by Rob Hopkins
If I were to wake up in the UK of twenty years hence, which had successfully undergone a transition of the kind we are talking about, life would be very different from the present. It would have emerged from some very difficult times into a more settled place. It would be far more locally oriented than the present, and we would have much less reason to travel. Let’s take a look at how 2030 might look from the perspective of someone in 2030 looking back. I have illustrated this below [in the book] with some newspaper articles from various points in the future.
* 1 Food and farming
* 2 Medicine and health
* 3 Education
* 4 Economy
* 5 Transport
* 6 Energy
* 7 Housing
Food and farming
Farming has experienced a remarkable transformation, undergoing a renaissance that few in 2008 could have thought possible. About twenty years ago, rising oil prices, international climate change agreements, and the findings of the Royal Commission on Food Security, made the UK Government reconsider its commitment to the World Trade Organisation’s pro-globalisation, liberalised, unrestricted free-trade approach, leading to its re-prioritising national food security above international trade. Also, local authorities across the country made local food procurement a policy priority, thereby kick-starting a rapid expansion in the market for local food. Farms are now highly diversified, producing more than just food, and are also providers of local-scale renewable energy, building materials, and organically grown medicinal plants, among other things.
Rising natural gas prices and disruptions to supply exposed the vulnerability of UK farming’s dependence on nitrogen fertiliser (which was made from natural gas). The building of organic matter in soils due to their increased ability to lock up carbon is now a priority, a key aspect of the Government’s carbon reduction strategy. The integration of perennial tree crops is a central feature of agriculture, both for their crop yields and for their carbon-sequestering abilities. Stands of specially bred varieties of walnut, sweet chestnut and hazel have been integrated into most farms, offering protein-rich annual crops for a variety of food uses as well as for producing oils for biodiesel for local consumption. With the changes in climate, a wider range of tree crops is now grown, as well as vines and other perennials.
Farming has learned to compensate for its reduced oil consumption through the partial reintegration of working horses, alongside locally produced biofuel-powered machinery, and by employing more people. The average farm size is now much smaller than in 2008 and the countryside is substantially more populated. Farms are now host to a diversity of enterprises, not just food production: some now produce materials needed by a building industry now using more local building materials, such as clay plasters, cob and hemp/lime blocks, as well as local timbers. This in turn has enabled the creation of small-scale industries to process and produce these materials, often based on the farms.
Others now focus on growing organic mushrooms for both culinary and medicinal uses. Some specialise in growing hemp for fabrics, or producing wood pellets or biofuels such as biodiesel or ethanol for the local market. For some farms, the installation of a methane digester means that they are able to supply heat and power to the neighbouring community. This newly found diversity of enterprise, alongside food production, has led to a much regenerated local economy, with the major part of each community’s wealth being cycled locally rather than being leached out into the wider economy.
Over the last 25 years, food and farming in the UK has returned to being regarded as central to the security of the country. Food security is now seen as not exclusively an issue for developing nations. As the rising price of fuel and demand for land for the short-lived biofuels industry began to inflate the price of food around 2011, we found, for the first time in 50 years, that it was cheaper to eat local organic food. At the same time our diets, by necessity, became more seasonal and less meat-based.
Urban agriculture is now a priority for urban planners and communities. Cities have been redesigned as productive places. The city of London now produces 60% of its fresh vegetables and 30% of its fruit in and around the city – and Bristol is now pushing 80%. A massive programme of productive tree planting has brought fruit and nut trees into every park and school grounds. Urban market gardeners began to colonise land around the edge of the cities, producing a diversity of fresh produce for local markets with extremely low food-miles (leading to the use of the term ‘food feet’). The keeping of small livestock, particularly chickens, has become the nation’s favourite pastime. What were large parks now feature a diversity of allotments, market gardens and horticultural training centres.
Back garden and allotment food production was already a very popular leisure activity in 2008, but in 2012 the Government legislated to make gardening a key aspect of their carbon reduction and health promotion strategies. Now local varieties of fruit and vegetables are highly treasured, and the teaching of intensive organic gardening techniques is a core part of the National Curriculum, as part of the nation’s Food Security programme.
