I’ve meant to write before about the Transition Initiative, which is in my view one of the most radical things happening in the UK at the moment – radical because it is local and community-oriented, radical because it is a thought-through response to both impending energy shortage and climate change. (If only the government was as coherent). Now the movement’s ‘founder’, Rob Hopkins, has written a book which is a combination of handbook, textbook, and manifesto.

The UK Transition Movement was started in Totnes, where Hopkins now lives, in October 2006. Since then, according to the blog, 43 places have signed up in the UK and a few more in Australia and New Zealand.

In the book, Hopkins describes the transition principles thus:

  • That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise;
  • That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil;
  • That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now;
  • That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways ofliving that are more connected, more enriching, and that recognise the biological limits of the planet.

From a futures point of view, a couple of things are striking.

The first is the speed of the growth of the Transition Initiative over just eighteen months – yet this has been almost invisible in terms of the political and media mainstream (probably just as well for the health of its development as a network).

The second is the emphasis on political change and fun – shades of DH Lawrence’s famous poem, A Sane Revolution – which for me links it to the more playful radical tradition which emerged in the mid-60s.

The third is the extent to which it has drawn on the use of futures techniques, especially visioning, to help the transition communities develop their desired future for their localities. It may be the largest visioning project in the UK right now. A whole section of the Handbook, “The Heart”, is about building visions, and the rationale for this is, “We’ve become so used to campaigning against things that we have lost sight of where we want to go”. Visioning, Hopkins notes, “has the added beneift of counteracting despondency”. There’s also an inspirational story about how a vision-based approach was used to prevent the development of an important local site in Lewes, one of the transition towns.

The book itself is broken into three sections, “The Head, “The Heart” and “The Hands”. The ‘Head’ section is about building the evidence for looming energy shortage, The Heart is about visions for alternatives, and The Hands is about the skills needed to bring those visions to life. As Hopkins observes, in terms of craft and physical skills, we may be the least competent generation in the history of the planet. The luxuries of cheap energy (and cheap technology) have deskilled us. The future will involve the recovery of some of these skills – a task that could easily take a generation. But this will also need better tools – by which I mean tools which are more accessible and more repairable; more ‘convivial’ in Ivan Illich’s exploration of the term. It’s worth exploring this a little further. In a well-known passage, Illich wrote:

I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.

Illich proposed the pursuit of ‘conviviality’ as a way of remedying some of the defects of industrial society. The Transition Initiative suggests that this will turn out the other way around. The combination of peak oil and climate change will expose the defects (energy dependency) of industrial society; we will need to recover his convivial tools to make good – or go under.