For a guy who set out in 2005 to help his small Irish village move toward an economy beyond fossil fuels and ended up spawning a world wide movement that in five short years has lead to 323 Transition groups around the world, Rob Hopkins sure is humble and unassuming.
We sat down recently with the no-fly-zone leader for an interview via Skype straight to the beating heart of the Transition Network nerve center to find out just where TN is now in its development, and what makes Hopkins tick.
His take on the wildly rapid success of the Transition Town model? He laughed and shook his head saying, “It’s mad, isn’t it?”
It’s also the only truly worldwide distinct movement and replicable model that offers guidance on creating a comprehensive community response to the predicaments of our times.
But in spite of the madness of it all, one of the first things we learned is that Hopkins has no aspirations to be the Sun Myung Moon for the church of the Transition converts. The very nature of individual Transition Town initiatives is to be run locally, with participants crafting the best solutions for their locality based on the needs of the area, the people involved, and the culture of the region or nation.
For Transition groups seeking guidance on development, TN serves as a hive for continued cross-pollination among its founders and staff located in Rob’s current home, the Devon town of Totnes in England. It’s also a source to export ideas, suggestions, and inspiration worldwide. But Hopkins and crew reserve a fair share of their work for the continued development of their own Transition Town Totnes, including the release this year of their exemplary energy descent plan.
Currently on their agenda is the question, “How do we scale this thing up?” while at the same time letting local folks do their own thing. It’s a fine balance.
Meantime, those uninitiated about the Transition movement just want to know what it is, where it came from, and what it means for them.
Roots and shoots
Drawing inspiration from his training as a Permaculturalist, Hopkins looks to the cooperative, self-correcting, adaptive facets of nature—the most notable of which he says is the rainforest—as a model for organizing community around the Transition principles and model.
Now, I remain a bit baffled as to how the violence evidenced in nature does not seem to be a part of the Permaculture perspective, but Hopkins says it’s because Permaculture doesn’t necessarily draw on everything it sees in nature. It just draws on what it can use. To me that’s a bit of an incomplete picture, and a blind spot given what Transition aims to accomplish. But hey, I didn’t accidentally launch a positive and inspiring worldwide movement, so what do I know?
Created as a response to the triple threats of climate change (now going by the name global climate disruption), economic collapse (now ducking its proper name, “Great Depression, The Remix”), and peak oil (now going by the name Oh Sh@#!!), Hopkins sees the Transition model as an empowering alternative to fear and immobilization in the face of seemingly overwhelming predicaments about the future that are actually already happening.
Yes in my backyard (YIMBY)
Hopkins says awesome opportunities exist for people to become engaged in simple ways at the local level to strengthen their communities, build infrastructure, learn new skills, and step down from the industrialized world and all the alienation, materialism, sickness, and environmental destruction it has yielded.
Hopkins views this “great turning” as a local community renaissance, an entrepreneur’s dream, a job-creation bonanza, and a way to pump money back into local economies when folks need it most. Even so, and in spite of the amazing success of the movement, Hopkins remarks most sincerely, “we don’t know how to do any of these things.”
That’s precisely the point. Transition is a giant, ever-emergent social experiment played out like a hologram, locally and globally. And it resonates for a reason.
Nearly 50 years of globalized capitalism dominated by centralized industrial behemoths quashing the little guy at every turn has left many people eager to fashion solutions on the human scale that return profits closer to home while helping families live neighborly-like within a small carbon footprint.
Transition is about nothing as much as it is about re-localization, in a serious, no-greenwashing-here kinda way. That’s why one of TN’s key principles is to “let it go where it wants to go,” referring to the momentum and direction of the Transition movement as it morphs through localities across the globe. TN believes that trying to control the movement will squelch “collective genius,” an ethos held in common with the emerging Open Space technology influencing organizations, communities, and corporate culture. (To that end we hope the TN will appreciate our critical glean and occasionally smarmy humor. You know, everyone’s a comedian. Or an armchair quarterback.)
