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

News & Politics

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.”

Resilience: A community’s ability to adapt and respond to changes, as well as to withstand shocks to the system, such as disruptions in food or energy supply chains. Resilience differs from “sustainability” in that the emphasis is on community survival as opposed to maintaining the structures and behavioral patterns that currently exist.

“Resilience is the new sustainability,” says Michael Brownlee, a member of the Transition U.S. board and co-founder of Transition Boulder County, the first Transition Initiative in North America. “It’s been co-opted by almost everybody. Everybody is sustainable these days.”

Marketing aside, Hopkins says the two are intertwined: “Sustainability only works if it has resilience embedded in it.”

Energy Descent: The directional change from being on the energy upslope — designing our lives according to the wide availability of cheap energy — to making the most with less. When an individual shifts to lower energy use, this is known as “powering down.” Central to Transition is uniting a community around developing and implementing an “energy descent action plan,” or EDAP, sometimes described as a 20-year “Plan B” for keeping a place functioning and even thriving on a low-fuel diet.

As with all Transition efforts, each EDAP — to date only been a few have been fully developed — reflects the circumstances and flavor of the community it is to serve. Hopkins notes that Transition Town Totnes, the South Devon market town where he lives, will shortly be publishing its EDAP, which he hopes will serve as a template for others.

Unleashing: A community breaking free from its dependence on fossil fuels. A “Great Unleashing,” which takes place when an initiative has the momentum and organization to implement the EDAP, is a big “coming out” party that announces the group’s strategy, commitment and enthusiasm to the broader world.

The Great Unleashing for Idaho’s Transition Sandpoint Initiative in November 2008 drew more than 500 people to the Panida Theater for talks — including one by Mayor Gretchen Heller — music and dance. “The event is designed to be seen historically as the point at which the process began,” says Hopkins. “It’s a celebration of local culture. It’s an event that the next generation will commemorate by putting up a plaque.”

Reskilling: Reclaiming skills that previous generations took for granted but most of us have let fall by the wayside. “The Great Reskilling” refers to the community-wide mastering of skills that will facilitate the process of “powering down.”

For many, this is the entry point. Someone may attend a workshop in, say, sock-darning (now something of a fad in the United Kingdom) or mushroom identification, and begin to question aspects of a throwaway, shrink-wrapped culture. “People have an intuitive understanding that we’re much more vulnerable than our forebears,” says McKibben. “Today we’re so specialized, in that people tend to do one thing well enough to earn money and depend on the larger system to do the rest. People enjoy the feeling of becoming more competent in things.”

The range of reskilling events is vast: coppice forestry, heat masonry, beehive building, intro to beer brewing, 16-brick rocket stoves, nut drinks and butters (kid approved, of course), lye soap-making, making cheese with raw goat’s milk, essential oils for cleaning and healing, “pizza” (circular) weaving, using rain barrels, making your own wooden knitting needles — and these come solely from those posted for my home state of Vermont.

Will Transition culture continue its rise? Will the movement play a role in how people and communities greet the confluence of challenges looming before us?

McKibben thinks it’s likely. “Many people [involved in Transition] are willing to become politically involved,” he says. “In the 350 event — the largest day of mass political action the world has seen — Transition Town people played a large role.”

He notes that while Transition initiatives focus on the local – creating food, energy and economic resilience on a community basis — the connection between global and local is not lost: “No matter how great your organic garden is, it still has to rain sometimes.”

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