CASE STUDY: creating Transition Towns

| 27th November 2007
From theory to practice, how one man in Totnes is helping a community respond to the threat of peak oil – from its own currency to relearning lost arts. Ed Hamer reports

Totnes is a town rapidly rebranding itself. Renowned as the alternative capital of Britain’s greenest county, Devon, the town’s name traditionally conjures images of crystal-healing, new-age culture, beards and sandals. It may come as a surprise then, that this dreamy pastoral backwater is the location for what has been dubbed ‘the most significant and potentially ground-breaking social experiment of our time.'

Transition Town Totnes, as it has more recently become known, is the first initiative of its kind in the UK, attempting to reduce the carbon footprint of an entire community in a way that is imaginative, fun and engaging. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the project will develop a community-led Energy Descent Action Plan setting out an achievable timetable for reducing the town’s dependency on fossil fuels.

On first impressions you may be forgiven for thinking that Transition Town Totnes is an idealistic proposal reminiscent of the utopian 1960s counter-culture. You may also believe that our inevitable transition to an oil-free society cannot possibly be cultivated at community level, but instead must be led by industry or government. If this is the case, you will certainly not have attended one of the many talks given across the UK in the past year by the man behind transition culture, Rob Hopkins.

Rob is not your average bohemian Totnesian. He is also disarmingly humble, considering what he’s achieved since moving here just two years ago. We meet on a drizzly Devonshire afternoon in the Field Kitchen of Riverford organic farm, a handful of miles to the west of the town. Rob grins broadly as we sit down with a glass of local Luscombe ginger beer.

‘We came here a few weeks ago for my wedding reception,’ he says. ‘We held the ceremony at a youth hostel near Totnes, which we all got to by going up the river on a boat.’ Eccentric, perhaps.  You get the impression, however, that Rob is the kind of chap who simply lives what he breathes: low-impact living.

Rob’s conviction is rooted in the idea that ‘a town simply using much less energy and resources than at present could, if properly planned for and designed, be a more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable place to live.' His passion is inspired by a pioneering approach that has applied the principles of permaculture design to the inevitability of peak oil.

The term ‘permaculture’ was developed by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, to describe the practice of observing natural ecosystems to identify remedies to man-made problems. Originally applied to agricultural systems (permanent agriculture) the concept was soon adapted to energy efficiency, building design and resource sustainability.

Rob’s first introduction to permaculture came while travelling in India in the early 1990s. On returning to the UK he enrolled on a two-week permaculture design course after seeing Bill Mollison give a talk in Stroud: ‘I remember being blown away by the realisation that permaculture actually provides us with a toolkit for earth repair. The course and the talk had a big influence on my degree in urban planning at Bristol and has inspired my work ever since.’

Following his graduation, Rob moved with his young family to Ireland where he began teaching permaculture and pioneered the practical sustainability course at Kinsale further education college. The course quickly evolved to become the first two-year full-time permaculture course in the world. It was while teaching at the college in Kinsale that Rob and his students were introduced to the uncomfortable realities of a peak oil crisis.

‘The Transition Towns initiative was motivated by my initial sense of shock after first watching the DVD The End of Suburbia and a lecture at the college by Colin Campbell, who wrote The Coming Oil Crisis,’ says Rob. ‘We were amazed to discover that no one anywhere had really been thinking about it that much. Being a permaculture course, our immediate response was, “Right then, what shall we do about it?”’

Together with his students on the course, Rob set about applying the permaculture principles of energy efficiency, resource substitution and redesign on a scale never attempted before. They set out to construct a Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan detailing the practical steps required to wean Kinsale from its dependency on fossil fuels.

‘The Kinsale plan was really a prototype. It wasn’t until after we had published it that the consequences of what we had created began to sink in. People from all over the world were contacting us saying, “This is incredible.” I think it shocked a lot of people into realising how desperately unprepared we are to face the challenges ahead.'

Over this period Rob also took personal steps to reduce his own ecological footprint by designing and building his family home. With the help of volunteers, using entirely renewable and locally sourced materials, he constructed the first new-build cob house in Ireland for more than 100 years.

The project was followed by thousands of people via an online photo-blog and hailed for demonstrating that affordable rural housing could be provided with minimal building miles. Tragically however, the house was deliberately destroyed by fire just three months before it was completed.

Such a traumatic incident obviously influenced Rob’s decision to leave Ireland. However, the wave of community support that followed the fire took him and his family by surprise and inspired a new beginning for the seeds of transition culture.

In choosing Totnes as the new home for energy descent, Rob recognised the potential offered by the town’s unique blend of progressive and alternative culture. ‘What we were looking at developing here in Totnes was a much more thorough and deeper version of what we piloted in Kinsale. Totnes also differs from Kinsale in that the community has been involved throughout the process from the very beginning.’

In line with his unique permaculture approach, Rob spent his first year in the town simply observing and raising awareness within the community through a series of film screenings and discussions. ‘We were fully aware that we couldn’t simply tell someone to watch The End of Suburbia at home, by themselves, and expect them to suddenly start growing carrots the next day,’ he laughs.

In September 2006 the project was finally launched. There followed a series of events where the community was invited to volunteer their skills and enthusiasm. Within six months working groups had been established to focus on the primary aspects of Transition Culture; from energy and healthcare to economics and the arts.

‘Unlocking the collective genius of the community’ is how Rob sees the early stages of transition. ‘One of the first things we did was to consult the town’s older generations, to ask for their experience and advice on how the town used to function with minimal oil dependency,’ he says. ‘It is important to remember that this concept is not new. As recently as the Second World War, Totnes was almost entirely self-sufficient out of pure necessity’.

