Transition Towns
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Transition Towns   Transition Towns   Transition Towns

- what are they, why do we need them?

Updated from Caroline Sherwood’s report on how communities across the UK are creatively preparing for an energy-lean future . “Peak Oil and Climate Change: responding …with deep re-localisation will erode the foundations of almost all the dominant institutions that are destroying the planet.”

Close your eyes for a moment and mentally do a tour of one room in your house. How many objects can you find which relied on oil either to manufacture or transport them? Think of your activities in a typical day and contemplate how it would be if cheap oil were no longer available? It doesn’t leave a lot untouched, does it?

One of the ways we can start to simplify our lifestyles is by gathering together to create what are coming to be known as Transition Towns. The keynote of such communities is that they have decided to proactively design their own energy descent in the face of the challenges of peak oil and climate change.

A strong community which knows how to draw on its resources, facilities and strengths seemed to me to be the only kind of community worth living in - and the only sensible model for the future. With this in mind, I attended the initial Transition Town meeting in Glastonbury in April 2007. Ben Brangwyn, from Transition Towns Network, was the presenter.

Rather than becoming disillusioned by oil wars in Africa and the Middle East, the collapse of bee colonies and the number of species becoming extinct every week, Ben, who has always felt an affinity with nature and wilderness, simply decided “to be uncompromisingly part of the solution rather than part of the problem.” Skeptical about mainstream politics, the media and commercial institutions, he says he was “Gaia’ed” [awoken to the need to act out of respect for the sacredness of the earth and Nature, with a sense of sacred wholeness] by Stephan Harding at a Schumacher lecture. This was a turning point, he told me: “I left the world of business and devoted all my attention to figuring out how I could contribute to a wider good than my own bank balance.”

Transition towns started in Kinsale in Ireland where Rob Hopkins learnt about Peak Oil, while teaching a full-time Permaculture course. He initiated a student project to look at how Kinsale could make the transition from high energy consumption to low energy sustainability. Since then, Rob has developed and refined the model in Totnes, working on all aspects of community activity that the town needs in order to sustain itself and thrive.

In November 2007, only a year after there were only the Transition Towns of Kinsale and Totnes, 28 UK towns have declared themselves to be in ‘Transition’, and over 400 worldwide have been discussing the possibility. Alongside initial enthusiasm and inspiration, people often experience caution, hesitation and doubts, (summarized under the heading of The Seven Buts). Ben itemized these “Yes…buts”, and dispensed with each in turn.

Our culture’s dependency on oil is so insidiously woven into our way of life that it has been compared to an addiction. It is appropriate therefore, that the Energy Descent Plan is modeled on the 12 Step Programme developed originally to help alcoholics. It is heartening that the first step, of setting up a steering group, requires the group to design its demise from the outset. Eventually the original group will be replaced by a new one, once a minimum of four topic-specific sub groups has formed. “Ultimately your Steering Group should become made up of one representative from each sub-group,” Ben explains. Stage two identifies key allies, builds networks and prepares the community. This is the time when movies are shown, discussions are held and groups are formed. Some of these events, of course, can double as fund-raisers.

Once the strength and cohesion of the community is established, it is time to organise what is known as a Great Unleashing: a ‘memorable milestone’ to mark the project’s ‘coming of age.’ This takes varying lengths of time, depending on the community, but is best left until six months to a year after the first awareness-raising movie: in Totnes they prepared for ten months with talks, films and events before their Unleashing. Such events can include whatever you feel best reflects your community’s intention to embark on this collective adventure.

Next comes the formation of the sub groups, devoted, for example, to transport, food, energy, health, waste, and education. Ben advised, “It’s helpful to have some permaculturalists in the group – they’ve been trained in systems thinking, sustainability, energy management and the interconnectedness of all aspects of life.” As always, the aim is to increase community resilience and to decrease the carbon footprint, which together forms the backbone of the Energy Descent Plan. In Glastonbury we held a ‘Conversation Café’, with everybody brainstorming and recording bright and practical ideas on large sheets of paper.

Open Space Technology has been found to be effective in designing such plans. “A large group of people comes together to explore a particular topic or issue,” Ben says, “with no agenda, no timetable, no obvious coordinator and no minute takers.” “In theory,” he continues, “it ought not to work, but by the end of each meeting, everyone has said what they needed to, extensive notes have been taken and typed up, lots of networking has taken place, and a huge number of ideas have been identified and visions set out.”

