Rob Hopkins, 'Transition Town Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience'; Shaun Chamberlin, 'The Transition Timeline'; Oliver Tickell, 'Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse'

IssueJune 2009
Review by Patrick Nicholson

I liked the Transition books the moment I saw them – they are well-designed and produced, and look and feel great. In a way they mirror the Transition movement itself, rolling together a mass of related ideas into an attractive package that promises a way out of the looming dead end that is peak oil and climate change. So they look good and offer much, but do the books deliver? And can the Transition movement itself deliver on its promises?

The Handbook is split into three sections – described as “head”, “heart” and “hands” - corresponding respectively to the factual context, the vision needed to drive positive change, and the details of the Transition process.

Rob Hopkins writes very intelligently and clearly. His introduction to peak oil and climate change is one of the best I’ve read, and his arguments for tackling them together are convincing. The content is never dull or preachy. On every other page there’s something unexpected and thought-provoking, from spoof newspaper articles of the future to technical graphs of oil production to 1950s comic covers!

The Timeline presents a deeper look at the Transition vision and context, including projections of possible near future scenarios, and up-to-date analysis of climate change and peak oil and their implications for the UK. An underlying theme is the idea that cultural stories are important – that how we act and the futures we create are defined by the narratives we all have to make sense of the world and our places in it.

In a nutshell, the Transition idea is that the inevitable changes that will accompany the end of cheap oil can be recast as a positive opportunity for the rebirth of local communities. The concept is attractive because it’s very upbeat and the Transition model presents a clear sequence of things we can actually do, starting now.

But I have problems with some of this. Focusing exclusively on the positive neglects the fact that progressive social and environmental change has always been resisted by those in power. The Transition model seems to have nothing to say here, other than that we should get our heads down and work on positive things locally.

There’s nothing on how Transition Towns might link up to act collectively, on past and present social movements, on capitalism and consumer society, on how the very space for the Transition concept to succeed might need to be won through struggle. It is as if a nascent idea had been cut out from its social and historical context, planted in a vacuum and expected to grow.

On a more nit-picking level, I don’t like the over-reliance on terms like “transition”, “resilience”, “great unleashing”, and “energy descent” that need unpacking before they can be understood.

Also I feel the detail and perceived rigidity of the steps of the Transition process can tend to turn people off and confuse them. I should add that I speak as someone with 18 months experience of involvement in my local Transition initiative, and that, despite misgivings, it’s still something that I actively support and value.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good books, well worth reading cover-to-cover, or having on the shelves as a wide-ranging resource and source of inspiration. I definitely think activists should read them.

But for me they describe just one part of a solution and are limited by their failure to appreciate the reality of the times we live in and the responses they demand of us all.

Oliver Tickell’s Kyoto2 is a very different animal. It’s about responding to climate change at the global level, describing a system that could replace the Kyoto Protocol, the discredited first transnational try at tackling climate change.

Tickell’s idea is a grand auction of the rights to produce greenhouse gases up to a series of annual caps set at levels that would prevent dangerous climate changes. Greenhouse gases would be targeted “upstream”, meaning as near as possible to the point of production of the fuels. The proceeds would be poured back into addressing the causes and consequences of climate change, with an emphasis on the poor and those most acutely affected. The approach would create, it is claimed, market incentives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the development of alternatives. Kyoto2 is quite a demanding read, being relatively technical and lacking the playful touch of the Transition books.

However, it repays the time spent getting to grips with the issues. The comparisons that Tickell makes with other proposed systems like “Contraction and Convergence” and “Cap and Share” are useful in getting a sense of the context. However, for me the book suffers from essentially being a lengthy polemic for a single idea.

I would have appreciated the inclusion of additional critical perspectives. For example, Tickell’s article in the excellent journal The Land (Winter 2008/9; see included a critical response from Simon Fairlie that opened my eyes to some of the possible problems, namely that the ability to borrow permits from future years compromises the cap on emissions, and that there is no mechanism to ensure equitable access to the global atmospheric commons.

Kyoto2 is worth reading by anyone serious about understanding global responses to the climate crisis, but readers might benefit from a general grounding in the issues before reading Tickell’s particular prescription.

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