Rob Hopkins interview

Brian Crump interviewing Rob Hopkins about Transition Towns, on “Nights”, National radio, Thursday, 10th April, 2008.

Brian Crump Rob Hopkins is an environmentalist who is based in the Devon town of Totnes in SW England. The idea is to make Totnes a town that could withstand major changes in the global economy, such as the world running low on crude oil. I spoke to Rob a few days ago and began by asking him, “What needs changing?”

Rob Hopkins Well, we’re transitioning from our current over-dependence on cheap oil and gas and the climate implications of that, to a world where we’re actually much, much more independent of fossil fuels, oil and gas in particular. So the transition model is really underpinned by two drivers which are firstly the need to cut carbon emissions with an unprecedented degree of urgency, but also the need to build resilience. And by building resilience we mean building our community’s ability to withstand shocks from the outside.

BC Shocks as in energy shocks, things like that?

RH As in energy shocks, as in climate shocks, whatever. You know, basically – we had a thing happen here in the UK in the year 2000, where the lorry drivers blockaded oil depots and it meant that pretty much all the lorries on the road stopped running, and it became very clear within a couple of days, that all of our supermarkets only had three days’ worth of food in them, and that we’d spent the last 30, 40, 50 years vigorously dismantling all of our resilient infrastructure that we had up until then. So, that resilience-building is really, really important, but key in the Transition movement is really the idea that inherent within the challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change is the potential for an economic, social and cultural renaissance the likes of which we’ve never seen, as we move towards a more local economy – the potential to build a whole range of local employment opportunities and so on.

BC Really! So, instead of climate change and oil shocks and peak oil, which is the other phrase that people a lot – the idea that we’ve reached peak production of crude oil and it’s going down the other side and production’s falling (I don’t know if anyone knows for sure whether that’s happening yet or not) but, instead of that all being a problem you’re talking about making it an opportunity, you’re being optimistic about it.

RH An enormous opportunity, yeah! Because, for me, when I found out about Peak Oil, I went from seeing what I’d grown up with around me in terms of shops full of food and shops full of cheap goods, rather that seeing it as being inherently how things are, it all of a sudden becomes a very fragile illusion, which is sustained by the fact that oil and gas are relatively cheap. So, it’s a … I think we have a choice really, whether we look at it as being an enormous crisis, or as being an opportunity. When you start looking at it through the lens of it maybe being an opportunity, there’s all kinds of things that then really start to emerge. You know, that actually we are very, very vulnerable in the way we live at the moment. One example is here – we’re looking at the idea of a Passiv Haus, a house that requires no heating because it’s so well oriented and designed and so on. But at the moment a lot of the materials that are used to build those come from industrial building materials. If we’re able to specify that 70-80% of those buildings are built with local materials, then we start to create a whole range of livelihood opportunities for people to start producing local timber.

BC Yeah, and just as that being a local example in Totnes – and I want to ask you a bit more about what Totnes is like soon – but what sort of materials would you use in Totnes in, I think it’s Devon, that are local? Timber, you mentioned. What about straw? Is that another one?

RH We could timber, we could use straw. We have a straw bale house here in Totnes. You’d use – I mean the traditional building materials here would be cob, which is clay and sand and straw made into a monolithic wall with tremendous thermal mass properties. Hemp is a very exciting building material that is historically grown very well here. Lime from local lime kilns. You know, there’s a range of things. Necessity really is the mother of invention, and when we could only build with what we could bring on a cart, we built with particular materials, and also we developed a vernacular building style which has really come to characterize this area. Now, most modern housing project developments in this part of the world could be anywhere in Europe.

BC Now obviously the key word here is transition – things being smooth, not things jolted and shocked, and suddenly the community not being able to cope. But how do you begin to start that when, even though we talk about the price of fuel rising, really at the moment, the whole way the economy works, it makes sense. The market signals, the prices suggest, get your stuff from way over the other side of the world. There’s so much at the moment which keeps the current system going because it’s always the cheapest one in the short term.

