‘What people do when they’re driven is extraordinary’

As a new feature film showcases one of the most innovative and rapidly expanding social movements of our time, Caspar Walsh catches up with the man who started it all: Rob Hopkins

Regular readers of Positive News will have seen the dramatic, unfolding and rapid success of the Transition movement over the last seven years. For the uninitiated, it all began in Devon in 2005 when Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande set up Transition Town Totnes. The aim of the group was to help the local community adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and dwindling supplies of cheap energy, becoming stronger and happier in the process.

What is a Transition Initiative?

Transition initiatives (which can be villages, towns, cities or other regions) are community-led responses to climate change, inequality and shrinking supplies of cheap energy. Transition Network, a UK-based charity, focuses on the issues at a global level and supports these communities in building resilience and happiness.

Rob envisioned an opportunity for expanding the basic principles of his work as a permaculture teacher, designing sustainable ways to live, into a much wider sphere. Soon other communities began to take notice of what was happening in Totnes, and in 2006 Transition Network was founded as a supporting organisation for Transition groups around the world, providing training, resources, and networking opportunities.

Totnes led the way with initiatives such as Transition Streets, where neighbourhoods came together voluntarily, to pool resources and ideas to find the best way to collectively reduce their energy use. Totnes produced the UK’s first ‘energy descent plan,’ a comprehensive document charting how the community can reduce its energy use step by step. Similar plans are now appearing across the world.

Meanwhile in Lewes, the first locally-owned Transition power station has been established; a large solar installation on the roof of a brewery in the Sussex town.

The Transition movement as a whole has now developed an increased focus on economic issues. New local currencies instigated by Transition groups have popped up in Totnes, Lewes, Brixton and Bristol, which help to keep money in the local economy.

Transition Network reports that globally, there are more than 1,000 communities adopting the Transition approach, from towns in Australia to cities in Brazil and rural communities in Slovenia. Philadelphia in the US for example, has used a vegetable growing initiative not only to create a local source of fresh food but to help regenerate an entire neighbourhood from dereliction into a thriving backyard market garden, bringing once split communities back together.

With the aim of charting Transition’s evolution, the film In Transition 1.0 was released in 2008 and this year sees the release of the much more in depth exploration of the movement: In Transition 2.0.

Caspar Walsh: How did you make the leap from teaching permaculture to the global vision that is Transition?

Rob Hopkins: I found out about peak oil and thought teaching permaculture is all very well and inspiring, and it contains all the pieces of the jigsaw we need for a post oil world, but it’s still far too niche and marginal. And often it is this way because it chooses to be. I felt we needed to accelerate the principles very quickly, so it was my intention to take those ideas but to design them into something that could work much more successfully in mainstream culture.

Why produce in Transition 2.0 at this time?

We realised Transition had taken a significant leap forward from where it was when we did the first film and we found a whole load of new stories and signs of global development. The world had started thinking about Transition in a very different way and we wanted to reflect that.

With In Transition 2.0 we are into some stuff that is much more involved and much more impressive. There are some stories there that bring a lump to the throat; this film is a much richer emotional experience.

Do you believe there is still time to prepare for the global changes that you’re predicting?

If you mean preventing the change in the climate, no, because that’s already happened. If you mean do we have time to avoid catastrophic runaway climate change, then just about, but it will require an extraordinary effort to get ahead of the curve on that.

If you mean will we have time to prepare for peak oil and be resilient to that, I think it will be very tight but I do think it’s possible to produce something remarkable with the challenges we’ve been presented with. It will require an extraordinary response, of which Transition is just one part. I would never claim that Transition alone could achieve the scale of change we need.

Knowing the scale of change needed, what gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you forging ahead and staying positive?

From the kind of stories that are in the film and in the book, and from seeing what people are doing in practice. Paul Hawkin put it very beautifully. He said: “If you read the climate science of today and don’t feel pessimistic you haven’t read it properly, and if you encounter the movement of people who are doing something about it and you’re not deeply moved and inspired by that, then you don’t have a heart.”

That’s where I tend to sit really. And also I try to avoid the question, “are you an optimist or a pessimist?” I think we all fluctuate between the two. It’s seeing what other people do when they are driven and motivated to do something, that is just extraordinary. You look and think “my God, have a look at what’s happening in this part of the world! They’re doing a Transition unleashing in a slum in Brazil or setting up an energy company in Brixton.”

What would you say to individuals who want to help make this shift possible? 

Well I think the reality is they probably already know. If you haven’t already done so, find other people around you who can support you in the shift you want to make. We all just dash about saying “oh I must do that,” but never have or make the time. I’d say, intentionally carve out some space in your busy lives and give yourself the permission to do it.