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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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Across the pond

In making the leap across the Atlantic to the United States, where more than 139 Transition Towns and 200 unofficial “mullers” have sprouted, Transition has also taken its own, distinct path.

Most of the Transition towns in the United States have popped up in places one might expect: relatively moneyed, green, hippie enclaves like Boulder, Colo. (the first official U.S. Transition Town); Sebastopol, Calif.; Northampton, Mass.; and Woodstock, N.Y. None have taken root so far in any conservative strongholds, although there are a number of urban initiatives, in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and Cleveland, to name a few.

As in the United Kingdom, members of the U.S. Transition movement tend to split up into working groups around specific projects. A common one is an “emergency preparedness” group, which devises things like phone trees and alternative heating sources for use in the event of disaster. “Yard share” working groups match would-be gardeners to landowners willing to lend a patch of fertile ground. “Heart and soul” or “inner transition” working groups stress psychological and spiritual transformation, drawing on the teachings of thinkers such as Buddhist deep ecologist  Joanna Macy. “Reskilling” working groups offer trainings in all manner of practical pre-industrial skills, from cheesemaking to animal husbandry to knot-tying to knitting.

Of course, Transition is not the only sustainability game in town. Wherever it goes, and especially in cities, it enters a terrain thick with environmental non-profits and local government initiatives. More than 1,060 mayors have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a pledge to meet the goal of the Kyoto Protocol (the United States was one of only four countries not to join) to reduce carbon emissions below 1990 levels. Some cities have gone beyond that: Last year, Chicago drafted a sustainability plan for the year 2015 that reads something like Totnes’s Energy Descent Action Plan—a laundry list of goals such as improving citywide energy efficiency by 5 percent and decreasing water use by 2 percent (14 million gallons a day). To get there, the city has launched numerous projects, such as eco-friendly overhauls of city buses, a “rails-to-trails conversion” of a disused train line into a park (modeled on New York City’s High Line), and a Sustainable Backyards Program that urges residents to install compost bins and rainwater collectors.

Given this abundance of initiatives, many Transition movements, especially in cities, take on a networking role to connect existing sustainability projects.  Transition Pittsburgh’s mission is to offer “resources—such as educators, movie screenings and licenses, and a library of shared knowledge—to various local initiatives, as well as a city-wide community and some of our own projects.” Chicago’s Transition chapter—called  Accelerate 77 after the division of the city into 77 unofficial communities by social scientists at the University of Chicago—set out by creating a dense map of the more than 800 sustainability projects underway in Chicago, which are remarkably evenly spaced throughout the areas of poverty and wealth that stratify the city. It hosted a “Share Fair” in September for the various groups to connect with each other, followed by three neighborhood gatherings on Chicago’s South, West and North Sides to connect with residents.

I asked Ryan Wilson of the nonprofit  Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a sustainability “think-and-do tank” that participated in the Share Fair, whether he thinks Transition has anything to add to Chicago’s wealth of sustainability initiatives. “It was helpful to learn what other projects are out there—maybe more helpful for some of the smaller groups,” he says. “The Transition folks—I like the people. I like their energy.”

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