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Communities, Councils and a Low-Carbon FutureBOOK REVIEW

Communities, Councils and a Low Carbon Future: What We Can Do If Governments Won’t
By Alexis Rowell
Transition Books, 240 pp, $18 and up in the USA

As an American, reading Communities, Councils and a Low Carbon Future: What We Can Do If Governments Won’t was just another reminder of how far ahead of us the British are on energy and green issues.

Until I read Rowell’s book, I never knew just how many programs the British run to subsidize local food, conservation and clean energy at the local level. For more than a century, local governments in Britain have been renting out garden plots (“allotments”) to families for as little as $20 a year just to grow their own veggies. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s bad enough that what’s left of American industry can’t seem to plan for anything but a 1950s-style economy of 39¢ a gallon gasoline. Meanwhile big British businesses issue warnings to their government to prepare for peak oil.

Alexis Rowell’s book is just another insult of this ilk.

The latest in the attractive Transition Books series of guides that started with Hopkins’s Transition Handbook, Rowell’s book is about making Transition politically possible. But it’s also about shooting for the moon.

There is plenty of practical advice for the Transition organizer who wants to get City Hall on her side, from messaging to building alliances to how to speak at public meetings and how to talk to public officials one-on-one.

North Americans will find Daniel Lerch’s 2007 guide Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty more immediately useful as a handbook for working with local government. But Rowell’s book makes a good supplement, going deeper into issues that any local Transition organizer will need to know about.

About half of Rowell’s book is devoted to helpful primers on how various resource issues impact localities, from biodiversity and energy to planning regulations, procurement and recycling, all peppered with quotes from local government officials. For example, Councillor Fi Macmillan of Stroud District Council said that if she talks to her fellow elected officials about climate change “they switch off.”

But if I talk about resource depletion and energy security, they’re interested. They want to see us produce more energy locally and I think we can make an economic case for it. So I’ve changed my whole dialogue from sustainability to energy. But I feel like it’s taken 18 months to see the landscape clearly and what’s possible.

But Rowell also has an ambitious vision of making local government into a vehicle of Transition, not just a sometime ally.

See what he says, for example, about what a city council dedicated to Transition would look like. Not only would it “have a very complete understanding of climate change and resource depletion, both the global and local implications,” but,

A Transition council would have to have central organizational goals that relate to combating climate change, living within the planet’s natural limits, preparing for the end of cheap oil and generally putting the well-being of human beings before that of developers, motorists and any of the other interest groups that have done so much to put human society in such a precarious position.

It may sound like a pretty tall order for city council members in your average city or town to learn about global warming and peak oil and then stand up to the people who want new streets, all while trying to find the budget to add a school bus route and keeping the property tax rate low enough to avoid the ire of homeowners.

But Rowell, who served on the council of the London Borough of Camden, knows what it takes to help local government make high standards into reality. He’s got a whole chapter about the pros and cons of running for office, and how to run as a candidate yourself, if you’re up for it.

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