I’ve written this so that when my grandchildren ask me where I was when the great rebellion was sparked, when the great Transition began its inevitable momentum, I can show them this blog post capturing a remarkable week in France. I set off for France on what came to be known as the ‘Transition Tour de France’ the day before the Extinction Rebellion fortnight started, in London and elsewhere. I headed to France, my wife Emma to London. I think both of us have shared the experience this week that something remarkable is, finally, starting to shift, that XR’s big, bold, beautiful ‘No’ is being accompanied by a big, bold and beautiful ‘Yes’.
This was the first time I took the ideas and stories from my forthcoming book ‘From What Is to What If’ on tour, to present it to people and see how resonant it felt at this time. Accompanied by Xavier Combe, the most skilled and delightful interpreter I’ve ever worked with, and keeping up with unfolding events in London by phone and social media, I embarked on a packed schedule of talks, visits and meetings. I wove what was happening in London into my talks, starting each talk with a photo of Emma being arrested in October on the first XR day on the bridges, and about the change that is finally, finally, starting to shift.
The first day of the Transition Tour de France started in La Farlède near Toulon, where I was the guest of the Foire Bio Artisanale (a fair which is a celebration of organic and artisanal things) as the guest of ‘Sans Transition!’ magazine and La Vallée du Gapeau en Transition.
My day started with a press conference for local and regional press (here is one of the resultant articles), then a walk around the extensive stalls of local groups, products and produce. It was a few days after the launch of La Fève – Monnaie Locale Complémentaire de l’Aire Toulonnaise, so it was great to see that and chat with them.
I gave two sold out talks, about 250 people each time, which went really well, good Q&A afterwards too, and lots of enthusiasm for the whole imagination thing. I signed lots of books and met lots of people, and then headed back to where I’m staying for a bit of a rest, a quick bit of sketching, some food and then bed. It had been an amazingly diverse and vibrant event, rich with possibility and people working hard to bring the new economy to life today. I was sung to sleep by the frogs outside my window who sounded like this…
I awoke to find the surreal experience of myself on the front page of the local paper above a photo of Emmanuel Macron, and described as ‘Monsieur Transition’ (that’s me, not him).
This was followed by a very energising meeting with the local Transition group and many others about where they’re at and what next. We shared ideas and they asked questions and it felt like it really helped to re-energise projects and to point to what the next evolution might look like. We looked at the many projects they had already initiated (see the diagram above) and thought about how they might be looked at as an economic ecosystem, as part of a wider economic regeneration approach, and how they might do something like a Local Economic Blueprint so as to underpin their work with an economic case.
We then headed to Mouans-Sartoux, a town where all the food in the schools, primary and secondary, is 100% organic, 70% local and the vegetables come from a farm created by the municipality, which we visited. We ate lunch in the school, a fascinating place, one side of which faces onto the road and is a long concrete wall. On the other side is a 2 hectare forest which the kids have free access to, which includes a great community composting project.
I was especially fascinated to hear, while we ate lunch, how the 100% organic school approach has changed behaviour in families in the school, where 60% of families say they now eat at least partly organic food, and 13% say they now always do, a big shift from before the scheme began. Never underestimate the power of culture change.
On a 7 hectare site above the town, land the municipality purchased to prevent it being developed and turned into housing, a beautifully biodiverse site features polytunnels, fruit trees, and a school for food education, which teaches kids and adults about how food is grown and how to cook it. Interestingly, the kitchen where kids learn to cook is not some all bells-and-whistles stainless steel catering kitchen, but a tiny one like most of the kids will have in their homes. It was deeply inspiring to see the commitment of the municipality to the project, and their commitment to support other places to do the same through their participation in EU-wide projects. The Mayor came to join us too, along with many members of the administration.
Then we went into the town to visit a few projects underway there. First we went to the best Zero Waste shop I’ve ever seen, very cool, run by a young couple deeply committed to bringing about real behaviour change and to great food. And it was simply one of the most beautiful shops I have ever been to. Then we popped by a bike repair workshop, and a Fair Trade shop. All very inspiring.
We set off to drive to Nice, and when we arrived, visited Jardin du Petit Pessicart, an educational permaculture project in the hills above the city, looking across to the sea. A former bit of waste ground where local people dumped their old washing machines and stuff, it has been lovingly, over the past few years, coaxed into life as a sloped site with gardens, educational tools, and rich biodiversity. We were met by the founders and by many of the young volunteers who are making it what it is.
