Rob Hopkins on the transition movement (transcript)

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transcribed by Kristin Sponsler

AH: This is Andi Hazelwood for Global Public Media on the 11th of July 2007, and I’m speaking with Rob Hopkins of transitionculture.org. Rob, thanks again for talking to me this week.

RH: It’s always a delight.

AH: A couple of weeks ago, we briefly spoke about how to start an energy descent action plan to wean a town off fossil fuels, and you and your students developed the very first plan in Kinsale, Ireland. But now you are actually refining the model elsewhere. Can you tell us about Totnes?

RH: Well, it’s part of the project, which is called Transition Town Totnes, which is the first of these transition initiatives in the U.K., which started really in September of last year, September of ‘06. And it was after we did the planning in Kinsale that plan generated a huge amount of interest and enthusiasm all over the place. I don’t think when we wrote it that we really appreciated the relevance and the importance of what we had done, but lots of other people started appreciating that and downloading it lots of times and started to do their own plans based on it and saying how important they thought it was. So when we started to do Transition Town Totnes our aim was to do a much deeper and more thorough version of what we had really piloted in Kinsale. So Transition Town Totnes really sort of set out with the beginning principle that a future with less oil could be better than the present if we could prepare for it sufficiently in advance with enough imagination, creativity, and I like to use the term “unlocking the collective genius” of a community. And so we started the very first year with the awareness-raising stage of showing films such as the End of Suburbia, that kind of thing, and that led up to September of last year what we called the official unleashing of Transition Town Totnes, which is designed to be the evening that everybody will look back to historically as the point that the whole process began. And since then it has gone on to become quite an extraordinary movement in the town and it has also inspired another twenty Transition Towns at this stage and another ninety who are sort of chewing over the process. And really what it is about is acting as a catalyst for the towns to start thinking about and planning for life beyond oil. So it is not a process that comes along with all the answers. It is a process which is about getting people to thinking about the right questions. So a lot of the projects that are being developed under the Transition Town Totnes banner include the Energy Descent Plan I think that we actually tried to trigger and then support rather than drive ourselves.

AH: You started off in Totnes. You just moved into the town and then you started making things happen. Did you actually know anybody before you got there?

RH: I knew a few people, and there were certain key allies who I guess were already in place. Schumacher College, who are sort of an international college of sustainability, were here, and we forged some very useful alliances with them, which enabled us to be able to borrow a lot of the speakers that they had, and so we had access to some quite amazing speakers. But other than that, no, not really. I mean, I knew a couple of people, and we started networking quite quickly really. I mean there were certain people, and we started doing talks, and we started showing films, and people started coming to those, and we began to take their email contacts, and to build up an email list to start contacting everybody. So at the beginning there were only a few people, but now we have like 10 percent of the population of the town on our email mailing list.

AH: Wow!

RH: And we easily get for big events three or four hundred people, and regularly two hundred people. And people say how many people are involved in it? And it’s so hard to gauge, because it’s gone so sort of deep and broad, with all the different working groups that there are, and it’s very very hard to tell. I mean there are different ways that you can sort of assess the degree of support, but what we’re about to do is to launch a membership drive. We’re setting up Transition Town Totnes as a community-owned company, and we’ll be running a membership drive for that so we’ll have a much more tangible way of saying this is the Transition Town Totnes community or whatever.

AH: And how big is the town of Totnes? What’s the population?

RH: It’s about 8000 people, but in some of the other places who we doing this now, you know we’ve got the city of Bristol, which is 800,000 people, and then we’ve got places that are smaller little villages and then we’ve got places as big as Bristol. So it’s very interesting the spectrum of places who are getting involved in this process.

AH: And Totnes now has a local currency. Was that your first Transition project in Totnes?

