Permaculture Visionary: “We Don’t Need to Wait for Permission” to Transform Our Societies

Four years ago, a British educator and permaculturist named Rob Hopkins initiated what has since become one of the most rapidly evolving and far-reaching social experiments of our time. The Transition movement – which encourages people in cities and towns across the world to devise their own unique, local solutions to peak oil and climate change in the absence of meaningful government action – has developed a spirited and devoted following and garnered praise from the likes of Bill McKibben and Richard Heinberg. Rob’s latest book, “The Transition Companion,” looks at how the movement has evolved from its beginnings in tiny Totnes, England, to hundreds of communities all over the world. “The Transition Companion” is available now from Chelsea Green Publishing. Rob recently spoke with Chelsea Green Associate Editor Brianne Goodspeed.

Brianne Goodspeed: The Transition movement began in Totnes, England, and has, in four short years, spread to thirty-four countries and nearly one hundred cities and towns across the US. But it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. For those who haven’t heard of Transition – in a nutshell, what is it?

Rob Hopkins: It is about what you and I – and whomever we can also get involved – can do to make the place we live more resilient, more robust and imaginative, in increasingly uncertain times. As our economies continue to slide, as cheap energy becomes a thing of the past and as the need to actually do something meaningful about climate change grows in urgency, Transition suggests that a large part of the solution needs to come from the community level. It is about creating new food systems, energy systems, new financial models and institutions, in short, it’s about seeing the inevitable shift to living with less energy and less “stuff” as the opportunity for huge creativity, innovation and enterprise.

BG: How has the movement evolved over the last four years?

RH: When I wrote “The Transition Handbook,” which was published in April 2008, it was a pretty speculative book asking “what would it look like if there was a movement which looked something like this?” Over the years since, it has evolved into something quite extraordinary. There are now Transition initiatives in 35 countries and they are doing amazing things. What I did in writing “The Transition Companion” was to go back to the movement the first book had inspired and to observe how it was different now, what lessons it had learnt, what’s working and what isn’t and to gather the stories of what people are doing. It was extraordinary to see how mature and rich it had become and to hear about some of the amazing projects that are underway.

What “The Transition Companion” tries to do is to present Transition in a new way, so rather than a prescriptive “you do this, then you do that” kind of approach, it is now about a set of ingredients and some tools which people are invited to assemble in whichever way suits them best. Each of these ingredients is, in essence, a problem we have seen Transition initiatives encounter and a solution to that problem we have seen enough times to feel confident that it works. You can think of Transition as being like a huge social experiment and this book really tries to pull the learnings from that experiment together.

BG: Where do you see Transition ten years from now?

RH: To be honest, I have no idea! I had no idea when we started it that it would work anywhere, that it would interest anyone, that anything of any use to anyone would come out of it. Yet here we are with something that constantly amazes, surprises and inspires me. In ten years, ideally we would see the idea that change on the scale we are currently seeing it need not be the end of everything, but rather can be the start of something different, which is far more nourishing and fulfilling. At the moment there is still a lot of denial around, by then the situation will be clearer and my hope is that Transition is one of the key tools on the table at that stage that people will pick up and run with.

In my wildest imaginings, I see that by then, urban agriculture will be commonplace, local materials will be the staple for the construction industry, that a huge scale push for renewable will be well underway and, where possible, in community ownership, that local currencies and local investment will be commonplace and that we will all be a long way towards freeing ourselves from the high levels of personal debt we have. Transition would, by then, we part of the air we breathe, a taken-for-granted fact of life, perhaps no-one would even use the word anymore and perhaps the work of Transition initiatives would have evolved to being more like local business incubators, helping to bring a new, more appropriate, more locally-focused economy into being. One of the quotes in the book is from the sleeve notes of “1969: Velvet Underground Live” and it says, “I wish it were a hundred years from today (I can’t stand the suspense).” I like that.

BG: How did this idea come to you?

RH: Like most great innovations in music, by asking “what happens if I put this with this?” I worked as a permaculture teacher and found out about peak oil and wondered what applying permaculture principles to responding to peak oil might look like. I think of it as being like what happens if you put, say, the beats from old James Brown records with the guitar bits from Led Zeppelin records together and thereby create a whole new genre of music. There was something similarly playful and creative about bringing different ideas together that now underpin the Transition concept. The right people tended to come along at the right time.

BG: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve seen come out of Transition – either from a specific initiative or the movement in general?

RH: Hmmm. There are lots. Most weeks there is at least once when I look at something online, or something I get sent and think “wow.” There was the first launch of a Transition initiative in Brazil, in one of the favelas in Sao Paolo, one of the poorest parts of the city. Shamen, rappers, elders, children, all coming together inspired by what Transition might look like in that context and to celebrate all the things they had already done. There’s Monteveglio in Italy, whose Council passed an amazing resolution dedicating them to resilience, to “promoting values of frugality and simplicity.” There’s Lewes in Sussex which raised £310,000 to turn the roof of their local brewery into the UK’s first community solar power station, which the brewery celebrated by brewing a commemorative beer called “Sunshine Ale.” In terms of the larger movement, I guess it is the incredible things that happen when people give each other permission to do extraordinary things.

BG: Name one initiative that – when you hear about what they’re doing – you get really excited about.

RH: Totnes, as it is the place I live! Having kicked it off six years ago, I am continually awed by its energy and its vision.

BG: What are some of the challenges people have encountered over the last four years as they build this movement?

RH: One of the key challenges is the idea that we can do this without paying attention to how our groups function and how they design themselves. Sometimes people are so swept up with enthusiasm that they neglect to do that, and as a result the groups can struggle to communicate, to function, to pull together. So giving time at the start to getting that right is time very, very well spent. I guess also how to fund this, especially as the projects become increasingly ambitious and look on a greater and greater scale. At Transition Network we are currently working to create a revolving loan fund for this kind of scaling up, so as to enable these things to get up and running. Also, there is the fact that most of this work is voluntary and we all have lives, kids, jobs, houses and a million and one calls on our time. Yet it is amazing to see, in spite of that, the extraordinary things people are doing. Personally it gives me tremendous hope. I think one of the biggest lessons from looking at what has happened over the past four years in the Transition movement is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they are inspired. We don’t need to wait for permission.