does it look like if we start to see them all together?  If we can create a vision, if we can create a story that the people in the place can start to resonate with, it starts to make sense.

And we’ve done 2 things that have been really sort of strategic pieces around design. One of them was the Energy Descent Action Plan which you can find online, which involved many hundreds of people in trying to envision what the place could be like if we take peak oil, climate change, our economic situation as a huge opportunity to be brilliant. And the other one is called the Economic Blueprint that we’re doing at the moment which is actually now the local council’s Economic Blueprint.

What’s exciting with that is that for the first time that I’m aware of it’s starting to map the potential of the local economy. What passes through it and how could we start to cycle that more locally if we can start to plug some of the leaks?  So what are the initial findings for example?  Every year the area spends £30 million on food.  £20 million of that goes out through just 2 supermarkets. If we could start to shift just 10% of that spent to local food, we’ve brought £2 million into our local economy. We haven’t had to get government grants in, we haven’t had to invite big companies in, we’ve got £2 million in our economy for creating skills, trainings, new livelihoods and new enterprises. That feels like, to me, like a really big, really important idea of our time.

And one of the projects we did a couple of years ago which I think is really really interesting, this is after starting an organisation focussed on community responses to peak oil and climate change, is this thing called ‘Transition Streets’. Transition Streets is based on the idea that maybe change sticks better if you get together with your neighbours and it works on a street by street level.  So you get out on your street, you knock on the doors, you get between 6 and 10 people/households together and you agree to meet 7 times in each other’s houses.

You look at water one week, energy another week, food another week and you make pledges at the end of each session about what you’re going to do. And on average each household that gets involved cuts their carbon by about 1.3 tonnes and saves themselves about £600.  500 households have done this now. That becomes a very significant reduction towards the town’s emissions. But when I meet people in the street who’ve done it, they don’t say: “Oh, it’s great Rob, we did Transition Streets, we saved 1.3 tonnes of carbon, we’re feeling really pleased with ourselves. So great, we really feel we’re doing our bit.” What they say is: “it’s great, I now know Sandra over the road, Dave over the road, you know we’re doing this thing, I didn’t know him, he’s such an interesting guy, he does this and he knows all of this and he’s shown me how to do that.” And all that social side of it is what comes to the fore.

When we asked people in a report at the end that pulled together all the learnings from it “why did you get involved in Transition Streets?”, the key answer was “because I wanted to know my neighbours better.” And when we asked them “What were the key benefits you feel that you got out of being involved in that?” and we turned it into one of those clever Word Cloud things,  ‘Community’, ‘neighbours’, ‘getting to know’.  ‘Climate change’ doesn’t even register, ‘peak’, a tiny little word in the bottom corner, which for me is really really fascinating, that maybe in terms of making change happen, there is a different way of doing it which is about something which is kind of infectious and sort of viral and fun and contagious in that way. I’m using lots of disease analogies and I’m not trying to but they seem to be coming to my mind quickly!

And what we’re really focussing on now increasingly is about how do we make a new economy a reality in the town? If the cavalry aren’t coming, how do we do that? What does it look like if we start to put that in place? So things are now happening like the Totnes Renewable Energy Society, which now has 500 members and is about to put in for planning for 2 wind turbines on the edge of the town.

Transition Tours, which is about turning the many people who come to Totnes to find out about TTT, put on a really good experience for them in such a way that means we don’t kind of drown in it. Transition Homes which is a development looking to build 20 affordable houses but using predominantly local materials, because in the same way when we talk about food, localising food brings more money cycling into our economy, exactly the same thing works for building materials.

We’re seeing businesses starting to emerge through the kind of culture that’s been created of saying “we need new enterprises for this, who’s up for that?”.  We recently held a thing called the ‘Local Entrepreneur Forum’, where we brought together people with business ideas in the town, about 40 people who had great ideas for different enterprises with local potential investors and mentors to really try and kick start what this new economy could look like. We have a micro brewery project which is in the offing, The Kitchen Table which is really about catering but trying to catalyze lots of other things around local food as well.

It’s looking for businesses which have a number of criteria, that they’re about:

  • promoting local resilience
  • that they’re low carbon
  • that they are not just purely for personal profit
  • that they are working within natural limits
  • promoting localisation, and
  • that they’re about bringing assets into the local community.

