7 August 2020

‘Transition in Action – Totnes and District 2030’ is the UK’s first comprehensive Energy Descent Action Plan designed for and by a local community. An Energy Descent Action Plan is a guide to reducing dependence on fossil fuels and reducing the carbon footprint until 2030.

This document is intended to offer ideas and inspiration for individuals, the community and local service providers in the area of Totnes and District, in their efforts to plan responses to volatile energy prices, climate change and a deeply uncertain economic future.

It is in three main sections:

Part one, ‘Where we start from’, sets out the 3 key assumptions that underpin this report: the imminent peaking in world oil production, climate change and the economic crisis. It also introduces the concepts of resilience and localisation, which are key elements of the responses proposed.

Part two, ‘Creating A New Story’, looks at why, as a culture, the stories we have about the future aren’t up to the job, and why we need new ones. This Plan is, in effect, a story about how the Totnes community could make the transition away from its oil dependency. The bulk of Part Two is based on oral histories conducted in and around Totnes, looking at how food, work, energy and other aspects of life functioned in the last period when Totnes and District had a more localised economy and much less energy availability than the present day. It concludes by re-telling the story of Transition Town Totnes from its beginnings.

Part Three, ‘A Timeline to 2030’ looks at a range of subject areas, Energy, Building/Housing, Economy and Livelihoods, Education, Governance, Art and Culture, Health and Wellbeing, Transport, Food, Biodiversity, Water, Waste and Community Issues. For each it sets out the challenges that Transition presents to them. It then presents a Transition Timeline for the topic, setting out, year by year, what responses to these challenges might look like. 

“Transition in Action” offers an example of how a well-researched, community-inspired, and community supported project (suggestions for the plan were drawn from more than 500 community members) of transitioning away from fossil fuels and reducing carbon footprint might look like in a real-life experiment. Although extensively documented, comprehensive and detailed in its proposed “solutions” the Plan should better be considered a vision document (see Colussi’s review) than a definitive plan for direct implementation.

Almost ten years since its publication and with the 2030 deadline significantly closer than in 2010, this document is a telling example of both the complexity of challenges involved in trying to re-orient patterns of production and consumption in more sustainable ways and of the inevitable obstacles and failures in trying to do so. However, although Totnes (and other Transition Towns) will almost certainly not achieve their sustainability and self-sufficiency goals by 2030 (or later), this Plan offers valuable insight into what is (and is not) possible in community-organised sustainability projects.

Focusing on the local context of Totnes and largely “practical” and “technical” solutions to sustainability issues the Plan does not address many of the key systemic issues related to sustainability and (local) resilience, such as questions related to global and local dimensions of social, economic, relational, cognitive, affective and even environmental justice.

Rather than being considered a model to follow, the “Transition in Action” document can provide valuable insight into how even well-informed, arguably widely supported and “realistic” propositions do not (and cannot) translate into actionable outcome as they inevitably fail to address key systemic obstacles, such as power relations, structural inequalities (racism, hetero-patriarchy, exploitative international division of labour and others), consumerist culture etc.

By focusing on telling a new “positive story” in which “ordinary people” are merely part of the solution rather than always inevitably also part of the problem, the Plan (and proposed “solutions”) represents a highly-nuanced and elaborate attempt at “saving the world as we know it” for a given local community (Totnes), rather than attempting to depart from its inherently violent, exploitative and unsustainable foundations.

Given the context and purpose of the Plan this is perhaps also all it could (for now) hope to achieve. As such it offers a great example of what may be considered achievable locally (with great effort and commitment) within the existing frameworks and hierarchical structures of power, and what remains out of reach without challenging these frameworks and structures.

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