Global Emergency

Transition Town Movement

T Vijayendra

The world is going through a Global Emergency. This has several aspects to it–Resource Depletion, Global Warming, Ecological Degradation, Growing Inequality and Social Unrest.

Human society uses natural resources for its survival and reproduction. Other living beings depend directly or indirectly on plant resources which are renewable. However, human beings also use non-renewable resources including minerals such as coal and petroleum and metals such as gold, silver, copper and iron. They are considered non-renewable because their quantity is fixed and the more one uses them the less of them are left to use. For industrial societies, petroleum and coal are the basic sources of energy and their depletion can spell the end of industrial society.

Now, there is a law of extraction of these non-renewable resources. It was first discovered in the case of oil by M King Hubbert and is called, 'Peak Oil'. It says that when half the resources are extracted (taken out), then the production will start falling. That is, the peak of production occurs when half the oil is taken out. It applies to a particular well, to a region, to a country, and to the whole world. Today, it has been found that it applies to all such mineral resources and scientists have calculated the peak year for almost all the important minerals. For one thing the overwhelming majority of them will peak before 2030, starting with oil! So the years of industrial society as it exists are numbered and the end will come in a decade or so. The collapse of industrial society will be a 'never before' event because that will be the end of the historical process of ever-increasing wealth that human society has seen in the last few thousand years.

While there is a window of a few years before resource depletion triggers a collapse, global warming doesn’t really give any window!

The recent IPCC report has drawn everyone’s attention to the gravity of the situation. “If we are to stay below 1.5° C global warming, emissions have to peak no later than 2020. Emissions must also be cut by half by 2030, and to net zero by 2040. The people need an immediate emergency response by policymakers, businesses, and civil society, aimed at an unprecedented transformation of all sectors of society. It's time to act!” Well, the world has passed that deadline of 2020.

The levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the main drivers of climate change. They are measured in ‘parts per million (ppm)’ and the safe levels are considered to be a maximum of 350, ideally less. They have hit a new record high, the UN said, warning "The window of opportunity for action is almost closed." Today (May 2023) it is 424 ppm! It is probably more correct to say that the window of opportunity for action is closed. No governments are actually prepared to reduce emissions. In fact, this year they have been busy with wars and increasing emissions. This year a group of scientists have claimed that people are moving towards a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees centigrade and have asked the community of scientists globally to go on civil disobedience!

The year, 2022, has already seen some of the worst effects of ecological degradation due to climate change. Europe has seen the worst drought in 500 years. Both the USA and China too are facing drought in large areas. Now these are huge areas and include most of the ‘developed countries’ as well as constituting some of the ‘food baskets’ of the world. Pakistan has faced huge floods involving 30 million people. In India too, large parts of the country have faced floods.

Everyone is familiar with the annual Oxfam report on growing inequality in the world. These inequalities continue to raise protest movements.

There are protest movements all over the world mobilising against the livelihood crisis and the steep rise in the price of essentials brought on initially by the Covid-19 pandemic and the crippling lockdowns that followed, and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Global warming, coupled with resource depletion, ecological disaster, growing people’s movement, and wars among capitalist nations can together trigger a collapse of the system.
Today Sri Lanka and 27 other small countries are going through a process of collapse. In 2023, huge strikes took place in the U K, France and Netherlands against inflation and demand for higher wages. The recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other banks shows the world is in the middle of the collapse. Capitalism can neither solve these problems nor can it outlive it. So people have to look for alternatives immediately.

Meaning and History of Transition
It is still not known what the alternative would be. It depends on the history of a specific country. It can be any of the alternatives tried out before or a modified form of it. For example it can be socialism, eco-socialism, anarchism, and some modified form of parliamentary democracy and so on. The Transition Town Movement is one such response. It belongs to the tradition of anarchism in general and to permaculture in particular.

