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How the Transition Movement Is Spreading to Towns Across America

Transition's focus on resilient communities finds a middle ground between the 'drop in the bucket' of personal action and the depressing inertia of government.

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Practically, this means preparing towns to better survive sudden shortfalls of such necessities as food, oil, water or money. These preparations take many forms, some infrastructural—such as solar energy programs and local economic initiatives—others interpersonal, like the “heart and soul” groups that encourage people to help each other in times of need and open their minds to new solutions.

Totnes, England, declared the first official Transition Town in 2006, offers perhaps the most fully realized example. The town, with a population of 7,400, boasts nearly 30 Transition projects and sub-projects. Some are small-scale, like nut-tree planting and a free “bike doctor,” while others are more ambitious, like an incubator for sustainable businesses and a 305-page Energy Descent Action Plan to cut the town’s energy usage in half by 2030. The movement is enthusiastically backed by the city mayor and the town councilors, one of whom attests that “the [Energy Descent Action Plan] has filtered into everyone’s plans for everything, so that’s had a major impact.” A much-heralded neighborhood-level project has been  Transition Streets, which brought residents together, block by block, to support each other in decreasing their home energy use through improvements like insulation and solar panels. On average, each of the 550 participating households cut its annual carbon use by 1.3 tons and its annual energy bill by £570 (about $883).

Hopkins stresses, however, that the Transition movement is not in the business of stamping out cookie-cutter copies of Totnes. Transition spreads primarily through serendipity. One member likens it to a mycelium network, a fungus with underground roots that can sprout new shoots miles away. In effect, this means that someone—often with a background in sustainability—stumbles across Transition online or in print and decides to start a local chapter.

While guidance is available from umbrella support groups such as  Transition U.S. and the U.K.-based Transition Network, the movement is intended to mutate as it grows. “We designed it with a simple set of principles and tools and sort of set it off, and it keeps popping up in the most incredible, surprising places, in the most incredible, surprising ways,” says Hopkins. “When there’s Transition happening in Brazil, it feels like a Brazilian thing, it doesn’t feel like an English imported thing.”

Indeed, the organizers of Brazil’s Transition movement say that two of the three core principles—peak oil and climate change—don’t resonate strongly with the Brazilian public, so Transition trainings focus more on “assuring education and health for all, protecting biodiversity and enhancing autonomy of traditional (indigenous or not) local communities.” In Brasilândia, one of the slums of São Paulo, Transition primarily fosters social enterprise projects; it has given birth to a community bakery and a business turning old advertising banners into bags.

In parts of Europe, Transition has had to respond to the pressing needs of communities decimated by the ongoing Eurozone crisis. When the city of Coin, Spain, went bankrupt and decided to privatize the water, Coin En Transicion gathered 3,000 signatures to convince the city to squash the plan. Now the movement is working with the city government to design a regional water plan grounded in principles of sustainability and resilience.

In Portugal, where unemployment is at 16.9 percent and climbing, the Transition Town of Portalegre has drawn inspiration from ajujeda, an ancient rural practice of trading chores in the fields. This month, Portalegre em Transição will meet to figure out how to translate the principle of ajujeda into a functioning gift economy, allowing those whose skills are not being used (for instance, the unemployed) to share them with those whose needs are not being met.

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