Simple Living Archive


Weekend Project: How to Build Your Own Cheap, Simple Solar Oven

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Want to cook your food for free? By building a simple and affordable solar oven, you can use the power of the sun to slow-cook beans and stews and more.

Spring is the perfect time to build your oven, which will work best during the long days and intense sun of the summer. By my calendar we’re just a month and a week away from the solstice so you better get to work! This step-by-step guide will show you how to build the oven plus some tips on how to use it.

Happy solar cooking!

The following is an excerpt from The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. It has been adapted for the Web. (All drawings are by Rebekah Hren, adapted with permission from Solar Cookers International.)

Simple Box Cooker

Renter friendly.

Project Time: Afternoon.

Cost: Inexpensive ($5–20).

Energy Saved: Low. Cooking’s relatively low energy requirements (4 percent of average energy budget) and solar cooking’s intermittent availability make dependence on at least one other cooking system all but certain.

Ease of Use: Moderate. Cooking can be done only on relatively sunny days and works better in summer than in winter.

Maintenance Level: Medium. How long this solar oven lasts depends on how well you take care of it. If it gets wet repeatedly, it will eventually turn to mush, so bring it inside when it’s not in use.

Skill Levels: Carpentry: Basic.

Materials: Two large, shallow cardboard boxes—the inner box should be at least 18 x 22 inches, preferably just a little bit taller than your pots; the outer box should be a little larger in all dimensions so there is at least 1–2 inches of space between the two boxes when they are nested. You’ll also need corrugated cardboard at least 6 inches longer and wider than the outer box to make the lid; window glass (or Plexiglas) at least 20 x 24 inches and longer and wider than the inner box by 2 to 3 inches; a thin, black metal sheet, sized equal to or slightly smaller than the inner box; 50 feet of aluminum foil; dry plant fibers such as leaves or straw or at least 50 sheets of newspaper, quartered and crumbled; glue silicone caulk; and rigid wire (hanger wire, for instance).

Tools: Paintbrush, utility or other knife, pencil, straightedge.

Caution: Solar cookers, especially parabolic varieties like the CooKit (described next), have the potential to cause retinal damage from the concentrated solar rays. Be careful to avoid looking at the bright reflections from any of these solar cookers.

Construction Steps

Cut the window opening in the outer box. See figure 4.3. Turn the outer box upside down. On its bottom, center the inner box and draw a line around it. Cut out this piece to make a window opening the same size as the inner box. There should be a small rim on all four sides, 2–3 inches wide. On the lid piece— the extra piece of cardboard—center the outer box and trace around it (these are the fold lines). Extend these lines out to the edges of the lid piece. Center the inner box between the fold lines on the lid (that you just drew) and trace around this box as well. Cut only three sides of the inner line, two short sides and one long one. Fold up the resulting flap for the reflector, creating a window frame opening the same size as the inner box.

Adjust the height of boxes, if needed. See figure 4.4 Set a cooking pot next to both boxes. The inner box needs to be just a little taller than your pot. The outer box needs to be just a little taller than the inner box. If the boxes are too tall:

On the inner box make a mark about 1 inch above the top of the pot and draw a fold line at this height straight around the four box walls. Score the fold lines with a blunt edge such as a spoon handle.

On the outer box make a mark about 2 inches above the top of the pot and draw a fold line at this height straight around the four box walls. Score the fold lines with a blunt edge such as a spoon handle.

Cut the corners of both boxes down to the fold lines. Fold the sides outward along the creases.

Trim the inner box flaps. When the walls of the inner box are folded down to the right height (or if you didn’t need any adjustments), trim the flaps to make them as narrow as the small rim around the window opening on the outer box (refer to the first step if necessary).

Join the boxes. See figure 4.5. Turn the outer box right side up, so the window opening and rim are down. Spread glue on the inside of the rim. Turn the inner box upside down and lower it into the outer box, onto the glue. Press the small flaps against the inside of the rim around the window opening to join the two boxes into one double-walled box, now open at the bottom (which should be facing up at this point).

Insulate and seal. Without disturbing the drying glue, carefully spot-glue aluminum foil on all four walls and the underside of the inner box, covering all surfaces between the two boxes. This layer of foil helps insulate the cooker. Lightly fill the gaps between the two boxes with crumpled newspaper, plant fiber, or other insulation. Add a few strips of cardboard and more crumpled newspaper or other insulation on the underside of the inner box (which should be facing up at this point). Close and glue the flaps of the outer box to seal the bottom of the cooker.

Glue foil inside the box and lid. Turn the box right side up. Dilute glue 1:1 with water and, using a paintbrush, spread it thinly on the dull side of sheets of aluminum foil. Press the glued sheets of aluminum foil tightly and smoothly like wallpaper to the inside and rim of the box. A few wrinkles won’t hurt. Set the box aside to dry. Repeating the procedure, glue foil to the underside of the lid flap (the folded-up center part only).

Cut, fold, and glue the corners of the new lid. See figure 4.6. With the lid upside down (foil facing up), make one cut at each of the four lid corners, just to the first fold lines. (The cuts should be parallel to the long side of the lid.) Score all fold lines with a blunt edge and fold along the creases with a straightedge such as a board. Overlap and glue the corners, and secure them with clothespins or clamps until the glue is dry. To make quick clamps, cut cardboard-width slits in a small stack of cardboard pieces.

Insert the window. Spread silicone caulk along the underside edge of the window opening rim (outside the cut edge of the foiled reflector piece), then press the glass in firmly but carefully to make a good seal with the caulk. Let the box and lid dry overnight.

