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You’re only as resilient as your neighbour.

A couple of weeks ago, several of us sat around a table at the TTT office contemplating a plan for an upcoming “strategy day”, a full day for all Totnes Transitioners to get together and download, feed back, reflect, connect, share, celebrate our accomplishments over the past year, and most importantly, to plan ahead. Lou is concerned. “We need to focus on resilience right now. This year’s harvest is a disaster. I think we need to make food security a top priority for all groups,” she says.

The scientific evidence suggests that the crap summer we’ve just had in the south west is indicative of the new pattern. Higher arctic temperatures are melting the ice cap and the massive ice sheets covering Greenland, accelerating global warming and, crucially for British growers, sending the jet stream south. That means more cool wet growing seasons ahead. 

I’m reminded of Bill McKibbon’s visit to Totnes a year ago. He warned that for decades the predictive models have been mostly right, describing with ever increasing precision the effects of a warming planet, but that they have all been dead wrong about timing. It’s all happening faster. He also told the story of how one extreme weather event wiped out a long established and productive farm in the middle of his formally food secure home town.

Extreme events aside, can Totnes weather a bad harvest or two? Can it even feed itself under “normal” conditions? That question was asked a couple of years ago in a study authored by Rob Hopkins, Simon Fairlie and Mark Thurstain-Goodwin. And the answer was yes, with the following caveats: stable climate, far more people working the land, we ate a different diet, and we lived in isolation from surrounding cities. In other words, no. Although Holly and others are working hard on boosting the local food economy through the Food Link programme and other projects, much of the locally produced food heads to urban markets or supermarket distribution hubs elsewhere.

That study makes it clear, both directly and indirectly, that we are not isolated but part of many interconnected and interdependent webs of relations, albeit many of which are perverted by a destructive economic system. But in another important respect, we remain quite isolated.

Devon is ruled by landed conservatives who view Totnes as a quirky little lefty nuisance. (I generalise, of course, because our Tory MP is very supportive.) However, the planning issue regarding a large corporate coffee chain’s proposed shop in centre of town demonstrated how isolated we really are, voting 17 to 6 in favour of corporate colonisation. No amount of local support, even if unanimous, was ever going to get a different result.  

We can’t do this alone. We are all in this together.

This fact is recognised in the Transition Initiative checklist, which contains a list of requirements that a new group must meet in order to become a recognised TI. Item 10 asks for a commitment to deliver at least two presentations to neighbouring communities who are considering a similar journey, a “here’s what we did in our community” sort of talk. 

It’s also recognised in Transition Companion ingredient Forming Networks of Transition Initiatives, which suggests that there might be something to be gained by working together to share ideas and provide mutual support. Indeed.

I asked some of TTT’s old hands about their experience in reaching out to neighbouring communities: Naresh, Rob, Sophy, Ben, Hal. They shared an impressive catalogue of activity, having done presentations and talks in about 17 different local villages, towns, and cities, from Exeter to Plymouth, Ashprington to Paignton. Some have Transition groups and some don’t. And there were a few good stories of people becoming inspired, people becoming irate and storming out, “I don’t have to listen to this!” Someone in Torquay said it would never work - “there’s no community anymore.”

Despite what must have been a huge effort in those days, not so much has been happening lately and there is no network in place. Like awareness raising, building relationships with neighbouring groups is not a box to tick or a signpost on the way to the next set of community building blocks, but an ongoing part of the mix. Rather than “ingredient”, maybe a better metaphor is that they are essential twisted threads in a rope that must be strong enough to drag us all into a better future or to catch us when we fall. In any case, it is clear that reaching out and forming relationships with our neighbours is of prime importance.

For the past several months, Hal, Frances, and I have been considering how we might begin developing relationships and alliances with neighbouring organisations. We’re located in the middle of a cluster of like-minded innovators between Exeter to the north and Plymouth to the south west, including Schumacher College, Embercombe, Husbandry School, Exeter University, and Plymouth University – and several Transition or similar groups, too. We’ve already begun investigating a collaborative relationship with Dartington Hall Trust, as well as deepening the one we already have with Schumacher College. We’ve made initial contacts with folks at Plymouth University exploring ways we might collaborate on boosting social and sustainable enterprise. And while we’ve been talking about reaching out to Transition Town Tavistock and others, the district council beat us to the punch, and just formed the Community Energy Partnership, or CEP.

The CEP was a South Hams District Council brainchild motivated by a forward thinking officer, and co-founder of Sustainable South Brent, who got wind of some European Funds that Devon County Council obtained. He put the call out to form the partnership with about a dozen community groups that include TTT, Transition Town Tavistock, Sustainable South Brent, PL:21 from Ivybridge, Dartmoor Circle, Buck the Trend from Buckfastleigh, Ashburton Futures, Mortenhampstead Action Group, and Greener Teign. The aim is to develop and fund community capacity to take local carbon reduction projects forward. It’s a gift, and after attending our first meeting last week, we intend to make the most of it.

We’re very interested to see where this goes. Will it lead to an active network with all its benefits, like mycelium spreading knowledge and nutrients across a dynamic, growing movement? And certainly we must begin with those connection that are most receptive, but I can’t help thinking about the other places where it’s arguably even more important to build relationships – Paignton, Torquay, Brixham, Dartmouth.

The theme of networking is picked up again in the Dare to Dream stage, but I also can’t help thinking that spreading and growing this movement is critical, more important than the designation of ingredient within a stage can properly acknowledge. Transition offers an accurate diagnosis of the problem: global warming and economic crisis pose existential threats to society; governments and corporations can’t be relied upon to create the solution. The prescription is that “if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.” When Bill McKibbon was here, on his way to the White House to engage in civil disobedience in opposition to the Keystone II pipeline, he warned emphatically that we may not have time. If he’s right and we’re right, and we’re confident in both our diagnosis and prescription, then spreading this movement isn’t just of prime importance, but a moral imperative.

Images: Satellite images depicting Greenland ice loss, NOAA; Hal Gillmore, a long time TTT organiser and leader of Transition Tours which expose hundreds of Transition pilgrims a year to Transition thinking; Mycelium

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Mark Watson's picture

twisted threads in a strong rope for the future

Really liked that metaphor, Jay.