Could your town be Transition Town?

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Are you feeling disempowered about global warming? Do you believe that not enough is being done by governments that seem wedded to economic priorities? Would you like to see more than just another variety of ‘business as usual’? If so, there is some cause to take heart.


Around the world, dozens of communities are taking grassroots action to meet the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil. No longer prepared to wait in the hope that someone else will act on their behalf, they are taking up the reins themselves and mapping out a sustainable and resilient future as Transition Towns.

This movement can be traced back to 2005, when a permaculture teacher named Rob Hopkins was working at a further education college in the Irish town of Kinsale. Part of his course involved the development of an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP.)

The idea behind an EDAP is that once world oil production peaks, and this is looking likely within five years, its increasing scarcity has the capacity to create shocks in most areas of society. So much of the modern consumer system depends on oil, and at this point there is a general consensus that no effective substitute fuel has been discovered. The EDAP can provide a roadmap for communities to make a smoother transition into a post-carbon future.

Hopkins’ work took on a life of its own when one of his students at Kinsale originated the Transition Town concept and successfully persuaded the council to adopt his Action Plan. Hopkins later relocated to Totnes in South-West England, an alternative-leaning town bulging with naturopaths and health food stores. It decided to take the plunge and became the first Transition community, soon to be followed by dozens more.

Joining the network

Unlike most environmental initiatives, which usually come from governments and corporations in a ‘top-down’ style, Transition Towns have been described as ‘a social experiment on a massive scale.’ There is no way of knowing how effective it will eventually be, or what will ultimately come out of it, which in a way makes it more interesting.

Essentially, the Transition initiative represents a new opportunity for people to ‘set the agenda’ and to work together, creating positive change within the local area. In the view of co-founder Ben Brangwyn, when it comes to sustainability, the necessary action is unlikely to be taken by governments or individuals, but communities may be up to the challenge.

It is as if the permaculture movement had escaped from the confines of its rural acreages, and suddenly found itself building a sustainable alternative to replace the existing dysfunctional paradigm. This shift away from the fringes towards centre stage is reflected by such details as Transition Town Totnes having its office on the main street.

In addition to towns, the Transition model can equally be applied to villages, cities, city suburbs, council districts, regions, and even islands. It is catching on quickly in seven countries, with about one hundred participating communities and another nine hundred that are interested.

Transition communities in Australia include the Sunshine Coast, Armidale, Bell (a suburb of Geelong), Bellingen, Newcastle, Hervey Bay, Eudlo, Sydney, and Katoomba. Making the transition shift here may be more challenging than in the UK due to a history of car-centred suburban sprawl. However, it has an ally in the form of Andrew McNamara, Queensland’s Minister for Sustainability, who has publicly spoken in favour of local community-level solutions to peak oil.

If you are feeling inspired about getting your town on board, the first step is to find a few keen and like-minded people to form a coordinating team. This group then attempts to enlist the support of existing community organisations while generating local awareness. If there is sufficient groundswell of interest, a town can collectively decide to adopt the Transition framework. Beyond this point, its originators emphasise that there are no answers written in stone, and that it is a case of learning by doing.

Some transition initiatives

Like the relocalisation movement, the transition network believes that in the event of any disruption to the mainstream economy caused by oil depletion or perhaps economic factors, the continued supply of such essentials as food and energy is more likely if these are produced locally rather than at a distance. It also acknowledges that much fossil fuel use is tied to long-distance transport within a highly globalised economy; for example, recent figures show that international shipping is responsible for around 5% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

A Transition Town will form a number of sub-groups, each focusing on planning and implementing projects within a special area of interest. Training and regaining lost skills (‘reskilling’) are important parts of the process. Many towns try to build bridges with local government, in order to get the council on-side. The Transition website has a wiki format, enabling participants to edit material and update the progress on their local initiatives.

In Western countries, on average about ten calories of energy are used to produce one calorie of food. Obviously, these diminishing returns cannot be maintained indefinitely. For most Transition communities, local food is the number one focus, and many people would like to create a network of community gardens for improved food security.

One decentralised farming pioneer is Cuba, which following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s saw its oil imports halved and its food imports cut by 80%, throwing the country into crisis. It responded to its own peak oil emergency with a huge shift away from export-orientated cash crops towards organic farming, permaculture, and a proliferation of small urban gardens.

Residents in the NSW Transition city of Armidale have a vision of creating a garden of perennial food producing plants, including nut trees, at a public space in the city. Totnes is also keen on nut trees, which in addition to supplying food will sequester carbon and can later provide a local source of wood for building.

Many other communities are looking at sustainable energy sources such as solar or wind that can be distributed efficiently over short distances by electricity supply networks known as microgrids. They can draw inspiration from the Victorian town of Hepburn Springs, which is about to start work on the country’s first community-owned wind farm.

In broad terms, the Transition Towns movement offers a structured way for people to make the sometimes difficult shift towards a low-impact lifestyle. This can involve acquiring such simple and useful skills as learning to repair items instead of throwing them away. Organisers have noticed that the inevitable naysayers are usually converted when they realise the financial savings they can achieve.

Introducing a local currency

One of the most important elements in the Transition toolkit is the development of a note-based complementary currency, which can play an important role in boosting the local economy. Such local currencies are relatively easy for businesses to use and have been introduced into numerous communities over the last couple of decades. The success of the Totnes Pound is inspiring other Transition Towns to replicate the idea.

Evaluating the mainstream economy, the UK’s New Economics Forum identifies one key problem that it describes as the ‘Leaky bucket syndrome.’ Most of the money spent in large retail chains inevitably drains away to distant cities, or overseas, to be lost forever from the local area. Comparisons have been made between Britain’s neighbourly ‘home towns’, with locally-owned shops, and the increasingly common ‘clone towns’ whose shopping strips are chain store monocultures that have driven out local diversity.

As we currently wait to see what fallout will come from the global financial crisis, it is worth remembering that in tough times such as the Great Depression when the money supply dried up, complementary currencies, which are by their nature abundant (in contrast to national currencies, which are always designed to be scarce), came into their own. For drought-affected Australian communities they could play a vital role in helping these towns reverse their diminishing financial fortunes.

Letting it go where it needs to go

With an emphasis on empowering people and serving as a catalyst for action, the Transition movement is really about abdicating the leader role, and allowing the community as a kind of organism to evolve the process in its own direction, with a greater focus on opportunities than on problems and challenges.

As a whole, the Transition network hopes to promote a new way of living that is more connected, vibrant and in touch with the environment, perhaps one that is more enjoyable in many ways than the typical consumer-orientated lifestyle of today. Some older people engaged in Transition activities have compared them to the values that prevailed a few decades ago.

If such projects become sufficiently advanced, they could play an important role in achieving community resilience in the face of disruption to the supply of everyday necessities. The question is whether by such a time enough people will have started acting in more community-orientated ways.


Transition Towns

Transition Towns New Zealand

Transition Sydney

Transition Katoomba

Transition Sunshine Coast

Bellingen Shire Transition Initiative

Future Scenarios (David Holmgren)


About the author

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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