activism books climate change energy transition towns

The Transition Handbook, by Rob Hopkins

The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience‘ is the guidebook to the Transition Towns movement. It explains the problems of peak oil and climate change, re-localization and resilience as responses that will transition us to a post-carbon future, and how you can set up your own transition initiative.

All of this is divided into three broad sections, ‘the head’, ‘the heart’, and ‘the hands’. First, the problem, and Hopkins explains peak oil and climate change in simple and straightforward terms. He avoids the controversies, and focuses on the local – these are things that will affect each of us, in our every day lives. The two must be addressed together, as there are many solutions that will tackle both, and other solutions to one that will make the other worse. The US government’s Hirsch report for example, recommends coal to liquids for keeping cars on the road – a neat solution to peak oil, but devastating to climate change. Instead, a focus on efficiency and public transport would deal with both.

Hopkins also suggests that peak oil “can do more to engage and involve people and communities than climate change.” Peak oil has an obvious logic to it, while climate change is a little abstract. Oil is something we see and use, while tonnes of carbon is hard to grasp. Climate change says you should give up driving because it’s bad, somewhere, probably. Peak oil says you won’t be able to drive, whether you like it or not. Since we hear about climate change all the time, but only rarely talk about peak oil, we don’t have the problem of climate fatigue. I hadn’t thought of peak oil this way, but it’s a good point.

‘The heart’ is the most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, because it addresses things I’ve never seen in an environmental context. Hopkins draws on addiction therapy and psychology to talk about how people perceive threats, and how they handle change. Then can be a real ‘moment’ when you first get the seriousness of our ecological crisis. For me it was on a weekend conference with the conservation group Arocha. I’ve seen the look on others’ faces as the credits roll on ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. When the penny drops, says Hopkins, all kinds of things can happen. People can be bewildered, grasp at irrational solutions to psychologically fend off the problem. Others will retreat to survivalism or denial. It’s at this point that a positive vision is most necessary.

Transition Towns is that vision, a “compelling and engaging vision of a post carbon world”. It presents the future as healthier, happier, where we live more satisfied, less stressed and time-pressured lives. It makes positive associations, and draws us towards something, rather than just campaigning against things all the time. It captures our imagination, empowers and energises.*

‘The Hands’ gets down to the practical details, from the principles of Permaculture, how to write a press release, working with a local council, films to show, the experiences of Totnes and Lewes, the first projects. There are sections on running productive meetings or discussions with large numbers of people. It’s practical and realistic, and really does feel like a handbook or a manual. I should also mention that from a design point of view, The Transition Handbook is a nice piece of work. It’s big and square and has wide margins that invite you to scribble notes. In its message and design, it’s a book that wants you to be involved, to add your story to the transition tales.

Transition Towns is the rarest of things, being a response to climate change and peak oil that is positive and proactive. “Too often environmentalists try to engage people in action by painting apocalyptic visions of the future as a way of scaring them into action” says Hopkins. “What would happen if we came at this the other way round, painting a picture of the future so enticing that people instinctively feel drawn towards it.”

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*As a Christian on the outside of the mainstream church, my feelings towards the church are similar – the Christian faith should be a positive vision of a life that is all about community, justice, and love for people and the earth. That made the Transition Handbook an interesting read, and I say ‘Amen, brother’ to Mr Hopkins.


  1. The NYTimes coverage of Transition community meetings, is rife with the exact types of comments and feel-good insanity that trashed similar efforts, realizations and reactions in the 1960s (I was there). The name…the book…the intent…is truly relevent and urgent…just as it was in the 60s. Does ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ ring a bell for anyone?

    What is missing from this modern rehash of ‘Whole Earth’ sensibility, is the cold hard fact that you and your neighbor will be dependent on the land and upon each other for the basics of survival. The nutcase who wants to waste time holding hands and ‘feeling like a raindrop’…will be a beggar in the street…or will resort to stealing from you once hunger sets in.