Briefly: 1. Anarchists are opposed to all authority, 2. Anarchists believe in self-management within a local community on the basis of ‘a free association of free people’, and 3. The Anarchist community will federate with other communities also on the basis of ‘a free association of free people’.

The term ‘Permaculture’ was coined by Dr Bill Mollison of Tasmania, Australia in the early 1970s to mean Permanent Agriculture or Permanent Culture. David Holmgren was a collaborator in this venture. It was initially conceived as a framework for a more permanent basis for agriculture rather than just the raising of annual crops. However, Permaculture has now come to mean much more than food sufficiency at household level. Today Permaculture has come to mean a whole life system. The aim is to evolve self-financing and self managed systems to provide for all the material and non-material needs, without depleting, polluting and destroying the natural resources of the biosphere.

The terms transition town, transition initiative and transition model refer to grassroots community projects. The aim is to increase self-sufficiency to reduce the potential effects of peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability. This is done through re-localisation strategies, especially around food production and energy usage, taking the world from the present capitalist/industrial stage of society to an alternative stage.

History of Transition Town
Kinsale is a small town on the South East Coast of Ireland. In 2004, Rob Hopkins taught permaculture design at the Kinsale Further Education College. Two young women, Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne were his students. He set them the task of applying permaculture principles to ‘Peak Oil’. The objective was to reduce the dependency of Kinsale town on fossil fuels to zero in ten years. They produced the now famous Kinsale Energy Descent Plan. They applied the principle in the realm of energy production, health, education, economy and food production. The plan was presented to Kinsale Town council. To their surprise, the councilors decided to adopt the plan and work towards energy independence. The first Transition Town was born! Hopkins moved to his hometown, Totnes in England where he and Naresh Giangrande developed these concepts into the transition model. In early 2006, Transition Town Totnes was founded and became the inspiration for founding of other Transition initiatives. By September 2013, there were 1130 initiatives registered in 43 countries.

Transition India
There are no transition town models in India. Nor is there any group or organisation called transition town. Yes, there are several individuals and small groups who are aware of the concept and are implementing in their own way in a few specific activities. Kerala seems to have a larger number of such people. The term ‘Transition Kerala’ and a group called ‘Transition Studies’ in Thrissur headed by K Sahadevan are well-known. This writer’s booklet on it is translated into Kannada, Marathi and Bengali. So there are a few people and groups in these states too.

However, without the name and an articulated concept, the need is felt by people, organisations and even by the government. They have undertaken several activities which would fall under transition and some of them are indeed very good. So there is a lot of hope for people in India.

The main problem with some of these activities is that only a few of them have been inspired by ideas of local self sufficiency, de-scaling of energy use and simplicity. These are mainly NGOs and individuals who carry the legacy of the independence movement – ideas of Swaraj and Gram Swaraj etc. Other activities are inspired by the modern green movement and often are in the mould of ‘green capitalism’. Only time will tell how they will move, change and succeed or fail!

The Vision of Future
No alternative energy source can replace the petrol and gas which run trucks and cars. Today, transportation is so basic to global capitalism that its breakdown alone can cause the system to collapse. No alternative energy can generate the amount of energy people are using now. The implication of the above is that ‘globalisation’ is no longer possible. The present level of consumption will result in unacceptable levels of global warming and ecological degradation.

Based on the above, one can deduce that post-industrial societies will have the following main features:

1. Equality 2. A scaling down of the use of resources-particularly energy 3. Local self-sufficient economy 4. Ecological restoration of the present degraded ecology 5. A value system or ethical base which is more cooperative and less competitive than the present society.

What is to be done?
As a general rule the key word is voluntary simplicity at a personal level. It is of course true that one person reducing her/his energy consumption/eco footprint cannot significantly change the situation. As the critics often say, ‘if you don’t use it someone else will use it’. But it does give one the moral energy to go ahead and involve in larger issues in larger contexts.

