2009 Transition Conference Report

The 3rd national Transition Conference was held at Battersea Arts Centre on 22nd-24th May 2009. This is Craig's report on it for The Friend magazine.

The Transition movement has a good claim to being the fastest-growing social movement in the UK. From its origins just 4 years ago in the small town of Totnes in Devon, it has grown into 170 'official' Transition initiatives, with hundreds of others at the 'mulling' stage across the UK and in over other 30 countries.

Still most widely known as 'Transition Towns', the movement is increasingly growing beyond its English market-town origins, to develop models of Transition initiative for every scale of community from villages and islands to major cities such as Bristol and Sheffield.

The Transition movement is a community-based response to the challenges of climate change and 'peak oil' - the imminent steady decline in world oil production that threatens an unprecedented worldwide energy crisis.

The Transition movement's approach to both climate change and peak oil is the building of community-based alternatives to our energy and carbon intensive society. Many other environmental movements have focussed either on promoting individual lifestyle change or campaigning on government policy. By contrast, much of the tremendous energy and enthusiasm that has been unleashed by the Transition movement is largely due to its emphasis on local communities getting together to work out what they can achieve together.

Such community-based initiatives take a huge diversity of practical expressions. They include local currencies such as the Lewes pound, local food growing projects, renewable energy generation from wind, water and biomass, low-impact housing and 're-skilling' in practical skills such as food growing and hand crafts.

In all of these activities the emphasis is on building the local community's 'resilience': their ability to meet essential needs for food, heating, transport, health and education without dependence on fragile and energy-intensive global supply chains.

But the Transition movement also seeks to create a vision of a lower-energy society that could be more satisfying, more socially connected and more equitable than our current oil-addicted society. The movement sees itself as 'a midwife for the emerging culture we need so urgently, the one that lives within its means and is more nourished and satisfied for having done so.'

More on the Transition movement at: http://www.transitiontowns.org/

An 'Open Space' Conference

This was the 3rd annual conference of the Transition movement, attracting about 400 people from Transition initiatives across the UK, and also from continental Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. On Friday afternoon Ed Miliband, minister for Energy and Climate Change, also joined the conference as a 'keynote listener', taking part in several of the workshops.

The conference used the group process known as 'open space' to generate many of its sessions. Every participant was given the opportunity to host a round-table conversation on a theme of their choosing. Participants offered a dazzling range of over 150 themed conversations throughout the weekend; from preventing burnout to dealing with conflict, home composting, engaging with local Councils, creating local currencies, reaching faith groups, and rainwater harvesting. Attenders could choose to stay with a particular table for the whole open space session, or drop in and out of different conversations at will.

On Saturday evening the conference was opened up to the public of London for a dramatic presentation of the main steps in setting up a Transition Initiative, from awareness raising and re-skilling to the development of an 'energy descent action plan' for a whole community. This aimed to enact the whole process of 'transitioning' a community through a mix of creative media and group exercises. These included short films, group discussions, an interview with an 80-year old London resident (to illustrate the principle of 'honouring the elders' - learning from their experience of life before consumerism), and a huge ball of string to weave a web of connection between people with skills to teach and those wanting to learn them.

The huge range of workshops on offer meant that it was impossible to attend them all, but the workshop on local currencies by Oliver Dudok van Heel of Transition Town Lewes was one of the highlights.

The Lewes pound was launched in September 2008 with an issue of £10,000, which sold out in 3 days. There are currently 30,000 Lewes pounds in circulation, which can only be spent in local and independent shops in the town, with the aim of encouraging people to support the local economy.

Oliver pointed out how typically 80% of money spent in large chains such as supermarkets immediately leaves the local economy to global suppliers, contractors and shareholders. By contrast money spent in small independent shops creates more jobs and continues to circulate within local supply chains. Although local currencies such as the Totnes and Lewes pounds currently have a very limited economic impact, they are seen as pilot projects to help people to understand how their spending affects the local economy.

Lewes pound notes are printed on genuine currency paper, complete with watermark and an engraving of Thomas Paine, a former Lewes resident, with the quotation from his writings, "We have it in our power to build the world anew."

Transition Town Lewes are planning a new, larger issue of their local currency soon, which will include a £21 note.

A 'Cheerful Disclaimer'

In a brief talk on Saturday, Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition movement, gave participants what he called a cheerful disclaimer:
"If anyone has come imagining that Transition is a system that is all worked out and you can just take it off a shelf and it will work for your community - it's not like that. This is something that we are making up as we go along, that is constantly growing and changing, absorbing new ideas and ways of working."

He called the Transition movement 'a sign of the immune system of the world kicking in', and the beginnings of a 'detox' from our society's addiction to oil.

For many of the participants I spoke to the Transition movement offers a way of moving beyond their fear and despair about the current ecological crisis, and coming together to create positive possibilities. "Taking that fear and doing something positive with it", and "not waiting for anybody else to fix things for us but getting on and fixing them ourselves."

Or as one woman told me "When my grandchildren ask me if we knew what we were doing and why we let this happen, I want to be able to say that yes I knew, and I did everything I could."