RH: It wasn’t the first project, but it certainly is the one that has really grasped the imagination more than a lot of other ones, and the media coverage has been quite extraordinary. There was a big piece about it in the Buenos Aires Herald the other day, and it really has got all over the place. It’s called the Totnes pound. I heard the economist Bernard Lietaer, who wrote The Future of Money, speaking at Schumacher College a year or so ago, and he said two things that really stuck with me. He said that you cannot do relocalisation just with a national currency. You have to have a local currency, a parallel currency, to run complementary to that. And then the other thing was that that currency has to be designed from the outset so that business will use it, which is always one of the weak points with LETS. LETS schemes tend to just circulate around among citizens rather than involving business. So the Totnes pound, to begin with, what we did was we just we sort of have this philosophy here, well let’s just have a go and see what happens. And we printed 300 notes, and one side of the notes was a facsimile replica of an 1810 Totnes pound, when actually banks in Totnes issued their own money, it’s not like it’s a brand new idea, it’s part of the historical continuum really, a town producing its own money. So one side has this note and the other side had a list of twenty shops in the town that had agreed to take this note as being worth a pound. So we had an evening on economics to launch our economic livelihood group, and we presumed that it’s probably rather difficult to get people off their sofas to come to an evening about economics, it’s not the most engaging subject quite often, so everybody who came got one of these pounds, everybody got a free pound, and then they were in circulation for four months. And the shopkeepers loved them, and the people loved them, and tourists loved them, and we did a lot of research at the end about how people had found it. So then we’ve just launched a few weeks ago the second phase, where we’ve actually printed ten thousand Totnes pounds and put them into circulation. And they’re smaller notes, and they’ve got lots of different security features on them, and the idea is with these ones is that people actually buy them into circulation. So you pay £9.50 and you get 10 Totnes pounds. It’s modelled on the Berkshires currency in Massachusetts in the U.S., but really what its about is getting people used to attributing a value to local currency, and building that sort of economic resilience where you have a currency that can just cycle round and round and round. And so within the first two weeks of having launched the scheme, there’s three and half thousand already gone into circulation that people have bought, and that are already going round. So what we’d like to do if it works, is to then produce a full spectrum of notes, ones, fives, ten, twenties, fifties, and then we’d run a whole competition over whose heads should be on the notes, who are the five most notable historical Totneningens whose heads should be on the notes. But it’s really interesting that we’ve now got seventy businesses in the town that will now take them as being worth a pound, and we’ve set up an advisory panel to support it with Richard Douthwaite and Bernard Lietaer and various experts on this whole thing and we’re saying, “Are we actually allowed to do this?” And nobody really knows, and as long as the notes don’t pretend to be sterling notes, and you don’t put the Queen on them, and you don’t talk about the Bank of England on them and stuff, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why you can’t do it. So it’s all very interesting, and what’s been particularly interesting is that more people know about the Totnes pound within the town than know about Transition Town Totnes. So as a sort of a way of communicating the ideas of what we’re doing, and informing people about TTT, it’s been very powerful.

AH: So having a physical thing that people can take away with them makes the big difference.

RH: Yeah, I think that it’s very important that these kinds of initiatives develop as visible practical manifestations quite early on, so then people can say, “Ah, that’s what you’re doing.” And it can be tree planting, or a lot of things that other groups do, but for us it’s really been the Totnes pound that’s been the thing that’s put us on the map in that sense.

AH: Now obviously the Transition concept has become very well developed over the past couple of years. We’ve got the Head, Heart, and Hands of Energy Descent, the criteria for joining the Transition Network, the 12 Steps of Transition, and of course the 7 Buts. All of these are available on transitiontowns.org. How did they evolve over that time?