Make an adjustable prop. See figure 4.7. Make small holes in a corner of the lid reflector and the side of lid. Loop string through the holes. Make several notches in a stick and tie the stick at both ends to hold up the reflector and allow angle adjustments.

OR

Bend a sturdy wire at both ends and glue corrugated cardboard strips to the lid and reflector as shown. The wire can be inserted into any of the corrugations for angle adjustment.

Add the black tray and “cook” the cooker. Put the black metal sheet inside the box. (The pots will sit on this light-absorbing sheet.) Put on the lid, with the lid reflector propped open, and aim the cooker toward the sun for several hours to drive out the last bit of moisture and any paint or glue fumes.

Cooking Directions

Put food in dark pots. Use with dark, tight-fitting lids.

Choose a cooking location. Set the cooker on a dry, level surface in direct sunshine away from potential shadows. For best results, solar cooking requires continuous, direct sunshine throughout the cooking period.

Put the pots in the cooker and replace the lid. Put the pots in cooker. If you’re cooking multiple dishes, quicker-cooking items should be placed toward the front of the cooker (opposite the reflector) and slower-cooking items toward the back, where access to sunlight is best. Place the lid on cooker.

Orient the cooker. Orient the cooker according to the details below. Once oriented, the cooker doesn’t need to be moved again during three to four hours of cooking. For longer cooking, or for large quantities of food, reorienting the cooker every couple of hours speeds cooking a little. Food cooks fastest when the shadow created by the cooker is directly behind it.

To cook a noontime meal orient the cooker so that the front side (opposite the reflector) faces easterly, or approximately where the sun will be midmorning. In general, it is good to get the food in early and not worry about it until mealtime. For most dishes you should start cooking by 9 or 10 am.

To cook an evening meal orient the cooker so that the front side faces westerly, or approximately where the sun will be midafternoon. For most dishes, it’s best to start cooking by 1 or 2 pm.

For all-day cooking orient the cooker toward where sun will be at noon or early afternoon. The food will be ready and waiting for the evening meal.

Adjust the reflector. With the adjustable prop, angle the reflector so that maximum sunlight shines on the pots.

Leave the food to cook for several hours or until done. There is no need to stir the food while it is cooking.

Remove the pots. Using pot holders, remove the pots from the cooker. (CAUTION: Pots get very hot.) If you won’t be eating for a couple of hours, you may want to leave the pots in the cooker and close the lid. The insulative properties of the cooker will keep the food warm for a

while.

Enjoy!

Care and Storage

Store your cooker away from rain and animals, preferably indoors. Keep the glass clean.

When Technology Fails: Make Your Own Shoes

Friday, February 8th, 2013

The latest installment in our series of projects for the hardcore DIYer is a great idea for the post-apocalyptic future…but also a challenging and fun craft for any era!

Matthew Stein’s book, When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, offers this quick guide to making your own shoes. The book is packed with useful tips for saving money, living a sustainable lifestyle, and surviving in a savage, Road Warrior-like dystopia.

We hope that will never happen, but if it does, at least your toes will be stylin’ and safe.

Have you made your own shoes? If you do, share a picture with us! Visit our Facebook page and join the conversation. We’d love to hear from you.

The following article was adapted for the web from When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency.

In pioneering days, a good-fitting pair of shoes was a truly valuable possession. Often, when shoemakers passed through a village, they would make several pairs of shoes for each person who could afford them, as it might be years before they had the opportunity to purchase another pair of good-fitting shoes. Making your own traditional boots is not easy, but sandals and moccasins are easy and rewarding leathercraft projects for the beginner.

Soles can be attached with stitching, primitive hide glues, more modern glues such as Barge Cement, or nailed in place (cobbling). McNett Corporation makes an excellent urethane shoe-repair cement, called Freesole, which can be used to repair holes in shoes and worn soles or glue new soles in place. Freesole is available through backcountry suppliers and shoe-repair shops. It is reportedly much stronger than Barge Cement and withstands much higher temperatures, but I have not tried it yet for gluing soles in place. See Chapter 14 for instructions on how to make your own glues.

Sinews, heavy waxed nylon thread, or multistrand wire are all good, strong materials for stitching together footwear. If you scavenge wire for thread, make sure that the strands are fine or else constant flexing will cause the metal to fatigue and the wire to break. Shoe soles and straps can be nailed together by a process called “cobbling.” Shoe soles that were attached by simply nailing short nails through the soles into the midsole would soon work loose and fall off. Traditional cobblers use nails with slender, tapering tips that are nailed through the straps and soles against a metal anvil, bending the nail tips backward so that they form a hook shape. By bending the nail tips, the sole or strap is captured in such a way that the nails can’t easily work their way back out.

Cast-off rubber tires make great sandals and soles. Thomas J. Elpel, author of Participating in Nature1, believes that the best all-around homemade footgear is a tire sandal worn over a moccasin. You can wear holes in a pair of moccasins in less than a day of rough travel, and tire sandals can wear a hole in your feet (blisters) in a few hours. When you wear the two together, you get the comfort of moccasins combined with the durability of tire sandals. Around camp you can wear just the moccasins. When fording rivers, wear just the sandals. Using a band saw, sharp knife, chisel, hacksaw, or coping saw, cut tire sandals and buckles from older-style tires that don’t have steel belts.

