As we slide deeper into an economic recession, one question we often hear is, “how long is this downturn going to last?” There is a commonly held belief that it is only a matter of time before we get back to ‘business as usual’. But what many fail to grasp is the severity of the problems we face and the ‘once-in-a-species’ opportunity that these challenges offer us.
The shape of the recovery is being hotly debated within economic circles, with three possibilities being mooted. One, the possibility of a ‘V’-shaped recovery in which the economy quickly bounces back, is falling out of favour, displaced by the idea that there will be a ‘double-dip’ — a rapid partial recovery followed by another sharp decline. Others still think that the recovery will be ‘U’-shaped — that growth will be restrained and that the economy will take a bit longer to recover. In a 2009 Post Carbon Institute posting, Richard Heinberg argued that the recovery will actually be ‘L’-shaped; that instead of returning to high levels of growth, society will have to get used a much lower level of economic activity. As economic growth is dependent on abundant and growing energy supplies, the expected constraints in global oil availability mean that a ‘V-‘ or ‘U’-shaped recovery is highly unlikely.
Of course, as well as attempting to ‘fix the economy,’ we will need to radically decrease our vulnerability to an over-dependence on oil, coal and gas. This means looking beyond the obvious, i.e. electricity supply or fuel, and rethinking our food, health and almost all other systems. Currently everything we do is dependent upon a non-renewable, climate-changing source of energy: oil. I was born in the year that global oil discovery peaked and in the 45 years since we’ve failed to discover more oil than we had back then. Today we consume four barrels of oil for every barrel discovered and have reached, or will soon reach, the peak in global oil production.
Not that it needs to be explained here, but ‘peak oil’ is the geological term used to describe the time when the amount of oil that can be extracted reaches its limit and begins to decline. Extracting oil after the peak becomes more difficult and expensive, and the amount of oil produced begins to decrease. The term ‘peak oil’ usually relates to worldwide production, but the majority of oil-producing countries have now reached the point where their oil production has peaked and is now declining. Before the recent economic crash, when oil was touching on close to $150 a barrel, awareness of the oil issue was high. With the price now around $80 a barrel, and with the economy collapsing, society seems to be forgetting all about the energy problem.
Climate change has also been slipping from our awareness recently, just as the urgency of taking appropriate responses has become more apparent. According to the Climate Safety Report published by the Public Interest Research Centre in 2008, climate change is accelerating more rapidly and dangerously than even the IPCC had expected. The earlier-than-predicted onset of ice-free Arctic summers will cause additional heating, greenhouse gas emissions and sea-level rise, over and above what has been predicted to date. The melting glaciers, the famine in Darfur, the changing monsoon patterns, the enduring drought in Australia and the widespread loss of species — these all illustrate the global nature of the crisis. Climate change is already impacting the majority of people on this planet, but despite apparent scientific consensus on the issue, the debate in the media, here in Ireland at least, still focuses on whether or not it is happening at all.
Some scientists have warned that the rapid disappearance of all kinds of life, from bacteria and insects to plants and animals, is as dangerous as climate change, and closely related to it. In a Eurobarometer survey taken in 2008, most Irish people said they did not know anything about the loss of biodiversity, despite up to half of all Europe’s birds, butterflies, fish and animals being threatened with extinction.
So it is clear that we are facing not a financial, energy, climate or even a biodiversity crisis per se, but a systemic crisis for which we are completely unprepared. We have now reached the long-predicted ‘limits to growth’ and find ourselves facing a convergence of challenges that are inextricably connected. Through over-population and over-consumption we have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity. We now urgently need to take an evolutionary leap in the way we do things and to design systems from the bottom up in a way that fits the planet’s carrying capacity. And we need to do this together.
The availability of cheap and easily available energy has led to an unprecedented time of individualism; now most of us know the characters of our favourite soap opera better than the people we live amongst. We might be the first generation who has no need for real neighbours, and that loss of community means a loss of resilience. Our global economy is designed to work without any need for community. Our food and energy come from halfway around the world and we have no relationship with the people who produce it. Very little is local and as Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, social capital has been falling in the US and over the past 25 years, attendance at club meetings has fallen 58 percent, family dinners are down 33 percent and having friends visit has fallen 45 percent. It looks like just when we are going to have to have to depend a lot more on our neighbors, we are actually doing less and less together.
We’ve been aware of these unfolding crises for a long time. The “Limits to Growth” report was written over 35 years ago, climate change has been known about for over a century and resource depletion is an issue that many have understood and been trying to alert more people to for decades. The biggest difficulty we face is that the majority of the planet’s citizens still haven’t grasped that a problem exists at all. Or if they do, they can’t comprehend the scale of it.
What I want to explore is how we rise to the challenge of engaging as many people as possible in making the transition to a post-industrial society. How do we build sustainable communities that can survive and thrive in a future that will be characterised by change, uncertainty and surprise? Can we do this in a way that liberates the ingenuity of the human spirit and galvanizes our most powerful impulses to create and evolve? Can the new social movement called Transition Towns be a catalyst towards the development of low-carbon, resilient and healthy communities we need? Are the emerging Transition initiatives up to the challenge, and what more could this nascent movement be doing?
The Good Life 2.0
Web 2.0 is the term used to signify the new upgraded Internet, which is community-based, interactive and user-driven. As the emerging crisis is too overwhelming for individuals to face alone, I want to propose a ‘Good Life 2.0’ — a response to the challenges of the current era based on an “upgrade” of the ideas of the 1970s self-sufficiency movement and the values of community, together with everything we have learned in the 30 years since.
Do you remember The Good Life, the TV show that ran from 1975 to ’78? One of Britain’s favourite sit-coms, it popularised the notion of getting out of the rat race and being self-sufficient. Tom and Barbara, Richard Briers’ and Felicity Kendal’s characters, converted their suburban garden into a farm, kept pigs and chickens and grew their own food.
The first series was launched just after the first oil shock, amid one of the UK’s worst economic downturns. It was actually based on the writings of John Seymour, the father of self-sufficiency. His books give a comprehensive introduction to the ‘Good Life’, covering everything from growing your own crops, animal husbandry, wine making and bee keeping, to building, renewable energy and much, much more. John gained considerable experience living a self-sufficient life, first in Suffolk, then Pembrokeshire and then in Ireland, where he established the School of Self-Sufficiency in Co. Wexford. He also travelled around the world and wrote and made films exposing the unsustainability of the global industrial food system. Sadly, on the 14th of September 2004, John Seymour passed away at the ripe old age of 90.
Over the last five years of his life I had an opportunity to spend some time with John. We campaigned together to stop the planting of genetically engineered sugar beet, which culminated with seven of us in a New Ross court-house. But that’s another story.
Surprisingly, John once told me that he was actually wrong about self-sufficiency. On a visit to his smallholding in Wexford, he shared with me his conclusion that it would be too difficult to sustain the noble effort of living off-grid and providing for all your own needs on your own land. Self-sufficiency wasn’t enough. His new thinking was something he called co-sufficiency — self-reliant local communities that could provide the social relationships essential for facing an uncertain future, together. Seymour predicted that we would need strong, connected communities that could work together to meet their needs and make the transition to a post-industrial economy that is not dependent on fossil fuel.
If Tom and Barbara of The Good Life were striving to be self-sufficient today, they would probably have joined their local Transition Town group and be engaged in the building of food and energy security with their neighbours.
That’s ‘The Good Life 2.0’, a community approach to building local resilience, because, as Richard Heinberg writes in his book Powerdown, “personal survival depends on community survival.”
Making the Transition
At the heart of the Transition Towns movement is the building of relationships with our neighbours and working with them on projects of common interest. In the coming years we will need to live more locally and work co-operatively in our neighborhoods and towns. The process is taking root throughout the world, with thousands of communities now adopting the model. Even the fictional town of Ambridge in the Radio 4 programme The Archers has become a Transition Town.
|Construction work at Cloughjordan ecovillage in early summer 2010. Photo: Albert Bates.
I often say that the Transition process was born in Ireland, a statement with some truth to it. Rob Hopkins, who is recognised as the founder of the Transition movement, lived in Ireland for 12 years and it was here that the seeds were sown. I first met Rob in 1997 at one of the Sustainable Earth Fairs at Maynooth University where I was studying. This was an early gathering of advocates of sustainability from around Ireland, and Rob’s passion for Permaculture and sustainability was infectious even then. It was around this time that Marcus McCabe, one of Ireland’s early adopters of Permaculture, held a meeting on the subject of eco-villages in Monaghan. He expected about 20 people to turn up but so many people arrived that it had to be relocated to a bigger venue. At this meeting Rob met Greg Allen and Gavin Harte and, with them, set up Baile Dulra, an idea for a sustainable community based on permaculture principles; they spent the next couple of years developing the idea and looking for land. This project was the precursor to the Hollies in West Cork and the Ecovillage in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary (where I now live).
Following an amicable parting of ways, Rob went on, with his partner Emma and Thomas & Ulrike Riedmuller, to found The Hollies, the centre for practical sustainability in West Cork, Ireland. From here Rob developed and taught on the two-year Permaculture course in Kinsale community college. In the years leading up to the development of the energy-descent action plan prototype by Rob and his students in Kinsale, FEASTA had held a number of events that introduced and popularised the ideas of peak oil and explored the ramifications for our economy and society. I remember seeing Colin Campbell speaking at a FEASTA event in Dublin in the year 2000 and just not getting the importance of the geological turning point of peak oil. It wasn’t until FEASTA’s landmark three-day conference in Thurles in 2002 that I got it. There, Richard Douthwaite, David Fleming, Colin Campbell and many other ‘early toppers’ really illuminated the issues at stake. Interestingly, the event was called Before the Wells Run Dry, Ireland’s Transition to Renewable Energy. Indeed, it was this conference, and of course Greg Green and Barry Silverstone’s now classic film The End Of Suburbia, that were responsible for many of Ireland’s sustainability advocates’ ‘peak oil moment’. Sustainability, seen through the lens of resource depletion, makes even more urgent the work of developing resilient communities, permaculture and systems thinking.
In Kinsale in 2004, on the first day of a new term, Rob Hopkins and his Permaculture 2nd-year students watched The End of Suburbia and heard a talk that followed by Colin Campbell. This “peak oil double bill” culminated in what Rob describes as a week of PPSD, post-petroleum stress disorder in the college, and led to the development of the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan as their end-of-year project. This document, and the landmark event that launched it in 2005, changed the landscape of peak-oil response forever. David Holmgren, Richard Heinberg and a host of others including our now Minister for Energy, Eamon Ryan, spent three days in West Cork planning how we would best manage our transition to a low-energy future. This event led in turn to the formation of a new group in the town driven by some of the students, local activists and residents of Kinsale. Known as Kinsale Transition Town, the group enjoyed some initial successes, but it wasn’t until Rob and Emma relocated from West Cork to Totnes in Devon, England, that the Transition process emerged. In Totnes, Rob began working with locals on what would become Transition Town Totnes, the Transition process and the Transition Network.
In a few short years, Transition culture has gone viral and an international network of Transition initiatives has rapidly grown as cities, islands, towns and rural villages sign up to the process. Thousands now exist, with communities setting out to radically reduce their carbon emissions while at the same time developing further their ability to cope with a future that is very uncertain. Transition is a process that offers pathways, new ways of thinking and a set of tools that could help us respond to the shocks that we will inevitably face.
The Transition model helps communities come together to develop the capability to provide most of its essential needs — food, energy, water and raw materials — from a number of local sources. The model ensures that in the event of a system failure, communities can look after themselves. The process comes with a ‘cheerful disclaimer’ that states that it is a social experiment on a massive scale; it is not known if it will work.
