Book review: The Transition Handbook - Rob Hopkins

Sep 11

There is a powerful current in our contemporary, post-industrial culture that is arguing for a simpler, more sustainable alternative to our wasteful, environmentally damaging way of life. Proselytisers rely on a varying mix of three sets of arguments: the environmental challenge posed by climate change, the energy supply challenge posed by peak oil and, finally, the spiritual challenge emerging from the newest science on personal wellbeing (in a nutshell: beyond a certain point more money and stuff doesn’t make us happier.)

Rob Hopkins’ Transition Movement is pragmatic attempt to come to terms with the disruptions that are heralded by climate change and peak oil. Thoughtlessly addicted as we are to fossil fuels, our societies are ill equipped to deal with the adverse implications of energy scarcity and a hotter, less predictable climate. According to Hopkins, what we need to develop is resilience: the ability to deal creatively and locally with energy supply and environmental shocks.

The Transition Handbook is a hands-on guide to help communities make that transition towards a resilient, low-carbon future. It is useful to distinguish three layers in the book.

The first layer encapsulates the three main parts of Hopkins’ argument, focused on the head (the facts about climate change and peak oil you need to know), the heart (the need for positive vision and commitment) and the hands (practical guidelines for enabling resilient communities).

The second layer consists of a range of design principles that can be relied on to shape resilient communities. For example, in preparing for an energy-scarce future we need to know that resilience relies on a small scale, modular and decentralised infrastructure. We also need to invest in high-quality productive relationships, integrate rather than segregate and use the creative edges of systems to make the most of their potential. There are many more of these principles that have been lifted from an eclectic mix of disciplines, including systems science, ecology and the psychology of change. Hopkins himself was deeply influenced by the permaculture movement, a radical design approach to constructing “sustainable human settlements”.

The third layer features a range of practical solutions that comply with these design principles. These solutions are meant to be the cornerstones of any resilient community and include a template for working towards a more energy-thrifty (“energy descent planning”), decentralised energy generation, local food sourcing, re-skilling of consumers into creative citizens and local currencies.

Transition thinking is not only a theory but it is also a social movement and the book features a number of UK examples of communities that have started going down the path towards resilience. Hopkins is acutely aware that the governance of the Transition movement needs to mirror the design principles underlying resilience. It would hardly be credible and effective to embody a Transition movement by a tightly-managed, centralised bureaucracy. So, Hopkins is only willing to give pointers to help people in facilitating bottom-up, small-scale, self-steering initiatives. Lots is left to emergence and action learning (”... where it all goes remains to be seen ...” is an often used phrase in the book).

The Transition Handbook is an accessible, smart guide to helping us deal with the challenges we may face as a result of climate change and peak oil. In itself the book doesn’t offer anything new, but it rearranges familiar pieces of a puzzle into a compelling and coherent approach towards learning again to help ourselves and to do more with less.

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