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Rob Hopkins

“A Historic Shift in Conversation”

Transition Network aims at the mind sets of developed countries - seeking to transform the affluent Western way of life.

When Rob Hopkins travelled to Paris for the COP21 negotiations, instead of bringing along dull strategy papers and policy proposals, he presented a book with 21 personal stories of people working together to transform their communities. DDD had the chance to talk to the founder and spokesperson of Transition Network about the state of environmental activism, the power of do-it-yourself, and the exciting search for what we have in common and what we can do together.

DDD: People not yet familiar with the Transition Network's work might soon see you for the first time in "Tomorrow", a French film by Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion. The trailer shows you presenting a banknote of 21 Totnes Pounds, your hometown's local currency. Asked why the denomination is 21 pounds, you answer with a big smile: "Because you can! Why not?" What is the idea behind the Totnes Pound and how does it work?

If we are to successfully avoid the worst of climate change, the level of change (…) runs far deeper than just putting a few solar panels up.

Rob Hopkins: If we are to successfully avoid the worst of climate change, the level of change that we need to see in our culture, in our economy and in our society runs far deeper than just putting a few solar panels up. For us, a founding thought behind transition has always been that it has implications for the scale on which we do things and the way that we organize ourselves as a society and an economy. And as part of that, local economies really matter. The idea that an apple from New Zealand is cheaper than an apple from a mile up the road is just ludicrous. Economists talk about something they call the multiplier effect: If we spend money in our local independent economy – which I would argue is the scale we need to be bringing more economic activity to – much more of it stays locally and circulates locally than if we spend that money in a supermarket. We can think of those chain businesses as extractive industries. They exist not to serve our local economy or community; they exist to extract money and resources from that economy. So the founding idea of the Totnes Pound and other local currencies is, “How can we create a tool that enables us to more pro-actively bring about the multiplier effect?” If I take my Totnes 21 Pound note to the town up the road, it has no value at all. But here in this town it is worth 21 pounds. I can go shopping with it, and I can come home with 21 pounds worth of shopping. But what I leave behind is money and all it can do is circulate locally; it can’t go anywhere else. At the same time, it reconnects people with the local town, its history and its stories. What they love about it, and there is research to support this, is that it also generates more conversations. When we live in a world where nobody has any reason to have conversations with each other, then our society and its resilience begin to unravel very quickly. So local currencies are a great tool for local economies. They are a great tool for bringing about those bigger conversations about how our local economies work. But they are also a great way of encouraging everyday conversations and bringing people closer together.

Local 10-pound note
World-famous musician and a local hero from Totnes: Ben Howard's face on the local 10-pound note.

DDD: I think this is a fabulous idea and I really enjoyed listening to the designers talk about weaving the local culture into the design for the banknotes. Local currencies are featured as one of the 21 stories Transition Network compiled in a book to mark COP21. Why did you take these stories with you to Paris instead of the more standard policy paper?

So what we wanted to do was to celebrate people around the world who have not waited for permission from anyone and just gotten on with it.

Because there were loads of people already doing that and does anybody read them anyway? We felt that the key thing we could contribute to COP21 was some positive stories of what people were already doing. Transition has been an experiment for a number of years now, and we wanted to share some of that learning, some of those stories. Because I think what Transition really does best is capture those stories so anybody can read them and think, “Yeah, I could do that!” When I was at COP and talking to some of the delegates, they said, “We so need these stories.” It felt to me like one of the big learnings from Copenhagen in 2009 was that as a climate movement in the widest sense, we put so much hope and belief into a reasonable decision coming out of that meeting. And when it didn’t, I think our expectations were so high and the result was so weak that it really knocked us all sideways for four or five years. So at Transition we were really intent on not putting that level of expectation onto the process again. Really, if they came up with no agreement at all, we would keep doing what we do with the same degree of commitment and power and energy as we do now. If they came up with the most amazing agreement, we would still carry on doing it. So what we wanted to do was to celebrate people around the world who have not waited for permission from anyone and just gotten on with it. What I think is also really powerful about the book is that not only does it tell these stories; in the first few pages it illustrates some of the real impacts that those projects are having. Together the stories in the book have raised 13 million pounds of community investment in renewable energy. They put a million pounds of local currencies into circulation, cut car use equivalent to driving 2.5 times to the moon and back. Somebody once rather patronizingly said to me, “Oh, Transition. But you are not going to change the world much with a few community gardens.” Actually the 21 stories serve as great examples of the real impact, a measurable impact that is being had, but also of all the stuff that is harder to measure in conversations, the relationships, all that stuff.

DDD: Would you like to share one of your favourite transition stories from the book?

For most people, the very idea that you can change the world around you at all is an enormous step.

