Book review

The Transition Handbook

From oil dependency to local resilience

Rob Hopkins, Green Books, 2008 £12.95

This book effectively builds on the hope expressed for a positive response to the arrival of ‘peak oil’ in Richard Heinberg’s 'Powerdown’, which I reviewed in December, 2004. As the best hope for the future, he advocated a combination of ‘powerdown’ – cooperation, conservation and sharing – with ‘building lifeboats’ – community solidarity and preservation of knowledge, artefacts, and tools.

The author is a permaculture teacher, and the book, with a foreword by Heinberg and many references and quotes from his as well as many other works, describes the almost accidental origin and fast growth of the Transition Town movement from its precursor, resulting from a showing to his students in Kinsale, Ireland of the film, The End of Suburbia, in September 2004, followed by a talk on peak oil. This led rapidly to the development of Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan - version 1, 2005 (KEDAP), and then its rapid spread through the internet to inspire interest around the word in ‘Transition culture’.

Rob then moved to Totnes, and the first UK ‘Transition initiative’, Transition Town Totnes (TTT) was launched in September 2006.

The book lists 34 Transition Initiatives already adopted by January 2008, nearly all in the UK, but including some in Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, Ireland (Kinsale).

It is arranged in three parts:

‘The Head’, in four chapters, explaining the concepts of peak oil and climate change, and why they must be tackled together; why we should plan for an ‘energy descent’; why we must build resilience, as we cut carbon emissions; and why ‘small is inevitable’ – relocalisation and building local initiative.

Part two is ‘The Heart’, detailing in five chapters how we need to look positively on the possibilities for the future and avoid ‘post-petroleum stress disorder’. We must paint a picture of a positive goal to aim for, to develop the cooperation needed to ensure the resilience to cope with the problems which will inevitably develop.

Part three, ‘The Hands’, in four chapters, details the philosophical underpinnings, the ‘Project Support Project’ concept used, and the relation of Transition Initiatives to local politics. It then suggests ‘Twelve Steps of Transition’, together with seven ‘Buts’, emphasising that they need not follow any particular order, though some are better taken first.

He goes on to discuss the development of TTT and the similar experiences in Penwith, Falmouth, Lewes, Ottery St Mary, Bristol, Brixton, and Forest of Dean – all similar but different!

The book is not an instruction manual; the point throughout is the need to develop according to local circumstances. It does, however, offer many suggestions as well as warnings of paths to avoid. It includes many ‘Tools for Transition’ boxes and useful appendices, including a sample press release and one about Transition Training courses now established.

It also offers contact details for advice, training and help.

One thing I found lacking in the book was awareness of the destructive power of our debt-money system, with its build-up of personal debt, by now, to over £1.3bn in the UK, in addition to business and government debt, and the gross inequality it has advanced. Local currencies are advocated, and the ‘Totnes Pound’ is described as an attempt to promote local circulation of money, which is of value; but this cannot eliminate any of the debts which threaten the collapse of the economy, with widespread failure of businesses and repossessions of houses, etc.

Just as we need to promote awareness of peak oil and climate change, we equally, if not more urgently, need to promote awareness of the role of the debt-money system, controlled by a small elite, in developing the current problems, and the need to reform it to remove the pressures it imposes on society. Without this, I have serious doubts about the potential for longer-term success of the Transition Initiatives. The connections between all three need to be made.

However, we certainly need to develop the local resilience the book promotes, and it should prove a valuable resource for this. Indeed, as far as I am aware, it is a unique resource-book.

Brian Leslie