Very welcoming, amazing food laid on, delightful people to welcome us, and a lovely ‘Welcome Rob’ banner! Some very passionate and inspired young people. Thank you all. Then on to the centre of Nice to give a talk to the packed, sold-out Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen on the sea front, over 500 people. A very enthusiastic crowd and a standing ovation. A really focused and magical evening, the air felt rich with possibility. So many lovely people wanting to say hi before a long drive back to where we were staying. An evening I’ll remember for a long time.
The next day we were up early and off on the boat to the island of Porquerolles, about a 10 minute boat ride from the mainland. The island faces many challenges, in particular the impact of mass tourism, with over 1 million visitors a year. During the summer, half of the island’s water has to be shipped in from the mainland, and by 2021 a pipeline will be built to bring the water in. As one of the local politicians told me, “tourism is a monster that self-destroys. They destroy the destinations they go to”. “We have to do something”, he continued, “so that if tourism collapses it is not the end of everything”.
We spent a fascinating few hours there meeting the people behind many different projects, including an amazing biodiversity project preserving varieties of olives, figs and other things, an agro-ecology project called COPAINS which works with socially-excluded people to grow and distribute organic food, and an art gallery venue called La Fondation Carmignac. What is the sustainable load of tourism, people wondered? What would a Transition Island look like? How can we better connect together the diversity of things already happening here for a greater impact?
After a delicious lunch and a tour of a biodynamic vineyard, we gathered under the trees for a very interesting round table discussion with many of the key players behind sustainability, community development, biodiversity and arts projects on the island as to what an Island in Transition would look like. It felt like visits and tours like this one offer a powerful opportunity to get people together who otherwise might not come together to have the conversations that need to happen right now. The island is already part of SMILO, a network of 20-something islands who are working on sustainability, so the time is perfect to, in the context of the Climate Emergency, step things up several gears.
We then drove to Marseille, and gave a talk at Théâtre Toursky to a packed theatre. Earlier that day I heard that Emma had been arrested again, on Waterloo Bridge, and just before the talk I got to speak to her. She told me that XR were still holding all the places they had occupied. I had been starting every talk with a photo of her being arrested in October, and I asked if she might have a message she’d like me to share with the audiences at the talks. “we are all doing this for our children”, she said. “And if you’re doing things for your children, for your grandchildren, you will do anything”. I felt very proud, and I shared her message at the beginning of the talk. Again, it was a really delightful evening. I was joined on stage after my talk by people from 4 local projects for discussion and audience Q&A. Afterwards, again, I met lots of people, signed lots of books, and felt buoyed by the love and affection and hopefulness, just as at every event on this tour.
The next morning we visited a fantastic community permaculture garden near Marseilles. It was a former derelict farm next to a housing estate, where 3 neighbours had come together to see if the land could be used to grow food in a way that used very little water and that improved the place. The site was, at that time, regularly visited by wild boars. Could the community work together to create the garden? Some tenants wanted a garden, some wanted to sell the site for housing. But they decided to not wait for permission, and to build the garden. And what they have created is amazing, what they call “an oasis of freshness”. Vibrant, diverse, abundant and so so beautiful. A real permaculture paradise.
I was met by about 250 people who came to say hello and after a tour of the garden, we all sat under a tree and heard from local organisations and projects and people asked me questions. Beautiful place, beautiful project, beautiful people. I was especially interested to hear from the Principal of a local high school who is trying to reimagine his school as a ‘Transition School’ (something I heard many people thinking about on this tour). In his school they teach blacksmithing, beekeeping, food growing, all aspects of sustainability.
He said it was committed to “producing enlightened, curious, self-reliant, creative citizens who feel called to act for the world”. A bit different from my school. He said the school had “set up a curriculum from kindergarten to university to train the citizen decision-makers of the future to act with the highest possible level of knowledge of the field of sustainable development” and of “shifting from a technical project to a project beneficial to society”. I was reminded of one of the demands of the student strikes, that of “teach us properly about climate change and what we can do about it”, and how the momentum within education to do just that in France feels like it has real potential.
After lunch we were treated to a delicious lunch in the flat of Anne, one of the people who founded the garden, with the most gorgeous view over the mountains and the sea (thanks Anne!). After this we had a long drive to Montpellier where I gave a talk in the evening at the University, sold out, 500 people. I was joined again on stage by people from other local organisations and then Q&A. Once that was all done and we then went out to eat, it was 1.30 before I got to bed! It was beginning to feel a little like the actual Tour de France, in particular one of those long uphill stretches!
The penultimate day started in Montpellier with a visit to Jardin de la Condamine, an emerging market garden on the edge of the city, run by a team of 5 young people growing produce for local markets. We had a tour, and met people from other great local projects too. Always good to see innovative young people coming back into agriculture and trying out different approaches to food growing.