Medicine and health
Today our idea of health – how to create it and maintain it – has changed markedly from that of twenty years ago. The Health Service had to rethink itself as the oil price made many of its practices and approaches unaffordable, and it faced the very real threat of collapsing completely. The closure of local hospitals in favour of centralised ones – so rampant twenty years ago – has been reversed, and local healthcare centres are now not just about treating illness but promoting health in many diverse ways. They have forged partnerships with local schools, promoting food growing and familiarising young people with the whole food cycle from seed to salad. The wellbeing of the individual is seen as inseparable from the health of the community. Human biology is now a compulsory school subject, and has expanded to include nutrition and basic herbalism.
About half of the medicines prescribed by doctors are now locally sourced, with local farmers growing certain key medicinal plants which are processed in local laboratories. Local chemists also now make over 50% of the medicines they sell on the premises. Doctors are able to prescribe a range of complementary treatments, as well as involvement in local community gardens, and access to affordable good food. The growth in access to meaningful work, the rebuilding of social cohesion and an emerging common sense of purpose, has resulted in fewer stress-related illnesses and cases of depression. Conventional and complementary practitioners are seen very much as two sides of the same coin, and the concept of promoting health rather than just treating disease has led to a range of innovative measures.
As a result of people’s moving away from being sedentary consumers to becoming more physically active producer/consumers, there has been an increase in musculo-skeletal problems. Doctors are now able to issue prescriptions for, for example, Alexander technique sessions. It has become more commonplace, as in China, to see free Tai Chi sessions in local parks in the morning. Technology has also enabled certain tests and observations to take place online in the patient’s own home, what is known as ‘tele-medicine’.
Education in 2008 was woefully inadequate, given the scale of the Transition to come. It became clear around 2010 that young people leaving school were unprepared for the more practical demands that the emerging powered-down world made of them; their school years had left them unable to build, cook, mend, garden or repair, and the Government declared that youth was in crisis and education needed fundamental reform. A new curriculum was approved in 2012 which re-emphasised vocational education firmly rooted on foundations of sustainability and resilience-building. From primary school level upwards, gardening, cooking and woodwork skills have become a core part of the programme for the first time since the 1950s. School grounds have been transformed into intensive gardens, with many students running their own enterprises.
By secondary school age, students now learn construction, as well as creating, installing and maintaining renewable energy systems, alongside social skills like conflict resolution and community leadership. For adults, Colleges of the Great Reskilling are now central to most towns, offering a variety of courses in a wide range of practical sustainability skills for the public as well as retraining for professionals.
The number of smaller local schools around the country began to grow around 2015, as the price of liquid fuels made it unfeasible for children to travel long distances to school. By 2018 many of the larger comprehensive schools and universities were no longer able to attract their intakes from large areas and had to rethink how they used their facilities. With unused space on their hands they diversified, and are now also home to incubator units for new businesses, with skilled craftspeople having their workshops and offering apprenticeships onsite. Those schools which have become farms or intensive market gardens also now feature a diversity of value-adding enterprises. Schools are now vibrant, productive, bustling places, firmly rooted in, and key contributors to, the local economy.
The way the economy works, and the way we think of money, has changed significantly since 2008. The globalised economic model began to run into significant difficulties sometime around 2010 when world oil production peaked. A period of sustained recession followed: a difficult transition, as our over-reliance on foreign investment and perilous levels of consumer debt became apparent. Parallel to this recession was the vigorous emergence of more localised economies. With national currency in short supply and pension schemes in tatters, towns and cities were forced to develop their own economic systems. New forms of trade are now commonplace, with systems such as LETS and Time Banks flourishing.
Towns and cities, as they did historically in times of hardship, now produce their own printed currencies, only usable within the town. Local investment models have been developed, whereby people invest their money in ways that support the economic regeneration of the community. As the focus becomes increasingly local, people now find the percentage of their daily transactions conducted in national currency continuing to fall. Money is now more answerable to the communities it serves. These local currencies may be backed by the national currency, but increasingly they are backed by locally produced energy or food production.
