Global Public Media's Andi Hazelwood interviews two leaders in the new and quickly-growing international "Transition Towns" movement: Rob Hopkins of TransitionCulture.org in the UK and Sonya Wallace of Creating a Sustainable Sunshine Coast (CASSC) in Australia. Sonya and Rob discuss their work on creating town Energy Descent Action Plans (EDAP), and the benefits and challenges of working with citizens, businesses and local officials on energy depletion issues.
In this June 28th, 2007 interview, Global Public Media's Andi Hazelwood interviews Rob Hopkins of
Sonya Wallace is just getting started with a project to develop an "Energy Descent Action Plan" (EDAP) for the Sunshine Coast region of Queensland, Australia. She details how permaculture is a response to energy decline, tells of the new Sunshine Coast Energy Action Centre, and explains the weaknesses that an EDAP would address for her region.
Permaculture designer and instructor Rob Hopkins edited the successful Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, which was conceived by his students at Kinsale Further Education College and approved by the Kinsale Town Council in Cork, Ireland. He talks about the Twelve Steps of Transition, creating an EDAP, and ways to deal with community disengagement. He indicates that often, community members are interested in many of the various aspects of relocalization but simply know it by different names.
Transcribed by Barry Silver
Andi Hazelwood: This is Andi Hazelwood for Global Public Media on the 28th of June, 2007. I'm speaking with Sonya Wallace, who is the group coordinator for Creating a Sustainable Sunshine Coast - Nambour to Mooloolah - part of the Relocalization Network here in Queensland, Australia. Sonya, thank you very much for taking the time today.
Sonya Wallace: Thank you.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your latest project.
SW: Well, we've actually got a few things on the go at the moment, and one project seems to lead to another one. What we started doing was looking at some sort of course based around permaculture, that would apply permaculture principles to the problems of peak oil and climate change. And, of course, that led quite naturally to relocalization - they're very aligned to the relocalization movement and the permaculture movement. So, it became pretty evident that we needed a course where we could examine David Holmgren's textbooks, and apply those principles to social re-organization, as opposed to designing the landscape, as permaculture's most well known for.
So, that was the first stage. And then it became pretty evident that we would need some sort of momentum to keep that going - we didn't want to get all our students excited about peak oil, and get all passionate and fired up and want to do something about it, and leave them with no structure to go on with. So, we thought a center would be a good idea, an actual physical building that was open regularly for students to come along and keep the momentum going, the energy going, for the relocalization projects. And, then, from that, it became pretty evident that, probably, the thing we needed was an Energy Descent Action Plan based on what they did in Ireland. So, these three projects have, sort of, evolved one after another, but I think it's a pretty rounded approach to relocalization here on the Sunshine Coast.
AH: So, give me a little bit of a background on how permaculture can deal with the issues of energy descent.
SW: Well, David Holmgren's really - his textbook, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, I see that as a bit of a framework for how to go about relocalization because that addresses things like the built environment, education, culture, land stewardship, community government - all those things we need to address - the infrastructure problem - everything that needs to be addressed to prepare for the post carbon future. So, while permaculture is very well known as a gardening technique, I think it's about time we - sort of - stepped under the spotlight as a relocalization technique.
AH: And, as I understand it, Rob Hopkins, when he did the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, it was actually part of a permaculture course as well.
SW: Yes, that's correct. He had students doing a two-year, full-time permaculture course, and they worked on looking within their local council shire on all the things that needed to be addressed, and that was a really successful document. The local council actually adopted that at the end of it, and they're implementing it. So, we hope to follow in that success. That's a really good blueprint for how local shires can really start to relocalize.
AH: Now, obviously the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan focused on the strengths and weaknesses of that particular area. What do you consider to be the things that will need to be taken into consideration for the Sunshine Coast?
SW: Here, in our area, we've got a lot of opportunity for food production. We are lucky, here - we've got good rainfall, good land. I think our major problems are just going to be transportation. We're suffering, I guess, like so many other places, with urban sprawl and the reliability people have to put on, and the reliance they have on our transport - there's just not the transportation infrastructure here. And the same with local economies. Our local economies are very vulnerable - they're based on tourism and retail, and both of those things are extremely vulnerable to peak oil.
