The Transition Town Phenomenon

transition town
My publisher, Chelsea Green, is the North American distributor for Rob Hopkins’ book The Transition Handbook, which explains the Transition Town phenomenon and how you can make your community a Transition Town.

The idea of Transition Towns is radical relocalization of politics, economics and culture to autonomous and self-sufficient communities, in order to cope effectively with the twin perils of Peak Oil and Climate Change, to become resilient to such mega-changes. Hopkins decided to create a working model of such a community in 2006, in Totnes, UK, and there are now over a hundred networked transition towns in existence or in the planning stages, built on that model.

The handbook begins with a primer on both Peak Oil and Climate Change, and explains how the two problems together create a ‘perfect storm’. It goes on to explain some of the approaches that have been proffered, from techno-dreaming to power-down to business as usual, and some of the scenarios of collapse, adaptation and evolution that various students of these problems have laid out. Approaches to resilience and relocalization are then described.

normal curveThe second part of the book describes the visioning process and the psychology of change, since moving from our current economic model to a relocalized, resilient economy is a drastic change. The exercises for coping with such change are interesting: One for example says to turn the peak oil curve (the ‘normal’ curve) upside down, so that instead of thinking of the decline of oil supply and production as a descent, you think of it as a recovery from a deep and difficult addiction. Readers are shown how to create a vibrant future state vision using scenario approaches, encompassing local self-sufficiency, permaculture, leisure time, resilience, excellent food and health.

Part Three describes how to move from vision to action, and this part contains the most important and revolutionary information in the book: the table contrasting the transition approach with conventional environmentalism:

  • resilience and relocalization instead of ‘sustainable’ development
  • a steady-state economy, achieved through economic renaissance, instead of a growth economy
  • actions motivated by optimism, possibility and proactivity instead of fear and guilt
  • holistic and collectively addressed, instead of single-issue (at a time) focused and led
  • seeing the individual as part of the solution instead of part of the problem
  • evolving approaches instead of prescribed solutions

and the twelve principles of permaculture (observation, natural energy storage, self-productive interventions, self-regulation, renewability, zero waste, design from pattern to detail, integrate don’t segregate, prefer small and slow solutions, use and value diversity, use edges and value the marginal, and creatively use and respond to change). The maximal size of a transition community is explained to be that which allows the members of the community to still feel strong personal influence over the collective decisions.

Hopkins then lays out the twelve steps (not sequential) necessary to create a transition town:

  1. Set up a steering group with a temporary life
  2. Raise awareness
  3. Network with others in the community to lay foundations
  4. Organize the launch (‘unleashing’)
  5. Self-organize working groups
  6. Use Open Space methodology
  7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project
  8. Develop a reskilling project
  9. Build a bridge to co-opt local government
  10. Honour the elders (and learn important local history from them)
  11. Let it evolve the way it wants to
  12. Include an energy descent plan to be prepared for the End of Oil

and provides stories of what Totnes and other transition towns have been through and the challenges they still face.

This Handbook is still a work in process, and I suspect that, with evolving input from transition towns around the world, and the benefit of more experience, it will become much better. But it is already an important roadmap, a set of ideas for creating model Transition Towns by reinventing communities that already exist, instead of trying to pioneer new ones. In that sense it’s more pragmatic than the Natural Community / Intentional Community models that I’ve espoused and written about.

I remain somewhat skeptical about what can be sustained in communities that are still deeply rooted in and connected to the unsustainable industrial economy, but I’ll continue to study thetransition town model with interest and hope.

There’s room for more than one model of a better way to live, and if this model actually works, well, imagine the possibilities.

(An hour-long interview with Hopkins, with some footage of Totnes, is on YouTube here. If that’s too long there’s a quickie here. And if you want to see a really powerful and thorough explanation of the perils of inaction on climate change, watch this jaw-dropping video of Thomas Homer-Dixon, especially from the one-hour mark to the end.)

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2 Responses to The Transition Town Phenomenon

  1. Geoff Brown says:

    I have just finished reading the book my self Dave and was impressed. I agree that the roadmap is a great start … with input and learnings from towns all over the world this handbook should become an ongoing piece of work

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