Like yoga for the neighborhood
Hopkins says the agile thinking and re-localized blueprint of the Transition model gives local initiatives an opportunity to flex their creative muscles up close and in person, in ways that are truly interactive. We’re talking way more interactive than the Internet even, because this is work that people dream up to do in their own towns, engaging with local government through civic action, with the economy through local start-ups, and with ecology through urban farming, building pocket-parks, edible landscaping, walkable development, and mass transportation solutions.
Rather than being the “fringe” thinking of some neo-hippies, the loose Transition model for community engagement hearkens back to exactly the kind of neighborhoods that Americans (and others) today long for when remarking with nostalgia on a gentler world from the past.
But is the Transition model a rearward-looking utopian vision?
As a response to a world in crisis, Transition is clearly au courant and primed for the future. But more than that, as a model for community organizing, Transition uses tools that help us vision positively and use language mindfully to create myriad local responses to a world in need of stepping down from the industrialized economy.
Solutions will look different wherever they happen, and that, says Hopkins, is, “a way back to health,” for a world choking under the strains of industrialism with all the asthma, obesity, frayed nerves, and poisoned systems that it implies. Not only will people feel more empowered, Hopkins argues, but in America, there may be the added boon of solving the “take back our government,” brouhaha infecting the national conversation.
If you want to take back your government, you start with taking action where you are to build the kind of locality you want—one that can be sustained. That’s resilience, a hallmark of flexibility and the power to not only survive but also to thrive, no matter what blows might come. If communities are already taking responsibility for themselves, they won’t need big government to come in and help.
In America there’s another incentive to build local economies and local resilience: the lack of a guaranteed social safety net, and the crumbling of the strained services that are available. In Europe, we “still have nets that catch you when you fall,” says Hopkins. To be, “more survivalist based” is therefore more natural for the United States. That’s why we may see more of a desire stateside to balance family emergency and self-defense plans with community building, a reality of the culture whether it fits in with Transition’s gentler original intentions or not.
Remember, the co-founder himself says Transition is constantly evolving and subject to local solutions. Even so, Hopkins eschews fear, having already tried and rejected the solo hunkered-down-and-quaking stance. Through the Permaculture lens Hopkins observes that, “what makes systems work is maximizing positive relationships.”
Rock on, Hopkins
All this sounded very noble, which left me curious to find out about the man behind the plan.
He had already let on that he enjoyed a pint at the pub from time to time, which led me to conclude he couldn’t be too earnest a bloke. But its when I asked him what kind of music he liked that I really got the measure of the man.
First out of his mouth was Sonic Youth, who he saw play in a basement in some English club in 1983. Rock on Hopkins—who’d a thunk it? Now that’s street cred.
Here I am picturing him tilling the picturesque village ground in quiet and loving appreciation for a rare herb secured in a Totnes seed swap*, and then I hear he likes PIL. Auto Lux. Sufjan Stephens. Dude, you’re killing me.
Now I’m picturing him, headphones on, hoeing to the dissonant yet melodic crooning of The Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning.
I then asked the definitive question with the potential to secure my undying appreciation.
“Do you like Pavement?”
Jeeze, ten bucks he goes to All Tomorrow’s Parties and hearts The Pixies.
Okay then, the record’s set straight: Hopkins is the guru of a world in Transition, even if he refuses the title.
As if this wasn’t enough, he felt the need to tweet Transition Voice afterward to let us know that his favorite band is The Fall. Perfect, and a bit synchronistic for a guy who’s picking up the pieces of a world that’s deconstructing.
Transition, its got a really good beat, and you can dance to it.
- The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (Transition Guides) by Rob Hopkins.
- The Transition Timeline: For a Local, Resilient Future by Shaun Chamberlain.
- Transition in Action: Totnes and District 2030, An Energy Descent Action Plan by Jacqi Hodgson.