RH: Well they evolved really because, I suppose, what we did in Kinsale and what we were doing in Totnes we weren’t really following a template for. We weren’t really following a map. There were certain things that we were inspired by, the Natural Step for Communities material, Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown book, David Holgrem’s work on Energy Descent Pathways and so on, but what we really wanted was kind of a guide for how to do this on a community level, and we couldn’t find anything. After we’d been going with Totnes for a little while, people from other communities started to come up to us and say, “How do you do that?” And at that point we had to sort of stop and try to think, “Well, actually, what are we doing? And what are the things that seem to have worked?” So the 12 Steps of Transition are the things that seem to have worked and seem to have got us through the first six months to a year, but they’re not prescriptive as in in order to do this you must do Step 1, and then when you’ve finished that you do Step 2 and so on. All the different communities who are doing this are interpreting them in their own ways and using them as relatively loose guidelines and assembling them in different ways and even not doing all of them necessarily. But they seem to have something to them which people find useful. The 7 Buts is basically just trying to identify the ways we try and talk ourselves out of doing things. “Oh, we can’t do a Transition Town because we haven’t got any money.” Well, that doesn’t really matter, we’ve done everything that we’ve done for this year in Transition Town Totnes without any money from anywhere, it’s all been self-funded. “Well, we can’t do it because…” So I think it’s really important to voice those as well. They’re really just sort of loose guidelines and things that are hopefully helpful, but yeah, as you say now with the Transition Network we’re really trying to refine that model as best we can so there’s as much guidance for communities wanting to start this process as possible.

AH: Now I notice that one of the criteria for joining the Transition Network is for team members to go to Totnes for training. At that point were you expecting to receive so much interest from all over the world?

RH: Not at all, really. It’s really been quite extraordinary, and it’s actually, I think for many years doing environmental work and trying to get things moving it always felt like trying to push a broken-down car up a hill. You know, you’re putting in so much effort, and not getting very far, it actually felt at times like it was slipping back on top of you. Now, with this work, it really feels like you’ve got over the top of the hill and the car’s gone careering off and you’re chasing after it trying to keep up. And actually there’s so much interest in it that we have funding now to start some of the Transition work. We’re trying to produce a booklet called a Transition Primer, which is the basic information about how to do it. And we’re trying to write a book, which will hopefully be out in the spring, which is going to be called Small is Inevitable, which is going to be the Transition Town Book. So, we’re really trying to put in place the infrastructure so we’ll really be able to support people and that idea of people coming to Totnes to train is really part of the bigger scale thing called Transition Training, which is to make available to the communities the training that they will need. And one of the key roles of Transition Network is to offer training, because one of the things that became very clear here in Totnes was just because people have the energy and enthusiasm and the drive to manage one of the working groups or to get involved, doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the skills in holding meetings, it doesn’t necessarily they have the skills in terms of conflict resolution, and all these kinds of things, so here in Totnes we’ve put training as one of the big things, and we offer training to the different group facilitators and so on, and I think that’s a very important model on a national scale too.

AH: And you’ve also started producing YouTube videos for kind of a remote training.

RH: Well, YouTube is fantastic. I mean one of the things that I was really disappointed by was that during the very first year of Transition Town Totnes there was nobody documenting what we were doing. I mean, I’ve still got some photographs and I wrote a lot of it up, but there was nobody making any sort of film document of what was happening and there was this extraordinary process that was unfolding here and it seemed like a real missed opportunity. And various people said, oh yes, yes, we’d like to make a film about this, and they didn’t get the funding, or whatever for one reason or another. The beauty with YouTube is that you can make films so easily and so cheaply and you can post them up on the Internet. We ran a course here recently with a guy called Keith Ellis from Transition Town Lewes in Sussex, who made the first Transition Town-related film that was put on the Internet, which was kind of at trailer for Transition Town Lewes’ unleashing event, which the local cinema showed as a trailer for every film in the three months up until their unleashing. And he made that film just on his laptop. So he came down here and he ran a one-day course on how to make films and put them on YouTube. And all those films that were made on the course are now on YouTube. But we’re really trying to get people here to start documenting these processes using that because it’s such a lovely, accessible, democratic way of communicating ideas really.

