Above: Rob Hopkins (left) at a workday supporting the Atmos Totnes project. Photo: David Pearson
By Tracy L. Barnett
For Magis Magazine
Once there lived a permaculturist, far from the city on an old Irish farm. Together with his wife and four children they had nearly finished creating the house of their dreams, a house of cob in a grassy ecovillage with an organic farm. By day he taught permaculture in a nearby college; by night he broke bread with his family and neighbors.
Then one day it all went up in flames – a conflagration that turned their dream upside down, but led them to begin a movement that has swept the world.
That man was Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement. It began as a collection of seemingly small and disparate initiatives, but now they’re scattered across the globe: a community-based solar power grid in a Japanese village; a mural project in Michoacán; a barter fair in Queretaro; a community bakery in a Brazilian favela; and a time bank in New Zealand, to mention a representative handful – and they are all local expressions of a movement that has taken root all over the world, employing a wide range of creative techniques to confront some of the most overwhelming challenges of our times.
Hopkins, a British permaculturist, writer and visionary, unleashed an idea in small-town England in 2006 that has grown to include more than 1,000 initiatives in more than 50 countries. And while they all take very different forms – ranging from local currencies to community power companies, and from festivals to community gardens, all are moving in the same direction: preparing for life in a world beyond oil.
And not a moment too soon, according to climate scientists, who say that if we are to have any chance of staying below the target of 2 degrees – and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that even that 2 degrees is too high –we need to leave about four-fifths of all currently identified fossil fuels in the ground – and that’s without even searching for new ones.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that if we don’t do anything the effects will be severe, widespread and irreversible,” said Hopkins, “and it feels like every time they do one of those studies they reach for a new level of superlatives, and short of running around screaming, they don’t have many places further to go.”
Indeed, current projections on climate change are terrifying – like a recent study from the Swiss Institute of Technology showing the incidence of extreme heat waves has quadrupled since the start of the industrial revolution, and warned that a 62-fold increase in heat blasts could face us by the end of the century if fossil fuel usage is not drastically curtailed. Dying forests, dwindling water reserves, melting ice caps and extinction of species are the stuff of everyday headlines, and climate scientists fear we may have already passed the point of no return.
“There is no choice but deep and urgent decarbonization,” Hopkins told the world in his 2009 TED Talk. The implications for this are profound; the global economy in virtually every sphere is predicated on the false assumption of an unlimited supply of cheap oil. Most political leaders are not addressing this dilemma by finding ways to reduce consumption of fossil fuels; rather, most governments are focusing on ramping up extraction of what’s left, whether it be through deep-sea rigs, fracking, shale oil or the Canadian tar sands.
But here is where Hopkins takes an audacious turn for the positive. This urgent need for change could lead to a better quality of life for everyone, he says – if communities work together, planning for a low-energy future in creative, proactive, collaborative ways. And that is what the Transition Movement has set about to do: making communities from Bristol to Brazil, from Australia to Africa, more self-reliant, more in tune with nature and with each other, and more resilient – the Transition buzzword meaning more capable of withstanding rapid change. Transitioners envision walkable communities, local food, local energy, neighbors who not only know, but support each other.
“We have the opportunity to create something as historic as the Industrial Revolution, as historic as all those great shifts that have come – the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement,” said Hopkins. “This is an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine how we relate to each other, how we live together, how we work as a culture – and although we’re looking at this through the lens of climate change and energy issues, fundamentally it’s about relationships, and we’ve forgotten how to be in relationships together.”
Rob Hopkins’ transition from self-described mediocre student to global catalyst of a movement that attempts to prepare for imminent social collapse was not a radical, overnight transformation. Rather like the 12-step process he lays out in his first book, The Transition Handbook – indeed, rather like the ways of nature herself – it was a gradual, organic process.
He’s an unassuming man with a quick, boyish smile and a self-deprecating sense of humor; his preferred mode of transport is his bicycle. He’s famous for his accessibility and his down-to-earth simplicity. And his approach has been to confront this reality with a radical optimism, an open heart and an invitation to engage, as his most recent book title puts it, in “The Power of Just Doing Stuff.”
