A Conversation With Rob Hopkins, Transition Movement Founder

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Hopkins-Post.jpg After years of studying and then teaching permaculture and natural building, Rob Hopkins helped to establish the Transition movement, which has been called "the biggest urban brainwave of the century" by Nicholas Crane of BBC2. The Transition movement promotes what Hopkins has called "engaged optimism" as we prepare for a lengthy period of ever-dwindling energy supplies. He is the author of The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependence to Local Resilience and The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times.

Here, Hopkins discusses resilience, or the ability of a community, individual, or entire nation to withstand shock from the outside, and how that relates to sustainability; how he's hoping for a kind of future in which we all live within our limits, but that still includes appropriate technologies, science, inventiveness, and entrepreneurship; and why we need to start embracing the idea of a post-growth economy.

What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'

It is the question I always dread being asked at parties. It has taken me many years to find an answer to that. My official job title is "catalyst and outreach manager." What I actually do is support Transition initiatives around the world, producing materials, gathering stories and finding different ways to share them, giving talks, and so on. The Transition movement is something I kicked off five years ago which is now active in 34 countries around the world as a grassroots approach to helping communities become more resilient and less oil-dependent.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

Resilience. This refers to the ability of an individual, a community, or a whole nation to withstand shock from the outside. The former manager of Crystal Palace Football Club, Iain Dowie, once referred to it as "bouncebackability." Sustainability tends to assume that we can aim for -- and attain -- a way of doing things that the planet can support, and that can continue indefinitely. As the world's economic situation worsens, and the whole concept of economic growth appears increasingly untenable, and our nearing the peak in world oil production begins to impact our economies, it is clear that, in the pursuit of just-in-time business models, we have created an economy which has little resilience. Resilience is a word which, when we started using it in relation to Transition five years ago, no-one was really using. Now it is everywhere. It adds a new dimension to sustainability, arguing that we need to also be preparing for shocks, but that if we can get that right, making our communities more resilient could be the thing that leads to their economic revival.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

That arguing that we need to make our communities more resilient, and to build and strengthen our local economies through what we might call "intentional localization," is not somehow wanting to go backwards. There is sometimes an assumption that if you argue for a more localized economy -- for more local food production and so on -- that you desire a past where everyone lived in caves and dragged women around by the hair.

The reality is that the kind of future we are talking about is one in which we live within our limits, but that still includes science, appropriate technologies, inventiveness, and entrepreneurship. Moving forward from this point with the assumption that the next 20 years will bring more cheap energy than today and more economic growth, and basing our decisions on those assumptions, is reckless.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Urban agriculture. There are enough projects underway around the world now to allow us to get a taste of what a large scale rolling out of urban agriculture would look like in practice, and the way it is fitting into the re-imagining of post-industrial cities like Detroit is inspirational. I think the future will be one in which we grow food everywhere.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

People saying "when the economy is back in a growth mode." Not going to happen. We need to be embracing the idea of a post-growth economy, re-imagining how we function in such an economy, and decoupling the ideas of prosperity and growth. It could well turn out to be the making of us.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

The idea that protest culture is the thing that can change the world.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

David Holmgren, the co-founder of the permaculture movement and an amazing thinker and doer in the field of practical sustainability and design. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and a climate campaigner par excellence. And Gary Snyder, poet and writer who for many years has brought a wisdom and a depth to thinking about the Earth and our relationship that is often deeply moving.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I am a frustrated artist. Frustrated because I don't have enough time to do much of it. I am at my happiest sitting somewhere under a tree with a sketchbook and a pencil.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

EnergyBulletin.net: A brilliant daily compilation of news related to peak oil, climate change, and responses to them. I don't really do apps.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Two. "Casimir Pulaski Day," by Sufjan Stevens: one of the saddest songs I've ever heard, yet utterly beautiful. Also a mix by a Dutch DJ called Jooris Voorn, live at the Mysteryland Festival, which I've had in my head for the past few days. I listen to a lot of music; don't know what I would do without it.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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