“Transition In Action” by Transition Town Totnes

ISBN 978-1-900322-85-0. “Transition In Action – Totnes and District 2030 – An Energy Descent Action Plan” was published in 2010 by Transition Town Totnes. It was scripted and edited by Jacqui Hodgson with Rob Hopkins. It is a meaty piece of work in floppy-cover, A4-sized paper, with 310 pages in glorious colour. The rear cover bristles with praise from the likes of Jonathan Porritt and Richard Heinberg. In content you get acknowledgements, a dedication, introduction, a “How to use” guide, four major sections consisting of sixty-two separate chapters, as well as appendices, references, glossary and credits. It is the most comprehensive EDAP you may ever see.

When I got to the end of this, and sat down to write this review, I felt that I had only a long list of criticisms. This isn’t a criticism of the team who produced this. This Energy Descent Action Plan is probably one of the finest things ever set to paper and is nearly beyond criticism. However I felt personally, as someone who has struggled to push the Transition ball up an infinite hill for four years, that this EDAP said a lot about Totnes, but didn’t help me. Now OF COURSE this says a lot about Totnes – it says so on the cover – but that isn’t what I mean. The book itself admits:

“Totnes and District is not a homogeneous community. As noted elsewhere in this EDAP it contains, for historical reasons, a larger than usual proportion of residents who are artists, psychotherapists, spiritual seekers and “ex-hippies”. [..] it also attracted a number of committed environmental activists.”

Transition has seen its most successful manifestations in places just like that. But they are few and far between. I met Rob Hopkins at an EcoBuild seminar in 2010 and introduced him to the “Transitionometer” with Totnes scoring a perfect “10” at the top and High Wycombe scoring a “0.001” at the bottom. I suppose it could be worse. Let’s face it; Transition is in a bubble. Despite a meteoric rise, and brief moments of fame and glory, it remains obscure and unknown to the vast majority of the public.

The best way that Rob has ever summed up Transition for me is that it is an experiment. It will be different in every place it manifests itself. To be realistic MOST places do not have a Transition Initiative. Most places don’t even have mullers. We should not underestimate how far it has to go to even get close to mainstream thinking. It has been punching above its weight for a while now and it is hard to know where it goes to next. Some soul-searching may be required. It may already be at its zenith and be descending into its sunshine years. Activities like the EDAP should make it relevant and long-legged. But does it come close?

This EDAP is perfectly relevant within the Totnes bubble, within the Transition bubble, but it will take a lot of work to make it relevant in the REAL WORLD. Which is where I came in. It is a great template. It supplies most of what an EDAP should have. It is the mother of all EDAPs having been as written as close to the original source-code as possible. I could wax lyrical about page after page but that is not useful in context of this review. I cannot use Totnes to model High Wycombe nor should I even try. It is the EDAP for Totnes and nowhere else in the world. It will have been a valuable experience writing it and we tip our hats in gratitude and awe to Jacqui and her team for producing it. But as she admits, this is a “first attempt” – it’s all part of the same grand experiment.

On page 19 you get a brief outline of a 2009 survey conducted of 220 households in Totnes and Dartington. That’s a population of less than 8500 people. Amazingly 75% of those people had both heard of Transition Town Totnes and its work. 60% had participated in at least one of TTT’s events. 12% had participated in the creation of the EDAP. Only 11% of those questioned felt Transition wasn’t relevant to them. 12% of 8500 people is over 1000 people. If we scale that experience up to Transition Town High Wycombe it means that 12,000 people should be helping out! I would say with high certainty that we would be lucky to get 12 people or even 6. THAT is the problem outside of the bubble. Rob himself lamented recently as to why so few Transition Initiatives had done an EDAP. The answer is simple: for every Totnes there are countless thousands of towns and villages for whom “Transition” is just a word. This, of course, is a tragedy – but welcome to my world.

Outside of the bubble we struggle to make the Transition voice heard. The very morning I sat down to write this review I was reminded of our obscurity when a friend forwarded and email from the Wycombe District Council’s Planning Office intended for the local Transition Town. The sender couldn’t even be bothered to find our email address and sent the matter to the local coordinator for Friends of the Earth. This has been after over three years sitting on the same Strategic Partnership as the Council. We are invisible. Contrast that to the up-front cooperation and profound cultural differences displayed by Devon County Council and South Hams District Council. They aren’t just different; they are on different planets. Don’t think this is sour grapes; it is reality for most of us.

Today I feel like a stranger to the Transition I played such a big part of locally. It has become a long struggle to interpret it and endlessly re-interpret it in a manner such that it comes alive for the general public. I wish to let it go where it wants to go – but how do you stop it going nowhere? Do you let it fail and celebrate what you have learnt? Do you yield to the endless pressure of grassroots environmentalists who wish to drive change based upon what they feel, rather than the evidence? We could so easily slip into a pattern of regular meetings and zero action. That wouldn’t be Transition. It is so hard to let go.

So – as nice as it is to have a templated solution for an EDAP it will be difficult to take this to the next level. There is always hope though…. Endless experimentation can lead to options. One such is the PlanLoCaL work done by the Centre for Sustainable Energy. They are conducting Low Carbon Neighbourhood Planning seminars and workshops

“for organisations with an interest in promoting community renewable energy and low carbon neighbourhood plans”

However such efforts are always focused on (what I term) “hard transition”, ie, renewable energy. They don’t include local food provision let alone wider economic conditions. So an EDAP has a better holistic approach but the mainstream isn’t interested. Yet.

