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Renewal from the roots up

Gerry Aiken

The fast-growing 'Transition Town' movement aims to wean communities off fossil fuels in favour of a collaborative, low-impact future. Gerry Aiken believes it's time for the church to listen up and pitch in.


There are moments in life when the penny drops so forcefully you can almost hear it. I had one such moment last December, in an advent service jointly arranged with the local Transition Town group. We were focusing on John the Baptist, the voice calling from the wilderness: 'Make straight the way of the Lord'. And it struck me that people are often reticent to learn from hippies, whether Biblical prophets or modern-day ones. For just as John was calling Israel to look to its roots, I felt suddenly that the Transition Town volunteer was offering our church the same thing: a calling back to true community.

For those unfamiliar with the Transition movement, a little background may be necessary here. It began around 2005 as an emerging, grassroots response to the problems of climate change and peak oil.1 Transition's founder, Rob Hopkins, was previously a teacher of permaculture, an approach that looks at the radical interconnectedness of all aspects of an ecosystem, for example the way in which nutrients (such as nitrogen) taken from the soil by one plant can be put back by another (such as clover). Hopkins took this ecological heritage, and radically broadened its focus to the ecosystem of community life.

I have had a life-long fascination with 'community'. The word carries an old-fashioned romantic ideal of the 'good life' and still retains a kernel of warm feeling despite mass over-use. It has progressive potential, and can mobilise and inspire us to act ,but also force us to rub up against different views and personalities - to work it out together. Over the last few years I've become particularly interested in community's potential to rescue us from our three-fold trap of debt - living beyond our means ecologically, financially and spiritually.

And it is here that the Transition Town movement is most crucial, leading us from a way of life reliant on oil, to a low-carbon future. Since Totnes emerged as the first example in 2005, there are now 376 Transitions communities across the UK and the rest of the world, including islands, neighbourhoods and even a university as well as towns. In each case the community has come together to embrace practical projects that reduce our negative impact on the planet's resources, be that the development of a community orchard, a scheme to insulate housing blocks or even the creation of a local non-cash currency to enable the trading of skills. Many of them will come together to share information and encouragement at the forthcoming annual Transition conference in Liverpool over  July 8-10 this summer.  

The need for this movement is moral but also, with only a finite supply of oil running out, practical. As Rob Hopkins puts it: 'Climate change says we should change, whereas peak oil says we will be forced to change. Both categorically state that fossil fuels have no role to play in our future, and the sooner we can stop using them the better.'3

The ideal of the fully localised community is both the means and end of the Transition. But defining our borders should not prevent us from looking beyond them for our true context. In fact, paradoxically, the closer we focus on the local, the more we begin to identify the radical global interconnectedness of which we are all part. How do we travel? What supply chains does our food rely on? Where and in what are our banks investing our money? These subtle aspects of community can open us up to the whole world. On the surface things can look so simple and separate - but permaculture calls us to dig deeper and see the connections beneath the soil. Our communities are formed both from the heritage we find there, and the biography we bring to them. They are much more than people; they also concern the spirit, memory and sense of place. When we ignore our wider interconnectedness and only focus on the surface, we end up with a regressive shoring up of our community boundaries that can help us feel safe - but can also exclude others. In this view, 'gated communities', or the oxymoronic job title of 'community enforcement officer', represent community in name only. This for me is the problem with the Big Society or the rhetoric of New Localism, which seems to me a derogation of government responsibility.

So what could the church learn from the Transition movement? Well, most obviously there is the challenge for those of us living a lifestyle ultimately beyond the means of the planet. There is the call to wake up and smell the black stuff - not coffee, but oil, which feeds our addiction, and lubricates our whole way of life. Whether it's in our dependence on the car, or a food supply system that needs oil at nearly every stage, or the pesticides used to grow our vegetables, or that well-earned short-haul break to relieve the stress of our commuter lifestyle, or in nearly every product we use in our daily, banal existence, we all rely on oil in some way. These are moral issues the church should concern themselves with: what are our carbon emissions doing to the poorest and most vulnerable? But rather than leave us feeling depressed, guilty and powerless, Transition also offers us a practical response - one the church can embrace wholeheartedly.

Indeed, there is something in the Transition vision which rings very true with the early ideal of Christian community. The oft-repeated verse in Acts 4:32 tells us that the first Christians held everything in common: 'No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had'.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been told this is pie-in-the-sky dreaming, an admirable aim but not intended for the modern world. But Transition's aim is precisely this: collective responsibility for shared assets, from community orchards to renewable energy schemes.  How ironic that it takes a movement from outside the church to raise these ideas into goals and begin to work towards them, however slowly and surely.

Nobody would claim these are easy ideals to work out in practice. It's not easy sharing, or working for something in the knowledge that there may be free-riders. How community-owned energy schemes monitor and control the use of this electricity is notoriously difficult. Do you share apples from the orchard to the hardest workers first, or give equal numbers of quality of fruit to those who have barely worked at all, as Jesus seems to advocate? It takes quite a bit of faith in the humanity of those round about you, and that is what participants in Transition are aiming for. This is community without the state, or community without communism.

Wouldn't it be strange if it took an outside organisation to help us live up to these ideals in the 21st century church? Some church people are already getting involved, as Ruth Valerio testifies overleaf. Perhaps this is an example of what Rowan Williams was getting at when he talked of renewal coming from the margins4.

It's fashionable these days to have a go at the church, but in fact as an institution, as a collection of inspired individuals, it's been well ahead of the game on key issues like slavery, as characters such as Wilberforce could tell us. Josephine Butler would have something to say about it on women's rights. But on ecological issues, it is lagging behind. It has yet to offer a powerful, persistent and prophetic critique of consumer capitalism.

There are some exceptions, for example Tearfund's Carbon Fast5, but given even the mildest predictions for our environmental future, I believe it's time for the church to recover its radical edge. Graham Cray's catchphrase on ecumenism - 'roots down, walls down' - is useful here. Can we as a church community be humble and hospitable, and secure enough in our grounding, to reach out beyond the traditional walls and learn something from the outside?


1  Peak oil is the point at which its discovery and extraction 'peaks', and our oil-dependent society is left to search for the ever diminishing supplies in more dangerous (for example at Deepwater Horizon, where an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico flowed for three months in 2010) or environmentally damaging locations (such as the tar sands in Canada, the country's the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions). The International Energy Agency says this 'peak' occurred in 2006.
2  See for details.
3  Hopkins, Rob, Transitions Handbook (Green Books, 2008) p37.
4  'This is where the unexpected growth happens, where the unlikely contacts are often made; where the Church is renewed (as it so often is) from the edges, not the centre. We need a positive willingness to see and understand all this - and to find the patterns and rhythms and means of communication that will let everyone share the benefits.' Archbishop's Presidential Address to  Synod, 2003.