Transition Lewisham

The international Transition Town movement is an increasingly important force in Brockley politics. Transition Brockley meetings are well-attended and brimming with ideas. The group already outnumbers many longer-established local groups, who can only look enviously at the manpower their volunteers offer.

Transition Brockley was a driving force behind Hilly Fields’ new orchard, is collaborating with the Brockley Cross Action Group on the re-planting of Brockley Common and tries to incentivise local businesses to adopt greener business practices. Politically independent, the group nonetheless shares many ideas with the Green Party and exists partly to “raise awareness” of environmental issues, so it’s not surprising that an area which is a Green Party stronghold is also a Transition Town bastion.

The news that Transition Town were behind the orchard, provoked a grumpy response from Ladywell blogger William Canynge, who dismissed them as a “bunch of obscurantists”. Judged by their size, they can’t be called obscure, but it is worth understanding the ideas behind Transition Towns.

They say:

In a nutshell, the Transition Movement is about communities deciding they can't hang around for governments to act on climate change and peak oil, but they need to start building up local resilience to prepare for an era of ever-rising fuel prices, fuel shortages and the impacts of climate change.

The debate about climate change is well worn, so we don't propose to go over that ground here, other than to say Brockley Central accepts the view of the vast majority of climate scientists, who believe that humans are playing a key role. Peak Oil Theory predicts that at some point, the amount of oil we’re able to pump from the ground will peak and start to decline. At that point, a resource war is on, the price of oil will skyrocket and so will the stuff we use it to make and distribute. Transition Towns groups regularly show films about how Cuban farmers responded to the collapse of oil imports from the Soviet Union to produce food without oil for agrochemicals and machinery and argue that these principles should be adopted in places like Brockley.

In Brockley Central’s humble opinion, the price mechanism (assisted by rising carbon taxes) will encourage new exploration and greater substitution to other energy sources until the world becomes less reliant on the stuff. Of course, the market is imperfect and there will be supply-side shocks along the way, as there have been in decades past. This will cause economic hardship from time to time, but we won’t see the upheaval imagined by Transition Townies.

Put simply, Peak Oil theory suggests we need to radically restructure society and the economy or face dire economic consequences, including possibly, starvation. This idea is at the heart of the Transition Town philosophy, although the clever thing about the movement is it combines the grand narrative of a struggle for the future of our planet that ideologues tend to get off on with a battle-plan that consists of neighbourly stuff like planting herbs on Brockley Common – an approach that even the skeptics among us can get on board with.

The problem is, that – as William Canynge’s reaction demonstrated – while the Transition Town narrative can be a great motivator for some, it can also be deeply offputting for others.

The blogger Will Wiles puts it nicely:

The proponents of urban farming often muddle up doing it because we must (that is, we face shortages if we do not) and doing it because we should (self-reliance being a virtue, food security being desirable and so on) — necessity and desirability. And it’s the questions of necessity that tend to be the most powerful arguments: no one wants to face shortages. But if people see urban farming as only a necessity, it will only ever be seen as an emergency response to a crisis, to be rolled back when (if) more secure times return. Moving to a more diverse and stable system of food production — including some urban farming — has to accent that is is a desirable option in good times and bad.

In other words, a group like Transition Brockley would be better off arguing for change on the basis that localism and self-reliance are social goods, not because they will save the world. But stripped of the drama of impending doom, they’d be little different to many other community groups – the ones that struggle for members…

Transition Towns has groups in Brockley, Ladywell, New Cross and Honor Oak. Click here for more details.

There is another reason for discussing Peak Oil Theory, which we'll come on to shortly.