The founder of a growing movement shows us around 'Transition Town Totnes' in Devon and talks about peak oil, the origin of the Transition Towns concept and how to help your community develop an 'energy descent plan' and prepare to 'power down.'
A young British activist tells how a movement he started is helping galvanize local citizens to use positive visioning and other innovative social processes to create energy descent plans for towns and cities across the UK to meet the challenges of climate disruption and dwindling oil and gas supplies. Above he points to the local clock tower that has become his group's logo.
Rob Hopkins is the founder of Transition Town Totnes, the first transition town project in the UK, which has spawned a growing movement. He publishes http://transitionculture.org/ , a blog exploring how communities can prepare for climate change and peak oil. A teacher of Permaculture and practical sustainability for over 10 years, Hopkins has built with strawbales and cob, and is currently researching a PhD at Plymouth University on local transition issues and sustainability education. He has a particular passion for walnut trees. WATCH
Local Responses to Peak Oil and Global Climate Change READ
An Interview with Movement Founder Rob Hopkins
Totnes, Devon, UK - February 28, 2007
Interviewed by Mary Beth Brangan & James Heddle
Co-Directors of EON - The Ecological Options Network
Birth of an Idea Who's Time Has Come
EON: Let's begin with the backstory. How did you come to originate the Transition Town concept?
RH: Well, for the last 10 years I was living in Ireland, in the Southwest of Ireland and was very involved there in teaching permaculture and ecovillage development and natural building, a sort of very hands-on, solutions-based educational approach and involved in one of the first ecovillage developments. We got planning permission in Ireland to build the first cob buildings. It's been there for quite a long time and lots of that kind of thing.
As part of that, I also set up the first two-year full-time permaculture course in the world at a college in ¬¬¬Kinsale, Ireland. And it turned out in September 2004, the first day of term, somebody gave me a copy of this film named “ The End of Suburbia.” I didn't have a DVD player, so I couldn't watch it. So I thought, oh, I know, I'll show it to the students on the first day of term.
And it turned out that just up the road was [petroleum expert] Colin Campbell. None of us had ever heard of him before, but a friend of mine who'd already seen “The End of Suburbia” said, ah, you should get in touch with Colin Campbell. He just lives up the road and he's in the film.
So, not knowing who Colin Campbell was or not knowing anything about peak oil, I just rang him up and said hi, I wonder if you might come in and talk to my students. And he said certainly, certainly, certainly. So he came along and as of the first day of term, they had Colin Campbell and the End of Suburbia, so it was quite an impact already.
The Grandfather of Peak Oil
EON: Say more about who Campbell is and what he said.
RH: Colin Campbell is seen really as being the grandfather of peak oil. He's the person who co-authored the first paper on peak oil in 1998. He's the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. He's really the first person people go to find out about peak oil. He worked in the oil industry for 40 years; and what's intriguing about him is, he's one of the main proponents of the peak oil theory, but he's also very much a product of the oil industry. And quite a few of those key people who are the people who are really putting forward the peak oil theory aren't people who are sort of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists from down in the forests; they're people who worked in the oil industry for 40 years and actually are sort of whistle blowers from within the industry, rather than people from the outside.
EON: For those who haven't yet heard of it, explain what you mean by 'peak oil.'
RH: [ Moves his hand in an up and down in a steep and narrow arc. ] Peak oil is very hard to describe without doing that. You see when everybody starts talking about peak oil, they do that. It will look like this probably. [ Moves his hand in a broader, more gradual arc. ]
But basically it's the idea that the important point that matters isn't the point when you use the last drop of oil; it's the point when you use about half of it. Like in a car, for example, whether your tank is completely full or when you've got an eggcup worth of petrol left in it, it still runs exactly the same; whereas in economy, it's that mid-way point where the slowdown begins.
The idea of peak oil emerges from observing how oil fields work around the world, their lifespan, then magnifying that to nations and then to the whole world. All oil-producing nations follow a pattern where they peak in discovery and then about 30-40 years later they peak in production.
The world peaked in discovery in 1965 and a lot of experts think that we're nearing the peak of production now. And why that matters is because all the way up towards this peak demand drives supplies, so the more we want the more we can have. Saudi Arabia can open the tap to produce more. We've built more and more of an industrial and societal infrastructure around this flow of cheap oil that has sustained everything.
Once we go over this point at the top of the oil production arc, then that changes around and supply dictates demand. We can only have as much as there is and, in effect, as Colin Campbell describes it, we've reached the end of the age of cheap oil.
It's not that we've run out of oil, but the implications of running out of cheap oil when our entire economic system has been based on borrowing from the future, creating debt based on future generations being able to pay them. And actually that, in turn, has been based on a presumption that they will have the cheap oil to enable that to be the case. So recognizing that that scenario won't work is a switching point of enormous significance.
