Tag Archives: Transition Towns

Resilience of Totnes

‘Town’ series on BBC2 examines the role of towns in the UK.

The last show in the series looks at the resilience of Totnes, the founding site of rapidly growing Transition Towns movement, which is represented locally by Transition Town Totnes.

The show focuses on the town, rather than the transition movement, but its focus on the resilience and deep history of Totnes is quite interesting. I especially found interesting how the town is connected to the utopian experiments of the nearby Dartington Hall, which is now home to the sustainability focused Schumacher College. The entire show is available on youtube.

The BBC describes the episode as:

A Saxon river town in South Devon, Totnes is one of the UK’s oldest towns. It has seen tough times through its long history, but adversity has taught it to innovate. Geographer and adventurer Nicholas Crane visits the home of one of the greatest social experiments of the 20th century, and uncovers the test bed for an ambitious new idea that aims to change our urban life forever.

Links: writing, activism, First Nations, Arctic, immigration, and walking

A selection of links I found interesting from around the web

1)  How to write about your science from SciDev.Net

2) Rob Hopkins from Transition Towns writes about the tension between creating change and activism in Transition and activism: a response on Transition Culture.

3) How the distant and dispersed people of Canada’s First Nations are using Facebook from Vancouver’s the Tyee.

4) How climate change will increase coastal accessibility but decrease accessibility to the interior of the Arctic by cutting ice roads.  Toronto Globe and Mail reports on new research in Nature Climate Change (doi:10.1038/nclimate1120).

5) Why more immigration means less crime.  The Walrus reports on how immigration lowers crime rates in Canadian communities in an article Arrival of the Fittest.

6) The Globe and Mail reports on how in Toronto carless recent immigrants are producing a more walkable environment.

Critical Reflections on resilience thinking in the Transition Movement

The Resilience Alliance website has pointed to an interesting working paper from Alex Haxeltine, and Gill Seyfang from the Tyndall Centre in the UK Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement, whose focus on developing transition towns to respond to the challenges of climate change and peak oil we have covered before on this blog.

Haxeltine and Seyfang state they write as ‘critical friends’ of the transition movement and address the transition movements equation of localism with resilience (which I believe is incorrect, and likely counterproductive).  It is wonderful to see resilience researchers engaging with they dynamic transition movement.  They write:

The specific language used is of “rebuilding resilience” – drawing on historical descriptions of towns in the UK around 100 years ago, the handbook argues that resilience has been decreased in recent decades. The narrative describes how localised patterns of production and consumption (and the associated skill sets and community cohesion) were eroded in a relentless shift to ever larger scale industrialized systems of production and consumption, made possible by the use of fossil fuel energy sources. Hopkins argues that there is now a great urgency to the need to rebuild resilience because of imminent disturbances (or shocks) in the form of peak-oil, climate change, and the associated impacts on economic systems and trading patterns (Hopkins, 2008). He links this urgency directly to our current oil dependency: “it is about looking at the Achilles heel of globalization, one from which there is no protection other than resilience: its degree of oil dependency” (Hopkins, 2008).

The framing of the Transition model provided in the handbook does explicitly draw upon the academic literature on resilience in socio-ecological systems (citing a 2006 introductory text by Brian Walker and David Salt for example), but what ideas are being taken from this literature, and to what extent is the resulting framework consistent with the interpretation of resilience quoted in section 2 of this paper? The Transition Handbook (Hopkins, 2008) cites studies of what makes ecosystems resilient, identifying: diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks:

These initial resilience indicators rely heavily on equating resilience with the re-localisation of systems of production and consumption. So the Transition Handbook could be said to provide a starting point for talking about resilience in a Transition Town, but it is still a long way from being clear about what is needed in practice. Furthermore the evidence from observation of the local Transition groups (during 2008-2009) is that they are in an equivalent situation of trying to frame multiple actions in terms of the building of resilience but relying heavily on equating resilience with a re-localisation of production-consumption patterns.

Resilience theory highlights the fact that building resilience to a specified disturbance (such as Peak Oil) does not necessarily provide the same resilience to all possible disturbances. Some properties of a Transitioning community, such as strong community networks and diverse skill sets, may help provide resilience to most disturbances, while other properties may be very specific to one disturbance. If one were to take the position that the greatest shocks in the coming years may, in the end, turn out not to be the ones that we expected, then successfully building a specific resilience to an expected threat (such as Peak Oil) may not provide resilience against realized disturbances. So what may be required is to build resilience to specific threats in a way that also builds system properties that help in coping with diverse possible threats – implying, for example, a need for a capacity to innovate.