RH Yes, there’s a very seminal piece of work on that, which is a thing called the Hirsch Report that came out in 2005, which was done by the US Department of Energy, and that looked, not at when the peak in world oil production is going to be, but how far in advance of it you needed to start preparing very, very seriously. They argued ideally 20 years, 10 years at a push, on the scale of a wartime mobilization. I mean, most opinion now I think is really coming round to, either we’ve already peaked – I mean conventional oil production hasn’t actually increased since May 2005 – or that it’s sometime before 2015. So this is enormous – an enormous question and challenge. I think in the Transition movement we say well actually, if we’re going to start this thinking and start designing for this transition, we need to start doing it now, and with an unprecedented degree of bringing people together …

BC How’s Totnes doing that? Is Totnes doing that by putting forward laws – local laws which say you have to build houses out of certain materials; you have to use certain energy sources? How are you doing it?

RH Well, we’re trying to do that by initially starting to draw together a really broad base of organisations who normally don’t have very much to do with each other. So, we’re working with the local – with the town council, with the Chamber of Commerce, with schools, with a whole range of different groups, to start people thinking about this, because the idea of the Transition approach is that it’s not something which arrives in a town with all of the answers already conceived. It’s something which acts as a catalyst for the community to start thinking about these issues. So, the first step is an extensive awareness-raising process, which introduces people to the idea of peak oil and climate change as a positive opportunity. And so we’re now getting to the stage, after this process running for almost two years, where we’re starting to see the seeds – where we have a community energy company which has been launched, which is designed as a mechanism whereby people can invest money into that, in order to start putting in place renewable infrastructure. So that’s falling into place, and that’s going to start putting in place some renewable energy infrastructure and have local investment. We’re forming a building company that can start to put in place these kind of buildings that we’re talking about; we’re setting up a company called Totnes Currency, which will be the organisation that will generate and sustain the local currency side of these things. So, we’re trying to put in place that kind of infrastructure in terms of organisation, but we’re also starting to put in place – we have a project called Totnes, The Nut Capital of Britain, (laughter) which is starting to plant nut trees and hazel nut trees in kind-of unloved corners of the town as an awareness-raising exercise, but also as a food security issue. But I think what’s really important is, as you say, you know, at the moment the majority of people aren’t aware of this as being the scale of the challenge that it is. But, if we wait until we have that, then it’s kind of too late, so what we’re trying to do with Transition projects is really to try and build around people the infrastructure that they will need afterwards, in such a way that it’s not threatening, and is fun, but is also doing really, really important work. So, the Totnes pound for example is this local currency scheme that we run.

BC Yeah, how does that work?

RH Well, we have – the idea of it is that it is something that will – that starts to build economic resilience. So you have a currency which has to circulate a lot more times in the local economy than conventional money does. Conventional money has no loyalty to the town of Totnes at all, so it comes into the town and then about 80% of it just leaves whenever the shops cash up at the end of the day. So, the idea of the Totnes pound is, a printed currency that’s backed by national currency, so it has a tangible value, but it’s something which has to cycle in the local economy. So the first one we did as a pilot, we just produced 300 of them and they were a facsimile of an 1810 note from the time when the banks in Totnes actually issued their own currency – it’s not a new idea, it’s an historical continuity really – and then, we’re now into our second issue – we’ve got another one. So far we only have a one pound note and we’re planning to do a five pound note.

BC Tell me if I’m wrong, but does it work in terms of – if I say I like to be paid in Totnes pounds for a product, if I’m going to then spend those Totnes pounds to buy other products and services, I have to redeem those pounds in Totnes, so I have to buy locally – is that the idea …

RH Yes. If you took them to the next village up the road, they would think “What is that?” It has no value outside of Totnes. But we now have 70 shops in the town that take them as being worth a pound, and there’s over 7000 of these notes already out into circulation. So the idea is, it’s kind of “mindful money”, in a sense. It’s a loyalty scheme. If you go shopping with Totnes pounds, you’re making a statement that you want to support local businesses, and you want to encourage those businesses to source locally where they can.

BC Tell me a bit more about the town actually. How big is it?

RH We have 8000 people.