AH: And have you any ideas on how an Energy Descent Action Plan would deal with those issues?
SW: It needs community awareness, I think is the first step, for the community to start to realise that we do need to relocalize. We have an option at the moment: we can plan and do things, or we can have those things thrust upon us. So, we do have that option, and I think an action plan - if we can actually explore the options, and we're looking at getting permaculture groups, the community and the local university - and the council, as well - involved, and really look at what can seriously happen, and can be put in place to address these issues. I think identifying the problems first up, and then looking for some real achievable ways that we can put things in place, and timelining it as well is going to be really important, that's it's not just left open ended.
AH: So, now, tell me about the Sunshine Coast Energy Action Center.
SW: Well, we're very lucky here. We've got a great community garden, here, on the Sunshine Coast, and they have a building as part of the gardens that we meet in regularly. But, on the weekend, it sits there locked up and empty. So, we thought that would be a great place to start to have this regular site where people can drop in and find out about peak oil and climate change. And I think it'll be a really great asset for the coast to have that open. People can call in, we're going to have video screenings, we'll show "End of Suburbia", and all those related DVDs circulating round the community at the moment. We'll have guest speakers, and we'll have just lots of information on how people can get involved, and it'll range from free workshops right through to university courses, and everything in between.
AH: And have you had any conversation with your local councils about the idea of the Energy Descent Action Plan. What kind of response have you gotten?
SW: It's really supportive! A lot of support from the local council. They really understand the concept of it, and they feel very passionate about wanting to do something. And that's the other beauty of an Energy Descent Action Plan, it is actually a framework that you can show people, and they can immediately understand how it works. I think that's the biggest problem we face: I think a lot of people want to do something, but they really don't know what to do. And that's where I think being able to show them the Kinsale document - they can immediately relate to that, and it makes a lot of sense to them. So, we're really lucky. The council's really supportive, we're meeting with the town planning, the community development and the environmental planning areas of the council, to look at ways we can get this locked in and happening as a regional project.
AH: And you're actually doing this in conjunction with another relocalization group - is that right?
SW: Well, we're actually - we're all linked here on the coast. We doing it with the Sustainable Maleny Project, we've got the group at Eumundi, a bit further north from here. So, we're linked in with the other groups on the coast, and also the permaculture network, as well. So, we've got a really good support system out there of people who can teach others all the skills we need for the future.
AH: Now, for this project, what kind of difficulties are you experiencing at this point?
SW: Well, I think the biggest thing is just getting the community aware about the problem. It's really difficult. Like a lot of places in Australia, most people's focus at the moment is on economic issues. There's interest rates, price of housing, just the general keeping up with the lifestyle - I guess it's happening around the world - but people are just driven by debt, and there's a lot of loss of community, and that's been broken down over the past few years, here, in Australia. So, rebuilding that, and getting the community to understand that there is a problem, and that we need to act and do something about it urgently, and what we can do - it's a real challenge.
AH: Earlier today you sent out an e-mail to your group about transportation poverty, and a lot of people may be looking at those immediate issues and not realizing that there are larger ways that they can deal with the problem as a whole.
SW: Yes, I think so. I don't know that people are connecting increase in fuel and food, and all those things, with issues like peak oil. It keeps getting related back to the drought, whereas I don't know how fuel prices can be related to the drought at all. And people don't seem to ever question these connections that are being made. So, I think, slowly but surely, it's going to come out. But it is a huge challenge because peak oil is tied up in such complex, political and economic structures that for the truth to come out about it - it's a real challenge.
AH: So, to find out more information about the Sunshine Coast Energy Descent Action Plan, you can go to "Creating a Sustainable Sunshine Coast"'s Web site, which is cassc.relocalize.net, and also tell us the Web address for these Sunshine Coast Energy Action Center.
SW: Yup, that's www.seac.net.au.
AH: Excellent. Sonya Wallace, thank you very much for your time.
SW: Thank you.
AH: Now that Sonya has told us about starting an Energy Descent Action Plan, let's talk to someone who has successfully completed an EDAP, and had it adopted. Rob Hopkins, thanks very much for being on Global Public Media.
