by Richard Heinberg
author of The Party’s Over, Powerdown,
Peak Everything and The Oil Depletion Protocol
I first encountered the Transition phenomenon in November 2006, when Rob Hopkins invited me to give an evening lecture in Totnes, Devon. Knowing that this was a fairly small town, I was hoping that fifty people might show up. Instead, over 400 packed the largest hall available. The same thing happened a few days later in Penzance, Cornwall, when Jennifer Gray invited me to kick off Transition Penwith; and again a few months after that at a similar event in Stroud.
Clearly a pattern was developing. The people at these events were not idly curious; they were champing at the bit to do something constructive in their communities about Peak Oil and Climate Change. I quickly formed the opinion that the Transition virus was the most exciting thing happening in the UK. On August 5, 2007, BBC Radio Scotland broadcast a story titled ‘Towns Prepare for Peak Oil Point’, which began with Rob calling the Transition efforts “one of the most dynamic and important social movements of the 21st century”. The remainder of the radio programme provided plenty of evidence for that judgement.
Much of the Transition buzz can be traced to Rob Hopkins himself. A Permaculture teacher schooled in ecological design principles, he is by nature an intelligent, practical, sweet-tempered fellow, a family man with no apparent personal agenda other than ecosystem survival (he’d like his children to have a decent planet to live on).
In 2003 Rob was teaching in Kinsale, Ireland, when he first learned about Peak Oil directly from the world’s premiere expert on the subject, petroleum geologist Colin Campbell. After sharing the information with his students, Rob worked with them to create the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, which was later adopted as policy by the town council. It was the first strategic community planning document of its kind. Similar energy descent planning processes are now being undertaken in other towns and cities (including Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California), and in at least one industrial nation (Sweden).
Rob then decided to put on a Peak Oil conference in Kinsale in June, 2005 called ‘Fuelling the Future’, and that’s where I first met him. After moving back to Britain to complete his doctorate, Rob decided to take the Peak Oil preparation process beyond the classroom by starting Transition Town Totnes in early 2006. That initiative took off like a rocket, and citizen groups in other towns throughout the UK quickly copied it.
Why is the Transition phenomenon so infectious? While there are efforts under way in well over a hundred communities around the world to deal with the looming implications of Peak Oil, there is something undeniably different about the Transition Towns – a sense of excitement, possibility, and engagement. Perhaps the buzz emanates partly from Rob’s own contagious optimism. But this is no personality cult, since Hopkins is quick to cede the limelight to others whenever possible, and has designed the movement’s governance process to be more ‘bottom-up’ than ‘topdown’. To my mind, the best explanation is that Rob has hit upon a replicable strategy for harnessing the talents, vision, and goodwill of ordinary people.
And he has done so at a moment of extraordinary need.
There is simply no denying that we humans are facing tough times. Not only does evidence suggest that global oil production has already reached its all-time maximum and has begun its inevitable decline, but forecasts for natural gas extraction rates in the North Sea, North America, and Russia look worse than dismal. Meanwhile, new studies of global coal supplies suggest a peak in extraction rates could occur in as few as fifteen years, while the production of phosphates (essential for agriculture) is already down, as is global grain production per capita. The global climate is being destabilised, with Arctic ice melting faster than even the most dire scientific predictions said it would, while many countries are already experiencing a scarcity of fresh water. One could go on: if the 20th century was one of unprecedented growth in nearly every significant parameter (population, energy use, per capita consumption levels, etc.), the present century promises to be one characterised by declines in nearly all of those same categories, along with catastrophic weather events and drowning coastlines.
At the centre of the transition that the Transition Initiatives are engaged in is energy. Nearly all of the growth in population and consumption – as well as technological change – that occurred during the 20th century can be attributed to an unprecedented abundance of cheap energy, most of it from fossil fuels. Coal, oil and gas enabled the extraction and transformation of other natural resources at ever-accelerating rates, leading to the creation of enormous wealth amid widening circles of habitat destruction, pollution and climate chaos.
Fossil fuel depletion might be seen as a good thing, given the horrific environmental costs of using those fuels. But our societal dependencies on oil, coal, and gas constitute an enormous collective vulnerability, since there are no ready substitutes capable of fully replicating their services. Thus as fossil fuels go into decline, we will see a century of contraction in consumption levels that could cause the global economy to implode, undermining the survival prospects for the next generation. Unless we wean ourselves from these fuels proactively, societal support systems will crash just as the global climate gets pushed past a tipping point beyond which there will be nothing humans can do to avert worst-case impacts including sharply rising sea levels and devastated crops. Depletion and climate issues converge to make a deliberate, co-operative transition away from fossil fuels the centrepiece of our human survival strategy for the remainder of the 21st century.
On the whole, national governments are slow to understand and act on this imperative, as there are too many interests vested in maintaining the status quo. But if a country’s leaders are largely unresponsive to the greatest crisis facing humanity, what’s a concerned citizen to do?
The obvious answer: act locally. This especially makes sense in the present situation, because economic relocalisation will be one of the inevitable impacts of the end of cheap transportation fuels. We must produce more of our necessities close-by anyway; why not make the immediate community the source and focus of our entire energy transition strategy?
Rob Hopkins has grasped all of this in the Transition formula, and made it one that any community can enthusiastically buy into. Using Permaculture principles, the psychology of social marketing, and inclusive processes like ‘open space’, he has found a way for people worried about an environmental apocalypse to invest their efforts in ongoing collective action that ends up looking more like a party than a protest march.
This book is a ‘how-to’ guide to making it happen. It is like Rob himself—accessible, clear, and upbeat. If your town is not yet a Transition Town, here is guidance for making it one. If you are fortunate enough to live in a place that is already transitioning, you probably don’t need my recommendation; you will have heard about this book though your web of personal connections.
In either case, make the most of it: we have little time and much to accomplish. And Rob Hopkins has offered us some invaluable tools for making our task easier and more enjoyable.
Post Carbon Institute,
Santa Rosa, California