Community: In transition

All across Shetland, projects are being developed to encourage people to grow more of their own food and to build community resilience in the face of climate change and Peak Oil. Neil Riddell finds out more.
The ability of islanders to go about their day-to-day business is now far more at the mercy of commodity markets and the weather than would have been thought healthy even a couple of decades ago. Witness the impact of escalating fuel prices, or the rapid emptying of supermarket shelves when deliveries are halted even for a couple of days as freight and cargo boats are waylaid by the elements.

We may live in a remote outcrop in the middle of the North Sea, but in a sense our fortunes are further out of our hands than ever before. Rob Hopkins is the founder of the Transition movement, a loose global alliance aimed at helping communities meet the twin challenges posed by climate change and Peak Oil. He wrote in 2008 that our society is “in reality three days away from hunger at any moment, evoking the old saying that ‘civilisation is only three meals deep’”.

The inexorable rise of fuel prices, of course, hits those in remote, scattered communities much harder than most. Yet yearning for the halcyon days of filling one’s fuel tank up for £30, while understandable in these torrid economic times, seems increasingly fanciful. As easily accessible oil reserves dry up, the oil that is left is becoming more costly – financially and environmentally – to extract from the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic seabed and, even worse, the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. This means the price of petrol and diesel is only heading in one direction. It won’t be too much longer before fuel costs £2 or £3 a litre, or more. In that context the 5p a litre discount for island communities proposed by the UK government will be the merest of drops in the ocean.

Faced with growing demand, too, from the fast developing economies of India and China and the small matter of two billion more souls sharing our planet by 2050, at some point later this century or early in the next we will probably run out of oil altogether. Of course, we cannot discount the possibility that long-lasting technological solutions may be found. But the phenomenon of Peak Oil – the point at which the oil we have used exceeds that left in the ground – undeniably poses a colossal challenge to humanity, perhaps even more so for geographically isolated places such as Shetland.

It would be all too easy to get depressed and downbeat, but a growing number of people in the isles are embracing the challenge with vim and vigour. Recognising that some of the solutions need not be especially expensive, a small but enthusiastic band of concerned individuals have staged a succession of meetings this winter aimed at readying the isles to cope with the twin headache of Peak Oil and climate change. Inspired by the global movement started by Mr Hopkins, Pete and Jan Bevington were behind the initial formation of Transition Shetland and have been heartened by the response.

Voluntary transition groups have been set up all over the Western world, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States. In broad terms, the groups have tended to focus primarily on food production, transport, energy use and reducing waste. Over time, Transition Shetland is likely to look at all these areas. At its most recent meeting, though, the group agreed that focusing on food growing would be a good place to start. They plan to hold a public meeting for those interested in March and will advertise details nearer the time.

Acknowledging that small-scale growth of food has already taken root, not least in the sizeable demand for council-backed community allotments over the last year or two, the group wants to build on that good work. Stimulating community-supported agriculture schemes and encouraging landowners and crofters to make portions of land available for people to grow produce are among the ideas under discussion. The food miles of such produce will be tiny compared to what we buy in supermarkets.

Mr Bevington says: “I think it’s important that we encourage more food growing in Shetland because, though there is plenty of food grown in Shetland in terms of animals, the amount of vegetable growing and plant growing has become fairly limited – whereas 30 years ago people had a plot of land which they would grow a lot of their food on.

“It’s been coming back with more and more local food, but it’s still pretty miniscule. If problems arose, Shetland would find it quite difficult to provide for itself in that area. The reason the Transition movement is growing so fast is that there are so many people thinking along these lines – it’s about trying to bring people together to support each other, help each other, share information, and get groups of volunteers together.”

The use of polytunnels is already being promoted at various places, not least by the Unst Regeneration Growers Enterprise (URGE). It has demonstrated how to harvest a vast range of fruit and vegetables. A group of four people, including “acquisitions officer” Sarah McBurnie, have turned a plot of thin turf into greenery which provides healthy produce for themselves, local shops and tourist destinations. Produce includes sweet corn and cherries.

Discussing the project with Shetland News in September, Ms McBurnie said: “We need to be self-sufficient in fresh food so that if there’s a problem [with importing food] it doesn’t matter. There will be problems in the future and I for one want to be able to eat everything from asparagus to spinach, absolutely everything. If we all want to do that then I am afraid that everybody’s going to have to start growing things.”

Another example of good practice can be found in Whalsay. There, crofters have been brought in to classrooms for a number of years to encourage new generations to recognise the importance of growing their own food. Kick-started by the island secondary’s head teacher, Jim Johnston, it forms part of the school curriculum and as many as 10 schools are taking part this year. It is precisely the type of thing Transition Shetland wants to help promote and expand.

Mr Johnston says each S3 and S4 pupil is given a number of ewes to look after. They must also plant edible crops on the school’s croft and in its 20 metre polytunnel. The crops are either sold locally or taken into the school canteen for pupils’ lunches, and a large variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs are produced.

