What will your neighbourhood look like in the year 2030? The Transition Initiative currently spreading across the UK is asking people for their positive visions of the future. Free from the "dream block," and embracing "dark optimism," Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition concept, views the Initiative as a vital social experiment. Taking together the problems of Peak Oil and Climate Change, he argues that communities need to become self-reliant, and believes - as do many fellow Transitioners - that a powered-down, oil-free future can be better than the present.
Peak Oil Theory was first introduced by M. King Hubbard in 1956, when he claimed that American oil production would go into decline around 1970, and that this decline would then be followed at a future date by a decline in world oil production. In The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man, David Strahan argues that we are now facing "Hubbard's Peak." The theory states not that oil supplies are about to run out, but that they have peaked, and that we are at a half-way mark, where the only direction that remains is down towards dwindling supplies of this finite resource. In his book The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, Rob Hopkins prefers to invert this idea and view the second half of the oil age as a journey up, out into the air of a new dawn. He prefers not to rely on alternative energy sources, but instead recommends that we begin to plan for our future, and look forward to a different way of living.
The Transition Initiative began in Kinsale, Ireland in 2005, when Hopkins' second year Permaculture students embarked on an energy descent project. Following a screening of the Peak Oil film The End of Suburbia (the film examines the concept of Peak Oil and considers the rise and ultimate downfall of the suburban dream), the student project and community input resulted in the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan covering areas such as food, education, housing, health, energy, economy, and livelihoods. The KEDAP took the present as its point of departure, and followed that with a vision of how Kinsale might look in 2021, if its stated recommendations regarding energy descent were to be implemented.
Permaculture is one of the main foundations on which the Transition Initiative has been built. Rob Hopkins acknowledges influences from David Holmgren, the co-originator of the Permaculture concept. According to Ben Branwyn of Transition Totnes, Hopkins views Holmgren's 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability as "one of the best books ever written." If you thought that Permaculture was a system for growing vegetables, think again.
Permaculture offers a holistic approach to designing self-reliant communities in the face of dwindling resources and environmental challenges; Permaculture turns its face away from passive consumerism. Favouring the local, small scale model over the global, Permaculture is derived from the careful observation of natural systems. Local currencies such as LETS schemes, chemical free agriculture, and site specific solutions to energy, waste disposal, and house building are just a part of evolving principles in which diversity and difference are viewed as essential. In Holmgren's view, Permaculture has historically pushed the edge.
Both Holmgren and Hopkins understand that for the layman, Permaculture can be a difficult concept to understand. It seems to enter under the radar, presenting itself as a system of agriculture, but belying its ability to be an integrated systems design and framework. The Natural Agriculture movement in Japan has covered some similar territory. In his 1978 book The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukouka calls for a gathering of the professions, artists, philosophers and politicians, to look out over the fields and see beyond their specialisations, creating a new discourse rooted in the earth. Followers of Shumei Natural Agriculture have taken this a step further, seeing it as a practice that engulfs all aspects of living, in order to create a literal "Heaven on Earth." The relationship engendered from the simple and pure cultivation of food creates a spiritual understanding and reworked economic exchanges. These exchanges require sacrifice on behalf of the consumer and the producer, in an interrelated and interdependent relationship.
In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways, David Holmgren defines a set of twelve Permaculture Principles, together with the essential areas requiring change in order to build sustainable communities. These areas include culture, education, environment, economics, spiritual health, and land governance. Holmgren welcomes the perception of Permaculture as a counterculture movement, viewing this perspective as having contributed to a greater tendency towards experimentation. Holmgren sees an emerging union between spirituality and materialism as an inevitable part of the drive towards integrated systems, and recognises that if the spiritual domain is ignored, destructive forces such as religious fundamentalism will fill the void.
Essential to any understanding of Permaculture and Transition Culture is top-down thinking and bottom-up action. Global conditions should be considered, but actions need to take place at the local level, by individuals or small scale groups looking for points of intervention where they can be most effective or useful.