Use the pattern shown in Figure 10-27 as a rough guide. Start by tracing the outline of your foot on a piece of paper. Add about 3/8 inch to the front and sides, but not the heel area. Make two marks at the centers of your anklebones (A) and a mark at the side of the ball of your foot, directly behind your big toe (B). Draw lines through these points, as shown in the pattern, to help you locate the strap loops. The strap loops are designed for 3/4-inch-wide webbing. If you use a different size of strap material, adjust and customize your pattern as necessary to fit your foot. Cut out your pattern as you would a paper doll, and lay it on the tire to mark the outline for cutting the rubber (Elpel 1999, 134).

Click here to listen to the story of the shoe cobbler on NPR.


1. Elpel, Thomas J. Participating in Nature: Thomas J. Elpel’s Guide to
Primitive Living Skills
. Pony, MT: HOPS Press, 1999.

Project: How to Make an Axe

Friday, January 4th, 2013

When it comes to useful DIY projects, I’m sure most of you don’t think, “Gee, I think I’d like to make myself a hatchet today.”

But with some scrap steel, a hacksaw, a file, a drill, a bonfire, a bucket of water and an oven, you can make this simple, hardy, “democratic” axe.

Don’t believe it? Read on!

The following project on how to make a quality broad axe is from A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by William Coperthwaite.

When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.
—John Ruskin

It is hard to find a good broad hatchet—a small, broad axe with a wide cutting edge beveled on only one side, like a chisel; this special bevel makes it easier to hew to a line.

After forty years of hunting in antiques shops and flea markets, I have found only two broad hatchets that passed muster. To friends who sought one of their own, the outlook was discouraging. They could get one made—if they happened to know a good blacksmith, if they had a good design, and if they could afford the price.

Or you could forge one yourself, but by the time you had learned to make a fine one, you would have become a blacksmith yourself. This is an elite tool.

In Japan, in the Tosa region of the island of Shikoku, I was surprised by the number of blacksmiths. Each village had its smith, and all could make excellent edge tools. It was delightful to see the grace and skill of those smiths. I became friends with one who made a broad hatchet to my specifications. Twenty years went by, and in the interim I had studied many axes and was blending what I had learned into my ideal of a broad hatchet.

A few years ago I carved a pine model and sent it off to my blacksmith friend in Shikoku. Yes, he would make it for me. Two years passed and it did not appear. I assumed the project was forgotten.

While visiting Italy, I came upon an elderly smith who had made axes years ago. I carved another pattern, and he forged the axe. Now, these are far from democratic tools. To get one you first have to design it and then know a smith in Japan or Italy or wherever who can—and is willing to—make an axe from your design.

It was doubtful that the axe from Japan would materialize, and the Italian smith was very old and sick and would probably not make another. A good broad hatchet for students and friends who wanted one was as elusive as ever. And though this axe adventure was exciting, and I had acquired some fine ones, we badly needed to have some inexpensive ones available.

While studying in Switzerland the breakthrough came. The tiny fellow who lives upstairs above my right ear (and works mostly at night) shouted “Eureka!” He presented me with a full-blown design for a democratic axe.

I could hardly wait to get back to my bench. For steel there was an ancient plow point of about the right thickness lying behind the barn. Into the bonfire it went and when glowing red, we heaped ashes over it and let it remain until morning, cooling slowly and releasing its hardness. Next day I reheated and hammered it flat using a handy ledge for an anvil. When it cooled, I drew the pattern on it. Three hours of work at the vise was needed to cut it to shape with a hacksaw and another hour to dress it with files.

For us amateurs in axe making, there are two major difficulties. One of these is forging the eye of the axe—the hole into which the handle is inserted in a conventional axe. This democratic design eliminates the eye. The other difficulty is tempering, or bringing the steel to the correct hardness. Smiths have long been respected for their skill at this magical process of tempering steel, which requires good judgment and much experience to be able to do dependably.

After a good deal of pondering, experimenting, and reading all that I could find on tempering, some of the mystery began to fade. Before tempering, the steel must be hardened by being brought to red heat and then plunged in water. Then it seemed that tempering was merely a matter of temperature control. So we put the axe in an oven set at 475°F for half an hour and let it cool slowly. This worked!

Now, you smiths may object, reminding us that a tool like an axe that gets a blow needs to be soft in the eye to resist breaking. To this charge I plead nolo contendere. However, a broad hatchet is made with a short handle for use on a block, and such hatchets do not undergo the same severity of blows.

For the first time, we now have a democratic axe—an axe that most anyone who wants one can have. (You say you never knew you needed an axe, and I say, very well. Even so, here we have another example of one more democratic tool, which will make design of the next one a little easier, whatever its purpose.)

This experience with the broad hatchet is important for me on several levels. First it has been a exciting adventure all along the way, from learning to appreciate the variations in different forms of such a basic tool, to designing my own which others made, to ultimately making my own. Another level of the adventure is to be able to help others make their own hand axes and in the process gain the confidence that comes from making a tool. This process demonstrates how we can have adventure in a variety of ways: designing, working with the hands, and working with the mind as we carry the concept of democratic things further.

Another value this experience has had for me is the breaking of mental and social barriers, which we need to be able to do if we are to solve our problems and create a decent society that works for all people.

At times the outlook appears very dark. It would seem our problems are insurmountable. As with this little hand axe, I was quite sure that I would never make my own. And yet, without consciously focusing on the problem directly, unconscious forces were at work and discovered a solution. This gives me hope that if we can continue searching and caring and supporting one another—we may be able to find the solution to even our worst problems.

P.S. The broad hatchet from Shikoku finally arrived. It is a veritable gem. Actually, two came—a left- and a righthanded one—polished to a mirror finish and gently wrapped in small white towels.

