Transition to a Better Future

Not a green movement, precisely, not purely about protecting the environment, Transition is about recreating our communities, from the bottom up, in order to face a slew of impending problems: climate change, peak oil, food production, economic crises. Making efforts now – basic changes that sound more like an older brand of common sense than a 21st-century call for austerity – will ensure more resilient communities, capable of resisting the various shocks that the future certainly holds. A visit to Totnes and Brixton, two UK Transition Towns, reveals the different, concrete forms Transition can take.

Among the things I did not expect to be doing this week was tearing around the English countryside in a motorized rickshaw imported from India. “Its top speed is only 45 kilometers per hour…maybe 55 on a downhill,” Pete Ryeland, owner and operator of the Totnes Rickshaw Company, tells me.  Maybe so, but “only” is not the modifier I would choose as we fly around curves in the open-sided vehicle and feel every jarring bump of the country roads. Our destination is Pete’s biofuel production facility, for this rickshaw’s roaring little engine consumes not petrol, but recycled cooking oil.

Pete Ryeland, a businessman in Totnes, a market town of 8,000 people in Devon, southwest England, wanted to do something good for the Earth, and good for his town, that would catch people’s attention. “What if I put a biofuel engine into one of these cars all around us? Nobody would even notice. So, I had the idea for the rickshaws.” His civic-minded attention seeking has certainly succeeded. Tourists arriving by boat on the River Dart find Pete waiting for them at Steamer Quay where he proposes to take them, free of charge, up the hill to the heart of this lovely, old town and its high street lined with boutiques. As he does so, it’s hard not to notice, and the rickshaws have gained such a following that they are now rented out for weddings and other occasions.

To fuel his “fleet” of two rickshaws, Pete visits local pubs and restaurants to collect their used cooking oil. “For them, it’s a waste product. Until now, many of them were just dumping it down the drain, illegally.” He takes this oil to Sharpham Estate, an idyllic spot outside of town, where a filtration set-up has been installed to remove, first, the bits that remain from cooking. Next the oil is pumped to a tank overhead – “the only step in the process that requires electricity” – and is then gravity-fed through three more filters. The result is a clean, clear oil that Pete feeds directly into his rickshaw’s tank with a funnel, where it will yield up to 80 kilometers per liter.

Totnes Transition Rickshaw

Pete Ryeland with a biofuel-powered rickshaw


Resilience by Design

While the sight of the rickshaws might be surprising in this part of the world, the motivation behind them is not. Totnes is the birthplace of Transition as an organized movement (founded officially in 2006 by a teacher of permaculture named Rob Hopkins) and the town has been a pioneer in carrying it out. The rickshaws find their place in Transition by encouraging a more environmentally friendly fuel source, produced at home by Totnes’ own eateries; by stimulating the local economy; and by rallying community spirit around the effort, as well. The message from Transitioners is just as multifaceted. Of course it’s partly about reducing our carbon footprint, but it’s also about strengthening the sense of belonging to one’s community, keeping it healthy, supporting it economically, all of which will contribute to its resilience through the serious challenges that lie ahead.

For Hal Gilmore, head of business and communications for the Transition Town Totnes organization, it is this idea of building resilience into our communities that distinguishes Transition from other Green movements. “Transition is difficult to describe. It’s about climate change, it’s about tough issues that politicians don’t want to discuss, like peak oil, it’s about economic uncertainty.” For Gilmore, Transition goes beyond sustainability, the very notion of which is “kind of nonsensical. The idea is not to sustain our current standard of living, because it’s unsustainable! It’s about making a shift and adapting to the big changes that are coming. Transition is very positive. It engages the whole community.”

Town Council member and former Mayor Tony Whitty, can attest to the diversity of personalities attracted by Transition projects. He evokes the image of drum circle enthusiasts working side by side with hard-nosed business types insisting on this management structure or that financial model. During his time as mayor, Mr. Whitty helped push through a plan to install 72 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of Civic Hall. The town’s municipal space is now run, in part, by the approximately 13,000 kWh of electricity produced every year. In addition, the town receives a feed-in tariff, a government subsidy, for exploiting this renewable energy source. Sixty percent of this income is used to make the existing structure more energy efficient, while the remaining 40%, in the true spirit of Transition, goes back to the community, helping low-income residents pay their energy bills.

Solar panels on Totnes Civic Hall

Totnes Civic Hall with its electricity-producing solar panels (Source: Transition Town Totnes)


While the Town Council considers options for replacing Civic Hall’s ancient beast of a boiler, Chris Bird, a writer and resident of nearby Dartington, is focused on what individuals can do to make their existing homes more sustainable. Producing electricity from photovoltaic cells is great, but, as Chris says, “It’s much more important to save energy than to produce energy. It’s the simple things you can’t see, not the sexy solar panels.”

The government, he explains, has the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050. The necessary changes will be more difficult for some sectors – transport and industry, for example – than for others. “But homes are easy to reduce. You just need insulation, local, renewable materials and to reduce your water use. You can get to almost zero carbon [by renovating homes this way], down from five tons of carbon output per year. Another goal is to be building new, zero-carbon homes by 2016.” Right now, homes account for 25% of carbon emissions in the UK, says Bird.

The greater Totnes area is still a mecca of Transition. Groups have come from the US, Korea, Japan, even Papua New Guinea to learn. Just yesterday Chris Bird spent seven hours showing a group of Dutch architects various examples of eco-building in the area. One remarkable site we visit together is known simply as the Cob House, for being made of a mix of soil and straw, or cob. “The earth needs to be 15% clay,” Bird explains, “and have stones of different sizes. You mix it with straw, add water, build your house and it’ll last 500 years.”

One observation on such sustainable projects is that it’s a lot easier if you’ve got the money to spend on photovoltaic equipment and the time to invest in a project like the Cob House. Many Transition values, like local food production would also seem to be more feasible in the countryside. But Transition is not at all limited to a rural setting, as Transition Town Brixton can attest.

Transitioning in the City

Brixton, the colorful, multi-ethnic district of London, has seen its share of troubles over the years after being bombed in World War II, suffering urban decay and repeatedly witnessing riots, most recently in 2011. As in Totnes, Transitioners here address questions of energy consumption, food production, and the health of the local economy. In 2009, the area launched its own currency, complementary to the British pound sterling. Residents can exchange their standard bills and coins for the Brixton pound, available in three denominations. This money is accepted by around 200 participating merchants in the neighborhood and allows the community’s wealth to remain there, in the community. “The image we use is of a leaky bucket,” explains Simon Woolf, Director and Project Manager for the Brixton Pound. “When you shop at one of the major chains, 80% of your money immediately leaves the area. It goes to company shareholders, foreign investors. All that wealth leaves the community where it was produced. We’re trying to block the holes in that leaky bucket.”

The Brixton Pound is keeping pace with the times, too: bypassing plastic, organizers of the initiative have instated a system of payment by SMS. After signing up for an online account, users send a simple text message to the main system number, indicating the name of the establishment and the amount to pay. Both parties receive confirmation by SMS within seconds. Beyond the convenience of the currency, Simon Woolf sees a real practical value. He feels the lessons of the recent economic crises have not been learned by all. “The financial world is up to the same old tricks. Nothing has changed. If there’s a crash someday, and the pound sterling falls, these will still be worth something.”

Brixton Pound

The Brixton Pound (Source:

Transition can be felt on the floor of the bustling Brixton Village marketplace, where stickers in the windows of restaurants and shops proclaim “B£ Accepted Here”, all the way up to the roof of Elmore House, a residence in the nearby Loughborough social housing estate. There, Agamemnon Otero, a Director and Project Manager at Brixton Energy, stands proudly among the photovoltaic panels he worked so hard to put in place.  “Brixton Energy Solar 1 is the first community-owned installation of solar panels on social housing in the UK. The energy will be used to run the communal spaces and some will be sold back to the grid. Part of the income generated will be reinvested in the Community Energy Efficiency Fund to provide work experience that will help people learn to make improvements in the local area to reduce their energy use.”

“It’s not necessarily that I’m fascinated with solar panels or with gardening,” Aga Otero admits. (He is also responsible for the transformation of an old World War II bombsite into a productive vegetable garden called The Edible Bus Stop.) “The question is: How do you get the community involved?” This was the message repeated over and over by Transitioners of all stripes, backgrounds, incomes and ethnicities. Rural or urban, all agreed that we’ve gotten too far away from our communities, from the source of our livelihoods, from the support that simply knowing our neighbors can bring. As we shift into a low-carbon world, we’re going to need those things, they say. Transition hopes to help that move happen as seamlessly as possible by identifying, encouraging, and carrying out small, concrete steps we can take to start preparing, today.

Solar panels on the roof of a London social housing estate

Brixton Energy Solar 1: the UK's first social housing solar installation


To find out more:

TED Talks - Rob Hopkins: Transition to a world without oil 

Transition Town Totnes

Transition Town Brixton

Pucón in Transition, a film about a Transition town in Chile

Transition Network – Transition Network supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience an happiness.