The son of an architect, he was born in London in 1968. At 14, he’d had enough of the London schools and asked to stay with an aunt in Bristol, where he attended an alternative Rudolf Steiner school. “People ask me, what did you get from being in a Steiner school? Like I’m going to say, a deep love of nature – but what I got was a love of things not done very well but done with great passion and enthusiasm,” he joked recently to an audience during a recording project for Desert Island Discs, which produced an album with his stories and favorite songs – an eclectic collection with the likes of Velvet Underground, Massive Attack and an assortment of punk classics – rendered with passion and enthusiasm by local bands and choral groups.
Facetiousness aside, Hopkins’ holistic education would serve him well in the years ahead. The do-it-yourself ethic of punk culture inspired him at an early age, as well. “There was a fantastic thing I remember; there was this hand-drawn image of how to play three chords, and it said, here are three chords; now form a band,” he recalled. “I loved that spirit, that sort of do-it-yourself culture.”
Academics were not his thing, however, and at 18 he left school to travel the world, ending up working and studying in a Buddhist retreat center in Tuscany. It started as a sweet job and ended up becoming a spiritual practice. From there he traveled for a year – in Pakistan, Tibet, and India, where he met Emma, who would become his wife and the mother of his four sons. He traveled with a friend who was studying permaculture – an integral design system that works with nature to create human habitats and restore ecosystems. His friend kept talking about permaculture, but the point of it eluded him – until he came back home. Upon his return, out of the blue, a friend gave him a copy of Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.
“Someone had actually sat down and written a manual of Earth repair, and what an incredible thing,” he reflected. “It was like in the biographies of Vincent Van Gogh, they always say he moved to the south of France and it was like someone turned the colors on. All of a sudden I saw things in a very different way… I realized I didn’t need to study soil science for three years to know enough about soil to start growing food. I didn’t need to study agriculture for three years to know how to feed my family. And I didn’t need to go to architecture school to learn the basics of how to build a shelter. And that was hugely empowering – I rushed off and just started doing things.”
Permaculture would become the framework for his life’s work. Soon, however, he would learn of two phenomena that would take that work to a different level. He and Emma moved to Ireland, and Hopkins took a job teaching at the local college in the town of Kinsale, where he set up the world’s first two-year permaculture course and designed the country’s first legally permitted ecovillage. He was gearing up for the beginning of the semester with a showing of the film “The End of Suburbia” when he learned that one of the people featured in the film, retired petroleum geologist and peak-oil author Colin Campbell, lived down the road. He invited Campbell, showed the movie and it became a turning point.
“The idea that fossil fuels might be finite had never really occurred to me,” Hopkins said. “It was kind of a bombshell, and it really started to shape my thinking in terms of what I was teaching, and what we were doing.” Together with the growing body of evidence that catastrophic climate change was linked to the continued uncontrolled burning of those fossil fuels, the information felt like a call to action.
Hopkins and his students developed an Energy Descent Action Plan for Kinsale – a proactive approach to preparing for peak oil that became the foundation for Transition initiatives around the globe. “The EDAP, that little document which heralded so much, was downloaded so many times it almost blew up the town’s internet connection,” wrote Ben Brangwyn, who would later team up with Hopkins and others to create the Transition Network.
The Hopkins had received their fourth son and were finishing a labor of love – a cob house two and a half years in the making, the first one to be built in Ireland in 100 years that employed this ancient building material, a mixture of clay, straw and water. One night, the unthinkable happened; they stood on the grass and watched helplessly as their bucolic ecovillage dream went up in flames.
The fire was a painful and traumatic shock but it served to refocus them. The personal disaster brought home the reality of a looming global one, giving Hopkins a sense of urgency. He wanted to find a way to take the lessons learned in Kinsale and have a greater impact – indeed, a way to take permaculture to the next level.
“I was really frustrated by finding out the scale of the challenge we had, and the level of what people were actually doing,” he said. His mentor and inspiration, Bill Mollison, had written that given the scale of the environmental crisis, the only ethical thing was to get a piece of land and grow your own food. As much as he believed that permaculture principles held the key, he began to see that in the face of an economic collapse, Mollison’s approach was not the answer.
