Talk to any environmentalist and they will tell you that there are two major issues facing the world in the 21st Century: climate change and peak oil. These problems may seem overwhelmingly large but in the last couple of years an initiative called ‘Transition Towns’ has developed, offering an inspirational way to tackle them. Interestingly this new movement has its roots in permaculture: a design system for sustainable living that grew out of the first oil crises in the 1970s, when the need for a ‘Permanent agriculture’ emerged. So it will come as no surprise that vegetable gardeners have much to offer the emerging Transition Town initiatives...
Climate change is worrying: there is a very real possibility that global warming could become a run-away phenomenon with devastating consequences. A few degrees increase in temperature does not sound like a big deal until you realise that it would likely entail massive flooding, erratic weather, disruption of food supplies and potential famine for some parts of the world. The second issue is peak oil: the inevitable decline of cheap energy supplies as we know them today, on which so much of our modern lifestyles depends, including the majority of fertilisers used on non-organic crops and the transportation of the entire global food industry.
One of the problems that has traditionally faced campaigners and policy makers is that these environmental issues are so large and so daunting that they are difficult for the average person to respond to. Yes, we can all change our light bulbs for lower energy ones and make a few adjustments to our carbon footprint. However, these kinds of ‘solutions’ just scratch the surface and when looking for more significant changes the answers are less straightforward. Really understanding the gravity of the problems can lead to either a feeling of helplessness or a denial of the situation (often accompanied by a blind faith that some technological miracle will appear to rescue the human race).
Transition Initiatives (commonly known as Transition Towns) were the brainchild of Rob Hopkins, an experienced environmentalist with a background in teaching permaculture. Rob realised that people felt paralysed by the enormity of ecological issues and that what was needed was a way of transforming that into a sense of empowerment to work together for a better future. The ‘transition concept’ achieves these goals by:
- Bringing people together as local communities to collectively reduce their oil dependence and carbon footprint
- Helping these communities build resilience: the ability to survive fluctuations in oil prices, food supply, availability of transportation etc
- Holding workshops and events to re-skill people in knowledge that has been lost due to the globalisation of markets.
You can see Rob explaining the Transition Town concept in this short video:
Totnes in the UK was the first transition town and since then well over 130 have launched around the world. The transition concept is a grass-roots movement in which the people who coordinate the initial launch design themselves out of the process of continuing the project. After the first couple of years, the local initiatives become self-sustaining with an evolving committee made up of representatives from the current projects. The results, in the towns and communities that have done this, have been amazing: a wealth of initiatives, all characterised by a new sense of community, increased creativity, and sheer fun. What a great way to save the planet!
Nearly all the transition initiatives have set up gardening projects. Governments and advisory groups around the world are waking up to the impending threat to our ‘just in time’ global food delivery system and just how vulnerable it is to oil supply fluctuations, climate variations and increasing population demands. To build a resilient food system demands locally growing food and plenty of people are interested in learning how. Many predict that communities will have to get involved in producing food on a similar scale to the ‘Dig for Victory’ gardens of the last world war.
As an example, I was recently contacted by Transition Town High Wycombe who are setting up an allotment as a shared gardening project. As well as producing food, they are developing it into an educational resource. People can come and learn how to best grow vegetables at their open day, see a ‘forest garden’ area full of fruit and nut trees, learn how protein can be sourced from beans and grains etc. They are using GrowVeg.com to demonstrate to local people who have no gardening background how simply this can be done.
What I love about the transition movement is that it empowers people. We have the opportunity to plan for a more resilient and connected future for our communities. Faced with these challenges, knowledge such as how to grow food starts to become vital. As gardeners, we are no longer just tending our own vegetable plots for our own benefit. Instead we have skills that are going to be increasingly important to our neighbours as global food supplies become less reliable. The transition movement has captured all that is good about community projects and channelled it into a positive response to a global crisis, that people can really relate to. By harnessing community spirit, creativity and fun it offers a new kind of environmentalism: one that is looking forward to our post-oil culture, believing that we can build a stronger future together.