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Townsfolk prepare for life after oil

  • Story Highlights
  • The "transition initiative" is trying to prepare for a post-oil world
  • Towns who sign up want to reduce power output to become carbon neutral
  • By planting crops and launching local currencies they hope to be more self-reliant
  • Totnes in southwest England already has its own currency accepted in 18 shops
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By Paul Willis for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Imagine a life where each morning you cycle to work, and come home at night to tend your allotment and eat a dinner of locally produced food.

In order to move to a zero-carbon lifestyle, livestock and produce will need to be locally sourced.

Maybe after your meal you take a walk down the car-free streets to the nearest bar where you buy a round of drinks with locally produced currency and settle down in a corner to watch a troupe of musicians play some local folk music.

It might sound like some kind of fairytale arcadia -- a return to the simple lives of our forefathers, before fossil fuels and consumer culture turned everything on its head.

In fact this is how many people are beginning to envision our future -- a world where we come to terms with inevitable fuel shortages and work towards a less energy-dependent lifestyle.

This vision has found a voice in the "transition initiative," a movement that encourages towns, villages and cities across the world to begin the process of preparing themselves for a carbon-free world.

The first so-called transition town was pioneered in the southwest English town of Totnes, by the inventor of the concept Rob Hopkins, 18 months ago.

Since then almost 50 other places in Britain have signed up to the movement, as well as a smattering of towns in New Zealand and Australia.

Hopkins, 38, who lives with his family in Totnes, says people have seized upon the transition initiative because it offers an "empowering, inspiring" vision of the post-oil age.

"It has grown into a vacuum -- there is nothing else that looks at ways to respond to peak oil and climate change that feels good," Hopkins says.

Hopkins' beliefs about the looming energy crisis are summed up by the title of American environmentalist writer Richard Heinberg's 2003 book on the subject -- "The Party's Over."

Heinberg, who provides the foreword to a handbook Hopkins has recently published on the transition initiative, estimates we are very close to reaching a state of peak oil -- the point at which half of the world's oil reserves have been used up and thereafter supply goes into freefall.

A lack of any viable alternative energy sources means human communities will have no choice but to cut back energy use, the book argues.

Since governments and big business seem unable, or else unwilling, to deal with these problems head-on, Hopkins believes the change must come in the first instance from the grassroots.

"We have to be looking to break our oil dependence and get to being a zero carbon society within 20 years. We don't have any choice in this if we want our children to have any kind of lives.

"Of course, much of this needs to come from government level, but to make cuts of that nature will need a lot of things that don't tend to make governments very popular, such as carbon rationing.

"The idea with transition is to engage communities in pushing for these things, so as to take the fear out of making these decisions for politicians."

One way of doing this is through an "energy descent pathway," a step-by-step plan compiled by residents designed to wean the town away from a reliance on carbon fuels. Some transition towns are already beginning to implement the plan.

Other initiatives trialed in Totnes include planting nut trees to provide emergency food supplies and the setting up of locally-run energy and construction companies to increase self-reliance.

Just over a year ago the town also introduced its own currency -- the Totnes pound. Accepted in 18 shops in the town and borrowing its design from an 1810 local banknote, Hopkins believes it is a sign of things to come.

"Historically, when economies run into trouble, local currencies proliferate. In Argentina when the economy collapsed a few years ago, they appeared all over the country.

"They are inevitable because we will need currencies that are locally loyal, that make more things happen before they leave the economy than (pound) sterling does."

To some this return to localism might sound like a step back.

Although Hopkins acknowledges drawing inspiration from the past -- part of the transition process involves consulting with older members of the community to find out what life was like when people were more self-reliant -- he insists he's not being regressive, only realistic.

"The transition approach is not about convincing anyone to give up anything. It is about saying that many of the things we increasingly take for granted will become steadily more expensive and less and less dependable.

"We are entering a world where there will be a lot less energy available, and this will affect all aspects of our lives, and we need to start planning creatively now." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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