Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Transition Towns

The Power of Community

200AD and the Roman Empire was a single pagan civilisation stretching from the borders of modern Scotland to what is now Iran. But the Empire was changing. The frontiers were now fixed and the army that defended them paid by taxes and not plunder. 

Ostrogoths attack Rome 541CE (Angus MacBride)
Then the crisis came. Barbarians overran the frontiers and the system of free trade that had made the empire rich collapsed. Order was restored, but at a cost of years of austerity and high taxes.

Those taxes were in turn levied increasingly on the poor whilst the rich not only got richer, they retreated from public life and spent their wealth on themselves and their country houses rather than in the cities and on public buildings. Ordinary citizens felt increasingly abandoned by their superiors, left to fend for themselves in an increasingly dangerous world.

During this century of chaos one group of citizens stuck together. An unusual sect, they were egalitarian enough to allow women to rise to senior positions, something unheard of in the Roman world. When disaster struck and the rich ran for the hills, their leaders stayed to help. If members of the community were enslaved by barbarians they pooled their resources to buy them back.

Although their ideology was considered somewhat weird by most citizens, their undoubted sense of community drew them an increasing number of supporters. In due course the Emperor himself was to join them. 

Ninety years later the western half of the empire, militarily strong but economically weak, collapsed. Economic power moved east and the Germans took over the running of Europe. However this sect, now much changed and not always for the better, survived and is with us still.

They are of course, the Christians.

A History of Oil

Oil is the problem. 

Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia
In 1912 we entered the oil age when Winston Churchill made the decision to switch the Royal Navy from using British coal to foreign oil. The first oil war began two years later when British and Indian forces invaded Iraq to protect the Navy’s Iranian oil fields. We invaded again in 1941, 1991 and 2003. In fact in the 100 years of the oil age, the British Army has been in Iraq for 41 of them, whilst next-door-neighbour Iran saw British backed regime changes in 1941 and 1953. 

But foreign wars weren’t the only problem with oil. 

Between our second and third invasions of Iraq scientists had been warning with increasing frequency about the dangers of climate change. As oil replaced coal the rate of increase in Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accelerated, and this was a problem that couldn’t be solved with tanks.

Give Me A P Please Bob

As fans of Geoffrey of Monmouth know, Totnes was where Brutus the Trojan landed on these isles to found Britannia. It was also where, in 2005, Robert Hopkins and friends started the Transition Town movement.

Transition Towns are the big idea of the moment in sustainability circles. They are a more optimistic reaction to the end of the age of oil than the Dark Mountain lot.

Transition movement revolves around three Ps.

Peak Oil is the moment when we have used up half the world’s oil. We can search the deep ocean floor for new fields, extract more from existing wells with new technology and move to unconventional sources, but this all costs more. 

The modern world eats oil, runs on oil and is mostly made out of oil, but with China, India and Brazil all wanting more of the black stuff, it will soon cost a lot more. The Chancellor can knock a penny or two off fuel duty to keep motorists happy, but he can’t reduce the cost of artificial pesticide, aircraft fuel or plastic. 

Permaculture though is part of the solution. 

It is the practise of feeding ourselves, wherever we live, in a way that doesn’t mortgage the future. Small scale, low impact, diverse and imaginative projects allow people to grow food almost anywhere. An increasingly popular sub-branch is guerrilla gardening, the planting of any disused area of land with fruit and vegetables for general consumption. If the kids nick all the strawberries, that’s just great.

The final P is People.

As is becoming increasingly obvious as one scandal after another breaks, our society is not about to reform itself anytime soon. Politicians have been caught fiddling their expenses, the media is out of control, the bankers have been quietly profiting out of the Credit Crunch but this unhallowed triumvirate is still running the country. 

Transition in Your Street

But you know what? We don’t need them.

As the people of Ancient Rome realised, when the going gets tough the last people you’re going to find hanging around to help out are politicians, media moguls and bankers. Just as it was left to the likes of Charmaine Neville, a singer in a jazz band, to borrow a school bus and rescue the sick and elderly from flooded New Orleans when hurricane Katrina struck, the people who will help you survive Peak Oil probably don’t live in a tax haven.

Whether or not there was a Charmaine Neville to borrow a chariot and rescue her neighbours when the barbarians overran the Roman Empire is not known. What we do know though is that whilst the Christian Bishops were becoming the new administration on the continent, most of Britain returned to paganism, but not the Roman sort. Something kept society going in the changed world of the fifth century, but it wasn’t the Christian Church.

And that is where I think Pagans can help the Transition movement. 

The hardest transition of all to make is the one inside, the transition from seeing the natural world as a resource to be fought for and exploited to one which should be shared and venerated, but I would hope this is a transition most of us are at least part way towards making.

So why not join the Transition movement and help future-proof your community, because at the end of the day your community are the people who’ll be there in a crisis.

If your town isn’t on the list yet, round up some friends and make it so. We put my home town of Glossop on the list, and it wasn’t that hard.

The society that oil built is coming to an end. Help to become part of what comes next.

(This article first appeared in the Lammas 2012 issue of Pentacle magazine)

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