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Transition towns

August 31, 2010
Transition Initiative prepares for new economic landscape
by StevePfarrer

Climate change. Dwindling oil supplies. A precarious economy. Disruptions to the national food supply.

The future, some believe, is likely to throw a large wrench into life as we know it. The assumptions that we make – that there will be food at the grocery store, gas at the filling station, a regular job to go to on Monday morning – may be tested in a way that’s hard to imagine. And there could be considerable hardship if we don’t put those assumptions aside and begin planning for change.

“There are so many things to consider,” Barbara Friend says of life with energy shortages. The prospects can sound grim. How would human waste be handled if electricity shortages shut down a community’s wastewater treatment plant, for instance? How could people without heat be helped? What might happen to medical care in a low-energy future?

But Friend, of Northampton, says she doesn’t see these preparations as steeling for a barren future, but rather as a way people can develop closer links to one another. “I think it can be a joyful experience,” she says.

Friend is member of Transition Northampton, part of a growing movement that might best be described as a community-driven model aimed at making communities more self-sufficient, with localized food sources and economies.

People in the Transition Town movement, also known as the Transition Initiative, don’t believe Armageddon is around the corner. The change that’s coming will pose challenges, they say – but it will also be an opportunity for people to reconnect on a local level, to develop skills that were once second-nature in many homes, and to find meaning in life not through acquisition and status but through closer ties with neighbors and the environment itself.

“The future doesn’t have to be something we fear,” says Lundy Bancroft, a Florence resident who has helped build a Transition Northampton group in the past year.

“One of the things we’re trying to show is that there are solutions,” said Bancroft. “Right here in the Valley, we have good soil, an educated population, and a pretty good level of mutual trust. We have a lot to work with.”

The Transition Initiative, which began in Great Britain several years ago, is predicated on the idea that humankind is on its way to a low-energy future, one in which a global economy, with its international markets and complicated food-distribution networks, will no longer be viable.

The concept originally developed from a project that British permaculture designer Rob Hopkins had created with some of his college students, in which they’d looked at ways a town could build a more sustainable future – adapting health care, education, agriculture and other facets of day-to-day life in response to energy shortages. The plan was adopted in 2006 in Hopkins’ hometown of Totnes, Devonshire, as a long-term strategic policy, and people in communities in several other countries, including the U.S., have since taken up the idea.

According to the nonprofit group Transition United States, there are 74 established groups across the country, including in Pelham, Northfield, Montague and Northampton.

Bancroft, one of a core group of about 40 in the Northampton group, says members are drawn to the group for different reasons: Some are worried global warming could play havoc with agriculture and water supplies; others see the economy as a fragile house of cards, weakened by the reckless schemes of financiers and burdened with foreign debt.

Still others believe the era of Peak Oil – the point at which world demand for oil will begin outstripping supply – may soon be upon us, if it isn’t already here. Earlier this year, for instance, a group of British industrialists released a report saying they believed world oil production could begin declining by 2014, with severe consequences for the U.K., including spiraling prices and shortages for transport, industry and home heating, if the country did not prepare for the shortfall.

Similar alarms have been sounded in the U.S. in recent years, though the oil industry generally disputes any immediate problem, while acknowledging that new oil sources have become harder to find.

“There are a lot of issues that are sort of coming together right now,” says Bancroft, an educator and consultant on domestic violence and child abuse. “Some people have said they feel powerless – they don’t know what they can do, and they don’t see government addressing these issues in any meaningful way.”

That’s where the Transition movement comes in, says Tina Clarke of Montague, who has been holding workshops and giving presentations on the concept to community groups, colleges and others in the Northeast and in Canada for the last few years. Clarke, a former campaign director for Clean Water Action, says Transition aims to bring people together to try to solve problems at the grassroots level – to discuss issues such as increasing a local food supply, improving energy efficiency, and sharing resources.