To Make an Axe:

  1. Trace the pattern on the next page on annealed (temperable) steel, 5/16-thick.
  2. Cut out the axe head with a hacksaw.
  3. Smooth all edges with a file, and file the bevel to make the cutting edge. (For a right-hander, the bevel should be on the right, for a lefty on the left.)
  4. Drill two rivet holes.
  5. The face should be slightly hollowed, like a shallow gouge. To do this, carve a hollow (6 inches long and 1/4 inch deep) in a chopping block. Heat the axe head until it is glowing red, then hammer it into the hollow with the bevel side up.
  6. To harden the steel, heat it to glowing red and plunge it immediately into cold water.
  7. To temper the steel, put the axe head in an oven at 475°F for about twenty minutes and allow to cool slowly.
  8. Carve a handle of hardwood in the form shown in the photograph and rivet it to the axe head. You can customize the handle’s curve and weight to your own preferences.

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
—Henry David Thoreau

Save on Nature and Simple Living Books this Holiday Season

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

It’s as likely as anything that the sun will rise on December 22 on a planet still facing all the same problems we face now: climate change, political division, corporate exploitation of people and the planet, environmental degradation. With an everyday reality like this, who needs a Mayan-inspired apocalypse?!

Whether the world ends on December 21, or the day passes just like any other, you’ll be set with plenty of inspiring and useful reading material as this week we’re featuring all our Nature & Environment and Simple Living books as part of our end-of-year sale.

If you’re prepping for the worst, take a look at Matthew Stein’s classic survival guide When Technology Fails for suggestions on how to survive in the post-apocalypse world—or, how to live in a post-peak-oil world. Pair that with Stein’s latest book, When Disaster Strikes, which details how to survive six specific disaster scenarios—fire, hurricanes, earthquakes, solar flares, and even nuclear fallout. Or perhaps, Dreaming the Future, a good choice for everyone who wants to build a better future by exploring the changes needed to chart a sustainable path forward.

Happy Apocalypse, er, Holidays from the Employee Owners at Chelsea Green Publishing!

P.S. Don’t forget to use the code CGFL12 to save 35% when you checkout at chelseagreen.com. Plus, get free shipping on orders over $100.

 .

Simple Living, Nature & Environment: 

Please keep in mind that discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books already on sale

for example. Free shipping of orders $100 or more applies after discount code.  Phone orders please call 800-639-4099.

The Art of Fermentation is Now a New York Times Bestseller!

Friday, July 13th, 2012

All you fermentation fanatics, it’s time to get out your crocks, lift a glass of kombucha and rejoice! Thanks, in part, to you and your devotion to this craft The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is now a New York Times bestseller! Sandor’s weighty tome of all things fermented landed Friday at number 14 in the “Hardcover Advice and Miscellaneous” category.

Sandor’s bubbling up to the Times list marks only the fourth time in company history that one of Chelsea Green Publishing’s books has made it to the bestseller list. Chelsea Green’s previous books that made the Times‘ bestseller list were: Don’t Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff (2004); The End of America by Naomi Wolf (2007); and, Obama’s Challenge by Robert Kuttner (2008).

At Number 14 on the list, Sandor’s book was tucked in between Go the Fuck to Sleep (13) and How Will You Measure Your Life? (15) on the Times’ extended list.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Sandor’s book, take a moment to:

In the meantime, we want to extend a big congratulations to Sandor — a well-deserved honor for this self-described fermentation fetishist whose workshops and pure enthusiasm and joy for this age-old, DIY craft have helped to fuel its renaissance. How many of you out  there own his earlier book Wild Fermentation? I thought so.

It’s been a heady couple of weeks here at Chelsea Green: We were named 2011 Independent Publisher of the Year by ForeWord Reviews; we just announced that the company’s ownership has been transferred to its employees; and, now a New York Times bestseller.

What a way to close out the first half of the year, eh? And, we still have another half of a year to go. Whew.

Transition Essentials: No.1 – Food

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement, runs an active and informative blog about the movement called TransitionCulture. He’s just started a series exploring various ingredients of successful Transition towns, starting with food.

So here’s something we’ll try, and see if you find it useful.  I was in Clitheroe recently in Lancashire, and chatted with a couple of people involved in Transition Clitheroe.  I asked them what else Transition Network could do to support their work, were there materials we could produce that would help them?  They said that in fact Transition Network put out so much stuff that they struggled to keep up with it, and that perhaps some kind of a digest would be useful.  It reminded me of Lee Brain from Transition Prince Rupert telling me that in their group they have someone whose role is ‘keeping up with Transition’.  So I thought I would try today to do a digest of the key films, articles, projects and links out there, and see what you think of it and what’s missing.  I thought we’d start with food:

Some food background …

In terms of a good grounding in the wider issues around Transition and food, the book we published on the subject, ‘Local Food’ by Tamzin Pinkerton and Rob Hopkins, is now unfortunately out of print, but can be bought as a download and for the Kindle here.  A great overview of the wider arguments in terms of peak oil, localisation and food is the very popular BBC programme called ‘A Farm for the Future’:

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

And this short film, from Transition Forest Row in Sussex, shows how one Transition initiative is rethinking food supply:

Transition ingredients about food

‘The Transition Companion’ included a number of ingredients that distilled out the learnings so far about food and Transition.  There’s Local food initiatives, which gives a sense of the breadth of projects that  Transition groups can get involved in.  Ensuring land access explores the diversity of ways in which Transition groups can find places to grow things.  Meaningful Maps explores how maps can be useful for local food initiatives.  Social enterprise and entrepreneurship suggests that we need to increasingly be thinking about how to turn food projects into livelihoods and Strategic thinking suggests we need to see food initiatives in a wider context of the intentional localisation of the place we live.  Community supported farms, bakeries and breweries is pretty self-explanatory really.  Then here is some of the nitty-gritty of what Transition groups get up to in practice:

Growing food in public spaces…

This is one of the places many Transition groups get started.  Here are some good examples:

In Bath, Transition Bath took over a part of a local public park, Hedgemead Park, and as this video so beautifully shows, turned it into ‘Vegmead Park’ instead:

…and in London, Transition Kensal to Kilburn are growing food on their local underground station:

The sky is the limit in terms of how and where your Transition initiative might think about growing food.  Some take inspiration from the Incredible Edible model that started in Todmorden, for example Saltash in Transition.  Others set up new community gardens, such as Transition Hythe‘sHere is a useful resource from Graham Burnett of Southend in Transition, a guide created with the NHS for novice gardeners.

