“One of the failings of the environmental movement is thinking that the best way to get people to change is to give them a sufficiently depressing leaflet so they think: hell, that’s terrible, I’d better go and plant carrots.” For an environmentalist, Rob Hopkins has some strong views about environmentalists. “We need to find other ways to engage people and get them involved,” he said.
Ways, he suggests, that might mean planting vegetables or might mean issuing a local, alternative currency – as seen with the launch of the Brixton Pound and Stroud Teasel last month. Going so far as printing an alternative to Sterling might sound like a scene from Passport to Pimlico, but it’s all part of Hopkins’ plan to tackle climate change, neighbour by neighbour.
When he states bluntly that “there won’t be any planes in fifty years” it seems a pretty bold statement. But the 41-year-old lecturer, co-founder of the ‘Transition Town’ movement that has spread across Britain and the Anglosphere, has spent years designing methods to cope with an oil-free future – in which getting a fully laden aeroplane off the ground may be just too expensive.
“Without fossil fuels, generating electricity is hard – the priority is going to be keeping the lights on and infrastructure going, not travel,” he explained. “In fifty years, we’re going to need to go to bed every day having locked up more carbon than we’ve produced. How we do that is a huge, huge question.”
His Transition concept has in only four years taken hold in more than 100 cities, districts, towns and villages in Britain and the Anglosphere, parts of Europe, South America and China. It has even reached Ambridge, the fictional rural town setting for long-running BBC radio show The Archers.
Transition holds that communities must re-orient themselves around local resources, producers and consumers in order to create local economies more resilient to any future shocks. Such ‘resilience’ might seem a smart proposition in light of the recession that has thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work, bankrupted businesses large and small, caused runs on banks and highlighted the precariousness of Britain’s financial-institutions-and-callcentres-only service economy.
An oil-scarce or even oil-free future will ensure that flying in freight from abroad will become hugely expensive – perhaps even impossible – making it all the more vital for communities to be able to meet as many of their own needs as they can.
Hopkins said: “I don’t think anyone is saying that Transition will be enough on its own to save the world from runaway climate change. We need international legislation, government and local authority action. But community involvement has to be central, not just lip service.”
Critics state the Transition model is too vague, doesn’t go far enough, or leaves fails to address the root of the problem – seen from some quarters as capitalism itself. Green author Ted Trainer made these criticisms, adding that the only solution was “an Anarchist form of government”.
“People tend to bring their backgrounds with them to the transition movement, so ‘deep greens’ might say they have to remove capitalism first,” Hopkins said. “I feel if that’s the case we may as well not bother. A lot of people in the environmental movement have very little awareness of how little such a radical perspective appeals to people.
“We have to take out all these value judgements – cars are bad, capitalism is bad. We don’t have to convert everyone, people don’t have to change their whole job or their life, just enough to help rather than hinder.”
As one of Transition’s means to get people involved, issuing local currency ticks many boxes: it gives prominence to local businesses and producers, encourages consumers to spend locally, and forges closer links among the community. As it cannot be banked and is worthless outside the area, such currency re-circulates within the local economy instead of leeching into the pockets of large companies’ shareholders or City finance institutions.
While the Brixton and Stroud schemes join others in Lewes, Totnes and the Eko, used in the Scottish ecovillage of Findhorn, these are not cutting edge pioneers. Alternative currencies have existed for centuries: set up in 1934, the 65,000 members of the Swiss wir scheme trade the equivalent of 1.6bn Swiss Francs annually, the town of Berkshire, Massachusetts has issued $1.5m of Berkshares in only a few years, and the Lewes Pound itself existed once before between 1789 and 1895.
While not met with universal enthusiasm (“Monopoly money”, was one Brixton market trader’s dismissive response), 100 businesses signed up to the Brixton Pound including cafés, market traders and restaurants, a department store, shoe shop, record shop, caterer, bars and pubs, an off licence, computer shop, estate agent, builders, plumbers, a solicitor and a bellydancer.
Josh Ryan-Collins, co-founder of the Brixton group, said that the haulier’s petrol strike in 2000, with supermarkets only days from food shortages, showed the dangers of an oil crisis. Local currency taught “the democratisation of money”, he said. “It gets people thinking about how money can have an effect. It de-mystifies money and shows how it’s not just a neutral tool for exchange, but that it can also embody the values you give to it.”
He added: “And it’s fun – I’ve met hundreds of interesting new people. It’s changed the way I think about Brixton.”
Patrick Crawford, from the Lewes Pound, said at launch last year the group hoped for 30 businesses and around 100 shoppers using the currency, but now has signed up more than 150 businesses and 40,000 notes in circulation. “Some traders offer discount as an incentive, but I feel a sense of pride and independence using it,” Crawford said. “I enjoy using it because I can.”
What stood out, Crawford said, was how members of the group had come together under the Transition banner to start the ball rolling, without government or council involvement. “For example, Lewes had an energy discussion group, out of which we spun-off an energy company employing people to do insulation and glazing and carrying out work with grants on behalf of the council. The groups are filled with people actually interested in doing things, which is how thing’s get done. It’s very grass roots.”
The Lewes Pound notes bear the image of libertarian and reformer Thomas Paine, who lived in the Sussex town between 1768-74. Beneath are his words, as resonant then in the time of revolutions as they are now: “We have it in our power to begin the world anew”.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2009]