AH: Now let’s go back and talk about those 7 Buts, because these are common struggles for many relocalization groups regardless of where they are in the world. You’ve already covered the funding issue. Let’s just go through them briefly. They won’t let us…

RH: They won’t let us… well you hear it quite a lot, and I did a talk yesterday where somebody said “Have there attempts to sabotage what you’re doing?” Actually, I think our sort of mindset in the environmental movement is a sort of bunker mentality that somewhere there’s a smoke-filled room where people are working out how to scupper what we’re trying to do, and I don’t think that’s really a concern. Because I think at this stage the people who are decision makers and so on are desperate for good ideas, and my experience has been completely the opposite. That actually local government and national government are absolutely desperate, and the Transition Town concept really fits right in there, because it is modelling solutions on the ground, it is creating a degree of engagement which politicians can only dream of, generally. But also it’s something which avoids from the outset any sense of them and us. We’re not looking at anybody to blame, everybody’s in the same boat, and actually what we need is Lester Brown’s concept of a wartime mobilization. We need to be bringing together disparate groups who have never had that much to do with each other before. And that really requires a lot of humility and no finger-pointing, and that I think that is something that we’ve been doing quite well.

AH: And when people say there are already green groups in town, I don’t want to step on their toes, what’s your response?

RH: Yeah, that’s the one you hear people say quite often, “Well, there’s already people here doing things, and the last thing anybody wants is yet another environmental organization popping up to do A, B, C, and D.” And actually my experience is that quite often in towns you might have one or two environmental groups, and it is often in the nature of environmental organizations to all sort of fall out with each other and form smaller and smaller groups. And so quite often what you wind up with is lots of small groups, some of whom are very dynamic, some of whom are rather running out of steam, and the experience here is that actually the Transition Town process rather than coming in and replicating what any of those groups are doing comes in as a sort of unifying umbrella which then invites all these different organizations to participate in this adventure, and that’s worked really really well. And we’ve really tried to involve and draw in all the different environmental groups into this process, and I think that’s been really successful. If you can pitch it right, then you’ll have a process in which they’ll all take a delight in really.

AH: What happens when you’ve got the opposite, when it seems that nobody in town cares about the environment at all?

RH: Yeah, I think that can be an easy perception to have. I think that depends very much on how we interpret interest in the environment, and most towns would have people who would be interested in lots of the different aspects of what a Transition Town is looking at. They just may not attribute an environmental label to it. They may be incredibly passionate about local food, they may be incredibly passionate about the development of local community, about local economy, and the preservation of the woodlands, about strengthening local business. There are different things that you can use to draw in different people, and I think that lots of people are already very involved and hungry for different aspects of this, they just haven’t attributed a sort of Transition label to it. And it’s extraordinary actually I think here, the number of people from completely different backgrounds who are getting involved in this process.

AH: And is it too late at this point to do anything?

RH: Yeah, that’s the next one. People say that quite a lot, “Yeah, but we’ve had it, haven’t we, climate change, runaway climate change, really we’re sunk, and there’s nothing we can do.” And maybe we are, but actually, I think it’s really important to live as if we’re not, because actually if we decide we are, then we are, really. And I don’t have much time for this sort of resigned fatalist position, and I think one of the things that we try to do with Transition Town is really to communicate a sense of great positivity around all of this. I always like the quote that Vandana Shiva uses, “The uncertainty of our times is no reason to be certain about hopelessness.”

AH: Yeah, that’s a good one. You are actually getting your Ph.D. based on the Energy Descent Plan. What about people who think they don’t have the right qualifications for this?

RH: Well, there isn’t actually a degree in transition planning. Sometimes I wish there was one in some ways. Really there is no qualification for doing this. Actually all you need to really kick this process off is the passion to want to do it, I think, and to not be a control freak. If you’re a control freak, it’s a very distressing process because it will go off in all different kinds of directions and do all different things you didn’t expect it to. I think it’s very important, the reason that that is one of the 7 Buts is that we’ve become such an expert-driven culture, and that we feel that we can’t do anything unless a relevant expert has come and run us down with what we’re doing. I think that part of what has been delightful with seeing this process is actually seeing the people who’ve come to the fore and started to drive it forward. It’s such a diverse and disparate group and what they have in common is that they’re really passionate about this process, passionate about where they live, and that’s really the only qualification that you need.

AH: So in that case you shouldn’t be hearing from anybody that’s saying the Seventh But, which is “But I don’t have the energy for that.”

