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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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Rob Hopkins in Times Square.
Photo Credit: Transition Network

 
 
 
 

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?

Rob Hopkins: I have four children and this is the longest that I’ve ever been away from them. My oldest is now 20. And so for me, one of the big motivators is climate change because it feels like many organizations and individuals are giving up on the idea that we can stabilize 2 degrees [Celsius]. It is what the world agreed on as a target but even 2 degrees [Celsius] is too much but the world seems to have given up in some ways that we’re going to do that. That is not something that I’m prepared to do. The reason for this trip is that it feels like the world has gone from “there’s no problem” to saying “it’s too late” without the bit in the middle “maybe we can actually do something.” 

For me, the things that get me out of bed in the morning is climate change and the need to really do something about that, the need to build resilience in the face of the end of the age of cheap energy and all that that has made possible, the idea that we need to model an approach other than economic growth because at the moment, any return to economic growth that we see is a growth in social injustice, in social inequality, in carbon emissions and so on and we need a different approach. 

TL: So what are the tools that communities need to be resilient?

RH: Communities need lots of things and some of those things need to be done by other people. There is stuff that governments need to do to support communities to be more resilient — they can’t do everything themselves. But communities need the organizing tools. What Transition does is to build on groups — the people who meet in the bar, meet outside the school gates, wherever, and decide that they’re going to start doing Transition. Those groups are the foundation for this whole process. So those groups need the tools, so that is a lot of what we do.

I think that groups need to be able to scale it up because what we are really talking about is community resilience as a form of economic development. So we need skills, we need finance, we need all kinds of things. That is starting to fall into place but we need to scale this up.

TL: So you’re interested in replicating the model but also scaling it?

RH: Absolutely. And with great urgency.

TL: Each town has its own individual value, but what is the value of Transition as a network?

RH: The beauty of having a network is that none of us can do this on our own. The network enables us to share best practices. So if one place comes up with something, the expertise can spread very quickly. So you don’t have 1,500 Transition groups around the world all trying to figure out how to do a constitution. And it enables us to share stories and it is stories that enable us and inspire and keep everyone going. A lot of my role is collecting the stories of what everyone is doing and putting them out in different ways because that is what I think keeps people’s energy up.

TL: Since you started this work have your ideas about what we are transitioning to or how we should be making that transition changed?

RH: I think when we started Transition it was very much framed as a community response to peak oil and climate change. It was about resilience. That was the beginning of it. I think now after seven years we talk about it being a community-led response based on the idea of community resilience as economic development. What we found after doing Transition for three or four years and going around meeting lots of groups and talking to them was that they were all saying the same thing: “I feel like during my week in order to keep the roof over my head and feed my family I’m working, doing something that runs against the values that are why I joined Transition. And then on Wednesday evenings and maybe on the odd Saturday I do stuff to try and pull it back in the right direction. I want to be able to step across and have my livelihood going in the right direction.” 

And also people saying, “If we really want to be taken seriously doing Transition we need to model that we can be a form of economic development, we can create livelihoods, we can model a new economy in practice.” It’s not just an idea. In order to do that we need skills and some support. That is the thing that has changed, I think. Which, for me, feels like actually Transition has grown up very, very quickly. We had that stage of broadening and going all over the place and now it is really in that stage of deepening. 

TL: What are some of the most inspiring examples of economic development you’re seeing?

RH: There are the towns that are doing an economic blueprint, so they’re building a very strong economic case that what they are doing is a from of economic development. They are measuring how much does this city, this town spend on food every year, spend on energy, spend on caring for the elderly, what percentage of that could be kept locally and what does that actually mean? So from the neighborhood of Brixton in London finding they could be bringing 60 million pounds a year into this urban district if they could just coordinate a 10 percent shift in how they spend money on food. That is not some hippie, flaky idea — that’s economic development at a time when we really need it. That whole idea of plugging the leaks in the local economy.

You have the Bristol pound in the city of Bristol, a complementary currency in a city of 800,000 people, which has the full support of the city council and over 600 businesses. The city’s mayor takes his full salary in them, you can use them on the buses in the city and to pay all your taxes. That is a real game-changer in terms of scale. 

You have things like Brixton Energy, which is a community-run energy scheme which is owned and run by the people of the city working in very diverse, poor parts of London, and inviting people to invest in that. It has all sorts of benefits — training young people locally to install solar. Those models are really starting to get going now and it’s very exciting. 

TL: I know the idea of peak oil jumpstarted this work, but in the US that idea is not resonating right now because we are gushing with oil and gas. How do you reach an American audience, where many people are excited about America’s so-called energy independence?

RH: There is still a very strong argument that that’s a bubble. The work Post Carbon Institute is doing arguing that actually fracking is a very short bubble and that most of the sweet spots are going to be played out very quickly. It’s really an investment bubble and the only people who are going to benefit from it are the people who were in first, and engineering companies. 

