Earlier this year, we outlined four easy ways to do your part in making the world a better place. Among them: joining Transition Towns, a cool neighbourhood movement about coming up with better ways of doing things, learning some new skills, and getting people to meet the folks next door.
Andrew Martin of Oneness Publishing recently interviewed James Samuel, who helped establish the Transition network in New Zealand. Today there are around 65 Transition Towns in New Zealand. Transition Towns were established by Rob Hopkins in the UK in response to climate change and resource depletion. The movement started in 2006 with a handful of small villages in Britain, and now there are thousands of Transition Towns across the world. The Transition Towns network's role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions.
Let’s start by going back to 2006 when you first became interested in the Transition Towns concept. What sparked your interest in this movement?
I saw trouble and challenges on the horizon. My involvement came out of realising that we have been living high on the hog for many decades and that on the back of cheap abundant energy that wasn’t going to last. We needed to look at how we were going to take care of ourselves into the future. I heard that Richard Heinberg was coming to New Zealand for an eco-show at the end of 2007. The eco-show in Taupo was really focused on peak oil and climate change so I ended up going to Taupo and running a number of workshops down there. While I was down there I put my hand up and became involved with establishing the Transition Town network in New Zealand, I volunteered to get things going and was putting in 60-plus hour weeks which kicked things off. We rode the wave of incredible growth and after two years there were over 50 transition initiatives around the country.
What were some of the lessons you learnt from establishing the Transition Network?
One of the key things which I learnt was in learning to let the movement develop organically. The independent Kiwi can-do attitude was really clear and strong and it was a matter of just taking the ball and running with it. We allowed the web site to be a cohesive central point that people worked around and that seemed to be enough. Transition Towns in New Zealand is still strong, some places are stronger than others but you are going to get that anyway. It is really grass roots pushed out to the edges movement and nobody is running it.
Were there any challenging aspects to establishment of the Transition Towns?
It was challenging mainly due to the fact that we were growing at a phenomenal rate. I felt like we were on this great wave standing on the board and just going with it. I spent some time travelling around the North Island showing what other people were doing and sharing ideas. It is important we all learn from each other as well trying to build the connections and links between groups. This is kind of what the website was intended to do. It’s done that to a degree, some people don’t post a lot on there yet they are doing a lot. The key is to let it go, once people get the idea that there is a storm brewing they get out and start battening down the hatches, you don’t have to tell people too much it is pretty obvious what has to be done, we have to localise. We have to localise our food systems, we have to localise everything we rely heavily on such as transport. People are doing it. I’ve kind of gone on, I’m a starter, I get things going. I’ve come to recognise that about myself and so I’ve moved onto other things. I nurtured it for a while and I feel like it is burning steadily.
Has the value of Transition Towns been determined by individual communities?
Every community is different, depending upon what the local community needs are at any point in time. At the end of the day we all have to eat, we’ve all got to put a roof over our heads and we have some need to move around and all of those things as energy gets more expensive, it becomes more and more obvious that energy is a really big ingredient in our food production, how we going to deal with that, localised food! It’s not that complicated really.
What are great examples for Transition Towns that are really working?
I see a lot of stuff coming out of Northland, Kerikeri, Whangarei, there is a lot of activity up there and they are steady and consistent. Waitati have done a lot of work around community energy, they have just done a crowdfunding project to get a wind turbine system established.
You have been involved with some very inspirational people such as Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg since your involvement with the Transition Network, tell us about your experiences with some of these inspirational people you have worked with…
They are just like you and me, we are all inspirational people when we get out and do something and everyone plays a part, some of us are just more visible than others. I think it important to respect everybody who is bringing awareness to help develop a more resilient society. We can all be inspirational, we can all be heroes and we can all make a difference.
Five years later what changes have you seen in the conversation regarding peak oil and climate change?
Yeah, peak oil and climate change are pretty much accepted, it is on the radar, it is not fringe. There are still a few people that think it is a conspiracy and then there are those who are working out of the pockets of the corporates, who get paid by drilling and extracting. Generally speaking it is pretty clear we are on the bumpy plateau of oil production and it looks like we may be sliding down the other side. It is important to understand that energy and economy are inextricably linked and have been for decades. We are still feeling the bumpy ride of the financial collapse.
What do you see as the future of Transition Towns?
It fits for some people and it will always fit for some people, it is a great model. It comes out of permaculture. I have huge respect for permaculture as a wise set of principles and a way of looking at things, a lens, a way to view the world through. It benefits from all that wisdom, it will always there and strong for many years to come.
Since helping establish Transition Towns what have you been working on lately? Tell us about some of the great initiatives you have been involved with and what are you passionate about at the moment?
