Rob Hopkins of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Culture

As Lester Brown recently noted on this site, the coming decline of oil will be ‘a seismic economic event’. So what do we do when we learn that the ’black gold’ will soon start running out? Do we grab a gun and head for the hills, or do we redouble our efforts to build strong, resilient communities and economies that are not dependent on fossil fuels? Rob Hopkins is at the forefront of the latter approach. Originally a permaculture teacher, Rob began tackling peak oil by coordinating an energy descent action plan with his students for Kinsale, the town in Ireland where he was living and teaching. The resulting document received a huge amount of interest from around the world (and can be downloaded as a PDF here), and has since given rise to the Transition Towns movement – a rapidly spreading, community-lead approach to peak oil planning, which is currently being implemented at a village, town and even city level. Rob also writes a popular and solutions-based peak oil blog called Transition Culture. In this interview, Rob tells Treehugger what inspired him to tackle peak oil, why the survivalist approach holds no interest for him, and how permaculture has influenced the Transition Towns concept. He also explains why he doesn’t believe in a technological solution to the coming crisis, and he gives his thoughts on how everyone can help prepare for the challenges ahead.

[Photo credit: Jersey Evening Post]

Treehugger: The Kinsale Energy Decent Action Plan appears to be a first of its kind, namely an inclusive, community focussed approach to getting off oil. What inspired you to initiate the process, and how have you adapted it to help other communities through the Transition Towns concept?
Rob Hopkins: The process was inspired by the initial sense of panic and shock after first finding out about peak oil! I was teaching at the college in Kinsale and we found out about peak oil via. the DVD "The End of Suburbia" and a talk by Colin Campbell, and it being a permaculture course the thrust of our reaction was "right, what shall we do?" We looked around and were amazed to find that no-one anywhere had really been thinking about it much. A lot of the inspiration came from Richard Heinberg's 'Powerdown' book and from David Holmgren's "Permaculture - principles and pathways beyond sustainability", the first books to really start exploring what life beyond the peak might look like, rather than most books on peak oil which just focus on the top of the bell curve and whether it would be a bumpy plateau or a gentle decline, which always struck me as not really being especially important.

The Kinsale Plan was just done as a student project. It is not perfect and makes no claim to being so. In fact it wasn't until after we had published it that the implications of what we had created began to sink in. We didn't even really release it with a bang, it just sort of came out, it was only when other people, such as Richard Heinberg, started picking up copies and going "hey this is great!" that we began to see the importance of what we had created. Now, we are looking at developing the model much deeper, much more rooted in the community than Kinsale was, and developing it as a tool for other communities, because the power of the model is that it creates a vision of the future with less oil as being preferable place to the present, and then sets out a timetabled path for getting there. Its simple really....

TH: Many in the Peak Oil community believe in an Armageddon-type scenario, and its not uncommon to hear people say "I'm OK - I've got 20 acres and a gun." You have been quite outspoken in your criticism of this approach, arguing that the only way to face coming challenges is as a community. What is your thinking behind this?

RH: I don't see that the survivalist response is really any kind of a realistic response to this situation. One might see it as some kind of an option for a very small number of people in a country with lots of space like the US, but here in the UK, your choices are somewhat limited! Not too much gleaning to be had on Dartmoor or Snowdonia! I see this as a challenge that is about coming back to each other, learning how to talk and work together again. When you talk to people who lived through the Second World War, you hear about how once the petrol was rationed, what became important was the people around you, the community, its resources and skills. I think we have to focus on our communities, and on preparing them for this inevitable and historic transition, because without them, we have no chance at all.

TH: Treehugger has documented the spread of Transition Towns. How many operational groups are there now, and why is it proving so popular?

RH: There are about 12, and at least 2 new enquiries each week. This is without any major press coverage, advertising or promotion. It is just from word of mouth really, in the 7 months since TTT really kicked off. It has been quite extraordinary. I think it is down to something about the process which unleashes this extraordinary amount of energy and goodwill. Also the term 'Transition Towns', even though it also refers to Transition Cities, Valleys, Villages, Hamlets and islands, seems to have stuck. It alliterates, but also it seems to sum up the whole idea. I think the groups already doing it are finding it exhilarating. They usually kick off the process and then 2 weeks later get back to me and say "my God, what have we started here?!", as the momentum, once begun, is unstoppable.

TH: You are originally a permaculture teacher. How has permaculture influenced the Transition Towns approach?

RH: I taught permaculture for 10 years, and it is very much the discipline that Transition Towns emerges from. I guess that when I found out about peak oil, and read David Holmgren's book, it struck me that given the urgency of peak oil and the enormity of the challenge it presents, permaculture really needs to up its game enormously. Holmgren argues that permaculture is the design science for a post-peak society. I feel that we have to really become much, much more effective, and do that very, very quickly. Transition Towns is, in effect, attempting town-scale permaculture. It is my attempt at lifting permaculture principles onto a whole other level of effectiveness and relevance. We try and integrate permaculture principles into the whole process, and they certainly underpin the work that I do. I recommend Holmgren's book to anyone who is interested in all this.

TH: There is a huge amount of mainstream interest in 'alternative energy', and other environmental technologies. Is this a helpful part of facing up to climate change and peak oil, or a distraction from a more community focused response? How do we differentiate between genuinely useful technologies, and over-hyped vaporware?

RH: I think we have to be realistic here. Renewables will only be able to make up about 40% of our current demand, and the rest will need to come from conservation. We need to engage in a programme of conservation on a scale that hasn't yet been seen. I think that all the renewable technologies we will have are already in existence, and we need to avoid what Richard Heinberg calls "Waiting for the Magic Elixir", waiting for a silver bullet to save us. Nuclear is a non-starter when you start taking into account the amount of cheap oil embodied in it, and the hydrogen economy is a white elephant. We are seeing more and more claims emerging of 'free energy' devices, which I think are a non-starter, and a dangerous delusion. Even if it were possible, one could argue that we have had free energy for the last 100 years, and look what we have done with it! Our future will be more local, will use less energy, and will have much more appreciation of what energy does for us, but within that statement are the seeds of a far more satisfying, abundant and sociable future.

TH: What are the most important things for a Treehugger to do to prepare themselves, and their community, for peak oil and/or climate change?

RH: Build food security, implement energy conservation urgently, learn more about your surroundings, learn some practical skills. Start a local currency scheme, engage your local business community in it. Avoid looking for people to blame, and avoid a 'them and us' dynamic. Perhaps the most important thing is to start talking to your neighbours, get people meeting each other again. When the economist David Fleming was in Totnes last year, and was asked what was the one thing people could do to prepare their community for peak oil, he replied "join the choir".

Tags: Peak Oil