2 March 2010
Before corporate globalization crashed, the transition towns movement had already started making waves on a more human, local scale. *Rowenna Davis* reports on the ‘engaged optimism’ that looks for positive solutions.
Unlimited imagination: members of Transition Town Brixton have made their garden grow.
Photo by Jonangelo Molinari
Duncan Law is a dedicated transitioner. Standing in the middle of a dark, densely built housing estate in South London, his eyes flash like flint as he points to the winter herbs, vegetables and raspberry plants growing amongst the concrete. As a member of Transition Town Brixton, Law has helped this garden grow in one of the most deprived urban areas of Britain. Local residents dug up the concrete slab in the middle of the estate, filled it with compost, planted and harvested. Now residents come and help themselves to free, healthy, carbon-neutral winter vegetables.
‘One of the local residents created a vision of the estate fully transitioned,’ adds Law, eyeing up the surrounding rooftops for solar panels. ‘We had goats, bicycle trailers, roof gardens, a community centre, right here in the inner city. Once you start looking, the possibilities are endless. That’s the beauty of the movement. It’s not against something: it’s a move towards something positive.’
Transition Town Brixton emerged like most towns in the movement. A small number of individuals forms a steering group and begins talking about climate change and the threats of ‘peak’ – the impending end of – oil with their local community. Brixton now has 200 active members and 1,500 on their mailing list. As their priorities and interests become apparent, autonomous groups set up under the Transition Town umbrella. Brixton has groups on building and energy, food and waste, business and the economy. The only limit to their activity is their imagination. ‘You just put an idea out there and let it run through the bloodstream,’ says Law. ‘The outcomes are beyond our control.’
The Transition Network, set up to provide guidance and support, claims that there are now more than 130 formal transition towns in Britain, and another 250 worldwide. Many more are in the ‘mulling’ stages, and others are likely to be functioning below the radar. A giant series of ‘community experiments’, they are hotbeds of potential solutions to some of the most dangerous and impenetrable problems of our time, conducted and run at a local level.
The financial crisis has triggered a new wave of interest, particularly in local currencies. The Brixton Pound is now accepted in over 120 local shops – it can only be used in Brixton. According to Law, 90 per cent of the money taken by chain stores leaks out of the area. Local currencies also offer security – if the Pound Sterling crashed, the Brixton Pound could be pegged to another currency. Law says the initiative is almost too popular: ‘Brixton Pound tourists are coming from all over the world to buy the currency and get it framed. We’re starting to worry about the carbon miles it takes all the visitors to get here!’
The transition towns movement was founded by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher who was living in Kinsale, Ireland, in 2005. He was interested in how communities could build ‘resilience’ and reduce their carbon emissions. When Hopkins and his students published a draft document on how it might work, it was downloaded thousands of times. Clearly, there was hunger for local change.
‘Once you start looking, the possibilities are endless. That’s the beauty of the movement. It’s not against something: it’s a move towards something positive’
‘No-one had done anything quite like it before,’ says Hopkins. ‘It was about moving away from the shocking leaflet or DVD and engaging people with something much better – an experiment in engaged optimism.’
It’s hard not to be impressed. Take Totnes in Devon, the first transition town in Britain. With a population of just 7,500 living in a largely rural setting, it was a perfect test-bed for the movement, and its long list of achievements still inspires other groups.
The food group set up a garden-share project, described by one member as ‘a kind of dating agency that matches people who don’t have a garden with people who are too old or busy to look after theirs’. The economics and livelihood group co-ordinates a car-sharing scheme. The environment group has formed a community-owned energy company, TRESCO, which is looking into buying a site for sustainable hydropower from the local river. The education group encourages local kids to reconnect with their natural environments. The Totnes Pound is going strong.
‘There’s so much going on, it’s hard to keep up,’ says Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network. ‘People are no longer waiting for the politicians or their permission. They’re starting to work together in ways they never knew how.’
Others are more sceptical. They say the movement doesn’t connect with people beyond its narrow social base, or create change on a scale and at a pace that’s desperately needed. One of the most common charges is that it is a step ‘backwards’ towards a more parochial way of doing things, sticking two fingers up at technology.
Hopkins profoundly disagrees: ‘Obviously, if we were proposing to put a big fence around every community, cut imports, switch off the web and stop sharing ideas, that would be a cause for concern – but that’s not what we’re doing. One way of moving backwards is to find ourselves in the middle of an economic depression, suffering from climate change and highly volatile oil prices, with no preparation. Starting to prepare now and build on our opportunities and strengths is far more likely to avoid protectionism and parochial approaches further down the road.’
Certainly, the transition movement was inspired as much by concrete example as by heady idealism. Hopkins was moved by the ‘special period’ in Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba suddenly found itself cut off from supplies of oil, diesel and pesticide – exactly what would happen if we reached peak oil without preparation. But, rather than unravelling, the community came together to put local food and other production systems into place, while still maintaining high standards in health and education.
‘We’re not saying we’re exactly like Cuba,’ adds Hopkins. ‘But it’s a recent historical example of a community adapting quickly to build resilience in a short time frame – and that’s encouraging.’
Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Town (MASTT) in the Colne Valley, Yorkshire, was also inspired by the Cuban experience. Going strong for over three years now, the group boosted numbers by screening the famous Power of Community film documenting Cuba’s achievements. To date, MASTT’s most popular project has been the community-owned Green Valley Grocer. Bought as a co-operative, it’s now turning over more than $5,000 a week selling locally produced vegetables. There has even been enough profit left over for development work, allowing the shop to employ a member of the community to teach gardening to residents.
‘It’s much more successful than we dared hope possible – it continues to take double what we thought,’ says Jon Walker, a dedicated transitioner who has been involved in the project from the start. ‘People bring down their surpluses from their gardens, the community loves it, and reducing food miles is a huge part of the carbon descent plan.’
According to Walker, such initiatives have helped to rekindle a neighbourhood spirit. ‘Our monolithic global society is rediscovering community. I used to go to the supermarket and speak to no-one. Now shopping takes most of the day – I keep bumping into people on the way to the grocer!’
The biggest challenge now, says Walker, is reaching out to a wider community. ‘More and more people are involved, but we’re all the same – the Guardian-reading middle class. We’ve held huge dances in the valley, inviting local rock bands and Balkan groups to attract a younger, more diverse crowd, but there is still a long way to go.’
Another challenge follows the initial bubble of enthusiasm. According to Hopkins, the best way to meet this is through the state. ‘Things get interesting when the Government gets behind the movement and supports it, rather than drives it. Scotland is leading the way on this. The Low Carbon Communities Fund has helped employ four permanent transition town employees, and Transition Forres got £184,000 ($300,000) to set up an organization to promote allotments.’
Signs of interest
Authorities in other parts of Britain are showing signs of interest too. Back in Brixton, Lambeth Council allows people to pay their local taxes with Brixton Pounds, boosting the currency’s legitimacy. In Totnes, all the local government candidates have committed to an Energy Descent Plan designed by the transition town’s members. Transition Stroud has worked with their council to produce a local food strategy.
Without these commitments – and even sometimes with them – many towns still fail. Transition Oxford started with a bang and then fizzled out, as did Biggar. But, as the Transition Network says, there are no guarantees about these ‘experiments’, and there’s often as much to learn from those that collapse as from those that survive.
However, the overall direction of the movement is up and has even crossed international borders. The Network in Britain has links with similar hubs in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Japan, Brazil, America, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere. And this is just the beginning. The most exciting thing about this movement is its infancy. Just how deep it goes or how far it spreads will be up to local communities themselves.