The problems of the world cannot possible be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.
John F Kennedy
So today marked the first day of what seems to have become a very training heavy end to the year. Today was the first day of a ‘Training for Transition’ course. For those who haven’t bumped into theTransition Towns movement, it is a loose association of groups who are working to encourage resilient and skilful communities that can deal with the changes that peak oil and climate change will require. It started in the UK and has since spread around the world. Groups do whatever it is that they see as powerful and relevant for their community generally around food, transport, housing, economy and education. Transition towns encourage the re-localisation of sharing and are most frequently seen in action around community gardens, food swaps and up-skilling workshops.
One of the tasks that we did today involved a visioning exercise. Basically a guided meditation encouraging the participants to consider what would the world be like after the ‘transition’ to a low energy future had been achieved. It’s an interesting task and the hope is that if you can imagine a world towards which you want to move then not only are you closer to taking meaningful action but also you can speak to the future with more conviction and passion.
So I’m going to share my thought process. I’m not saying this is what is necessarily going to happen it’s more a vision of aspects that I see as valuable and powerful extended in to the unknown. So here goes.
The setup: As you fall asleep in your bed a miracle occurs. You are moved forward in time to when the transition and necessary changes across the world have occurred. You wake in your bed but not in your time.
The first thing I notice in this strange new world is the sound. Or rather lack of it. I didn’t realise how ever present the buzzing of electronics, the dull hum of cars and the sound of civilisation was, but now they are no-where to be found; replaced by the sounds of humans moving along the street and the tweets of birds, oddly loud without the competition. I get up out of bed and walk towards where I assume the kitchen is and notice many small changes. Heavy curtains adorn all the windows, artificial lighting is minimal and the large wardrobe that used to house a vast array of clothing has shrunk to cater more appropriately for a smaller range of local made, high quality clothes. The bathroom’s pretty much the same as I remember though that toilet looks a little weird and there are three taps that adorn the sink. There’s a smell of food, somebody has already been cooking! I walk into the kitchen and notice some serious re-modelling! The pantry has grown to contain a wide range of jars and bottles. A rustic central table has grown and now is serving oats to 8 people; from babies, to the elders of the family. At least I assume they’re the family, the easy familiarity in the way they relate to each other suggest they are but I can see a small sloped dwelling at the back past the lush permaculture garden where the garage used to be so who knows. The absence of appliances also jumps at me, it looks somehow less cluttered and frantic, well worn knives and other tools are hung carefully and look well cared for next to sturdy looking cutlery, cookware and crockery. Whilst breakfast looks delicious there is a noticeable absence of coffee, replaced now by an odd flavoured tea, I guess not everything has made it through the transition. It smells okay so I have a try. I could probably get used to it if I had to, but to me it tastes like something I had when I was camping as a kid.
I walk out the front door after pushing a heavy woollen curtain aside. The door feels solid, secure and built for keeps and closes with a swish on its tight hinges. Outside I am instantly hit by the smells and the green. The air wafts with suggestions of animals, bread, jam and gardens. There are trees, trellises full of vine, flowers and vegetables everywhere. The front yard looks like a jumble growing food, punctuated by the occasional built structure. I recognise some vertical pipe gardens and an aquaponics set-up but there is other stuff that doesn’t ring any bells. But the biggest change is one that has obviously been brought about by the absence of cars. The street is; well it’s not a street anymore, it’s a jumble of trees. Most of them are fairly short but with some large nut tree’s holding pride of place towering over like umbrellas. Underneath the trees more plants grow, some that look edible, some that look to have other uses but all clearly planned and well tended. There are small structures like upturned bins scattered sparsely under the trees but I’ve got no idea what they are. There are lots of people around, some walking, some gardening and some just leaning on fences and talking to their neighbours. Despite the suburban density of houses it has the air and pace of a quiet country town. This is helped by the absence of power poles and transmission lines. I can see wires spanning between some houses most of which are speckled with solar panels but the lack of overhead wires reframes the image and I’m surprised at the power of the vision. I talk to the next door neighbour who explains that the pace is because most people don’t work in paid employment for more than a day or two each week. There are exceptions he explain, doctors, nurses, teachers, and a smattering of other professionals who tend to work longer hours, even though the money is not great. Instead, he tells me, looking after each other, wellness and preparing the next generation to deal with the challenges that exist as a by-product of the bad-times are seen as callings and those who work in them are supported by the community and given great respect. The rest of the people work a little to supplement what they can grow, make, barter or exchange for those little luxuries but find they have much time to engage with their neighbours and follow their passions. “Who-ever would have thought” he says “that once we got rid of all the distraction of trying to keep up with the latest gadgets and compete with each other we actually discovered that people work best when they’re not crushed by debt” which he explains hardly exists any more. “It wouldn’t have happened without the 2020 debt jubilee, but these days we help each other out. That’s not to say people aren’t doing amazing stuff it’s just that people have the freedom to follow their passions. Those who love the excitement of discovery undertake scientific research, those who love words write, story-tell or code, artists sculpt, artisans make tools, musicians play and teach and people who love moving organise spontaneous sporting events. “It turns out that eventually we realised that our way of living was killing us” he tells me “everyone was overweight, lonely and feeling hollow. It took us a while but in hindsight it was much harder to change our way of thinking than to make the changes to our lifestyle. Now people feel connection, passion and a sense of purpose, the only thing we don’t tolerate is laziness!”