I think my favourite is the story from Brussels, “1000 Bruxelles Potager Alhambra Gardens”, because one of the temptations with something like COP21 is to think that as somebody who represents the Transition Movement, I should go and showcase our most impressive, impactful stories. Whereas in Transition we always say, “the smaller projects matter as much as the big projects.” Because people often assume that people undergo this amazing transition and go from not knowing anything about climate change, not being motivated at all, to becoming a 100-percent active, committed climate warrior and setting up community energy companies and local currencies. It doesn’t happen like that. For most people, the very idea that you can change the world around you at all is an enormous step. So what I love about the Brussels story is that it is a small story, it is a small project in comparison to some of the other ones. But it is the story of people living in a red light district right at the centre of Brussels. They live with many of the problems that living alongside prostitution causes. At lot of families live on that particular street and when they bring their children out in the morning to go to school, there are condoms in the doorways and all that kind of stuff. The local council said, “We’ll block this street at one end so that people can no longer drive up and down looking for girls.” The transition group responded, “Well, we could do a bit better than that. Why don’t we make a garden?” So they got together and built a garden. All the people on the street came out to help build the garden. The 13 families who live on the street each have their own bed in the garden. This is not a project that is going to feed the street or even one family on the street. People say it was a part of the city where you just walked through as quickly as you could. Now people stop and talk, now children come out and play in the street.

Bruxelles Garden
The 13 beds of the Potager Alhambra Gardens project in Brussels.

It has inspired other streets around to say, “Hmm, could we do one of those, too? Could you help us?” This has then opened up all kinds of other conversations. There is also a really amazing story on the Transition Network’s website about a lot of the people who started that garden. They gained so much confidence from the project, which led to the most phenomenal community-led response I have ever heard of when the refugee crisis kicked off in Brussels.

DDD: So the network and the bonds were already there. What help or tools can neighbourhoods, towns or communities usually expect when they contact you about starting their own transition project?

Today something like 26 countries have a national hub, like Transition Italy and Transition Germany.

First, there are loads of people who just become a transition initiative and don’t even tell us, which is fine, too. We have an official number, I think it is 13,000 transition groups on the website. But we know there are lots more than that, because lots of people just do it. We offer a two-day transition launch training, which lots of groups do. It gives them the grounding they need to be able to do transition with a greater chance of success. They become part of a network with access to all the online resources we have. In Transition Network, we really try to inspire them with stories from different places. We run a conference every year that brings these groups together to find out what is happening. But from the beginning, we really designed Transition to be as self-organising as possible. There is now a transition group in more than 50 countries. We haven't visited all of those countries. I don't fly, so I have only visited those countries I can reach by train. And I haven't been to a lot of them either, so we do a lot by video conference and that kind of stuff. Today something like 26 countries have a national hub, like Transition Italy and Transition Germany. They are increasingly organizing trainings and help places officially become transition groups or whatever. This independence has been a principle behind it from the start.

Fujino Electric Company
The “Fujino Electric Company” - a “company of people” is ready to provide sustainable energy for the community

DDD: In a different interview you did a few years ago, you told the interviewer that the punk movement and the DIY movement have been great influences on your work and your life, and recounted a story about a flyer that read, “Here are three chords, now form a band.” I thought that was fascinating and really fitting with how Transition Network works today.

“Why don’t you go and do it?”

Yeah, I love that, that sort of spirit. There is a really good documentary about Joy Division and Tony Wilson called “Joy Division”. Wilson set up Factory Records. He was a great story-teller. I don't know how historically accurate this is, but I love it anyway: He recalls a story about the first EP the Buzzcocks released, which was seen by many as the first independent record release, particularly because on the back cover they listed all the costs that had gone into making that record – how much for the studio, the mastering, the sleeves, the label, the travel and all that kind of stuff. This goes together with the challenge, “Why don’t you go and do it?” He tells the story from that record release through to a kind of regeneration of Manchester as a city and I am quite taken with that idea. When I was in Paris at COP21, I went to a meeting organized by “Energy Cities”, a network of mayors around the world who are responding to climate change. The Deputy Mayor of Bristol was there. She set out lots of the different projects that were happening in Bristol, the support for the Bristol Pound and European green capital, and she then said, “Speaking for myself, I can trace most of those projects back to hearing Rob speak in 2007 at an event in Bristol.” When I talk about transition, I always tell people when you stand up to speak, you have no idea who is in the room, how what you say will touch them, and what they might do with that inspiration. You never know where the tipping points are.

DDD: As you just returned from Paris, could you give us a short summary of your thoughts on the COP21 negotiations and the agreement?

For the first time, lots of prime ministers were talking about ending subsidies for fossil fuels; that’s huge.

