It all started with a permaculture course. In 2006, British teacher Rob Hopkins had the idea of asking his students to imagine the world they would like to live in. No distant utopia, but concrete ideas, quick to implement and within reach. Seventeen years later, the initiative has been emulated and the network “cities in transition” (link in English) was born to allow these groups to share their recipes to live better and, why not, change the world.
Invited to ChangeNOW summitwhich is being held in Paris from May 25 to 27 and of which BlazeTrends is a partner, Rob Hopkins explains to us what motivates or hinders our ability to review our ways of living together in the light of climate change.
Today, the network you have developed boasts projects in more than 48 countries, including France. How did the adventure start?
My ambition was to find a way to organize myself to live better in Totnes, the small town where I live in the South West of England. Nothing more. Very quickly, people wrote to me from neighboring towns to tell me: “That’s great! How do I do it at home?” There was never a Machiavellian plan to take over the world! We realized that a small group of inhabitants relieved of administrative burdens – like a community of motivated people in a village, a district, etc. – can launch projects very quickly and be much more imaginative than governments or communities.
“We believe that you have to convince the majority from the outset and get everyone on board to succeed in changing things. But in reality, it often only takes a few people in their corner with a good idea.”Rob Hopkins, creator of the Transition Cities Project
The responsibility for transforming society should by no means rest with these small groups, but they are a crucial piece of the transition puzzle. Action must come from everywhere. From universities to banks, small towns and multinationals.
How can these local initiatives lead to genuine transition policies, particularly at the local level?
In general, for two or three years, the institutional actors are skeptical. Then, when the project proves to be a success, the town halls call and ask: “How can we help you?” “What blockages can we remove?” When people ask me what to do, I answer that you just have to start! At worst, it doesn’t work and that’s okay. Because when it works, the neighbor will feel encouraged to try something, then his neighbor and so on.
In 2014, residents of Liège, Belgium, wondered how to ensure that the food they consume is mostly produced locally within a few years. They organized a simple public meeting. Today, there are 27 cooperatives in the city and a network made up of a farm, vineyards, a brewery, four stores… And it all started without the help of banks or the city, nor nothing. The project leaders are discussing with the municipality to deliver school canteens, hospitals, etc. The concept has spread to other municipalities in Belgium, and even to France.
Drought in Spain and France, floods in Italy, fires and early heat waves throughout Europe… Are these recent disasters the best advocates of transition, this change of model that you have been advocating for years?
That’s the problem with global warming. No one can be happy that disasters prove us right. Especially since, even though the effects of global warming are clear and undeniable, companies in the oil and gas sector continue to carry out huge disinformation campaigns, extremely well organized, to preserve their interests and curb the exit from fossil fuels.
I have seen with my own eyes bicycle traffic jams at rush hour, pleasant and dynamic neighborhoods forbidden to cars, countless solutions to produce renewable energy, innovations, all over the world, etc. We’ve had proof for a long time that alternatives exist, but the transition is coming up against the power of these oil, gas, etc. giants.
The word “transition” being used everywhere, how to avoid “greenwashing”?
Sometimes I go to cities and realize that what they call “transition” there is not always very interesting. For example, I am wary when people talk to me about“achieve carbon neutrality by 2050”. Governments and public authorities love this expression, but it often hides the inability to react to the emergency and the illusion that we can continue without changing anything.
“The transition is not about doing business as usual and just installing solar panels on the roof or driving around in an electric car.”Rob Hopkins, creator of the Cities in Transition network
The dominant culture that the more you consume, the better you live is increasingly being challenged. Things are changing because it appears that this model has made us less and less able to withstand crises. Conversely, small communities in transition which I recently visited in London, and which have existed for sometimes fourteen or fifteen years, are doing better than ever. Whether it’s a “repair café” here, a community garden there… In addition to the economic aspect of these initiatives, all the members of the community created around these projects tell us of the satisfaction of having rediscovered human contact and to have renewed relationships, while a way of life turned towards consumption isolates us from each other. We need to change our mindset and reflect on what we value.
How do you see the future of this network?
First of all, I am very proud and honored to have contributed to the birth of a network that helps people drive these kinds of transformations. But I am also realistic: since we set up the network, humanity has made itself responsible for 30% of the total CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. So it’s a very good story, it’s true, but it will end badly if we lose the fight against the oil and gas companies which, unlike us, are rich, powerful and politically influential.
“When everyone realizes the magnitude of the task ahead of us, I hope this network will act as a huge library of experiences.”Rob Hopkins, initiator of the transition cities movement
These projects spread across the world feed a catalog of all that we have learned, of all the tools used, of all the ideas that groups of citizens have put into practice. This knowledge is priceless.
From experience, do you find it more difficult to imagine these new models in the city or in the countryside? Between the injunction to abandon the car and the repeated calls for sobriety, urban, peri-urban and rural people sometimes accuse each other of not doing their part in the transition effort…
Everywhere I go, I hear: “What you are saying is very nice, but it will be more difficult to do here than at the neighbor’s.” This is true in a village or in the center of Paris, and even from one country to another! If I talk to Germans about a French or Italian project that they could take inspiration from, someone will argue that “yes, but in France and Italy, it’s easy”. The reality is that with a little creativity and curiosity, we can all jump in and try something new. Sometimes the same problem arises in town and in a small village, but the solutions found to remedy it are different. If you live in an isolated place, you will never have the metro and the bus at all hours in front of your home. On the other hand, I have seen people come together to create their own public transport service, adapted to their needs, or others work together to optimize routes. The arrival of electric bikes also offers a lot of possibilities.
One thing is certain: if we continue to think that others have to change but that we, just us, can continue as before, then it will drive us into a wall. Because the climate is already changing.