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Totnes: taking change into their own hands

Updated Monday 4th October 2010

Totnes is a small town in South Devon with a population of 15,000 people. They have pledged to become oil-free by 2030 making them the first Transition Town in the UK.


Copyright The Open University


Commentary: The global energy crisis demands radical changes in how we live. Increasingly, communities believe that government legislation is inadequate and are taking change into their own hands.

Energy Descent Action Plan meeting Totnes

Rob Hopkins (Founder Transition Town Totnes): The issue put very simply is that we peaked in the discovery of finding new oil in 1965 and then we’re getting very close to the peak of actually producing it sometime now. And for a society, for a nation, for a town like ours which is so dependent on cheap oil for so many aspects of how it lives, that’s a very, very important transition. And what it means is we have to leave oil before oil leaves us.

Governments move too slowly. They’re reactive, they are not proactive, but if an example is set by proactive communities looking peak oil and climate change square in the face, and recognizing opportunities, then actually they can blaze the trail that government will follow.

Commentary: Totnes is a small town in South Devon with 15,000 people living in the town and surrounding villages. The local community have pledged to make Totnes oil-free by the year 2030, making it the UK’s first ‘Transition Town’.

Rob: Totnes seemed like a good place to start the ball rolling with the Transition idea. There’s a long history of local food culture; there’s a long history of sort of interest in environmental issues. It’s one of the few towns in the UK which have a long history of being sort of laboratory towns, places where ideas are kind of tried and tested out.

Commentary: People here hope to develop models of sustainability which will have worldwide influence. The Transition Town project has links with local education and sustainable businesses.

Riverford is an organic farm based just outside Totnes which supplies fruit and veg boxes to households across the UK.

Originally set up to supply a small farm shop, it has grown to become one of the biggest organic farms in Britain.

Darran McLane (Riverford Farm): This week we are going to do about 27,000 boxes. It’s all packed down here, on the farm, and then it goes out to what we call distribution hubs around southern England and then the little white vans – or the franchisee, shall we say – effectively pick up those boxes and then take them to people’s homes.

Commentary: The success and ever-growing scale of Riverford have created some challenges for the business around sustainability.

Darran: The issue of food miles is very important to us as a farm. Currently some of our boxes can travel over 200 miles, but that’s something we want to reduce. And we’ve got what we call regional farms now, so we have one in Yorkshire, we have one in Hampshire, and we’ve got the new farm which is starting in Cheshire.

The idea is basically to offer a box within 50 miles of the farm, that’s what we want.

I think what you’ve got to consider as an organic farm, it’s generally noted that per ton of food produced it’s actually, you use actually 40 per cent less energy, so we are going a step in the right direction,

Commentary: Riverford Farm offers a practical example of how sustainable values can be incorporated into business. And just a couple of miles from Riverford is a unique learning centre devoted to developing ideas and theories around sustainability.

Karen Blincoe (Director Schumacher College): Globalization has a price, in terms of environmental degradation, climate change, you know, and inequality, poverty – you name it – and I think Schumacher College was really set up to try and address these issues and to show people that there is actually another way.

Commentary: The college runs a range of courses in social and environmental sustainability and its staff and students come from across the world.

Throughout the residential courses staff and students live together as a community and sustainability runs through every aspect of college life.

Karen: We only eat organic foods and most of our food comes locally from Riverford and we grow a lot of our own and we source local foods and so we actually educate people in these issues as well, as we go along.

Commentary: Schumacher College has been an inspiration to Totnes and some of the teaching staff are involved in the Transition Town project. Sharing ideas and resources locally can generate new sustainable initiatives.

Rob: Transition Town Totnes has acted as a catalyst for people exploring what we might actually do at a community level to prepare for peak oil and climate change, so, there are a number of working groups who are set up looking at food, energy, housing, and so on, and the idea of those is that it draws people’s passions into the process. If you’re really passionate about food or energy then you get involved and you feed it in, in that way.

Commentary: People contribute their own ideas about what changes they would like to see and how they can make these happen. Various projects have already been launched, including a solar panel challenge to home-owners. The Totnes pound aims to get people to trade locally and reduce transport miles, and a garden share scheme has been launched to encourage local food production.

Lou Brown (Garden Share Scheme): What we’ve done is we’ve advertised around the town saying if you’ve got a piece of land that you’re not using or the end of your garden that you’d be really happy to share with a gardener and you like a bit of a share of the produce, then, you know, come forward and volunteer and what we do, we kind of act almost like a dating agency and we match the two together.

So these are some of the garden shares here. This one’s Sue’s garden – hello, Sue – and she started gardening in February. It was just turf when she began and she’s had this fantastic veg plot which has been going all year.

Sue Holmes: I’ve always grown vegetables. I started really when I was a single parent bringing up two children and found that they made a real, real difference to the budget. But I moved from a house to a flat that didn’t have a garden and realised that gardening was an essential part of my life.

The total outlay for the whole of this garden has been £30 and that will provide me with enough vegetables for the whole year. But I’ve also been providing vegetables for the garden owners and that’s a couple with two young children so that’s a lot, a lot of produce in a very small area and that’s really what I wanted.

Commentary: Although food production is booming, to replace oil in transport and heating by 2030 will require creative thinking and detailed planning. But one local entrepreneur has made a start.

Pete Ryland (The Totnes Rickshaw Company): Well, it runs on bio-diesel. All we’re actually doing is collecting used cooking oils from the restaurants and anyone that uses it in the town.

We’ve got such a response from the town that we’re going to have such a surplus we can run … the school buses on it, the ring and ride service. There’s also a community bus that could run on it, so, yeah, we have enough to produce about 500 litres a week.

Rob: What peak oil and climate change presents us with is the need to have a coming together of diverse strands of society in the same way that we did in 1939. It’s like a wartime mobilization. It’s not good enough anymore for the church groups to be here, environment groups here, culture groups over here. This is really about bringing all those organisations and groups together in this kind of context in a way that feels inclusive and positive and historic.

What started here in Totnes with Transition Town Totnes has now inspired a movement around the world of 100 formal Transition Town projects – the 100th being Fujino in Japan about three weeks ago. And there are more than 900 others, who are what we call mullers, who are mulling whether to become Transition projects or not.

When you find out about peak oil and climate change, it’s so easy to just feel completely overwhelmed, completely powerless. The doom and gloom is there if you go looking for it; it can be completely incapacitating. What Transition does is to say, actually, inherent within those things is the potential for an economic social cultural renaissance, the likes of which we have never ever seen before.


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