Rob Hopkins: It's a pleasure.
AH: I wonder if you can tell me, how does a community determine what its individual strengths and weaknesses are, and how do you develop responses to the weaknesses while capitalizing on the strengths?
RH: Well, I think - I don't think a descent plan emerges from a process - it's not something that you can just sit down and draft. So, really, it's a process that we - maybe to give you some of the background to it, I suppose, would be useful.
The first one that I was involved with was the one in Kinsale, in Ireland, which was the first one, and that really came around because I was teaching at a further education college in Kinsale and we had the first two-year, full-time permaculture course in the world. That was when I found out about peak oil, and looked around - all over the place - to try to see if there was a solution somewhere that somebody had done, or communities that had started thinking about it. At that point I couldn't find anything at all. So, we really made it up as we went along, and based on the principle that the future with less oil could be preferable to the present, if we used sufficient creativity and imagination and adaptability, and so that was the idea, really. It was underpinned with an optimistic kind of a premise - we used Open Space a lot.
And I think one of the main things - in terms of overcoming the pessimism, or whatever - there are a couple of things, I think, that are really strong principles. One of them is that you have to avoid any sense of "them and us" from the outset. So, you're really trying to avoid polarizing and trying to avoid the sort of environmentalist often-used habit of looking around for somebody to blame all the time, and there's nobody to blame in this.
If you're trying to create a coalition of different groups and organizations that has never really happened before - directly - then I think you also need to create a sense that something historic is happening. This needs to generate a sense in the town that what's happening is something really historic, that's never happened before, and that people really would like to be a part of. And I think you also need to have a process which retains its flexibility, which is always able to change and adapt and move around, really. That's my sense, is that if you want to avoid pessimism, you really need to make it a process which is exhilarating, and which is about inviting people on a journey, really.
AH: Now, would you say that there is anything particularly unusual about Kinsale that made it possible for an Energy Descent Action Plan to be adopted, or is this something that can be done in any town given the right circumstances?
RH: Well, I think the important thing to note with the Energy Descent Plan in Kinsale was that it was really done as a student project, and nowadays with the transition initiative that are popping up all over the country - transition town Totnes is the first transition town project in the UK, but there are now another 16 or 17 that are official transition towns, and then about another 90 who are starting the process. The interest in it is just taking off exponentially, really. And, actually, I think that in many ways - although we haven't produced an Energy Descent Plan here, yet - Totnes is now further advanced than Kinsale because what we produced in Kinsale was a student project, so it didn't have - it had a certain amount of roots in really deep community work, but it didn't have as much as we have here already.
But I think the main reason that Kinsale was a place where it embedded itself was that it was the town where this course was happening really. So, it was the only town in Ireland where there was an established, extremely popular, dynamic, very well regarded in the town, full-time permaculture course, really, and that acted as the catalyst for it. But I think what we're seeing here, now, in the UK, as these initiatives take off, is that the first wave was the places you would think of - Totnes, Stroud, Lewes - towns that have a history of being - sort of - laboratories for alternative thinking, free thinking kind of places, whereas the second wave are much more surprising, and so this is really starting to engage the mainstream in quite an exciting way.
AH: Sonya has an unusual situation. Whereas most of us are having to really get our councils to understand what's going on - and it's the community that's behind it - her situation is actually reversed. Her council is very much looking forward to hearing what she has to say, but her community is a bit disengaged. How do you deal with people who are looking at their immediate problems instead of looking at the grander picture?
RH: Well, I think - it's something that's very interesting that's happening in the UK with transition initiatives at the moment is that, increasingly, we're finding that the first point of contact comes from councilors and people in local government, and, actually, it creates a very interesting dynamic, which we're just exploring at the moment because, really, the idea is with this process that it comes from the community - it can't be imposed from the top by local authorities. And, really, the role of local authorities in this process is to support this process - not to steer it, not to drive it - and, actually, increasingly, they're really delighted with that, as a concept. So, actually, if somebody has a local authority who is supportive of it, that's a useful thing to have - it's such a fantastic and valuable thing that a lot of communities are really working very hard to try and generate. So, in that regard, she's one up, really.
