Arts Listings

Books: Useful Advice for Building Sustainable Communities

By Carol Polsgrove Special to the Planet
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 10:12:00 AM


By Rob Hopkins. Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon: Green Books. 240 pages. $24.95. 

With the rise of oil prices, the movement for sustainability has new wind in its sails. Farmers markets make ever more sense, alternative energy networks scour the territory for small-scale solutions, and even in red states, city councils set up peak oil committees. 

For communities where transformational breezes are stirring, Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience offers useful advice. 

Based on his own experience as a motivator of “transition towns” in Ireland and England, Hopkins presents strategies for nudging communities to action through a democratic consciousness-changing process. A staged plan for the community’s future emerges from months of conversations, speeches, films, and group discussions on topics from waste to transportation. 

The goal is not isolation but resilience—the ability to survive shocks without going under. “The UK truck drivers’ dispute of 2000 offers a valuable lesson here,” Hopkins writes. “Within the space of three days, the UK economy was brought to the brink, as it became clear that the country was about a day away from food rationing and civil unrest.” 

If more communities could at least feed themselves in a pinch, a country as a whole would be less vulnerable to disaster in a world where insufficient oil supplies twinned with global warming are undermining the global economy. 

While Hopkins joins others in the peak oil movement in believing there is not much time left to make the needed turn, he reminds readers of how quickly British communities learned to feed themselves during World War II. What’s required, above all, is a conviction that things must change. 

The strategies he offers for bringing about that conviction—above all, many guided discussions by many citizens—may seem less likely to succeed in a city like Berkeley than in smaller towns like those Hopkins has worked with. He himself suggests the ideal candidate for a transition initiative would be “market town” of, say, about 5,000. But larger cities can try organizing themselves into networked “villages.” 

Will this really work? Can grassroots efforts like this successfully challenge entrenched power inside and outside the community? Can they get around laws that restrict what they can do without the approval of higher authority? Can they defeat economic interests that stand to lose ground? 

Hopkins can’t promise success-the strategies he puts forth have only been tried in the short term. The first transition town, Kinsale, Ireland, launched its movement just three years ago. The Transition Towns WIKI ( even offers a disclaimer: “We really don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.” Or, in Hopkins’ words, it is “a collective adventure.” 

There are not yet many Transition Towns, as such, in the United States, but California communities have started coordinated transition efforts under other names. In fact, a speaker from Willits Economic Localization (WELL) presented a workshop at Kinsale, and Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow from Sebastopol’s Post Carbon Institute (which has a Relocalization Network) has spoken in English transition towns.  

Author of his own books on the world after cheap oil, Heinberg contributed a foreword to “The Transition Handbook,” pronouncing it “accessible, clear, and upbeat.” He has that right. Hopkins has written is a reader-friendly, optimistic guide to building a local movement, and if its ideas are not helpful in all circumstances, it is still well worth a read. 


Carol Polsgrove is an emeritus professor at Indiana University.