One principle of Transition, that is so powerful, concerns the telling of a better story; a stronger positive narrative about the post-oil society. I like the idea of back-casting from some point in the future but I do have an issue with Totnes choosing 2030. It is too close! Way too close. If we look at something like the work of the UK Government, the World Wide Fund for Nature or the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA, they all plan the end-game as being at 2050. Totnes appears to have chosen the Zero Carbon Britain deadline of 2030. The problem with 2030 is that it is (now) only 18 years away and some of the backcasting in the Totnes EDAP is already looking premature.

Richard Heinberg wisely summed up the problem in his “Perils of Prediction” section of his book “The End of Growth”. He urges us to be careful predicting anything to a specific date lest we look ridiculous. He cites Paul Ehrlich’s famous 1980’s bet with Julian Simon of the prices of five commodities. He lost that bet and “provided resource optimists with an endlessly repeatable anecdote”. Recently the IMF wrote a paper on the price of oil and compared how Colin Campbell’s modelling of the date for Peak Oil was always too pessimistic where as the predicted oil supplies modelled by the International Energy Agency had been too optimistic. The truth will be somewhere in between. The price of oil is likely to rise to around $200 a barrel by 2020. Even the Club of Rome computer projections for the end of economic growth see it happening in a period between 2010 and 2050. The world of 2030 will look too much like the world of today…

If we are to backcast then we need to use a broader brush and a longer time period. Think trends, not specifics. Tell people’s stories. Don’t make sweeping statements about how popular, say, goat-keeping suddenly becomes, because you are setting yourself up for a massive fall. 2030 may make it more pertinent to people’s immediate lifespans and expectations but it can only lead to endless revision and loss of credibility. Although nice stories help us ‘imagineer’ the future we must follow the emerging evidence otherwise we create a fantasy; an ecotopia born of what we want – not what we need. In this respect I could take the template designed by Totnes for their EDAP and simply throw 80% of the content away. The section on Economics looks ideologically-driven whilst that on Education reads like a liberal-homeschooler’s daydream. The book is littered with references to healing people with herbs, building with cob, children reconnecting with nature and similar thinking. It is life in a bubble. We applaud the brave attempt, but it doesn’t have legs. The point is that it IS relevant to Totnes: but what can the rest of us learn?

Which leads us to probably the most profound observation: the backcasting shows no experimentation nor any failures. This is NOT a Transition I recognise. It is too perfect. We have to be realistic. Not everything will work and the blithe optimism, in which this EDAP is written, belies the underlying cynicism of our society. Which is why I would choose an end-period of 2050 or even 2100 to supply a more sobering timeline of how people change. A better narrative will recognise that somethings will fail and that we will learn from the results. It will not all go our way. There will be compromises. Totnes has not had to compromise hard to get Transition accepted locally. It will not be that straightforward elsewhere. This is not an excuse not to try. Maybe backcasting should offer an array of alternatives and be more willing to talk about bad things… What can go wrong where Transition doesn’t happen. We need to accept that a transition will happen to people who will not call it “Transition”. They will see it as a quality of life issue. To shrink from globalisation has its ups and downs. It should be cathartic to remove the rose-tinted spectacles and really engage in what failure might look like and where it might lead us.

So, what can we conclude? A truly creditable and noble effort. I mean that from my heart. But I speak from the Transition-school of hard knocks (forgive my cynicism). THIS EDAP is a model for us to aspire to… But has very little detail for us to take away. I somehow felt that the Forest Row EDAP [work in progress] had impressed me more for it had better stories and fewer details. I hope the writers of this EDAP don’t end up chasing their tails on the backcasting they got wrong. It would be interesting to see how the experiment fairs when looking back from 2020. I expect it will be viewed as a useful exercise. A declaration of intent, a line in the sand, a new direction of travel. The effort that went into creating it is the important bit, not the specific contents.

Totnes should feel proud of this work but the Transition Network needs to move the template forward to get other initiatives a foot-in-the-door. We need a rich ecology of EDAPs across the social & international spectrum. They will be diverse and very different from each other. Totnes have set the bar impossibly high and it may discourage others to follow because they cannot make something like this happen. This would be a shame. We must recognise that no other EDAP will look anything like this. A series of copy-cat EDAPs from small, liberally-minded, English, white, rural market-towns will mark the end of Transition. That would be a shame. Most EDAPs must, by nature, be websites. They need to be inclusive of the population of all persuasions. We cannot allow ourselves the easy niche. We must not self-stereotype. We must celebrate our massive differences. We are as strong for recognising failure as we are for creating success. We should be prepared to laugh at the failure Totnes’s EDAP in ten years. The chances are that it will be – but it will not be a waste of time. For if we are strong enough to celebrate that failure (and learn from it) then Transition will remain relevant.

So, my friends….. Let us go forth and create the a rain-forest ecology of EDAPs. It might take 200, 300 or 4000 attempts but, sooner or later, we will get there. Totnes have shown us there way. Now let us go and do it our way.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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