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Transitioning the financial crisis

While the financial crisis seems to have knocked the wind out of the international community and the British government's environmental passion, one group is going from strength to strength, Sam Mohun Himmelweit reports

June 28, 2009
4 min read

The Transition Town (TT) movement is a network of loosely-affiliated grass-roots groups, dedicated to making their immediate environment sustainable and through this steeling society for the challenges presented by the twin threats of climate change and the end of the abundance of cheap oil.

Started in Totnes, Devon in 2005, the movement has blossomed into an international network with more than 170 officially recognised transition towns and, according to co-founder Rob Hopkins, over 2,000 ‘mullers’ – communities mulling over becoming official transition towns – including Ambridge of Radio 4’s The Archers.

The movement has spread internationally in the last year and national co-ordinating groups now exist in a number of countries including Canada, Italy, Japan and the USA. So what is it about transition towns that makes them thrive in such iniquitous financial circumstances? When most people are concentrating on their own immediate financial worries how are transition towns getting the message through?

Another economics is possible

One answer is that the transition movement is presenting the possibility of local sustainability that can mitigate the effects of the global financial crisis. This quality can be seen in key transition town initiatives such as grow-your-own food programmes and local currencies. Totnes and Lewis have successful local currencies, where customers exchange sterling for a local ‘pound’, which is accepted by participating shopkeepers, while Brixton are about to launch the Brixton pound.

Local programmes such as these present people with positive evidence of an alternative way of doing things, one that can make the community more self-reliant and sustainable. Duncan Law, a co-ordinator of ‘Transition Town Brixton’, has seen a significant rise in interest in grow-your-own food in the last year, sparked primarily by its comparative low-cost compared to shop-bought vegetables. But there is also an environmental quality to the popularity of such measures, the message is getting through to people that the way we eat is unsustainable and a lot of people are trying to make a change. Hopkins says people engage with it because, ‘it’s the lowest hanging fruit, it’s easiest to do first.’

Further down the line larger changes will have to be made but as Oliver Dudok van Heel, of ‘Transition Town Lewes’, says these transition town initiatives are ‘showing that there is another way of doing things that will not only limit communities’ exposure to unstable global financial markets, but offer a vision of a way forward that doesn’t destroy the planet and drive us towards a global climate crisis that will dwarf the financial crisis.’

This is the second reason that transition towns are thriving: they present a realistic alternative way of living that addresses environmental concerns as well as financial worries. Law believes that the credit crunch has been a boon for the transition town movement demonstrating how quickly things can change both in institutions and at local and community levels, providing evidence that rapid change is possible.

Dress rehearsal

Plans for local energy generation, shared gardens and community-based agriculture all become suddenly more realistic prospects when you consider how much has changed financially in the last year. Ironically, it seems that the transition town movement is reacting well to the financial crisis because they don’t see it as too daunting – as Dudok van Heel says, ‘the climate crisis dwarfs it.’ Law calls it a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the problems we will face if and when peak oil becomes a reality. This ‘capacity crunch’ will, according to Law, ‘clobber over the head any [economic] revival.’ It is partly this awareness of the bigger picture and the relative calmness over the current economic crisis that enables the transition town movement to grow in such difficult times.

But as a grass-roots movement, transition towns can only do so much. They require institutional engagement and are attracting growing interest from local government. Somerset and Leicestershire county councils have recently designated themselves ‘Transition Councils’, while representatives from both Brixton and Lewes report greater involvement from their local authorities than this time last year. Hopkins also says that Local Development Agencies (LDAs) are beginning to engage with the transition town movement as a possible alternative model to constant growth. Yet central government needs to take more heed of the transition towns message if it is to react in time, and now is the perfect opportunity given, as Hopkins says, that ‘you can’t look at a way out of what’s happening economically without taking in issues of peak oil.’

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