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Stop Hand-Wringing About Peak Oil and Climate Change and Do Something

A movement aimed at tackling the energy crisis with aplomb has been stepping on the gas since its formation.

You may or may not have heard of the Transition movement — described by its founder, Rob Hopkins, as “an exercise in engaged optimism”— yet Transition’s ideas are informing and even guiding the conversation of how communities confront the twin crises of peak oil and climate change.

The movement is driven by one simple idea: Rather than hand-wringing and lamenting dwindling energy reserves and climate change, Transition wants people to envision and create models for that future — and find much to be cheerful about.

A variety of activities take place under the Transition banner. Scroll around — the movement has had a strong Web presence from the start — and you’ll find numerous farm and food events, tree-planting get-togethers, launching a local currency, campaigns to install Smart Meters (through British Gas’ Green Streets Energy Challenge), and a program in which teenagers interview elderly people to learn about daily life before the era of cheap oil.

“Transition is often seen as an environmental movement, but ultimately it’s about cultural change: enabling the shift from what’s appropriate for the upward net energy curve to what’s appropriate for the downward curve,” says Hopkins, who had been a teacher of permaculture — a holistic design system rooted in ecology — the principles of which underlie Transition.

“[The Transition movement] has become part of the part of the cultural scene, especially in places like Vermont, Oregon and Northern California,” says author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. “When he started this, Rob really understood that people needed to take their worries about the climate and do something practical.”

What began five years ago as a student project on lowering energy use in Kinsale, Ireland, has grown to 273 “official” initiatives in 15 countries, not to mention the thousands of “mullers” (as in thinking about it). The United States now has 55 active Transition initiatives, the latest in San Francisco.

And while many Transition groups are in predominantly liberal areas, others have set up in more conservative areas, such as Houston and Louisville in the United States, as well as in working-class areas like Brixton and Penwith in the United Kingdom. In Penwith, residents’ memory of poverty and knowing that they were last on the supply chain made them receptive to Transition.

The movement remains low profile and unsung. One reason may be that it’s so hard to characterize: Transition is at once local and global, high-tech and down-home, methodical and freewheeling. Awareness of the movement has also been confounded by its original designation of “Transition Town movement,” since a Transition community might be an island (as in Waiheke in New Zealand), city (Los Angeles) or city district (London’s Brixton and Belsize Park). It is now simply referred to as “Transition,” and a Transition group is called an “initiative.”

What follows is a lexicon of Transition terms, which will help explain the movement and where these ideas come from.

Transition: In Hopkins’ words, “Transition” represents “the process of moving from a state of high fossil-fuel dependency and high vulnerability to a state of low fossil-fuel dependency and resilience.” Transition “is not the goal itself — it’s the journey,” he says. Specifically, it’s seeing this journey as an opportunity to embrace rather than a calamity to approach with dread.

“Transition” is predicated on the assumption that society cannot keep consuming energy and other resources at our current pace and that we’re better off accepting this reality and choosing how to adapt rather than letting ourselves get backed into a crisis. The idea is that the adaptation process can harness creative and even joyful possibilities that until now have laid dormant in our towns and cities. As Hopkins has been known to say, “It’s more like a party than a protest march.”

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