Totnes is an ancient market town on the mouth of the river Dart in Devon, England, It has the well-preserved shell of a motte-and-bailey castle, an Elizabethan butterwalk and a steep high street featuring many charming gift shops. All of which makes it catnip to tourists. A person might initially be lulled into the belief that this was somewhere with as much cultural punch as, say, Winchester.
Bubbling below the surface, however, is a subversive hub of alternative living, a legacy of the radical goings-on from Dartington Hall, just down the road, where Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst’s vision of a rural utopia gathered steam in the 1920s. Indeed, there are more new age “characters” than you can shake a rain stick at, more alternative-therapy practitioners per square centimeter than anywhere else in the UK and the town was once named “capital of new age chic” by Time magazine.
My family moved here when I was 10. A child of relentlessly suburban mindset, I found the town’s granola outlook unsettling. I balked at the indigenous footwear worn by Totnesians — multicolored pieces of hand-stitched leather called “conkers” — and longed for a world where it was not atypical to own a TV and talk about Dallas rather than nuclear disarmament.
My fear growing up in this neck of the woods was that people would continue to get even weirder. So it was probably just as well that I had left when Rob Hopkins arrived in 2005 and let loose the Great Unleashing, aka the launch of Transition Town Totnes (TTT).
Six years on, the Transition initiative, which attempts to provide a blueprint for communities to enable them to make the change from a life dependent on oil to one that functions without, seems to me one of the most viable and sensible plans we have for modern society. I write this on the day it is announced that the UK economy shrank by a “shock” 0.5 percent in the last quarter of last year. Everyone is blaming the weather. Hopkins isn’t. Neither is he particularly shocked.
“I think the unraveling of the debt bubble has only really started,” he said. “Up until 2008 it was all about a growing economy and cheap energy. Then we had expensive energy plus economic growth, then we had cheap energy and economic contraction. So the next phase is volatile energy and economic contraction. It’s not rocket science.”
Hopkins was in Kinsale, Ireland, working as a teacher of permaculture — a sustainable, design-based horticultural technique where growing systems mimic the ecology of the natural world — and establishing an eco village, when he attended a lecture on “peak oil” in 2004. It was his Damascene moment.
According to theorists such as Richard Heinberg, whose tome The Party’s Over charts life without oil, we have passed the point at which oil supplies peak (that was back in May 2005). From there on in oil production declines and we attempt ever more audacious land grabs to get it.
However, oil remains the lifeblood of our economy and lifestyle. What happens when the oil runs out or is disrupted? In 2000 UK truck drivers brought the UK’s food chain to its knees by blockading oil terminals. At the height of the protest the UK was 72 hours away from running out of food. If there were scant emergency measures in place, there was absolutely no vision of a life after oil.
Hopkins began to see how dependent he was on his car, to ferry his kids around and get to work. As a constructive response he began to develop an Energy Descent Action Plan for Kinsale with his students. They looked for historical examples of when the area had been more robust, more resilient to shock changes, such as when it had possessed a more localized food system. The plan split life up into categories — energy, food, transport, homes — all of which had their own solutions.