Each town and city now has its own printed currency used by all local businesses and proudly bearing the heads of prominent local historical figures. As part of national government policies to strengthen local economies, government grants and funding for the community are invested in the local currency and local authorities also accept part payment of Council Tax in local currencies. Shops pay part of their business rates and their local suppliers in them.
As globalised business models have begun to unravel, local entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the gaps. In the 1930s nearly all businesses were owned by local people; a hundred years later this is true once again. The myth that a strong economy can only emerge if it is based on inward investment is now seen as an oddly warped argument from the Age of Cheap Oil. For communities dependent on globalised businesses, the transition was particularly difficult, but led to a firm commitment to building stable local economies.
Private car ownership is now no longer the norm. Indeed, other than in some very rural areas, given the extent of the public transport system and the reprioritisation of urban streets to favour cyclists, pedestrians, trams and buses, private car ownership is seen as positively antisocial. The idea that one could live in a rural area and live an urban lifestyle has become a thing of the past. Rural communities have re-organised themselves around the re-creation of local employment, production and community. This has inevitably meant that over twenty or so years the population has changed as those seeking a more active, productive, rural lifestyle have moved out of the cities, while those seeking the enhanced sociability of urban living have headed in the opposite direction. Car clubs are a lot more common, allowing people access to cars without needing to own them; they also mean that cars are better used.
Cheap air flights are looked back on with nostalgia. The inability to travel long distances has had the added advantage that people are more connected to their immediate area, more intimately acquainted with its nooks and crannies. Back in 2007, local people were more familiar with Paris than Exeter, with Delhi than Manchester! Sharp rises in fuel prices and the Government’s decision in 2009 to tax aviation fuel sent many of the budget airline companies out of business. Although air travel and the private car were the transport sector’s losses, commercial sail-power returned with a vengeance, and other winners included tram and bicycle manufacturers.
Part of the process of relocalisation has been a slowing down from the frenetic pace that typified life in 2008. This has reduced the need to dash off somewhere exotic to ‘relax’. People nowadays are more drawn to long summer days on their allotments, sleeping in their summerhouses, taking long cycle rides and familiarising themselves with the ecology and history of their bioregion. Indeed, the transformation of our towns and cities from large, bland places with a few ‘entertainment’ venues, to diverse places with gardens, ponds, artworks, more opportunities for meeting and working with people, and generally more to see and do, has given people less reason to travel to be entertained.
In 2012, the advent of ‘peak cars’ (closely following ‘peak oil’) meant that demand for car parking spaces began to fall, leading to councils looking for different uses for their large expanses of underused tarmac (for whose upkeep they were responsible). Many of these areas were handed back to community control, and became community market gardens and centres for Great Reskilling training. Public transport is now exceptionally well thought out and integrated. Many of the small branch rail lines shut down by Beeching in the 1960s were re-opened, to the great benefit of both the communities and local farmers who can now use them to send produce to local markets. Urban streets now prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, cars having been designed out of many public spaces.
The UK has reached, thanks to an extraordinary crash programme initiated in 2010, a point of near self-reliance in energy. This was achieved through a 50% reduction in energy consumption and a massive scaling-up of renewables to provide the remaining 50% of energy demand. This was brought about partly by the introduction in 2010 of carbon rationing, based on the model of Tradeable Energy Quotas (TEQs) developed by David Fleming, which allocated to each citizen and business a carbon allowance which was gradually reduced each year, and managed electronically with a swipe card, used with every purchase of energy or fuel. Since their introduction, TEQs have rapidly become a fact of life, with some people now actually making part of their income by living simply and trading their surplus quotas.
A nationwide crash programme of domestic energy efficiency and retrofit begun in 2009 has brought down domestic consumption by 60%. Part of the success of this was the mainstreaming of energy efficiency. While domestic solar panels and wind turbines became seen as ‘must haves’ around 2010, as prices came down and there was increased grant aid, the much less glamorous work of retrofits still needed a push.