The current framing of resilience equates resilience with localisation in a rather unquestioning way, as demonstrated by the resilience indicators given in the Transition Handbook. We would argue that increasing any one of these indicators could actually either increase or decrease resilience to a specific disturbance, depending the exact nature of the disturbance and on the exact systemic changes used to enhance the indicator. We also argue that the desirable goal is not to simply increase such indicators as much as possible, but to find the right balance between resilience and other goals, such as quality of life and well being.

Rob Hopkins and Neil Adger on transition towns and resilience

Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition movement has a long interview with Neil Adger on resilience, peak oil, and climate adaptation on Transition CultureNeil Adger is a professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a member of the Resilience Alliance (Neil briefly explains social resilience in a video here).

RH: I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?

NA: First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.

So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.

I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.

Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?

I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.

Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.

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Transition Towns – resilience indicators & upcoming conferences

Rob Hopkins, Founder of the Transition movement, published ‘The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience’ in 2008. Here is an extract from the book under the headline ‘What are resilience indicators’,

Carbon footprinting and the cutting of carbon emissions are clearly a crucial part of preparing for an energy-lean future, but they are not the only way of measuring a community’s progress towards becoming more resilient. In the Transition approach, we see cutting carbon as one of many ‘Resilience Indicators’ that are able to show the increasing degree of resilience in the settlement in question. Others might include:

- the percentage of local trade carried out in local currency

- percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius

- ratio of car parking space to productive land use

- degree of engagement in practical Transition work by local community

- amount of traffic on local roads

- number of business owned by local people

- proportion of the community employed locally

- percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius

- percentage of local building materials used in new housing developments

- percentage of energy consumed in the town that has been generated by local ESCO

- amount of 16 year olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetable to a given degree of basic competency

- percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius

Interestingly, the book goes on to say that,

This is a new area the Transition Network is currently exploring. Your thoughts on what form other Resilience Indicators might take are very welcome. The core point is that we need more than carbon footprinting, that we could cut settlements’ emissions by half, but they would still be equally vulnerable to peak oil.

There are two upcoming Transition-related conferences in May 2010:

The 2010 Transition Network conference will be held in Forest Row in Sussex on the 29th, 30th and 31st May

The European Transition Conference from Wednesday 19th May 19 to Monday, 24th May 2010 in northern Germany

Three links: green revolution, scientific commons, and transition towns

1) Jeremy Cherfas writes on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog about the history of the green revolution:

The standard litany against the Green Revolution is that it failed to banish hunger because the technologies it ushered in were no use to small peasant farmers. Farmers with access to cash and good land did well, but poorer farmers on marginal land got nothing out of the revolution, and if they did somehow buy into it (subsidies, handouts) they were worse off afterwards. That’s not to deny that the Green Revolution increased yields, especially of wheat and rice. Just to say that it did nothing for most smallholders.A wonderful paper by Jonathan Harwood, in Agricultural History, demonstrates that this wasn’t always so. In the early days of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program, starting in the 1940s, the target was “resource-poor farmers who could not afford to purchase new seed annually”. The MAP’s advisors put improving cultivation practices at the top of their list, with better varieties second. And the improved varieties were to come from “introduction, selection or breeding”.

2) Ethan Zuckerman writes about John Wilbanks on Science Commons, and generativity in science:

One way to think of the mission of Science Commons, Wilbanks tells us, is to spark generative effects in the scientific world much as we’ve seen them in the online world. He quotes Jonathan Zittrain’s definition of generativity, from “The Future of the Internet… and How to Stop It“: “Generativity is a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences”. This raises some provocative questions, when applied to the world of science: “What does spam look like in a patent system? What does griefing look like in the world of biological data?”

The truth is that the scientific world is far less generative than the digital space. He proposes three major obstacles to generativity: accessibility, ease of mastery, and tranferability. He points out that, as science has gotten more high tech, it’s far harder to master. The result is hyperspecialization: neuroanatomists don’t talk to neuroinformaticists… “and god help you if you cross species lines.” And so universities are making huge investments to try to encourage collaboration: MIT’s just build a $400 million building – the Cook Center – to force collaboration between cancer researchers… and predictably, researchers are fighting the mandate to move in and work together.

