Local currencies, nut trees, survival skills

Can Transition Towns save us from climate chaos and peak oil?

A few weeks ago, the climate activist and inventor Dave Wilks told me he’d hit on a new way to describe the warming of our atmosphere: it’s equivalent to nearly five Hiroshima bombs exploding per second, he told me, and the rate is rising exponentially.

As a journalist I’ve been privileged, and often depressed, to meet scientists and activists such as Wilks who have dragged climate change up the political agenda. And I’ve seen for myself some of the effects of all that extra atmospheric energy – extreme weather events such as last month’s floods in which I waded up to my knees.

I’ve also spoken to experts who believe there’s another threat facing us, no less significant than global warming: the end of oil. Our lives depend on ever-increasing amounts of cheap energy, and synthetic petroleum by-products, and when oil production peaks we’re in trouble. Some believe that will happen by 2010. After that, economic collapse will lead to literally billions of people starving to death.

In the 1970s, families abandoned the UK because they feared being wiped out by Russian nukes. That dreaded event didn’t happen (yet) but I’m aware of two such families, in the Bahamas and Australia, who don’t regret moving out. I’m not aware that anybody left London out of fears relating to the Y2K computer bug, but I would not be surprised to learn that people upped sticks as a result of Sars, or bird flu. And it seems to me that the combined threat of climate change and “peak oil” is more menacing.

In fact, I’m starting to wonder about getting out of here – taking my wife and daughter from London before the trouble starts.

In this I take my lead from the Biblical patriarch Lot, whom Genesis records as having sensibly quit Sodom before it started to rain fire and brimstone; but also from the environmentalist George Monbiot, who turned his back on Oxford last year, in favour of rural Wales.

In the three years since I first started to worry very much about climate change and “peak oil”, I’ve done a fair bit to address the problem. I changed electricity supplier, ordered local food to be delivered to my doorstep in a cardboard box, and replaced my light bulbs. I bought an electric car, protested outside shops that kept their doors open in winter, and even devised an entirely new model for Britain’s energy infrastructure – a community energy cooperative.

Having sent an outline of my idea to virtually every politician I could think of, I found myself delivering an hour-long briefing to John Gummer, leader of the Conservative energy task force; and addressing a dinner of my local Liberal Democrats, who raised the idea of the energy co-op at a meeting of the local council and won unanimous backing for it.

More recently, I got hold of several Electrisave meter readers, and leafleted hundreds of neighbours offering to lend them a meter at no cost so that they could monitor and reduce their domestic energy use. Only seven took up the offer, but – undaunted – I persuaded the local vicar to host a public meeting. Apart from the vicar himself, and a loyal friend of mine who belongs to the Green Party, only one other person turned up – bless her.

I mention all this not because I want congratulations – nor commiserations – but because I daresay that many others are doing similar things, and probably feeling no less downbeat about the results. Certainly, they’ll have been discouraged, as I was, by a Defra survey published this week [on 15 Aug], showing that a quarter of the population still think it takes too much effort to do things that are “environmentally friendly”.

But there is hope. In the last few months, I’ve become aware of a growing movement of people across the country devising creative solutions to the problems facing us. Over the same period – and this is important – I’ve started to notice quite how many fruit trees and shrubs are growing in the streets near my home in northwest London – but more of them later.

The Transition Town movement was started by an Englishman, Rob Hopkins, after a stint working as a teacher in Kinsale, in Ireland.

“I had never heard about peak oil,” Hopkins says. “But then I showed students a film, The End of Suburbia, which I’d never seen, and at the same time Dr Campbell from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil came to talk. I have to say it was as traumatic and shocking for me as it was for the students. One of the other members of staff said to me, ‘What has happened to your students, they’ve been walking around looking grey all week!’

The film, and Campbell, made clear that no aspect of life will be the same after oil runs out.

“When we got over the shock we set about looking at the town of Kinsale. We examined how the town might look in 20 years if it adapted to peak oil instead of pretending it wasn’t happening.” The project lasted for seven or eight months. “We came up with a plan, a vision of how the town would be, and then backcast it to see how to get there, year by year.”

