Monday, April 28, 2008

Transition books reviewed by New Zealand EcoVillage Founder

This book review will interest some of you - by physician friend Joanna Santa Barbara, formerly of Hamilton, now (with husband Jack Santa Barbara of Sustainable Scale etc) launching an EcoVillage in New Zealand/Aotearoa. - (Posted to by Bill Curry)

How should we live? Three book reviews
by Joanna Santa Barbara, Atamai Village Council, Motueka

The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, by Rob Hopkins (Totnes, UK: Green Books, 2008).

Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, by Daniel Lerch (Sebastopol, USA: Post Carbon Press, 2007).

The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2004).

Are you looking for inspiration and ideas to transform your town, city, neighbourhood into a vital community, producing its own nutritious food, supplying its own energy, resilient to expected shocks of climate change and energy depletion? All three of these books offer therapy for those suffering from ‘post-petroleum stress disorder’, to use Rob Hopkins’s apt phrase, or from climate-change catatonia.

There is no doubt that a soul can get shaken to the core by facing the realities of the multiple ecological crises facing our planet, together with descent from ‘peak oil’ production, and now also threats to global financial stability. Facing uncertainty in many dimensions, a very strong argument can be developed for a risk management approach. The potential gains are greater and losses are fewer in preparing for the worst than by hoping that life will proceed as usual indefinitely.

But what does such preparation look like? Some folk are electing to start ‘from scratch’ to build the infrastructure of communities that can work in a post-carbon, climate-unstable future – the sustainable villages movement. Others start where they are, planning to convert both structure and function of their towns, cities, islands and regions in the direction of sustainability and resilience to shocks. These initiatives will all surely complement and aid each other. These three books are about the conversion of existing urban areas.

The difference between the books is that Rob Hopkins (UK) describes the movement from below, the grassroots, the people’s initiative; Daniel Lerch (North America) directs his recommendations to local governments, that is, to city councillors and town planners; James and Lahti (Sweden) begin with local authorities and move to a democratic community development process. The three books fit very neatly together. Their visions are strongly compatible. Their approaches are sufficiently different to make reading all three worthwhile.

The UK and North American books begin with an overview of the problems of ‘peak oil’ and climate change.

The Swedish book begins with an explanation of the Natural Stepfour principles of sustainability which will be applied to the structure and function of towns and cities. These are: In the sustainable society, Nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust
2. concentrations of substances produced by society
3. degradation by physical means and in that society,
4. human needs are met world-wide.

It can be readily seen that such principles lead directly to limiting fossil fuel use (responding to both ‘peak oil’ and climate change issues), use of natural materials, organic agriculture, systematic protection of all ecosystems, as well as attention to justice and equity. These fundamental markers of sustainability underlie and guide a great range of derived principles and strategies.

Community resilience is an organizing principle of Rob Hopkins’s thinking about Transition Initiatives. He foresees shocks to human settlements from oil decline and climate change and asserts that the features that enable resilience of a system to shocks are diversity, modularity and ‘tight feedbacks’.

Diversity refers to kinds of people, connexions between them, kinds of land use, kinds of economic activity.

Modularity refers to the capacity of parts of the system to self-organize in the event of a crisis.

Tightness of feedback concerns how easily the system registers when things are going wrong or right.

A resilient community will be self-reliant for basic needs, although it may benefit from trade relationships for nonessentials. The community will be capable of feedingitself, providing its own energy and water. It will build with local materials and have a strong local economy, possibly with a local currency. There is therefore a focus on smaller-scale communities – town
or neighbourhood-sized.

A strong feature of Rob Hopkins’s book is his inclusion of many ‘tools for transition’, teaching devices and exercises for groups working in this direction. Both his book and the James and Lahti book deal with the psychology of change, recognizing that the change in values and attitudes required to build resilient, sustainable communities in harmony with the biosphere requires major shifts for most people. Those who want to move to action on transition in their own communities will find the pathway mapped by Rob Hopkins extremely helpful, even though it is recognized that each community will tread a unique route. To whet the activist appetite, his suggested twelve-step programme is:

1. Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset.

2. Raise awareness.

3. Lay the foundations by networking with pre-existing groups and activists.

4. Organize a ‘Great Unleashing’, an inaugural event.

5. Form groups around major theme areas, for example, food, retrofitting houses, energy, land use.

6. Use meeting strategies that maximize inclusion of the ideas of many people, and release creativity, such as ‘Open Space Technology.’

7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project, such as a community garden or a structure built with local materials.

8. Facilitate the ‘Great Reskilling’, recovering dwindling skills for survival
in a low-energy future, for example, food preserving, composting, scything, tree grafting.

9. Build a bridge to local government.

10. Honour the elders, who have experience in living at lower energy and
material consumption levels.

11. Let it go where it wants to go.

12. Create an Energy Descent Action Plan.

One might add to the latter step, create a plan that also includes adaptation to climate change, water problems, and sea level rise if that is relevant to the site.

All three books agree on the sectors of needed action, although each has different emphases. Lerch, writing for city councils, begins with urging cities to join global networks of other municipalities working in the same direction and to sign the Oil Depletion Protocol as a city, in order to reduce vulnerability. He goes on to say, ‘Deal with transportation and land use (or you might as well stop now)’. He charges city councils with responsibility to encourage energy conservation in private use, assertively engaging the business community ‘to reinvent the local economy for a post-carbon world’.

His slogan is ‘Reduce consumption and produce locally.’

He cites several case examples of cities on the way to adaptation to a post-carbon world.

The Swedish book by James and Lahti is organized by sectors of action: renewable energy, transportation, housing, green businesses, ‘eco-economic development’, ecological schools and education, sustainable agriculture, waste, land use and planning. The book is rich with case studies. The approach is being used in scores of towns and cities around the world, including the city of Christchurch, and is also applied by businesses. It is perhaps the most extensively applied of the three approaches.

While Rob Hopkins’s book focusses primarily on the process of change. he does examine specifically the envisioned sectoral changes in food and farming (with emphasis on the merits of Permaculture), medicine and health, education, economy (with emphasis on the merits of local currencies), transport, energy, housing. There are several case studies of Transition Towns in progress, and many examples of creative ‘visioning’, as recommended by the writer.

The Transition Towns approach is being rapidly adopted by scores of UK towns and about 35 New Zealand towns.

I found all three books to be potent sources of learning and will return to them many times in the future. I have a couple of criticisms.. The first is a failure of the Hopkins and Lerch books to place their creative recommendations in the very big picture of inquiring about the scale of human impact on the region or bioregion of interest: ‘How much human economic activity, of what kind, can this segment of the biosphere cope with without degradation? How many humans, at what levels of consumption, can it support?’ It is possible that we may reduce consumption significantly and still continue to degrade the place we live in, though at a slower rate. The answers to these questions are not easy to come by, but we need to know.

Secondly, we need to get our minds around working out an economy with a steady-state material through-put, that is, no material growth in the economy. This idea clashes seriously with the prevailing assumptions. All the more reason it needs to be incorporated into our ideas of envisioning and moving towards future resilient, sustainable communities.

That said, all three of these books provide a feast for those wanting to take action on these issues. Judging by the entries on the Transition Towns website, this group of folk and the list of towns in which they live are multiplying by the day. Networks of interest are:

New Zealand Transition Towns

Living Economies, Aotearoa/New Zealand