Communities around the globe taking local action on sustainability
by David McCarthy
If you are concerned about the ominous implications of fossil fuel dependency, climate change, and global financial instability, the Transition Towns movement will be of interest. It is an emerging international network of highly localized initiatives that bring people together to work out responses to these challenges on a community level. Based in England, it’s not a group that thinks it has all the answers. In fact, the Transition Network website carries a “cheerful disclaimer” to that effect, but which goes on to say:
“What we are convinced of is this:
• If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
• If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
• But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.”
Rob Hopkins is the primary originator of the transition concept, as they call it. While teaching permaculture at the Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland, he worked with students on writing an “Energy Descent Action Plan,” which tried to envision the changes needed as we move away from fossil fuels and dependency on global supply chains for our goods. Hopkins later moved to his hometown of Totnes, in southern England, to continue the work. Totnes remains the main hub of the Transition Movement, which now has over 300 active initiatives worldwide. The term Transition Initiative is now used as a more general term than Transition Towns, since not all the initiatives are actually towns at this point. There are villages, neighborhoods of big cities, boroughs, and even university campuses that currently have initiatives in progress. There are also national hubs. In this country, we have Transition US, which expresses its goal and vision that in the future “every community in the United States will have engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels—a future that is more vibrant, abundant, and resilient—one that is ultimately preferable to the present.”
As environmental movements go, the transition work is fairly recent, starting around 2004, but it is deeply grounded in older (and ongoing) movements such as sustainability, permaculture, and the widely influential work of E.F. Schumacher. In fact, Hopkins has stated that his ideas started flowing when he tried to apply the principles he had learned in the study of permaculture, which is grounded in agriculture and care of the land, to broader concerns about economic activity, especially energy use.
Melissa Everett, executive director of Sustainable Hudson Valley, puts it this way: “What captures people’s imagination about Transition Towns is that it provides a long range, practical framework for dealing with a wide range of issues that don’t have easy solutions. It is at its best when people see that it doesn’t provide fixed formulas but instead provides methods for community interaction that bring forth highly localized strategies. In short, it’s about getting a community’s juices flowing.”
Interestingly enough, Sustainable Hudson Valley (SHV), a regional organization serving the Hudson Valley, was originally founded in the 1990s with the name “Hudson Valley Sustainable Communities Network,” which mirrors the Transition Town terminology. Regarding SHV today, Everett says, “We work with interested community stakeholders—be they elected officials, business groups, conservation councils, schools, or neighborhood groups—to help them find immediate action steps to protect and restore the local environment and deal with a changing climate. This naturally leads them to longer range thinking on the energy and climate challenge, and the economy. This systemic approach is a place a lot of people want to go these days.”
Local interest in the Transition Movement seems to be gathering steam. In January, Accord resident Bibi Farber launched Nextworld TV, an online video site that makes pieces available on a wide range of related topics. As she puts it, it’s about “learning and raising awareness about moving toward a more self-sufficient and empowered, healthy, and sustainable life. It begins with giving voice to a new dialog: how we think about food, time, work, money, and community…. There are gigantic and amazing changes afoot!” There are several informative videos specifically about Transition Towns on the Nextworld TV site.
Deena Wade, who also lives in Accord, has taken the first steps toward the community-building aspect of the Transition process. She has launched a Transition Film Series on Friday nights at the Marbletown Multi-Arts Center in Stone Ridge. The series is “dedicated to helping our community explore how we can create a more resilient and vibrant future together by living more simply and sustainably.”
She has also expressed an aspiration to bring weekend training programs, which are offered by the Transition Network, to Ulster County, if there is enough interest. Several local environmental leaders have already attended these trainings at Genesis Farm in New Jersey.
As an indication of the timeliness and significance of the Transition Movement, the annual Spring Forum hosted by Mohonk Consultations will focus on this work. The event is entitled Communities in Transition—Local Strengths, Local Resilience. It will take place at Mohonk Mountain House on April 10. Mohonk Consultations—a highly regarded nonprofit group whose purpose is “to support the interrelationships of all forms of life on Earth, and through dialogue, to promote practical means for sustainability”—is a continuation of the rich legacy of environmental leadership and stewardship of the Smiley family, founders of Mohonk Mountain House and the Mohonk Preserve.
There are not any official Transition Initiatives in New York just now, but the Transition Network website lists four groups of “Mullers” (folks who are mulling it over, of course!) in Albany, Brooklyn, Stanfordville, and Greenwich/Washington County. These last two groups are in rural areas east of the Hudson River, so they are all quite near to us in the Mid-Hudson area. Initiatives are more formally underway in nearby Vermont and Pennsylvania.
In addition to addressing challenges related to peak oil and climate change, the Transition Movement has increasingly emphasized alternative financial arrangements as a remedy for the instability and injustice of the globalized economic system. Many Transition Towns now have functioning local currencies, such as the Totnes Pound and the Lewes Pound.
As I write this, Libya is in the throes of bloody unrest. The effect of that convulsion on the supply of oil is certainly of less concern to me than the fact that people are being murdered in the streets by their own government. But it is an inescapable and haunting truth that our deep dependence on fossil fuels—and particularly our complacency about that dependency—makes us all in some way culpable for the toxic concentrations of wealth and power that cause so much suffering worldwide. If we think of it in terms of changing the actions of brutal regimes, or for that matter, giant corporations, it may seem there is very little we can do. But if we decide to make personal commitments to doing things we can do, the ideas and strategies behind the Transition Movement offer each of us, and the communities we co-create, some very bright prospects.