I was especially interested to hear from a woman from an organisation I think was called Terracooppa, a co-operative who provide support, accounting, management and who specialise in supporting environmental and sustainable agriculture projects. They act as a trusted intermediary in accessing land, help projects get established and run successfully, and take 10% of the turnover in exchange for their support, and everyone they support is a member of the co-operative and are involved in its decision-making. A beautiful model, one that could also really help in unlocking the new economy.
I was also struck by another guy who runs a composting social enterprise, collecting food waste from across the city and making compost, who talked about how in the last year, all of a sudden it has felt like things had shifted, and opportunities are opening up everywhere, faster than they are able to take them up. ”It’s hard to meet demand”, he said. I wondered if this is what it feels like when we cross the threshold of a tipping point?
We set off to get the train to Lyon. Our first stop here was the Woopa building, home to NEF bank and others. NEF is an ethical bank whose slogan translates as “my money makes happiness”. They support a lot of local currencies in France, and are rather marvellous. The money that is collected by people buying local currency notes is put into an account and is then used for low interest loans to new Transition-related start-ups. People from different local enterprises talked about what they do, the local deputy Mayor spoke about what they’re doing, and people asked me questions, and some great discussions ensued.
Finally it was off to the University for the evening’s sold out talk, 600 people in the lecture theatre there. The queue outside before the talk was really something to behold. I have to say that alongside the talk in Nice, this was a real high point of the tour. Really dynamic, people really engaged, a room full of attention and possibility and lots of great questions afterwards, even in spite of the stifling heat in the room and the lights failing half way through! As on previous evenings, we were treated to short tastes of a few local projects such as local currency La Gonette (120,000 in circulation and 49 denomination note!), a community energy company, a sustainable housing project and an urban permaculture project.
It felt like I spent the evening in a room filled with imagination and hope. I got back to my hotel room to read about how the XR week was already changing how the news were reporting climate change, with a degree of seriousness, curiosity and respectfulness that had not been previously seen. Emma told me about the amazing possibility-filled space XR had created in the areas of London that they had taken. David Attenborough’s climate change documentary aired. Naresh Giangrande, with whom I co-founded Transition Town Totnes, appeared on Radio 5 Live talking about deep adaptation and the scale of our challenge. What was so delightful about the Lyon evening was the proportion of young people in the audience, bright, curious, awake, taking copious notes, asking inspired, engaging questions. It was an event I felt we could have continued into the early hours.
The last day of the Transition Tour de France dawned with full sunshine, and Xavier and I spent the first half of the day spent getting to Rennes on the train. Once we arrived we visited a great community food growing project, Jardin des Mille Pas, in the baking sunshine, growing food for and with the community. Beautiful site, very near the Rennes football stadium. We also met with people involved in other local projects and sat and chatted for a while.
The evening’s talk, the last one of the tour, was really one of the very best, just delightful. I started by saying that as the last evening of the tour, I felt that firstly they should really be getting the best talk of the whole trip, and that afterwards Xavier and I were going to go back to the hotel and throw the TV in the swimming pool (or something). There were over 600 people in a big sports hall, on a very warm evening, but over the 2 hours of the evening people were so bright-eyed, engaged, inspired, passionate, inquisitive, it was amazing. Really great questions, inspiring people from local projects who joined me on stage. All felt really rather emotional, a lot of people came up at the end just to say thank you. It has been a remarkable week, deeply inspiring, really impactful, and I think really touched a lot of people. It was also filmed for regional TV.
I will leave you with a story. So on the final day of our tour, the first XR-type thing, like in London, happened in Paris. There was an occupation at La Defense and actions at the offices of various awful companies. There was a story about how activists occupied the offices of the appalling French fossil fuel company Total as part of the XR movement here, protesting “toxic alliance between the state and multinationals”
What was Total’s response? Perhaps some inner reflection on their awful actions, some kind of dialogue with the demonstrators? No. According to one press report, demonstrators were occupying the lobby to the building, so Total’s management ordered that the central heating in the lobby be turned up to the maximum so as to “stifle” the activists and make it unbearable for the activists, and also as the press said “to openly mock their claims”. Quite extraordinary. The times, as someone once said, are a-changing…
My deepest thanks for everyone who made the tour possible, Julien Guimard, Julien Dezécot, Magali Dezécot, Léonore Virion (all below), Vincent, Anne, Actes Sud, Sans Transition, and all the wonderful people I met along the way.