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How should we live? If you are looking for inspiration and relief from 'post-petroleum stress disorder' or 'climate-change catatonia', Joanna Santa Barbara recommends three books with plenty of ideas on how to create resilient sustainable communities able to face the growing problems of energy depletion, climate change and global financial instability.

Are you looking for inspiration and ideas to transform your town, city, or neighbourhood into a vital community, producing its own nutritious food, supplying its own energy, resilient to the expected shocks of climate change and energy depletion? These three books offer therapy for those suffering from 'post-petroleum stress disorder', to use Rob Hopkins's apt phrase, or from climate-change catatonia:

* The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, by Rob Hopkins (Totnes, UK: Green Books, 2008).

* Post Carbon Cities: Planning for energy and climate uncertainty, by Daniel Lerch (Sebastopol, USA: Post Carbon Press, 2007).

* The Natural Step for Communities: How cities and towns can change to sustainable practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2004).

Many people are shaken to the core, facing the realities of the multiple ecological crises, along with oil depletion, and the descent from peak oil, and now also threats to global financial stability. With so much uncertainty, a strong argument can be made for some risk management initiatives. The potential gains are greater and losses are fewer in preparing for change, rather than hoping life will proceed as usual indefinitely. What does such preparation look like?

Some people are electing to start from "scratch" to build the infrastructure of communities that can work in a post-carbon, climate-unstable future--the sustainable villages movement. Others start where they are, planning to convert both structure and function of their towns, cities, islands and regions in the direction of sustainability and resilience to shocks. These initiatives will complement and aid each other. The three books are about converting existing urban areas. The difference between the books is that Rob Hopkins (UK) describes the movement from below, the grassroots people's initiative; Daniel Lerch (North America) directs his recommendations to local governments, to city councillors and town planners; James and Lahti (Sweden) begin with local authorities and move through a democratic community development process. The three books fit neatly together with compatible visions. But their approaches are sufficiently different to make reading all three worthwhile.

The UK and North American books begin with an overview of the problems of 'peak oil' and climate change. The Swedish book begins with an explanation of the Natural Step's four principles of sustainability to be applied to the structure and function of towns and cities. These are, in the sustainable society, Nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

1 extraction of substances from the Earth's crust, such as coal, oil and toxic metals. Once extracted, these substances and their derivatives remain in unnatural concentrations in soil, water and atmosphere, and when utilised for humanity's use are expressed into the earth's ecological systems with foreseen and unforeseen consequences e.g. fossil fuels, and waste from nuclear power plants, are expressed into the air and are also collected for safe disposal but finding places to safely store nuclear waste is a growing problem.

2 concentrations of substances produced by humans. Synthetic substances are produced by humans faster than Nature can break them down. Many last for decades and disseminate in ocean and air currents, concentrating in the bodies of humans and other species. We almost lost the ozone layer to synthetic chemicals, discovering the impact perhaps just in time.)

3 ecosystem degradation by physical means. Almost half the Earth's original forest cover has been lost, habitat loss has caused many species extinctions, removal of coastal mangroves has wiped out their functions as fish nurseries and flood control, global warming is destroying coral reefs, etc.

4 In a sustainable world society, human needs are met worldwide, without such destruction. The other three conditions for sustainability will fail if people can't meet their basic needs. Brazilian farmers will burn rainforest to grow food for their families, people will pour their sewage into rivers in the absence of alternatives.

These factors arise in considering flows of materials from the earth, through human activities and back to the earth. It focuses on the basic science which identifies the natural balances of these flows without human interference, and the impact of human activities which upsets these balances. The Natural Step articulates a general rule, which states: "human activities must not cause large deviations from the natural balances in comparison to natural fluctuations. In particular, any deviations should not be allowed to increase systematically" ( Such principles easily lead to taking action to limit fossil fuel use (responding to both 'peak oil' and climate change issues); to using natural materials, organic agriculture, systematic protection of all ecosystems, as well as attention to justice and equity concerns. These fundamental markers of sustainability underlie and guide the principles and strategies.

Community resilience is an organizing principle of Rob Hopkins's thinking on Transition Initiatives. He foresees shocks to human settlements from oil decline and climate change and says the features that give resilience to a system facing shocks are: diversity, modularity and "tight feedbacks." Diversity refers to the types of people, connections between them, land-use strategies, forms of economic activity. Modularity refers to the capacity of parts of the system to self-organize in the event of a crisis. Tightness of Feedback means how easily the system registers when things are going wrong or right. A resilient community will be self-reliant for basic needs, although it may benefit from trade relationships for non-essentials. The community will be capable of feeding itself, providing its own energy and water. It will build with local materials and have a strong local economy, possibly with a local currency. There is therefore a focus on smaller-scale communities--town or neighbourhood-sized.

