Poster in the window of in Totnes (Transition Network)

Village buys into green revolution

The small village with the small carbon footprint, Totnes is the new-age chic community at the epicentre of the increasing number of pioneering transition towns whose aim is to attain self-sufficiency. They are so committed that they have even introduced a new green town pound to encourage people to buy locally whilst they think globally.

Published on 18 August 2009 at 14:03
Poster in the window of in Totnes (Transition Network)

At first glance Totnes seems like just another English village: population 8,500, it has its castle and street market, pubs with flowers in the windows, a high street with shops and supermarkets. It has the same laid back rural pace, the same grumpy locals with a certain aversion to Londoners who buy second homes here and put on airs of urban sophistication.... In a word, your garden-variety English small town. But Totnes is different – and how! It happens to be the most developed “transition town” in the world, pioneering a movement for communities to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint in response to the dual challenge of climate change and the impending shortage of good cheap oil. The goal is to attain self-sufficiency.

Totnes has proved a breeding ground for a revolution that began only four years ago in Kinsale (County Cork, Ireland) when a group of postgraduate students drafted a report based on these initial premises that was soon adopted as official policy by the town council. Professor Rob Hopkins, a native of Devon, brought his theories along with him when he moved into this town in southwest England. Thanks to its intellectual and slightly hippy upper-middle class population with plenty of purchasing power and a mixed bag of conventional and alternative interests, Totnes was already hailed as the English capital of “New Age chic”.

One-pound notes

The first stunner in this world epicentre of the transition towns movement is that it has its very own currency: the Totnes pound. A total of 10,000 one-pound notes (a Totnes pound is worth £1 sterling) are in circulation and accepted by a hundred local businesses. The object is clear: to encourage people to buy local so as to minimise the waste of energy involved in shipping etc., keep the money flowing within the local economy and help small business survive. The town has also set up a credits-based bartering system for the exchange of goods and services that goes beyond the conventions of the formal economy.

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In the town centre are four “change points” where you can get Totnes pounds for sterling. At first, the initiative sparked heated controversy over the line drawn between businesses that participate and those that do not – including, in particular, chain stores whose customers hail from out of town and are reluctant to use a currency they can’t use anywhere else. It’s true there is a distinction, concedes Noel Longhurst, a founder of the Transition Town Totnes organisation, between those who assume the responsibility to buy local and those who stick to other models. But that’s inevitable, he adds.

Think global act local

There are transition towns in Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. They represent a movement that is evolving on the fringes of established power structures, but which seeks to work together with local authorities. It is generally a matter of four or five committed individuals who spread the philosophical ideals underlying the movement and map out a strategy for their implementation, developing web sites, organising seminars, conferences at schools and citizens’ forums, networking with politicians and local shopkeepers, screening films etc.

To be officially recognised as a transition town, a community has to pass a sort of test. At least one movement representative has to come and give a workshop, and then make sure that the town has at least a small organisation that goes beyond mere voluntarism, and that not there are no competition issues or internal feuds that might undermine the project. One common problem, notes Hopkins, is the scepticism of those who say that big business and the powers that be won’t hesitate to crush us if we really harm their interests, a fear thus far without foundation. Others, he continues, have the impression the Greens are already there to fight for the environment, and that being apolitical makes us easy targets for extremists who are out to co-opt our agenda.

The ultimate goal of Totnes, as of all transition towns, is to relocalise production, distribution and consumption so that locals will hold the vast majority of jobs and so that food, energy and water will be produced within the community. "We have got to think global, but act local," says Longhurst: "get prepared for the crisis without making ourselves miserable."

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