| Jonny Gordon-Farleigh interviews Rob Hopkins |
To mark the release of In Transition 2.0 — an inspirational film about communities printing their own money, growing food, localising their economies and setting up community power stations — I spoke to Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network and Transition Totnes, about energy ownership, cooperative finance strategies, and how storytelling can change our expectations of ourselves and our communities.
STIR: For those unfamiliar with The Transition Network, could you talk about the reasons it was started?
Rob Hopkins: It was started because at the time, in terms of what a response to peak oil might look like, the only responses you could really find anything about were head for the hills with a shotgun and four years worth of toilet roll and those sort of responses. There wasn’t anything that looked like a compassionate response that was about bringing people closer together rather than shattering them apart.
It also emerged out of permaculture, which is a bottom-up, grassroots and solution-led approach. It questions the idea that you need to spend three years studying soil science to get the soil in your garden right for growing, or that you need to spend fours years studying horticulture to grow salad. Well, you obviously don’t and permaculture is about distilling out the things that we need.
And so, I was teaching permaculture and found out about peak oil. In the green movement you often find that the ideas that need to be scaled-up very quickly across society for it to be ready for something like peak oil — and in order for it to be contributing responsibly to the climate crisis — are actually niche and fringe and quite happy being to be niche and fringe. Permaculture was often quite happy to be down a misty little lane off a smallholding in Wales, and it felt to me that we needed something to coaxed all that out and scale it up really quickly.
Transition, then, was originally designed as a Trojan horse that you could chuck permaculture in. It would also act as a detox for the more affluent West, but that also didn’t start out with a blame culture. We deliberately didn’t start out with saying whose fault it was that we are in this mess, but rather that we are all in a mess, what are we going to do about it? And where do we go from here?
S: Paul Piper of Wind-Works in Germany has recently written, “51 percent of all alternative energy in Germany is owned by citizens and farms”. This energy transition is also an increasingly dramatic power shift from traditional markets and its big players into small-scale and community-owned projects.
Is this change in energy ownership as essential to Transition’s vision as the switch in energy source?
RH: Yes! Transition is about community resilience as economic development and it’s about the opportunities to create even more resilience. For example, we need a certain amount of Gigawatts put in place. At the moment in this part of the country we spend millions and millions of pounds every year paying our energy bills. That all leaks out, but we could pay that money to huge energy companies to put in place new energy infrastructure that we need — and we do need some of that because even if the communities pooled every penny that they had, there is no way they would come anywhere close to what is needed to invest for the energy transition. But at the same time, if we can get some of the communities to invest and own some of that energy infrastructure, we estimate 25 percent could be owned by communities and benefit those communities.
What that does is it starts to build the economic resilience of the place. It means more money cycles locally, and that can create more jobs, more training, and more livelihoods in the area. It starts to become a kind of positive loop in the area. And the same goes with food — we can feed everybody through supermarkets, or we can try and do a lot of that through local food systems which make our communities a lot more economically, socially and culturally resilient.
It’s about plugging the leaks in the leaky bucket. You can achieve the kind of renewable energy infrastructure that we need in such a way that it does that, or you can achieve it in such a way that it doesn’t do that. I think certainly it’s going to be much easier to get a lot of the renewables through if they are owned by the communities, in terms of planning and so on. But why not try and go for the win-win-win rather than just the win?
S: One of the major difficulties in starting up these community initiatives — in energy, farming — is the fact that they are usually capital intensive. Are schemes such as the community shares beginning to fill what is called ‘the capital gap’? And what other fundraising strategies have you seen within the Transition Network that have worked well?
RH: Here in Totnes we have the Totnes Renewable Energy Society, which is about to put in a planning application for two 2.3 megawatt wind turbines on the edge of town. That now has 500 members who bought shares in the community. Then you’ve got smaller things, like in Slathwaite in Yorkshire where the community invested £15,000 to take over the old grocery and turn it in to a community-run cooperative village shop, which is going really well. It’s called the Green Valley Grocer, and what it’s done is acted as a kind of catalyst for all kinds of other things in the area.