For those who have had enough of endless meetings which heat the atmosphere and produce nothing, the seventh step will come as a blesséd relief. This requires that ‘your project needs, from an early stage, to begin to create practical, high visibility manifestations in your community’. This not only enhances people’s perception of the project, but also encourages participation. Totnes, in an effort to introduce as many edible nut trees into the town’s landscape as possible, declared itself to be The Nut Capital of Britain and involved the Mayor in planting some trees in the centre of town.
“In order to rebuild the picture of a lower energy society, we have to engage with those who directly remember the transition to the age of Cheap Oil, especially the period between 1930 and 1960.”

Ben reflects that “for those of us born in the 1960s when the cheap oil party was in full swing, it is very hard to picture a life with less oil.” Basic to the success of any Transition Town is skill-swapping, so the project will aim to harness the skills of older people and to teach things many have lost touch with but our grandparents did without batting an eyelid; such as repairing, cooking, cycle maintenance, building and loft insulation, dyeing, gardening, and home energy efficiency.

It is essential that networking involves local government. “Contrary to your expectations,” Ben suggests, “you may well find that you are pushing against an open door.” Looking optimistically into the future, he says, “Perhaps, one day, council planners will be sitting at a table with two documents in front of them – a conventional Community Plan and a beautifully presented Energy Descent Action Plan. It’s sometime in 2008 on the day when oil prices first break the $100 a barrel ceiling and the Planners look from one document to the other and conclude that only the Energy Descent Action Plan actually addresses the challenges facing them. As that document moves centre stage, the community plan slides gently into the bin.” “At a local level,” Ben suggested, “we need to impress upon councils that the assumptions built into their community development plans regarding cheap abundant energy are false… that they will find more supporters than they might think if they engage creatively with the community.”

“Although you may start out developing your Transition Town process with a clear idea of where it will go, it will inevitably go elsewhere. If you try and hold onto a rigid vision, it will begin to sap your energy and appear to stall. Your role is not to come up with all the answers, but to act as a catalyst for the community to design their own transition.”

As long as the key design criteria for the Energy Descent Plan (building community resilience and reducing the carbon footprint) are honoured, the form in which they manifest will be a product of the uniqueness of the community in which the change is occurring. And how long should all this take? Kinsale plans to take 15 years to achieve it;Lewes is looking at 20.

And what has been most heartwarming in this work for Ben? “There have been so many experiences, such as hearing a somewhat jaded activist report back on the palpably charged energy and atmosphere at the Transition Town Lewes Unleashing event in April 2007. Sharing that person’s realisation that here was something to harness his sapping energy, re-energise it and then unleash it into a highly practicable community transformation project… that was special.”

If you’re itching to get started, have a look around the key websites, and find the people in your area who care about rebuilding the webs that bind community. By unleashing the collective genius of the community, by thinking long term, (beyond “economic growth”), and reconnecting with your bioregion, you can build a community that maximises biodiversity and which you’ll be happy for your grandchildren to grow up in.

Useful resources:
• Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Harrison Own • The Change Handbook: Group Methods for Shaping the Future, Peggy Holman and Tom Devane • www.oildepletionprotocol.org • Energy Beyond Oil, Paul Mobbs • "Going virally viral with TT" - Rob Hopkins tells us how the TT template was created to replicate like a virus, and how TT is now growing so very fast

First British Serial Rights © Caroline Sherwood  carosher@phonecoop.coop

(picture thanks to Brighton & Hove - click on it)

The Twelve Steps

(explained here)

  1. Set up a steering group;design its demise from the outset
  2. Awareness raising
  3. Lay the foundations
  4. Organise a Great Unleashing
  5. Form sub groups
  6. Use Open Space
  7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project
  8. Faciliate the Great Reskilling
  9. Build a bridge to local government
  10. Honour the elders
  11. Let it go where it wants to go
  12. Create an Energy Descent Plan
Transition Brighton & Hove

The Seven Buts

(illustrated here)

  1. ‘We’ve got no funding.’
  2. ‘They won’t let us.’
  3. ‘I don’t want to step on the toes of other green groups in town.’
  4. ‘No-one in this town cares about the environment.’
  5. ‘Surely it’s too late to do anything?’
  6. ‘I don’t have the right qualifications.’
  7. ‘I don’t have the energy for doing that.’

Google "12 Steps AA" and you will see classic definitions of the 12 Steps for addiction recovery. The 12 Steps are archetypal and, though they came through originally as answer to the prayer of an alcoholic, they apply to all addiction situations which includes our dependence on oil. Now the 12 Steps for AA etc are not the 12 Steps of TT, but the parallel is valid.

     welcome people who can:

do research
write articles
organise events
do publicity
write letters
talk to people
design flyers / posters
take photographs
make films
take the initiative
fund raise
teach skills
tell stories
pray
build the websites
be creative
be technical
ask questions
get to know people
look for what's still needed

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