Transition Companion

The Transition Companion by Rob Hopkins, Chelsea Green Publishing, 320pp, $29.95.

“What would it look like if the best responses to peak oil and climate change came not from committees and Acts of Parliament, but from you and me and the people around us?” asks Rob Hopkins at the outset of his new book, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times.

This opener encapsulates both the massive ambition and the humility of the book, a revision of the Transition Handbook put out in 2008. At the same time, the book’s firm roots in Hopkins’s native Britain serve as the title’s main strength — the UK is where most of the action is in Transition, after all — while also limiting the book’s appeal.

Civilization version 2.0

The ambition of this volume is the aspiration that motivates the whole Transition movement: nothing less than to remake industrial civilization from the bottom up and from the local level.

Why and how?

“Although when Transition started it was framed very much as a response to peak oil and climate change,” writes Hopkins, “as time has passed and the idea has taken root in more and more places, it has been fascinating to see the wide range of reasons why people get involved.”

Reasons start with “Because it feels way more fun than not doing it” and move on to wanting a fairer world, doing a project you’ve always dreamed of such as starting a community bakery, farm or energy company and “Because it gives me hope…” Climate change, peak oil, economic crisis and the emotion behind prepping for them all, fear itself, don’t exactly take a back seat to cheerier motivations. But bad news is not the star of the Transition show either, a contrast with the orientation of survivalists and preppers and even with much of the environmental movement.

Hopkins couldn’t have known that a few dozen protesters called out by Adbusters would start camping out in Zuccotti Park just before his book hit the shelves and that it would spark protests around the world against corporate dominance. Now, if you agree with the editors of a new book that the Occupy movement changes everything, Hopkins’s approach feels incongruously gentle by contrast.

Yet, if we consider rule by the 1% in the context of the limits to growth not addressed so far by the Occupiers, the jury’s still out over whether a confrontational stance or a more conciliatory appeal will be most successful in preparing ourselves for a positive future. Facing the ongoing contraction of the global economy, maybe Hopkins will turn out to be helpful in a way that the Occupiers have not been so far?

Power tools

But it’s the “How” that takes up most of the pages in the Transition Companion. Readers who share Hopkins’s taste for numbered lists won’t be disappointed that the Twelve Steps of Transition from the first book have morphed here into twenty-one Tools for Transition. This is one of the changes that makes the new book read much more like a reference work than the previous version, which had a compelling enough narrative to pull the reader from cover to cover. But the new version offers much more in the way of tested ideas on how to start, ramp up and run a Transition initiative.

Just go through the toolbox, from Tool No. 4: Running Effective Meetings, to Tool No. 9: Supporting Each Other, to Tool No. 13: Becoming the Media. Recently, I’ve learned more about the role of national currencies and banking systems in the financial crisis that started on Wall Street in 2008 and is flaring up again in the Eurozone now, so I was especially interested in Tool No. 19: Tools for Plugging the Leaks.

Lewes Pound

Lewes Pound notes. Photo: Giant Arc Design.

Inspired by efforts in both the US and Argentina, Transitioners in Britain seem to have had particular success launching plausible local currencies, including such wonderfully named scrips as the Brixton Brick, Stroud Pound and Tchi (from Chichester).

The first Transition money started, of course, in Hopkins’s adopted hometown of Totnes in Devon, where the number of businesses accepting the local money grew from 18 to more than 80. Later, Transition Town Lewes, located 44 miles south of London, got an unexpected windfall when it launched its beautifully designed Pound notes engraved with the face of one-time resident Thomas Paine:

The Lewes Pound was initially issued just as £1 notes, generating an unprecedented demand from currency collectors worldwide: three days after launching, the first printing had sold out and notes sold on eBay for up to £50! The Lewes Pound was expanded to include a £5, £10 and a £21 note (well, why not?), and I still consider them the most beautiful bank notes I have ever seen. Over 150 traders accept it and the scheme has a part-time project coordinator.

With the sovereign debt crises in Greece and Italy threatening to bring down the Euro, many economists predict that the continent is likely to see a return of the Drachma, Lira and other traditional national currencies.

If the Euro soon becomes a collectors’ item itself, perhaps towns and regions from Lisbon to Prague will follow the example of Lewes and Totnes to help insulate themselves from the turmoil of a collapsing super-currency. “A printed currency that can only be spent in a given community can circulate only locally. It cannot leak away,” Hopkins writes, keeping money circulating locally instead of getting sucked away by banks, big corporations or foreign manufacturers.

Separated by a common language

One of many tensions inherent in the Transition movement is the tug-of-war between acting local and thinking global. If that’s where The Transition Companion draws its strength, it’s also where it falters, at least for me as an American reader.

I tried to compensate for my countrymen’s infamous parochialism (a sin that the more moronic Republican presidential candidates have elevated to the dubious virtue of “American Exceptionalism”) by bringing the most cosmopolitan eye possible to Hopkins’s prose style. I tried to avoid getting too distracted by wording like “jumpers,” not a pogo stick-like toy for toddlers but what the British call a sweater; or “A Levels,” apparently a college admissions test like the SAT. I also tried to overlook that about eight in ten examples in the book seem to come from the British Isles while I wrestled with doubts that their lessons would not really apply to the American scene.

Mostly, Hopkins gives plenty of practical advice for a Yank in Transition.

But unfortunately, some of the most interesting parts of the handbook get lost in translation. For example, Tool No. 8: Financing Your Transition Initiative, gives specific grant funding resources for the UK but just counsels the rest of us to either do without a budget, as Transition Los Angeles mostly does, or just count on earning our own money by starting various entrepreneurial ventures — a scary proposition in today’s economy when well established businesses fail every day.

It would take work to adapt the book into an American edition, swapping out some of the case studies from Devon and Tooting with examples from Detroit and Toledo — if there are even enough good stories yet from American Transitioners to help fill out a book. But with 25% of the world’s Transition groups located in the United States, this might be a worthwhile project for Transition US in the coming months to give Hopkins’s essential ideas for re-localizing communities a fair chance on my side of the Pond.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice