The Transition Town concept

Jonathan Dawson suggests that ecovillages are moving toward encouraging Transition Towns, which allo

A great thing about living in such a large community (I know that the 500 or so souls who call this place home may not seem like a major conurbation to any Londoners reading this blog, but it is large by the standard of most ecovillages) is the scale of diversity that it affords. The place often feels like a small village that believes itself to be an unusually dynamic, medium-sized town, with so much happening on so many different fronts.


An interesting recently-launched initiative involving a number of community members is the creation of a Transition Town group in our local town, Forres. The Transition Towns concept is elegant and powerful and may just be the saving of us all.

For participating communities, it involves a three-step process. First, acknowledge the strong probability that in the near future, our communities are going to have much less cheap energy available to them than at present. Second, recognise that pretty much all our systems – for food production, clothing, house-building, making a living – are more or less completely dependent on the availability of cheap energy sources. Third, embrace the reality of energy descent as an opportunity to re-design our communities and entire societies along more human-scale, inclusive, equitable and convivial lines.

Now, you could say that this is what we have been doing here for decades, that Findhorn already is a Transition Town (or rather, Transition Village that believes itself to be a town). However, the point about the Transition Town concept – and what makes it so alive and popular at present – is that it offers a way for everyone to get involved in the work of creating sustainable communities, not just those choosing to live in ecovillages whose core purpose is finding ways of living lightly on the earth.

A key weakness of the ecovillage model in today’s world is that it lacks an effective replication strategy. Almost all of the large and well-established ecovillages like Findhorn were created in the 1960s and 70s at a time of low land prices and lax planning regulations. While some new ecovillages are forming, they are few in number and tend to face prodigious difficulties in finding affordable land and in winning planning permission.

So it is that our month-long ecovillage training programmes have, for the most part, shifted from being courses in how to create ecovillages into immersion experiences in ecovillages (from which participants emerge inspired and better resourced to be able to get stuck into building sustainability back in their home places).

We have an ecovillage training programme in Findhorn at the moment - 25 or so people from across Europe come here for a month of deep exploration of the four key elements of sustainability: technology, economy, spirituality (or world views) and the social dimension of sustainability.

I teach the economy module and, as ever, find myself divided between focusing on the specificity of creating and nurturing ecovillage-level economies or on looking more widely at the challenges and opportunities facing local economies in society at large. This time, as is generally the case, the predominant demand was for the latter. I find myself with increasing frequency pointing course participants to the Transition Town rather than the ecovillage model as the vehicle for their new-found enthusiasm.

I see ecovillages like Findhorn as having many parallels to monasteries. Does this sound sad and gloomy? This is not the way I experience it. Think of Iona and the other great Celtic monasteries created by Colomba, Brendan, Patrick and others. These were centres of light, dedicated to keeping alive the flames of learning and beauty during a dark age in European civilisation.

The role of ecovillages in the wider push towards sustainability is still unclear in this age when the traditional door to organic community development from the ground up is all but closed off. However, if our contribution is to be no more than as centres of deep experimentation, removing ourselves a little from the world in order to better be able to dream it anew, and then to manifest and communicate that vision through training, this is a lineage that I embrace with pride.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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