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10 Years of Transition Network: The Early Days

March 2, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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As Transition Network turns 10, Rob Hopkins looks back to when it all began…

This month represents the 10th anniversary of the founding of Transition Network.  That’s Transition Network the organisation you understand, not the network of Transition groups which the organisation was set up to support.  We thought that as we begin this anniversary month, it might be good to look back at those early days when the organisation was founded.  Where did it come from?  Who got it underway? What did they hope it would achieve?

During the early part of 2006, Naresh Giangrande and I had been running talks and showing films in Totnes (see photo above, of us introducing a screening of ‘Peak Oil: imposed by nature’in June, 2006), and I had been running an evening class called ‘Skilling up for Powerdown’.  We had met Sophy Banks, Hilary Prentice, Fiona Ward and others who would go on to become pivotal in shaping the evolution of Transition, both in Totnes and elsewhere.  Meanwhile in Kinsale, Ireland, Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne had coined the term ‘Transition Town’, which seemed to perfectly capture the sense of what was trying to emerge.

In September 2006, we held an event called ‘The Official Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes’, which featured Dr Chris Johnstone and to which LOTS of people came, including people from outside Totnes who had somehow got wind that something interesting was happening.  The event kicked off a 3 month programme of events designed to catalyse a number of working groups in Totnes.  It didn’t take long for Transition groups to start forming elsewhere: in Bristol (see early promotional poster below), Falmouth, Stroud, Penzance, Tooting, Brixton, Glastonbury, Lewes, a few other places, and even in New Zealand!

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By November, it was all getting rather overwhelming.  News that something exciting was happening in Totnes was rippling out, and people were asking “what are you doing, and how are you doing it?” with increasing persistence, in spite of our really not knowing the answer to either question.  That month, Schumacher College held a course called ‘Life After Oil’, featuring David Fleming, Richard Heinberg, Ron Oxburgh, Michael Meacher and myself (an appalling gender balance typical of peak oil events back then).

On my blog, Transition Culture, I ran a competition to win a place, the prize being decided by whoever wrote the best limerick containing the words ‘Life After Oil’.  The prize was won by a certain Ben Brangwyn, for this offering:

Because growth economics backfired,
Relocalisation’s required,
Heal the trees and the soil,
Yearn for life beyond oil,
And get yourself thoroughly Gaia’d.

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Ben came on the course, during which I gave a presentation about Transition, what it was, and how it was all taking off.  Following the presentation, he came up to me and, famously, described me as looking like “a man standing beneath a tsunami”. He noted later that he recognised that he identified that Transition had the potential to scale up because what was being developed was a replicable model. While other places were doing something similar (such as Willits in California), no-one else had thought “we’re only as resilient as our nearest neighbour” and therefore were striving to create a model that others could apply.

Ben offered a year of his time as a volunteer to help create a network organization to support this rapidly unfolding movement.  In an email shortly after, he suggested what he would like to get out of his involvement in it:

1. Engage with a community and become part of it
2. A paying job (eventually)
3. Make a significant and long term contribution to the UK’s ability to transition to a lower energy future
4. Make a significant contribution to my chosen community’s ability to transition to a lower energy future
5. Inspire other communities outside of the UK to make similar early transitions
6. Work in a team that has the same aspirations as 3, 4 (not location-specific) and 5
7. Learn lots of new useful skills

Meanwhile, in late 2006 Sarah Pugh, Peter Lipman and some others in Bristol had been discussing a Bristol Energy Descent Plan [appallingly titled BEDPAN].  Ben happened to be staying with Peter at an early Transition Bristol meeting and when they told the group about our discussions about the possibility of setting up an organisation to hold supporting the emerging movement, it was suggested that we really should get in touch with the Tudor Trust about funding.

I asked Peter what he remembered about that meeting:

“Ben and I (see below, left) had been looking into what we might do in response to climate change and peak oil, and the opportunity to be part of a wider, bottom up response was wonderful – it felt immensely energising and exciting to be thinking about how we might support something which was attracting such great interest.  For me personally, transition offered a chance to build on years of exploration around how change could happen, and at a time when the need for change was becoming ever clearer I really loved the sense of growing momentum.”

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A couple of months later, Ben and I met with Peter in a coffee shop in Bristol.  On the back of a serviette, we sketched out how Transition Network might look, and how it might work.  I am sorry to report that it was not an independent coffee shop, and that I didn’t keep the serviette in question – it would be fascinating to see what it said.  We began the process of establishing Transition Network Ltd, which became a formal entity in early March.

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The question of how we might resource ourselves to do this work was a pressing, and increasingly urgent one.  Near the end of March, Ben and I were invited to London to meet with the Board of Tudor Trust, “an independent charitable trust which supports work which tries to meet the many different needs of people at the margins of our society”.

We spent two hours telling them all about our work, about what we were proposing, what’d we’d already done, and our hopes for the future.  At the end they simply asked “how can we help?”  We owe them a deep debt of gratitude for their vision, their foresight, and their commitment.  As Trustee Matt Dunwell reflects today:

“We felt the Transition Network had the potential to engage communities, to hear what their issues were, and to help express them effectively in the context of climate change and peak oil. At the time Rob and Ben were a high wire double act in terms of organizational structure and governance, waving their arms and smiling wildly, but basically irrepressible. We could see potential, but I think it would be true to say that few people at that stage could imagine how strongly the Network would establish itself”.

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And with that, we were up and running.  Soon Ben and I were joined by Jo Coish who came in as office manager to try and get Ben and I into some kind of order.  Our initial Board of Directors was Peter, Ben and myself, along with William Lana, Brian Goodwin, Julie Richardson and Pamela Gray.  In June that year, we held the first Transition Network conference at Ruskin Mill, Nailsworth (see above), followed shortly by one at the Royal Agricultural College, nr Cirencester (see bottom).

Fast forward to 2017.  10 years have flown past in a blur.  Transition is now active in thousands of communities around the world, in over 50 countries.  There are now 34 regional and national Transition Hubs.  Transition Network has won several awards, including the EESC Social Prize, and has developed films, trainings, books, guides and resources, as well as a huge amount of blogs and stories.  It has pioneered innovative approaches to developing a healthy organizational culture, and to the balance of inner and outer Transition.

It has led to the REconomy Project, In Transition 1.0. In Transition 2.0 and a wealth of other shorter films, The Essential Guide to Doing Transition in a an expanding range of different languages, the Transition Enterprise Handbook, the Events Toolkit for Transition initiatives, the Transition Core Resourcing guide, the Do-ocracy Handbook, 7 conferences, a number of Roadshows and ‘Transition Thursdays’, regional networking events and gatherings, REconomy pilots in 10 countries, work on monitoring and evaluation for groups, the Transition Story project, appeared in the hit French film ‘Demain’, worked with many researchers, created ‘One Year in Transition’: and that’s just a taste.  From tiny acorns …

As well as it being Transition Network’s 10th birthday, Transition Town Totnes are launching a four month programme of celebratory events to mark 10 years of grassroots action on local food, energy and the local economy. The party starts on Thursday March 9th at the Totnes Civic all at 6.45pm and all are welcome. Full programme of TTT Celebration events here.  Does your initiative turn 10 this year?  Would you like to share your story?  Please get in touch… 
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