Beyond the 'End of Suburbia' - Social Permaculture?
EON: And so how does the Transition Town concept fit into this whole picture?
RH: Well, the concept of transition towns originated with the work we did in Kinsale [Ireland] where, after we'd had this double whammy from Colin and the “End of Suburbia” and everyone was sort of reeling and thinking, my God, where did this come from!
I've been involved in environmental things for 15 years and I never caught the idea at all. I had this idea that one day in 2050 someone would put the last drop of oil into a car and it would be this gentle thing. But with the second-year students in the permaculture course, we started thinking about, well, what does this mean for the town of Kinsale. How is Kinsale going to adapt to this?
You know, we could just sit here, not do anything, let this unfold as a series of lurching crises; or we could actually try to pull together all the different aspects of the town and really, really look at this. Because if we're able collectively to design a way through this using our intelligence, our ingenuity, our creativity, then there's no reason why the future with less oil couldn't be a preferable place to the present.
That's really where the Transition Town concept originated as a very, very simple idea and still, at its heart, is the very simple idea that the future with less oil could be preferable to where we are now because if you look now in countries like India, there's this process that's going on to try to vilify the rural, vilify the simple, vilify the kind of pre-industrial, the local, and trying to really rubbish that. And it's a process that happened when I was living in Ireland. It happened in Ireland in the Sixties and Seventies, all the old buildings being pulled down, the view that horses and carts were no good, and building supermarkets and so. And the same process happened here in the Forties and Fifties.
'Backcasting' from a Positive Future
So the idea emerged that actually the future with less oil could be preferable, but in doing that we really need to rediscover what was actually good about life before cheap oil. We had this whole process of vilifying that way of life; that's been the case around the world. But actually part of this Transition Town process is looking back to what was good about this past lifestyle.
What we've been doing is a series of oral history to introduce old people and their memories from life in this town between the Thirties and the Fifties, when cheap oil really came in and really started to change things. And when you do that, you find out about how resilient people were in those days, how everybody had skills they could turn their hand to. Dig for victory gardens, I think it was called in the U.S., wasn't it? That was possible in those days because everybody knew how to garden. They hadn't been to gardening college but they knew by osmosis how to garden.
Nowadays, if you said to people here's a spade, dig a hole, you'd have lots of people who could design the hole and lots of people who could constantly survey the hole and spec the hole up for you, put the hole digging out to tender, and they could insure the hole-digging process against public indemnity, all this kind of thing; but actually there's be very few people who would actually dig.
So we've really moved away from being a sort of hands-on practical kind of society. So the Transition Towns process is really about trying to look to draw what was good about life without cheap oil, and also not to romanticize it but that there was a lot that we can learn from that. So we're trying to apply the best of the old, the best of the new; but it's really a process of us getting people to ask the right questions. I think it's a very important part of it.
Transition Town Totnes
When you look at a town like Totnes, all the plans that the local government draw up, local development plans, community development plans, they're all based on the assumption that climate change won't happen for a significant, an ignorable amount of time. The oil prices will always remain cheap, that this sort of household economy will continue. All of those assumptions are really highly questionable, and this Transition Town process I really like to think of as being a catalyst - that you come into a town as a catalyst for getting people to think about this impending transition process. Ask the right questions.
On the front of our flyer there's just the question “Can you imagine ¬¬¬Totnes beyond oil?” And that's really the question this process is asking. We don't claim to come in with all the answers. Maybe for some of the questions, there aren't such answers. I think it's about coming in with the question rather than breezing in with lots of experts who design everything for everybody. It's really a question of unleashing the collective genius of the community around you to engage in addressing this hugely important question.
The Transition Town Process
EON: What's the process like? Is this where you meet with officials and get them to make the plans or are these people outside of any kind of government structure or bureaucratic structure thinking for themselves?
RH: Well, the process of doing a Transition Town is one of trying to engage all the different sectors. I think people like Lester Brown talk about the challenge that peak oil presents is requiring a response like a wartime mobilization. The Hirsch Report talks about a crash program. The scale of what we have to do is something we've never ever done before.
As environmentalists, I think the tools that we've had up to this point are inadequate. We've never managed to have mainstreaming engagement on very much really, so we're really looking at new ways of doing it. And when we start in a town, really the first stage is awareness raising - trying to get people switched on to the idea of peak oil, oil depletion.
For me, I think peak oil is a much more powerful tool for engaging people in thinking about these issues than climate change because with peak oil, as Richard Heinberg puts it, “People are more instinctively interested in what's going into their car rather than what's coming out of the exhaust pipe.” It's a fuel-in problem rather than an emissions-out problem.
