“The Power of Just Doing Stuff” by Rob Hopkins

Hopkins_Power_of_Doing_Stuff_smallISBN 978 0 85784 117 9. “The Power of Just Doing Stuff – How local action can change the world” by Rob Hopkins was published by Green Books in 2013. By our reckoning this is Rob’s third book after the seminal “Transition Handbook” and “Companion” (not including co-authorship on several other Transition books). Every new Transition release, be it book or film, always marks a step on our own local Transition journey. These things are benchmark to tell us where we are relative to Transition geography. And where is that exactly? More on that in a moment but first: just who is the target audience for Rob’s little paperback? It’s indeed a gem but who should read it?

The previous books are certainly mighty coffee table tomes for the dedicated Transitioner. If you have read them then you pretty much know what you are getting. Hence, as well as an update from Rob, we are getting something aimed at a new audience; dare I say it – the ‘casual transitioner’. Not so much for the hardcore. And who might these people be? Near-converts or everyone else?

Well let me illustrative – when this book came out a seasoned local environmentalist wrote me an email that went thus:

“A new book by Rob Hopkins has been brought to my notice, evidently conveying a cheerful message about achievements in the transition field.  I should like this message brought to the attention of [local newspaper] readers, but I think it’s your job rather than mine to do so.”

“Your job” huh? He went on to refer to a list of recent weather-related catastrophes around the world from India to France. The salient point here is that although he made the link between “The Power of Just Doing Stuff” and global warming, he felt it was someone else’s job to go out and evangelise. Those “other” people were Transitioners as if was some private club, a creed or new religion. To him (we guess) Transition is somehow-removed and something to be done by somebody else. It’s “them” not “us”. It is also of note that none of the extreme weather events had actually struck High Wycombe. Which was the primary reason why I chose not to comply with the letter-writing request. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. The power of genuinely doing stuff goes way beyond yielding a strongly worded letter. Transition is ALL of us.

So, the big thing you might not notice in Rob’s latest book is that it almost has no mention of environmentalism with one minor exception:

“When we started Transition in the place I live, we thought of it as an environmental process, but now, after seven years, we see it as a cultural process.”

..and that is pretty much where this book kicks off. Indeed it is this narrative that increasingly dominates Rob’s writings (as it has my own since 2008). Where it seems that Transition can unravel is where the main activists STILL see it as an “environmental process”. Hence on page 58 we see a very bold statement “Transition as an economic approach” – it really couldn’t be clearer any more. Rob suggests that Transition is adding the “joined-up approach” that re-localisation requires:

“It provides a powerful catalyst, an incubator for new ideas and possibilities. It also provides support and a structure that can benefit projects that were previously run in isolation.”

We are sure that there are many Transition groups out there that started with all good intentions but have since become dormant as the core of activists, that formed them, slipped back into their regular campaigns. Hence the “Power of Just Doing Stuff” may now be what separates the men from the boys. If you feel that getting one hundred names on a petition is a sign of success then you are one camp, if you have put solar panels on the Scout Hut then you are in the other. Then there is every shade of green in-between. Many a proud and happy soul out there doing both.

So in this new work Rob is reaching out to those who know about Transition but seem unconvinced that there is any real “power” in doing stuff. There will be those who, of course, are never convinced. Take as an example Greg Sharzer in his Book “No Local” where the author stated the Marxist position. For Greg there can be no Transition without Revolution. In fact he makes some genuinely interesting points that do challenge the perception of the “power” in doing stuff. But I digress, as it stands today the world is less like the Marxist ideal and all too often like the “little platoons” referred to in Roger Scruton’s “Green Philosophy“. The truth, as always, is somewhere inbetween. It does not need revolution nor are Edmund Burkes’ “little platoons” adequate. Not now. Not anymore. It’s all rather like turning up at an earthquake with a dust-pan & brush. You feel so… Well.. Impotent don’t you?

It is so easy to slip into hopelessness. It is easy to even revel in just how crap we can be. My mind turns to a sticky evening in London back in 1994 when I stood with several hundred other young souls in a club singing along to the songs of the Pennsylvanian rock band “Live“. The song that always got the greatest reaction at the time was “Shit Towne” (from 1994’s “Throwing Copper“) for its great nihilist beauty. The lyrics were by a very young man called Ed Kowalczyk:

“The Weavers live up the street from me, The Crackheads, they live down the street from me, The tall grass makes it hard to see beyond my property, hey man this is criminal, this hard line symmetry of people and pets, We don’t bother anyone, We keep to ourselves, The mailman visits each of us in turn, Gotta live, gotta live, gotta live in Shit Towne”

It is an ode to hopelessness and spoke to every person in that audience about their own community – crackheads or not. The mailman really does visit us all in turn. It’s a song for the American rust-belt, a tale of uncut lawns and hard edge suburbia. Kids would sing it out loud with passion perfectly happy in the knowledge that ‘shit towne’ was THEIR town. Any town, every town. I still listen to that song today and still sing along. But now the meaning is different. It really used to be that we didn’t bother anyone and that was the way it SHOULD be. We kept to ourselves. Shit town is the place I am leaving. The power of just doing stuff is the place I want to be. But how to do that in a world that just wants you to keep to yourself and not bother anybody?

