Transition towns - towards a sustainable future

Grass root strategies for minimising our impact on the environment are developing around the world. One of the most inspirational initiatives being developed in the UK are Transition Towns, with the southwest England town of Totnes being the first of what are now many. Here, Chris Turney talks to Naresh Giangrande about the pioneering work involved in making Totnes a Transition Town (often shortened to TTT).

Totnes High Street
Chris Turney: So what is a Transition Town and how did the initiative begin?

Naresh Giangrande: Totnes is the UK’s first town exploring how to prepare for a carbon constrained, energy lean world. TTT is a community-led initiative which is working towards the

creation of an Energy Descent Action Plan for the town. The thinking behind TTT is simply that a town using much less energy and resources than we presently consume could, if properly planned for and designed, be more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than the present.

The project started officially with Rob Hopkins and myself who came together in turn from some similar and interesting backgrounds, namely permaculture and peak oil. We met in a pub in Dartington, at the behest of a mutual friend, Andy Langford, who was Britain’s first permaculture teacher, and Rob started telling me about this Energy Descent Plan which he had worked on in Kinsale in Ireland where he was living previously. So it all made sense and we started to do what is now the transition town model here in Totnes. We didn’t call it that at the time, we didn’t really know what we were doing or why.

So I guess you could say it all started in a pub, but it also came out of the work Rob in particular had done in Kinsale, Ireland.

CT: In practical terms, what do individuals and businesses in Totnes actually do?

NG: We must learn how to ‘live well and happily on one planet’ in terms of the resources and energy we have available to us. So we need to examine how we are doing things now and either stop doing it or learn how to do it with much fewer resources, and energy.

For instance in the area I am working on, Renewable Energy, we need to look at what we can hope to generate from RE sources and then plan on how we can set that in motion, working out time scales and programs, and also learning how to do it with less. We have had a report done looking at how much energy we can hope to generate renewably, and it was about 30% of current energy use. So that gives us a target — something to work towards. We have set up a company that will own and operate the renewable energy of Totnes and environs, called TRESOC.

CT: Great stuff. So what made the people of Totnes decide to become a Transition Town?

NG: Rob and I made the first step in creating a transition town, which is what we call awareness raising. We believe that if you give people good, clear information — and crucially a ‘story’ or narrative that creates a view of the world that fits with the evidence you are presenting — then people will come up with good solutions and responses. We did and they did. Our narrative is that we are coming to the end of the cheap energy bonanza, in an event called peak oil, where globally our oil and gas supplies are peaking in the next couple of years, or maybe have already, and then will start to decline. We showed films and gave talks. I was already going round the country giving peak oil talks, as it seemed to me that someone had to and no one was, and then said, well, we have to do something about this, ‘the market’ is not going to produce a good response, and large corporations are looking after themselves and not us, so we have to do something as a community. It’s also not something you can do on your own, it’s too overwhelming! So to work together as a community made absolute sense. And, of course, what we were saying was also backed up by the climate change side of things by many other organisations and was starting to become big news, and then the 2007 IPCC report and the Nobel prize, and it’s now something many people are talking about — and they’re starting to do something too!

CT: How has the project been going since it started? Have you been pleased with the progress so far?

NG: We started in Spring 2006 and had our official unleashing in September 2006 so we have been going just over 18 months and the response in Totnes has been phenomenal. We now have 10 working groups set up, each of who are doing a host of projects all geared to reducing energy or reducing carbon. The areas we cover are transport, energy, food, arts, education, local government, business, economics and livelihood, and Heart and Soul. The heart and soul group is one extraordinary aspect to the TT model, and one which most other environmental organisations and campaigns miss out. It is the understanding that the transition we have to make is both inner and outer. Our beliefs about ourselves and our world, and our place in the world as a human being is something that needs to be addressed and reconfigured. Albert Einstein said something about how you can never solve a problem from the mind set from which the problem was created. And this is the group in Transition that is there to address this critical part of what we have to do and where we have to go. We are also working on creating a community Energy Descent Pathway – of visioning the future we want for ourselves and our children and then the pathways for getting there. Our future is going to be radically different, hell even Barclays Capital, the research arm of a $1.2 trillion investment bank recently came out with a report where they stated:

    Resource scarcity is the single most important social, political and economic factor of our era and will remain so for the foreseeable future. We are depleting the global stock of natural resources – in the broadest sense of that term – at an accelerating pace. This process is creating negative feedback in the shape of rising real resource prices and a degenerating ecosystem, in turn catalysing changes to the fundamental structure of the economy. The rise in per capita consumption has been vastly accelerated by rising prosperity in the developing economies. The scale of the potential increase in aggregate demand is large enough to warrant doubts that it can be satisfied. — Barclays Capital

When business sees these sorts of changes, we have to start thinking about how we can respond in a positive and creative way.

CT: In the next five years, what would you like to see achieved?

NG: We are flowing our plan, and creating mechanisms and pathways for a vastly different future.

CT: For those communities who would like to emulate what you’ve done, have you any lessons or advice?

NG: We have set up Transition Network in response to the phenomenal interest in the transition model. Its role is to inspire, encourage, and assist other communities who want to undertake the transition model. This has been a huge success and has had to set itself up and respond very quickly. There are 40 or so official Transition towns and another 600+ who are thinking about becoming one. Me and Sophy Banks have set up something called Transition Training to train people in how to vision and create a TT, we do a two day course in how to do this process, it’s full on but inspiring and challenging, as well as fun!

As we go around the country, the thing that most people have noticed now in other towns, cities, and even islands, is that where once they faced an uphill battle to create positive environmental change they are now pushing on open doors everywhere! Now’s the time.

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