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Skill Up, Party Down: Transition Towns in a Changing World
Transition Towns plan a gentle descent from oil dependence—and have a blast in the process.
Ciaran Mundy, a successful high-tech entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in soil ecology, started a website to update people on all the “terrible news about climate change.” But after a while, he felt it wasn’t working—that it would never work. “It took me years to realize there’s no point in putting up more facts and figures,” he says. “They just bounce off people.”
Then he stumbled across the Transition Town movement, which was just picking up steam in his city—Bristol, England. When Mundy attended a training session on Transition Towns, he found a group of people addressing the big problems of our time, and doing it with optimism and a sense of celebration.
The Transition movement is built around making the transition to a world after peak oil—the time when world oil production reaches an all-time high, then goes into irreversible decline. Oil prices will spike and the economy will stop growing, wreaking havoc in our society, which depends on petroleum for nearly everything, from growing food to maintaining economies. The Transition movement aims to prepare communities for peak oil—or climate change, or economic meltdown—by reclaiming lost skills, teaching new ones, and fostering local self-sufficiency.
The movement’s approach and attitude, as much as its goals, galvanized Mundy. “It’s not about being angsty, and doing worthy things. It’s about celebrating,” he says. “I like parties—I’m a bit of a party animal,” he adds with a grin. “So it’s perfect for me.”
Starting the Transition
Transition Towns started in 2005 as a community project led by Rob Hopkins, who was teaching permaculture in a rural Irish town called Kinsale. The year before, he and his class watched a new movie, The End of Suburbia, that said peak oil will completely transform our lives. “It greatly focused the mind and came as a great shock to everyone—myself included,” Hopkins writes in The Transition Handbook, the movement’s bible. He added a project to his course to imagine how Kinsale “might successfully make the transition to a lower-energy future.”
Hopkins moved to Totnes, a town in southwestern England, and launched the first official Transition Town. He rallied people to devise an “energy descent plan”— which has become the core of the Transition movement—for scaling back energy use, sourcing food and other goods closer to home, and otherwise aiming for local sustainability.
Hopkins’ Handbook argues that these steps are essential to avoid undermining the planet’s ability to support humanity, regardless of when the effects of peak oil kick in.
But these efforts could also strengthen communities and improve people’s daily lives. There’s no downside to eating fresher food, getting to know our neighbors, and avoiding maddening commutes. Those are all solid preparation for energy and food shortages, economic shocks, and climate tempests to come—and they may help us avoid such a bleak future.
Mundy’s party-loving enthusiasm seems infectious. Transition Montpelier, Mundy’s local group, has been in many ways the most successful in and around Bristol. Besides organizing street parties, they’re growing food in allotments—city-owned garden plots that people can sign up to use—and in planters they’re building along the streets. They’re assembling a buyer’s group to build their own renewable power mini-grid, getting solar panels for the neighborhood at a discount, and then divvying up the electricity. And they’re devising their own local currency for Bristol, to support local businesses and strengthen the whole local economy by keeping money circulating in the community.
It’s no surprise that, in 2007, Bristol became the first large city to start the Transition process—it was the 11th official Transition group—it’s regarded as one of the country’s greenest places. A progressive city near the ocean, its hills are dotted with pastel Victorians. In its neighborhoods, the main streets feature organic food shops and cafes serving fair trade coffees. The city council’s sustainability office is in a revamped, energy-efficient, former tobacco warehouse, and out front they have a model home that’s hyper-efficient.
More than a dozen Transition groups have sprung up in Bristol’s neighborhoods and surrounding villages, like Portishead and Clevedon. “Our approach [for] how to take Bristol through the Transition process … is to see the city as a network of villages,” says Transition Bristol’s official website. The approach seems to be taking off. Each neighborhood or village group has only a handful of core members, which makes meetings tractable and maintains a focus on a small part of the city that the members know well. A central group for Bristol, and another emerging for the wider area, are clearinghouses for experiences and coordinate efforts among smaller groups.
As of this writing, nearly 300 communities in more than a dozen countries have started their own Transition Town initiatives. The bulk are in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but groups are also springing up in Portugal, Italy, Japan, and Chile.
Many have come to Transition groups on a path similar to Mundy’s: They were worried about the environment and wanted to be sustainable, but they didn’t feel they were making much of a difference. Now, instead of worrying, they’re actually doing something.
That’s how it worked for Bill Roberts, a music teacher who’s turned his whole backyard into a garden. He started a Transition initiative in his village, Long Ashton, on the outskirts of Bristol. “I thought for years of joining my local Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, but I never did,” Roberts says. Those organizations, he says, are “really top-down.”