Local Response in Urban Areas: Transition Town
About 70% of emissions which cause global warming come from cities. Rural people follow cities as role models to copy. So cities should take a leading role in meeting the challenge of global emergency.
The aim of transition town would be to prepare a plan to make the town fossil fuel free in ten years. One can start with a town or part of a town which is human scale. It would be about 10,000 people and an area of 25 square kilometres. It is something similar to what people are calling a 15 minute town.

The biggest polluters of air in urban areas are fossil fuel driven vehicles-scooters, cars, buses and trucks. Of these cars have the highest per capita emissions. While it is not visible yet, petrol and diesel are on their way out. Electric vehicles (EVs) are showing up. Fortunately in India it is mainly two wheeler EVs. Bicycle movement is catching on in almost all cities. Cycle rickshaws have never vanished and four wheel push carts also are there.

All human settlements are based near water sources-lakes, rivers and wells. In fact the size of a human settlement until recently was based on the availability of water in the vicinity. Only availability of cheap energy allowed cities to pump water from distant rivers. Today in most cities every drop of water consumed involves some coal (due to electricity in pumping) and/or petrol for tanker transport. As energy supply and size of the town reduce, local water supplies will again become important. Rain water harvesting in new buildings is becoming a law in most cities. It will get better implemented as water scarcity increases. Repair and restoration of tanks and other water bodies is being urgently taken up in many towns and large movements to save the lakes in Bangalore and Hyderabad also have come up. Efforts should ensure that all lakes get clean/rain water to make lakes potable, fishable, swimmable. And finally to ensure that the water table in the area rises year by year to reach 20 feet.

Waste Management
Plastic is currently the biggest source of solid waste and single use plastic has been banned in the country. Then segregation at source between green and red waste, recycling of non- biodegradable waste and composting the biodegradable waste is the next step. Further one needs to ensure zero-waste management and also ensure that industrial and sewage waste does not go to the river or water bodies. The toughest problem to crack is converting latrines to compost latrines instead of flushing the excreta to pollute lakes and rivers. In small towns Sulabh Shouchalaya has done remarkable work since 1969.

To reduce food miles, all food should be locally procured, except salt which may have to be imported from outside. Perishables like fruits and vegetables should be produced within the local area. Organic home and terrace vegetable gardening is becoming popular in many cities. Again Kerala seems to be very well organised.

Health and Education
India has a very poor performance in these fields. Urban health has deteriorated to an unprecedented level. People are breathing poison, drinking poison and eating poison. The last is mainly due to the junk food sold in packets and served in restaurants. They all are characte-rised by HFSS–high fat, salt and sugar. In education some states have a better record. But privatisation of education is ruining people and children. Some NGOs have done exemplary work in these areas and the Delhi government also appears to have done some very good work.

Employment Generation and Entrepreneurship
New green entrepreneurship and employment opportunities are coming up; such as rain water harvesting, waste processing and compos-ting, home gardening resources, bicycle stands and bicycle repair and maintenance shops, markets for organic and green local products, sale, maintenance and repairs of solar cookers, water heaters and solar panels, etc. The main aim is that at the end of 10 years everyone will be earning their livelihood through green jobs.

Concurrently the society must organise ‘awareness building activities’ in terms of talks, film shows, local surveys which have provocative questions that can make people aware. The aim is to bring out a local youth leadership to lead the movement in the community.

Ecological Village
It can be summarised as: Some 80% rural households-peasants and non- peasants are in debt. Their agricultural work does not pay them enough to pay back their debts. Why are they in debt? The main reason is the introduction of the green revolution and milk schemes. There are many names to it: Commercialisation of agriculture, Development or Capitalist penetration in agriculture etc. Whatever the name, it has three well known results:

1. Increase in production and wealth, 2. Increase in disparity. The rich get much richer whereas the poor may earn more money than before, but they also get in greater debt 3. Increase in Ecological degradation.

