19 Feb 2008
Tantalising Glimpses of Resilience: the Introduction to “The Transition Handbook”.
**The Transition Handbook** will be available to order here at Transition Culture on February 28th, the wait is nearly over (more on that soon). By way of starting to introduce you to it, and by way of whetting your appetite for its many wonders, here is the introduction to the book, which first introduces the concept of resilience.
“Central to this book is the concept of resilience – familiar to ecologists, but less so to the rest of us. Resilience refers to the ability of a system, from individual people to whole economies, to hold together and maintain their ability to function in the face of change and shocks from the outside. This book, The Transition Handbook, argues that in our current (and long overdue) efforts to drastically cut carbon emissions, we must also give equal importance to the building, or more accurately to the rebuilding, of resilience. Indeed, I will argue that cutting emissions without resilience-building is ultimately futile. But what does resilience actually look like?
In 1990 I visited the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan, which until the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1978 had been almost completely cut off from the outside world. When I visited I knew nothing about permaculture, of the concept of resilience, or even a great deal about food, farming or the environment, but I knew when I arrived that was this was an extraordinary place.
I found a quote in a book which I read as I travelled up towards Hunza (I no longer remember the title) which read: “If on Earth there is a garden of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this.” They were words that replayed in my head many times over my two weeks in Hunza. Here was a society which lived within its limits and had evolved a dazzlingly sophisticated yet simple way of doing so. All the waste, including human waste, was carefully composted and returned to the land. The terraces which had been built into the mountainsides over centuries were irrigated through a network of channels that brought mineral-rich water from the glacier above down to the fields with astonishing precision.
Apricot trees were everywhere, as well as cherry, apple, almond and other fruit and nut trees. Around and beneath the trees grew potatoes, barley, wheat and other vegetables. The fields were orderly but not regimented. Plants grew in small blocks, rather than in huge monocultures. Being on the side of a mountain, one I invariably had to walk up and down hills a great deal, and soon began to feel some of the fitness for which the people of Hunza are famed. The paths were lined with dry stone walls, and were designed for people and animals, not for cars.
People seemed to always have time to stop and talk to each other and spend time with the children who ran barefoot and dusty through the fields. Apricots were harvested and spread out to dry on the rooftops of the houses, a dazzling sight in the bright mountain sun. Buildings were built from locally-made mud bricks, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And there was always the majestic splendour of the mountains towering above. Hunza was quite simply the most beautiful, tranquil, happy and abundant place I have ever visited, before or since.
At that time I was an artist, and spent my days with sketchbook in hand, wandering the fields, lanes and terraces, dazzled by the light and colour, spending many hours just working on one drawing in an ultimately futile attempt to try and represent the beauty of what was in front of me.
If (at that time) Hunza were to be cut off from the world and the global economy’s highways of trucks packed with goods, it would have managed fine. If there were a global economic downturn, or even a collapse, it would have had little impact on the Hunza Valley. The people were resilient too, happy, healthy and with a strong sense of community.
I do not intend to romanticise or idealise it, but there was something I caught a glimpse of when I was in Hunza that resonated with a deep genetic memory somewhere within me. I grew up in England when the fossil fuel party was in full swing, in a culture ceaselessly trying to erase all traces of resilience and rubbishing the very idea at every opportunity, portraying country people as stupid, the traditional as ‘old fashioned’ and growth and ‘progress’ as inevitable. In this remote valley I felt a yearning for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on but which I now see as being resilience: a culture based on its ability to function indefinitely and to live within its limits, and able to thrive for having done so.
However, even then, in 1990, things were starting to change. When I was there, empty sacks of nitrogen fertiliser were visible in the corners of some of the fields. Sacks of cement were appearing, as were refined sugary foods and fizzy drinks. The process of undermining that resilience had begun in earnest, as has happened in most parts of the world and continues at a frantic pace. I haven’t been back since, and so cannot offer an update, but I would be very surprised if the direction of change had been focused on the preservation of the Valley’s ability to support itself. Indeed, from the amount of adverts on the internet for places selling ‘Hunza produce’, it appears to have moved towards being an export-driven economy.
Forces are converging very fast that make whether or not we choose to retain and enhance resilience, rather than just let it crumble, much more than just a philosophical discussion. It is no longer just a case of whether we should be questioning the forces of economic globalisation because they are unjust, inequitable or a rapacious destroyer of environments and cultures. Instead it is about looking at the Achilles heel of economic globalisation, one from which there is no protection other than resilience: its degree of oil dependency. The very notion of economic globalisation was only made possible by cheap liquid fossil fuels, and there is no adequate substitute for those on the scale we use them. The move towards more localised energy-efficient and productive living arrangements is not a choice; it is an inevitable direction for humanity.
