Day 6 – Rob Hopkins, Designing Pathways from Oil Dependency to Local Resilience

Rob Hopkins is founder of Transition Town Totnes, the first transition town project in the UK. Transition Towns (now referred to as Transition Villages) are an emerging approach to enabling towns/villages to prepare for peak oil and climate change and act as catalysts for the community to explore how the end of the age of cheap oil will affect them. They are based on the simple assertion that life beyond cheap oil and gas could be preferable to the present, but only if we engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination.

I was delightfully surprised at the intelligent humour of Rob’s presentation which began with a skit featuring two seasoned ladies trying to come to grips with the idea of the transition town concept coming to their community. Very refreshing!


Rob then shared his incredible story with us and gave us lots of practical tools and creative ideas, along with the 6 principles of the transition movement which are:

1. Visioning
2. Resilience
3. Inclusivity
4. Psychological Insights
5. Appropriate and Credible Solutions
6. Awareness-Raising

Rob-f.jpgRob began by sharing a little about his background. When he was 21 years of age, he visited India and Pakistan and at that time knew nothing about sustainability. Something resonated with him in India about how they’d developed and incredible system of agriculture high up in the mountains, where people ate fresh, unprocessed foods and they were healthy and happy. It was for him an extraordinary place, the happiest place he’d ever been.

On his return home, he stumbled onto permaculture and became involved in what Joanna Macy calls holding actions, activist/ protest work. In 1996, he moved to Ireland. What fired him was Bill Mollison’s permaculture movement which advocated that the most sustainable and responsible thing you can do is build your own house and grow your own food. So he did just that. He went, as he puts it, from being useless to moderately useless. He and his colleagues started a centre called the Hollies and set up the first two-year permaculture course in the world which still runs today. Everything was going well, then there were two big shocks that rocked him:

1. Peak oil – he didn’t see it coming.
2. The house which he’d lovingly built burnt down.

These two things combined took the ground out from under his feet.

First, Rob addressed the question of peak oil. Oil allows us to do 100 times more work. We have no idea of the value and energy of oil. The peak is when the supply can no longer meet the demand. Rob then demonstrated what’s happening in the North Sea. We start using the biggest oil fields first because they’re the cheapest to exploit first, so you get your money back quicker. When the bigger oil fields start to deplete, we use the smaller and smaller ones. We peaked a couple of years ago in the North Sea. All the new technology that’s been brought in — pumping carbon in, pumping water in, sideways drilling — has made no difference and we see the same pattern in country after country. Over 60 of the 98 oil-producing nations in the world now are on the downward part of the slide.

Rob said that when he first watched the film, End of Suburbia, he thought, ‘who would design suburbia anyway,’ and then realised he lives in suburbia, it just doesn’t look like suburbia, but he has to drive his children to school, drive to the shops, drive to visit his friends…. Even if he didn’t drive a car, he thought, ‘Is this small, conservative area that I live in what I would want to be my main source of cultural stimulus? And if I’m sitting here with my fuel forests and my garden and my zero carbon house, while in the village up the road they’re all freezing and starving, what are my options? Am I going to sit at my gate with a gun to protect my interests? Is that an attractive option?’ His initial response was of me, mine, then he realised it’s about coming together not running away.

Rob then sat down with his second year students in Kinsale who’d also gone through this cathartic experience and explored what it would mean for Kinsale if they were to make the transition from being dependent on oil to being independent of oil. So they started researching and holding open spaces, talking to people in the community, running various events, visiting different farmers and growers, and so on, and started the process going. There were no models at that stage. Rob read Richard Heinberg’s book, Power Down and David Holmgren’s book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

Rob-c.jpgWhen his house burnt everything was thrown in the air. Peak oil felt like positive disintegration. He could see the world much clearer and what came out of the process in Kinsale was the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan — an action plan for food, medicine, transport, education, etc. They imagined what it would look like in 2021 if they pulled this off and backcast from there. They really didn’t know what they were doing, Rob admits, but they produced a report, held a conference called Fuelling the Future, put the report online and it started to go all over the place. People started to get in touch as if it were something they were really waiting for. At that point, Rob was considering moving back to the UK, the idea being to take the process further and deeper.