The Transition Initiative is a local response to Peak Oil and Climate Change. Hopkins insists that if Peak Oil and Climate Change are not considered together, the top-down thinking becomes suspect. The production of Ethanol provides an apt example. Increasing population demand in China and India, drought, desertification, and altered rainfall patterns are currently contributing to grain shortages and rising food prices, yet there is an increasing amount of agriculture being used for the production of bio fuel. This raises the question: which is most important, fuel or food? Hopkins offers the example of New York; in terms of Climate Change it is less carbon emitting than many other cities, yet in terms of Peak Oil it is - in his view - ill prepared to cope.
In 2006, when Rob Hopkins left Kinsale for Totnes in Devon, the UK's first Transition Town was born. In Totnes (a market town in the south west of England) the Transition model has been refined, and Totnes now holds Transition training workshops designed to give communities the skills required to start their own Initiatives and implement their own Energy Descent Plans. The Transition concept is spreading rapidly; many other towns, a few cities (hubs) and even a village have followed suit. My local Initiative is Transition Town Whitstable, where we are currently at the raising awareness stage of the Transition process. Other towns and cities across the globe are also "mulling" - deciding whether to take the Transition route.
Central to the Transition model is that its message should be positive and that taking part must be enjoyable. Hopkins believes that doom-laden environmental messages do not empower people, but leave them feeling helpless and unable to respond. Shaun Chamberlain, who is currently producing a Transition Timeline for Totnes, uses the term "dark optimism" as a way of looking at events with your eyes open, mindful of the unpalatable truths and ready to stare into the unknown, but facing any resultant darkness with a belief in the potential of people to overcome it. Hopkins has also collaborated with Dr. Chris Johnstone, an addictions specialist, who has used his work on addiction to examine how communities in industrialised countries can overcome their dependence on oil. He views inner feelings such as fear and cynicism as the "dream blocks" that prevent us from creating positive visions.
Creating positive visions to instigate positive change is essential in the Transition model. The original vision for Totnes was a twenty-five-year vision taking them up to 2030. Recognising the cultural significance of storytelling, part of their visioning work has involved the writing of "fake" newspaper articles from the future. The articles are intended to aid the process of imagining a future in which goals are achieved, by presenting tangible images of how a sustainable town might look.
Hopkins has identified twelve steps in the Transition process, but he emphasises that these are only guidelines, which can be used as tools if they are applicable to the needs of any individual Transition Initiative. The first step relates to the leadership of the Initiative. A Steering Group is required to begin the process - my local Steering Group emerged from a pre-existing environmental action group - but crucially this group is encouraged to design its own demise from the outset (a process which has already been successfully achieved in Transition Town Lewes).
As the concept takes off in a community, subgroups are formed around subjects such as food and health, and members from these subgroups then form the next Steering Group. The hope is that leadership will arise out of the issues, and that those with the appropriate skills will surface when needed. Theoretically, the process should then be one of continual change and adaptability. When I was first trying to understand the model, I saw a correlation between online Peer to Peer networks, but Ben Branwyn told me that, "I don't think of us replicating the computer model rather than relearning the human one."
The founders of the Steering Group in my local Initiative have a Permaculture and arts background. A neighbouring Initiative has been founded by academics from a local university. Each Initiative is therefore likely to be very different. Members of the Steering Group have gained a sense of community and support from attending Transition conferences. They pointed out to me that whilst it can be easy to gain campaigning support for environmental causes, the task of transforming an entire way of life is far more daunting. They recognise that Peak Oil requires people to rethink every aspect of their daily lives and their society, and that this can prove extremely challenging for many. Getting people to see how they can respond to this in a positive way is no small task.
The second Transition step is that of raising awareness. My local Initiative is currently holding a series of film screenings to potentially include: The Power of Community, A Crude Awakening and The End of Suburbia. It is hoped that the film screenings will introduce the Peak Oil concept to a wider range of the community. At the screening of The End of Suburbia - which was held in the local arts centre - a discussion followed the film, where the audience was encouraged to talk in groups about the thoughts and feelings the film provoked. We are also hoping to organise an art trail to reflect the large local artistic community; and as a means to raise further awareness and enlist creative energy.
Other awareness-raising events can also arise from The Great Reskilling. This is the acknowledgement that we are set to lose many of the practical skills we will need to become self-reliant. Often these skills rest in the hands of older community members, and for this reason respecting the elders is seen as important. Workshops have been held in several Transition Towns and have included a range of crafts skills and natural building techniques. Education of this kind, in regaining lost skills and learning practical sustainability, is potentially essential. The approach recognises how fragmented our communities have become under global capitalism, and how important integration is.