Peak Oil as 'Evolutionary Driver'
Peak oil is very powerful because it's like putting a mirror up to a community and saying, where's the resilience gone in this community? Where is this community's ability to withstand shocks? Particularly when we look back to the Thirties and Forties, we see that actually we had resilience, we had a vibrant local economy, we had local food, and we had local agriculture.
Here in Totnes for example, we had a man called George Heath who had a market garden right in the center of the town of Totnes, a series of glass houses running down the south-facing slope. On the other side of the street, he has a shop on the high street. He took the scrapings from the manure of the cattle market that was held next to him every Thursday. He composted that and then it came out the perfect post-carbon, zero food model. When he dies in 1980, it's now a car park, the biggest car park in Totnes.
So you don't have to go back very far. Besides, I suppose the first stage of doing the Transition Town process is the awareness rising, which here we did for about a year of talks, film showings, networking with existing groups, trying to do talks with as many diverse groups as possible. And then I like to think about it as being…do you know those toy volcanoes that children have where you put vinegar and bicarbonate soda in and then they froth up all over the table and stain the carpet and those things?... it's a bit like that. You spend your first year putting that information in until you build up this pressure, and after a year there was really this energy behind doing something.
And then that's when we have an evening that we call the official unleashing of Transition Town Totnes, which is designed to be the evening that historically people would look back to and say, that was the evening when it all started. We had 400 people came along. The mayor of Totnes introduced it, and it was a very, very powerful and dynamic evening. And that really has created a lot of momentum that has driven us forward ever since. But, I think it's really important that the momentum, the drive for this, comes from individuals, rather than from local authorities; but what you're creating is something, which then interfaces with local authorities in a way that few things have in the past.
I imagine in the U.S., but I know in the UK, there's this real sort of split in government between who those think that communities don't care, they're apathetic, they can't be bothered, and communities who think the government doesn't care. And there's very little dynamic interface between the two. And there are various initiatives that have tried to do that, but I think the transition town model really tries to focus the mind on the question that local authorities can't ask, in a sense. Local authorities - particularly the ones who need to be elected every year - for them to say we're actually planning for the end of cheap oil and for relocalization, that's a scary leap for them to make. Whereas, if you've got the voice coming up which has really thought it through and is developing plans at the local level for how that's going to work, I think you have a really dynamic interface.
EON: What is the size of Totnes, what the size is the village in Ireland where you started, and how does the scale of the location matter?
RH: Well, the question goes to the replicability of this model on different scales. Its one that we're still exploring really. I mean, Kinsale was about 2,800 people. Totnes is about 7,000-8,000. My sense is that this process works on a scale over which you have a sphere of influence. So London, for example, is too big. On a small village scale it would work, although if you have too few people I would imagine it's hard to generate sufficient energy behind doing it.
The Transition Town Concept Spreads
What's happening now is that inspired by the Transition Town Totnes model, we now have eight or nine different Transition Towns around the country, some of which are small villages, some of which are cities. So we really have models over the whole spectrum, so it's intriguing to see how they do it.
My sense is that in urban areas you're looking at working on the neighborhood scale. The city I grew up in, Bristol, in the Southwest of England, like a lot of other cities is basically historically a collection of villages that have merged together, that very much have those distinctive elements to them with their own identity. And so I think the idea is you work at that scale so you have transition, Clifton, transition wherever, or different parts of the town, and then you have a transition city Bristol body, whose role is to support, train, and resource those difference initiatives and try and inspire them. I think it seems to work perfectly.
With Totnes, it's historically a market town and I think those market towns work very, very well because they're of a scale where they have a hinterland which is quite defined, you know the villages which would historically have brought their produce into the market towns. That sets a sort of a region for it. I mean, it is still an evolving part of this, but I think my gut sense is that it has to work on a scale that you can conceive of, a scale that you can get your head around where you can appreciate how big it is. And if it starts to get too big, you break it down into its parts. Really I think it's something people will just get a feel for wherever they are.
EON: Are you talking about urban agriculture? In Havana people have started raising a large percentage of their vegetables now in the city.
RH: Yes. Well, I think the whole question of urban agriculture is going to really, really play a huge, huge part in the future here, and it's really a luxury of the age of cheap oil that we've been able to put food production off miles away in tidy little sheds where we don't have to see it in our urban landscapes, which are completely devoid of anything edible.
You know, one of the things that always really struck me is over the last 20, 30 years, if you go to new developments like business parks and out of town shopping places, that we've developed this way of landscaping where we've bred plants specifically to be completely useless, low maintenance ground cover shrubs. What is the point of a low maintenance ground cover shrub, flowering cherry trees that just make flowers and no cherries. You know, we've got so far away from common sense, it's terrifying.