“What happens if the village up the road is cold and hungry? Am I going to defend my land with force? Any meaningful response needed to be based on bringing everyone together, not driving everyone apart.”
Perusing the Internet in those days yielded little in the way of solutions. “Most of what you found there were big hairy men in Nebraska in a pickup truck with four years of toilet paper, firearms and baked beans. It felt to me that we really needed a more compassionate response to the crisis, and not a selfish one.”
Hopkins went through a dark night of the soul.
“My feeling was that we needed to scale this stuff up, and scale it up fast – and do it in a way that engages communities. We need to take it back into the cities, where the people are – that’s where the solutions are going to come from.”
They decided to move to the town of Totnes – a sort of Berkeley of England, a hub of alternative thought and activity. Totnes was a hotbed of new ideas, had a long history of local food production, and it seemed a good place to plant themselves.
As it turned out, they were right. There in Totnes a convergence was happening of people who would become key to taking an idea and building a movement. When Hopkins arrived, almost nobody in Totnes had heard of peak oil – but then he met Naresh Giangrande. Naresh, an entrepreneur with a drive toward sustainability who had landed in Totnes, had begun giving workshops on the subject of rapid climate change called “Living on the Cusp.” He knew exactly what Hopkins was talking about. The two of them teamed up and started working on an energy descent plan for Totnes, and began giving talks and presenting their ideas.
Like any good permaculturist, they began looking at the best ways to design a solution. “One way would be to relocalize our economies and find ways to live well with less, and to look at every aspect of life – transport, food, health care, education,” said Giangrande. “The more we talked to people, the more excited people got.”
People had heard enough about problems; they were ready to focus on solutions. In September of 2006 Hopkins and Giangrande announced the official “unleashing” of Transition Town Totnes. They were stunned and delighted when 450 people showed up. They developed Open Space groups in which participants envisioned the future they wanted and set about planning for it. Initiatives began to take root and grow, from a vibrant local currency to a local energy company to seed exchanges to a series of classes on “the Great Reskilling,” taking back important basic skills that are becoming lost in the information age.
Hopkins wrote extensively in his blog about the developments, taking advantage of what was still an exciting new medium to spread the word, and he began fielding inquiries from around the world.
It wasn’t long before Ben Brangwyn entered the picture. Brangwyn was an IT and marketing professional who like Giangrande had seen the writing on the wall and left his field to find a way to address the looming crises. He was in the area for a course called “Life Beyond Oil” at Schumacher College when he attended one of Hopkins’ talks and realized the potential. “I looked at him and saw a guy standing under a tsunami that he wasn’t really aware of,” Brangwyn recalls.
“I said to him, ‘Hey, Rob – What would you do with $300,000?’ He kind of looked relived and said, ‘I would clone myself and turn myself outward facing.‘ That was the moment the Transition Network was born.”
Together with Peter Lipman, fellow Transition Network co-founder and director of the sustainable transportation company Sustrans, Brangwyn took on the role of developing a financial base and setting up the infrastructure for a global network while Rob wrote The Transition Handbook, which has been translated into at least six languages and has become the guidebook for Transition groups around the world. Since that time, he’s written two more – The Transition Companion (2011) and The Power of Just Doing Stuff (2013).
“International queries started coming really quite quickly,” said Brangwyn. “Transition was clearly going to go global, much to our surprise and delight.”
Soon Sophy Banks came on board as well, and she and Giangrande developed a training program to meet the need. Within the first couple of years, initiatives were springing up in New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Wales; more than 80 initiatives were thriving throughout the United Kingdom.
Each community developed its own priorities and its own approach. For some, the focus was agricultural and food-oriented, developing urban gardens, farm-to-market programs and local farmers markets. Others focused more on the economy; local currencies were taking off in Bristol, Brixton and Lewes; Brixton innovated text-to-pay with its local currency, and the mayor of Bristol announced that he’d take his entire salary in Bristol pounds.