The Transition Handbook is more than just a book of problems and ideas. It is about solutions, and about the Transition model, which I think may turn out to be the foundation for one of the most important social, political and cultural movements of the 21st century. I’d like to give you a brief taste of it.
It’s a cool March evening in the small town of Totnes in Devon. Around 160 people are filling the seats of St. John’s Church for an evening event called ‘Local Money, Local Skills, Local Power’. The event is run by Transition Town Totnes (TTT), the UK’s first Transition Initiative, and the evening itself is something of an achievement: 160 people turning out to an event about economics, usually a subject guaranteed to stick people to their sofas tighter than superglue.
As each person arrives they are given a Totnes Pound, one of 300 notes produced by TTT as a pilot to see how a printed currency might be received in the town. One side is a facsimile of 1810 Totnes bank note, from a time when Totnes banks issued their own currency, spotted 4 weeks before on the wall of a local filmmaker. As I begin my introduction to the evening and to the speaker, I invite the audience to each wave their Pounds in the air – it is quite a sight. 160 people, Pound in hand, beginning the powerful journey of telling new stories about money, and also about the future, its possibilities and their interdependence as a community.
The telling of stories is central to this book. You could think of it as being a story in itself: the story of the emergence of the Transition Movement, of the most important research project taking place in the UK at the moment. It goes deeper than that, though. Our culture is underpinned by various stories, cultural myths that we all take for granted: that the future will be wealthier than the present, that economic growth can continue indefinitely, that we have become such an individualistic society that any common goals are unthinkable, that possessions can make you happy, and that economic globalisation is an inevitable process to which we have all given our consent. As we shall see, these are all stories that are profoundly misleading and indeed positively harmful for the challenges we find ourselves facing faster than we think. We need new stories that paint new possibilities, that reposition where we see ourselves in relation to the world around us, that entice us to view the changes ahead with anticipation of the possibilities they hold, and that will, ultimately, give us the strength to emerge at the other end into a new, but more nourishing, world.
As I stood at the front of that hall, watching the room full of laughing, twinkling people, waving their Totnes Pounds, I felt very moved. There is a power here, I thought, which has remained largely untapped. Surely when we think about peak oil and climate change we should feel horrified, afraid, overwhelmed? Yet here was a room full of people who were positively elated, yet were also looking the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change square in the face.
What might environmental campaigning look like if it strove to generate this sense of elation, rather than the guilt, anger and horror that most campaigning invokes? What might it look like if it strove to inspire, enthuse, and focus on possibilities rather than probabilities? We don’t yet know for sure, but the Transition movement is an attempt to design abundant pathways down from the oil peak, to generate new stories about what might be waiting for us at the end of our descent, and to put resilience-building back at the heart of any plans we make for the future.
Transition Initiatives are not the only response to peak oil and climate change; any coherent national response will also need Government and business responses at all levels. However, unless we can create this sense of anticipation, elation and a collective call to adventure on a wider scale, any government responses will be doomed to failure, or will need to battle protractedly against the will of the people. Imagine if there were a way of creating that sense of positive engagement and new storytelling on a settlement-wide, even a nationwide scale. This book is an exploration of that potential, an immersion in the possibilities of applied optimism, and an introduction to a movement growing so fast that by the time you read this book it will be larger still.
The time for seeing globalisation as an invincible and unassailable behemoth, or localisation as some kind of lifestyle choice, is over. The end of the Age of Cheap Oil is rapidly coming upon us, and life will radically change, whether we want it to or not. This book represents a new way of looking at what our future might hold, arguing that by taking a proactive response rather than a reactive one, we can still shape and form that future, within the rapidly changing energy context, in such a way that it ends up preferable to the present.
Rebuilding local agriculture and food production, localising energy production, rethinking healthcare, rediscovering local building materials in the context of zero energy building, rethinking how we manage waste, all build resilience and offer the potential of an extraordinary renaissance – economic, cultural and spiritual. I am not afraid of a world with less consumerism, less ‘stuff’ and no economic growth. Indeed, I am far more frightened of the opposite: that the process which took fertiliser sacks to the most fertile fields I will probably ever stand in continues, reducing the ability of communities to support themselves beyond the brief, transitory historical interlude when industry was able to turn natural gas into a fertiliser and when the car was king.
This is not a book about how dreadful the future could be; rather it is an invitation to join the hundreds of communities around the world who are taking the steps towards making a nourishing and abundant future a reality.