Next, Rob began to address the principles of the transition model. The first principle – visioning is the power of creating visions for the future and painting them in such a way as to entice and draw people. Renowned scientist
and visionary, Peter Russell, talks about visions as being like a whirlpool in front of you that draws you to it. Rob thinks this is something in the environment that we fail to harness, particularly when we talk about climate change. We paint a picture of something ghastly and then try to persuade people that they really don’t want to go there, rather than painting a picture of a low carbon world in such a way that you can almost smell it and taste it, and the idea of not dedicating your life to moving towards it seems fairly hollow. Part of what Rob’s team has been doing is playing around with this vision. For instance, they’ve been playing around with creating newspaper articles from the future as part of their Transition Tales work. For example:

Example 1: From the Sun 2014 – The top TV show at the time is called Celebrity Love Allotment where they take 10 celebrities and lock them on an allotment until they’ve mastered growing 10 vegetables to a sufficient level of proficiency.

Example 2: Hello Magazine 2029 – piece about David and Victoria Beckham retiring early to pursue their lifelong passion which is growing heirloom vegetable varieties. At that stage the trend among celebrities is to build smaller houses than one another. So the couple built a cob house. Chart-topping singer, Letitia Lloyd is experimenting with the earthship in Essex and Charlotte Church’s roundhouse in Wales is a highly individual celebration of hemp construction. At the end of the article it says, David and Victoria are as ever fashion trailblazers, darlings of the post petroleum age, snuggled up together on their heated cob bench with a bowl of fresh mixed salad from their garden and David muses, ‘When I look back at photos of us 20 years ago, given all that’s happened since, I have to wonder as I sit here on my warm cob bench, ‘what were we thinking?’

Creating visions is so important. And it’s where we really need to start with this work, Rob urges. This leads into the second principle – resilience which Megan Quinn touched on in her presentation. What Rob was seeing in India, all those years ago, was resilience. This is the ability of an ecosytem, individual, or community to withstand shock from the outside. So that when you encounter shock, the whole thing doesn’t just crumble to dust. We saw in the year 2009 when the lorry drivers went on strike that we don’t have any resilience. It’s been dismantled in the last 40 or 50 years. Wildlife conservationist, Aldo Leopold, said, ‘The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.’

We look at peak oil and climate change as separate issues. Peak oil is a challenge of liquid fuels, how we’re going to get them from other places. The Hirsch Report in 2005 said we’ll just get them out of coal to liquids, gas to liquids — biofuels — we can get them anywhere, but from a climate perspective Rob thinks we’re toast if we go down that road. The Stern Report which came out the year after talked about the economics of climate change and said that we can keep economic growth going and we can deal with climate change, but on page 185 it said there are enough fossil fuels in the ground to meet world consumption demand at a reasonable cost until at least 2050. In a couple of years we’re going to see Stern 2 which puts those two things together financially because when you overlap those two things there’s a middle bit which is about cutting carbon with an unprecedented degree of urgency, while at the same time building resilience. If there’s one thing you take from this talk today it’s that you have to do those two things at the same time.

When we talk about climate change and say that we have a 2 degree limit that we must stay under, we don’t have that luxury. What happened in the Arctic last summer was of scale in terms of melting. We saw stuff that was not supposed to happen according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for another 80 years! It’s happening now and we haven’t even got to 1 degree. So we don’t have room to play around. What would it look like at the end of the day if you went to bed sequestering more carbon than you produced that day? We have to ask the questions. Our actions are underpinned by our questions.

Thomas Homer-Dixon in his book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, says that in a resilient system, individual nodes (like people, companies, communities, countries) are able to draw on support and resources from elsewhere and they’re also self-sufficient enough to provide for their own essential needs in an emergency. In our drive to hyperconnect and globalise all the world’s economic and technological networks, we’ve forgotten the last half of this injunction. We’re going into a time where we need resilience.

Rob-b.jpgTo illustrate the principle of resilience, Rob told us the story of a man named George Heath, a gardner living in Totnes, who up until 1981 worked on a piece of land that had been used for food production back as far as there are maps. He grew fruit and vegetables and flowers and sold them to a shop on the High Street that you could see from the garden. This is a system of food feet not food miles. George was a source of education and wisdom for other people who grew. The garden provided seeds for people who wanted to garden. It provided the freshest, lowest carbon food you could get. If you go to Totnes now, chances are you go to Heath’s nursery carpark underneath which lies what used to be Heath’s garden.

We see the same thing up and down the country — that resilience that was in place covered with tarmac or even worse, built on.

Part of the process Rob finds fascinating is ‘what we’ve had and what we’ve lost.’ He grew up with the idea that life without oil was about rolling around in the mud and sticking little boys up chimneys. There’s alot we can reclaim from the skill that people had, the thrift, how things were made to last. He thinks we have to honour people like George Heath because although he was seen as behind the times, he was really ahead of them. Anything we do as a response to peak oil and climate change has to be about cutting carbon and building resilience and those two things have to go hand-in hand in what we decide to do.