Keep reading…

Rob Hopkins at TEDx Exeter

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The problems of peak oil and climate change are complex, global, and impossibly daunting. It’s easy to take a long, hard look at them and quickly throw your hands up in despair over ever finding a solution that will help our species avoid the disruption of our post-industrial way of life, and some sort of catastrophic decline at the point resources become critically scarce.

Back in 2008, Rob Hopkins wrote a little book about one way to do it — to look at the problem dead on and find a way around it. The Transition Handbook introduced the idea of intentional community effort toward increasing resilience, or the ability of the community to bounce back if something bad happens. Since then, the Transition Towns movement has spread around the world, from the British town of Totnes where it began, to Brazil, and the United States — all over.

Where does the movement stand today? What sorts of things have communities tackled on their quest to relocalize their resource footprint? What do the successes look like, what about the communities who didn’t succeed?

In The Transition Companion, a new book by Hopkins, we get to take a tour through the world of Transition Towns and find out. The book is arranged almost like a cookbook, albeit one with a single giant recipe. The elements that have worked for various communities are outlined as “ingredients,” with pictures, examples, and input from the people who have put them to work.

Just last week we got to see a TEDx talk with Rob Hopkins, in which he tells the story of Transition Town Totnes himself. It’s an inspiring tale indeed.

In case you’d rather read than watch, here’s a transcript of the talk.

Truthout recently published an interview with Hopkins and Editor Brianne Goodspeed:

Brianne Goodspeed: The Transition movement began in Totnes, England, and has, in four short years, spread to thirty-four countries and nearly one hundred cities and towns across the US. But it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. For those who haven’t heard of Transition – in a nutshell, what is it?

Rob Hopkins: It is about what you and I – and whomever we can also get involved – can do to make the place we live more resilient, more robust and imaginative, in increasingly uncertain times. As our economies continue to slide, as cheap energy becomes a thing of the past and as the need to actually do something meaningful about climate change grows in urgency, Transition suggests that a large part of the solution needs to come from the community level. It is about creating new food systems, energy systems, new financial models and institutions, in short, it’s about seeing the inevitable shift to living with less energy and less “stuff” as the opportunity for huge creativity, innovation and enterprise.

As Hopkins says in the interview, “we don’t need to ask permission,” to do this work of transforming our cities and towns toward a more resilient and hopeful future. We just need courage, hard work, and most of all we need each other.

“In Transition 2.0″ Review — People of the Butterfly

Monday, May 7th, 2012

STIR is a new online magazine that publishes articles on “radical gardening, community-supported agriculture, climate activism, democratic education, permaculture, the occupy movement, the commons, grassroots sports, food justice, cooperatives, practical philosophy and more.”

STIR recently reviewed the new film on the Transition Towns movement, “In Transition 2.0.”

Interested in the film itself? STIR is giving away a copy, and has info on how to plan your own screening of the film:

 To Celebrate the release of the new In Transition 2.0 film, Stir Magazine is giving away a copy  to one lucky reader.  To be in for a chance to win, answer this simple question: In which town did the Transition Network begin?

Send your answers to [email protected] with ‘Transition’ in the title by 10th May 2012.  The Winner will be contacted shortly after the competition ends.

 

 

Find out about Transition groups in your area and join the movement by entering your postcode here.

Want to host a screening at your university, Transition initiative, social centre or somewhere we haven’t thought of? Organise a screening of In Transition 2.0.

And find out where you can see the film here.

Below is the review.

In an abandoned lot in Pittsburgh a boy is selling lettuce. Down Tooting High Street a carnival is in full swing. In a village in Portugal two men are walking in a field beside horses. In a fire station in Moss Side a film preview is taking place: “There was silence. You could have heard a pin drop.  And then a sound, kind of like a pin dropping. There it is again. And again, many times in rapid succession. Then silence. Nothing.”  This is Joel Prittie, writing about his experiences previewing  the film, In Transition 2.0, simultaneously with eleven other initiatives worldwide in February. He’s telling us how the machine jammed, how he resolved the dilemma, and how everyone cheered at the end.

It’s a small story. These are all small stories. You might not know they are happening or take much notice of them. But if you were curious, you would discover how that lettuce came to be growing in such an unlikely neighbourhood; why everyone in the carnival was wearing clothes made of rubbish; why the elders of the village were teaching the young people to plough; why Joel Prittie, ex double-glazing salesman, knocked on 1100 doors in the rain in Manchester. If  you pulled these stories together, you would notice they all had a common thread. That’s the moment  you realise it’s a big story. The story in fact. The story of how people are coming together in the face of difficulties and making another kind of future.

That’s the story of Transition 2.0.

