Transition Towns: The end of the
Homo economicus?

Published online in Are We Europe magazine


20 April 2017

In 2015, documentary-film Demain revolutionised the 'environmental cinema' genre and reached millions with its message. Instead of focusing on the problems caused by climate change, Demain showcases people and projects that are geared towards healing the world. Rob Hopkins and his transition movement were one of them. Hopkins is an independent activist and writer on environmental issues based in Totnes, England. But above all, he is known to be the figurehead of Transition Towns: a network of grassroots community projects aimed at achieving self-sufficiency.

At the age of 14, Rob Hopkins decided to become a vegetarian. His youth was deeply rooted in the counter-currents of the anarchic punk scene, where he became engaged in citizen initiatives and environmental issues, something his school had failed to give him access to. It is clear when speaking to Hopkins that he is someone who likes to take matters into his own hands: antithetical in his ways, but with an aptitude for social tact. So it was no surprise that, when he was handed his first book on the development of sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems (permaculture) in his twenties, Hopkins decided to pull this philosophy out of its alternative niche and dedicate his life to environmental issues. In 2006, the Transition movement was born, and the idea of ‘Earth repair’ materialised into a tangible project.

At first, the Transition movement defined itself entirely in opposition to climate change and the economic collapse; it was inherently political, much like Hopkins’ boyhood. But when taking a look at the way in which Transition defines itself on their website, it’s clear that there has been a fundamental shift in what the movement aspires to change. Self-critically, Hopkins admits that:

"In the early days of transition, we didn’t give enough time and space to the idea that we need to focus what we’re doing around local needs. Often in permaculture, people tend to assume things like: ‘What this place needs is a forest garden!’ But actually, when you start asking people, you realise that they don’t want those things. What they need is houses they can afford, work, and an economy that is meeting their needs."

But this newfound emphasis on the local rather than the global does not undermine the key concerns of the Transition movement. If anything, it reinforces the movement’s reputation as a viable alternative. Rising oil prices, local resilience, transportation, food production, waste and recycling, psychology and economics all play a vital role.

Transition in real life

This may all sound ideal in theory, but what does a crème-de-la-crème Transition town actually look like? For Hopkins, Ungersheim, in the French Alsace a utopian playground for environmentalists. Its mayor fell in love with Transition in 2011 and decided to completely reform the village with 21 ambitious projects.

In one long breath, Hopkins declares:

"They have made the biggest solar farm in Alsace (5.3 megawatts), they’ve changed all the food in the local schools and public buildings to organic food, they’ve created a new market garden to produce that food, they’ve built a conservatory to preserve that food and create more jobs, and they have cut 600 tonnes of C02 a year, and they have managed to cut public spending rather than increase it, and they have created 100 jobs!"

What Hopkins finds even more impressive than the projects themselves, is the fact that the community truly wove itself back together, creating a patchwork of solidarity in the process.

But even if the Transition project was a success in a small Franco-German commune, the movement itself isn't necessarily universally applicable. Transition towns were constructed as a response to predictions of an imminent economic collapse caused by a globalized, consumer-capitalist ideology. The movement positions itself as an alternative to the way humankind has been using the Earth’s resources; extracting them until there are none left, exploiting disadvantaged countries for those resources and having only a fraction of the world’s population profit from that process. 

Yet it is difficult to imagine the complete upheaval or our current economic structure, even though that is what a true ‘transition’ inevitably implies. No more globalisation, no more market forces, no more profit motives, and no more centralised production?

A zero growth economy where Transition becomes the new economic framework might sound unrealistic because, in our current state, someone is always likely to take advantage of a situation to make profit. As it stands, we are species members of the homo economicus. Hopkins claims that, for Transition to become part of the European DNA, we all need to become a compassionate community of townspeople who will sacrifice self-gain for the sake of the common good.

But with Europe facing a strong potential for divide, the grassroots communities that have ‘transitioned’ are in dire need of a moral boost. Brexit will be the ultimate test for whether Transition can remain resilient. Hopkins believes the Brexit referendum was a complete disaster:

"For me, the sense of disenfranchisement that people voting for Brexit felt is completely misdirected. The things that happened to the detriment of people in this country don’t come from the EU, but from the powerful elites… by voting Brexit we have given away any protections that we used to have from those people."

True to his positive spirit, however, Hopkins quickly shrugged off the post-Brexit pessimism and decided to focus on ways to make his project a success, despite his country’s imminent departure from the European Union.

"We have the potential to ask ourselves whether or not we can imagine a good Brexit; one that is about a whole regeneration of food production connected to public health, hospitals, refugees, youth… During the campaign there was this horrible expression: ‘Take back control,’ with racist undertones. But there is a good version of that. If you genuinely meant take back control, you would do transition on a national scale… but all of this isn’t going to happen unless we have a revolution."

Room for Improvement

To improve the Transition model so that it trickles into the mainstream, Hopkins believes that the stories of Transition towns need to be told. The documentary Demain was a perfect example of solution-based journalism that showcased solutions, instead of playing on the apocalyptic rhetoric of many movies about climate change.

According to Hopkins, there are also improvements to be made internally. The first is to nurture a healthy culture of communication within each community. People shouldn’t want to sue each other five months into Transitioning. And the second is for the Transition model to become more entrepreneurial: it needs to create jobs in order to be sustainable. For this to happen, there needs to be a shift in mentality: Transition can no longer rely on volunteerism.

"We need to approach Transition saying: ‘In 10 years time, how could we be the biggest employer in this town?’ I sometimes used the expression ‘the tyranny of volunteerism’. We have this culture where everybody has to be volunteers and as soon as anyone gets paid, the moral purity of the whole project has been lost. That is extremely dangerous. Everyone in the group ends up being white and middle class because, well, who else is able to give hours and hours of their time for free?"

Like any successful movement, transition has to start with an individual. Hopkins isn’t afraid to put the ills of our modern-day society at the forefront of his conviction.

It is with this awareness that we move forwards.