Anything that is relevant to localising food. I cofounded Ooooby, I’ve supported and helped Bucky Box [see Idealog story] which comes out of Ooooby and I am currently working on a Waiheke food forest.
I don’t see a long term future in turning soil to grow annual crops, annual vegetables. I think the future has to be in reforesting the earth with perennial plants, permanent plants that produce food. Bare soil and soil with minimum cover dries out fast, if you have shallow rooted green matter of some sort, they die off really fast if you can’t keep enough water on them. Once they die off you have even more exposure of the soil.
I don’t know what you can see out your window but when I look out my window I see forest, we are looking at an ecosystem that is stable, it doesn’t require human input to maintain it even some of the bushes are struggling in this particular weather some of the trees are severely stressed because a lot of the New Zealand bush is relatively shallow rooted trees, but not as shallow rooted as a lettuce. So if we can keep a ground cover, we have deforested the earth we need to reforest it bring back a stable multilayered forest system.
Think about it this way. A forest system has root crops, yams, potatoes, kumera, then you have a herb layers close the ground (only a few inches high) it can be all kinds of medicinal herbs, then you have a shrub layer a little bit taller up to your waist, it could be your berries all manner of food producing plants. Then you have a tree layer such as apples, peaches and pears etc, then you have a canopy layer, big tall trees, the chestnuts and pecans and then you have vines that grow from the ground up through the forest, things like passionfruit and grapes.
So we are making forest systems that are based on food that don’t require a lot of human input or fossil fuel input in order to keep them going. They sustain themselves. You go in and do a little bit of clearing open up the light a little bit. You chop a bit of the tree back that goes back into the ground and builds up soil. It brings in the fungus that eat the wood and other organic matter, fungus is the best thing you can have in a forest system it moves nutrients around the forest to plants where it is needed. This is the kind of food production I believe we need.
Have you already moved to a system such as you described?
Last year as part of the work I have been doing is teaching social media for Otago Polytech and one of the students last year down in Wanaka established the Hawea Flat food forest and he created a document that is open source available to all online. It is a manual of how to create a community food forest on public land. They received a 49-year lease from the council on a 700 square metre block with an option to expand into 20 hectares. It is all documented, that’s what we are following.
Do you think climate change is now a reality?
The Met office in Australia has added four more degrees to the temperature charts. They went up to 54C, I don’t want to be in 54C! The fire department in Australia added another category, they went from EXTREME to CATASTROPHIC. We are living in a climate changed world, we are no longer looking towards climate change – we are looking back at it.
It is interesting, I receive many so called ‘rural’ publications and yet it is very rare they discuss climate change or peak oil?
Follow the money, who pays for these magazines? The advertisers of course. They aren’t talking about it. They want to fill their pockets as fast as they can before the whole damn thing crumbles. Many of them are so deeply in denial they won’t admit it anyway.
Are there any things you are excited to be working on at the moment?
I am having conversations with people who are involved in the local food movement and with a view to bring some of these leading social change, social enterprise businesses together so we can start to build a more effective force for change in this space. We need to collaborate and cooperate and work together there is no place for ego in this anymore.
How do you see the internet helping many of these initiatives?
I see the internet moving incredibly fast, I am fortunate that a lot of the work I do as a tutor in social media because it means I have to keep up with the trends. What I am seeing in the circle I am connecting with is phenomenal growth in our ability to develop code that is incredibly practical and is changing the power base. It is putting power back in the hands of people to self-organise to structure to trade.
We have a Facebook group on Waiheke which we started a little over a year ago, called Waiheke Trading, a simple Facebook group where people post stuff. Here’s an example of how it is working. You get your camera take a photo and then get on Facebook and say you have this bicycle helmet, a car I need to sell, a bed or a sofa or whatever it is. Last count we had over 2,589 members, this is moving stuff around and what I see it is not just selling and buying things it is redistributing resources. Because it is a community and people understand that it is a community they don’t put a market value on things they are happy to let it go for a few bucks here and there or for free. I put on there recently that my kettle died, the next day a woman comes walking down the drive with a kettle and hands it to me, she doesn’t want anything for it. Because I’ve been helping set up the Waiheke Trading site she is just happy to give me the kettle, it is excess to her requirements. It is redistributing resources.
Then you have things like Loomio, this awesome tool for developing or enabling groups to manage themselves based on consensus decision making, fantastic tool, it’s come out of the Occupy movement. It has come out of a response for large groups of people to have conversation to have dialogue make proposals vote on them get a consensus agreement move on and get the job done. All this stuff is incredibly important.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today – do you have any final thoughts?
Keep your eyes wide open and embrace every opportunity you have to diversify your livelihood and move from your dependence of large corporate structures to local social businesses.