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Communities in Transition

Less carbon - more skills and connection

Transition Town Westcliff: community gardens. Photo by Fred Robinson
Citizens of Transition Town Westcliff, in the United Kingdom, are exploring how to prepare for a carbon-constrained world. The town is creating an Energy Descent Action Plan. This photo: community gardens. Photos by Fred Robinson

Rob Hopkins was teaching permaculture in Kinsale, Ireland, when he encountered the concept of peak oil. Hopkins and his students were shocked at the looming prospect of a world without cheap energy, and at the absence of plans to deal with the repercussions. Rather than wait for someone else to act—government or otherwise—they figured out how to address the problem, one community at a time.

Hopkins says, “The idea emerged that the future with less oil could be preferable. But we need to rediscover what was actually good about life before cheap oil.”

Their work led to the Transition Towns movement, which claims 26 communities as members in the United Kingdom, with 400 more worldwide expressing interest in becoming transition communities—people taking charge of preparing their communities to make a graceful entry into a low-energy world.

The essence of the Transition Town concept is building resilience at the community level. As Hopkins points out, it is only in the last half-century that oil has become the central force in all aspects of our lives, moving people, moving food, and removing both the sense of community and the skills for local mutual support.

During World War II, Hopkins says, Victory Gardens were an important part of the food supply. At the time, growing food in the back yard was not a great challenge—most people were at most a generation away from some sort of home food production. Those who were not had ready access to the knowledge of neighbors or elders.

Transition Town Westcliff: sustainable transportation. Photo by Debbie Burnett
Transition Town Westcliff, in the UK. This photo: sustainable transportation. Photo by Debbie Burnett

In the years since World War II, we’ve so absorbed the notion that food should come from trucks that a Victory Garden would be beyond the capability of most. Similarly, cheap clothing shipped across the world has made sewing a quaint thing of the past. Skills that were commonplace less than 100 years ago have disappeared. What we’ve lost, says Hopkins, is resilience.

The Transition Towns movement aims to rebuild that, from the ground up. One key to the success of the movement has been that it invites people on a journey of change, starting where they are right now, rather than using fear or guilt as motivators. The news about peak oil and climate change is still poorly understood by many; helping people adjust to what seems very bad news is part of the Transition Town program.

Transition Town Westcliff: cardboard classroom. Photo by Graham Burnett
Transition Town Westcliff, in the UK. This photo: cardboard classroom. Photo by Graham Burnett

Equally important is an emphasis on solutions and positive possibilities. Hopkins offered a 10-week “Skilling Up for Powerdown” course in Transition Town Totnes, where he now lives. The course took participants from an introduction to peak oil and climate change through all aspects of transition life—food, housing, energy, money, and personal preparation. Transition Town Totnes has an active program of planting nut trees in private and municipal spaces, an exercise in making carbon-consuming trees a food source. They’ve introduced the Totnes pound, a local currency that has seen 10 thousand one-pound notes go into circulation in the last year.

Transition Town initiatives are purely grassroots. That is a matter of necessity, since even local governments are behind the curve on the issue. It is also a matter of preference. If a low-carbon future means reliance on community resources, no one knows those better than the locals.

The Transition Towns movement responds to the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and sustainability. Not a happy combination. But, says Hopkins, “It feels to me that one of the reasons the Transition Towns movement has grown so fast is that it is positive in a time where it is hard to find positivity, solutions-based in a time when the problems are so glaringly obvious, and fun, in a time where we’re not supposed to have time for that any more.”


Doug Pibel wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Doug is YES! managing editor. Photo of Doug Pibel
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