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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Making The Transition

I keep hearing the term Transition Towns  bandied about, and I must admit I was confused as to what a transition town was, or is, and so I had to do a little reading. A lot of people are like me in that they don't know what it is or that they think they know what it is and think it's a lot of old barmy luvvies who want to knit their own yogurt, give up money and drive hessian cars that run on compost. Other folks get confused and think it's something to do with David Cameron's Big Society. And the truth is, it does share some similarities, in that it's about giving back to the community and doing stuff that will benefit people in the long term... well, that's the idea anyway.

Transition Towns is also sometimes referred to as Transition network or Transition Movement. It is a name given to environmental and social movements founded in part upon the principles of permaculture, and it uses as its basis the book Permaculture by Bill Mollison which was published in 1988. The Transition Towns brand of permaculture uses David Holmgren’s 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. These techniques were included in a student project overseen by permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins at the Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland, where they wrote an 'Energy Descent Action Plan', which looked at across-the-board creative adaptations in the realms of energy production, education, economy, health and agriculture as a roadmap to a sustainable future for the town. The term 'transition town' was first used by Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne, two of Hopkins' students. Following its start in Kinsale, Ireland it then spread to Totnes, England where Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande developed the concept during 2005 and 2006. The aim of this community project is to equip communities for the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil.

As you can imagine, back when people first started going on about this sort of stuff it made a lot of other people very nervous, as it sounded all a bit hippy-dippy, but recently the movement has taken off and this is I think due in part to the movement's becoming better at getting their ideas across and making it seem less airy-fairy and a whole lot more practical. The transition concept now seems to translate into 'doing fun and useful stuff with interesting people'.
What sort of stuff? Foraging. Building bug hotels. Planting hedgerows. Thermal imaging to raise awareness of heat and energy loss. Food groups. Plant swaps and sales. Learning how to insulate a loft. Knitting afternoons. Guerrilla gardening. Building worm bins. Arts and crafts. Stuff that's fun and involves hanging out with a lot of interesting and slightly bonkers-in-a-good-way people. The idea of all this being that it's a stepping stone to grander things - rather than fighting against all the big businesses who are causing us to pollute our planet, the Transition mob seek to circumnavigate these structures and seek out sustainable alternatives. Plus, you get to know your neighbours.

So what about the Big Society? What's that all about, yo?
The Big Society was the flagship policy idea of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto. It now forms part of the legislative programme of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. The aim is "to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'.". However, opinion is strongly divided as to whether this is a meaningful policy or meaningless political double-speak.

Their plans include setting up a 'Big Society Bank' to help finance projects under the banner of the Big Society. It's expected to begin operations in Q3 2011. Their apparent mission is " to catalyse the growth of a sustainable social investment market, making it easier for social ventures to access the finance and advice they need – at all stages of their development.".

Where's the money coming from, you may ask? Its initial capital is to be provided from money from dormant UK Bank Accounts, and a further £200M from UK banks. The government also plans to encourage some of the £95bn of charitable assets to be invested in the bank. Critics of the idea have said that "it is potentially setting up a system to encourage vulnerable charities to borrow money." The Financial Times noted, "it is a tiny acorn from which it is far from certain that a giant oak will grow." and Management Today says that "There’s nothing wrong with the idea, or the model, or even the pot. But this plan still seems to lack some hard-headed commercial nous" (that's nous rhyming with mouse, meaning "know-how").

What will the Big Society be doing? I mean apart from the bank thing? Well, they intend to bring back National Service.
*sound of needle skittering across record* Whaaaat?
Don't worry, it won't be conscription into the army or anything like that. It's actually more like all those Outward Bound and Duke of Edinburgh's award schemes we knew as kids. It's under the banner of the Prince's Trust, Prince Charles' charity, and it's called the National Citizen Service.  It actually sounds really interesting (click the link) and I kinda wish it had existed back when I was in school, because (a) it's free and (b) it looks like you get to do stuff which is fun and helpful.

Among other aims for the Big Society:

Give communities more powers (localism and devolution)
Encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)
Transfer power from central to local government
Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
Publish government data (open/transparent government).

Well, I hope it works. It would be a shame if the Government were to screw it up royally. Detractors seem to agree that the whole thing sounds a bit like the Government trying to disguise the fact that they are cutting funding to vital resources by talking about reinvigorating civic society. We shall see. As to the Transition towns idea, I'm actually quite jazzed about it, and kinda want to go out and turn my town into one.


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