Then on the bigger end of it, you’ve got Bath and West Community Energy, which is a different model again, which emerged out of Transition Bath. They got one million pounds of investment from Scottish and Southern Energy, which meant they were able to take a very different model. So something like TRESOC (the Totnes Renewal Energy Society) or the Lewes solar power station and other community energy companies say, invest in us and we will give you a return on your investment sometime, probably in three or four years, we don’t know yet. What it meant with the Bath model, they were able to put up lots of solar PV up around in Bath, in the local schools, and then were able to design and launch their share option and say from the outset you’ll get four percent a year on your investment. This meant people felt sufficiently confident and could start moving their pensions into it — which is kind of the Holy Grail really: Once you are able to start getting that kind of really meaningful investment into these projects.
On the smaller scale you have things like crowdfunding or pledge bank and these kinds of things are really useful. Also Transition initiatives often tend to do quite well in terms of more conventional funding. For example, for the recent energy share thing that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage did with British Gas, four of the five winners out of that were Transition projects. There is a whole mixture of different ways to fundraise, but certainly in the Transition Network, we increasingly encourage transition groups rather than think of themselves as a kind of traditional volunteer community NGO that does cakes sales and stuff to raise funding, to think of themselves from the very beginning as a social enterprise and how they can design their awareness raising as a social enterprise.
Totnes is a great example. TTT now is starting to catalyse a number of businesses ideas and social enterprises in the area. We just had an event called the Local Entrepenuers Forum, which brought together people with ideas, with potential investors and mentors. The idea is as those businesses emerge, they’ll start to tithe back to the centre, and start to create this kind of loop of new businesses and a new economy for Totnes.
S: This reminds me of one of the original principles of the Rochdale Pioneers where the condition of being a cooperative would be to support other cooperatives. When Transition initiatives become economically sound do you envision them supporting each other in the same way?
RH: I don’t think we are quite at that stage yet but it is a great aspiration, absolutely. The Rochdale Pioneers have always been a big inspiration for the Transition Network. You have to remember that Transition has only been around for a few years and in some places it is only a few people, but the time when the Rochdale Pioneers became widely relevant was because they were creating work for people. Once they became a significant employer through the shops or through the farm, the tedious discussions about whether cooperatives are a good idea or ‘why do cooperatives?’ really went into the background because this is where the new economy was based.
I hope this will be the case for Transition Totnes in the next five to ten years, where people will come to Totnes, for example, and not even call it Transition but instead they will come and see micro-enterprises and bigger enterprises connected.
S: Local currencies, global bartering systems and moving money from the big banks into credit unions have all returned as viable alternatives.
How important do you think these initiatives are in supporting Transition? And do you think that we could have the desired transition with the current financial institutions in place?
RH: Well, I have just finished reading Nicholas Shaxton’s Treasure Island about offshore banking. It is hard to imagine quite how you could do it with a system like that in place, where half of all the money in the world is in offshore banks. So, the beauty of local currencies is that you can’t do that. A local currency like the Brixton Pound, or say the Bristol Pound — which will be the first city-wide currency — is that they’re designed to lock-up the sterling so that it can’t leave and they turn it into another currency that has a denomination that has no value in an offshore bank.
So, yes, it is difficult to imagine a successful transition on the scale that is required with the offshore banking system still in place. Before I read Treasure Island I was ignorant of the extent of offshore banking and was horrified by every page. We do need new financial institutions and new ways such as local currencies for creating strong local economies. The great thing about local currencies is that they focus the mind on local concerns.
In addition, we also need a lot more planning protection for communities in terms of multinational supermarkets muscling in and trying to take them over. This has been the experience of a few Transition Initiatives where they are locked into struggles with big corporations who are compromising their local economy.
Ironically, some of the things that will benefit us in the Transition Network are being pushed through the localism agenda by the government. These developments are quite useful to Transitioners and I am not sure the government appreciates the implications of this. For example, the right to buy, the right to try, and neighbourhood-led planning measures are useful tools. Here in Totnes, we have a campaign called Atmos, which is working to take on a derelict site near the railway station and develop it as a catalyst for a new economy — as an incubator space for various kinds of businesses. The owners of the site seem very reluctant because they are conventional in terms of development.