Transition pathway helpful

A strong feature of Rob Hopkins' book is his inclusion of many 'tools for transition', teaching devices and exercises for groups working in this direction. Both his book and the James and Lahti book deal with the psychology of change, recognizing the change in values and attitudes required to build resilient, sustainable communities in harmony with the biosphere, requires major shifts for most people. Those who want to move to action on transition in their own communities will find the pathway mapped by Rob Hopkins extremely helpful, even though it is recognized each community will tread a unique route. He usefully suggests a twelve-step programme:

1 Set-up a steering group and design its demise from the outset.

2 Raise awareness.

3 Lay the foundations by networking with pre-existing groups and activists.

4 Organize a 'Great Unleashing', an inaugural event.

5 Form groups around major theme areas, for example, food, retrofitting houses, energy, land-use.

6 Use meeting strategies that maximize inclusion of the ideas of many people, and release creativity, such as 'Open Space Technology'.

7 Develop visible practical manifestations of the project, such as a community garden or a structure built with local materials.

8 Facilitate the 'Great Reskilling', recovering dwindling skills for survival in a low-energy future, for example, food preserving, composting, scything, tree grafting.

9 Build a bridge to local government.

10 Honour the elders, who have experience in living at lower energy and material consumption levels.

11 Let it go where it wants to go.

12 Create an Energy-Descent Action Plan.




One might add to the last step, create a plan that also includes adaptation to climate change, water problems, and sea-level rise if relevant to your area.

All three books agree on the sectors where action is needed, although each has different emphases. Lerch, writing for city councils, begins by urging cities to join global networks of other municipalities working in the same direction and to sign the Oil Depletion Protocol as a city, to reduce vulnerability. He goes on to say, "Deal with transportation and land-use (or you might as well stop now)." He charges city councils with the responsibility to encourage energy conservation in private use, assertively engaging the business community "to reinvent the local economy for a post-carbon world." His slogan is: "Reduce consumption and produce locally." He cites several case examples of cities on the way to adaptating to a post-carbon world.


The Swedish book by James and Lahti describes sectors for action: renewable energy, transportation, housing, green businesses, "eco-economic development," ecological schools and education, sustainable agriculture, waste, land use and planning. The book is rich with case studies. This approach is being used in scores of towns and cities around the world, including the city of Christchurch, and is also applied by businesses. It's probably the most extensively applied of the three approaches.

Transition towns

While Rob Hopkins's book focuses primarily on the process of change, he does examine specifically the envisioned sectoral changes in food and farming (with emphasis on the merits of Permaculture), medicine and health, education, economy (with emphasis on the merits of local currencies), transport, energy, housing. There are several case studies of Transition Towns in progress, and many examples of creative "visioning." are recommended by the author. The Transition Towns approach is being rapidly adopted by scores of UK towns, and about 35 New Zealand towns. The Sunshine Coast Energy Action Centre (SEAC) is Australia's first official Transition Town and also the first to be recognised outside the UK. The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan and the Transition Town Network are playing a leading role, supporting local communities to develop planning strategies and action plans in conjunction with local government.


I found these three books potent learning sources and will return to them often in the future. I have a couple of criticisms. The first is a failure of the Hopkins and Lerch books to place their creative recommendations in the big picture of inquiring about the scale of human impact on the region or bioregion of interest: "How much human economic activity, of what kind, can this segment of the biosphere cope with without degradation? How many humans, at what levels of consumption, can it support?" It's possible we may reduce consumption significantly and still continue to degrade the place we live in, though at a slower rate. These questions are not easy to answer, but we do need to know. Secondly, we need to get our minds on working out an economy with a steady-state material through-put, that is, no material growth in the economy. This idea clashes seriously with prevailing assumptions. All the more reason then for it to be incorporated into our ideas of envisioning and moving towards future resilient, sustainable communities.

That said, all three books provide a feast for those wanting to take action on these issues. Judging by the entries on the Transition Towns website, many people are interested in the transition movement and the list of towns in which they live are multiplying by the day. Networks of interest are: New Zealand Transition Towns (, Living Economies, Aotearoa/New Zealand (

Joanna Santa Barbara, Atamai village Council, Motueka. Joanna Santa Barbara, formerly of Hamilton, Ontario, and her husband Jack Santa Barbara of The Sustainable Scale Project are launching an Eco Village in New Zealand/Aotearoa.
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Author:Santa Barbara, Joanna
Publication:Pacific Ecologist
Article Type:Recommended readings
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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