Our understanding of the world is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. The dominant story of our culture, says Shaun Chamberlin, is that of progress: we're led to believe "that we currently live in one of the most advanced civilisations that the world has ever known, and that we are advancing further and faster all the time." That's the story the advertisers and politicians tell us, but it has parted company with reality. Pursuing the idea of progress through constant growth is already destroying the environment, and isn't even making us happy in the process. We need a new story.
The Transition movement aims to be that alternative story, the story of how we changed direction and successfully came back down the energy mountain. To present this vision, Transition initiatives use a tool called ‘back-casting' - telling a story from the perspective of the future, and this is what The Transition Timeline sets out to do.
The book begins with four different versions of the future, depending on how we choose to handle climate change and peak oil. Denial is the first response, investing everything in a technological revolution is another. A third option is to try to deal with peak oil and climate change within existing political and economic frameworks, and then there's the Transition. Each of these scenarios is explained, and then told in retrospect from 2027.
As I approached this back-casting exercise, I must admit I was a little sceptical. It sounded a bit gimmicky. Having read it, it's a lot more realistic and restrained than I thought it might be. For each possible future, Chamberlin explores the consequences of our action or inaction, for population, CO2 emissions, and global stability.
Needless to say, the only option that has a positive outcome is the Transition scenario, which the book then goes on to explore in more detail. A series of chapters addresses energy, transport, health, population, and food, each one ending with another view from 2027 to say how sustainability was achieved. Among the timelines are global agreements, laws passed, local initiatives and cultural shifts, and a way forward is therefore imagined and suggested.
Finally, for the benefit of Transition projects educating their communities, the last chapters of the book present the latest science on climate change and peak oil. If you follow either of those online, on sites like Celsias or The Oil Drum, there's nothing here that you won't already have heard.
The final chapter explores the UK government reaction to climate change and peak oil, which is rather sorry reading, particularly on the latter. This is useful stuff, but only if you live in the UK. (Note: I'm reviewing the US edition, by the way, and that still has the UK chapter.)
The Transition Timeline was written specifically for those engaged in Transition initiatives, as they work on Energy Descent Action Plans. It will be most useful for those groups, but remains an inspiring and thought provoking book for anyone who is interested in the life we must create for ourselves after cheap energy.