The Nut Tree Solution
One of the things we're doing in Totnes is launching a project that we call Totnes, The Nut Tree Capital of Britain, where we want to plant walnut trees throughout the town and really put in place an infrastructure of productivity throughout the town. You know, why is it that we have a townscape that is full of trees and you can't eat from any of them? What's the point of that? You know, we could actually plant walnut trees, sweet chestnuts which produce as much carbohydrate and protein per acre as barley and wheat and so on. And they lock up carbon and they're beautiful and things can live in them and so on, but we put those in through the town as an infrastructure that's there on our doorstep.
EON: Has this been adopted and embraced officially?
RH: In Kinsale, the Energy Descent Action Plan we did was adopted by the town council. It was unanimously voted for by the town council, which was quite amazing, and then it won a big environmental award in Ireland that year as well.
Here in Totnes, the process has had a lot of support from various members of the town council and the local authority. In fact, next week I'm doing a talk to the town council on their invitation and part of that is to invite them to pass a motion officially endorsing the objectives of Transition Town Totnes. The mayor has been very supportive; she spoke at our opening. She's also going to be planting some walnut trees with us in the middle of Totnes in a couple of weeks. So, yeah, there is a lot of interest from people.
What we want to do is to take what was called the Totnes Community Plan, which was developed over a period of time, and take that as the framework to develop into an energy descent plan, because it drops the word “sustainability” but it really doesn't understand what it means. And actually it would give us, in terms of increasing Totnes's resilience, it does nothing at all, but it has a lot of recognition. If we can get an energy descent plan in its place, but using the same format, we'll be kind of harnessing a lot of the power that is within the local authority.
EON: David Holmgren, the co-originator with Bill Mollison of Permaculture, doesn't agree that peak oil spells the 'end of suburbia.' He envisions using all that lawn space to grow food. Do you agree with catastrophic expectations for suburbia?
RH: Yeah, okay. Well, I think although “The End of Suburbia” is a fantastic film and really totally transformed my way of thinking about this, I think the title is somewhat misleading. Because suburbia, as James Kunstler says, is 'the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world' but, at the same time, it's there. That's what we have. David Holmgren's approach, rather than being about the end of suburbia - or as the sequel is called “The Escape from Suburbia” - it's more about retrofitting suburbia, redesigning suburbia, and rethinking suburbia.
In some ways there are good things about suburbia in that you have larger gardens and so on and there is the land there, if we can start to think about it, to really rethink that in a very productive kind of way. What's been interesting here, looking back historically in Totnes, back to 1945 at the end of the war, is that buildings were inhabited in a completely different way, buildings that are now just one family living in a five-bedroom house in Totnes, or a building which is now offices. Every room of that was a family living in there. And the buildings were inhabited in completely different way because that was the need at the time, and I think we have to look at how we re-inhabit suburbia.
So we just have one family living in a huge house. Why can't that house be broken down into bits and make much energy efficient in that way. So I think it's a rather different approach than thinking that we can just ditch all the infrastructure that we have in place. We don't have that luxury. I think it's one of the weaknesses of the permaculture alternative lifestyles movement, for example, is that we focus so much on a natural building movement - that we focus so much on new buildings. And actually we have in Totnes, for example, even if we had the most amazing systems of local building, there's a handful of new houses built here every year. Building permission is so hard to get and there are so few spaces to build, that the challenge is: how do we use local natural sustainably produced materials to retrofit buildings like this, which are vastly energy inefficient. So it's not a case of abandoning suburbia, or escaping from suburbia. I think it's a case of coming back to suburbia with a new way of looking at it with new insights and new imagination and new creativity.
EON: It seems like the Transition Town concept is spreading virally.
RH: Well, when we produced the Kinsale Adjudicate Action Plan in 2005, we printed 500 copies; we didn't think we'd get through 500 copies. We just saw it as a student project, but the copies all went very, very quickly. I think about 100 of them went to Australia. Somebody just ordered 100 in a box, so they all disappeared over there. Then we put it on the Net and people could download it. It's been downloaded nearly 4,000 times, and different community groups all over the world are using it as a template and as an inspiration for doing their similar sort of projects.
So the Transition Town Totnes Initiative really began properly in September last year, September 6. Since then there's now nine different Transition Towns around the country and there's new ones getting in touch all the time. And it really has something very viral about that.
It's really a simple, simple concept but it's a concept that's really of its time. People can get to feel so despondent with climate change, with peak oil, particularly people who have young children or for whom the next generation is something tangible sitting in front of them at breakfast every day. There's something about the concept that really does seem to engage them.
So probably the most advanced ones, the transition town Lewes in Sussex who have their official unleashing on the 24th of April. They've done some really brilliant things: like, there's a little five-minute short film that one of their members made about transition town Lewes which is on You Tube in various places. And they have the local cinema showing it as the trailer to every film in the three months running up to their official unleashing which is brilliant.