RH: I think that people can look at what work is required when what you need to do is to power down your entire community. Oh my God, I can’t do that, that’s just so exhausting! But actually what happens in my experience and in the experience of a lot other places and a lot of other Transition initiatives is once you start this process, it unleashes the most incredible amount of energy and serendipity as well. You know so often I find myself thinking is what we really need there is someone who knows about whatever, and then the next day they turn up. And a lot of the towns who start this process get back to me after a few days and say, “God, what have we started here? The amount of energy and people who come forward and who want to do things!” It’s not something where if you start this process you will be expected to carry the entire thing on your shoulders. People will come, people will get involved, the energy will be generated, and you will find yourself being carried along this path. It’s something really quite extraordinary.

AH: Now as I understand it you started down this path to Transition specifically because of Peak Oil. But have more people become interested in transitioning since climate change has become such a mainstream issue in the last couple of years?

RH: Yeah, I mean I think we very much put the two as being of equal weight, and you can’t really look at one without the other. What we’re developing with Transition Towns that’s really interesting is the idea of moving beyond carbon footprinting. Carbon footprinting is a really useful tool, and it’s a very good way of indicating what direction you’re moving, but equally as important is the building of resilience, building the town’s ability to look after itself, building the town’s ability to withstand shock from outside. And we’re looking at this concept of resilience indicators, where once you develop an energy descent plan, you can pull out a series of key indicators that show that you’re moving toward a more resilient economy. So that’s something that I think is going to be really really key, because it’s perfectly possible that you could actually halve the carbon footprint of your town and not increase its resilience at all. In the context of peak oil, the building of resilience is really really essential. But in terms of what the issue is that has most drawn people into the process I would say it’s probably 50-50. But I’ve found that certainly Peak Oil is a more useful issue for really drawing people into this because it’s so powerful at putting a mirror up to the community and asking where its resilience has gone. People can instinctively understand, when you ask the question, “Can you imagine this community without…?”, you can really see how they entertain all the different aspects of what we do. Financially it’s a very powerful tool and it’s been very effective here in that way.

AH: Some people say, well Peak Oil is just going to take care of climate change itself. What’s your response to that?

RH: I think the opposite is true, because in order to actually deal with climate change you need a completely unprecedented international scale response. You need a lot of money being put into solving it, and actually the danger is, as Richard Heinberg argues well in his Oil Depletion Protocol, once you hit the peak, and you haven’t prepared for it, then the kind of economic effects that you have and the knock-on effect you have around the world, the recession and so on, means that actually climate change very rapidly drops off the agenda. And the only way that you’re actually going to have a sustained response to climate change is to keep the economy stable, which you can only do if you really prepare for Peak Oil. And actually, of course, the danger as well is that once you hit Peak Oil, it’s not that therefore all the fossil fuels disappear from your life, it’s that we just start burning more coal. And that’s the real danger, if we panic and we turn to coal, then we basically take on the challenge of proving all the world’s climate scientists wrong, and it’s not really a challenge that we want to embark on really.

AH: There are reports that are starting to pop up that are negating some of the things that we’re doing. They say local food may not require less energy than imported food, that relocalization goals are impractical, that this is bad for the economy. How do we respond to those arguments?

RH: I can’t imagine how that’s based, really. I mean I think there are some arguments that actually if we wanted to grow tomatoes all year round in Devon, the amount of energy that it would require would be far far more than what it would take to truck them here from Spain, for example. But actually we don’t need tomatoes all year round. Maybe we have tomatoes when tomatoes are in season. For me it’s a logical thing. It’s not that we’re saying that we’re going to put an enormous fence up around Totnes and not allow anything in or anything out. And also I’m not of a degree of naivete that thinks that within the next two years we are going to get everybody in Totnes growing their own carrots. I think that what this is very much about is like the concept that Julian Darley uses of a public parallel infrastructure. What we’re trying to do is to build around people what will be needed in such a way that it’s not threatening, that it’s fun, that it’s seen as a positive step forward. We’re putting that stuff in place because that’s what is really going to be needed in a more resilient situation. And it may be that all those arguments about the efficiency of the globalised system really unravel very very quickly when you run the oil price up. And what has been very interesting here in Totnes, looking back over the history of the town, up until the 60s and 70s there were within the town four big market gardens. Most of the car parks within the town of Totnes used to be working commercial market gardens that were linked to shops on the high street, and it was a model then when we were talking about food feet, not about food miles. And those systems became obsolete when the amount of cheap oil in the economy was such that they just became irrelevant. But I think the logic for me is that once the price of oil starts to rise again, it becomes more and more expensive to import food from outside, then the rebuilding of that local infrastructure becomes essential. There’ll always be some trade, but the more we can produce locally is really going to be what supports us, I think.