3) Judith D. Schwartz writes about the Transition Town movement in Learning About Transition Via Its Vocabulary in Miller-McCune Online Magazine.

Transition: In Hopkins’ words, “Transition” represents “the process of moving from a state of high fossil-fuel dependency and high vulnerability to a state of low fossil-fuel dependency and resilience.” Transition “is not the goal itself — it’s the journey,” he says. Specifically, it’s seeing this journey as an opportunity to embrace rather than a calamity to approach with dread.

“Transition” is predicated on the assumption that society cannot keep consuming energy and other resources at our current pace and that we’re better off accepting this reality and choosing how to adapt rather than letting ourselves get backed into a crisis. The idea is that the adaptation process can harness creative and even joyful possibilities that until now have laid dormant in our towns and cities. As Hopkins has been known to say, “It’s more like a party than a protest march.”

Resilience: A community’s ability to adapt and respond to changes, as well as to withstand shocks to the system, such as disruptions in food or energy supply chains. Resilience differs from “sustainability” in that the emphasis is on community survival as opposed to maintaining the structures and behavioral patterns that currently exist.

“Resilience is the new sustainability,” says Michael Brownlee, a member of the Transition U.S. board and co-founder of Transition Boulder County, the first Transition Initiative in North America. “It’s been co-opted by almost everybody. Everybody is sustainable these days.”

Marketing aside, Hopkins says the two are intertwined: “Sustainability only works if it has resilience embedded in it.”

Transition Towns and Resilience Thinking

straplineThe concept of resilience appears to be really spreading.  One interesting group of people attempting to build resilience in specific communities is the Transition town movement. A global network of communities each of which is attempting to build their resilience to climate change and peak oil while addressing the question:

“for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”

Rob Hopkins is co-founder of the Transition Network, which connects together the Transition Town movement.  He recently wrote an article about Resilience Thinking and transition for Resurgence magazine.  The definition of resilience from the RA’s wesbsite  starts his article Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability

Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”

In July 2009, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband unveiled the government’s UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, a bold and powerful statement of intent for a low-carbon economy in the UK. It stated that by 2020 there would be a five-fold increase in wind generation, feed-in tariffs for domestic energy generation, and an unprecedented scheme to retrofit every house in the country for energy efficiency. In view of the extraordinary scale of the challenge presented by climate change, I hesitate to criticise steps in the right direction taken by government. There is, though, a key flaw in the document, which also appears in much of the wider societal thinking about climate change. This flaw is the attempt to address the issue of climate change without also addressing a second, equally important issue: that of resilience.

The term ‘resilience’ is appearing more frequently in discussions about environmental concerns, and it has a strong claim to actually being a more useful concept than that of sustainability. Sustainability and its oxymoronic offspring sustainable development are commonly held to be a sufficient response to the scale of the climate challenge we face: to reduce the inputs at one end of the globalised economic growth model (energy, resources, and so on) while reducing the outputs at the other end (pollution, carbon emissions, etc.). However, responses to climate change that do not also address the imminent, or quite possibly already passed, peak in world oil production do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face.

Resilience thinking can inspire a degree of creative thinking that might actually take us closer to solutions that will succeed in the longer term. Resilient solutions to climate change might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems in such a way as to generate revenue to resource the wider relocalisation process; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp), thereby stimulating a range of potential local businesses and industries; the installation of a range of urban food production models; and the re-linking of farmers with their local markets. By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.

The Transition Movement is a rapidly growing, ‘viral’ movement, which began in Ireland and is now under way in thousands of communities around the world. Its fundamental premise is that a response to climate change and peak oil will require action globally, nationally, and at the scale of local government, but it also needs vibrant communities driving the process, making unelectable policies electable, creating the groundswell for practical change at the local level.

It explores the practicalities of building resilience across all aspects of daily life. It catalyses communities to ask, “How are we going to significantly rebuild resilience in response to peak oil and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”

By putting resilience alongside the need to reduce carbon emissions, it is catalysing a broad range of initiatives, from Community Supported Agriculture and garden-share schemes to local food directories and new Farmers’ Markets. Some places, such as Lewes and Totnes, have set up their own energy companies, in order to resource the installation of renewable energy. The Lewes Pound, the local currency that can only be spent in Lewes, recently expanded with the issuing of new £5, £10 and £20 notes. Stroud and Brixton are set to do the same soon.