Reimagining Our Future

Totnes is a small medieval town, home to a little over eight thousand people, on the mouth of the Dart River in South West England. Walking down high street (main street in British lingo), one would not necessarily be aware of anything unusual. Perhaps a particularly discerning eye would notice the preponderance of small independent cafes, local grocery outlets or shops selling wool. Yet, since becoming the first “Transition Town,” Totnes has sparked the Transition Town movement, serving as an inspiration to towns and communities across the world hoping to regain control of their economic destiny.

The Transition Town Movement was founded in 2005 by Rob Hopkins, a young instructor in ecological design, in response to the threat of peak oil and climate change. It has since spread across the world and attracted the support of several high profile figures, such as former president of the IMF Horst Kohler. The Transition Town movement ambitiously aims to transcend the ideas of “sustainability” and the “green economy,” visions championed by the Paris Climate Conference and post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). The Transition Town Movement calls for profounder changes, questioning the viability of unbridled consumerism and the myth of limitless economic growth.

“Sustainability,” Rob Hopkins told Jon Mooallem of the New York Times in 2009, “is about reducing the impact of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.” Meanwhile, the Transition Town movement, he argues, is seeking to “build resiliency” and create a new system that allows a community to be as self-sufficient as possible in order to withstand shocks as oil becomes astronomically expensive (something that seems far-fetched these days with a barrel of oil at only a little over $50). The movement champions the idea that communities themselves need to reimagine and rebuild a lifestyle that uses dramatically less fossil fuel. The key is to bring people together, create a culture of entrepreneurship, and instill a problem-solving mindset.

Today there are over 480 transition towns or neighborhoods in 35 different countries. While Hopkins issued an informal document that outlines steps, there is no formal blueprint to follow or central authority one is accountable to in order to become an official transition town.
The sole point of the movement, Hopkins told the New York Times, is simply to “unleash the collective genius of a community.” Under this helm, a wide range of new initiatives has cropped up in transition towns across the world.

In many places, new initiatives have tended to promote community membership, organizations and projects owned-and-run by local residents. This ranges from community-owned gardens, orchards and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms, to local renewable energy projects and even local newspapers that are owned by their readers. Transition towns harbor a large number of businesses that use a cooperative model, where workers own and run the enterprises that also serve as social hubs.

Another important aspect of transition towns is a “repair and share” vision which guides many initiatives. Transition towns across the UK now regularly hold events such as seed swap and give-and-take days in which people come together to share or swap clothes, furniture, tools and much more that they have no need for anymore. In Frome, Somerset, a “Share Shop” opened mid-2015 that allows residents to borrow household and leisure items donated by the public for a small fee. The founders, a team of eight 18-30 year olds, say the objective is to save people money and reduce waste. The average electric drill, they point out, is used for a mere 15 minutes in its lifetime. Transition Café in the town of Fishguard runs on a pay-as-you-feel model and offers delicious meals made from out-of-date products.

Simultaneously, there has been a concerted drive to radically transform waste management by minimizing and reusing waste. There has been a host of creative ventures, such as transforming waste wood into fuel or using coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms.

Susanna Heisse, appalled with the level of plastic waste around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, invented the “Eco brick,” which is an insulating, robust and affordable building material made from plastic waste. Some 38 schools in Guatemala have now been built using Eco Bricks.

Greyton, South Africa’s first transition initiative, had been struggling with a non-existent waste management system. On the outskirt of the town, trash would simply be poured into open dumps. Joseph Stodegel, a U.S. artist and entrepreneur who came to Greyton in 2011 to help with the transition town initiative, spearheaded a Trash-to-Treasure Festival. Now held annually, the Trash to Treasure Festival takes place on an open field that was created by reclaiming a dump. Bands play on stages built from reclaimed tires and building are made out of Eco Bricks.

Finally, many transition towns have created their own local currency. The “Localization” movement had never been very good at talking about economics, Rob Hopkins told the Guardian. Therefore, in order to change this, Totnes decided to try and map the local economy and put a value on it. They found that, in Totnes for example, people spend 30 million British pounds on food every year, 73 percent of which goes to large corporate-owned supermarkets. They realized that even if the purchase of local foods increased by only 10 percent, the town would have 2.2 million more pounds staying in the local economy. Consequently, the first local currency, the Totnes pound, emerged. The basic premise is that a local currency would make people think more closely about their local economy, inquiring where money goes when purchases are made and finding ways to spend more money locally.

In a day and age when it is easy to be all gloom and doom, Rob Hopkins and the Transition movement offer a refreshingly upbeat message. Sweeping changes in history, he argues, are not made by “big people” doing big things but rather by ordinary people doing small things together.

“There is no cavalry coming to the rescue,” he told the Guardian, but rather it is about what people can create with each other in their streets, neighborhoods and towns. “If enough people do it, it can lead to real impact, to real jobs and real transformation of the places we live, and beyond.”