How will the world function if fossil fuels become scarcer and their consumption becomes increasingly regulated to fight climate change? How will people live with less oil? What will communities be like?The advocates of a social movement called Transition think the world is now entering just such an environment of oil-scarcity. Transition organizers think the time is ripe to create new systems to make communities more locally self-sufficient and less dependent on long-range transportation, a globalized economy, non-renewable energy, and industries that damage the environment.
According toTransition Network, a support body for the movement based in Totnes, Dover, UK, the number of official Transition Initiatives worldwide has grown during about the past five years to 374 as of this writing (mid-2011). Most initiatives are operating in Europe (particularly the UK), North America, and Australia. (Photo: Local foods, Transition Town High Wycombe. Credit: VidyaRangayyan)
Local transition groups take on a range of activities, from simple projects such as workshops teaching people to grow their own food or arranging clothing swaps, to more complex undertakings, such as developing a local currency or devising a long-term community transition plan called an Energy Descent Action Plan, a road-map toward local energy independence (see Totnes’ example here).
The concepts of peak oil, climate change, and permaculture are critical to an understanding of the deeper motivations of the Transition Movement. Widespread concerns about climate change have been discussed extensively in the public forum (for an overview of public attitudes, see our story “Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?” However, peak oil and permaculture are less well understood, so let me explain those ideas.
Peak Oil: Are We on the Downward Slope?
Peak oil refers to the point of maximum worldwide extraction of petroleum, which would be followed by an environment of increasing scarcity and cost. Some researchers think the world has already reached that point, some think it will come in the near future, and some critics say it will take a long time or might never come at all. (Photo: Offshore oil platform. Credit: “Mike” Michael L. Baird)
Many observers think peak oil could result in large-scale economic disruption. Dire predictions abound. While admittedly speculative, the 2010 “United States Joint Forces Command Joint Operating Environment” (JOE) report warns in its section on peak oil that
A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment.
For an entertaining and accessible explanation of peak oil, integrated with a frightening overview of economics, see Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course.”
The Transition movement asks, What does peak oil mean for people’s lifestyles and local communities? What changes does it require, and what can individuals and communities do now to prepare for and cope with a world of declining oil?
In an interview with Global Public Media in 2007 (audio interview here), Andrew McNamara, then newly-appointed Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change, and Innovation in Queensland, Australia, gave his thinking about the appropriate response to oil depletion, sounding very much like a Transition advocate:
There’s no question whatsoever that community-driven local solutions will be essential. That’s where government will certainly have a role to play in assisting and encouraging local networks, who can assist with local supplies of food and fuel and water and jobs and the things we need from shops. It was one of my contentions in the first speech I made on this issue in February of 2005… that we will see a relocalization of the way in which we live that will remind us of not last century, but the one before that. And that’s not a bad thing. Undoubtedly one of the cheaper responses that will be very effective is promoting local consumption, local production, local distribution.
In a 2008 video, Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network and Transition Town Totnes, says peak oil makes populations very vulnerable. As an example, during a 2000 lorry-drivers’ strike in the UK, he says, “we were about two days away from a food crisis in this country. It became clear that we’ve dismantled a lot of the resilience that has underpinned our food system up until now and replaced it with very fragile and long supply chains.”
Transition helps to restore that resilience, Hopkins asserts:
Resilience is an idea which emerges from the study of ecology, which is that a system, whether it be an ecosystem, a community or a town, when it experiences a shock from the outside, it doesn’t just fall to pieces. It has built into it the ability to adapt and change to its new circumstances.
Hopkins describes a Transition initiative as “a process which acts as a catalyst within a community to get people to explore themselves, [to respond] to peak oil and climate change,” helping community members “develop a really attractive, enticing vision of how the town could be beyond its current dependence on oil and fossil fuels.”
Permaculture: Designing Sustainable Human Habitats
Permaculture is a methodology for designing sustainable human habitats, modeling them after natural ecosystems. The permaculture model emphasizes a move away from industrial agriculture toward a small-scale, diversified, and localized system of food production. In “The Essence of Permaculture,” David Holmgren, one of the originators of the concept, defines permaculture as
Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organize themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.
(Photo: Permaculture project, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Credit:planet a.)
More precisely, though, Holmgren sees permaculture as “the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organizing framework” to implement that vision, so that
… permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building or eco-village development as such, but it can be used to design, establish, manage, and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households, and communities towards a sustainable future.
The Transition movement grew in part from Rob Hopkins’ permaculture teaching activities. On his Transition Culture blog, Hopkins writes that a key tool for success in Transition is “the ability to embed good design thinking” in the effort. He believes that “permaculture design offers the clearest and most practical tool for doing so.” Thus permaculture design should underpin the thinking and planning behind a Transition project and any hands-on activities. He cautions that
Although many people associate permaculture design purely with local food initiatives, it ought to be seen as central to the larger process of strategic thinking which the initiative is building up to.
Hopkins likens permaculture to a glue, “a ‘design glue’ if you like, which is used to stick together all the elements that will make up a truly sustainable and resilient culture.” He continues,
If you think of the ingredients that such a culture will depend on, such as local food production, energy generation, skillful management of water, meaningful employment as well as many other elements, what permaculture brings is the ability to assemble those things in the most skillful and beneficial way possible. It has also been described by someone else far more succinct than me as “the art of maximizing beneficial relationships.”
Hopkins thinks that “having at least one person in a Transition group who is steeped in permaculture can make a huge difference to the group… Make sure that some members of your core group have done a Permaculture Design course, and try, where possible, to weave permaculture training and principles through the work of your Transition group.”
Transition Town Totnes, started in 2005, is one of the oldest and most developed Transition efforts. The organization supports nine groups organized along such themes as Building and Housing, Business and Livelihoods, Energy, Food, and Transport. Nearly 40 projects are underway in Totnes, many focused on food, housing, and energy. As an example, one project aims to make Totnes the “Nut Tree Capital of Britain,” says Hopkins in the video mentioned previously. A project group is “planting nut trees within the urban fabric of the town, both as an awareness-raising issue and as a food security project.” (Photo: Permaculture Herb Spiral. Credit:Samuel Mann)