The Transition Movement: A Community-Sized Solution to Global Problems

April 21, 2011
Paul Rosenberg
Random Lengths News

As government action on climate change stalls, making individual action seem even more inadequate, a growing number of activists are focusing attention on community-level action, based on a model developed in Totnes, a small market town of 7,500 in Southwest England. Totnes is typical of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of towns worldwide that have become far less self-sufficient than they were until just a couple of generations ago.  But in 2005, a movement began to reverse that process, laying the groundwork for an intentional effort to significantly reduce energy use and restore a level of community self-sufficiency that Totnes had enjoyed for eight centuries, before letting it slip away during the now-fading era of abundant cheap oil. 

It all began with environmental educator Rob Hopkins. The process he started eventually became a local non-profit, Transition Town Totnes.   The ideas developed spread to other towns, other countries, and other settings as well—even large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles—under the umbrella name of the Transition Network.

Initially, the Transition movement was driven by two main inter-connected environmental challenges—the energy resource depletion problem known by the shorthand term,“peak oil,” and the carbon pollution problem of global warming. Economic collapse was later added to the list. But it was also deeply informed byecological insights and design practices developed over the past few decades, giving it a hopeful cast.“Human beings are incredibly creative and adaptive,” Hopkins told Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine in 2008. “And there is nothing that indicates that the creativity and adaptability that gotus up to the top of this peak is going to completelyevaporate when we have to start designing our waydown the other side.”

Indeed, a key Transition movement concernis what they call “re-skilling”— theredeveloping of the wide range ofdo-it-yourself capabilities that mostpeople in most cultures took forgranted until quite recently. It’s a key ingredient in developing resilience — a concept related to sustainability, but deeper because itincludes the capacity to adapt tochanging circumstances, without sacrificing quality of life. According to a definition quoted by Hopkins, “Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbanceand reorganize while undergoingchange, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identify and feedbacks.”

Hopkins was living in Kinsale, Ireland in 2004, teaching permaculture design—an approach fostering sustainable land use basedon ecological and biological principles, such as the mimicking or employing of natural patterns—when he went to a lecture on “peak oil,” the long-known but mostly-ignored thefact that the rapid rise in oil production in any given area leads inevitably to a peak, followed by a long decline. U.S. oil production peaked in the 1970s, and world oil production has either already peaked or will doso in about a decade.

His initial response was to develop what he called an “Energy Descent Action Plan” for Kinsale with his students—a plan onhow to deal with the prospect of much less abundant cheap energy. But paper plans were notenough. He wanted to do it for real. So he moved to Totnes, seeking to engage the whole town ashis class. The planning process of how to do thisanywhere was later laid out as part of his 2008 book, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience.

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