International Energy Crises Make the Case for Change: Towns Lead Transition

U.S. warplanes pound Libya, and oil tops $100 a barrel. Technicians in Fukushima risk their lives to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, while radioactivity shows up in spinach, milk, and Tokyo tap water. The BP blowout kills 11 workers and gushes 170 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Postcards from the ragged edge of our global energy system highlight the costs we pay, the risks we bear, and the toll we submit to every day for the power and fuel we use. The choice before us could not be more clear: We will stand by old habits and suffer, or find new ways to adapt and thrive. While on the national level, America looks unwilling to come to terms either with its addiction to oil or with the need to address global warming, locally, towns are taking on sustainability issues whether through programs such as New York City's PlaNYC, signing on to the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, or by tapping the know-how of their citizens in other ways. One such grassroots movement that travels under the "Transition Town" banner is spreading fast across the U.S., UK, and elsewhere with a strikingly practical and optimistic approach to sustainability.


Oil drilling rig, northern British Columbia, Canada. Photo used under Creative Commons license.

In fact, more than 320 official initiatives have sprouted up worldwide alongside a cadre of trainers who travel to communities offering training sessions in relocalization. Boulder, Colorado has the distinction of being first to take up the idea state-side and is now one of some 72 Transition Towns in the U.S.

So how practical do you want to be? In a Transition Town, there is no such thing as too old-fashioned or laborious; there are seed-sharing events, workshops for converting lawns to food gardens, seminars for landowners to consider 'local-centric' opportunities, auditing sessions for businesses looking to minimize shocks to their bottom line, and garden swaps allowing access to plots for those who are willing and able but garden-less .

Montpelier, Vermont
The first town on the Eastern seaboard to take up the idea, Montpelier emphasizes the food system. "We've focused on relocalizing," says committee member Annie McCleary. "We sponsored a vegetable garden on the State Capitol lawn, got all the approvals necessary, got the compost, and high school kids started the lettuce plants. The garden is now completing its second year of seasonal food."

A sustainability group member had come across UK founder Rob Hopkins' Transition Handbook and passed it around town. McCleary was impressed. "This is good stuff," she remembers thinking. "It says 'let's roll up our sleeves, get community together, and get busy.' We formed a study group, rolled ideas around." Their first public event in 2008 drew over 220 Vermonters.


Vermont State Capitol building in Montpelier. Photo used under Creative Commons license.

"Climate Change means we have to be resilient about what we grow here," says McLeary, adding, "We may lose our maple crop so we have to become more diversified and this is where our permaculturalists come in handy. Vermont is in a very good position because we have a living memory of when folks lived without oil and electricity. There was a great deal of sustainability here on the farms."

In UK: Totnes and Belsize Park, London
Rob Hopkins launched the first Transition Towns plan in concert with local authorities in his hometown of Totnes, which lies in Devon, South West England. Some 10 to 15 percent of residents are now on board and locals even went so far as to create their own currency, putting 10,000 "Totnes Pounds" into circulation which are accepted at over over 65 businesses. According to the BBC, the currency is still going strong three years later.

All the while, townspeople have been engaged in courses ranging from bread-making to bicycle repair. Nut trees have been planted in the town centre. Energy-wise, locals are drawing up plans for solar water heating, windmills, and tidal energy from a nearby river. And a wind turbine plan was recently announced aiming to serve one-quarter of the area in and around the town.

John-Paul Flintoff, among the founders of the Belsize Park group, is keen to reach beyond the usual "do-gooders" and describes how a neighbor from a local public housing complex consulted with her neighbors to come up with their own solution: "Together, they converted a community lawn to an orchard and vegetable patch.

"The first step in tackling climate change," Flintoff added, "is to make your community more friendly and more cohesive. As far as I'm concerned we are all going to be in this new universe together. I'd rather all of us being together than apart."

Plan B
"Transition Towns are communities that are really making a Plan B. Plan A is based on the assumption of everything getting bigger and better and shinier, there being more people, more cars, more roads, more houses, more stuff, and more energy to power it all and no dangers of carbon emissions causing disruption," explains Ben Brangwyn who, with Hopkins, co-founded Transition Towns UK.

