The transition towns initiative aims to change the way we approach 'life after oil'. But what do they mean by 50-mile meals, eco-markets and edible landscapes? asks Sylvia Thompson .
YOU'VE HEARD of eco-villages, but what about transition towns? This new buzz term in environmental circles refers to towns which are planning ahead for a time when fossil fuels will be scarce, oil will be expensive and there may well be government taxes on greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of spreading a message of doom and gloom, the transition town movement is upbeat and positive, encouraging local food production, community-based waste management and energy-saving initiatives and local sustainable businesses.
"It's all about resilience," says Davie Philip, communications manager of the Cultivate centre, who has just set up a transition towns network in Ireland. "What we face with peak oil and climate change is a shift in the way we do things. Unless we have some systems in place, it will be very difficult."
Ths transition town was started by Rob Hopkins when he was a teacher of permaculture (a system of "permanent agriculture" which works with rather than against nature) at the Kinsale Further Education College a few years ago. Together with his students, he developed the so-called Kinsale Energy Descent Plan which includes dozens of practical ideas to reduce Kinsale's oil dependency so that it could become a more sustainable town. In 2006, the plan was adopted as policy by Kinsale Town Council and the transition town initiative was given €5,000 to develop the programme.
"WE'VE JUST HAD a Spring Fair in Kinsale which we ran in conjunction with the Tidy Towns Committee," explains Klaus Harvey, a member of Kinsale Transition Town steering group. The fair included an eco-market, environmental workshops at the Kinsale Further Education College and the launch of a local campaign to reduce energy consumption.
"Last year, we hooked up with the Kinsale Good Food Circle for the Gourmet Food Festival in October. We challenged chefs to come up with a 50-mile meal and awarded a prize to the best-tasting dish," says Harvey. Community gardens have also been set up in Kinsale and the group gives talks to children in the local schools. Public meetings are held once a month.
"Basically, it's a re-localisation project because globalisation isn't sustainable," says Harvey. "The whole way we've lived for the past 100 years has been dependent on fossil fuels and the planet is becoming more damaged.
"Ireland is very vulnerable economically. For instance, 90 per cent of our food comes from abroad. The Transition Towns initiative seems very sensible to me and I think 'life after oil' can be just as good if not better because people can lead healthier lives, be more involved with their communities and spend less time stuck in their cars."
It is precisely this optimistic view of a world less dominated by a globalised economy and more driven by sustainable community systems that is attracting people to the transition towns initiative. When he moved from Kinsale, Rob Hopkins brought his ideas with him to Totnes in Devon and in the past two years, Transition Towns committees have formed in more than 40 towns across Britain. Hopkins' book, The Transition Handbook - from oil dependence to local resilience (Green Books), was published last month and is already in its second print run (5,000 copies were printed initially).
In The Transition Handbook, Hopkins suggests a number of things which add so-called resilience to communities. These include local composting rather than central recycling; planting fruit and nut trees rather than ornamental trees (he berates the Millennium Forests initiative as a wasted opportunity); the use of local building materials rather than imported ones; local community investment mechanisms rather than carbon offsetting; singing in a local choir rather than buying CDs and playing football rather than watching it on television.
Hopkins also suggests the transition approach differs from conventional environmentalism in that it encourages group behaviour and focuses on a holistic approach rather than on single issues. According to Hopkins, it also engenders hope, optimism and proactivity rather than fear, guilt and shock as drivers of action. And crucially, it targets the man and woman in the street as the solution rather than the problem.
"It's not a mass movement right now," admits Philip. "And, most people won't listen to this stuff but in five to 10 years' time, they will be glad that some people took these initiatives." Incidentally, the main difference between eco-villages and transition towns is that eco-villages are usually smaller, self-contained groups of homes, businesses and community projects while transition town initiatives attempt to change the structures, approaches and attitudes of entire communities. "The move towards more localised energy-efficient and productive living arrangements is not a choice; it's an inevitable direction for humanity," writes Hopkins in The Transition Handbook.
If that's the case, surely we need governments and business people to lead the way? "The principle of transition is that we do it for ourselves. We haven't got the luxury of waiting for others to get started although we will lobby local and central Government as part of our work," says Philip. "It's also significant that in Ireland, the three Green Party ministers are speaking the same language as we are."
KATE PARK IS a member of Fada, the transition town initiative in Newbridge, Co Kildare. She was one of about 50 people from towns including Carlow, Kilkenny, Tralee, Clonmel, Greystones and Tramore, who attended the first meeting of the Irish Transition Towns network last month.
"We started about two years ago, creating a vision of how Newbridge could be in the future. We decided to focus on food because this is the most vulnerable area. We had an allotment project outside the town but we've realised we need another one that people can walk to," she explains. Fada has also set up a mobile gardening group made up of volunteers who will cultivate people's gardens for them. "We also want to plant fruit and nut trees in a move away from decorative gardens to edible landscapes," says Park.
"What we've found is that people are interested but they can't commit to day-to-day involvement. The concept of peak oil and the decline in supply of fossil fuels and the fact that everything will be more expensive and less accessible hasn't struck people yet," she says.
"It can be confrontational to suggest that this will be the case so we feel we have to introduce the ideas in a sensitive way by focusing on the solutions and getting the community - particularly young people - involved so then there will be lots of benefits for people."
Getting more local people involved in transition town initiatives is definitely the next step. Even in Kinsale, a survey has pointed out that only about 55 per cent of local people were aware of the initiative.
"It's a question of chipping away and liaising with other community groups in the town," says Harvey.
The Irish Times