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Transitioning towards Local Resilience

Nov 17, 2010

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability

There are fascinating movements afoot in the way in which our communities are responding to imminent changes in the supply of oil, the availability of food, the consumption of goods, and our habits of mobility.

One of the most interesting of these is the emergence of Transition Towns, as documented in “The Transition Handbook:  From oil dependency to local resilience” by Rob Hopkins (2009).  Hopkins is a founder of the transition movement, which began in the United Kingdom around 2005 following release of the film “The End of Suburbia.” Some of the earliest towns to adopt the principles of community organization, local resilience, and kicking the oil habit are Totnes, Lewes, Penwith and Bristol, which are now seen as models that can be emulated in other communities worldwide.

Transition approaches aim to move beyond conventional environmentalism, embodying the principles of permaculture to develop community-based solutions for long-term resilience.  The basic premise is that we have reached the end of the era of cheap oil, and that all our habits of consumption and mobility need to move away from oil-based practices, otherwise there will be dire consequences — shortages of food, fuel, water, supplies — essentially everything we need in order to survive.  Solutions to this dilemma can only be found through the process of relocalization, whereby we return to a more collective approach to our resources on the scale of the town or the neighborhood, and learn to meet our needs without large inputs of external energy or materials.

Transition advocates use the term “energy descent” or “powering down” to describe how we can collectively move away from this peak of oil consumption toward a more local-based and sustainable future, designing our withdrawal from oil addiction rather than having this occur as a series of crises or disasters.  Shocks to our systems may be unavoidable, but the better equipped we are to deal with them, the better our chances of survival and a positive future.

Transition Initiatives are based on four key assumptions:

  1. That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than be taken by surprise.
  2. That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil.
  3. That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
  4. That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet.

Emanating from the original transition towns in England, these initiatives are being undertaken by communities all over the globe, and the movement is spreading quickly.  Here is a global map of transition initiatives: http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives/map

The movement is also gaining ground in the Pacific Northwest.  Some of the local examples having “Official” Transition Movement status are:

Transition Portland:
http://www.thedirt.org/tpdx
Transition Vancouver:
http://www.villagevancouver.ca/
The Golden Ears Transition Initiative:
http://goldenearstransitioninitiative.ning.com/
Sustainable Northeast Seattle:
http://sustainableneseattle.ning.com/

There are also other local groups listed as “Mulling”, such as Transition Bainbridge, the Snoqualmie Valley, Everett, and Pender Island.

The means of accomplishing transition vary by community, but some examples would be:

  • Conducting audits of Oil Vulnerability for local businesses, so that they can better understand the economic impacts of rising oil prices, and explore alternate means of operation to mitigate these.
  • Training community members to understand how current systems of food supply, energy use, building construction, waste processes, natural resources, and local economics work.  Increased awareness leads to examination of alternatives and collective innovation around adopting more sustainable strategies.
  • Creating a directory of local food producers, so that consumers can make informed choices and support local businesses.  This process also helps in identifying gaps in the local food supply which can be taken up as business opportunities by local residents.
  • Adopting a local currency that can subsidize and reinforce the notion of keeping consumer spending within the local economy.
  • Developing a local storytelling and education program that engages both adults and children, and encourages creative contribution to envisioning an alternative future.
  • Forming community support groups to assist individuals as they undergo the process of habit change, and addressing potential fears of unknown outcomes.

The Transition Town movement is interesting on two levels:  first, as an individual, to think about our personal patterns of consumption and how we might change these; and second, as architects and planners, to think about how we can design communities to reinforce desirable habits and support a less oil-dependent lifestyle.

“Powering down” is far more challenging in suburbia than it is in areas of more concentrated development because services and basic needs are so widely dispersed; car dependence seems inevitable for all but the most committed cyclists or pedestrians. Still though, there are strategies that can be adopted, such as conversion of lawns to edible landscapes (see Fritz Haeg’s work on Edible Estates), or pooling of community resources so that not every house needs to have a garage full of items that are used only occasionally (see services such as NeighborGoods and other similar sites).

A particularly appealing aspect of preparing for “powering down” is the focus on community members gaining many practical skills that have been lost or undervalued in the past couple of generations. Our depression-era parents or grandparents knew a lot about growing their own food, being frugal, and how to repair and mend to make things last.  Post-WWII North America underwent a period of collective abandonment of these values because goods became so cheap and abundant that making things last no longer held meaning.

How many of us have disposed of something because it was cheaper to buy a new one than get it fixed?.  Renewed interest in all things handmade or home grown is gaining interesting momentum, with the re-emergence of Americana (see Kurt B. Reighly’s new book “The United States of Americana“), or in the concept of homemaking, long ago devalued as a part of the feminist movement (see Shannon Hayes’s book “Radical Homemakers“).

In summary, “The Transition Handbook” is a highly accessible hands-on guide for any community thinking of pursuing a transition initiative.  From outlining the principles of resilience to explaining the psychology of change to step-by-step facilitation of the process, the book is humorous and wise, and generous in examples of how these changes have been undertaken in the original Transition Towns.  The time seems very right to pay attention to these lessons and become active as our own communities make this challenging, but necessary, leap toward resilience.