And they also were involved in a campaign to stop a part of Lewes being developed by a developer and made into something ghastly. And rather than being out there protesting and saying we don't want this, we must stop this, we must campaign against this, they've come at it from a very different way, a sort of positive solutions way, where they produce this newspaper article written by a fictional journalist named Maidit Happen, designed as a newspaper article from 2017 that was talking about how Lewes was now the most sustainable town in the UK. And it can all be traced back to this inspirational development that took place on this piece of land in 2008, which then triggered the whole economic regeneration of the town.
There's the town of Stroud in Gloucester, Transition Town Stroud. They're moving ahead very strongly, and that used to be a textiles town, lots of textiles produced there. So they're looking at how they can revive textiles as part of the relocalization initiative.
Transition Town Falmouth in Cornwall. There's Transition Town Penwith, which an area of Cornwall. They're actually now looking at amalgamating and doing a transition Cornwall on a bigger kind of scale for the whole county.
There's the city of Bristol, sort of breaking Bristol into its different parts and looking at that. And I had a phone call the other day from Transition Isle of Wight, which is an island off the south of England. It is all rather interesting to do it on that kind of scale.
So it does seem to have a momentum behind it as an idea and, as I say, it's a very simple idea that the future with less oil could be better. And I think climate change campaigning and environmental campaigning really struggles to engage people, because actually it comes from the angle of 'you better change because it's gonna be really, really desperately awful.'
The supposed motivator for change is sheer terror of how ghastly everything is going to be. And you have people like James Lovelock out there saying 'nothing any of you can do can make any difference to this. This is just happening and we're doomed and we're finished.' And people instinctively just shut down, I think, when they encounter that. They shut down completely. What can I do? I can't do anything. It's just beyond me. Whereas, the transition town approach says this could be fantastic! Who says life without oil is going to be awful.
Actually, there are people in the world who live on the 10th of the oil that we use in the UK, and arguably have a more fulfilling life style. You know, we've just become so blinkered that in order to be happy, we have to burn lots of oil and I think the power with the Transition Town approach is, it's sort of gently taking people's hands and saying 'come on, we can go through this and we can transition this and actually it can be fantastic.'
Beyond Protests and Lobbying
EON: Your fellow countryman George Monbiot has laid out an energy descent plan for the whole nation. What do you think of his work?
RH: Well, George Monbiot is one of the leading environmental writers here. He wrote a book called “Heat” which tried to set out very practically how the UK could achieve emitting only 10% of its current emissions by 2030 - what it would look like, how we would actually do that. So it looks at energy, food, transport, the whole range of things. Very interesting.
I don't agree with all of it, but the thing that was disappointing about it was at the end he has this chapter about how we're actually going to do it, this massive unprecedented scale, on the scale of gearing up for World War II, within a very short period of time, engaging all these different parties, constituencies, different vested interests into this thing. So the tools that we have in that are activism, lobbying, and protesting. I would argue that those are the only tools really the environmental movement has had for the last 40 years, and they haven't been sufficient for the scale of the challenge up to this point. And to imagine that they, on their own, are going to be sufficient for the scale of what we have to do now - I think is just not going to happen.
So what we're really exploring in the Transition Town movement is new tools and creating a synthesis of new tools which draws from creative teaching approaches that we use in permaculture, kinds of games and activities, and making things very visual, and getting people out into the forest, and getting people talking to each other, networking in really, really creative ways of engaging people's imaginations. Because some people can watch PowerPoint presentations, a lot of people can't, and we need to have approaches that engage different people in different ways. We also use tools like open space. We café these ways of bringing large groups of people together to self organize and have conversations around issues. We use some of the more innovative Internet-based things, like using wiki's and these kinds of collaborative information-building tools.
Insights from Addiction Therapy
We're also quite inspired by insights from the whole area of addictions, and looking at the whole question of, can we compare our relationship to oil to an addiction? Do we have an addictive relationship to oil to comfort to our Western lifestyles? And I think there's a very strong case to say that we do, and that there are a number of insights that we can draw from the field of addictions that are very, very useful.
As environmentalists we've been trying to instigate change for many years but we've not been that good at understanding the processes of change; whereas in addiction counseling there's some incredibly insightful work on change, the processes that people go through. And they argue that the processes people go through going into addiction are the same as the processes they go through coming out addiction.
It's the same sequence any process of personal change goes through: the process where you're thinking, 'Oh, there's no problem, I don't need to change,' moving to, 'Well, maybe there's a problem. Maybe I need to do something over the next six months but I'm not in a rush. Then in the next month, I'm definitely going to do something.' And addiction councilors call those phases the Pre-contemplation, the Contemplation, and the Preparation stages.