Background

The Transition movement began in 2005 in the market town of Totnes in Devon and since then has sparked off 900 initiatives worldwide. There are initiatives in cities and rural villages, towns and bioregions. Originally billed as a “community-led response to climate change and peak oil”, Transition provides a structure for communities to engage in order to become resilient in the face of these challenges.  The term, borrowed from ecology, means the ability for systems to adapt and survive great shocks.

Living within a dominant corporate monoculture where communities are often fragmented and there is little mainstream media attention on these global realities, this is a big ask for most modern people. Every aspect of our industrialised lives has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. We live, however, mostly in the dark about these facts, or the effects of our daily actions on the environment. Or if we do know them, we see them as information and do not take action.

In Transition 2.0  focuses on the moves groups of people are making to look at the future squarely, to make connections with one another and to find ways to thrive in challenging times. In 2012, resilience also means the capacity to deal with Transition’s third driver, the economic crisis. The shock of the shock doctrine — the crushing blow of austerity, as people everywhere feel the consequences of our growth-at-all-costs culture and the increasing consolidation of wealth for the few.

In its typical pragmatic, positive way In Transition 2.0 doesn’t analyse this situation within a political frame. It acknowledges the big picture, and then gets down to work relocalising the neighbourhood. The film lays out the three drivers briefly at the start, then follows the track of the second book, The Transition Companion, dividing its attention on the different stages Transition initiatives go through, from the start up phase — forming a group and raising awareness — to building up local social enterprises. Rob Hopkins, the co-founder of the Transition Network, explains these stages, and the film looks at the projects that best illustrate the way Transition works.

In many ways the documentary is a tool, a showcase for people who may know nothing about Transition’s aims and structures. It is a mild watching experience, with interviews and information, and you might wonder why someone who has been involved in two initiatives and immersed in Transition communications for almost four years would have anything to find in it. What more did I need to know?

But the fact is: this is a big story. Resilient systems enforce their connections by constant feedback. You are consciously connecting with others through a vast communications network, that works like the mycorrhizal fungi in soil. I might know what is going on in the neighbourhood, but I don’t know what is going on in Portugal or Maryland. You don’t know for example that the first Transition initiative in India has created 400 vegetable gardens in Tamil Nadu. You don’t know how the co-operative Handmade Bakery in Yorkshire set up business, how the Brixton Pound (Britain’s first e-currency) works in the market, or that the mayor of  Monteveglio in Italy has adopted an energy descent plan for the whole region. Most of all you realise that the crisis which up to this point has seemed academic is now very real in many places.

Unlike the first film which focused on the start up exhilarating phase of Transition, this had a darker, deeper tone. Here are initiatives who are undergoing the shocks of climate change and the collapse of top-down infrastructure. Here is Japan after the nuclear disaster, New Zealand after two earthquakes. Transition groups that had already been working together were able to respond collectively to the crisis. Thanks to the connections already made though the Lyttelton time-bank, the initiative was able to pull in help to deliver water and food all over the devastated town.

“We are setting up structures, pioneering them and putting them in place for the future,” explained Dirk Campbell of Ovesco in Lewes, Britain’s first community owned solar power station (see right). “It’s difficult and takes enormous amounts of effort, commitment and time.”

Facing the crisis

There are many criticisms of Transition. It is not political, realistic, activist enough; it is white and middle class; it lacks structure; it’s too structured, too fluffy and feel-good. It doesn’t fulfill everything. It’s true, it doesn’t fulfill everything. But you would be hard pushed to find another method that can bring diverse people together within a frame of change. There are plenty of adversarial organisations that address climate change (Climate Rush, Greenpeace) and the financial system (UK Uncut, Occupy); there are plenty of low-carbon incentives (10:10, 350.org) and urban growing projects (Growing Communities in Hackney, Abundance and city farms in Sheffield). But what Transition does is address all these aspects simultaneously. It allows for many kinds of people to sit in a room together and work out ways to proceed. What is the most important ingredient or tool in the book (87 in all)? I asked Rob Hopkins at the Twitter launch of the Transition companion. The first one, Working in Groups, was his reply.

Our number one challenge is working in groups when we have been raised in an individualist hierarchical culture, taught to be hostile to the max. The film doesn’t show the struggle that most groups go though in dealing with this, though it does talk about conflict (including the testimony of Chris Hart from Transition Lancaster that collapsed and then reformed itself successfully a year later). Nor does it show the massive fall outs that happen when an old way of doing things (my will against yours) clashes with a new (our way together). How these old structures cling on. How the new ones demand massive inner shifts, but that if you manage to hold together extraordinary things start to happen.

What it does show is how Transition as a method, culture and network brings people together to work out solutions in places suffering from massive downturn. In the Portuguese village of Amoreiras the initiative held a meeting and asked everyone to dream. The village had suffered the fate of many rural places where most of the population had left for work in the cities. The group listened to everyone’s desires and then put their collective vision into motion. They painted the whole village, set up a local market, organised a working party to bring about better healthcare.

Here is Fred Brown in Pittsburgh, a city that in the 1970s and ’80s, lost 100,000 jobs when steel mills transferred their manufacturing to countries around the world. It’s a city where marginalised low-income neighbourhoods are threatened by incoming gentrification and big businesses. In his community of Larimer, Google have recently built a new facility, benefiting from millions of urban redevelopment funds that were intended to help the residents:

“The community doesn’t need or want more experts telling them what to do. We want partners and we want help to develop and implement our dream. Transition is helping us come together, deepen the vision, create working groups, get practical work done, and understand community-wide needs. It is also giving us language and a process for negotiating with those who seek to take, or to give on their own terms — empowering us to be proactive and co-creators.”

