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Guest Column: Transition towns

By Ruth Ann Smalley
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I’m thinking we’re about due for another “British Invasion.”

This time, instead of fresh musical influences, look for the entrance of the Transition Towns movement, a set of exciting ideas for creating and organizing social change in response to the challenges of peak oil and global warming.

The Transition Town movement has been gaining momentum, with 146 places — cities, towns and villages — in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Chile, the U.S., and several European countries now officially designated. Another 600 worldwide are in the process of “mulling it over.” You can find out about these forward thinking communities at www.transitiontowns.org. Some, like Portland, Maine are so freshly minted, their content hasn’t arrived at their website yet.

Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher, is a prime mover behind this grassroots effort, starting primarily in Ireland and England. His book, “Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependence to Local Resilience” has just become available in the U.S. from Chelsea Green, a spunky, small, independent publisher.

The book takes on the prospect of decreasing oil supplies and a warming planet with refreshing optimism, and offers itself as a tool for ordinary people. Transition Town initiatives start from the premise that “If we collectively plan and act early enough there’s every likelihood that we can create a way of living that’s significantly more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than the oil-addicted treadmill that we find ourselves on today.”

I find Hopkins’ approach attractive because, 1) it faces up to both our energy and our climate challenges simultaneously, 2) it reaches out to people as members of communities, who may never have thought of themselves as activists or environmentalists, and 3) it departs from fear and guilt as motivators, and emphasizes the power of groups to create the kinds of places they value and want to live in together.

Transition Town initiatives promote the development of creative local solutions, as people meet to pump up the ideas and energy required to address the needs of their specific region or city in relation to larger scale concerns. It supports actions on the ground, by fostering relationships, communication and caring, as people work together to figure out how to build resilient communities. It doesn’t duplicate the efforts of existing organizations, be they environmental groups, social justice groups, community caregiving groups, etc., but helps strengthen the network by infusing new, broader-based energy.

Resilience is the key word in all of this. It basically refers to a community’s ability to maintain a degree of equilibrium and health in the face of severe disruptions.

We probably all know of towns that seem to have been able to weather economic downturns because of some unique combination of assets, while others have lost population, lack services, and rely on nearby cities for basics such as groceries, clothes, medical supplies, even schools. Having to drive to another city to get the stuff of daily life erodes communities, squanders energy, and adds to environmental damage.

Consider the social and ecological impact of this statistic alone: “Between 1990 and 2001, the number of miles driven by the average household for shopping increased by more than 40 percent” and “the extra 95 billion road miles that Americans are logging for shopping (over 1990 levels) account for 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 300,000 tons of hydrocarbons, and 150,000 tons of nitrogen oxide released into the atmosphere each year” (“Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses”)

With this in mind, Hopkins lays out some interesting measures of resilience, in addition to cutting carbon footprints and C02 emissions. Some of his “Resilience Indicators” are familiar, but others might surprise you. Here’s a sampling:

* Percent of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius
* Percentage of essential goods manufactured locally
* Number of businesses owned by local people
* Proportion of the community employed locally
* Percentage of local building materials used in new housing development
* Ratio of car parking space to productive land use
* Percentage of local trade carried out in local currency
* Percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius
* Amount of 16-year-olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetables to a given degree of competency

A number of these indicators are already the focus of organizations in the area. Western Massachusetts has seen the initiation of a local currency called Berkshares; the Regional Farm and Food Project (www.farmandfood.org) has been established for several years; Community Supported Agriculture has grown and local farms have found more outlets in groceries and food co-ops such as Honest Weight; Capital District Local First has been building its member base and visibility; and groups such as Roots and Wisdom (www.rootswisdom.org) in Schenectady and Youth Organics in Albany (www.grandarts.org/gsca/youthorganics) are working to bring young people into the garden.

In the Transition Towns model, the emphasis is on communities that can support themselves to a great extent. Not to be self-sufficient, necessarily, but self-reliant: able to provide for their basic needs in a way that also positions them to be strong trading partners for the things they desire, rather than insular outposts fearfully hoarding their resources and trying to protect themselves from outside forces.

That such a local focus produces strong communities is not news, even though we may have lost sight of it in the urban sprawl, and the viral spread of chain businesses that defines much of our current landscape. Studies as far back as the 1940s revealed that both agricultural and manufacturing communities of varying sizes survived better and provided a higher quality of life by several measurements when they were predominantly made up of family owned farms or small businesses rather than large agribusinesses or large, outside firms (“Big Box Swindle”). These studies were ignored by politicians of the time, and in some cases, actively suppressed. We’re living the consequences.

The Transition Town movement is about taking ourselves into the next positive step, through an empowered response to the transitions that are already upon us. It argues that by identifying our values as communities and focusing on our well-being as a group, we augment our existing strengths and open up more possibilities, not just to survive, but to thrive. While admitting that all this is a grand experiment, with no guaranteed outcomes, the website asserts, “What we are convinced of is this:
* if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
* if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
* but if we act as communities, it might be just enough, just in time”

You can learn about the movement by visiting their website (www.transitiontowns.org) where they generously provide many of the core materials that are in the book. Chelsea Green is also making substantial discounts available on orders of 5 or more books, for people who want to form a reading or action group.

I’m hoping to see the Capital District added to the list of those who are joining the movement in 2009.

About the author: Ruth Ann Smalley, Ph.D., is an educator and a certified Eden Energy medicine practitioner with a practice in Albany. She’s also an Honest Weight Food Co-op member worker, and writes a monthly column for the co-op’s newsletter.

 
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