Returning to England, Hopkins launched helped to create a similar “energy descent” plan in Totnes, Devon, and the Transition Town movement was born.

It’s grown incredibly fast. A year after Totnes launched, individuals and groups from 176 places have registered to become Transition Towns, with more coming on board all the time.

The first, Totnes, Lewes, Glastonbury and Stroud, were full of middle-class hippy types (or as Hopkins puts it, “places that traditionally have been laboratories for alternative ideas”). But in Bristol it’s the poorer districts that have been most dynamic. And in Wales the impetus has come from the agricultural community.

“If we don’t do anything,” says Hopkins, “there are all kinds of grim scenarios. But I like to think of those as like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future – just one possible scenario.”

The environmental movement, he believes, has been guilty of putting people in a place of despondency and guilt. Transition Towns are positively trying to move towards something.

“Realistically, only a very small percentage will think that that life beyond abundant oil could be preferable to where we are now.” Does he believe that? “I don’t think it will be a dark age but the most extraordinary renaissance.”

As Hopkins sees it, we need to engineer a certain degree of wartime mobilisation. “But how do we bring that about, when it’s not going to be initiated at government level? A lot of the drive will have to come from communities.”

The idea that solutions to civic problems should be provided by communities is popular with all the main parties at the moment.

“This is an issue that goes completely beyond party politics. At Transition Town Totnes we talk to the WI and the Conservative Association as much as we talk to the usual suspects. Our Conservative MP, Anthony Steen, has been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.”

The concept that is central to transition towns is building resilience. “We have been doing work with people who remember the 1930s and 1940s, people who say it would have been insane to eat apples from New Zealand. Back then, all the food came from near the town. We don’t have that resilience any more. In the lorry strike of 2001 we had only three days of food in Totnes.

“This is about doing things that come in under the radar. We’re building a parallel public infrastructure. We have the Totnes pound, which we launched recently. We have circulated 4,500 in one month. You don’t have to subscribe to peak oil and climate change to think that is quite sweet and fun.” (Hopkins recently gave a Totnes pound to Prince Charles, who cheerfully approved.) “But what it does is put in place something that is absolutely essential, because it stops wealth leaking out of the community.”

More than 70 shops have agreed to trade with this parallel currency.

“When we launched the Totnes pound 160 people turned up, and they all got one for nothing. So at the beginning of the evening they were all waving their money in the air and laughing and exhilarated. I thought, here are people who are concerned about peak oil and climate change and they’re having a great time. The possibility embodied in those notes is exhilarating. We have only really started to scratch the surface of presenting these issues in a way that makes people feel optimistic.

They also planted nut trees throughout town. “Nobody can object to that, but it raises awareness about food security and local food. And we are not standing in town with placards talking about ‘them and us’.”

It sounds impressive. I think I may settle in Totnes when I leave London. Does Hopkins approve?

Not really. Until recently, he concedes, people like him believed the most responsible thing to do was to move out, build a house and grow your own food. “But when I found out about peak oil I came to question that. We had built our own house, and were growing our own food, but I thought, this was only going to be sustainable if I am prepared to sit at the gate with a shotgun. What do I do with my carrots if the village up the road is cold and hungry?”

A little lugubriously, I point out that if cities don’t get their act together on climate change, and temperatures rise by six degrees, even people with remote smallholdings will be wiped out by great fireballs of methane shooting across the sky.

“We have to move towards collective solutions,” Hopkins agrees cautiously. “Peak oil is a call to those of us who have been out in the highlands to come back and help because the skills are very much in demand now.”

He points out that individuals and groups in major cities such as Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool have shown considerable interest in joining the transition network. Bristol has already launched.

“Bristol has 800,000 people. Will it work on that scale? We have no idea, we’ve never done it before. It may be that in five years we will say it only works in market towns. But everybody who tries to run with it is contributing to the research. This is the biggest and most important research project in the UK at the moment.”

Inspired and enthused, I travel across London to a health-food café to meet Duncan Law, an actor and director who parked the day job months ago to devote himself full time to launching Transition Town Brixton.

I tell Law he’s the only model I have for somebody trying to set up a Transition Town in London. He grins: “Your worst nightmare!”

