Over the last few years a new expression has been slowly weaving its way into the consciousness of the UK population, and the larger world community. It crops up in local politics, in the board meetings of small businesses, in community centres and schools. It features in local newspapers and radio stations, finds its way onto posters and proposals. It is concept and a vision, a way of understanding the challenges of the 21st century. It is a movement, and it's called Transition Towns.
In essence, Transition Towns is about transitioning communities into a post-carbon future. It is about rallying local networks to explore how their town, village, or city will tackle the twin threats of climate change and peak oil. Then, rather than waiting for government legislation or mass lifestyle changes, it's about starting where you are with creative grassroots initiatives.
There are two guiding aims behind the Transition model - building resilience and reducing carbon emissions. The first of these, resilience, is the robustness of a community, its ability to handle shock and change. The second is a response to climate change, a planned and gradual shrinking of the ecological footprint of the town and its citizens. Together, this transition is "a process of relocalizing all essential elements that a community needs to sustain itself and thrive," according to the chief minds behind it, Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn.
Transition Towns is a grassroots movement with a ‘wiki' ethic, a set of evolving ideas shared and discussed across a national network of transition groups. It starts with one or two people in a community, like-minded individuals registering their interest on the Google maps on Transitiontowns.org. It progresses by getting together and showing relevant films in community centres, libraries and churches, raising awareness and building a vision. (recommended films include A Crude Awakening, The End of Suburbia, The 11th Hour, etc.) A committee forms, and local business networks are brought into the discussion. Local government is invited to participate.
The group begins to explore the town's various dependencies - how and why do people travel? What percentage of food is grown locally? How many people have energy efficient houses? What's the average commuting time? How much energy is generated locally? Through local research and questionnaires, the Transition group assesses the area's vulnerability to peak oil, and how to creatively overcome it. These are then drawn up into an ‘energy descent plan', a routemap for "navigate the downslope" of peak energy.
There is no prescribed set of actions for Transition Towns. Each member of the network generates community solutions for it own area. Likewise the transition story is always unfinished, so there is no single example of how it can be done. But, a look at some of the most established Transition Towns shows how far it can go. The first town to adopt the Transition model was Totnes, a small town in South West England and home to Schumacher College, where permaculture lecturer Rob Hopkins came up with the idea and road tested it on his doorstep.
Totnes has been in transition since 2005. In that time the initial committee has spawned ten groups, each with a specific focus: Education, Health and Wellbeing, Economics and Livelihoods, and so on. These groups have launched 20 different projects between them. One group runs a resource exchange, where the waste products from one business are used as raw materials for others.
There's a garden exchange, where those with gardens they can no longer manage are paired up with garden-less growers. A tree-planting initiative aims to make Totnes the ‘nut tree capital of Great Britain'. Promotional campaigns encourage businesses to switch to renewable energy, and restaurants to source food locally and fish sustainably. Talks and discussions are regularly hosted, with speaker including Richard Heinberg and Jeremy Leggett. Most ambitious of all, last year Totnes launched its own currency. Now accepted in 70 different shops, it supports local business and prevents ‘leakage' of capital out of the community.
Transition Towns are growing, and there are now 126 ‘official' towns registered on the website. It's also gone international, with towns in the US, Australia, New Zealand, and across Europe taking part. Expect to hear more about it. Because it is community-based, it brings people together and empowers communities, releasing their potential. It's exciting, practical, and inclusive. To find out more, look up the Transition Initiatives Primer (pdf), by Hopkins and Brangwyn. I'll give them the last word:
"As we build a critical mass of communities embarking on these energy descent planning processes, we'll be able to build a thriving cooperative network where people are sharing best practice, helping each other and creating a way of life that is far better than the atomised, disconnected, unsustainable and inequitable society that we've grown into, largely on the back of super-abundant cheap oil."
Transition Towns Totnes
The 2008 Transition Towns Conference - Cirencester
Transition Kinsale Spring Fair