BC And, in terms of success, I’m interested in whether you’re able to measure that yet. Because, I mean, a lot of the ideas sound fantastic – I like the idea of the local pound, but can you measure success; are you trying to measure success in terms of energy use, in terms of how many products are being made locally…?

RH Yes, well, basically the first sort of 18 months of this scheme has really been about just really acting as that catalyst, and all these different project initiatives and groups and ideas have sprung up and started to bed down. What we’re starting to do now is to develop what we’re calling the Energy Descent Plan for the town, which is trying to pull all of that together and create a 20 year plan for the town which says, let’s start with a vision. Given peak oil and climate change, given the need to build resilience and the need to cut carbon enormously, and given that we are looking at a world where there’s going to be a lot less cheap oil and gas around, what could this town look like? What’s our vision of how our town could look like if we could pull off something really extraordinary? And then to back-cast from that. So that’s the process that we’re about to start and which will be really about looking at trying to pin all those solutions down. But as part of that, we’ve started to think that actually at the moment, the main measure of success for those kind of things is how much carbon are they cutting. And actually, that’s only one measure, and we’re looking at this idea of developing what we call resilience indicators, which is, how can you tell that your town is moving towards being more resilient? So – the amount of local currency in circulation every year; the amount of food consumed in the town from around the town; the amount of building materials used in new construction projects which comes from the local area – that kind of stuff. So we’re trying to develop this idea of resilience indicators alongside, so we can start to sort of quantify things a little bit. And we’re also trying to draw in people who can do – see I think, to really quantify accurately the kind of thing you’re talking about actually takes a lot of time and resources that community organisations don’t have necessarily.

BC Are you the first Transition Town in Britain?

RH In Britain, yeah. The idea began in Ireland, in Kinsale, which strictly speaking was the first Transition Town. But now we’ve moved from Totnes being the first one in the UK to there being 45 in the UK and – no, 42 in the UK, two in New Zealand, one in Australia.

BC Really, two in NZ?

RH Ah – Orewa – is that right?

BC Yes, north of Auckland.

RH And, Waikiki Island.

BC Waikiki, or Waiheke – yes, Waiheke Island, also near Auckland.

RH And they have a website,, which is where people can find out more about what’s happening in NZ. But then, we have another sort of level, which are called the mullers – people who are mulling to become Transition Projects, so they haven’t formally worked through the criteria, but they’re at an early stage, and there’s over 700 of those now, many in NZ, in Australia, in the UK, all over the world – it’s really been quite an extraordinarily viral expansion of the idea really.

BC How much transition does Totnes have to do in your opinion, Rob? How far are you from becoming a truly resilient town, which still functions, not as an isolationist place in terms of cutting off the outside world, but is able to cope on its own should change come suddenly?

RH I think realistically, we’re still a long, long way away from it really, I mean, as everywhere is. But what we’ve been doing quite effectively I think is to start to really engage people in thinking about the issues very seriously. We’ve started to put in place a number of projects which – I mean something like the Totnes pound, you know, in Argentina when their economy collapsed a few years ago, things like the Totnes pound spontaneously sprung up all over the country.

BC That’s right, they did, didn’t they. People just used their own currency because they lost faith in the official stuff.

RH Exactly. But what we’re trying to do here is to bring a currency like that in at a point when our economy here is still growing and is still booming – although actually that is just starting to turn at the moment. So, if we can get it in now, and we can get people familiar with shopping in a different currency, we have the shops who have their systems set up to be able to use it, they feel excited about using their own currency, and as well, in the same way – we’ve produced a local food directory, so that’s about linking people with their local food producers – you know, that kind of stuff, it’s about starting to get that in place. And also I think it’s about starting to weave the social networks that will really be as important as the windmills – you know, whether the Chamber of Commerce are happy talking to all the different groups, and – so we’re doing a lot of that work which is going on under the surface, which is hard to quantify, hard to see when you come, but I think has been doing a lot in terms of resilience-building.

BC Rob, it’s been fascinating talking to you. Thanks very much for your time.

RH It’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you.

BC Rob Hopkins, an environmentalist, part of the Transition Towns project in the Devon settlement of Totnes in SW England. A couple of websites if you’re interested: here’s one he talked about before, , and this Kiwi one,