I believe there is a second constituency here for which this might appeal. The disaffected citizens of shit towne. One such example was a group that formed the 2012 Totnes revolt against Transition (documented in “Narnia Divided” and “They don’t grow coffee in Devon“). It seems this little rebellion (over a successful campaign to keep Costa out of Totnes) has quickly been forgotten. The main perpetrators now seem to have gone; Totnes FM is off air whilst the Take Back Totnes Facebook page has fallen silent. Its successor Totnes Voice seems to have faired no better. (Spooky.) Still, the October 2012 experience was quite illustrative. The episode may have been a local tiff blown up by a small minority… but close examination of the Take Back Totnes Facebook page revealed comments like this:

“TakeBackTotnes is not an organisation that disagrees with all of the aims of TTT or stated policies of our local politicians. Indeed, TakeBackTotnes shares many of the aims of these groups. We believe passionately in creating a sustainable future for our town and our local economy. We praise TTT for its successful Transition Streets project, bringing sustainable and low cost energy to many homes in the area. However, we also believe TTT stepped beyond its fundamental remit to promote alternative energy use by claiming to represent all Totnes in its fight against Costa Coffee and promoting a false image of Totnes to the national media.”

This is a very fair reflection of what we were told by two Totnes residents who contacted us. They had the wrong idea of Transition (from the Transitioners they met) based upon poor first impressions of the individuals involved. This was made even worse by the anti-Costa campaign that seriously under-estimated the feelings of the majority. However the people in the ‘anti’ campaign seemed quite supportive of Transition when they saw what it actually achieved (as the above quote illustrates). If it was solely the power of positive example, they had been witness to, then whole sorry episode need never have happened. The power of just doing stuff is an extraordinary power indeed.

Will any of the disillusioned folks of shit towne will be won over by Rob’s new book? “The Power of Just Doing Stuff” is full of the wonders of the modern Transition. Jam-packed with positive examples that most of us can only aspire to. The modern Transitioner is working on the cultural and economic change by setting up Businesses. They may well need skills that go way beyond simply writing letters to the local newspaper. This book is a golden nugget and at just under 150 pages can easily be digested in two or three reading sessions. This is meant to be accessible with a capital “A”. It is meant to be read and in this Rob has succeeded in opening Transition up to the wider audience.

Downsides? There is a philosophical point made about “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them for the endless immensity of the sea” that I thought really didn’t work in context. Seriously; try building a ship or setting up a business without some organisation. Leave the dreaming of the sea to those who day-dream. Transition does require some organisational skills which makes it closer, these days, to the world of business than anything else.

Now there are still plenty of dreamers out there contributing to Transition but these are not idle dreams… No, these are visions. These are people with imagination and that is what we need. People who can see just around the corner and the endless possibilities. People who are not interested in why things cannot be done.  So hats off to the advice of Anna O’Brien of Transition Hackney for her contribution on page 68. She lists several key components that team members will need that included; lots of time, people skills, be realistic, be reliable (ie, follow through), know how to run a group, get a range of skills and have a good network with groups in the community. All of these are essential and we recognise this from our work in High Wycombe.

So.. where before we thought Transition was all about simply energy descent, but now we have Local Economic Blueprints. This is Transition really starting to mean business. And we mean “Business”. Our favourite example here (amongst so many) is the Brixton Pound  that not only is pioneering electronic local currencies but now allows Council staff to be paid in Brixton Pounds! We can only but dream of such innovation here. But these things are not just done by Transitioners to their communities. They are the result of teamwork amongst various organisations who have been inspired by Transition.

And so it is locally in High Wycombe. We may think that nothing “transitiony” is happening but like the swan in our logo there is furious paddling just below the water. You can see the chain of events unfolding; entering into a partnership with the Council lead to us kicking off the local food guide, the guide lead to the local food shop, the local food shop kicked off the annual Wycombe Harvest and now we have out first local food home delivery service. What we are witnessing is a slow cultural shift, a chain reaction stemming from that first catalyst. It is now self-sustaining. Without all that hard work put into the local energy group we would not be able to bring the town the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Without the influence of Transition ideas the local environment centre’s program of classes and events might look a lot different. The culture has now shifted for good. Of course there is a million miles to go and few of these ventures may think of themselves as “Transition” but they certainly are in transition.

If we are to take the next step forward it will be into the world of new financial instruments that allow us to invest our pension funds locally. The “self-invested personal pension funds” (SIPPS) are certainly far more useful than any “Collateralized Debt Obligation” that the City can invent. The internal Transition investment model is the new frontier and has a long way to go to reach maturity. We still lack the tools but they will evolve. They must. Rob has built a good evidence-base for his passion for local economics but the argument against “extractive investment” is still weak economics. In a modern economy our pension funds rely upon fossil fuels. Simply using the phrase “absent landlord” does not overcome the fact that landlords are also part of their local economy and have to pay their taxes and salaries there. Let this not be seen as the politics of envy; let it be the overwhelming power of doing stuff locally. Transition is the inspiration for all of this.

“The Power of Just Doing Stuff” is but the latest chapter in a long running saga that will slowly turn our lives around. But the true power is in the inspiration that Transition delivers. It says “things can be different” but, even more than that it says “here’s how”. And that is where the real power is. So… Thankyou again Rob. Another beauty. The more I read books like this the more I know that Transition is on the right path. It seems maybe both strength and weakness that so many people interpret this economic and cultural evolution so differently. It is an experiment and we can afford to indulge some of these new directions. But we should not forget that not everything will succeed. Some of these choices have a future. Some do not. We should know when to move on…

The bottomline? We need more books like this to remind us about what is working. Most of us are sick and tired of what isn’t. Welcome to shit towne. Don’t just sing-along. Do something.

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