One of the most striking characteristics of ‘Transition’ communities is their positivity and creativity; the process is purposely designed to be non-threatening and engaging, so people feel at ease to explore different ideas and approaches. Its strength lies in its ability to bring all sorts of people together and to be greater than the sum of its parts. There is room for everyone.
Planning our energy descent
Through a loose process Transition initiatives set out to build the capacity of the community to plan its energy descent. The goal is to envision a desirable post–fossil fuel future and then “backcast” the incremental steps needed to realise that future. This is called an Energy Descent Action Plan, and is the process at the core of Transition thinking: planning how to wean ourselves off fossil-fuel energy and do a lot more for ourselves.
“The concept of energy descent, and of the Transition approach, is a simple one: that the future with less oil could be preferable to the present, but only if sufficient creativity and imagination are applied early enough in the design of this transition.” Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook
Underpinning the Transition process is a belief that life with less energy is inevitable and that it’s better to plan for it than be taken by surprise. This may sound like prudent advice, but it is surprisingly difficult for us to imagine the future and plan the transition needed to get there.
Instead of waiting for someone else, or some other agency, to do something about the emergency we face, the communities embarking on the Transition process are endeavoring to act for themselves, knowing that if they don’t do something, no-one will. Examples of Transition initiatives include starting community gardens and allotments, creating community-supported agriculture systems (CSAs), localising energy production, starting car clubs and “future proofing” their houses and public buildings. Some have even introduced local currencies to keep money circulating in their local area. All of these build community and offer the potential of an extraordinary transformation in our economic and social systems.
From vulnerability to resilience
Transition initiatives maintain that building local resilience will help us weather the fast-approaching storms. The flip-side of vulnerability, resilience is the ability of a system to hold together and function in the face of disruption and shock. This means having the capacity to deal with adversity and to find new ways of doing things when current approaches become redundant or fail. An authoritative definition is offered from a report commissioned by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in preparation for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD):
“Resilience, for social-economic-ecological systems, is related to
(a) the magnitude of novelty or shock that the system can absorb and remain within a given state
(b) the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization
(c) the degree to which the system can build capacity for learning and adaptation
When massive transformation is inevitable, resilient systems contain all of the necessary components for renewal and reorganization. Intentional management that builds resilience can sustain social-economic-ecological systems in the face of surprise, unpredictability and complexity.”
Because the possibility is rising fast of abrupt breakdown in our vital social, economic and environmental systems, we need to find ways to accelerate the building of resilient local communities.
We in Ireland are more reliant on imported oil for our energy requirements than almost every other European country. This leaves us very vulnerable to interruptions in supply. In response to this, Transition initiatives facilitate the design of a ‘powerdown’ strategy that helps us cope with such shocks and at the same time greatly increases our ‘well-being’ and resilience. Although debate about energy futures and the top-down strategies needed for a low-carbon economy has focused mainly on technology and supply-side replacements for fossil fuels, much work is underway by Transition initiatives on reducing our energy demand and exploring the prospects for community responses to this “new emergency”.
So, are Transition initiatives up to the challenge of building community resilience and preparing us for the new emergency? One problem that needs to be overcome is that, generally, the people attracted to Transition are the usual suspects, making it a case of preaching to the converted. This emerging social movement must therefore explore ways to move beyond the familiar demographic, get their message out to the ‘unconverted’ and bring much greater diversity into their initiatives.
Ecology is all about relationships; the more diverse a system, the better. In Transition initiatives in Ireland and the UK, I’ve noticed a predominance of greenies, slow foodies, and the middle-class, middle-aged, white, urban types. Where are the working classes, middle Ireland, the new ethnic communities, faith communities, the youth and the traditional left? If the movement fails to build diversity and get these sectors of society on board, prospects are poor for a gentle descent.
One barrier to getting more people involved in Transition may be a perception that it is full of “New Age” principles or ‘hippy dippy’ notions. Nothing turns some people off more than the thought of being asked to sit in a circle and share how they feel about the state of the world or, worse, themselves. No-one wants to feel uncomfortable, that they don’t know enough to participate or that it all might be some kind of cult. This constitutes a massive barrier to the building of resilient communities and the Transition movement needs to consider how to develop relationships with people that hold different values.
