24 Apr 2008

Book Reviews: Coping with Transition

I have been reading two books this week in the slightly random, chaotic way that I tend to read books these days. Dipping in and out of them and pitching in at bits that look as though they might be interesting. Sometimes just starting where the page happens to fall open. However you read them, they make an interesting contrast.

One is Rob Hopkins Transition Handbook, the other is Tim Pullen’s Simply Sustainable Homes. In many ways, you’d think that they’d make a pair, but they don’t.

Hopkins is the man responsible for turning Totnes in Devon into a Transition Town and creating the Totnes Pound, a form of LET, for community trading and bartering. He is a dreamer and a thinker and he has lots of jolly good ideas for how Totnes will get by after peak oil, or powerdown as he likes to call it. I am sorry, but I can’t take it or him seriously. It all seems like a bit like back in the 80s when various towns declared themselves Nuclear-Free Zones. There’s lots of Imagineering and a fair bit of philosophical underpinning, but very little that is new or challenging. It’s Schumacher with a peak oil twist. And I don’t mean Michael Schumacher, either. Somehow, I don’t think Michael Schumacher would be impressed.

Basically, Hopkins is saying that in order to survive an oil-less future, we should all become hippies. We should live in co-housing, grow organic vegetables, build using cob and straw bale and screw each other’s wives and husbands. Actually, he didn’t suggest that last bit; I added it in because that is what hippies actually did, IIRC, together with taking large amounts of dope and getting into arguments about whose turn it was to cook tonight. You see, I sort of lived that future back in the 1970s and decided it really didn’t work quite as well as its advocates (and there were many) said it would. Down in Totnes, the 1970s never really went away and maybe, just maybe, they made it work for them. And in Stroud too. And maybe Hebden Bridge. But most of us live in places like Chelmsford or Tamworth, or in London suburbs like Streatham. And there the Good Life never caught on at all, and I don’t think it will when the oil runs out either. I’ve never been convinced by these anti-globalisation, localism arguments, and to my mind Hopkins is just serving up more of the same. On the other hand, global trade is a lot harder without cheap oil, but then so is everything else. Are we really going to go back to horse and carts?

Contrast it with Tim Pullen’s brief guidebook to building using sustainable materials. I don’t agree with every assertion in Pullen’s book either — I don’t think you’d suffocate if the mechanical ventilation system breaks down — but the meat of it is a simple exposition of how to use, and how to cost natural building materials and renewable energy systems. He’s particularly good on renewable energy, based on his experiences as a consultant in Wales where features like hydro power are more commonplace than in the flatlands of East Anglia where I live. There’s also a useful analysis of natural insulation materials: if you have trouble telling your Pavatex from your Homatherm, it’s all in here. Pullen doesn’t pull his punches and describes what he thinks works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

The paradoxical thing is that if you really want to prepare for an oil-free future, then Tim Pullen’s Simply Sustainable Homes is a really useful guide to have by your side. Not so Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook: it’s a green manifesto for sure, but it won’t get you powered up, fed or housed.

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