This is the hardest task. We are taught to listen to experts and to obey rules. Transition puts the decisions back into our hands and asks everyone to take the lead, become knowledgeable about how towns and councils work, talk with other local groups, find out about waste, alternative energy, sustainable food systems, how to write a press release, give a talk, keep bees, grow a lettuce. We are discouraged in our every attempt by the status quo. Keep shopping, keep distracted, keep listening to the old story! But there is new narrative out there, what Paul Hawken calls the greatest untold story of our time. Some of this is embodied in Transition. It’s hard work and rarely paid, but it brings rewards you don’t see on the surface, that are difficult to show on a film. These are the invisible connections between people, feelings of belonging, of meaning, of self-worth, boldness and possibility, the simple joy of sharing things, tools, knowledge, apples from your tree.

“I feel proud of where I live at and it’s changed me.”

Most of all it gives you an opportunity you never knew existed. Here’s next week’s schedule with my home initiatives of Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich: showing a documentary with Waveney Greenpeace in a local barn (Crisis of Civilisation), working in our monthly community kitchen (for a sit-down supper for 50), helping out at our Give and Take Day (free exchange of stuff), introducing people to medicine plants in an event called Walking with Weeds,  writing on two community blogs (one local, one national), setting up a newspaper (Transition Free Press).

None of these activities would happen without this small band of people I have been working with for the last four years. We would never have met. History and consumerism and the class system would have kept us separated from one another. Our library community garden would be bare brick. The bee-friendly wildflower meadow would be unsown. Norwich would not have an urban farm. I would never have met any of my fellow transitioners I am in daily contact with, or the many affiliated groups that write in our blogs from Occupy Norwich to BiofuelWatch to the new bicycle workshop off Magdalen Street.  I would not be writing this piece. You would not be reading it. The film and everything that happens in its 66 minutes would not be happening.

Except that it is happening: and it’s worth seeing if only to know that these seeds are being sown in a time when everything seems set against us and all life on earth.

There is a story that underpins what we do and sometimes we tell it to each other in the hard times. The caterpillar keeps munching his way voraciously across the green planet. One day he buries himself in a cocoon, and unknowingly begins the process of transformation. His body starts to dissolve and as it does imaginal buds start to appear from nowhere. At first the caterpillar’s immune system attacks and defeats this new form. Then the buds rise up again. This time they link up and the defence system can not destroy them. They hold fast. The old structure dissolves. The butterfly begins to emerge.

It’s a form you would never have imagined, something beautiful emerging in world that appears only to profit the greedy and antagonistic. But sometimes in our struggle we catch a glimpse of the butterfly wing. In the flash of carnival costume, in the mists over a Japanese mountain, in the sound of each others’ voices, in the smile of a boy holding a lettuce grown against all odds.

_____

Charlotte Du Cann is a writer and community activist, working with the Transition Network and the Dark Mountain Project. An ex-journalist, she now edits several community blogs, This Low Carbon LifeThe Social Reporters Project and the OneWorldColumn. Her book 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth i(Two Ravens Press) will be published on August 1. You can find a selection of recent writings on http://charlotteducann.blogspot.com.  This review was originally published at STIR, an excellent online magazine.

Tools For Living — Colleges Are Putting Students to Work

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Scott Carlson wrote the following article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, looking at how colleges are putting students to work — literally. There’s a growing trend of institutions using student labor and integrating it into curriculum, helping students gain skills while helping the schools deal with costs.

Amongst Carlson’s examples, he cites Philip Ackerman-Leist’s work with students at Green Mountain College, where they work a small organic farm. 

A friend of mine who works at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, in Minnesota, recently told me a story: Her book group read Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet, one of many recent books to focus on the vulnerabilities of the industrial food system and the threats posed by climate change. The book’s treatment of the topic held few surprises, and the solutions offered were equally well-worn and deceptively simple: Buy fruits, vegetables, and meats locally, and cook them at home.

My friend’s big surprise came when the students in the group started talking about the solutions—and found themselves stuck: “Almost all the students said they didn’t know how to cook,” she told me, “and even the young, single adult employees in the group admitted they lacked both the know-how and motivation.”

What makes this story even more poignant is its setting: at sibling colleges founded by monasteries, where self-sufficiency and sustainability were once a central ethic, as outlined in the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine women and men here, along with many of the older alumni, can still remember when they milked cows, plucked chickens, and picked potatoes grown on the monasteries’ surrounding land. Bread, furniture, preserved food, ceramics, and other daily necessities were produced by monks, sisters, and students on the campuses. While some remnants of that life still exist, much of it is gone.

I can’t help being reminded of that story when in my daily work as a Chronicle writer I hear the chorus of complaints about the state of higher education. You’ve heard them, too: Higher education is broken; it needs reinvigoration and reinvention to get students out the door and on their own as soon as possible. Lawmakers say colleges need to make students employable and to create jobs. Some critics say colleges should use technology to scale up; others go so far as to bemoan the physical campus as an unnecessary, expensive burden in an online world. In that cultural and economic climate, liberal-arts colleges have been at pains to articulate their usefulness. They have emphasized that they teach students how to think, how to be engaged, world citizens—not merely how to do a job.
I agree that a liberal-arts education provides those intangibles. But maybe it’s time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions.

The problems that today’s college-going generation will face in the future are enormous—and the stagnant economy is just the beginning. Climate change, fossil-fuel constraints, rotting infrastructure, collapsing ecosystems, and resource scarcities all loom large. Meeting those challenges will require both abstract and practical knowledge. For example, some scientists have fretted over the world’s limited supplies of rock phosphate, which is used in agriculture. Because we live in a country that has more people in prison than in farming, most people could not tell you that phosphorus is one of the three vital nutrients needed to grow food crops, nor could they name the other two, potassium and nitrogen (the latter of which is produced mostly by burning finite fossil fuels). Even if students never work in agriculture, such knowledge could help them as aspiring businessmen, future policy makers, or mere citizens.