But I think increasingly, my experience of the last 10 days of traveling across the US is that the impacts of climate change are being felt by ordinary people all over the place. In Alaska people’s homes are sinking into the permafrost as it melts, the roads are buckling all over the place, forest fires, floods, that kind of stuff is really in people’s face. But actually, whether people are able to put a name to it being climate change or anything else, I think there is a real sense that something is not right. That things are changing incredibly quickly around us.

And actually I think the way that Transition gets framed now is how do we create a new economy. Where is it going to come from? Who is the cavalry coming riding to the rescue in the place where you live? Is the government going to come in and sort it out? Is Apple going to come in and open a factory at the end of your street and employ everybody? Where is it going to come from? 

Whether people call it Transition, whether they attribute it to peak oil, climate change, all these kind of things, what’s resonating with people I think is that the economy is just going down the tubes and it doesn’t represent us. It doesn’t build justice, fairness, the kinds of things we want to see. And we can do a better job and that’s already starting to be modeled.

The key challenge for me is how we do this in a way that takes it out of being perceived as alternative culture— that it resonates across the spectrum of people of all kinds of different interests. I just came from Houston and actually the people who are running the Transition group in Houston work in the oil and gas industry. And they are really the people who are inspired to do that stuff there. I really love when Transition beds in with people who aren’t the usual suspects. 

TL: What have you seen so far in the US that has inspired you?

RH: I went to a place in Boston called Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition. They’ve got a great Transition group there and right from the start they really framed it around how do we create jobs and livelihood, how do we engage as widely as possible. They do all their meetings bilingually. They are doing really interesting stuff around working with local shopkeepers trying to start new businesses. They were a real inspiration.

Again Houston was really interesting because of the stuff they’re doing and who they are. And just meeting people, every time there is an event. I live in a small town in Devon, [England] and in 2006 had this idea and then wrote this book in 2008. I remember we had sweepstakes in the office guessing how many copies it would sell and I said I thought it would sell 2,000 copies ... and I lost. And it’s just gone off all over the place. 

So, it’s just extraordinary for me to come and see people still clutching their copies of it and the new one. And just what people are doing and hearing the stories. I got a lift over here today with a guy who started a whole complementary currency, the Bay Bucks, for the whole Bay Area, a really innovative project working with business. It blows me away everyday and it’s not just getting an email from people in the second biggest city in Iran wanting to start Transition, but it is just meeting people and seeing what they’re doing and somehow it’s traced back to something we’re involved with — it’s just extraordinary.

TL: What’s been most concerning that you’ve seen here?

RH: I think the thing that I didn’t appreciate or having any experience of, the fear levels around this stuff is much higher here and there is that very real, palpable sense that once things start to fall there is nothing to catch — the whole stuff with healthcare here and how that worries people and how it completely dominates people’s life choices and how they spend their time and how much money they have to be bringing in just to cover the basics. I will go home and kiss my national health service on the cheek. 

I did a talk yesterday with a group and people were saying it’s terrifying, it feels like things are moving so fast here. I remember someone saying, “when everything is getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster all at the same time,” and I think you get that sense very strongly here. But if anywhere can do this and turn it around, it will be here I think. The resources, the incredible can-do spirit here, the entrepreneurial spirit — if that can be harnessed then that will be extraordinary. 

TL: I understand you don’t normally fly. What made you decide to make an exception and come to the States?

RH: I haven’t flown in seven years. I went to the cinema in my town and watched An Inconvenient Truth and I got to the end after watching the last five minutes of ice water pouring down the glaciers in Greenland and then the bit comes up at the end of the film, “What to do: Change your light bulbs....” That’s not going to cut it! And I felt I had to leave the theater having changed something that was appropriate so I decided I wasn’t going to fly anymore. So Transition Network as it is currently seen and understood is having been created in 44 countries and thousands of communities without anyone getting on an airplane. Although it does mean sometimes feeling like Osama bin Laden sitting in a cave sending out DVDs of presentations round the world. 

I can get to places in Europe by the train and I do a lot of presentations by Skype. The thing that swung it for me was I went to a film called Chasing Ice, which is visceral about what’s happening to the Arctic and shortly after that a woman who we know who has given some funding to Transition Network who is very connected in the U.S. to all the foundations and philanthropic organizations, she asked if we would come over and do some stuff and we said, no, we don’t fly. She said, “OK, I really respect that’s the case but all the foundations that I talk to, all the people at the UN, all the politicians I talk to, they’re all saying they give it 18 months and then they give up on mitigation, they pull all their funding out of mitigation and they just put it into adaptation.”

In other words they give up on staying below 2 degrees [celsius] and there was kind of a catch in her voice as she was saying it. And I thought, actually, do I want to be in a position in 20 years to say to my grandchildren, well, we didn’t sort the climate thing out, but I didn’t fly! As someone put it to me, “The moral high ground is all very well until the water is lapping around it.” 

She said, “I can’t guarantee you anything will happen, that we’ll turn it around, but I can get you in front of lots of people.” So we came.

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan or visit her website, taralohan.com.