Transition Culture

According to Rob Hopkins, the solution to peak oil and climate change is implementing a community model based on self-sufficiency, resilience and harnessing the unlimited power of human creativity.

Rob Hopkins, author, lecturer and Transition Movement pioneer , spoke of a current movement from oil energy to Transition Culture in his 2009 TEDTalk. He touches upon a variety of age-old folk stories and problematic narratives that built generations of companies. The magic pot that would create infinite amounts of porridge on command, the enchanted boots that would save the wearer thousands of steps by taking twenty-one mile strides, and the fantastical elves that crafted products for us, for free, while we slept soundly in our beds. While these folk stories and fairy tales seemed wonderful to us as children, it is concerning that we have built an economy on fantasy. In reality, resources are finite, small steps matter and production has a price.

Hopkins is in no way interested in doomsday talk. On the contrary, Hopkins is grateful to have lived through the era of cheap oil because it inspired him to dream of creating a new era that is more resilient and nourishing than the last. His innovation started with the realization that the problem lies not only with the excesses of how we live, but also in how the crisis is being managed.

The statistics and concepts that Hopkins talks about when illustrating the complexities of oil consumption are not groundbreaking. He repeats many of the facts that we already know: our cities, infrastructures and development plans are built around the consumption, availability and management of oil. The fact that we have based our whole way of living around oil is not news, and neither is the suspicion that it may very well be our greatest vulnerability.

The numbers bear it out: for every four barrels of oil we consume, only one new barrel is discovered. Of the 98 nations that produce oil, already 65 have passed their peak but the demand for oil continues to rise. There is less and less porridge in the pot, but more spoons are reaching in for a portion.

Hopkins also touches on our complacency: it’s easy to deny the problem because we’d like to believe that technology will solve this dilemma. The idea that, any day now, scientists will announce that they have discovered a ‘new’ magic pot. In the meantime, consumption rages on and the search for new solutions is deferred.

Hopkins refuses to have us fall victim to that kind of magical thinking. During his lecture, this pioneer shows us how we’ve reached the summit of this particular problem and offers a solution—Transition Culture—for creatively working our way back down the other side. The first step towards understanding Transition Culture is understanding why sustainability, as a solution, is not working.

Sustainability is a lifejacket that most businesses and environmental groups cling to, but, as Hopkins points out, there’s a hole in the bottom. As a system, it looks at the globalized economic growth model and tries to manage the resources that go into it, as well as the imprint of the product that goes out. But it does not address our behaviours and attitudes towards consumption, and it hands over responsibility to larger authorities.

Transition Culture tackles the problem of peak oil and climate change by encouraging the creation of local initiatives run entirely by the people who will benefit most by them. Hopkins’ view breaks down these large, overwhelming problems into smaller, more manageable solutions. Rather than wait for technology—or others—to change the way we live, Transition Culture focuses on human resiliency and its ability to deal with the massive modern dilemmas using local creativity, adaptability and imagination.

Specifically, Transition Culture offers support to local communities that seek to change how they consume, produce and live with projects that are tailored for their location. Generally, a group of locals get an idea and they begin using the tools Transition Culture has created—like the widely-lauded “The Transition Handbook”—to start organizing their efforts and raising awareness.

One simple example is the ‘Lewes Pound’, a voucher or token currency that is traded locally in a corner of Sussex, England. Locals decided to revive this currency, which existed between 1789-1895, as a creative way to boost demand for local goods and services as well as a stronger sense of community. This local currency was able to cut rising energy, food and transportation costs for the Lewes community.

Turns out, not only does the Lewes Pound encourage citizens to keep their spending at home, and not give their custom to big box stores, but it also cuts down on transport and reduces Lewes’ carbon footprint.

If, as Hopkins quotes, “life is a series of things you are not quite ready for,” then the good people of Lewes, and other communities who have embraced Transition Culture, have taken it upon themselves to be prepared.

However, a local currency is only one aspect of a truly ‘transitioned’ community. The community must come together to have urban food production, implement educational programs, create community-owned energy resources and promote more environmentally-friendly habits like cycling, instead of driving.

The best example of this ideal is Totnes, England, the first Transition Town and quite possibly, one of the most advanced eco-settlements in the world. In the six years since it first drafted its blueprint for a life independent from oil, the town of Totnes has created groups around eight crucial themes and initiated over thirty projects to take this movement forward. Projects can engage at the neighbourhood level, such as Transition Streets, which inspires groups of friends to meet regularly to discuss how they can change the way they use energy, water, food and transport, but they can also be more far-reaching and comprehensive. One such example is the Food-Link Project, which builds networks between local food producers located within a 30-mile radius of Totnes and retailers and restaurateurs in town. Amazingly, almost all of the labour and skills required to keep these projects moving forward are voluntarily donated by the residents of Totnes.

The townspeople of Totnes no longer need the magic porridge pot, because they have discovered the means to produce what they need on their own. They do not require a ‘benevolent’ invisible power to provide them with solutions to their problems.

Although Transition Culture began with Rob Hopkins in England, its open-source nature has enabled the movement to quickly spread to more than 350 projects in Scotland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, etc. Fundamentally, what makes Transition Culture successful is its reliance on resiliency—the ability to react positively and flexibly to the impacts of change. As Hopkins says at the end of his TEDTalk, “...The only way we can respond to the challenges we face of peak oil, climate change and economic contraction, is by shifting our focus to rebuilding the local economies ravaged by years of economic globalisation, rebuilding networks to support local food production and local manufacturing.” Therein, he claims, lies the hope for a more compassionate and viable future.

Many emerging subjects, like this one, can be looked at from (at least) two angles. First, this article ties in with our Global Village Construction Set feature. Second, it can be explored in accordance with the idea of Taleb’s Antifragility for a town or neighbourhood. Finally, it uses an Open Source and collaborative ethos, similar to many of our featured articles, but it also harkens back to the past, to more solid local communities; it exemplifies a bounce-back from over-extending, well, everything, and trying to find a more comfortable and sustainable balance between the local and the global — AR

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