Since the green revolution and white (milk) revolution requires a lot of cash inputs, they have to sell their products. So a lot of agriculture at present comprises non-food crops. Cotton, sugar cane, tobacco and jute are traditional cash crops. New cash crops have been added like soya (oil cakes for cattle, mainly exported to Iran), and maize (mainly for poultry industry), flowers (mainly for export to cities) and special grass for feeding the milch cattle for supplying milk to the chilling plants of the milk federations. Area under crops, area under irrigation and total production has increased in a big way at the cost of forests and grasslands.

All this has generated enormous wealth and money in rural areas. This has led to consumerism which has increased expenses of rural people enormously. Rural people are trying to follow the role model of urban people-English medium education, motor cycles, smart phones, non-local intoxicants. It has also created new problems, such as health-both physical and mental. Green revolution poisons air, water and food. Consuming them both at the farming level (spraying of pesticides) and breathing, drinking and eating them creates health problems. Increased mechanisation of agriculture and mechanisation of transport have made people unhealthy and their medical expenses have gone up enormously. Suicides are increasing due to debts and mental health issues.

Green revolution is also worsening the health of the soil and leading to a general ecological degradation of the rural areas. As the area under agriculture increases, the area under forest and commons and grassland decreases. Excessive water consumption by crops has led to depletion of lakes and ground water to dangerous levels. Poor landless labourers suffer more because they depend on commons and forests partially.
Family ties are broken and individualisation has increased.

What is Happening
These problems are well known and many people are addressing them. PARI (People’s Archives of Rural India) is a leading organisation addressing these problems. Many individuals are reporting positive initiatives taken by rural people and organisations. Countercurrents (Bharat Dogra), Vikalp Sangam (Baba Mayaram) and Better India regularly carry these articles.

The main activities going on are organic and natural farming which includes waste management in the form of composting and water management. There are several good NGOs who have taken initiatives in health and education. Some of them carry more than one topic: 1. education and environment issues, 2 health, education and organic farming, and elimination of child labour. Some like DDS in Telangana have done pioneering work in food security by introducing pds based on local procurement. In Karnataka NREGA unions have won Panchayat elections and can intervene in rural development programmes.

Often the government through local administration has helped in these activities. More recently the government at a policy level has taken a big initiative in terms of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

People’s Movement and Pandemic
From the early seventies, in the wake of revolutionary movements that started in the late 60s the consciousness about the evils of development began to grow. One of the earliest was the Silent Valley Movement in the Palakkad district of Kerala. It was started in 1973 to save the Silent Valley Reserve Forest from being flooded by a hydroelectric project. Since then there have been movements in practically every state in India. For example, Koel Karo movement in Jharkhand, Narmada Bachao Andolan spread over three states, Niamgiri movement in Odisha, and Save Western Ghats which also was spread over several states and so on. While in most cases the movements ‘failed’ to achieve their goals, they transformed millions of people in their attitude towards ‘development’.

During the three months of the lockdown during the pandemic, people learned an important lesson. In a real crisis, the government just gives up and that the people can take care of themselves. While there were indeed a lot of sufferings, the people from all walks of life showed remarkable resilience. And Nature recovered at a speed that surprised even the experts. So, if and when capitalism collapses, and it seems that the world is in the middle of it, there are actually a lot of positive things to look forward to!

This is an abridged version of the text of the talk that was delivered under the auspices of the Vivekananda Chair, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, on May 27, 2023.

1. This article is essentially an updated version of my booklet, Kabira Khada Bazar Mein: Call for Local Action in the Wake of Global Emergency (2019,
2.        Part I, ‘Global Emergency and End of Modern Technology and Alternatives’, of this article is mainly taken from my article, ‘Questioning Technological Determinism – II’ 11/09/2022,
3.        For defining permaculture material from ‘New Agriculture: A Permaculture Point of View’ by Venkat, has been used (2012, Hyderabad, Permanent Green/ Manchi Pustakam.
4.           For material on Transition Town the source is mainly Wikipedia.


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023