Observations and Achievements

By Dirk Campbell of TTL

  It sometimes seems like there are more people observing Transition than actually doing it, reminding me of the joke that for every Kalahari Bushman there are five documentary makers following him around. Hardly a month goes by without a student emailing to ask if they can interview us for their dissertation. The most recent emailer refers, without specifying, to certain negative perceptions of Transition Towns, which set me wondering what the negative perceptions might be. That the public interest which filled Lewes Town Hall on several occasions has faded? That Transition's entire emphasis was on peak oil when climate change is the real threat? That Transition is just another form of middle class self-indulgence? That the media is obsessed with people changing their sex? (Different type of transition —ed).

Well, first things first: Peak Oil. Have oil supplies peaked? In fact yes, but demand has dropped so much it doesn't show. Why? Largely because of the efforts made by a number of action groups, as well as the international scientific community, to raise awareness on climate change. In consequence many large cities, boroughs and organisations throughout the world (including the World Bank) have divested from fossil fuels, with Ireland now the first country to do so. Renewable energy technology has made such inroads on conventional energy that fossil fuel exporting countries such as the USA and Russia face a substantial loss in GDP if they continue to rely on it (Engineering and Technology tinyurl.com/yc3gumu2). The Transition movement's emphasis on the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels has doubtless contributed. But when demand declines, prices go down, making fossil fuels more affordable, so the climate change threat is still present. Oil production will continue, but oil-producing nations and companies, seeing the writing on the wall, will diversify into more profitable alternatives such as wind farms and field-scale solar. 


Second: self-indulgence for the affluent middle class, while ordinary working people with little spare time or cash don't see Transition Town activities as relevant to them. True enough, though it must be said the majority of affluent middle class people don't either! I think it boils down to what you choose to do with your spare time. Fund-raise for Bonfire or fund-raise for solar arrays. You can't do both unless you really do have a lot of spare time and don't notice that they are mutually self-cancelling in terms of CO2 emissions. Or you could work in a charity shop, or run a food bank, or join the Rotary Club — all perfectly normal activities for the affluent middle class with concern for the less well-off. Transition, however, is more concerned with the long-term: can we continue to function in all the usual ways when in the coming decades we face the increasing effects of climate change, resource depletion and mass immigration? Those seem to me to be valid concerns, and if our government can't or won't address them nationally, then we surely should try and address them locally. 

  Third: popular support. I think you have to take local conditions into account when assessing things like this. A small town with a population of 1,500 is cohesive enough to ban plastic bags, as the Devonshire village of Modbury did in 2007. A multi-layered town like Lewes with ten times that number of inhabitants, not to mention an argumentative culture, is never going to be cohesive even on important subjects like plastic waste or climate change. But there is still a core of support for TTL in Lewes despite a waning of general interest as inevitably happens with anything once the novelty wears off. Humans are insatiably curious, drawn to the new. They are also primarily interested in what's in it for them. Consequently the two most powerful marketing words 
are 'new' and 'free'. Check how many times you see those words next time you're in Tesco — sorry, I mean Waitrose. That apart, it's worth remembering that the Transition modus operandi is to seek solutions that don't necessarily require popular involvement, and don't have to be used immediately or at all. They only need to be available if and when required.

In the last TTL newletter I tried vainly to distil the complex subject of plastic waste down to 2,000 words. I concluded that effective safe disposal is the only realistic way of solving the problem. Two ways in which this might be achieved are plasma gasification and microbial digestion. Plasma gasification involves heating a material up to such a high temperature that it turns into gas, when it can be burned, producing energy but almost no air pollution or solid residue. Microbial activity was recently discovered in a Japanese landfill site. A bacterium subsequently named Ideonella Sakaiensis was found to be feeding on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is what plastic bottles are made of. Ideonella breaks down the complex polymer chains into simpler molecules that can be reused. Maybe it can be trained to feed on other plastics in quantities sufficient to eat away the plastic problem.

Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup device (watch video below) is a wonderful huge floating sieve designed to collect plastic in the Pacific gyre, currently under development and expected to be fully operational by 2020. This is a very hopeful solution to the ocean plastic waste problem. We still need to prevent plastic waste from going into the ocean though. And Boyan will still be left with the problem of what to do with all the collected plastic. He says recycle it but I don’t think he can have looked into the problem of recycling mixed plastics. One solution is to compress it into building blocks. Conceptos Plasticos in Colombia, Replast in New Zealand and our own Duncan Baker Brown in Brighton are all making houses out of waste plastic. It remains to be seen how successful and how permanent such structures will be. Plastic is light, strong and indestructible as we know, but is a fire hazard (like the Grenfell Tower cladding), squashes under heavy weight and can’t absorb moisture, so you can only have single story houses that are a bit of a fire risk and will cause condensation problems in a cold wet climate. On the other hand the compressed blocks do provide excellent thermal and sound insulation so there’s potential in the recording industry. And building with plastic will at least ensure it doesn’t end up back in the ocean.

For information on TTL's activities take a look around this website or go direct to: Ovesco, the Lewes Pound, the Lewes Food Market, the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the LDC Car Club, Divest East Sussex, Rain Gardens and Plastic Free Lewes are all projects originated, influenced or participated in by TTL.