At Transition meetings, the use of Open Space Technology is encouraged. At the first Open Space meeting I attended, it was widely felt that the process had been very valuable. We were given sheets of A4 to write down questions and thoughts. These were then laid out on tables and organised according to shared themes. People formed groups for discussion, but were encouraged to move on if they felt that would be more productive. Discussion groups noted further thoughts arising from their conversations. The aim was to identify recurrent themes and priorities.
After raising awareness in the community - this is not a fast process and can typically take a year - Transition Initiatives hold their Great Unleashing. This comprises an event or series of events to unlock the energy that has built up behind the Initiative. After the Unleashing it is hoped that the formulation of groups needed to produce an Energy Descent Action Plan will begin. I attended an unleashing event in Forest Row (a village in the south east of England). Communal celebrations form an important aspect of The Transition philosophy.
The Initiative gaining the most publicity has been the introduction of a local currency in Totnes, the Totnes Pound. The project is aimed at encouraging local economics and requires a 5% subsidy on behalf of the consumer; it is still considered to be at an experimental stage, but trials so far have been successful. In Shumei Natural Agriculture, farmer Hiroo Kimura developed a community currency called Leaf Money. Volunteers visited the farm to help and in return were given 500 Leaf Dollars, which they could then spend on the farm's produce. The translation into ordinary currency was 5 dollars per day of farm labour. Kimura intended the process to reveal that the price of food does not reflect the care that goes into growing it. The Leaf Money was based on the values of nature, not on the values of money. In my view Leaf Money illustrates a more radical potential for local currencies.
So far the Transition concept has been successful in small towns, and because it is in its infancy, it is difficult to say how the urban city will use the tools it offers. In London, Brixton has begun a hub. They have been collaborating with hubs in Brighton and Bristol to discuss approaches. One thing they recognise as being essential is the need to build networks with agriculture on the outer edges of the cities. In the UK many car park sites were once thriving market gardens.
David Holmgren studied the work of Peter Kropotkin when formulating the Permaculture philosophy. In his Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Kropotkin claimed that mutual support in nature and human societies is more evident than mutual struggle, and believed that followers of Darwin narrowed his observations for their own ends, turning his theories into "survival of the fittest." He was critical of Thomas H. Huxley and of Hobbes' "war of each against all." In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin observed in animal and human societies evidence to suggest that survival is accomplished through co-operation not from competition, observing that natural selection actually finds ways to avoid competition.
In the 1960's, Kropotkin's work was republished and was influential in some experiments at communal living. In Proposed Communist Settlement: A New Colony for Tyneside or Wearside, rather than advocate the small, exclusive communal settlement, Kropotkin suggests that communist settlements should be "in the neighbourhood of large cities. In such cases every member of the community can enjoy the many benefits of civilisation; the struggle for life is easier, on account of the facilities for taking advantage of the work done by our forefathers and for profiting by the experience of our neighbours." We have to acknowledge that half of the world population now lives in cities, and solutions need to include a focus on how cities can thrive.
It is early days for the Transition Initiative, and it remains to be seen whether this slow and careful approach will succeed in making the strong, tangible changes that are required. Rob Hopkins acknowledges that the model will go where it wants to, and emphasises that he does now know all of the answers or have a master plan. My local founders likewise are hopeful that the Initiative will blossom, but cannot be certain as to the direction it will move in.
It is likely that the Transition Initiative will be joined by other Initiatives, and that these will drive the movement towards empowerment and self-reliance forward. The Transition Network is clearly evolving thoughtful and useful skills, and pioneering techniques essential for the future survival of communities. In response to the many challenges now facing us, a multitude of Initiatives may begin to flourish. It is certainly time for us all to fashion the future from our visions of sustainable co-operation.
Photo by gemmasphotos, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw Revolution, 1978, Other India Press
Hamilton, Lisa.M. Farming to Create Heaven on Earth, 2007, Shumei International Press
Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, 2002, Holmgren Design Services
Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience, 2008, Green Books
Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, 1902, Heinemann
Kropotkin, Peter. Proposed Communist Settlement: A New Colony for Tyneside or Wearside, 1895
Strahan, David. The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man, 2007, John Murray