Close your eyes and imagine your life without oil. Impossible? Well, according to the people behind the emergence of so-called “transition towns”, it may not be too far away. The first town in the UK to embrace a future without the black stuff was Totnes in Devon in September 2006 and since then others, including Falmouth and Stroud, have joined it. However, it is not just traditional rural towns that are keen to embrace this do-it-yourself movement. Forest Row in Sussex has become the first transition village and Bristol and London’s Brixton district are taking the idea to cities.
It was all started by permaculture guru Rob Hopkins and is based around community projects that prepare for life after oil. The message is that we are on the threshold of “peak oil”, the year when oil extraction peaks, after which we will all have to manage with an oil ration that will drop by 3% every year. The cumulative impact of this is a 50% reduction in oil by 2030. Given that it is estimated the world currently consumes 84m barrels of oil a day and that the International Energy Agency predicts this will rise to 116m barrels by 2030, you can see that the numbers don’t add up. “We rely on oil so much, it is obvious that life will have to change dramatically when it starts to run out,” says Hopkins.
And for all those who think that by the time the oil dries up we will have developed new sources of energy, Hopkins and the transition townies believe that there isn’t time to wait and find out. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil says that of the 65 largest oil-producing countries, 54 have passed their peak of production. It is estimated there are only around 1 trillion barrels of oil left and the world currently consumes around 29bn of those a year.
In the face of such figures, and tired of waiting for the government to come up with the answer, an increasing number of towns, cities and villages across the UK are doing it for themselves and committing to “relocalising” food, energy, transport and their economies. “The idea of transition towns has caught people’s imagination,” explains Hopkins. “All we have been able to do before is protest, lobby or campaign for change. Now we want to give people the tools to be self-sufficient and withstand the kind of shock that a reduction in oil would bring. We don’t have all the answers, but the amount of momentum and energy created by the project is amazing.”
It all sounds great in theory, but what do you actually do if your town is keen to embrace this transition? Since its “unleashing” (the term that transition townies use for the public launch of the project) in front of 350 people at Totnes civic hall, the movement has screened films and given talks to raise awareness, worked with the town council to develop long-term projects, introduced its own “Totnes pounds” that can only be spent in local shops, and conducted “oil vulnerability auditing workshops” with local businesses to see how they can reduce their reliance on oil. Meanwhile, they have also been working on re-skilling the local community, running workshops on growing fruit and vegetables, bread-baking and sock-darning.
Now, if this all sounds a little 1940s, that’s because it is. Some of the inspiration for transition towns comes from the second world war, when the UK was experiencing a prolonged fuel shortage. However, people were more self-sufficient then, with good local food networks, less energy consumption per head and strong practical skills, and so were better equipped to deal with the change.
Like Totnes, Lewes in East Sussex is keen to embrace some of the “old” way of life and even has plans to create an oral-history archive, interviewing older residents to record their experiences. Andi Mindel is one of the volunteers for Transition Town Lewes and explains that they are gearing up for their “unleashing” next Tuesday. “There is a sense that people are ready for this in Lewes. Everybody is welcome to get involved and it is an all-inclusive process. We have had great progress with the town council agreeing to let us use four pieces of land for allotments and we are looking at bulk-buying solar panels as a cooperative. We have been into schools and made a short film (available to view on YouTube) that the local cinema showed before each of its screenings about the concept of peak oil.”
It is this feeling of achievement that lies at the heart of the transition towns movement. Duncan Law, volunteer for the Brixton project, says he was attracted to the concept because the community could pull together and make a difference quickly. “I’ve found that climate change deals with the invisible and has very little positivity about it, whereas this is all about positivity. Everybody can get stuck in and design the change – it is very much a bottom-up initiative.”
And it isn’t just people in the UK who are committing to change without the support of their governments. In the US, 400 mayors have signed up to the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, which pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions and meet the goals of the Kyoto protocol. Austin, Texas, has a climate protection plan that aims to make city buildings reliant on renewable energy by 2012, and Woodstock, New York – made world famous by its 1969 festival – is aiming to erase its carbon footprint within a decade.
Hopkins believes that to motivate people to change you have to present an attractive alternative. “A future without oil could be better than the present if we use our imagination and think creatively,” he says.
The challenge for the transition townies is replicating the success of market towns such as Totnes and Lewes in cities such as Bristol and London. “I think we have a bigger hill to climb in Brixton than other places. There is not one community here – it is incredibly diverse and it can be difficult to reach people,” says Law.
Hopkins believes the only way the model can work in cities is if they split it into neighbourhoods and have one networking body overseeing them all. He admits that as the movement grows, fledgling transition towns, such as Lampeter in Wales, which held its first meeting earlier this month, will need more help to put their ideas into practice. This should be made easier by recent funding for a Transition Towns Network, which will be based in Totnes and will offer support to new groups, and link up with other organisations such as the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth.
“Most people are aware that something is up and they want to take action,” says Mindel. “We can do something and this seems to be the way forward. Change is not coming from above, so we will just have to show government the way”.