From oil dependency to local resilience, by Rob Hopkins

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Further information on The Transition Handbook on the Daruma Collection in LibraryThing

Book Review by Darren Roberts

Introduction / Book Overview

The Transition Handbook is about solutions. Solutions to a world in which oil is becoming scarcer, more expensive, and harder to find & extract. Community driven & created ‘Energy Descent Action Plans’ are the desired outputs.

It recognizes that nearly everything we experience materially in our modern existence, is made possible due to the availability of cheap oil to produce or transport those material items for us, or to us. A world in which cheap fossil fuels have enabled the inequitable phenomena of globalization, something not seen at this scale in modern human history.

This, however, is not a book filled with doom and gloom, despair, or apathy. It is quite the opposite, setting forth a positive vision for an ‘abundant pathway’ to the future. It promotes a move towards more localized living, with the aim of reversing the trend over recent decades of deteriorating local resilience, and absolutely encourages celebration all along the way.

The move towards more localized energy-efficient and productive living arrangements is not a choice; it is an inevitable direction for humanity.” – Rob Hopkins, 2008

This book does have ‘handbook’ in the title, and it is just that, including not just ideas of a prescribed or dictated utopian future in which we all live happily ever after, but practical steps to implement things such as local currencies, resolve or avoid conflicts between people, and how to enable the flourishing and self-replication of local active groups in communities around the UK and the world.

The Transition Town movement is a positive, whole-system, flexible framework that we can use to find and apply solutions in the real world, whichever energy-descent scenario we end up in.


Why rebuilding Resilience is as important as cutting Carbon Emissions.

Rebuilding resilience is one of the key ideas to cope with Energy Descent from Peak Oil. With our current infrastructure and local resources, the book points to evidence such as the Truckers strike in recent years in the UK, highlighting that our existence is more brittle and fragile than most of us wish to acknowledge.

Comparing the idea of ‘sustainability’, to the idea of ‘resilience’, provides meaningful insight into the Transition concept. Recycling plastic, glass or paper, may increase ‘sustainability’. But it does nothing to improve a community’s ability to survive things like transport grinding to a halt, which impacts everything from fuel to food deliveries, and ultimately even water supplies should power stations cease to provide electricity for pumping stations.

The 3 ingredients of a resilient system are given in the Handbook as follows:

1 Diversity

2 Modularity

3 Tightness of feedbacks

Diversity, is related to the number of elements and connections within a system (and also to systems that connect to other systems). Small changes at the local level create unique local practices, solutions & cultures that are similar, but different, to other nearby local solutions. We have had this historically, although the carbon-copy high street undeniably grew in towns & cities across the UK in recent decades. The unique solutions arrived at by people in their own communites may be a way of reviving this diversity across regions, and brings to mind fractal patterns that are self-similar – every so slightly different in different parts of the pattern, and at different scales, but with an immediately recognizable ‘familiar’ quality. Enormous diversity is achieved through the genius of people and slight variations in ‘starting conditions’.

Modularity refers to how components are related; more modularity leads to more resilience when a shock to the system is experienced. Examples of the problems inherent in Globalization that are given in the Handbook include bird flu, the banking crisis, and the truckers strike in the UK. There too little modularity currently within our globalized system, leading to shocks having very rapid, and far-reaching knock-on effects in other parts of the system.

Tightness of feedbacks – small & slow solutions have a more gradual, and more easily modulated impact on other parts of the whole. Globalization is way at the other end of the spectrum here, enabling very rigid, long connections between distant parts of the whole.

Something that might help to visualize this would be the metaphor of an oil tanker (or any vehicle that carries fluids) that has no baffles or compartments in the tanks, instead having just one, big tank. With baffles, individual components, or cells, or compartments, of a system do not transmit effects immediately, and do so with less energy. This provides a ‘buffer’ or ‘damper’, slowing down and moderating what can otherwise be global epidemics or disasters. Take those baffles out, and the whole ship can capsize even without external shocks as the entire load of oil, or milk etc, sloshes easily inside one big tank. Simply trying to change course, or speed, can seriously destabilize such a vehicle, which is what we have with globalization.

More baffles in the oil tanker or milk delivery truck (modularity), gives a more stable system that can withstand lots of sloshing around in individual, but still connected, compartments within the whole.

The Transition Concept

So, what is a ‘Transition Initiative’? Initially, the phrase was ‘Transition Towns’, but the concept is already spreading and scaling so much that this may not make sense. A phrase coined by Jeremy Leggett might help: “scalable microcosms of hope”.

If we remember the desired outcome of the Transition Handbook is to facilitate people when creating and implementing ‘Energy Descent Action Plans’, then things seem clearer, at least to me.

Interesting comparisons show conventional environmentalism to be something that focusses on the individual, using fear-based campaigns and protests, with the Transition approach being holistic, created by communities, and positivistic. Think ‘sustainability Vs. resilience’ again here.

There are 4 Key Assumptions that inform the Transition approach.

  1. it’s better to plan for the inevitable life with lower energy than be taken by surprise.

  2. We currently lack the resilience to deal with peak oil energy shocks.

  3. We have to act now, and collectively.

  4. Collectively, we can build more connected, enriching ways of living within the limits that our planet can supply.

There are 12 principles for setting up a Transition initiative that include using Open Space meetings, setting up Steering Groups & planning their demise, honouring the elders, and reskilling people so as to prevent the complete loss of traditional (low energy) ways of working.

Practical Examples, and Problems

Some of the practical examples I will reference here, actually come from a video on the Transition Youtube channel. There are examples of Transition Initiatives in various locations around the UK, and now the world. These can range from community-funding to purchase a grocery store, leading to a place for local growers to also sell their produce or trade it for other produce. Bakeries, cafes, and all kinds of community-supported businesses are possible. Small-scale solar farms entirely funded by the local community. Planting food in beds previously used for flowers….or not used at all. The possibilites are only limited by the imagination and creativity of every-day folk and the freedom inherent within the Transition concept. There are no ‘right answers’ given in the book. The right answers, or solutions, are the exact solutions implemented by you, your community, in your area.

Some problems which seem to have refined the Transition Initiative, again from their Youtube channel, are inter-personal relationships. The example of a project that failed due to a breakdown in relations between it’s members is, well, sad, and seemed unpleasant for all concerned. However, the lesson learned – that if we cannot get people working nicely together at least most of the time, nothing at all works – then led to a more ‘people-centric’ focus. It seems from the video, that the ‘primary ethic’ is now facilitating people to work together in groups, in the knowledge that if this is not possible, it all falls apart too quickly, and everything is lost.


I am struck both during, and after reading the Transition Handbook, by how difficult it is to define. Much like trying to define permaculture. This, should not come as such a surprise to me, knowing now that Rob Hopkins taught permaculture for a decade or so, and having seen permaculture referenced more than once in the Handbook.

The outcome is easy enough to state in this form: helping people to create energy descent action plans.

What that looks like, is as varied as the people that make up groups in locations all around the world.

I like the book a lot, have loved listening to episodes on The Permaculture Podcast featuring Rob Hopkins, and also watching video on the Transition youtube channel. With the limited time available to review the book during a hectic PDC, I feel like it would be unfair for me to give it a ‘star rating’….but would say that anyone interested in permaculture, or rebuilding community, revitalizing local connections, and being better prepared next time we have a national or global crisis, might very much enjoy this book.

Okay, sod it. 5 stars. It really does a good job of explaining something so …. ‘nebulous’ and creative, and different wherever you choose to look at it.

You can find the Transition Network here.