Trenna Cormack, author of “Be the Change: Action and Reflection from People Transforming Our World,” interviewed Hopkins for her book and came away so inspired that she began finding ways to support the movement.
She was particularly intrigued by the strategy of launching local currencies. “It’s subversive and brilliant,” she said. “It’s been really effective in terms of keeping money inside a local economy where it can benefit a lot more rather than have it disappear in chain stores.”
She also pointed to the rapid growth of community power companies, which have been raising money to purchase solar capacity – like the one in Lewes that partnered with a local brewery. “It takes so much courage and vision to do something as big as that,” she said. “But if we are to prepare for a world where there’s a lot less oil, this is what needs to happen.”
Early on, Hopkins and others recognized the need to deal with the emotional firepower of the issues they were dealing with; opening the lid on such profoundly troubling issues requires its own space and time. Soon after the unleashing, Sophy Banks created what was first called the “Heart and Soul Group” and then “Inner Transition” to give people a chance to reflect on what the pending changes meant on a deeply personal level – a chance to grieve, to rage, to come to terms with the whole range of feelings, to step out of the isolation. The idea was also to provide a space for self-nurturing in the face of potential overwhelm and burnout.
John Thackara, writer and founder of Doors of Perception production group, calls himself a “friend of the family” of the Transition movement and has been an observer since the beginning. He considers the Inner Transition component one of the great strengths of the movement.
“With hordes of people around the world looking aghast at what’s happening, Sophy Banks’ work on Inner Transition has been extremely important,” he said. “I know of no other movement which takes the subject of personal resilience so seriously. They’ve had the real experience of people becoming burned out, and they said, ‘If we can’t find a way to look after ourselves – if we can’t manage that as well as we manage food or carshares – we’re not going to survive.’ It’s unexpected to find this attention to inner resilience as well as social resilience.”
German-Mexican permaculturist, writer and teacher Holger Hieronomi became aware of the Transition movement in 2008 when Hopkins’ first book, The Transition Handbook, was published. He wrote an extensive review on his blog, Tierramor, which was the first time the book appeared in Spanish. Hieronomi began to see the connections betwen peak oil and what was unfolding in Mexico with the rise in narcomafias and related violence.
Hieronomi points to the decline of the Cantarell oilfield, one of the world’s largest, as highly significant in this case. Mexico reached its peak in oil production at some point between 2003 and 2006, at which point between 30 and 40% of the federal budget came from oil.
“When there’s a lot of energy and resources, this in general facilitates megastructures like for example national governments,” Hieronomi said. “The fact that in Mexico the petroleum industry is controlled by the government has meant that in Mexico historically there have always been very strong governments – the government was omnipotent.”
Today, however, Mexico is producing 30 percent less oil than it was a decade ago, and the effects are being felt throughout the economy.
“When there’s less energy, there’s less law and order. It’s interesting that the violence began to increase just about parallel with the decrease in petroleum production. Obviously there are other factors at play but perhaps the most fundamental reason is energy.”
Hieronomi has promoted the Transition concept and written extensively about it on his blog. Like Hopkins, he had been looking for ways to interpret the permaculture system in a social context.
“For Rob Hopkins, Transition is very much like a Trojan horse – to introduce permaculture contexts to a whole range of people who are not affected by the hippie alternative context. It’s a social translation of permaculture concepts.”
Hopkins of course is not without his detractors, from the left as well as the right, from the climate change deniers who say it’s all nonsense to the deep green ecologists who dismiss the Transition approach as “brightsiding;” some fear it’s too little, too late. Among the most interesting discussions are from the latter camp, where Hopkins and Hieronomi’s teacher, David Holmgren – the other half of the Mollison-Holmgren duo that brought the world permaculture – comes down on the opposite side of the continuum.