We need to live with those people in our communities with whom we don’t necessarily share the same worldview or values. We’re all in this together and we need to get through it together. Transition initiatives need to liaise with other local groups and networks as well as finding innovative ways of creating forums for bringing people together and maximising the opportunities to share ideas and freely express opinions. That in many respects it does so already is one of its strengths; the movement offers many examples of the bringing together of young and old, rich and poor, male and female, the business man and the activist — even the right and the left.
Building a mass movement demands an understanding of where people are at. It means not turning people off before they hear what we have to say. For me, it highlights the need, above all, for flexibility and the ability to adapt the language and techniques we use. Discussing the potential for safe communities, warm homes and local jobs might be more palatable to traditional middle Ireland than attempting to, initially at least, discuss climate change and peak oil with them.
In 2008, Paul Chatterton and Alice Cutler of the Trapese Collective, a Popular Education non-profit organisation, wrote a critique of the Transition process called “The Rocky Road to a Real Transition.” They argued that unless we identify and confront the vested interests in the media, government and business, and reject all systems of control, we will be unable to make a real transition. This was an interesting critique as in my experience many people involved in Transition initiatives see themselves as activists and aren’t opposed to challenging power. As Rob Hopkins points out in his response to the paper, ‘I make no apologies for the Transition approach being designed to appeal as much to the Rotary Club and the Women’s Institute as to the authors of this report.’ One of the strengths of the Transition movement is the blame-free dialogue it encourages in this same spirit.
People involved in Transition tend not to dismiss global movements struggling for justice around the world and many, in their own capacity, do what they can to support the oppressed. However, the Transition process is more about coming together to demonstrate what is possible and what can be done rather than taking to the streets. Transition nurtures a common purpose: to facilitate the self-organisation needed to rebuild community and at the same time massively reduce our fossil-fuel dependency.
In response to the Trapese Collective’s argument that Transition shies away from confronting politics, Hopkins writes in his blog that, for him, ‘Transition is something that sits alongside and complements the more oppositional protest culture, but is distinctly different from it. It is a different tool. It’s designed in such a way as to come in under the radar.’
When you scratch the surface, Transition is highly subversive, but most of all it’s positive and can be fun. As Richard Heinberg says, ‘Transition is more like a party than a protest march.’ We can’t smash the system entirely as we are part of it. We need to short-circuit the system by building an alternative one that works.
I do think that the future will be rocky. And I understand, too, that while planning for a gentle transition is one thing, there’s a concern out there that the energy descent may not be as slow as the classic slope of Hubert’s curve suggests. For most, it seems, the future may be chaotic, confusing and violent. The nexus of challenges will probably lead to increases in criminal activity and, in many places in the world, to war or unrest, both civil and transnational. In some places, the new emergency will most likely bring with it a rise in extreme right-wing and religious fundamentalism. It is said that it is easier to slide down a slope rather than climb up it, but as we move into the unchartered waters of energy descent, we may find that preparing for civil disruption is just as important as building our local economies and growing our own food.
I am often accused by some friends of being overly pessimistic and constantly told that things are not as bad as I think they are. Conversely, many colleagues accuse me of being overly optimistic and that things are a lot worse than I think they are. On top of the credit crunch, rising unemployment and the unfolding environmental crises, what if, as Feasta’s New Emergency conference suggests, we are actually on the cusp of collapse? Will the community building and bottom-up approaches of Transition be enough? At the 2009 Transition gathering in London, Richard Heinberg was beamed through the Internet to give a presentation titled “Emergency Preparedness.” In this session he introduced the idea of top-down emergency planning and the formation of disaster-management groups. He stressed that the development of these would not compete with Transition strategies; they would just be working at a different level.
