In 2005, I was just an ordinary, low-profile guy in my thirties living in the town of Totnes, England. Like many of us, I worried about the crises endangering humanity—the rampant exploitation of natural resources, the frenetic and dehumanizing quest for profit, exclusion and widening of inequalities.
It disturbed me profoundly, for example, that of the £30 million spent yearly on food in my town alone, £22 million ended up in the cash registers of supermarket chains. If people shifted just 10% of the money they spent in large chain stores to local businesses, they would inject £2 million every year into the local economy.
I wanted to be able to tell my children that during this critical period, when we still had a window in which to act, I did everything in my power to find a solution.
So I started knocking on my neighbors’ doors. As a Kinsale College teacher of permaculture—which aims to foster resilience by turning farms and communities into autonomous, productive and efficient ecosystems—I envisioned engaging the people around me in exploring a different model of change.
Could communities unite to organize a new, locally based economy that could withstand both environmental and economic crises, while planning for a post-oil, post-growth world?
After working long and hard explaining this new vision, the ‘Transition Town Totnes’ initiative was born. Local residents took it up with enthusiasm. Action groups were created to look at such issues as food, energy, and the economy. Shared gardens flourished throughout this pretty little town, which even allotted areas in the public parks to vegetable gardens and fruit production.
In under a decade, Totnes began harnessing resources at hand, no longer expecting food to arrive from the other side of the planet at great fuel costs, but instead creating shorter food supply chains and cultivating a growing portion of the available land (gardens, municipal parks, etc.). The town adopted a local currency—the Totnes Pound—that enriched the community and kept its finances away from big banks and the stock market. Local renewable energy cooperatives were created.
This local experiment has grown into the worldwide Transition Movement. This quiet revolution of ordinary people around the world coming together to rethink and reimagine the places where they live has spread to 1,200 cities in 47 countries, including the U.S., thanks to the “ripple effect” generated by the simple act of taking a step, of one individual setting something in motion. My new book with Lionel Astruc, The Transition Starts Here, Now and Together, gives a detailed account of the process.
In the U.S, Transition initiatives have sprung up in 167 locations, from Cadillac, MI to Sag Harbor, NY. Each of them are transforming their communities, without fanfare, without outside funding, making them more autonomous and more resilient to the major crises looming ahead.
Over the years, my Transition colleagues and I have distilled a set of 7 essential ingredients to get started in creating a Transition Movement in any community:
Healthy Groups. The first step is to focus on creating healthy groups. Getting to a healthy group dynamic may mean going through several steps — from initial enthusiasm, to resolving ideological tensions to overcoming failures. To start a healthy group, focus on cultivating a positive first meeting. Select a comfortable venue that all can access regardless of ability or transport. Start with a check-in, allowing everyone to speak. Develop a shared understanding of your vision and goals for the transition, and leave ample room for closing out and reflecting.
Vision. One of the key challenges with creating a low carbon, more resilient future is imagining what that might be like. It’s important to have shared vision and to act in service of that vision. Instead of planting ornamental trees, plant fruit-bearing trees. Cultivate a participatory democracy where your community can establish a collective set of priorities. Imagining the future you all want in advance of taking steps towards that future is key.
Involvement. Ask, how can we make Transition relevant to everyone in our community? Listen to what people’s respective needs are, especially those who are most marginalised, both economically and socially. Community involvement is absolutely crucial to the success of Transition in your community. As more people come into the project, you will help them form their own self-sustaining projects, or theme groups that work with a particular focus such as food, energy, communication or wellbeing.
Diversity. Working to ensure a Transition group is as diverse and inclusive as possible isn’t easy, but it’s vital. Really listen to the members of your community, and be prepared to be changed by what you hear. While wrestling with the giants of defeating peak oil and climate change, it’s still imperative to make sure everyday needs are met. Know what those needs are, and always work towards building an equitable and inclusive Transition.
Networks & partnerships. Collaboration is vital to building Transition in your community. One option is to build a network of groups that support each other locally, another is to work in partnership with groups on shared projects. Think of what information you can share, what thoughtful questions you can ask, how you can decide on things together and deliver on mutual projects.
Practical projects. It really matters that people do things, create visible manifestations, rather
than just talking. And that those projects are eye-catching, playful, impactful, and inviting. The success of the Transition movement rests on us making tangible changes in the world. Something as simple as creating a community garden in an otherwise forgotten lot will create positive momentum around the movement.
Part of a movement. Transition is happening in over 50 countries around the world. Once you start an initiative, you become part of that huge learning network of people sharing their insights, learnings and wisdom. Being part of a bigger network can create an atmosphere of trust and success, so take advantage of the bigger movement and engage with it. And don’t feel you can only share your successes. Sharing your challenges and hurdles, and your reflections on why things didn’t work, is just as useful. There’s a movement out there, make the most of it!
Reflect & Celebrate. Reflecting on how your group is doing and celebrating what you’ve achieved is an essential part of Transition. It’s important to create space to assess what you have done and explore how well you work together as a group.
Each Transition community looks radically different. Some might create a food market, organize a street carnival or start a local currency as their practical projects. Some will reflect and celebrate with a contemplative meeting while others throw raucous parties. The bottom line is to make sure your Transition movement weighs, measures, responds to and grows with the needs of the people involved.
We can’t afford to wait for the cavalry to arrive and save us from the crises that are upon us. They’re not coming. We—you, me and ordinary citizens around the world—are the cavalry.
Rob Hopkins is an activist and writer on environmental issues, based in Totnes, England, and the cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and the Transition Network.