In his provocative 2013 essay “Crash on Demand, ” Holmgren argued in favor of a calculated crash of the economic system by withholding substantial capital and consumption as a way to stop the juggernaut that is currently leading us inexorably toward climate chaos. The essay provoked a robust debate, and Hopkins weighed in with “Holmgren’s Crash on Demand: Be Careful What You Wish For,” which took his hero to task for what he termed “a naive and irresponsible proposal.” Hopkins’ essay likewise prompted another full-blown round of responses, including Holmgren defenders who called Hopkins’ arguments disengenuous. Much of the debate is translated on Hieronomi’s blog.
“The problem is that so often the message connected to climate change and peak oil is so dense many people, and especially Rob Hopkins and the people connected with the Transition Movement, don’t really want to talk about it – but we have to take care of going in the opposite direction, which is denying this reality,” said Hieronomi.
It’s a delicate balance, Hieronomi says, because if you focus too much on the bad news, you risk that people stop listening. Regardless, he comes down on the side that we have to tell the truth to the people; otherwise we’re just like politicians.
“We have to say the future is not an easy future – there’s no bright future ahead on the macro side. It doesn’t mean we cannot create on the local side an interesting story – but if you wait for it to come from the macro side, it’s not going to happen.”
Meanwhile, on the micro level, people have used the tools of Transition to great effect to confront crises and disasters that are already occuring – like in Spain, where the economic crisis has left a once prosperous country with an unemployment rate of 30 percent, and closer to 50 percent for the youth. Local economic alternatives, like barter markets, consumer-producer cooperatives, local currencies and time banks, are flourishing, and the Transition Movement has been a big part of that, says Juan Del Rio of Spain, the author of La Guía del Movimiento de Transición, the first book on the Transition Movement to be geared to a Spanish-speaking audience.
“There is a lot of despair right now in Spain, and what I felt, what I see in my own local initiatives, but also in other groups, the Transition local initiatives are a kind of space of hope.” In Spain more than 50 local Transition initiatives have emerged, and newly formed local political parties are seeking out Transition groups to ask for guidance as they form their political platforms. (For a full interview with Del Rio, see LINK HERE)
Another very different example is Transition Fujino, which has helped that town’s residents cope with the trauma of post-Fukushima Japan by organizing to create a community renewable energy network, and working together to provide relief in the tsunami-hit zones. In Christchurch, New Zealand, in the aftermath of two devastating earthquakes,Transition Town members used the “Time Bank” netwok they had created for skill-sharing to activate people with special skills and connect them quickly to those in need.
In Brazil, Isabel Gómez de Menezes talks about how Transition changed her life, giving her the tools to organize a vibrant group of women in her community of Granja Viana. They tackled the electoral system, got a rainwater harvesting system, created a ride sharing system and took back an abandoned public space for a community park and garden, and created an ecological market that meets every week in that space.
Most importantly, the group has helped the community overcome decades of mistrust brought about by living for so many years under a dictatorship, Gómez says.
“We are learning again that we can do stuff together – we can go to the streets and ask for things – and we can make things happen.”
In Italy, Cristiano Bottone launched Transition with a series of meetings in his town of Montiveglio that started off so strongly, several members decided to run for government posts, and now the town has a sympathetic Town Council that has launched a number of projects, including a solar-powered school.
To Peter Lipman, a Transition Network cofounder who now serves as chairman of the board, Transition’s greatest strength and what has allowed it to proliferate in so many different contexts is its inclusiveness.
“It may be why Transition has grown so quickly – it’s not saying what has to be the answer, it’s saying, what are the questions? It’s inviting people to join in with their agenda, rather than saying you have to adopt our agenda.
“Unless I start by thinking what’s important to the people I’m seeking to engage in a meaningful relationship with, I’m not going to get very far. It’s also about basic levels of respect.”
With more than 1,000 groups around the world, three books and two documentaries, some leaders might rest on their laurels and call the movement a success. The leaders of Transition are more cautious.
“We still talk of it very much as an experiment and we all have a question in our minds: Is it going to be enough?” said Brangwyn. “One way we express that uncertainty is this: If we wait for the government, it will be too little, too late. If we just do it as individuals, it will be too little – but if we do it as communities together, it might be just enough, just in time.
“That kind of communicates the sense of desperation all of us in this work face and embrace.”