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Think a New Economy Is Possible? Meet the Man Already Making it Happen

Rob Hopkins helped start the first Transition Town. Now it's a global network of thousands of communities showing no signs of slowing down.
 
 
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Standing in front of a crowd of hundreds at Oakland, California’s Grand Lake Theater, Rob Hopkins shows a picture of a butcher shop in a small town in Northern Ireland. A row of hams hang in the window, the door is cracked open, welcoming, a passerby walks his dog. Just another example of a successful small town business, vital for the local economy. Right? Except, Hopkins explains what you can’t immediately see when you glance at the image. The store is real, but the window display is a fake—it’s simply photoshopped posters plastered over the glass. The local business has gone under, the shop is gutted, but those organizing the last G8 meeting of the world’s most powerful countries that met in Northern Ireland don’t want to be reminded of this and they sure don't want the media to see it. So the truth has been glossed over, obscured. 

These are the times we live in. We can pretend everything is OK on Main Street, or we can actually try to fix it. Hopkins is already hard at work on the fixing. In late 2006, Hopkins, who taught permaculture, came up with the seed of an idea that has grown into something wild and beautiful: the Transition Network. It started as one Transition Town in Totnes, England and the concept has replicated across 44 countries and thousands of towns and neighborhoods. The initial idea is simple: “To support community-led responses to peak oil and climate change, building resilience and happiness.”

The organization now helps communities connect with each other, learn how to reduce CO2 emissions and decarbonize, and implement plans for a whole new kind of economic development. That’s where the idea of resilience comes in. According to the Transition Network:  

‘Resilience’ has been defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.” In Transition, the concept is applied to settlements and their need to be able to withstand shock.

It sounds a lot like preparing for disaster, but it’s more like avoiding disaster by preparing for the inevitable by changing the way we use energy and structure our economy.

As fossil fuels become more and more expensive, how do we live with less of them or without them? As we come to the realization that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, we have to start leaving many of these fossil fuels in the ground, how do we not just cope, but thrive? As our current economic system serves the few at the expense of the many (and the planet), how do we reinvision our lives and livelihoods?

Hopkins has presented his vision and the evolution of the Transition Network in three books, which get to the heart of these questions:  The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependence to Local Resilience, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, and most recently The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. He is the winner of a Schumacher Award, is an Ashoka Fellow and a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, and was voted one of the UK’s top 100 environmentalists.

On what may be his only trip ever to the United States, Hopkins sat down with AlterNet to talk about the vital role he sees Transition Towns playing in our future, why he decided to make an exception to his no-flying rule, and how we can model a new economy.

Tara Lohan: What’s motivating your work? What gets you out of bed in the morning?