Lucy Neal reviews ’21 Stories of Transition
By rob hopkins 13th November 2015
If your kitchen table is like ours, a stream of unrelated inanimate and animate objects drift across its surface on a daily basis: a puncture repair kit; pots of PVA glue (without their tops); electricity bills, the cat… Yesterday I was thrilled to see my copy of 21 Stories of Transition there and scooted the cat away to open it up. Alongside was a second book, whose provenance was a mystery to me: the 1951 Festival of Great Britain programme.*
They made a gripping, if randomly improvised, contrast of ‘stories of the future’: one describing how inventive communities are modelling a low carbon future the other heralding ‘Progress in the Home’ complete with advertisements for canned peas and ‘the marvellous hoover electric washing machine’ through to power stations, cars and airplanes. All out expansion of everything is promised to span the universe and ‘navigation of outer space’ and a new age of electronics that can ‘enrich mankind with miracles of radio, radar and television‘. This is the post-war ‘fresh fields of tomorrow’ world I was born into, yet during my own lifetime, it has become a story of the future that is less and less convining than the one now mapped by 21 Stories of Transition.
In a mere 100 pages, these stories of the future bring to colouful life how people across the globe are conjuring ways of inventing new possibilities in their communities in a post- industrial, post capitalist, post cheap energy world. One message comes through loud and clear, directed at Transitioners, people involved in similar social change experiments and decision makers like those gathering in Paris in December: this is happening now.
In South Africa an initiative in Greyton is a driver for social integration still bearing the scars of apartheid. In Wales’ Transition Bro Gwau, a Surplus Food Café gathers up surplus food in the area and turns it into tasty cafe fare. The café has raised the profile of waste and they look forward to being out of business when no surplus food is available.
The Casau community garden in France, links the loss of seed diversity with the erosion of indigenous dialects and languages. In Transition Town Media in Pennsylvania USA, Yardens are celebrated (yard gardens); in Brussels a street, in a red light district, is reclaimed with neighbourhood planters and in Brasilandia, suffering from a chronic water crisis, rainwater harvesting has gone into overdrive. In Aardehuis, an Earth House is built.
Whilst 21 Stories of Transition includes impressive figures for some of the numbers involved (miles walked, carbon saved, investment in renewables, complimentary currencies put into circulation) the dynamics of human stories plays out Margaret Wheatley’s observation that:
“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about”.
It was a thrill reading the book, to identify with parts of the Transition story I recognised: I felt pride in looking at photogaphs of chaps in high viz jackets putting solar panels on roofs in our neighbouring Brixton and in reading about our friends over at Crystal Palace, setting up Patchwork Farms and Saturday Food Markets. Further afield, was it really 7 years ago I met Hide from Japan on Transition training? He left to set up Japan’s first Transition initiative in Fujino. Congratulations Hide! and hurrah for artists Encounters Art (in Caring Totnes) and Jeremy Deller who gets a look in on the Brixton notes. I identify with the Greenslate Farm volunteer who doesn’t want to leave the area as he’s made so many connections with people there.
The best details are those revealing how projects grow organically, with one thing leading to another in surprising ways: for example at Luxembourg’s Terra, three friends wished to start a Community Supported Agriculture scheme, but struggled to find land, ‘They put out a call to see if anyone had land, and were offered a beautiful site overlooking the city, and two months later they started growing’; a sequence their founder, Norry, calls ‘miraculous.’
I feel confident the book will trigger new projects, from readers inspired to activate ideas they might have been mulling on. As President Roosevelt, promoter of the US New Deal in 1930s, said ‘Believe you can and you are halfway there’. This book helps give a push and a shove.
For all the book’s joy and discoveries, here and there one spots exhaustion – highlighting the need to nurture and inject more livelihood options into these incredible visions. In Pennslyvania, there’s an honesty about putting ‘doing’ over ‘being’ to avoid burnout. Anyone who has lugged the cups/chairs/tables/urns back from the local hall at midnight for the nth time, knows how tiring throwing oneself at these initiatives can be. It’s essential to impress upon decision makers that there is profound learning in these initiatives that can benefit, 1000s beyond the immediate circles of those initially involved.
Geographer and long-term scenario planner, Barbara Heinzen suggests societies learn through fostering qualities of neighbourliness, working together with ‘intimacy and diversity, project by project over time’. She concluded from a study of England, from medieval times to the industrial era that learning and invention arise from neighbourly experimentation, bringing people together across conventional boundaries of class, gender, culture, generation and working expertise. ’21 Stories of Transition’ is a golden example of how this is happening.
Recognising the power and incentive of community is the seed of real change in these stories. None of these projects would have emerged from one person working alone. To any misanthrop who gets their hands on this, all this working together might make them yearn for a quiet place on the outskirts of town, but my hunch is they would not stay there for long. We all want to be at the party of reinvention. The age of the lone wolf, as the Hopi poem says, is over. Here is the space to see what we have in common.
My last shout goes to the 3 year olds in Crystal Palace who ‘walk around the market like they own the place, and they do! They have never known anything different. It only takes a generation to make a change’.
So if it’s dressing up as a purple onion, running a repair café or watching out for what those 3 year olds might be up to in a few years’ time, another world really is possible with enough imagination. These are the fresh fields of today.
* bought in a Brighton charity shop for ‘an art collage’ project