The third principle – inclusivity. Rob realised the importance of this after reading David Holmgren’s book and seeing him put permaculture back in the frame, saying, ‘permaculture is the design science for a post oil world.’ It’s applied common sense, it’s a good design and David argues it so convincingly and passionately. This made Rob look around and say, ‘well where is the permaculture movement at this juncture, given the scale as we stand on the threshhold of The Great Turning? Where are we?’ Rob felt that this was a call to the people up the misty lanes and up in the hills, and everywhere, a call of ‘We need you — come back here now. What you have learned, pioneered and developed is what is needed back here now. ‘

It felt the same to him as it did after the fire had taken his house and he and his family had to rethink their lives and what they were going to do. It was actually a push — what he’d been doing was the right thing, wrong place. It needed to step up a gear.

Rob also felt that permaculture was notoriously difficult to explain and that we needed to bring all these skills and tools under the radar so that they are accessible. The transition movement is a kind of Trojan horse. It’s a way of making these things implicit but not explicit. People who have a permaculture background get the transition movement because it’s based on permaculture principles.

The idea of inclusivity is not enough though — it’s not enough for the green movement to talk to itself. It requires something like the 1939 wartime mobilisation, bringing in all these groups we would not normally work with — churches, schools, political groups, etc. The transition movement is a vehicle for pulling us all together to face this. In Totnes Rob’s worked with businesses, landowners, schools, and the transition movement is successful there because everyone feels like they’re a part of it, so inclusivity is a key ingredient.

The fourth principle – psychological insights is really underpinned by Joanna Macy’s work. In fact, Rob’s own background is based in a Buddhist perspective. He thinks that when we give someone a copy of The End of Suburbia or video to watch at home, alone, in the dark we are being irresponsible. This is really distressing stuff — we need to acknowledge that and design in ways that provide some level of holding. The fact that we are able to read miserable books about climate change and then go out and grow carrots was the exception rather than the norm.

Rob-d.jpgRob then drew on a Buddhist analogy from 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar, Shantideva’s, book, A Guide to the Bodhisatva’s Way of Life, where he talks about these trees that drop poison berries in the forest, but there are peacocks who live in that grove. The peacocks can eat those berries and transform them into beautiful plumage. So part of what the transition movement does is it takes these twin potentially ghastly issues of peak oil and climate change and transforms them into something enticing and positive. We try to develop this idea that you go to hear a talk on peak oil and climate change and you come away feeling fantastic or exhilarated. It’s why the transition movement is growing so quickly because people can explore these issues in such a way that feels held and they feel part of something really amazing. American author, Richard Bach, used say, to bring anything into life, imagine that it’s already there. You just start doing it — live as if The Great Turning is already underway. Part of the transition process that’s really vital is having a heart and soul group. What they do is offer pre-transition counselling (similar to post-traumatic counselling). For a community that is about to go through a transition on this scale, what would it look like to get the counselling first?

The fifth principle – appropriate and credible solutions. The film, An Inconvenient Truth, paints this picture of climate change and at the end shows what you can do — change your bulbs, drive an economy car, etc. Come on! Rob exclaimed. There’s a whole range of what you can do at home and all else we have to lobby the government to do. There’s also a whole range in between which is what you can do if you get together with people on your street, in your community. There’s a huge amount of latent power there that we can tap into. There’s a project happening now in Totnes in response to last year’s shut down of Dairy Crest, their big milk manufacturer and main employer in the town. The property is an 8 acre site in the middle of Totnes right next to the railway station, which runs down to the river. Transition Town Totnes, along with other organisations, is creating this idea of a sustainable business park. We need to be thinking some big solutions here. We need to think like developers to make things happen on a large scale.

The final and sixth principle – awareness-raising. What we’re seeing in communities up and down the country is this amazing creativity, this playfulness that’s coming out to support this work. In Totnes we unleashed the transition model with an historic evening designed in such a way that everyone will look back on it as the moment it all started. This process has to have a feel of history to it — we’re making history here — this is The Great Turning! The official unleashing is the thing people will put plaques up to in 20 years as the time when it all began.

Community projects may include, for example, taking unloved areas of your towns and making them useful by planting trees and then offering tree guardian training so the people who live nearby can look after them. Other things Totnes did included fundraising for relevant books for the library to be used as resources, running courses, holding events, teaching people how to make their own films to document their transition process and putting them on Youtube, teaching courses on the ‘great reskilling’ as Rob calls it. Rob often argues that we’re the most useless generation that ever walked this planet, in terms of making things last, repairing things, growing things.

