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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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