The preparation stage is where you've decided you're going to do something, 'I'm definitely going to put solar panels on the roof. I'm going to do it. I've rung the guy. It's gonna happen. I've put the money aside. I'm gonna do that.' And then that moves onto the Action Stage, which as environmentalists, is where we want to get everybody to.
But the insight that comes from looking at addictions theories is that assuming that everybody is at this stage of Preparation, and all we need to do is to give them the right leaflet, lend them the right DVD, and they'll see the light and start doing everything, is deeply erroneous, because the majority of people are in the previous two stages and they need very, very different stimulus.
And the danger is that as environmentalists, if we're assuming that we just treat everybody as if they are at Preparation stage, that we further and further alienate the people at the other stages and actually lessen their intention to respond. So we've had lots of dialogs with the people who are behind the idea of motivational interviewing, which is a tool from addiction counseling with has to do with helping people who are at this stage trying to decide whether to leap or not, this kind of ambivalent period. And for an alcoholic it would be, 'Well, I know I drink a lot, but so do all my mates and it's fine. I know my wife doesn't like it but she's alright, she doesn't mind it.' And you go backwards and forwards, and so with this issue it might be, 'Well I know oil's gonna peak soon but, well, it hasn't peaked yet, and some people say it's not going to but, well, obviously it is and we need to prepare.' Motivational interviewing is a very useful to apply at that stage to sort of support people through that.
Creating a Transition Town
EON: So, for a town or a group that wanted to catalyze a Transition Town, where would they start?
RH: Well, I think you would start by gathering together a small group of people who want to instigate this project. And the first thing that you do as that group is that you design the date when you're going to stop existing, so that you plan your own obsolescence into the process from the very beginning. And your role as that group is to organize and provide the awareness-raising phase up to the point where you are ready to do this unleashing process. And you design that, beyond that point, you don't exist. So you design your own Easter as it were where you just disappear. And I think that's really, really important.
So then what happens, you spend the first year, first whatever - it's different for every place because there's different levels of awareness on these issues when you arrive. In some places, it might be shorter; it some places, it might be longer. Here it was about a year. And that's the period wherein you show them 'The End of Suburbia,' you show the power of community, you do talks, you get visiting speakers in, you make films, you show them around the place. You really try and build up that energy that this is a really important issue and we really need to move on this.
Then you plan your official unleashing which is the historic event where people look back and say that was the evening when it all started. And then you plan a program of events which trigger a number of your different groups starting to form. So, for example, we run an evening called “Feeding Totnes, Past, Present, and Future,” where we had a speaker who talked about agriculture around this area in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. Then we had someone who talked about the present, and then a local farmer talked about the role of organics in the future. And that then led into an Open Space day on food, and from that the food group emerged.
Then we did one on energy, an evening, an Open Space; and then the energy group emerged. So, that's the kind of way we're doing it.
And then the Steering group forms from the Project groups - a representative from each of those groups - so your Steering group, rather than being made up of a sort of hand-picked groups of experts, your Steering group is the people who have made the commitment in their life that they're gonna drive this forward and it makes things much more dynamic.
Then the process is that you're building up towards doing an energy descent plan, and that each of those groups is responsible for that aspect of the energy descent plan. That's sort of roughly the idea, but it's important at an early stage as well that you start to put in place visible manifestations of the project. So for example here in Totnes we're going the tree plantings, the walnut tree plantings in the town. We're also, in a couple of weeks, launching a pilot local currency system where we're printing 300 Totnes pound notes, which will be usable within Totnes. There's about 20 businesses who have signed up who are on the note that you can spend it there. You can spend it anywhere in transition town Totnes but it's limited for about three or four months as a pilot to see how such a currency would work. But that's something which is very powerful. And I think one of the things that this process is doing is about creating new stories and so the evening that we have that was the launch evening was about people telling the story of how Totnes makes this transition.
Energy Descent Planning
In effect, what energy descent plan does is it creates a vision of a powered-down abundant localized Totnes in about 20, 30 years time; and then it 'backcasts' from there of how you actually get there. So you create a roadmap of how you can get there in realizable steps, year by year. If we collectively pull together, we can get from A to Z over that period of time. But one of the things, for example, that the local currency does - that these printed notes will do - is to create a story. It's something people have in their hands: it's the potential. They hold that potential in their hands, and I think that would be a very powerful tangible tool.
EON: So, I think many people would say, well, are we really going to be able to support the numbers of people that we have right now in the population at the current levels?