Totnes has also brought together local councillors to explore various issues and, as a way of working with local businesses, has created a vulnerability audit which is a risk assessment tool, showing where they use oil and where they are vulnerable. According to Rob, it’s a really fascinating process. They’ve even trained people in the community to be able to do the audits. They also run swap shops where they get together and swap their waste with each other. They run a ‘states in transition day’ and Rob teaches a 10-week evening class called Skimming Up for Power Down, giving people thinking and practical tools. They’ve also set up home groups who support each other through making these changes in their lives. They’ve launched a local currency scheme, the Totnes pound, which is honoured in over 70 shops in the town. It’s an amazing awareness-raising tool. They’ve launched a local food directory, weaving people back with their local food producers. They’ve brought the Transition Tales work to local schools. This work is about transitioning forward — they ask the students, what would it be like in, say, 2030 if you woke up and this had happened? What would it feel like, sound like, smell like, what would you have for breakfast? They the invite the students to produce news broadcasts from the future. The work is really important in allowing them to think forward while holding them in doing that.

So, what’s next for Totnes? They’re setting up a transition Town Totnes construction company that can take on some of the projects and act as a training centre in these new ways of building. They’re establishing a Totnes currency company to deal with finances. They’re founding the Totnes Renewal Society which is a model for investment in local renewable infrastructure.

On a national scale, there are now 45 formal transition projects in cities and islands. They’re working now on incredible range of scales — 42 in the UK; 1 in New Zealand; 1 in Australia and there’s a second lot they call mullers (those trying to decide whether or not to become a transition town) — there’s over 700 of those.

All of this has happened by word of mouth and through the internet, Rob says. We nudge it and it unfolds so different parts of the country become hubs, like Sussex and Lewis. They’re also seeing the emergence of a national hub; a self-selecting and evolving system.

We’re designing for viral growth. Marketing guru, Seth Gooding, talks about unleashing the ideas virus. Why has the movement grown so fast? Rob believes it’s because it’s grown into a vacuum. There’s clearly something you can do about peak oil and climate change that feels great and you don’t beat yourself up about it. You come together with other people and it’s exhilarating.

Rob says they are developing Energy Descent Action Plans — making that a much more thorough process. He feels they shouldn’t read like your normal dull plan. Your action plan should read like a holiday brochure for a low-energy future. It should have transition tales like he showed us woven through it. After you’ve finished reading it you should feel that you can’t imagine dedicating your time to any other future. At the moment, they’re trying to figure out how to do this and how to develop scenarios with the community that really engage them.

When we assess how we’re doing carbon footprinting, Rob says, it is what we need to look at but it’s not enough on it’s own. We need to also assess resilience. They’re developing resilience indicators and weaving them into their Energy Descent Plans. What do transition businesses look like? Governments? Hospitals? Schools? Universities? At the core of all of it, it’s cutting carbon and building resilience.

Transition is about asking some of the uncomfortable questions:

* What does our work and life look like at a one ton level?
* What does our spiritual practice look like at a one ton level?
* What do our relationships and family life look like at a one ton level?

Rob-e.jpgIt’s about seeing within that process the opportunity to do something magical and wonderful. Richard Heinberg often says the sooner we start living in that way, the gentler the transition is going to be. What is it that we cling onto anyway? 1961 was the year consumerism made us happiest and ever since then, the amount of stuff we consume hasn’t had that much effect on our happiness. We just become more and more in debt to something that makes us less and less happy.

Part of this process is to take people’s hands and lead them through The Great Turning. It’s an inevitable transition and what we can do at the local scale is read the terrain in great detail. Jonathan Dawson talked about the ‘frenzy of playful wantonness.’ That’s what we need in this process, to make it playful, fun. It can put on different hats and talk to different people. French painter, Jean Dubuffet, said, ‘Art does not lie down in the bed that is made for it. It’s best moments are when it forgets what it’s called.’ Rob thinks our activism around the time of The Great Turning needs to do the same thing.

Transition is a catalyst. It doesn’t come in with the answers. It puts the power in the hands of the people. It’s a simple set of tools and principles and people experiment with them. As Joanna Macy said, would you want it any other way? Would you want someone to come in with the answer and work it all out for you? It’s such an adventure working all these things out.

Rob closed with the following quote from French novelist, essayist, and dramatist Albert Camus:

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.

To find out more about Rob and his work, visit:

Coming soon, a second presentation by Richard Heinberg and a transcript of the speech of Richard Lochhead, MSP, Scotland.

– Mattie Porte –

Photographer: Sverre Koxvold

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