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Reviews

The Transition Companion

Gerry Aiken

RTransition.jpgThe Transition Companion: Making your community more resilient in uncertain times
Rob Hopkins
Transition Books, 320pp

Much has happened to Rob Hopkins since his conceived Transition Towns idea exploded onto the scene. What followed included a personal commendation from Ed Milliband, and an invitation to discuss his ideas with Prince Charles over dinner. He now finds himself the 'guru' of the emerging Transition Town movement, throughout the UK. The Transition Companion is an updated version of his original 2005 bestseller that did so much to spread the Transition message, The Transition Handbook.

This update is a more mature guidebook on how to respond where we live to the great challenges of our time: climate change, peak oil, economic crisis and lack of community. The book is an accessible, disarming introduction to the key issues concerning the Transition Town movement, from fuel to current economic structures. The call at the core of it is that everything should become more local. Local community is the solution to the problems that face us today. Food supply chains, energy production, even local currencies are all explored within these pages, and also inaugurated in practices in groups around the country. 

This must be done though community. As Hopkins states: 'If we wait for governments, it'll be too little too late. If we act as individuals, it'll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might be just enough, just in time.'

Whatever the problem - and this book is on the mark in diagnosing the behemoth-like challenges facing humanity in this generation - community can solve it. It becomes clear why groups like these are the darlings of funding bodies, and of defenders of the Big Society too. What is more, governments and local authorities that find themselves faced with such huge challenges, and little money or central control anymore.

Community, of course, only takes us so far. And it's bloody hard work too. Hopkins does distance himself from the localism rhetoric of Eric Pickles, Phillip Blond, and others, but not sufficiently enough for my liking. Local people can work together to promote local organic vegetables, independent retailers or farmers markets, but without strong regulation of the 'local' Tesco what chance does it have? (Other supermarkets are available.)

It is this critique of power that is lacking within these pages. This seems to be quite common in many of the visionary emergent groups arising. The Occupy movements, for instance, are so concerned with avoiding slavish ideologies and the potential to abuse which centralised systems have, that they hold off taking any position that might align them with the previous wrongs of the left or right. Transition likewise eschews words like political, radical, activist, or even anarchist. However a movement with such a profound critique of the individualising, consuming society as we have in the UK can't but be political. Hopkins seems to be shy in claiming the political mantle that is his to throw over his shoulders, though perhaps this humility is to be savoured.

One of the great virtues of community proclaimed (in this book, and in Transition's practice) is its organic nature. However organisms also have another quality, that of decay. There is little in this book that talks about how these 'resilient communities' that Hopkins foresees should retreat to the margins, when they become part of the mainstream furniture. Many radical movements such as these founder on what they do with success. There is not as much in this book about what the Transition Town movement is meant to do when funding, and celebrity endorsement come their way.

It has often been said that the intellectual inspiration for the Transition movement is E.F. Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful'. This is only partially true. They are certainly concerned with reducing  the scale on which we think of economics, food systems, etc. to a more appropriate size. Yet Transition Towns are primarily interested in the medium level of geography. It was originally Transition Towns, not villages or cities. The key focus is operating as a community, not isolated individuals or corporations, governments. It is this commitment to the medium that has given fuel to their detractors (middle class, middle of the road). The focus on the middle is still here. 

The core value to this book however is the prime importance it places on praxis, on the integration of thought and deed. These are intellectually rich ideas, and alongside a critique which goes to the core of a consuming, individuating society. Yet it is written about, by, and for those who are prepared to go the extra mile in doing something about that knowledge. This book then is not just a theory; it is a guidebook for doing. It is a map, where the invocation is a call to explore, to peregrinate. Rob Hopkins and the Transition Town experiment could be seen in this way as echoing for the environmental movement words laid down for Christianity by that prophet of the 20th century, George MacLeod: 'Christ is a person to be trusted, not a principle to be tested. The Church is a movement, not a meetinghouse. The faith is an experience, not an exposition. Christians are explorers, not map-makers.'