But, in terms of engaging the community, I think you have to be very creative and imaginative in how you present this, and I think there is a particular knack to - very easy to present peak oil and climate change in such a way that actually - they're almost universally presented as incredibly depressing issues. I think one of the things that we've been working on really hard with the transition towns process is actually that people go to a talk about peak oil and come away feeling quite exhilarated, at the potential of it. And, I think, one of the things you have to do is to really weave the possibilities into the present, and I'm a great believer that the same adaptability, creativity, and imagination that got us up to the top of the peak in the first place can be harnessed to come back down the other side. I don't think it's a given that once we start coming down the other side, we all resort to savages, and everything collapses instantly.
But I think one of the things that she should really be looking at doing is an awareness-raising process, which, I mean - I think certainly showing - we found that showing a film - "End of Suburbia", "The Power of Community" - these kinds of things - that designing those film screenings can be much more than just film screenings, but that there're also networking possibilities - people come together, they offer space designed in them for people to chew over what they've heard, and also to see what are the issues that are concerning the community at the moment.
I gave a talk here in Devon a while ago to the Women's Institute, and their big concerns were about the local hospital being under threat of being closed, and the rising price of milk, what's happening to milk (local milk producers, basically, are being driven out of the market). So I started my talk to them by, basically, putting both of those in the context of cheap energy, and that, actually, the same forces that are threatening both of those things, and then weaving it back to oil. So, it's really good to try and approach people where they're at. Because, although it may very often seem like a community isn't remotely interested in these issues (and isn't interested in relocalization and the practicalities of relocalization), actually, when you start looking around, you find a huge amount of people who are interested in aspects of that - they just don't call it that! We have people who have a very strong interest in local food, in local community work, in different aspects of local culture, and, actually, those people can become your staunchest ally - it just depends how you present it to them.
AH: Is there any more advice that you would like to give to people who are interested in starting an Energy Descent Action Plan for their community?
RH: Yes, certainly. I think it's something that you're not going to create overnight. It's something that is very, very useful if you can do it with some kind of overlap with local authorities, so that it's written in such a way that - I have this mental picture: I'm about three or four years in the future when we've had a year when peak oil has really made itself very, very apparent - in terms of high prices, possibly intermittency of supply - and that our councilors are sat in their council chamber with two documents in front of them, one of which is the Energy Descent Plan produced by the community, which actually addresses the issue and the challenges that are being presented to them, and the other one is the one that they've done, which is just based on a business-as-usual model, and trying to decide which one to adopt.
I think an Energy Descent Plan should be something which also is really entertaining to read, and one of the things that we're doing here in Totnes is we have a project called "Transition Tale" which is about gathering through a series of events where we ask people to imagine themselves in the kind of future that we're talking about, and then to write stories about it, and newspaper articles from the future. So, we're starting to collect these kinds of stories, which allow people to really imagine themselves in that future. I think we have to really paint it in such a way that you can almost smell it, a tangible possibility. And so, with the Energy Descent Plan here, we want to weave those stories through the process, as well.
And, the thing that I would point people to is something which is called "The 12 Steps of Transition", which has really emerged from the work we've been doing here in Totnes, and which are the twelve steps towards starting a project like this to producing an Energy Descent Plan. And the transition network which is just forming here in the UK - which is a national charity designed to support, inspire, train, and nurture all the different transition initiatives emerging around the UK - is they're producing a booklet which contains all of those, and they'll also be in a book that I'm writing at the moment, which will be out in the spring which is going to be called, "Small Is Inevitable".
AH: Would you mind if we call you back in a couple of weeks to talk more in depth about transition towns?
RH: No, I'd love to. No, that'll be absolutely fine.
AH: In the meantime can you give us a Web site where people can find your work.
RH: Yes, www.transitionculture.org. And there you can also download the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, and you'll find all kinds of goodies on the subject. You'll find there two short films of me doing talks explaining the twelve steps which people might find useful.
AH: Fantastic! Rob Hopkins, thank you so much.
AH: This is Andi Hazelwood for Global Public Media.
[Listen also to this follow-up interview with Rob Hopkins from July 13th, 2007.]