This was, in part, achieved by engaging local artists, who reconceived the installation of insulation and other energy-saving devices as a settlement-wide art installation, akin to the artist Christo wrapping buildings and islands. The remaining energy demand has been made up from a mixture of wind (as much as half of it), including a big programme of offshore wind projects, as well as biomass-fuelled Combined Heat and Power systems and tidal power. Many towns have helped to reduce their demand on the grid by creating localised energy mini-grids, often owned and managed by locally owned energy companies using the ESCO model, an approach first tried many years ago in Woking, Surrey. These bodies put in place renewable energy infrastructure which is owned and supported by the community.
These mini-grids are powered by whatever has been identified as the most locally appropriate energy sources, be it tidal in coastal areas, biomass in the Forest of Dean, or wind in the Scottish Highlands – usually a mixture of a range of sources. They are connected to the National Grid in order to exchange surplus or obtain backup when necessary, but communities generating their own power in this way have developed an important tool for strengthening their local economies, enabling the money from its generation to be retained in the local economy.
It is standard practice now that many homes, especially new-build ones, are net energy exporters, thanks to generous subsidies for solar power (passive solar and photovoltaics). The surplus energy generated is fed into local mini-grids where they exist, or into the National Grid. Every home is fitted with a smart meter, which allows the occupants to see at a glance how much energy is being used in the house at that moment. Energy companies also use tariffs in imaginative ways, charging less for electricity at certain times so as to encourage less peak demand at other times.
People look back over the last twenty years with a sense of enormous achievement. What looked like an insurmountable challenge in 2008 has been tackled with a united effort and with great imagination. People look back to the wastefulness of twenty years ago with astonishment and a certain amount of distaste. The new energy economy is leaner, but people now appreciate that one’s degree of personal happiness does not directly correlate to the size of one’s energy consumption.
The nation’s housing stock, which although it looks to all intents and purposes much like it did in 2008, is today far more energy-efficient. In 2014, the model of the Local PassivHaus became the standard for all new domestic construction across the UK; based on pioneering research by Rob McLeod in 2007 which combined the technological advances of the European PassivHaus concept with the use of locally sourced biomaterials. This model allowed the construction of homes which require no space-heating at all, drawing all their heating requirements from solar gain and the occupants’ body heat. In the local version, in excess of 80% of the materials used are locally sourced.
This in turn has led to an explosion of local industries producing clay plasters, natural insulation and cob/hemp blocks. The breathable construction and the materials used in the Local PassivHaus has led to buildings that are very healthy to live in, with very low embodied energy; they also contain significant amounts of stored carbon and contribute very few polluting ‘building miles’. All new buildings are designed to be autonomous and off-the-grid for water and sewage needs, as well as producing more energy than they consume collectively (as with a row of terraced houses for example) or, for stand-alone buildings, independently.
New models for inhabiting larger buildings, and new living arrangements – such as co-housing, where people have private units but some shared facilities – have become far more common. While the retreat in house prices of 2009 resulted in hard times for many, they also made home ownership feasible for young people again, as did falls in the rates of second home ownership.
The average footprint of new-build homes has fallen, and one of the great arts for architects is now the efficient design of the small home. Years ago, one’s sense of social worth was based on the size of one’s house; now it is based on its compactness and efficient design. In rural areas, in response to the demands of adjusting to the needs of a much expanded agricultural workforce, clusters of small, low-impact buildings, built from local materials, have been created on farms. Agricultural ties have been used to keep these from becoming privately owned, based on the ‘15 Criteria for Sustainable Development in the Countryside’, developed by the rural planning reform organisation ‘Chapter 7’.
In 2011, the Government initiated the concept of the Great Reskilling in the training of construction industry workers. Added to the skills taught were the skilled use of hemp and lime, cob blocks, and so on – a much broader set of skills than had previously been taught. A trip to the local builder’s merchants today presents the builder with a range of materials vastly different from those of 2007: bagged clay plasters, straw and clay, reed and clay boards, hemp or cob blocks, lime or clay renders, laths, locally made natural paints, pigments from local clays, and a wide range of locally grown and sawn timbers, as well as underfloor insulating pellets made from expanded recycled glass. Recycling has changed from 2007, when it involved long distance transportation for centralised industrial processing, to being primarily focused on local, low technology reprocessing, and many new innovative building materials are now made from the low-tech recycling of plastics, paper, fabrics and glass.