The Great Reskilling

January 18, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Rob Hopkins has founded and popularaized the Transition Town movement. One of his ideas is The Great Reskilling. The basic idea is simple – the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change mean that society will change fundamentally, and this will in turn force each one of us to acquire new knowledge and skills. These “new” skills are often old skills; knowledge of how to do things in a world of drastically reduced access to energy, and incidentally leading to a much lower environmental impact. They include old craft skills, resource management and farming — knowledge that was alive and widely distributed in society only two generations ago:

“Re-learning the skills that our grandparents took for granted, such as how to use hand tools, how to build our own structures, how to mend and make clothing, how to make our own medicine, how to forage, grow, preserve and store our food.”

To some extent, The Great Reskilling is about turning the clock back. Not for dogmatic reasons (“technology is evil”) or for romantic reasons (“everything was better in ye olde times”), but because the required direction of action – given coming (energy) resource scarcity and climate change concerns – is so obvious. And it is thus better to start acting now, rather than to wait until we have no other choice than to learn everything all at once. However, we should of course hold on to any and every technology that we can possible manage to maintain. From this perspective, it is clear that cars are not a sustainable transportation technology, and that resources for transporting people (in cities) already today should focus on rail traffic and bicycles, rather than wasting resources on building brand new roads.

A good text about the kinds of knowledge we all need to acquire outlines a long list which includes cultivation and storage of (part of) your own food, husbandry, sewing, carpentry, basic mechanical skills and much more. One could add many more things to such a list, for example basic medical knowledge. However, ultimately you end up with a long list of things which – until now – we have not had to concern ourselves with, because it has been so easy to go to the supermarket to buy our food, to buy a cheap (and fashionable) shirt if we get tired of the old one, and to buy a new tool as soon as the old on breaks (or we can’t find it).

The problem with such a list is that it might feel overwhelming for an individual to get started. Indeed, you must have a strong will to take the first, and second, and the tenth step, when it is so easy to throw-away-and-buy-a-new, when there are so many “must-haves” and when popular culture distract us and steals our time. But reskilling is not just about the skills you need, but also about how to acquire them. Hopkins writes about “reskilling events” and the benefits of organizing or participting in such activities. Reskilling events:

– Teach people new (old) skills
– Bring people together, helping them to build networks
– Give strength and convey a sense of “can do it myself” (as opposed to powerlessness)
– Create links between the generations when old skills are being taught to the young (or middle-aged)
– may result in physical manifestations which act as “advertisement” for the newly acquired knowledge

Hopkins’ guess is that these events will initially be short courses, and that the ambition and the length of the courses may increase over time. Of course, many people could participate in these events/courses without having any deeper thoughts about potential/future needs for the knowledge they acquire – they just do it simply because they think it is fun and because they want to immerse themselves and learn something new. From these observations, I will make a detour to the ecovillage-to-be that I am involved in and then return to the topic of reskilling.

Since the beginning of May 2009, I am one of six co-owners of a farm with 22 hectares of land in Sörmland (just south-west of Stockholm). Much has happened since then and more will happen in the future. There are one hundred issues on various levels to discuss, decide on and implement (who fixes a broadband connection and who copies the keys, how do we keep track of which co-owner has been spending how much money on what and how much of which plants we should grow where, what policy should we have regarding land use etc.)

One thing we did during the summer was to arrange courses. These courses were about things we wanted to learn, and they were all in line with the push to reskill ourselves. Our thought was that if we have our own farm and want to learn practical skills, then why not carry out activities in the form of courses at the farm where others are also welcome to participate? We decided to organize three courses on our farm last summer. They were all open to the public and as it so happened, they all turned out to be successful:

– Building with natural materials (including clay, rammed earth, strawbales etc.)
– Permaculture Design
– Local Economic Regeneration

Here are brief summaries of the courses, from the most practical to the most theoretical:

Building with natural materials” was about building with natural and locally occurring materials (clay, sand, straw, sawdust, cow dung). The course was practical, offering a hands-on experience of different building techniques. The goal of this three-days course was for the participants to build something concrete, but even more important, to learn about and try a variety of building techniques.

Permaculture Design” was about creating/designing ecosystems for human benefit. The idea is not complicated, but the term permaculture (permanent agriculture) is most likely unfamiliar to most people. In permaculture, natural ecosystems are the model, and the goal is to “design” new ecosystems so that they produce food and other goods that are of benefit for humans. The basic ideas are well summarized here:

Imagine a natural forest. At the top is a roof of tree crowns, beneath it small trees, large and small shrubs, herbs and land covering plants, as well as plants that primarily exist below ground level and climbing plants that occupy all levels. The production of organic material is surprisingly high in comparison with, for example, a wheat field, which consists of a single layer of about half a meter. Imagine what an abundance this forest would contain if it consisted of edible plants! It would greatly surpass the yield of the wheat field!

[I don’t have the original text, this is a translation back to English from the Swedish edition]

Unlike the other two courses, “Local Economic Regeneration” was a theoretical course. The premise was that current economic theories have brought the capitalist economic system to the brink of a systemic collapse. As we pass peak oil, the period of cheap energy will end. Less energy means reduced production and the end of globalization and long transports. The trend will be towards local (regional, national) production of goods and services.

Based on this, how can we create local economic regeneration in an economy beyond growth? What should we switch to, and how? What can you produce that is profitable both today and after the coming changes? How can you initiate, finance and be a successful entrepreneur even if it becomes increasingly difficult to show a bank how you will be able to repay your loans (because of economic turbulence and questioning of old economic “truths”)?

This brings the text back to where it started – to the ideas underlying the Transition Town Movement and the Great Reskilling. We, in our ecovillage-to-be, feel that we have done some of our share by arranging courses, and feel confident about continuing to organize other courses in the future (in fact, we organized another course two months ago, I might come back to that later). And there are many suggestions for new course topics: food conservation, building a root cellar, building houses with timber and stone, foraging for edible plants and herbs, brewing beer, beekeeping, aquaculture and so on. The list could easily become very long since there are lots of things that we would like to know more about.

Today, people participate in courses like these because they find them interesting and fun. Tomorrow, the kind of practical knowledge such courses provide may become a hard currency. As a bonus, you meet interesting people and extend you social network when you attend these courses!

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior