Transition in Action, Totnes 2030, an Energy Descent Action Plan

Why We Need New Stories

The Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes in 2006

The Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes in 2006 (© Sally Hewitt)

What you are about to read is as much a story as it is a community plan. It is a story about how a Devon town and its surrounding parishes embarked on an extraordinary journey, starting in 2009, harnessing all of its creativity and brilliance to re-imagine itself for a rapidly changing world. It is the story of ordinary people who came to see that their future would be very different from the present, and that that change was an inevitability. Rather than panic, switch off or slump into denial of the changes building around them, they took the braver, more testing, but ultimately more nourishing route, of seeing that change as a tremendous and historic opportunity.

Like all great adventure stories, it begins with ordinary people faced with a task the scale of which initially looks impossible. By taking the first steps and rediscovering how to work with each other, skills, strengths and previously unimagined inner resources were uncovered, and a scale of transformation was achieved that 20 years later, is the subject of the songs and stories of the generation that followed them. It is a story, but it is also a statement of intent.

As a culture, we struggle for lack of appropriate cultural stories in these times of great change. If you asked 30 people chosen at random in Totnes High Street to describe their mental picture of the world in 20 years having begun to reduce its carbon emissions by 9% each year starting in 2009, the likelihood is that it would probably be somewhere between the Flintstones and Steptoe and Son. We have many cultural stories, and their telling in mainstream movies and novels, of societies that collapse in various ways (Mad Max), those that invent their way to a space age future (Star Trek) or those that just continue with business as usual, where the future is like the present, except there’s just more of everything. What might the stories look like of the generation that looked peak oil and climate change square in the face and responded with creativity and imagination? That is what this document tries to do.

Hop o' My Thumb stealing the Seven-league boots

Hop o' My Thumb stealing the Seven-league boots (Copy of a drawing by Gustave Dore)

While on the theme of stories, we might wonder what future generations might make of this time as they look back. What will those in an energy-lean world make of an age like ours, which wasted their energy inheritance, and destroyed their climate, with such profligacy? How will people, who never got to experience such a thing, think about cheap flights around the world, or the idea of eating strawberries in February? One hint might come from looking at the stories that people told before cheap oil, when their lives were constrained by the realities of living without fossil fuels. These included:

  • The 7 League Boots, which enabled the wearer to cover 7 leagues (around 21 miles) with each stride
  • The Magic Porridge Pot, which enabled the owner, provided they knew the magic words, to create an endless supply of food without having to lift a finger to produce it (they also had to remember the magic words to stop it, or there was a danger of their entire town being submerged in porridge)
  • The Elves and the Shoemaker, where someone who made their living from a manual trade found that magically all the work was done for them without the need for them to do anything, the shoes being mysteriously manufactured overnight, and all they had to do was sell them.

Although these are stories, in effect they are fantasies about a world with fossil fuels. The 7 League Boots are now Ryanair, the Magic Porridge Pot is Tesco, and the Elves and the Shoemaker? That is the sweatshops of China, without which, as a nation that has dismantled much of its manufacturing, we would be without many of life’s current essentials.

At a workshop run by the Wondermentalist Cabaret and Transition Town Totnes in January 2009, participants were invited to write a piece from the perspective of someone in the future looking back on our time now. Local poet Roz (AKA. Beryl the Feral), wrote the following;

My grandma ate a mango every morning in her day.
And each one wrapped in a plastic pack that she’d just throw away
She had strawberries in winter – and apples in the spring
She must have been quite special to deserve so many things

Grandma’s house had many rooms but she resided all alone
And a hideout in the countryside made up a second home
And she had energy to burn at the flick of any switch
If everything she says is true she must have been quite rich.

The Garden of my grandma was the prettiest you’ve seen
She never grew a single grain or vegetable or bean
She never had to work the land and get her clothes all mucky
She never had to lift a hand, how could she be so lucky?

Grandma had her very own car, to go just where she’d like
One didn’t have to walk so far, or take the bus, or bike
She didn’t need her neighbours, she knew city folk instead
I hope that she was grateful for the amazing life she led.

Gran would get on aeroplanes if she fancied taking flight
She’d disappear once every year – for maybe just a fortnight!
She must have been contented when her life was so carefree
I like to hear her stories and pretend that it was me…

And Liv Torc, another member of the Wondermentalist Collective, wrote this poem…


I remember a world
Where I could get up
In the middle of the night
And drive 3 hours
Just to be with you
On a whim
Now I’d have to swim
It was okay back then
Cause you could get a frozen coffee at 3am
Now in Winter I can’t get a cup of tea till noon
But I still get twitchy under a fool moon
And want to do something crazy
Go garden ferociously
By the ever encroaching sea
I smile as I remember how
Stupid and impulsive I used to be

5 comments on “Why We Need New Stories”

  1. Tom Smith

    “How will people, who never got to experience such a thing, think about cheap flights around the world, or the idea of eating strawberries in February?”

    We can find out right now..Just ask the majority of the world, those who don’t live as wastefully. Yet we fail to learn.

  2. Tom Smith

    Apologies, I meant to say “Just ask the majority of the world, those who can’t afford to live as wastefully.”

  3. Jacqi Hodgson

    They may not be available for an awful lot longer! In the meantime if we apply sustainability principles to our decisions around travel, perhaps other (more sustainable) travel options will be more meaningful and give the added pleasure of contributing towards our common future.

  4. DJ

    Cheap flights, eating strawberries in February, driving a car whenever you want. Never growing a garden! Really this is NOT the exceptional life! What will make your soul soar like an Eagle, make your heart feel so good that you’ll think you are in Heaven will be helping your neighbor without the thought of payment of any kind–just because you can. This leads to the exceptional life. People are happy if they eat–they can eat if they grow a garden, or help in a community garden project. They are content if they can go home and sleep in a warm bed–help each other build warm homes that you all can visit and stay whenever you want–because your neighbors are like your family. This is the exceptional life–leave oil where it is. Leave profit for the Greedy. Help each other out with one thing in mind, ‘Service to your fellowman is service to me’

  5. Theresa

    Rozs’ poem is brilliant. Thank you so much for it :)