    If the ‘Transition’ can occur with a fairly functional Power Grid, a strong GNP, continued Global Trade-Military balance, Balanced National Budget and a healthy sustained Tax Revenue base…we win! We’ll be where we never should have left in the first place.

    If such is not the case…all bets are off! In the most extreme case…think Medieval Times with Feudal territories and a cruel but distant Federal presence with repeated attacks from foreign countries in need of natural resources and slave labor.

    Ideally though, communities would reorganize according to populations, available living space, natural resources and available occupational talent. The richness of Governmental Entitlements will be the first thing to suffer reductions, as companies and families lose the ability to pay taxes.

    ‘Public Assistance’ will be doled out only to the truly helpless…the lazy and untrainable will be managed according to the kindness of whatever ‘government’ is in control locally. Which brings the question, who has ‘Control’. Where are the weapons? Check out Howard Rough’s predictions from back in the 1960s.

    Unless we convert to a Federal-Military State(fascism) …the Citizens had better have a way of protecting their sustainable community from armies of bandits. You think the mexican Drug cartels are ruthless? You ain’t seen nothing yet!

    In a not-so-successful ‘Transition’, the nation’s ability to ‘carry’ non-productive individuals, criminals, orphans, and the ‘welfare culture’…will disappear quickly. People will have to become responsible for feeding and clothing themselves and their families. There will be some successful regions and there will be even more dismal failures who suffer greatly…with no capoacity for rescue from an economically challenged National Government.

    The ‘Transition handbook’ speaks of looking at Government as a friendly resource for achieving ‘civic’ good. That foundation describes a ‘majority rules’ reality…something this nation discarded in the 1970s.

    The more probable function of Government…is already openly practiced. Fascism will see to the needs of the ‘Transition’, through the predetermined and undeniable directives of the Government. Control of the energy grid, economics, fuel costs, industrial directives and therein…every job and individual…will be mandatory to the survival of Political Realms. Any ‘other’ approach to the ‘Transition’…will involve the Government’s necessary redirection (through the legal system and law enforcement)of families and communities who might elect to become self-sufficient and attempt to generate energy, distribute food and tools, or other taxable efforts…outside…Government’s oversight and control.

    The current Federal and State Burdens of providing ‘Entitlements’ will not be sustainable under the much-reduced ‘Transition’ revenue system. Rather than admit the incapacity and lose Burocratic Structure…Government will intensify its self-support through World-wide Police Actions (economic and nationalistic loyalty boosters), multitudes of tax penalties, restrictive legal edicts (in the name of democratic solvency) and ultimately via violent Police-Military efforts in the 48 states (Hawaii will become a solvent nation, Alaska will be sold to Canada as a negotiated shared-resource center).

    Let’s not forget the economic impact of another 75 years of military presence in the Middle East, a nuclear skirmish between Israel and Iran, and the potential for civil wars and world-wide aggressions by and against China and India.

    My head hurts!

  2. Mine too!

    I don’t know about other Transition initiatives, let alone New York ones, but our meetings haven’t involved any hand-holding. Yet. One of the things I like about the Transition movement is that it hasn’t been co-opted by the hippy fringe, but remains credible.

    I actually agree with a lot of what you’re suggesting, that we will need strong government as well. If the rule of law breaks down, Transition projects may come to grief, but that’s going to be true whatever the case. I think we do need a functional national grid, a balanced budget and a sustained tax base.

    I hope we can spend less on the military – if we don’t break our dependency we’ll have to fight for oil in the future. A successful transition might be inadvertently be a peace movement too.

    A lot of what is happening now is a repeat of the past. I find the writers from the last oil shocks, like Schumacher, E J Mishan, or Herman Daly, to be just as relevant as today’s. A lot of the ideas should have been adopted in the 1970s, before Reagan and Thatcher buried environmentalism under new oil sources.

    Anyway, we might end up with fascism, or with anarchy, but it won’t be for lack of trying on my part.

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