WISE & Transition

(WISE Event ‘Transition Towns Comes to London’, Conway Hall, Tue 16 Sept 2008, w/ Mike Grenville, Rob Hopkins & others)

Maybe some will appreciate a word or two (!) about the recent most excellent WISE event – Transition Towns Comes To London…

First I’ll summarize the two presentations (1). Then the debate and session that followed (2). Then a quick word about what seems to be happening with the Transition network in London already (3), something that we could all be involved with, one way or another, should we so wish. Please skip the vastnesses of text as required. Congratulations in advance if you get through it all.


Mike Grenville (Changing Worlds) spoke about oil, about our scornful attitude to using energy and about the peak in oil production that seems to be around about now. He talks about the proliferation of energy intensive fantasy visions of the future mid last century coinciding with the peak in oil discovery. We hear about how small a blip the oil age has been the story of civilised humankind. There is a salutary discussion about quite how much water is required for so many of our foods. (30 litres for a tomato… and often in countries that can ill afford it. Also a shockingly high virtual (or it could be called hidden – the water does exist) water use per head per day in the UK, c4500 litres or something). He discusses the danger of military solutions for securing the ‘last hours of ancient sunlight’ [oil!] and of the Western attitude towards the Middle East and ‘how did our oil get in their sand?’
Concluded with a poem, we heard the notion that even if only a few of us build a bridge to the future, everyone can use it. Which was a nice way of putting it.

Rob Hopkins (Transition movement, author of Transition Handbook) introduced the Transition idea. It was a well presented and generally positive talk. I don’t wish to summarize what is, in effect, the opening chapters of the Transition Handbook, which is excellent by the way. And much of the talk used the principles in the Handbook as a framework. But here’s what happened in his talk:
Rob begins with comparing oil to the magic potion in the Asterix comics. The amount of energy in oil is entirely astounding when compared to human labour, and for the price of it is pretty close to magic. He suggests that instead of thinking of peak oil as a glorious rise to the peak of the curve followed sharp and painful descent into chaos, discomfort and hellishness, it is probably much better to think of it as a dive into deep dark murkiness followed by a wonderful resurfacing from the depths into glorious sunshine where we can refill our bursting lungs with sweet, fresh air. And humanity can get on with living without all this racket, filth and precariousness. Yay!
We hear him wonder why future visions in films are either techno-lands (Gattaca (my addition), I Robot etc.) or apocalyptic (Mad Max, Hardware (sorry, that’s my addition too, a bit obscure)). Why not lovely post-oil bucolic paradise instead? Except no elves (my addition too. apologies, I’ll stop now). The point was that visions of the future that inspire us to get started, that excite us are what might help the most. We hear of the power of dreaming, and the importance of trying to leave an audience feeling euphoric after these talks. He terms this Future Visions, and suggests asking people to imagine the world in 2030 using all the most positive things that they’d like to see. We can use this.
He talks about the surprising consequences of scarcity of oil. Eg for a local business it might be that staff can’t get in to work any longer. Falling at the first hurdle, in other words.
We hear about the concept of urban market gardens, and what a good idea they can be, and effective (productive!) use of urban spaces.
Rob goes into the psychology of all of this. Shocking to hear of the changes to our lifestyles, maybe. Pre-change counselling was introduced as an idea, and the idea of tapping into people’s current enthusiasms.
We hear about the various local currencies, eg the Totnes Pound, and the Lewes Pound which was launched very recently.
The heartening notion of reskilling was discussed, that we need to relearn simple skills. This should be fun and good for us generally, though. Also collective buying, eg for solar panels in a street.
The role of local government and authorities is very important, and essential that they, and we, are aware that their role is to give support, to enable, rather than to lead, initiate or, heaven forfend, manage the process.
Finally, cities in particular. Rethinking space. Seeing them as a collection of villages. The wonderful part of all of this is the imagination and adaptability that can be unleashed. We hear of how the need for alternative approaches in the past (eg needing to increase domestic food production during WWII) led to a mass of creativity. Which is quite exciting.

Overall the sense was that there are big changes ahead, but that not only can we see them as positive ones, but that if we do then this attitude will be infectious and we’ll save the world. Hard to argue with. Hard to do. But fun. And imperative.


Next there was a brief panel discussion. Various starters of Transition places in London took to the stage to join Mike and Rob. It was interesting, but hard to summarize.
The questions included: What are the first steps? How to deal with London-wide distributed social networks at the same as small local networks/areas? Is there an ideal size for a Transition community?
The answers included: read the book (for sale), or the primer (free to download), ideal size is the size that you can manage, if you want to start then go!
The message was that it was a learning process, that each community has ownership of their own transition, that we are all learning, that it isn’t a polished system that you simply apply to your community, but it’s a pocess, a journey, an adventure.
Hearteningly, particularly in response to the idea that it all sounds rather exhausting, and aren’t we all a bit busy anyway, and (shudder) am I going to have to do all this myself?, Rob says that the process seems to have a momentum of its own, that once started then it all hurtles utopia-wards under its own steam (well, almost).
This is a vital part of it all. It is a positive business. Future visions are constructive and up-beat. We encourage people to say what they like, what they are in favour of, what works. And not what they don’t like, what they oppose, what they are against. Campaigning for, not against, in other words. It’s convincing stuff.


Finally we were all asked to clear the hall and arrange ourselves around the place according to the part of London we lived in. Which was interesting. Then people who had Transition places already underway, started or just thought of, held up cardboard signs. I was delighted to meet the man who help up a TTHackney sign. Now, I didn’t get many details for these various initiatives, because I was talking to Hackney. But there were many. And many stories that people had to tell. At the very very least there is:

TTHackney (tthackney@gmail.com), Haringey, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Tooting, Camden, Brixton, Kingston… it went on for many more than this.
But there was much interest, and many more will probably start. The expansion of the Transition network is rapid. There are 400 Transition places already launched. 900 thinking about it (not sure if I have this right… need to check, sorry). Those launched include Bristol, Totnes, Isle of Wight, Forest of Dean, a town in Japan, many smaller places.
Many of these London ones are considering splitting themselves up into smaller bits. Which made a lot of sense. We all wondered whether these splits meant that we would isolate ourselves and not benefit from the collective enterprise. There are surely many ways to avoid that, we concluded. The atmosphere was positive, most folk very excited about all of this. Many people are clearly thinking about it already.
In addition there are other schemes, old and new, afoot which will overlap in many ways. Such as the Letts scheme. The Eco Village Hackney + e-news thing. A Lee Valley conservation and nature thing. Growing communities. All these things link in. But I don’t need to tell all of you that.

The End

It’s the beginning, so it seems. A very positive feel from the event, generally. I don’t mean to turn this into an advert, though, so I’m going to stop at a relatively unmodified account of what actually happened, and not my (endless) interpretations. And that was what happened.

Well done the WISE crowd, and Polly, and the Transitioners thus far.

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