I’m really glad I remembered all 6 of those, because lots of people talked about their anxiety dreams in advance. My anxiety dream before TED was that DeLaSoul came round to my house to stay for the night, the 80‘s rap trio, and I couldn’t find enough bedding for them. And so the fact that I’ve remembered all those things is great, I’ve broken through that barrier, that’s fantastic!

And when I was preparing this talk I asked various people “What were their highlights of being around this process for the last 5 or 6 years?” One person said it was the event at the end of Transition Streets where we showed a film called ‘Start something together’ which you can find on YouTube, which documents that process.  All the people from all the different Transition Streets came together to the Civic Hall and had a big kind of celebration. She said that she was almost moved to tears by the energy that that had created. Another friend of mine who organised a hustings event in the run up to the election where we invited all the local candidates rather than just having them sit there answer questions, we talked about this, about the kind of economy we wanted to create for the place, and then asked them “how are you going to support that, how are you going to help that into being?”

My personal highlight was this headline from the Western Morning News, the lead editorial no less, which contained this sentence: “In an interesting twist to the climate change debate, communities and individuals once seen as quaintly idiosyncratic for their way out views, have now become mainstream and may yet provide some of the answers to the biggest questions we all face”.

One day a German guy came, about 2 years ago, into the office of TTT. He said: “I have come all the way from Germany to see the famous Transition Town Totnes and you still have cars!” Well, you might like to temper your expectations a little bit you know!  But it’s really interesting reflect over the last 5 years about how this has spread. And the best kind of analogy that I can come up with is like mycorrhiza, an incredibly fine fungus, one of the main things which gives forests their resilience, it gives soil their resilience. If I had an inch cube of mycorrhiza-rich soil here it would contain 10 miles of mycorrhiza. And what it does, it’s like a neural network between all the different parts of it that enable it to spread excess nutrients around, communicate risk, communicate disease or threats to it and so on, it’s an extraordinary thing.

In a sense Transition is a bit like inoculating a community with something like that in that it runs and so our German friend who came he was looking for all the fruits, but a lot of what it does, it runs under the surface, it fruits where you expect, but it also fruits where you don’t expect. Research that we did showed that for example when Transition Streets had only just started, it hadn’t had any publicity or anything, we did a focus group completely on the other side of town and a woman talked about the first place where we had a pilot going on and said ”it’s great over there, it’s like the war, they’re like a village, they have street parties and everything.” That sense had started to percolate through.   One local councillor I talked to said: “the best thing TTT has done is bring people together.”

If it had just been something that happened in Totnes, that wouldn’t really have been that much use, but actually what happened is something has germinated there, has spread and spread and spread. There are now Transition initiatives in 34 countries, thousands of initiatives places all of this in their own context, whether it be Brazil or Barcelona, Bologna or Brixton, and using it to create their own banks, their own energy companies, their own food systems and so on. It’s an exhilarating thing to see and observe the spread of.

It’s a story which is able to bring 300 people from the town out about 2 weeks ago down onto the former derelict industrial site in the town for a big photograph to launch a campaign about bringing this site, which used to employ 163 people back into community ownership. To develop it as a catalyst for a Transition economy for the town, what we call the Atmos project.

It’s a story which is really about communities seeing community resilience as where their economic future lies. And Jay Tompt who works with us, wrote a beautiful blog about it which contained this sentence I wanted to read to you:

“There is plenty to keep and our children busy for a long time to come, the important thing is that we’ve begun, we know that we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for, so we’re just doing it, we don’t need the cavalry, we’re already here”.

So this has really been a process about ordinary people and a process that has dirt under its fingernails and has seen the opportunity this time around, it’s a really really exhilarating thing to be part of.  I just want to finish with one of my favourite quotes which is from my children’s favourite story book which is ‘Comet in Moominland’, written in 1946 by Tove Jansson. I think captures what the essence of Transition more than any academic paper on the subject I ever heard or I’ve ever written about it.

“It was a funny little path winding here and there, dashing off in different directions, sometimes even tying a knot in itself from sheer joy. You don’t get tired of a path like that and I’m not sure that it doesn’t get you home quicker in the end.”

Thank you very much.

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1 Comment

Kirsten McCulloch
11 Sep 5:36am

Thanks – it’s fantastic to be able to read the transcript sometimes, as well as watching the talk!

I was just doing a quick search on transition streets here on your blog, after reading your April post. I’m wondering, if a street wanted to get on the bandwagon, but there wasn’t a local transition towns project to piggyback off, is it still possible to get hold of the Transition Streets resources?