Plan B, by contrast, involves sourcing as much food as possible locally, retooling personal lifestyles to avoid drawing energy from international or even national sources, and reducing levels of waste.

And each town or neighborhood comes up with its own blueprint: This is not about solutions from the outside, however well-intentioned, but about each community devising its own plan for sustainability.

"Transition," says Brangwyn, "is really about a community perhaps taking a more rational look at all of those assumptions and coming to their own conclusions and deciding that ... we have to make a really drastic rethink of how we organize our arrangements for pretty much all the systems we depend on: food, energy, transport, education."


Spacious fields of greenery and towering housing complexes in Chicago. Photo used under Creative Commons license.

Transition In the City
Trathen Heckman, a board member of Transition U.S., told me about a local council member in Sonoma County, California who tends a "third-storey balcony permaculture food forest." He is upbeat about the possibilities for urban dwellers: "Re-integrating with the urban ecology is some of the exciting work to be done. There are some really creative solutions all around us ... to grow food and herbs and meet your needs and put bees on the roof of your apartment and to put in grey water systems and to break up concrete."

A likable aspect of the movement is the embrace of multiple solutions at multiple levels to fortify local "resilience" — or ability to withstand shocks, such as impossibly expensive fossil fuel. Your community garden is a valued part of the solution alongside higher-level projects that directly tackle carbon emissions.

The Fork in the Road
Peak Oil theory holds that the age of cheap oil is coming to an end. Some proponents, most notably Matthew Savinar, plan on going into survivalist mode, anticipating a Hobbesian universe in which life will be nasty, brutish, and — for the unprepared — short. But the Transition founders propose an action-oriented, community-minded optimism. In fact, Trathen Heckman, a board member of Transition U.S., argues that the next decade will be an "amazing time to be alive" with a large part of the answer coming from permaculture, the idea that we can create and foster food-producing ecologies, governed by natural principles, in any human environment.

The Peak Oil debate is contentious, often ideological, and ultimately (since the OPEC States will not reveal their reserves) moot. The more useful question, as posed by Ben Carmichael in OnEarth's Community Blog, is: "How can we avoid a decline in oil production from being disruptive?"

The Transition movement offers a powerful, down-to-earth response: What harm can come from knowing how to grow your own food, to reduce virtually all waste from your life, or teach your children the skills of their grandparents? What harm, indeed, from figuring out, with your fellow citizens, how to move your locality on to a sustainable food and energy footing?

"Be confident about the possibilities," says Brangwyn. "If you believe that humans can use the inventiveness and collaboration and ingenuity that we used as we went up the energy slope, we can use that on the downward slide as well."

The Twelve Ingredients
The following list is a condensed version of the Twelve Ingredients recommended by the Transition Network. See their original web page for more:

1. Set up a steering group and design its demise/transformation from the outset.

2. Start raising awareness.

3. Lay the foundations, i.e. network with existing groups and activists.

4. Organise a Great Unleashing, an appealing public event moving the Transition idea right into the mainstream community.

5. Form theme, or special interest, groups.

6. Use Open Space Technology (OST) to run meetings. (OST is an adaptable meeting protocol.)

7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project.

8. Facilitate the Great "Reskilling" e.g through classes in cooking, natural building, insulation, and practical food growing.

9. Build a bridge to local government, whose role should be to support rather than drive Transition.

10. Honor the elders. "There is much to be learnt from how things were done, what the invisible connections between the different elements of society were, and how daily life was supported. Finding out all of this can be deeply illuminating, and can lead to our feeling much more connected to the place we are developing our Transition Town projects."

11. Let it go where it wants to go…

12. Create an Energy Descent Action Plan, i.e. a practical and detailed blueprint of the community's journey away from oil dependence and into a sustainable future.

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A version of this article originally appeared on Smarter Cities - A Project of the National Resources Defense Council. It is reprinted here with permission from the author, NRDC President Frances Beinecke.

Related articles from Smarter Cities:

A Neighborhood Tour of Green Infrastructure to Control Runoff
Sign Language Run Amok
Bus Rapid Transit: An Inexpensive Solution for Cash-Strapped States and Regions

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