RH: I think the answer to that question is “no” if we want to live like we live now. If we want to live with a couple of cars and all the latest gadgets and eating meat once a day, going on holiday abroad, you know, no. But I think there is a place that we can get to which would be a far healthier, more pleasant place to be. When you look at the UK, for example, amazingly there hasn't been a study done for the UK as to whether the UK could feed itself from its own land mass. So since 1975, that study said, what we could do if we had a diet similar to what we had in World War II and we'd eat a lot less meat. And also that period during the War, 1939-1945, was actually the time when the UK population was at its healthiest even though it had the simplest diets, because it was eating much more locally produced vegetables from the 10% of the national diet at that time that was grown on allotments, and by gardens and urban agriculture models.
What that report from 1975 doesn't take into account is different ways of producing food. You know, it's very, very questionable that our current intensive agriculture model could actually support the number of people we have now if you take away the cheap subsidized oil inputs and the amount of natural gas that's used to make fertilizers.
But if you look at approaches like the bio-intensive approach, the very urban intensive urban market kind of model, I think the figures - off the top of my head - that they argue in the bio-intensive movement is that conventional agriculture requires about 10,000 square feet per person to provide their diet on an annual basis; whereas using the bio-intensive approach you bring it down to about 2,000, and you're doing it where people are. You know, it's such a profound re-think of everything. It's the simple question of 'Can we support the population that we have? And, yes, we can, but we have to rethink lots of very, very basic assumptions about how we eat, how we work, what our open spaces look like. But quite clearly also, we need to start looking at the peak population of British Isles as well. Maybe we can sustain what we have, but not if we let population keep going up and up and up, and our chances for doing that get less and less all the time.
Doing Without Cheap Oil
EON: So, you've mentioned food and energy. Are there other sectors or dimensions that you include in the vision?
RH: Well, I think it's very important. It's another of the reasons why I think peak oil is such a powerful motivator for this kind of movement rather than climate change. Climate change can very easily be sidelined into being an issue about energy. It's about using less energy, cutting carbon emissions from energy. Whereas, when you work peak oil into it as well, you really develop the insight that everything that we do happens because cheap oil enables it to happen. It's not just about energy, it's about food, and it's about economics and livelihoods. It's about education, health, and medicine. One of the big things we're looking at here is how on earth do you move back to a health care system that doesn't rely on medicines that are made from petro-chemicals from equipment that is usually dependent on petro-chemicals. I'll come back to that in a bit.
So we also look at transport, tourism. Totnes is a town very much dependent on tourism. Will that tourism always be there? Will we have more tourists when people can't afford to fly on airplanes anymore, or will we have less because people will be staying at home and enjoying being in their gardens so much they won't actually want to leave them in summer, which is the time when they need to be there watering and harvesting more than they do now. Building, construction, local government. How is local government going to work? It cuts across all aspects of everything, and I think that's the power of bringing peak oil into it.
Health & Medicine in a Post-Carbon Future
And if I can just say a little bit about the health and the medicine thing. I gave a talk a little while ago in Penzance for the Transition Town group there, and I said as part of that that one of things that the health and medicine group in Totnes is doing is looking at the question of what are the ten most frequently prescribed drugs doctors in Totnes give to people, and do they have a herbal or locally producible replacement? How much would we need? And to start thinking about building in place a kind of local apothecary infrastructure, as it were, so that we'd actually something to fall back on, because at the moment we don't. You know, you look in Iraq now, for example, when the medical supplies stop coming in, it's extremely difficulty because there's nothing to fall back on. There's no resilience in terms of the health care system.
I gave this talk and this man came up with this idea. He said, 'I'm a GP, I'm a doctor. I work here in Falmouth and in Penzance, and I've been sitting there listening to you talking, thinking well actually the ten drugs I prescribe most often are actually for side effects of cheap oil. I've never thought about it before but actually I prescribe this drug which is for obesity. I prescribe this drug which is for excess stomach acid from overeating and eating the wrong food. I prescribe this drug which is for stress.' You know, he listed all these things, and he had this penny he dropped which was…he said actually the oil age makes people sick. So many of the diseases that we have now are diseases that are caused by the lifestyle that oil has brought us.
It's the myth that actually the oil age has brought us this fantastic progress and development and marvelous things. Actually, they did a very good study in Dublin in Ireland where they took the growth curve of the Irish economy and the growth curve of the amount of oil availability, which mirror each other pretty much exactly; but then also mirroring that curve are obesity rates, levels of heart disease, days off work from stress, the murder rate, the suicide rate, amounts of people admitted for clinical depression, you know, all these things follow the same curve. So in terms of health care and medicine and how we're going to respond to that, it's a huge question. But I think, again, if we can really rethink some basic assumptions, we can come to some very exciting conclusions.
Transition Towns and the 'Tipping Point'
EON: What I'm concerned about is how are you going to keep warm, you know? Climate chaos doesn't just mean 'global warming.' Some scientists say Britain may even flip into an ice age pretty soon.