I thank him and move on because a space at what used to be the street intersection has caught my eye. It’s like a little green square and I can see kids from toddlers to adolescents playing games with each other. I think they’re supervised but there don’t seem to be the ever vigilant, stressed parents that I remember from some of the playgrounds that I go to in my time. From here I can see the train line, it still seems to be working. The other way I can see a road, at least I think it’s a road. I can’t see any cars but a pretty steady stream of bikes of all shapes and sizes. There are cargo bikes with fresh produce, bread and even one selling an odd sort of cider. It’s a bit early for me though so I pass on that, besides I’m a bit shocked by the horse and cart that trundles by laden with milk, cheese and other heavy consumables, “wow, didn’t expect that in High street” I mutter to myself.
I spend the day wandering the streets, actually groves is probably a far more appropriate description as most of the smaller streets have become narrow treed fields. They seem to occupy an enormous amount of space. It’s odd that in my day to day life, in my time, I don’t even consider how much space is wasted just on the off chance someone wants to drive right to their doorstep. Here there are massively fewer cars and those that are around are mostly shared cars that occupy the broad grid of streets. I estimate everyone must be less than about two to three hundred metres away from such a street. Cars and trucks bearing goods stop at the road as goods are unloaded onto rickshaw like cargo bikes and taken to houses.
I catch a train in to the city. The clean and efficient carriages whistles along tracks lined with trees and past stations that look part market and part transfer station. It looks like conductors have made a comeback and our one moves through the carriages checking tickets and also helping people load goods in to the goods carriage at the rear of the train.
The city has shrunk, but it still has echos of my time. Architecture has changed with passive heating and cooling, solar collecting skins and green roofs evident everywhere but the dense city centre remains. There’s less suits visible but there’s obviously some important things going on here. I’m told that this is the hub of business and information. The internet which has diversified and grown is now integrated into most facets of people’s lives from supporting academic collaboration, politics, help seeking and buying and selling of good. Even the alternate currency ‘the whirr’ that actually originated from an environmental visionary called Harry Harrison is managed from here. This system enables people to earn credit through effort with the standard currency being a work hour.
I head the other direction to the outer suburbs. I go past large parks and gardens. They abound with stands of trees alongside open grassland. I see cows milling around All Nations Park and time it perfectly to see the groundskeeper of a sporting field ushering cows off the football pitch, “I guess it beats mowing the lawns” I think to myself. As I get further out I notice a change. The city was dense. The inner suburbs, connected by good public transport have become a tight interconnection of street sized villages producing much of their own food supplemented by small farms in open spaces. But when the transport runs out so does suburbia. It seems that without connection to mass transit the suburban lifestyle has become impossible. I quiz a passerby about how this came about. He describes how some tried to hold on but in the end the suburbs were designed for the car, and no-one can afford to use them anymore. Some tried to stick it out but in the end people either moved out to the vibrant regional towns that have found a new lease of life now that people power has replaced machine power, or moved in to the more inner suburbs to higher density communal living. The suburbs that used to exist beyond the train line have reverted to high density farming, reclaiming the lush agricultural land once swallowed by two car garages and cheaply built housing. These farms are supported by easy access to the city markets and an available labour force.
The day is coming to a close so I return to my house and strike up a conversation with an Irish tourist. This surprises me as I would have thought that travel would have died. Not so, she tells me but it has definitely changed. The one year ‘walkabout’ has become a coming of age ritual. Sure it’s not the ‘two weeks in Oz’ that it used to be. Now it’s more about a journey, often involving slow travel on boats, bikes and horses. It’s a more authentic cultural integration though since you need to stop and work in the country for a little while before you move on. Most of all it’s enabled the renewal of traditional cultures. When oil ran out people reverted to their traditional ways of life. The sterile global culture is gone now, it’s been replaced by hamlets, villages and cities that have adapted in a myriad of ways that are specific to their space, culture and people so travelling is far more fun. It’s just measured in years rather than weeks.
It’s been an amazing day but now the sun is setting. The people are return to their dwellings for their dinner. I’m a bit shocked at how many people seem to head to each dwelling and equally surprised to see some of them walking out with pots and taking them to other houses. As the light fades I notice the night-time renaissance. It’s a warm night so families come out of their houses. A screen is dropped from between two trees as the children sit together on the grassed central square to watch a movie. A choir group fires up in the distance will from the other direction I can hear the faint strains of a rave party. Friends and neighbours share a homebrew together, old men played chequers and the adolescents from the street converge to engage in the traditional ‘he said, she said’ that is their bit.
I head back in to the house past people reading by dim light and families playing games. It’s not late by my reckoning but I guess if you don’t have the bright lights to bring day in to night then you tend to sleep when all animals do, when it gets dark. I lay down on the bed, the sound of the last stragglers outside strangely comforting and drift off to sleep as my mind ponders the surreal experience that I’ve had and wonders which time I would rather wake in.