Rob Hopkins Transition Movement

Photo: Jim Wileman

When Rob Hopkins first learned about the concept of peak oil, he and his students started exploring what it would look like if their small Irish town was to begin weaning itself off fossil fuels. From that starting point at the Kinsale Further Education College, the Transition Movement was born — a grassroots initiative that has spread to more than 400 communities across the globe, and spawned countless spinoff projects ranging from community-owned solar cooperatives through "crop swaps" to local currencies.

In his new book, "The Power of Just Doing Stuff," Hopkins explores how a diverse range of people around the world are stepping up to the global challenges we face by instigating grassroots changes in the communities around them.

We caught up with Hopkins to find out a little more about his book, and the people who inspired it.

Power of Just Doing Stuff coverMNN: What's the big idea behind 'The Power of Just Doing Stuff'? How does it differ from the 'Transition Handbook' and the 'Transition Companion'?

Hopkins: Well, the 'Transition Handbook' is out of print now, and the Companion is more of an all-singing-all-dancing guide to how to do Transition. We felt there was a real need for an introductory book, something not so much written for people already involved in Transition, but something they could give to their local councilors, skeptical relatives and so on. It's really about the thrill of doing this, how people find a new sense of possibility and excitement by being a part of this.

I'd say the big idea behind the book is that local economies and community resilience are no longer a nice idea, a nice theory, but are emerging strongly as a form of economic development. There's a statistic in the book from the Portas Review which states that 97 percent of all groceries are now sold through just 8,000 supermarket outlets in the UK. ... If, for simplicity's sake, we say the remaining 3 percent is the local, independent economy, then the question is whether in our push for growth and economic revival we should focus on growing the 3 percent or the 97 percent?

We know that the 3 percent economy creates up to three times more jobs for every pound spent in it than the 97 percent economy. We know it creates more resilient communities, more active civil society, allows more money to cycle locally, creates more well-being, even that it leads to higher turnout at elections. In other words, it meets our needs easier. Yet it is threatened by the aggressive, expansionist, high-carbon and fossil fuel dependent 97 percent economy.

The big idea of the book is that it is the 3 percent we need to grow, and that communities can play a huge role in making that happen, indeed that they already are.

Brixton Energy solar panelsWhat are some of the stories and initiatives that have inspired you in writing this book?

There are too many to mention really. One of the great privileges of my work is to sit in the place many of those stories pass through. I am continually blown away by what people are doing. There's Bath and West Community Energy who recently raised 750,000 pounds in share investment from the local community, which gave their local council the confidence to invest 2 million pounds in renewable energy projects in the city. There's Brixton Energy in London (shown above), doing remarkable work installing community renewables on some of the poorest housing in London. Transition Streets, the street-by-street behavior change model started in Totnes, has now gone global. I read a great report last week from a community doing it in Australia.

It is constantly inspiring. What came through very clearly when researching the book and contacting people around the world who are doing Transition in the place they live, is the sense of taking back power over aspects of their lives. Although the challenges we face are huge, by breaking it into small manageable pieces we discover a new sense of what's possible. Hearing that back from people working in wildly different contexts was amazing.

Why do you think local, community-based action is so attractive to people?

It is attractive, I think, because it feels right. We are social creatures, we need each other, we need to meet, talk, roll up our sleeves together. In recent years we have become increasingly distant from each other. I visited Crystal Palace in London the other day, where we launched the book with the incredible Transition group there. I visited a community food garden they had created which had won the mayor of London's community garden award, and one of the women who had created it told me, "I think the most magical thing about this garden is the people who come through it, the friendships that have been made, and the huge transformation we've seen in some people who've come through the garden." Government can't legislate for that, business can't do that, only we can do that.

community gardenCritics of the Transition Movement have sometimes countered that local, small-scale action is a distraction from pushing for the big picture, systemic changes that are needed. How do you feel about that charge? Are there ways to address it?

I think that's a really flimsy argument. Transition would never argue that it is the only thing we need. We need government responses, we need campaigning, we need that whole gamut of approaches that produce change. At the same time though, Transition is a social technology, if you like, designed to work at the local level. It isn't designed to lobby in the conventional way. It works because it brings people together, often people who feel that campaigning just either isn't for them or just doesn't work, and energizes them with possibilities. Campaigns rarely do that; government never does that.

I think it is another route to those big-picture changes. Should we be seeking to create one new big alternative energy company, or thousands of well-connected networks of community renewables companies? Should we be setting up one new huge local food business, or thousands of small, community-appropriate ones? I think Transition also is about not waiting for, or demanding, anyone's permission to get on and create the kind of world we want to see. It's about doing stuff, here and now. Hence the title of the book. I think if people argue, as in your question, that "local, small-scale action is a distraction from pushing for the big picture, systemic changes that are needed," my response would be that the more accepted approach for pushing for those changes really doesn't seem to be getting anywhere much.

If a community or an individual is inspired to take action by your book, where do you recommend they start?

Have a look at transitionnetwork.org and see what's already happening where you live. Find some other people who would like to do it too. Inspire yourself with stories of what people are already doing. Remember to pay attention to how your group works, and step across into action and actually doing stuff. Enjoy it. This is meant to be fun. And share your stories: We only figure out how to do this by everyone's experiences being pooled together.

The official launch video for 'The Power of Just Doing Stuff'

Featuring the mayor of Totnes. And a pumpkin.

Related stories on MNN:

Click for photo credits

Photo credits:

Solar panels: Brixton Energy

Community garden: Goodluz/Shutterstock