“We encourage planting throughout the school,” says Mr Johnston. “Nursery bairns have their own plants, we have cold frames in the primary and the whole school can use parts of the polytunnel to bring on their plants. It’s a hive of activity.”

The wider Transition movement was started by Mr Hopkins, who created the world’s first “transition town” in his native Totnes just over four years ago, inadvertently sparking communities around the world into action. Devising locally suitable solutions and making connections with existing organisations and local councils is fundamental to how Transition groups tend to operate.

Promisingly, officials from several SIC departments have already expressed an interest in the types of ideas Transition Shetland wishes to foster. Environmental management officer Mary Lisk has been “very, very supportive” of efforts so far, and transport official Jonathan Molloy is keen to get involved in his area of expertise. Amenity trust carbon reduction officer Harriet Bolt and Steven Coutts, who works for the Energy Savings Trust, are also taking an active interest.

Transition Shetland could also become a body that encourages the SIC to do more in pursuing common sense policies, such as providing more remote working for its employees. Having certain office staff based in “hubs” throughout Shetland should, in theory, serve to strengthen remote communities and drastically reduce the amount of time, money and carbon emissions wasted by 40, 50, 60-mile round trips in and out of Lerwick each working day.

Reform may require a radical shift in mindset from councillors, though. Granted, many young people are gravitating towards ever larger population centres, usually to pursue their chosen career, and that presents a tricky challenge. But some of our elected members appear to regard remoter areas of Shetland as offshoots of Lerwick rather than distinct, largely self-contained entities in their own right. Excessive centralisation may add up financially in the short term, but makes little sense looking further ahead.

Fresh ideas to stimulate at-times staid political dialogue are not in short supply either. Steven Coutts has previously used these pages to set out his ideas for a local currency, designed to keep money circulating within the Shetland economy rather than flowing out the south mouth and into the deep pockets of Tesco shareholders.

Campaigners elsewhere have succeeded in eliminating the presence of plastic bags from their communities. Some Transition Shetland affiliates question the wisdom of leaving so many street lights on every night, while others believe more could be done to promote car-sharing. Individually they may seem like trifling matters, but taken together they provide a flavour of the kind of future Transition Shetland wants to help cultivate as it begins to widen its scope.

Critics accuse the global Transition movement of excessively romanticising the past, or suggest its vision is to drag society back to “the Dark Ages”. But in his handbook Mr Hopkins outlines that increasing the resilience of communities and strengthening local economics is not about erecting a fence around towns and cities and refusing to let anything in or out. He writes: “It is not a rejection of commerce or somehow a return to a rose-tinted version of some imagined past.”

In a similar way, Pete Bevington sees the movement here being more about “bringing back elements of the past that are going to be necessary in the future” rather than rolling back much of the progress we have undoubtedly made. Nevertheless, it will require asking some difficult questions about Shetland’s future. He believes rural life will have to be radically overhauled if it is to survive and thrive, noting how the community has become “incredibly dependent on the outside world in a very short space of time, to the point it can’t manage without it”.

In some senses, Shetland faces up to Peak Oil and climate change from a stronger starting point than other communities. While some old traditions have slipped, most have not disappeared altogether. Jan believes many of these can still be reclaimed: “We could learn so much still, whereas down south in England a lot of that is already lost.”

Furthermore, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) bemoans how many towns in the UK have seen their shops “replaced by a monochrome strip of global and national chains that mean its retail could easily be mistaken for dozens of other bland town centres across the country”. Internet shopping and the arrival of supermarkets may have had some impact, but – while far from perfect – many shops here have by and large retained their distinctive, family-owned character.

Campaigners point to the immense changes ushered in during World War Two, when the amount of land under cultivation increased from 13 to 20 million acres in the space of five years, allowing Britain to feed off its own soil for 160 days a year rather than 120. In the same time span, car use dropped by 95 per cent. NEF policy director Andrew Simms points to that as evidence that “when governments really want to, they can do almost anything, including good things”.

Pete suggests the viability of running ferries between islands in Shetland so frequently will have to be called into question, and queries whether the likes of supermarket giant Tesco will be interested in maintaining an operation here in the long term “because theirs is a classic business which is run entirely on cheap oil”.

That said, the ethos behind Transition Shetland is very much about making positive suggestions rather than becoming entrenched in opposition to particular schemes or companies. Jan sees it as “more a party than a protest” and is eager for everyone to “learn to get on with each other better” and “not get caught up too much in the battlefield” – a sentiment likely to chime with those who feel political dialogue here has become much too negative in recent years.

Neil Riddell

Transition Shetland’s next meeting is in Room 7 of Islesburgh House at 7pm on Monday 7th February and anyone interested is welcome to attend. The group has its own website and discussion forum at, and you can learn more about the wider movement at


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