The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Self-Reliance
By: Rob Hopkins
Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front
By: Sharon Astyk
Many books on climate change and peak oil are tech-heavy tomes whose tone is so severe and forbidding that they induce “post-petroleum stress disorder” in readers – the scary perception that deprivation and misery stalk our future and only armed survivalists will prevail.
But two new books on the topic offer other, more optimistic possibilities to confronting the triple crises of declining fossil fuel supplies, unpredictable climate patterns, and widespread economic shock.
The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Self-Reliance and Depletion by Rob Hopkins and Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front by Sharon Astyk both squarely address the urgent challenge modern societies face: how to dramatically reduce our energy dependence by establishing community resilience, strengthening local economies and ramping up “homestead” food production. Although the books differ in their approaches, they reinforce and complement each other in powerful ways. Together the books offer a comprehensive, practical and pro-active approach to facing a vastly altered future.
Sharon Astyk’s special contribution is her ability to translate the technical, abstract concept of energy depletion into the down-to-earth, daily details of household life—in the living room, kitchen and backyard. An English literature graduate student-turned-farmer and the mother of four children, her observations are eminently practical, and reflect lived experience. (It is worth noting that Astyk is, so far, the only woman author who has published widely on the implications of peak oil, both in this book and through her brilliant and far-ranging blog, www.sharonastyk.com
For her, the household assumes primacy as the center of production, conservation, and activism. The “Home Front” allusion of the book’s subtitle hearkens back to World War II, when Victory gardens, developed out of local women’s garden clubs from decades earlier, eventually produced almost 40 percent of American food. As she writes, “In time of war, governments acknowledge what they otherwise deny in market economies—that our ordinary human actions have a powerful political and social context.”
She poses the immediate concrete questions that a responsible parent in an energy-scarce future would ask:
Where do we go from here? How will these (conditions) affect me and my family? How will people in the neighborhood get water? Who has yard space to grow food? How will you check on the elderly and disabled? Where will the kids go to school if the buses stop running?
Not that Astyk relegates herself to the “mommy ghetto” wherein female authors’ concerns are limited to the domestic scene; on the contrary, she brings a sophisticated and subtle analysis to a range of post-Peak Oil issues. In particular, her exploration of the informal economy – the in-kind, barter, work sharing and other kinds of “value” exchange outside of the market economy –underlines the increasing importance this model will assume in our lives as the consumer society (a byproduct of cheap energy) withers. Frugality, recycling, and repairing are values we must discover anew but, as she points out, “we all have to address how to be less rich, but still have security, stability, pleasure and comfort,” to nurture ways to get the things we need not that are not traded on the stock market. A “dividend” is that as more people practice and attain more self-sufficiency, their power to affect change increases and, just maybe, that of the corporations may lessen.
Astyk’s realistic, often witty, descriptions of neighborhood and family dynamics inform a wise understanding of what it really takes to build community. And she affirms that none of us can be secure in isolation. Individual and familial efforts are important, but the sheer scale of problems we face on a national and global level also requires a larger, organized community response.
The “how to” details of creating of resilient, self-reliance communities is the particular strength of The Transition Handbook. The genius of the Transition concept is that is provides the “missing link” that bonds hopeful good intentions with concrete, achievable goals –goals that are rooted in community realities and anchored by the calendar.
As expressed in the foreword, “Forces are converging very fast that make whether we choose to retain and enhance resilience…much more than just a philosophical discussion…The move towards more localized energy-efficient and productive living arrangements is not a choice; it is an inevitable direction for humanity.”
The town of Kinsale in Ireland was one of the first to start a deliberate transition in this direction. In 2004, Handbook author Rob Hopkins –a local teacher – assigned his university students the task of planning how the town could transition to a lower-energy future. By canvassing their neighbors and researching local institutions, the students –and in due time, the wider community -- constructed a year-by-year plan to begin to “localize” food, energy, education, transportation, economic resources, and more. This “Energy Descent Plan” as described in the Handbook, “sets out a vision of a powered-down, resilient, relocalized future, and then backcasts, in a series of practical steps, creating a map for getting from here to there.”
Four key transition concepts are reflected throughout the Handbook:
-Life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and it is better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise
-Our communities have lost the resilience to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil
-We (that is, ordinary citizens) have to act collectively, and we have to act now
-Generating and harnessing collective wisdom can lead to choices that increase stability, creativity, and sustainability
If The Transition Handbook has a limitation, it is that it will appeal most immediately to those who know something about the topic and will not be deterred by some of the (necessary) scientific and technical explanations of why energy descent is crucial. This is perhaps unavoidable; relatively few people have been exposed to the transition concept due to the paucity of reporting in mainstream media.
Nevertheless, the transition concept is spreading rapidly. Kinsdale was the first of dozens of towns in Britain that have adopted “Transition Initiatives.” Numerous U.S. cities, including Washington DC, are replicating local transitions.
The Handbook lays out the step-by-step process for Transition initiatives, with milestones, activities, questionnaires, surveys and processes that need to be in place. It offers a number of useful tools for organizing and publicizing initiatives and integrating initiatives with local government. Both the Transition Handbook and Depletion and Abundance also offer full, well-researched references and resources—books, videos, websites, and documents --many of them free and downloadable via the Internet.
Beyond the “nut and bolts,” the Handbook offers a philosophical vision – one that may offer inspiration in the hard times ahead:
“While peak oil and climate change are undeniably profoundly challenging, also inherent within them is the potential for an economic, cultural and social renaissance likes of which we have never seen. We will see a flourishing of local businesses, local skills and solutions, and a flowering on ingenuity and creativity...Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were; we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled and ultimately wiser.”
As we enter the early stages of the End of Cheap Oil, we are indeed fortunate to have these two books to provide both personal and communal roadmaps to a sustainable and more satisfying future.
(This review appeared with alterations at the website of Potter’s House (www.pottershousedc.org
), whose bookstore sells both books.)