Has Law considered quitting the city? “I don’t seriously think about leaving. I have lived in Brixton for 20 years, a lot of my friends are here, and have always thought that my challenge was to bring some sort of sustainability to the urban environment.”

There are roughly 67,000 people in Brixton and Law’s group has only 350 names on its email lists, not all of them local. Is there really any hope?

“Brixton is huge,” he concedes, “but it’s a place that has a certain pride and oomph and creativity. People here like to be in the vanguard. It’s also very diverse, with a lot of people who couldn’t care less and indeed refuse to care less. But we carry on trying. We do have excellent projects in Brixton. There’s a fairly passive solar building built by Bed Zed and Lambeth council. We have Brockwell Park Community greenhouses. And there’s an initiative to do composting.”

The café where we meet, Honest Foods, has a policy of sourcing food locally. Law asks for a word with the chef, says he knows somebody with a vast crop of pears in their garden and would the chef be interested in buying them? Amazingly, the chef says yes at once. On a roll, Law mentions the revival of the local alternative currency, the Brick, and a pioneering “loyalty card” for corner shops promoted by the man who previously set up The Big Issue. This time the chef sounds interested but not quite ready to sign up.

We set off for a tour of Brixton: Law on his recumbent bike and me on my foldaway with tiny wheels. If we look odd together, the effect is increased by Law stopping every so often to collect apples that have fallen from trees. Over his shoulder, he tells me about an entrepreneur who made £4,000 in the early 1950s – more than Law’s headmaster father earned in a year – by commissioning children to gather blackberries for him. Transition Town Brixton, he reveals, is currently mapping fruit trees across south London.

Near Balham, we visit Sue Sheehan, a Transition Town supporter who holds meetings with neighbours “like Tupperware parties” to share eco ideas. She recently started growing fruit and veg in boxes in the tiny space in front of her terraced house. I’m impressed by the quantity, and the sheer variety. But I still haven’t got the hang of how to be upbeat about peak oil and climate change and ungraciously tell her that the crop, though plentiful, will not be enough to keep her alive when the trouble starts.

A week later, I return to south London for a screening at the independent Ritzy cinema of the latest consciousness-raising film promoted by Transition Town Brixton. A few weeks ago, the cinema’s education officer tells me, more people turned up to see a film about peak oil than bought tickets for Ocean’s 13. Tonight’s film has attracted the largest crowd yet.

The Power of Community is a short documentary about what happened to Cuba after Soviet oil supplies dried up and the US embargo curtailed other imports. It shows how Cubans gradually turned from heavy reliance on carbon-intensive agriculture: all kinds of urban spaces were cultivated, from window boxes to wasteland. The transition took several years, and Cubans had to forgo the equivalent of a meal a day – but by the end even people in cities were producing half their annual fruit and vegetable needs.

It’s an upbeat film, and the audience is clearly impressed. Many will later give names and email addresses to Law, and hang around to speak to him in the bar. I fear that the film may have glossed over any incidents of vandalism, or plundering, but in the question and answer session afterwards Law introduces a guest speaker, author Andre Viljoen, who indicates among other things that there seems to be little evidence of that type of crime.

Viljoen also points out that the idea of urban agriculture has started to move mainstream – an exhibition at Tate Modern includes an installation by an artist, Fritz Haeg, comprising an “edible estate” on previously contaminated land outside the gallery.

Conventional agriculture, Law announces, uses ten calories from fossil fuels – for transportation, pesticides, fertilisers – to produce just one calorie in food. “That’s plainly unsustainable. Every lettuce you grown yourself saves growing another one miles away and shipping it to you, and all the emissions associated with that.”

Before we clear the auditorium, a man with a beard points out that there’s a long way to go. “There are people out there with fruit trees who don’t bother picking the fruit. We have to teach them how to do that again.”

The point is well made. Next morning, I rise early and gather a stepladder and my three-year-old daughter for a spot of urban gardening. Without crossing more than one road, we manage to pick ten figs, a plum, and innumerable blackberries. By next year we may have planted some trees and shrubs of our own – but only if the methane fireballs haven’t torched us first.

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times