A British town's attempt to kick the oil habit

Nancy Durham report from Britain
Yes, we have some bananas, but Ben Watson sells more regional cheeses at his grown-local shop near Totnes. ((Nancy Durham/CBC))

Two years ago, British teacher and permaculturist Rob Hopkins came up with a plan. He wanted to help communities prepare for the eventuality of a world without oil. That's how the concept of Transition Towns was born.

The key to his initiative is sustainability at the local level — whether it's to do with food, transport, building materials or energy resources. Hopkins believes success in those areas will make a town more independent and resilient and prepare it for the day when the tap is turned off and there is no food delivery because the trucks are running on empty. 

Totnes, in Devon county in England's southwest, is the world's first Transition Town. It has long been known as a "laboratory town" — willing to experiment with unconventional lifestyles — and still has a bit of the 1960s hippie feel about it. 

"It feels more like a party than a protest march," Hopkins, 40, says of the transition initiative. Rather than focusing on the hardship of life after oil, Hopkins says he sees "the potential for an economic social and cultural renaissance the likes of which we've never seen before". 

Totnes rickshaws

One believer is businessman Peter Ryeland. When his building company went bust in the late 1990s, he went on a life-changing journey to India and reinvented himself as an importer of Indian goods. The most interesting object he's brought to Totnes is the motorized rickshaw. He owns two of the vehicles, running them on recycled cooking oil. His dream is to turn them into a local taxi service. 

Driver Lizzy Hyde takes rickshaw owner Peter Ryeland and reporter Nancy Durham for a ride around Totnes, Devon. ((Kyla Pearson/CBC))

Ryeland knows his rickshaw project is not the solution to the town's transport problems, but he hopes it will inspire people to get involved in making the transition away from oil dependence. However, he has yet to get his taxi licence, which is proving as elusive as an insurance policy for the vehicle.

When I referred to his rickshaw as a toy, the good-natured Ryeland quipped, "It's not a toy. This is the transport of the future, madam, because I've only got three wheels. It's more sustainable because I burn less rubber than you!" 

And what about the, ahem, carbon footprint cost of delivery from India? 

"Okay, that's the bad thing, that we've got to stick these things on a ship and get them over here," Ryeland admits. "But apart from that, if you think about it, the vehicle is just run locally in the local community. This thing isn't designed to get somebody up to London." 

Shared gardens

Hopkins's renaissance has also produced a shared garden scheme. Say you're a garden owner, but you don't have time to weed.  Enter a volunteer who gets free produce in exchange for labour. 

Teams of transition townies have planted dozens of almond and walnut trees. 

"It's not the idea that we can feed the entire 8,000 [member] population of Totnes on nuts," Hopkins says. "But you can produce more carbohydrate and protein per hectare than you can with any grains." 

Hopkins is not a fan of turning urban tracts of land "into just totally pointless, useless, ornamental, landscapes."

"So the idea of the nut tree plantings is to start to put back into our unloved urban corners something which is useful, something which is productive," he says.

The banana dilemma

Another supporter of the transition initiative is the Watson family, owners of Riverford Farm. They have produced organic food for 20 years, long before it was on the average consumer's radar.

Ben Watson, in charge of the farm shops, strives to be as local as possible, promoting the area's cheese makers and fruit and vegetable growers. He is meticulous. When I spot a packet of English-made Dove's flour, what seems to me to be a good local example, he hesitates.

Rob Hopkins, British-based founder of the transition town movement. ((Nancy Durham/CBC))

"That's Wiltshire," he says. "I don't really call it local."

Wiltshire is only a couple of hours' drive away.

He's careful to stock chocolate from the European continent only when it's all made in one location. Some manufacturers, he says, "ship it all over the place" to get it made.

But Watson's learned he cannot be as local as he'd like. "I swore I'd never sell a banana because I thought I should be sourcing local food," he says. 

He found that if he didn't supply the bananas, shoppers would go elsewhere. "People don't want to go to five shops to get their meal."

So, bananas and coconuts are available alongside a variety of herbs and a wide range of local fruits, vegetables, baked goods and cheeses in Watson's shops. Consumers who order fruits and vegetables for home delivery get a note along with their produce, letting them know the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the process of getting the food to their door.

Canadian towns

The transition initiative is catching on. There are dozens of transition towns on the go, mostly in the British Isles, with a sprinkling in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. 

Towns, cities and neighbourhoods merely considering taking up the transition challenge are called mullers — as in mulling it over — and Canadians show a certain level of keenness, with a total of 27 official muller sites in Canada. The communities are diverse, from Ulverton in Quebec's Eastern Townships to River John, N.S. (its website calls it "a small community with a big spirit"). 

In Ontario, Fred Irwin founded Peterborough's mulling group. As a retired businessman who also worked in the oil industry, Irwin read about Hopkins's transition project and was inspired.

"I was part of the problem; now, I'm part of the solution," he says. "The public looks at you as tree huggers — until you talk about peak oil." 

But Irwin does run into opposition. "A guy in the local chamber of commerce told me, 'If you think I'm going green, you're crazy!'"

He is realistic about the challenges ahead. "A person selling a Hummer doesn't want to hear about a shortage of gas, so you have to go to the businesses that are facing the future now," he says. 

Still, Irwin is seizing the moment.

"It's a very apropos time for us to launch TTP [Transition Town Peterborough] because there is a lot of awareness," he said. "People are seeing food prices rise and gas prices rise, and that hits them in the pocket book, so it's easier for us to get their attention."

British Columbia wins for enthusiasm — nearly half of Canada's muller sites are located there. Chris Alemany sees the transition initiative as a natural for his hometown of Port Alberni. 

"We already have a great farmers' market and agricultural base here that are supplying the valley with food, so it will be about bringing these and other groups together," Alemany says. 

'A wartime mobilization'

Back in Totnes, Rob Hopkins remains determined to win people over with upbeat ideas.

"It's about unleashing that potential [for the renaissance], and you don't do that by trying to depress everyone into action," he says. 

"It's about feeling part of something historic, something timely … I often liken where we are now to 1939. It's like a wartime mobilization. Scale of response is what we need to get through this process."

With files from Kyla Pearson