While disaster-management groups don’t sound as much fun as Transition initiatives, this approach will be very much required as part of our response to the problems we face; the two are not mutually exclusive. Heinberg also stressed that we will all have to get ready for rapid and deep shocks and play a part in the development of short-term emergency plans for our communities, regions and nations. Emphasising the need for more preparedness for such rapid change, he proposed that Transition initiatives should form working groups to identify people and organisations with something to offer emergency planning. He suggested contacting mainstream organisations responsible for the systems needed in an emergency in our area, working with them to develop contingency plans and strategies for emergency preparedness in their own fields and helping them scale these up quickly.
Building resilient communities
For ten years I have been involved with a disparate group of people in a unique and innovative project that is striving to create a fresh blueprint for modern sustainable living in rural North Tipperary where resilience and community are very much to the fore.
I have moved into one of the first houses to be occupied in this innovative development, which is integrating with the existing town of Cloughjordan; this makes it a very different model to most established eco-villages. Work has started on over 30 eco-homes and 45 families from the project have now located to Cloughjordan. The development, which is being progressed by a community-owned educational charity, Sustainable Projects Ireland, is a lot more than an eco-housing estate and has many elements that will provide community resilience.
Homes will be surrounded by an edible landscape of fruit and nut trees, vegetables and herbs. A tree nursery has been established to nurture hundreds of trees for planting along the pathways and in the community gardens that are dispersed throughout the residential area. Larger community and personal allotments have been established to provide more space for growing food. The remaining eco-village land is dedicated to farming and woodland. The Cloughjordan Community Farm is located on 28 acres on the outskirts of the village and also utilises two fields on the eco-village land. This example of CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, has been a fantastic way to build a bridge between the residents of the new community and the old.
This paper has focused on the need to build community resilience in a world that is rapidly crashing around us. From its Irish roots the Transition process has taken off and provides a way to mainstream the ideas of sustainability and help us to revitalise our local economies. I believe that Transition, although still a young movement, can be a catalyst towards the development of low-carbon, resilient and healthy communities. Its strength will be its ability to share what is working and what is not through a global network of motivated and enthusiastic people who are learning how to cope and adapt to the challenges of these turbulent times.
There is an old African proverb, quoted by Al Gore in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” To make the transition, we need to go far and we need to go quickly. To maintain a good life in the 21st century we will need to rebuild our social, economic and environmental systems, localise our communities and most importantly, we will have to learn to do all this together.
Here are ten steps or action points that I think could help us to develop our personal and community resilience.
Understand the context – We need to understand where we are at and be observant of limits, both ecological and our own. Awareness of what the converging challenges facing us are and what the responses might be is an essential first step in developing our resilience to cope.
Take a helicopter view – We live in a complex living system so we have to be able to see systems at work. Being able to take a whole systems perspective is of the highest importance and it is fundamental to understand our human systems through the lens of living systems. Taking a Permaculture course will give us the tools to begin to apply this thinking to the development of local resilience.
Build community – Make social networks real, get to know your neighbours and develop a stronger sense of place. Focus on building relationships with others and developing trust. In these times it is vital that we break out of our specialist silos of interest, establish partnerships and strengthen the bonds with others pursuing similar objectives. Join or start a Transition Initiative.
Map your assets – As a community, identify and strengthen your physical, social and human assets. Value the tangible and the intangible, especially the skills and talents of local people.
Develop new skills – In a changing world new skills and knowledge will be needed. Identify what capacities you and your community need to build.
Powerdown – Do everything you can to reduce your dependency on fossil fuels. Future proof your homes and buildings and minimise your need to travel.
Eat locally – Learn to produce food, start a garden and build relationships with local food producers. Develop community food systems.
Lead – As a key aspect of resilience is the ability to self-organise; a leader in this context needs to help people move away from a culture of dependency and become leaders themselves. We need to equate leadership not with being in charge but rather with the ability to inspire initiative and new thinking with those around us.
Catalyse – The journey to resilience will be a challenging one. New capacities are required — ones that catalyse new thinking and action. The ability to kindle a shared vision or a common purpose is vital.
Keep learning – Education happens throughout life, formally and informally and reflecting on, and learning from, our collective experiences will build resilience.