RH: Well, you know somebody asked me a question at Totnes recently and they said, 'You know, what will we do if the Gulf Stream shuts off and the UK plunges into an ice age?' I said, 'I have no idea. It's a bit like asking if the Earth's about to be hit by this huge comet, what do we do? Well, if it gets to that stage where the UK is plunged into perpetual ice age, then we've had it really, I guess. But actually I suppose the real argument is, that if you can get CO2 emissions down - keep them under the two degree thing - and then start to stabilize them from that point onwards, then there's a chance that all that bad stuff doesn't happen.'
Obviously, if we get into run away climate change, I think the thing is that if you, in order to avoid the worst excesses, in order to come into the two degrees, then we have to have these wartime mobilization scale of things we've never had before. Then we can do it, I think.
Obviously if we tip over 5, 6, 7 degrees, Transition Towns aren't really going to be much of a help really. But, I think, in order to engage people… there's a thing in the UK that's just happening now where the UK government has proposed road price on the roads, kind of a toll on the roads in order to start managing numbers and reduce traffic, which is kind of like road rationing in a sense. And one of those sort of right-wing newspapers organized this petition, and they had 8 million people sign this petition. You think, 'We have to have carbon rationing, and we really need carbon rationing now, and if this is the response to that, what would it be to carbon rationing?'
And carbon rationing will happen inevitably. If you have a depleting resource, at some point you have to ration it. The sooner you ration it, the more equitable the process is going to be. But the question is for me, I think, part of the thing with Transition Towns is, its really kind of softening people up positively at the grassroots rather than generating a fear response. You know, people say, 'We don't want road rationing. We're going to sign a petition. We want to keep our cars.' But if you have a very gentle possessing - it's not going to be the cars. We have to let go of the cars but we have to rethink what we're going to do instead, and I think the future without cars could be far, far preferable to the present with all these blooming cars everywhere.
So I think that's the answer really obviously at the moment. It is possible that we could heat Totnes - keep people warm sustainably. It's not possible that we can have them all driving hundreds of miles to work every day. And I think that's part of the process with the energy descent plan. Well here's a diminishing energy base. Do you actually want to use this energy doing frivolous, pointless things? Or are we actually going to spend this on the essentials, which is keeping people warm at an affordable price?
The Power of Being 'For' Instead of 'Against'
EON: Any last thoughts or words of advice or encouragement?
RH: I think we find ourselves at an extraordinary point in history, and I for one find it an exhilarating time to be around really. We can no longer ignore the signs that we have to do things and on a scale that we've never done before. We're faced with the most profound changes. And I think we have to really engage people we've never engaged before. We have to inspire and enthuse people. We're inviting people to join us on a collective adventure to embark on a journey to something.
And for me, I've been involved in environmental things for a long time. I was involved in protest against new roads being built in the UK in the Nineties, and anti-nuclear movement in the 1980's. The danger with campaigning against stuff, always campaigning against stuff, is that you come up against all the time this sort of institutional refusal to shift. And as an activist, it's exhausting, and so many people get really burned out by doing that kind of work. Whereas, I find doing the Transition Town approach is working towards making the same kind of change, but it's so nourishing and as someone doing it, it really feeds you, and you get so much from seeing the kind of enthusiasm that it generates, because it avoids that 'them-and-us' dynamic, and it comes in underneath the radar.
There's a lovely expression that Jean Dubuffet used to say about art - that art never lies down in the bed that's made for it, and it's best moments are when it forgets what it's called. And I think this process has that sort of playful kind of nature, and it can put on different hats for who it's meeting, and it can put on a suit and hat and go along and go along and speak to the council, and it can put on Wellies [rubber boots] and go and talk to farmers, and it can go into the schools, and it can go and talk to the …it really has to have that ability to draw people in.
I think you can do that so much more effectively by being for something rather than being against something. It think the power of creating collective visions of where we want to go, creating a roadmap of how it can be, in such a way that people can smell it and feel it and almost taste it. If you threw your window open in the morning in 2025 in a powered-down relocalized Totnes, living in a powered-down world, what would it be like? What would it sound like? What would you have for breakfast? What would you hear as you walk down the street? Where would you go? And I think when there's so much stuff that's bubbling up for people, saying peak oil, climate change, over-population, that something which can really present that vision of future life is very, very powerful. One of my favorite quotes is Arundhati Roy, the Indian novelist, who says, “Another world is not only possible, she's on her way; on a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”
Rob Hopkins can be contacted at - firstname.lastname@example.org
His website is - http://transitionculture.org/
Interviewers Mary Beth Brangan and James Heddle are Co-Directors of EON, the Ecological Options Network - www.EON3.net They can be reached at Info@EON3.net .