I think it is really important to celebrate what happened in Paris. I think as activists, our default response is that it is not enough and that is very true. I would never claim that what was signed in Paris is enough, but if there had been no agreement in Paris, we would have lost our last chance for any concerted, global action on climate change. If it had broken down, that would have been it. The agreement goes way beyond what we expected them to come up with. The fact that 1.5 degrees is in there in writing is really important. But I think we often tend to think such an event should produce the perfect agreement, which was never going to happen. For me, what was most powerful about being in Paris was seeing how the language has shifted. For the first time, lots of prime ministers were talking about ending subsidies for fossil fuels; that’s huge. The language is changing, and the degree of cultural support for fossil fuels and their cultural legitimacy is contracting very, very sharply. People like David Cameron who have spent the last couple of years destroying a concerted push for a low-carbon society were just shamed at that event for really being behind the times. So I think there is a lot to celebrate. It opens lots of doors, it opens lots of conversations for the kinds of things Transition has been doing. It brings a huge amount of money into the renewable energy sector. It is a historic shift in the conversation and I think we should really be celebrating that. At the same time though, we should never assume that it is enough. But as I said, even if they had agreed nothing or agreed the perfect thing, I would still wake up every morning and put my energy into making this stuff happen, as millions of others are doing. Still, it was a huge help.

DDD: Continuing in that vein: At a talk earlier this year, you said you used to describe Transition as a response to something, a response to peak oil or climate change, but that you had come to realise it could be framed differently today. How so?

…climate change didn't motivate them. (…) What motivated them was the town, its economy, its history, its young people, its farms, or whatever.

I guess that observation has happened on different scales. Here in Totnes, which is the Transition group I have been involved with from the beginning, after about 5 years we reached the stage where I think everybody in town who was motivated by climate change had either been involved or did not get involved for other reasons. But there were still lots of people in the town who had masses to contribute to Transition, but who were not getting involved because climate change didn't motivate them. Peak oil didn't motivate them. What motivated them was the town, its economy, its history, its young people, its farms, or whatever. It felt like putting climate change up front had become an obstacle. And more widely with Transition Network, I think we felt we had reached a stage where we did not always have to justify what we were doing with a crisis. That what we were seeing happening in Transition was sufficiently compelling, and wonderful, and thrilling, and exciting, that it did not need to be justified all the time by a crisis. We did not need an apocalypse to do the convincing for us, the stories were convincing enough. There is more of an invitation in there now, and I think Transition works at its best when it is always looking for common ground. One of the best things about it is asking, “What do we have in common and what can we do together?” This is not to say that we don’t talk about climate change any more; that we don’t talk about those other issues any more. It is more to say that we don’t start with them.

DDD: I think it appeals to people because it is so focused on local needs and goods.

Jean Dubuffet, a famous French artist, used to say, “Art’s best moments are when it forgets what it is called.” And I think for me, Transition’s best moments are when it does the things that are not expected of an environmental sustainability NGO movement. So things like the REconomy project, creating new businesses and focusing on public health and care, are some of the most exciting edges of Transition for me.

DDD: To what extent has the movement reached developing countries and how does it adapt to different needs and different cultural backgrounds?

…there are other stories of transition happening in Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina.

When we designed Transition, we designed it as a detox program for the affluent West. We were inspired by the “contraction and convergence” model, which is the idea that the developed West needs to move down to a place where it can meet the developing world coming up at a place that is sustainable. Transition has always been designed with a self-organising approach, so we don’t have to chase around making sure stuff is happening. What has been really interesting has been to see the places where it has emerged in the developing world. There is lots of transition stuff happening in Brazil, for example, and there are other stories of transition happening in Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina. There is a lot going on in these places. There are some very active Transition groups in Mexico. One of the stories from Brazil is from a favela in São Paolo, one of the poorest communities there. There is not much in Africa yet, but there is a very good Transition group in Greyton, South Africa. They are generating a lot of interest for more transition in that context.

Transition Greyton Credit
The rehabilitation of a part of the municipal dump site and building of an outdoor classroom in Greyton, South Africa.

For me, it feels like something we do not try to steer. We just observe and support. We are hearing things about some transition stuff starting to happen in China. And I think there is a bit going on in India. But you know there have also been quite a few explorations within Transition about whether Transition is even the right model for those places. There is the excellent “buen vivir” movement, which is about alternatives to development and committing to development in different ways. What I think would be very interesting would be a hybrid that brings the best of Transition together with buen vivir, brings it to La Via Campesina. Ultimately though, Transition was really designed as a way for communities in developed countries to change their sense of what is possible, to adjust their cultures, and try and change the story that the West is transmitting to the developing world about what constitutes progress and what peoples’ expectations and hopes are. And that feels like one of the most important things we can do at this time.

Interview by Patrick Delaney

Photo: “Ten Totnes Pounds” by Rick Lawrence of Samskara Design
2014 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Photo: “garden1” by Bernard De Keyzer
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Photo: “Fujino Electric Company, Japan” by Kazuhiro Hakamada
2013 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Photo: “Older eco-crew children build outdoor classroom” by Marshall Rinquest
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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