Transition Handbook in a Nutshell


From Energy Bulletin

Paul Heft has provided an outline with notes for The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins, the foundational text of the Transition Movement. Notes are in italics.

You can buy the book online or through your local bookstore. Other free information on Transition that is available online:
Transition Primer
Study guide for the Transition Handbook
In Transition (movie)


Introduction: Tantalizing glimpses of resilience

  1. Resilience refers to the ability of a system to hold together and maintain its functions in the face of change and shocks from outside. The book argues that building local resilience is key. A resilient culture thrives by living within its limits, and can function indefinitely.
  2. The Achilles heel of economic globalization is its degree of oil dependency. Moving away from oil dependency, toward more localized energy-efficient and productive living arrangements, is inevitable.
  3. Our culture is underpinned with cultural myths, misleading and harmful stories, which we must replace.
  4. The book favors generating a “sense of elation, rather than the guilt, anger and horror that most campaigning involves.” The book advocates a “sense of anticipation, elation and a collective call to adventure … positive engagement and new storytelling … [exploring] the possibilities of applied optimism …” It offers a vision of “an extraordinary renaissance—economic, cultural and spiritual … making a nourishing and abundant future a reality.”

Chapter 1: Peak Oil and Climate Change

[Has Hopkins failed to focus on any other problems that seem as daunting? For example, pushing beyond the planet's capacity to maintain living environments—forests, rivers, oceans, aquifers, soil, etc.—that provide humanity's sources and sinks; relying on economies that are designed to maximize production through increasing extraction, pollution, and exploitation.]
  1. The era of cheap oil is coming to an end. Peak Oil is not about running out of oil. Peak Oil is about the end of cheap and plentiful oil, the recognition that the ever increasing volumes of oil being pumped into our economies will peak and then inexorably decline, even while global demand continues to increase. It’s about understanding how our industrial way of life is absolutely dependent on this ever-increasing supply of cheap oil.
  2. Greenhouse gas (such as CO2) emissions must be drastically cut to reduce climate change.
    [Hopkins assumes that human-induced climate change is much better understood by most readers than Peak Oil.]]
  3. The two problems are interwoven. Rising demand for oil leads to rising or volatile prices, which (1) pulls the economy into recession, thereby reducing opportunities to fund climate change mitigation, and (2) encourages investment in other fuels, many of which (such as coal, tar sands, biodiesel) lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that many of the solutions and mitigations for Climate Change will also address the threats from Peak Oil—and vice versa.
  4. “Both … are symptoms of a society hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and the lifestyles they make possible.”
    [Do you agree that both are enormous problems? Are they inadequately addressed by public policy as Hopkins implies? How soon will they affect us? Is one of the problems more likely to induce people to take action?.]

Chapter 2: The View from the Mountain-top

  1. Adaptation—planning to somehow invent our way out of trouble—is too unlikely; business as usual cannot work in the long term. Evolution—a change of mindset suited for a future with less energy—is enticing and is most likely. Collapse—whether sudden or gradual—is possible and is terrifying.
    [Do you agree with this analysis? (Compare, for example, to David Holmgren's four scenarios.) Is Hopkins' "evolution" a continuing decrease in energy availability? Hopkins does not address the possibility that civilization as a whole is the problem; the values and assumptions of civilization, stretching all the way back to the start of agriculture, have consistently caused ecological crises according to some authors.]
  2. We want to engage people in the adventure of transition, building something we can fall back on during oil price shocks, strengthening the fabric of society. We should embrace a positive attitude, because loss of faith that our needs will be met in the future leads to neurotic behavior. The future could be preferable to the present.
    [Is Hopkins' approach realistically or unrealistically hopeful?]
  3. Energy descent: the “radical reduction of material consumption and/or human numbers” during the decades and centuries ahead.
  4. Our role is to compassionately assist with the death of the current oil-dependent infrastructure (planning for energy descent), and the birth of emerging localized economies.
    [Planning for energy descent is a key strategic element that distinguishes Transition from other approaches. In addition to infrastructure, how will culture (mindset) have to change? What assumptions of civilization, or of modern industrialism, must we cast off? In what timeframe?]

Chapter 3: Why rebuilding resilience is as important as cutting carbon emissions

This chapter develops the concept of resilience, elevating it to a key part of the goal of transition, and shows how various qualities of local solutions can foster resilience.
  1. Resilience is the ability of a system to survive disturbances (shocks) without a major breakdown, rebuilding as necessary. Resilient systems have three features:
    1. Diversity: a greater number of elements and their connections; a variety of functions, rather than just relying on one; more potential responses to challenges, and even redundancy, leading to a greater flexibility. Build resilience using knowledge of local conditions, through lots of small interventions rather than a few large ones.
      [The value of biodiversity is not discussed.]
    2. Modularity: components of a system may be separated and recombined, they are loosely linked so that a stressed component can be replaced by another. In a modular system “the parts can more effectively self-organise in the event of shock.” Building systems at a more local level reduces dependence on national or global systems.
      [In other texts modularity is sometimes described as "small pieces loosely joined."]
    3. Tightness of Feedbacks “refers to how quickly and strongly the consequences of a change in one part of the system are felt and responded to in other parts.” “In a more localized system, the results of our actions are more obvious.”
  2. “The complex and diverse rural economy that supported communities over centuries, and that was unconsciously designed on the principles of resilience has, thanks to the relentless forces of globalization, been dismantled … over the last 40-50 years.”

Chapter 4: Why small is inevitable

Chapter 4 argues that relocalization is not only critically needed, it’s also inevitable, and we cannot rely on alternative energy development or on leadership from the top.
  1. Relocalization: produce as much as possible locally, closing economic loops where possible—”create local economies capable of supporting us in a post-peak world.”
  2. Relocalization is inevitable due to peak oil’s effect on transportation. Alternative energy will be too inefficient or expensive to help much as liquid fuels become increasingly expensive. For example, biodiesel requires too much land, and hydrogen requires too much electrical power.
  3. It’s controversial how relocalization—the reversal of globalization—will affect national economies.
  4. Aim for a zero-carbon (or better) localized manufacturing sector.
    [Hopkins claims this is inevitable, but does not explain how to accomplish it.]
  5. While world trade will continue, core needs will increasingly be locally sourced: food, building materials, fabrics, timber, energy, and currencies; but localization will not be complete.
  6. The current economy “is rapidly dismantling what resilience remains, under the guise of economic globalization and growth.” A reversal of globalization will help relocalization efforts in the developing world.
  7. We need top-down and bottom-up responses; in fact, the latter increase the likelihood of the former. “Governments generally don’t lead, they respond.”

Part Two: The Heart: why having a positive vision is crucial

  1. Peak oil and climate change can be intense and distressing, leading “to feelings of disempowerment, sadness, weariness, and of being confronted by something huge and scary that you feel unable to influence. This state of mind is not the place to start from … we need to feel motivated and inspired.”
  2. Envision “a future of increased resilience, more localised economies and greatly reduced energy consumption”, “painting a picture so enticing that people instinctively feel drawn towards it.”

Chapter 5: How peak oil and climate change affect us: “Post-petroleum stress disorder”

The stress of recognizing the problem results in many responses.
  1. Clammy palms or nausea and mild palpitations
  2. A sense of bewilderment and unreality
  3. An irrational grasping at unfeasible solutions (especially technological)
  4. Fear
  5. Outbreaks of nihilism and/or survivalism
  6. Denial
  7. Exuberant optimism
  8. The “I always told you so” syndrome

Chapter 6: Understanding the psychology of change

  1. Stages of Change model (“Transtheoretical Change Model”, embraced in the addictions treatment field)
    1. Pre-Contemplation (awareness of the need to change): We depend on cheap oil. Recognize concerns and ambivalences.
    2. Contemplation (increase pros for change and decrease cons for change)
    3. Preparation (commitment and planning)
    4. Action (implement and revise plan)
    5. Maintenance (integrate change into lifestyle)
    6. Relapse and Recycling: return to Contemplation stage
  2. Industrialized societies are addicted to oil: “addictions refer to stuck patterns of behaviour that can be difficult to change even when we know they’re causing harm.” “… in dependent use, someone may either block out information that suggests their favoured substance is harmful, or they may continue using it ….”
  3. Three principles:
    1. Pay attention to stages of change. Address issues of motivation, resistance, and ambivalence in Heart and Soul groups.
    2. Create spaces for people to feel heard in making their own arguments for change. In dealing with resistance to change, use approaches such as Motivational Interviewing. “By providing a listening space where someone can voice both their concerns and their resistances, ambivalence is brought into view where it can be dealt with.”
    3. If a change seems too difficult, have a preparation stage for training ourselves (to strengthen our capacity to respond). Include psychological training: cultivate positive visions, deal with fear, cynicism, disbelief.
  4. The FRAMES model (applying insights from response to addiction; not meant to be applied sequentially):
    1. Feedback of personal risk or impairment: a frank assessment of the problem, stark but not disempowering
    2. Emphasis on personal responsibility for change, rather than merely telling people what they should do
    3. Clear advice to change: a recommendation to modify lifestyle (but not a prescription), plus community-scale strategies for energy descent
    4. Menu of options: explore alternatives in development of an Energy Descent Action Plan (using, for example, visioning and backcasting as scenario planning tools)
    5. Therapeutic empathy as a counseling style: supportive, friendly, encouraging, empathetic, engaging (receiving as well as imparting info); creating a sense of embarking on a collective journey
    6. Enhancement of client self-efficacy or optimism: building a “community-wide belief that we can actually do this.”

Chapter 7: Harnessing the power of a positive vision

[This chapter is an example of visioning.]
“… the power of a positive vision of an abundant future: one which is energy-lean, time-rich, less stressful, healthier and happier.”