However, measures like neighbourhood-led planning will allow us to cut them off round the back and close down their options. We didn’t have these tools three or four years ago, and some of the tools have emerged almost by accident and there are some we still need to invent.
I still think, though, that the key obstacle to this happening is our belief that we can do it. Generally, the obstacles we put in our way to convince ourselves that we can’t do things can be shifted if you put enough energy into it. For example, when we started the Transition Network, people said to us ‘that’ll never work because…’. In the first Transition book there is a list of seven buts — which were all the reasons people will give to why it will not work. And here we are!
S: The strategy group Smartmeme say if we are to change the world, we have to change the story. How do those working within the Transition Network change the story from competition and growth to cooperation and sustainability?
RH: I think that Transition, in the main part, is about storytelling. When people come to visit Transition they say ‘It’s amazing what you’re doing with the Brixton Pound’. We don’t actually do any of those things! We basically put out an idea and invitation, and when people pick it up they do amazing things. Our role is gathering in those stories and retelling them — and there are some amazing stories coming out of the network.
When we started Transition Totnes, I initially thought of it as an environmental process but I think it has become a cultural process. It is changing the story a place tells about itself and the story here, in Totnes, has really begun to shift in the last five years. Only five years ago it was the wacky la-la land and hippy-dippy capital of the South West. Then about a year-and-a-half ago the Western Morning News, who had previously taken great joy at sniggering down their sleeves at wacky Totnes for the last forty years, ran an editorial Hippy Town Comes of Age. This basically said, ‘Well, maybe they’re right, and maybe we should stop taking the piss because they might be on to something’.
Even local politicians who do not have any serious interest in Transition go out for events in other places and people say, ‘Oh, you’re from Totnes – Transition Town Totnes!’ There is one lady here whose daughter went to Canada and was kayaking in the Great Lakes and saw another boat and thought she would go over and say hello. While they were introducing each other, the other person said ‘Totnes! Transition Town Totnes!’ So telling these stories helps to change the expectations people have, change the conversation, and change what people believe is possible.
Also, Transition has changed the story of the end of oil, from the vision where we will all be eating cats out of dustbins to actually believing that we could do something amazing. We actually have a few different stories that we tell ourselves as a society. Firstly, everything goes wrong and collapses and we end up like the The Road; or, we have a Star Wars techno-fantasy story where we will be flying around on our own hover boards, eating algae, and visiting the moon for holiday; or, we have the business-as-usual approach that believes the future will be just like today but with a few solar panels on the roof. What Transition has done is introduce another story about how it could be and has already started to make it happen.
So, we overlook storytelling at our peril!
S: You have just premiered in Transition 2.0. In the global communities that make up the Transition Network, what inspiring examples and developments have you seen since the last film?
RH: Well, the first film was a wiki-production: we invited people to record their activities, send us the tapes — which we panned for gold — and then made it into a film. This was in the really early stages and while there were a few good stories, there were also projects filming the fact that they had just installed an energy meter! The new film is much stronger and it tells a story: it begins with small projects like the starting group and then it grows and grows.
One of the great stories is of a guy growing food in a neglected, deprived neighbourhood in Pittsburgh. A moving story is about a community in Japan that was affected by the Tsunami and whose response to the crisis was to set up an energy company in Fujimi. There is also the story of the community growing food at Kilburn underground station.
Growing food at Kilburn Underground station
What we are really pleased about is that we are able to include sixteen stories from seven different countries and no one got on a plane. We crowdfunded to raise money to pay local professional filmmakers in each location to do the work.
The film concludes by asking the question: When things become difficult in a community, through economic crisis or natural disasters, to what extent has Transition thinking seeped into the drinking water as a way to inform the response? There are two stories, which close the film, from New Zealand and Japan. After the disasters in these countries, the situation was obviously really tough and it was transitional thinking that got them through.
Rob Hopkins is co-founder of the Transition Network and Transition Totnes.
Read a review of Transition 2.0 and find out how Transition Heathrow are generating their own energy in this issue.