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The Big Picture View from Totnes

Totnes is a tiny town in a tiny, but extremely fortunate, bubble.  Mythic home of Transition and Rob Hopkins, conjoined (for some, uncomfortably so) with Dartington and Schumacher College, we’re connected to the wider world in a way that few rural towns could ever hope to be.  We’re on the touring map for an impressive array of thinkers, dreamers, and doers bringing their respective takes on problems and solutions, or popping in for a dose of local wisdom, and sometimes a bit of both.  Taken together with a regular film series and a steady diet of slightly less luminous public talks and events, it seems we’re ankle deep in the “big picture” most of the time.  And most of the time, it’s there quietly in the background as we undertake this or that Transition project, acting locally, as we do.

Last night, the bubble burst.

Bill McKibben, founder of and recently famous for his civil disobedience outside the White House where he and thousands of activists were protesting the Keystone XL pipeline project, spoke in front of a rapt audience of about 250 people at St.John’s Church. 

He began by praising the work of transitioning from a resource hungry, alienating global economic system, currently in process in communities all over the world.  People are re-localising their food systems and livelihoods, moving away from fossil fuels, installing renewable energy systems, reclaiming the joy of connection with each other.  “The work of Transition and localisation is succeeding more and more,” he said.  “Given time and space, it’s where we’re going.” 

But there may not be time.  He summarized the big picture.  Since he wrote “The End of Nature” in 1989, arguably the first book about global warming for the general public, climate science has had everything right except one thing, he said.  “The climate is changing much, much faster than we thought.”  Extreme weather over the last year and a half is merely a sampler of what’s to come as global mean temperature continues to rise.  It will certainly rise another degree based on current emissions.  And for every degree rise, food crop yields drop 10%.  Higher temperatures also mean more evaporation, more drought, and more wild fires in some places.  Warmer air holds more moisture, so rains may come early or late, dropping much more precipitation when and where it does. 

He described how the thriving urban farm in his home town, arguably one of the most “localised” and resilient in America, fared during the record breaking deluge brought on by Hurricane Irene.  “In one day, the crops were washed away and the top soil was replaced by sand.  You can’t create the kind of resiliency required to withstand that kind of extreme weather.” 

Alberta tar sands.The Keystone XL Pipeline would bring oil from the tar sands in Alberta, down to refineries on the Texas coast.  The oil is extracted in an incredibly destructive way, scarring the landscape, polluting the water and threatening First Nations communities living downstream.  The pipeline would make it easier to access and accelerate its extraction.  The carbon contained in the vast quantity of oil found there would, if released into the atmosphere all at once, push CO2 concentrations from 390 ppm, already unacceptably high, to about 540 ppm, rendering the planet uninhabitable. 

This kind of knowledge, understanding the facts about fossil fuel consumption and its destructive effects on the planet, creates a moral imperative to act.  And sometimes, he says, you have to put your body on the line.  “The fight against carbon, is a fight.  We have to do Transition and we have to do direct action…we have no choice.”

In doing this kind of activism, he says, “we aren’t the radicals, the oil companies are the radicals.  Exxon and BP; they’re willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere to make a living.  We are the deep conservatives trying to preserve the ecosystems we depend on and the lives of our communities.”  He showed images of events that took place in virtually every country on the planet, by people of every colour, religious background and socioeconomic status.

Asked if Transition in Britain is too tame, he responded by saying it’s not an either/or choice between Transition and more direct forms of activism, we need both.  “You’re citizens, do what you need to do, whether it’s under Transition or some other way.”

He’s on his way back to Washington DC to take part in another action, this time to encircle the White House.  Before he left, he suggested each of us write to our MPs and others in government to ask them to pressure the Canadian government to put an end to the tar sands project and to make sure that tar sands oil stays out of the UK.  Apparently, it may be banned from the EU.

After he left, a crowd gathered around Lou, who’s organising a local Frack Off ( group to oppose fracking in the UK.  I signed up.

Walking home, I took it all in, the big picture, the planetary and the personal, the moral imperatives that come with knowledge and with parenthood.  It’s a big damn world, much bigger than Totnes, much bigger than the Transition model, wherever and how ever it may be adopted and applied.  Is there really a Transition debate between a desire for a more informed, radical activism and a more cautious tack?  At the moment the question seems utterly ridiculous.  We must do what needs to be done.

 Photos: (top) Bill McKibben speaking at St Johns Church, Totnes. (bottom) Alberta tar sands. sbamueller/Creative Commons


Ann Owen's picture

Activist or transitionista?

Great post, Jay!

Sometimes the Transition model does indeed seem to take more time than we'll have and the urge to take some radical action presents itself. I love the way Transition Heathrow have managed to include all three elements of the great turning; holding actions, creating new structures and adopting new values and thinking. However, if Transition Bro Ddyfi Trawsnewid would have fully aligned itself with the anti Tesco campaign in our home town, we'd have lost the (potential) support of at least half the community. Frustrating, that is! Still, there are other ways to undermine the foundations of the old paradigm, we just need to be creative in our awareness raising campaigns. But at times, you just really wanna be able to slam the door, rather than quietly loosen the screws on the hinges, bit by bit...

Jay Tompt's picture


Hi Ann,

Thanks - we're lucky to have people like Bill McKibben come through here.  In March, Naomi Klein also gave a talk where she also made a similar case for a more broadly activist localisation movement.  Personally, I agree and see no dilemma at all between those looking to take stronger stands on issues and those seeking to appeal to a broad audience.  I think with creativity and authenticity, we can do both.