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Voices of descent

Addressing climate change can seem a colossal task. Melanie Jarman reports on the emerging 'transition town' movement, which is encouraging citizens' participation in long-term planning to change energy use at a local level

October 3, 2007
3 min read

Under the catchy title of Transition Town Totnes, the south Devon town is the first in the UK to explore what it means to undergo the transition to a carbon-constrained, energy-lean world at a local level. By consciously planning and designing for changes on the horizon, rather than reacting to resource shortages as they are thrust upon them, the participants hope that their town will become more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than the present.

The seeds of the transition town idea lie in the small Irish town of Kinsale, where in 2005 a group of students at the local further education college developed a process for residents to draw up an ‘energy descent action plan’ – a tool to design a positive timetabled way through the huge changes that will occur as world oil production peaks. The action plan covers a number of areas of life in Kinsale, including food, energy, tourism, education and health.

For example, for food, the plan envisions that by 2021 the town will have made the transition from dependency to self-reliance, where ‘all landscaping in the town comprises of edible plants, fruit trees line the streets, all parks and greens have become food forests and community gardens’. As a practical step towards this, the plan recommends the immediate appointment of a local food officer.

For housing, the plan envisions that by 2021 ‘all new buildings in Kinsale will include such things as a high level of energy efficiency together with a high portion of local sustainable materials’. A suggested immediate practical step towards this is a review of current building practices and future development plans.

The energy descent action plan approach landed in the UK when a Kinsale college tutor, Rob Hopkins, moved to Totnes and held a number of talks and film screenings to introduce the idea. In September 2006 Transition Town Totnes was launched, seeking ‘to engage all sectors of the community in addressing this, the great transition of our time’ and seeking to put ‘Totnes on the international map as a community that engaged its creativity and collective genius with this timely and pressing issue’. The initiative has spread beyond Totnes just one year on; towns and villages around the UK have started developing a transition town approach for themselves (see box).

One reason why the initiative has caught people’s imaginations is that, at its core, is a hopeful message. Many ‘transitioners’ are motivated to change energy use patterns not just because of energy shortages in the future but because of self-imposed energy rationing now – because cutting fossil fuel use is essential if climate change is to be lessened.

The transition movement shakes off the usual gloom and limitation around this message by calling for positive and pro-active changes. These are based in how the world actually is, rather than how we would like it to be if only someone, somewhere, would come up with that miraculous solution that will allow us to expand infinitely and indefinitely, all within a finite world. Rather than a vision of deferred promise and baseless hope it offers community-wide participation to find realistic and workable answers.

Whether the transition town approach can work at a citywide level, or whether its call for reduced consumption will have a wider impact on, for example, international trading systems and their inherently heavy use of fossil fuels, remains to be seen. In Totnes, at least, the creation of new businesses and land use initiatives suggests that the transitioners are in it for the long haul.

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