As the individual working groups gained momentum, the town began to attract enquiries from communities across the globe wanting to initiate the transition process in their own villages, towns and cities. ‘We didn’t have a template for what we were doing in Totnes,’ recalls Rob, ‘so when people started asking us how to actually start the process, we had to sit down and think about what we had done.’

The 12 Steps to Transition was born as a result, and has since been adopted as a blueprint for transition culture. ‘They are really not prescriptive but instead intended as a rough guide. People seem to find them useful as a starting point,’ says Rob.

Undoubtedly the single most ambitious venture to date has been the launch of the town’s independent currency earlier this year. The Totnes Pound was launched in March to emphasise the importance of relocalisation and to encourage people to attribute a value to the local economy. Following a trial period where 300 notes were distributed into circulation, 10,000 one pound notes have now been printed and are accepted by more than seventy businesses throughout the town.

‘The Totnes Pound has really grasped the imagination of the community,’ says Rob with boundless enthusiasm, ‘I think it is essential that projects such as this have solid manifestations that people can relate to. It provokes discussion but also sets the framework for a post-industrial society in which local currencies are inevitable.’

Rob is currently working on a book for publication in the spring entitled Small is Inevitable. Designed as a comprehensive template to the transition phenomenon, Rob uses the book to explore what he calls the ‘the head, the heart and the hands of energy descent’.

In an engaging and accessible manner, Rob describes ‘the head’ as the concepts of peak oil, outlining the arguments for and against localisation and historical examples from a pre-oil-dependent society. ‘The heart’ refers to the enthusiasm and motivation that already exists within communities and how this can be focused to facilitate change. ‘The hands’ are what Rob refers to as ‘the great reskilling’, the practical steps that communities must take to become self-sufficient in food, energy and materials.

‘What the book is really saying is that this change from the grassroots is happening whether you accept it or not, this isn’t a process which comes along with all the answers, it is a process which is about getting people thinking about the right questions.'

Rob’s work has attracted personal commendations from the most unlikely of quarters. In July this year the town’s Conservative MP Anthony Steen used his monthly newspaper column to highlight the importance of the Totnes model and the dangers of complacency regarding peak oil. ‘Rob is clearly very driven by his passion,’ says Steen. ‘He has set a precedent that has achieved an enormous amount in a very short time. We are all just waiting to see where it will go from here.’

Rob’s passion is the catalyst that has sparked off Transition Culture, and he is seen by many as the figurehead of the movement. Although aware of his growing profile Rob remains grounded by more than a decade of working directly with the soil. ‘I prefer to see my role as a promoter of transition culture as a positive response to peak oil.’

Transition, it seems, has arrived at a time of change. As Rob points out: ‘The potential of this time is immense and the scale of the challenge is unique, the tools of lobbying, campaigning and protesting are no longer sufficient, transition effectively provides us with new tools to face new challenges.’

In the past 12 months alone, 20 new transition initiatives have sprung up across the UK from cities the size of Bristol to tiny rural hamlets. A further 90 are undergoing the initial stages and Rob receives at least two new enquiries every week.

When I ask Rob if the transition initiative has an ultimate goal or a destination, he hesitates slightly before offering one of his infectiously enthusiastic smiles: ‘There are 1000 towns and cities in the UK, 10,000 villages and twice as many hamlets. Ultimately, I have a faith that the ingenuity and resourcefulness that got us up to the top of this peak in the first place has the potential to take transition to every single one of these communities.'

And with that I notice that the rain outside has stopped, the sun is shining and the world suddenly seems a lot brighter.

Further information:

Transition Town Totnes

Transition Culture

The 12 Steps to Transition

1. Set up a steering group: A core team is essential for driving the project forward during the initial stages and planning for ‘The Great Unleashing’.

2. Awareness raising: Above all, this stage must be fun, imaginative and engaging. It is intended to inform the community about the realities of peak oil through film-screenings, presentations, talks and networking.

3. Laying the foundations: Identify and liaise with existing community groups and acknowledge the vital roles they have to play in the transition initiative.

4. The Great Unleashing: The event should be spectacular but also informative, introducing the wider community to the concepts of peak oil and climate change.

5. Form working groups: Ideally the ‘core’ working groups should be among the first, including food, waste, energy, education, economics, transport, water and local government.

6. Open Space: In theory, this forum model shouldn’t really work, having no agenda, no timetable, no obvious co-ordinator and no one to take minutes. However, Totnes has so far run successful Open Spaces on food, energy, housing and economics.

7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project: This stage is essential for capturing the imagination of the community and demonstrating the potential of the transition initiative.

8. Facilitate the Great Reskilling: Many of the skills that our grandparents took for granted have sadly been lost to mechanisation and industrialisation. Transition represents an exciting opportunity to reinvigorate traditional crafts that are essential for a post-fossil-fuel economy.

9. Build bridges with local government: Whether it’s planning issues, funding or simply endorsement, the support of your local authority is essential if the Transition initiative is to be entirely successful.

10. Honour the elders: Local knowledge is one of the greatest sources of inspiration and ideas within your community. Those of us who can still remember the transition to the age of cheap oil represent a wealth of information.

11. Let it go where it wants to go: ‘Predetermining the outcome,’ as Rob says, ‘is going to really wind you up!’ Keep your focus on the key criteria and watch as the collective genius of the community creates highly inventive solutions.

12. Create an Energy Descent Action Plan: This is really the pinnacle of the transition process.  The plan should be exhilarating to read and illustrated with stories and photos to provide an inspirational vision of a powered-down community.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2007

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