Chapter 8: A vision for 2030: looking back over the transition

  1. Food and farming
    • National food security prioritized above international trade
    • Integration of perennial tree crops into agriculture
    • Use of working horses, alongside biofueled machinery
    • Much smaller average farm size
    • Many more people working in rural areas
    • Greater use of local building materials
    • Great diversity of farming enterprise
    • Greater reliance on local food, seasonally available, including less meat
    • Growth of urban agriculture, including organic farming and small livestock
    • Productive tree planting in urban areas
    • Increasing diversity of food varieties
  2. Medicine and health
    • Greater reliance on local supply of medicinal herbs and manufactured medicines
    • Access to affordable food
  3. Education
    • More practical school curricula
    • Less centralized schools such as universities
  4. Economy
    • Growth of local currencies and bartering arrangements
  5. Transport
    • Few privately owned cars, and priority ceded to pedestrians and cyclists
    • Rare travel by air
    • More use of sailing ships
    • Slower pace of life
    • Depaving
  6. Energy
    • Large reduction in energy consumption, partially through increased efficiency
    • Greater reliance on renewable energy sources, including home-based electrical generation
    • Locally owned energy infrastructure
  7. Housing
    • Much more energy-efficient buildings, especially new construction
    • Water and sewage more often handled on site
    • More efficient living arrangement, including co-housing
    • Use of more local and renewable building materials

Chapter 9: Kinsale—a first attempt at community visioning

  1. Avoid “Them and Us”
  2. Create a sense that something is happening: meaningful, transformative, positive, dynamic, with a bit of magic.
  3. Create a vision of an abundant future.
  4. Design in flexibility: leave plans open to redesign.

Part Three: The Hands

Chapter 10: The Transition concept

  1. Transition Initiatives are based on four assumptions:
    1. Plan for inevitable dramatically lower energy consumption.
    2. Our communities lack the resilience needed to handle severe energy shocks.
    3. Act collectively now.
    4. Collective genius leads to ways of living that are more connected, enriching, and recognize biological limits.
  2. The future can be preferable to the present.
  3. Figure 18 on p. 135 lists how the Transition approach is distinct from other environmental approaches.
  4. Don’t prescribe—act as catalysts for a community to devise its own solutions.
  5. Permaculture offers “the design system and philosophical underpinning of a post-peak society.” Permaculture principles (pp. 138-9) are implicit in Transition Initiatives. (They are not explicit because permaculture is more difficult to explain to most people.)
  6. Six principles underpin the Transition Model:
    1. Visioning (including rapidly moving to zero carbon)
    2. Inclusion
    3. Awareness-raising: “assume no prior knowledge, set out the case as clearly, accessibly and entertainingly as possible, giving people the key arguments in order to let them formulate their own responses.”
    4. Resilience
    5. Psychological insights (positive vision, safe places to talk, affirmation of steps and actions taken, feeling part of a collective response)
    6. Credible and appropriate solutions at a community level
  7. Project Support Project (PSP): TTT exists to inspire and motivate initiation of projects, and network and nurture them—not to coordinate and drive a wide range of projects.
  8. Scale: one over which you feel you can have an influence
  9. Interface with local politics: operate independently, at least at first; support or facilitation is OK. Seek official support only after establishing momentum.

Chapter 11: How to start a Transition Initiative

7 Buts:

  1. We’ve got no funding.
  2. They won’t let us.
  3. There are already green groups in this town.
  4. No one in this town cares about the environment anyway.
  5. Surely it’s too late to do anything.
  6. I don’t have the right qualifications.
  7. I don’t have the energy.

12 Steps of Transition—suggestions, not a prescriptive “must-do” list:

  1. Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset. In the longer term the project must be driven by those actually doing things. Aim to reconstitute as representatives from at least four sub-groups.
  2. Raise awareness.
  3. Lay the foundations: Network with existing groups, support and collaborate with them. The Transition Initiative requests their input in a new way of looking at the future.
  4. Organize a Great Unleashing.
  5. Form groups to develop vision and a timetable—a portion of the Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP). Or existing groups may become Transition groups.
  6. Use Open Space. Topics might include Food, Energy, Housing, Economics, Arts, Psychology of Change, Education, Transport.
  7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project—uncontroversial, photogenic.
  8. Facilitate the Great Reskilling.
  9. Build a bridge to local government.
  10. Honor the elders.
  11. Let it go where it wants to go.
  12. Create an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP).
    1. Establish a baseline
    2. Get the local community plan
    3. The overall vision—dream!
    4. Detailed visioning
    5. Backcast in detail; define resilience indicators
    6. Transition Tales (alongside the process above)
    7. Pull together the backcasts into an overall plan
    8. Create a first draft—enticing!
    9. Finalize the EDAP—but expect continual updating and revision
Beyond the 12 steps, the Transition Initiative becomes a relocalization agency to implement the EDAP.

Chapter 12: The first year of Transition Town Totnes

Some practical manifestations of the Totnes Transition:
  • Oil vulnerability auditing
  • Skilling up for powerdown
  • Nut tree planting
  • Local food directory
  • Totnes pound
  • Transition Tales
  • TTT home groups

Chapter 13: The viral spread of the Transition concept

This work by Paul Heft is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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Original article available here
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