From a philosophical viewpoint, the goal is to re-establish a sense of community that’s been lost in many ways in the era of cheap, plentiful oil, adds Clarke.

“The idea is to do things together, the way neighbors and communities used to do them,” she says. “One example could be, I look after your kids, while you fix the home of the elderly woman next door. She in turn provides the use of her land for a community garden, and maybe your unemployed neighbor takes charge of maintaining that garden.”

“This is really a citizen-based movement,” adds Clarke. “It’s not about finding technological solutions to problems. It’s about pooling our creativity, reaching out to everyone in a community regardless of political affiliation or background, and seeing what we can do together.”

Guiding tenets

Though the Transition Initiative is not a top-down movement, it does have some guiding principles, developed by Rob Hopkins and others involved in it. There’s a basic handbook for groups looking to get started, as well as Web sites, and organizers follow a 12-point set of guidelines – or the “12 Ingredients of the Transition Model,” as they’re called – that establish long-term goals.

One, for instance, is to work in concert with the other groups already involved on some level in similar work, such as community farms and land preservation groups, and develop links to local government. The 12-step guideline also notes that one of the first things any Tranisition group should do is raise awareness of issues such as Peak Oil; specific responses to those issues should come later, after a group has gathered enough members and talked through what they’re trying to accomplish.

“It’s really important to try and get the pulse of where people are at, and what they want to accomplish,” says Laura Porter, a Williamsburg resident who’s been putting together a Transition group there. Porter, who works in adult education, has been slowly sounding out people on the idea and meeting with residents from some of Williamsburg’s long-established community organizations – the Grange, the Historical Society – to get their feelings about potential future problems.

Friend, of Laurel Park, says the Northampton group has discussed plenty of basic ideas for dealing with a low-energy future. A big one is increasing local farming efforts, from community gardens to family plots. Friend’s group has also worked closely with GrowFood Northampton, another local group – some of the same people are in both organizations – to help the city secure the Bean and Allard farms in Florence and eventually convert much of the acreage to community-based agriculture.

Friend says other early discussions have centered on how food might be distributed locally, especially to the needy, as well as forming car pools, outfitting more people with bicycles and showing them how to do basic maintenance, helping people to weatherize their homes, even developing a local currency system. In Laurel Park recently, the group held a “reskilling” workshop in which one family demonstrated how they make their own yogurt from raw milk; others showed how to do composting.

There is something of a spiritual element to the Transition movement. Lundy Bancroft says the Northampton group will hold a “Great Unleashing” event this fall at which all those interested in the Transition concept will meet and break into smaller groups to discuss concrete plans for dealing with issues such as local food supply.

People are worried, he says, about a future “that could bring some pretty big disruptions. But a lot of them say they also feel disconnected or alienated, that there’s something missing in their lives. So Transition is a way to deal with both of those issues, to improve the overall quality of life even if it becomes less convenient or comfortable in a material sense.”

Of course, not everyone buys the idea that modern life will be upended any time soon, if at all. Bancroft says he’s talked to “some people who I really respect” who either dismiss the notion or don’t know much about issues such as Peak Oil. But more commonly, he says, he’s encountered people who believe the future will be different in some way but feel powerless to address the changes on their own.

Burke, whose home in Montague won an award a few years ago for being the most energy-efficient in the state, believes a low-energy future could have some real environmental benefits: less oil and other fossil fuels being burned means less air and water pollution and fewer chemicals damaging people’s health.

“Look at the Gulf,” she says, referring to the horrendous oil spill from the BP Deepwater site in the Gulf of Mexico. “That should be a real wake-up call to everybody on the real costs of our cheap-oil society.”

Meanwhile, Friend, who will turn 70 later this year, says she’s long been concerned about issues like the environment. But it was only in recent years that she decided to dedicate her energy to the Transition movement: When she considers the world her grandchildren might inherit, she says, it becomes clear to her that Tranisition “is the only game in town.”

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