AH: And that respect for elders and getting that information from the past is something that’s very important to the Transition movement, isn’t that correct?

RH: It is very much, yeah. I think there is something inherently respectful about starting this process of going to the elders and asking for their memories and their thoughts, but you also find the most incredible amounts of information when you do that. All this stuff we’ve been finding out about the history of food production in the area has comes from those. You also find out about the staggering amount of skills people had in their daily lives which we’ve just lost. And those oral histories have been really really key parts of what we’re doing.

AH: And that’s actually a fantastic way, because there is no blueprint for this, that’s the best way to find out what your local area was good at or did in the past that you can do now.

RH: Absolutely, and you know with this idea of powerdown, we need to have the powerdown and so on, well actually in World War II in the U.K. we had a powerdown. It was our most recent historical powerdown, and there’s a huge amount we can learn from that. What were the organisations, what were the networks, what did they do, how did they all pull together, where was the food grown, and unfortunately we find that a lot of the best places for growing food are under a few inches of tarmac at this point, or worse, have been built on. But you do find out a huge amount of stuff that’s really really useful.

AH: So Rob what’s next on your list, what’s next for you?

RH: Well, I am going to finish this book, that’s got to be done by the middle of October. We’re planning the next program for September for Transition Town Totnes. We’re planning a big celebration for the first year of the project. And I seem to be being pulled more and more into work through the Network, of first communicating the idea, and what’s very interesting at the moment is that many of the contacts that we’re getting about this are coming from local governments and councillors who are saying how do we make this process start where we are? I know that it’s a process that councils can’t really drive, that their role is to support rather than to drive these things, but that said, that’s a whole area that we’re really looking into. But I guess like I said with the analogy with the car, I suppose what’s next for me is just trying to keep up! Seeing that when we started, we didn’t really sort of appreciate the energy in it, it really does sort of seem like the right idea at the right time and people are starting to respond to it very positively all over the place. It’s quite extraordinary.

AH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RH: I suppose to just keep an eye on transitionculture.org, really, which is where a lot of these ideas are sort of chewed around and that people will find that a sort of useful resource. And also the work that we’ve been doing here really draws a lot of inspiration from people all over the world like Richard Heinberg’s work and David Holmgrem and the work that Julian Darley’s been doing in Post Carbon, too. It feels to me like whether it’s called Transition Towns or Post Carbon Outposts or all these different things around the world, I think that actually what we’re looking at with communities looking at this and moving in this direction with such energy is really one of the most important social and political movements of the 21st century. I think it has the potential to be that anyway, because it’s really trying to overcome the fracture in politics where citizens think that politicians don’t care, and politicians think that citizens are apathetic, and at a time when democracy should be the tool that is really energizing people preparing for the biggest transition that we’ve ever had to go through, just an unprecedented gale of challenge and urgency, our decision making processes just aren’t in touch with it. So the degree of engagement that Transition initiatives can create and the degree of response that they can create for local government is I think something really powerful and very exciting and I think we’ve only just started to scratch the surface of it and it’s certainly very exciting to be a part of it, to see what comes forth when that creativity is unleashed really.

AH: transitionculture.org is the website. Rob Hopkins, thank you very much.

RH: Thank you very much, Andi.

AH: This is Andi Hazelwood for Global Public Media.

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