Towns in Transition

Picture this scene. You live in a house where you grow your own food, and in a street where you know all your neighbours. Your workplace is just a short walk away, but, should you choose to cycle, the roads are usually free of cars. When you spend your money, it’s in local shops where the shopkeepers are familiar, and the things you buy are nearly always locally made. And when you go out, you’re dancing to live music, and the beer you’re drinking is brewed just outside of town. What are you thinking of? I expect, for most people, this sounds like life several decades ago. For a growing minority, though, this is a vision of the future.

The idea began in 2004, when the environmentalist and teacher, Rob Hopkins, stumbled across the phenomenon of peak oil. If you’re not familiar with this concept, have a quick read of the box over there to the right, then come back. The implication of it all – that globalisation could go into reverse – means that big changes may be on the way. ‘I’d been involved with environmental things for fifteen years and I’d never clocked the idea at all,’ said Hopkins. ‘I just thought, you know, that one day in 2050 someone would put the last drop of oil into a car and it would be this gentle thing.’ And, according to Hopkins, there is no easy technical fix: ‘There’s no alternative in the short-term, even if we were to set up nuclear power stations all over the place right now…This is the first time we’ve had a depleting resource without a better, more efficient resource in sight to replace it. We have become reliant on the utterly unreliable, and we have no plan B.’

With his students in Kinsale, Ireland, Rob Hopkins tried to work out a way through this situation. They made the assumption that several years in the future they might have to live without cheap oil, and that they may also be forced to limit greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. ‘We started thinking about, well, what does this mean for the town of Kinsale? How is Kinsale going to adapt to this? You know, we could just sit here, not do anything, let this unfold as a series of lurching crises, or we could actually try and pull together all the different aspects of the town and really look at this.’ The result of their efforts was the transition towns concept.

The key idea behind transition towns is to try and evolve a collective lifestyle that is almost entirely independent from external energy sources. It’s about trying to relocalise many aspects of our world that have been globalised – growing food closer to home, manufacturing things locally when you can, spending leisure time in ways that are less energy-dependent. It’s about rethinking how we design our urban landscapes, planting trees and shrubs not just for aesthetic effect but to grow things we can eat. It’s about repairing what we already have, rather than buying things anew. And it’s about local economies that are flourishing in their own right, not merely as cogs in a larger economic system. (In Totnes, the first transition town in England, the locals have even introduced their own currency.)

In the last few years, the idea has spread fast. To date, there are 78 transition initiatives in existence, and by the time you read this there will almost certainly be more. Nottingham is already among them, and I spoke to some of the locals to find out what’s going on here.

‘In Nottingham it’s quite hard, because it’s obviously such a large city,’ said Paul Paine, one of the founding members of Transition Nottingham. ‘What we’re doing is breaking things down, and under a steering group we have smaller groups in places like Wollaton, Beeston, St Anns, West Bridgeford, Sherwood, and some outside the city boundaries.’ These groups are operating around Nottingham, giving talks and seminars. They’re holding skill-shares where they can exchange their practical abilities with others, the idea being, according to Lance Brown from the Wollaton area, ‘to regain the basic skills which you need to support yourself, and to make sure those skills are available locally.’ They’re also reclaiming unused land across the city, and using it to grow food for local use. On University Park campus right now there are allotments being put aside for this purpose, and a new society, Allotsoc, to help train people in growing crops there.

A key idea for the group is to take action themselves, and not to wait on pressuring others to act for them. ‘A lot of people try to get central government or local government to do things,’ said Paul. ‘The transition movement is about doing things yourself…it’s about people and communities working together to achieve change at a grass-roots level.’ And the people I spoke to seemed to find this an empowering experience; Liese Sheppard said: ‘this work strengthens or possibly reinstates community feeling, often in places where it had been lost or neglected.’ In fact, most people seemed to view the transition process not as a necessary burden, but as an opportunity. ‘The key thing is that the future with less oil could be preferable to the present,’ said Rob Hopkins, ‘…inherent in the challenge is an extraordinary opportunity to reinvent, rethink and rebuild the world around us.’ Whether the idea will take off or not remains to be seen, but here Nottingham people are working hard to see it happen.

For more information on Transition Nottingham, visit http://www.transitionnottingham.org.uk/

Rob Barham


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