Certain colleges, specifically “work colleges” like Warren Wilson College, Deep Springs College, and the College of the Ozarks, have long-established curricula that blend manual skills with a liberal-arts education. But there may be room for more—especially at a time when some people question the practical value of a college degree. These days a number of colleges, particularly those in rural settings, are financially troubled and need new, marketable niches that separate them from the pack. Instead of viewing the physical campus as a burden, why not see it as an asset, even beyond the aesthetic attractions of the quad? With some imagination, couldn’t these colleges use their campuses and rural settings to train students in valuable hands-on skills?

It’s already happening at some institutions, particularly those oriented toward sustainability. In the green dorm at the University of Vermont, students can teach other students in “guilds” devoted to sewing, canning, composting, beekeeping, and other skills. L. Pearson King, a junior environmental-studies major, taught his peers how to carve spoons in a woodworking guild last year. “It’s kind of trivial, but it’s also cathartic and kind of fun,” he says of the project, and the students in his group were immensely proud of their work. “To be active in the creation of an item forms a completely different relationship with that item.”

At Dickinson College, students like Claire Fox, who just graduated with a double major in international studies and environmental studies, can get a practical education on the college’s 180-acre working farm. “It truly enhanced my education,” says Fox, who had never had contact with agriculture before leaving suburban New Jersey to go to Dickinson. “I walk away from college as a different person compared with some of my peers who didn’t have that experience.” And she walks away employed: She landed an internship in sustainable-development work in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies. SFS told her that her work on the farm was the critical component of her application.

At Unity College, in Maine, students have had a hand in constructing some of the college’s buildings, tending its garden, and working on renewable-energy projects out in the field with Michael “Mick” Womersley, an associate professor of human ecology. A former maintenance engineer in the British Royal Air Force, Womersley tells his students that a lot of relatively simple projects, like installing a $42 programmable thermostat in a home, can make a big difference in energy use, yet few people bother. Why?

“A lot of us are bred out of actually doing things,” he said when I met him at a Maine sheep farm, where he was setting up wind-measurement equipment with the help of two students. “I find that is a big failing of the sustainability movement—we are so busy talking about things, but there is a ton of stuff to do.”

Or consider Green Mountain College, a once-troubled institution in rural Vermont. Green Mountain, which now lands at the top of national rankings of sustainable colleges, has torn up a portion of its athletics fields to start a small farm that trains students in both cutting-edge and old-fashioned techniques in growing food without the help of petroleum. That means using and maintaining human- and animal-powered machines, using solar energy in innovative ways, learning the importance of crop rotations and animal manures, and, of course, getting the basics of growing carrots and tomatoes.

The professors there routinely tie the skills taught on the farm to the sustainability lessons in the classroom. “Many educational institutions pride themselves on preparing students to lead a life of inquiry,” writes Philip Ackerman-Leist, an associate professor of environmental studies who founded the college farm, in Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader, a book about building his home and farm in Vermont. But “few actually challenge and support students to embrace the ecological questions and immediately begin living the possible solutions—not later but in the midst of the educational experience itself.”

The article continues over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where you can read the rest and comment.

Presenting the Community Resilience Guides, a Partnership with the Post Carbon Institute

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Reposted from Post Carbon Institute.

We’re excited to announce the publication of our first Community Resilience Guide: Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity by PCI Fellow Michael Shuman. This book series will be part of a larger new effort we have launched—the Community Resilience Initiative. Use discount code LOCAL to pick up your copy directly from the publisher.

As you know all too well (and if you don’t, the Post Carbon Reader will bring you up to speed), we face a set of interconnected economic, energy, and environmental crises that require all the courage, creativity, and cooperation we can muster. These crises are forcing us to fundamentally rethink some of our most basic assumptions, like where our food and energy come from, and where we invest our savings.

While national and international leadership are key to navigating the bumpy road ahead, that leadership thus far is sadly wanting. And, in any case, many of the best responses to these challenges are inherently local.

Thankfully, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and local elected officials are leading the way. These early actors have worked to reduce consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, and preserve local ecosystems. While diverse, the essence of these efforts is the same: a recognition that the world is changing and the old way of doing things no longer works.

Post Carbon Institute is producing this series of Community Resilience Guides to detail some of the most inspiring and replicable of these efforts.

Why community resilience?

Community because we believe that the most effective ways to work for the future we want are grounded in local relationships—with our families and neighbors, with the ecological resources that sustain us, and with the public institutions through which we govern ourselves.

Resilience, because the complex economic, energy, and environmental challenges we face require not solutions that make problems go away but responses that recognize our vulnerabilities, build our capacities, and adapt to unpredictable changes.

The Community Resilience Guides will cover these four elements, so critical in creating thriving, resilient communities:

  • Investing in the local economy.
  • Growing local food security.
  • Producing local, renewable energy.
  • Planning locally for an uncertain future.

Local Dollars, Local Sense is the first in this series, and the series is just one element of a bigger effort: the Community Resilience Initiative. Stay tuned for more announcements, and ways you can participate.

These are challenging times. But they are also full of opportunity. We hope Local Dollars, Local Sense and the slew of other resources we’ll provide through the Community Resilience Initiative will inspire you, and help you build resilience in your community.

In solidarity,

Asher


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