But Transition is “bottom-up,” Roberts says. For him, that makes all the difference, putting “the importance and power of it at the community level.” When he first heard about Transition Towns, he “found it very inspiring—that to be green, we could actually have a better life.”
A local book publisher is letting the Long Ashton group use a piece of land to start a community vegetable garden. When they wanted to break the sod, a Conservative Party district councilor brought his draft horses and plowed the plot. It was tough work, even for the stout horses, but now Transition Long Ashton is planting crops and building a chicken coop.
Although these neighbors put in a lot of effort to create this garden, they enjoyed it, Roberts says. It’s the same feeling that reeled him in to the Transition movement in the first place. “It’s not that you give something,” he says. “It’s that you’re coming together and you get something.”
Besides growing food, they’re also gaining skills—often from their neighbors, who turn out to be resident experts. Take Deryll Hibbitt of Long Ashton. She’s always gardened—at 74, she’s been growing food longer than many of her neighbors have been alive. Hibbitt was one of 23 people who showed up for the first Transition meeting in Long Ashton. Before the meeting, she’d never heard of Transition. But she soon joined up and started a “grow it” group—“a meeting place for people interested in growing food,” she says, “where they share problems and knowledge in a very informal way.”
Along with gardening, members of Transition Long Ashton are acquiring other skills that a few generations ago would have been part of common knowledge. It’s all part of what the Transition movement calls “reskilling.”
In Long Ashton, those pitching in with the community garden are also trying their hand at keeping chickens and pigs, and learning from their neighbors how to build fences to keep them in. They’re learning how to preserve food as jams, by canning, and through lactic acid fermentation—the way that sauerkraut is made. “The networking through the Transition group has supported many of us in being adventurous with these things,” Roberts says.
“Reskilling” can also mean learning new technologies. For Richard Hancock, an auditor for the health service, learning how to track his energy use has paid dividends. He joined Transition Hotwell and Cliftonwood, in his part of Bristol, and through them joined a Carbon Reduction Action Group—“like Weight Watchers for your carbon footprint,” as he puts it. The numbers were surprising, he says. “When I looked at mine, my gas bill was the biggest part of my footprint—even when I was flying around.”
Other members helped him pick out a new, far more efficient, gas boiler for his house, and figure out how best to install it. “Working out how to vent a new gas boiler would be difficult without expert advice,” because of convoluted regulations, Hancock says.
To help people get tips and clues on how to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, Transition Montpelier teamed up with the local authority and the Energy Saving Trust to train several people to do “energy audits.” In the autumn, they’re launching another program, called Green Open Doors, to give people a chance, Mundy says, “to learn from a neighbor about domestic energy saving and generation” in typical homes.
The Peak Oil Frame
Transition Town members didn’t invent most of the ideas they’re using, like local currencies and, of course, gardening or making jam. But they have brought these strands of local sustainability together using the theme of peak oil.
“What’s fantastic about Transition is the frame of peak oil,” says Joy Carey, a Bristol-based food researcher, who worked for years for the Soil Association, the U.K.’s largest organic food certification group. “Peak oil focuses people’s minds. Before, having a sustainable food system seemed like the right thing to do—but that was it. Suddenly there was a whole other reason to take it seriously.”
Transition members have been crucial in helping Bristol and other cities imagine life after peak oil. Last year, when Bristol’s city council commissioned a report on how the city might cope with peak oil, they tapped Simone Osborne—a member of Transition BS3, named after the group’s postcode. “This was a major, major report,” says Steve Marriott, city council sustainability manager. “It made senior people all across the city sit up. We’ve re-engaged a whole tier of decision makers that weren’t on board before.” The “most dramatic response,” he says, is that the local branch of the National Health Service pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. It is looking into the vulnerability of health care to peak oil and climate change, with efforts headed up by Dr. Angela Raffle, a public health consultant and member of Transition Bristol.
Tapping the Power of Community
Transition groups have had a lot to learn about the best role they can play in Bristol, says Claire Milne, who is a coordinator both for citywide and national Transition efforts. “What’s coming through really clearly is that its role is to act as a platform, to bring together all the amazing things that are already happening, and then allow them to work together more strategically.” Or, as Mundy puts it, its major strength is in “joining up the dots.”
Mundy may be a party animal, and Transition Montpelier’s street parties may be a blast—but they also have a purpose. “Working together in community is something that we have focused on, whether through organizing street parties, film nights, growing groups, street art, home energy audits, or transport groups,” Mundy says.
The real power of the movement is its focus on building community, Mundy says. “You can have lots of people who understand how to do stuff—gardening, home energy saving, bicycle repairs, and so on. But the magic lies in helping communities get together and work together in communicating, celebrating, and spreading those skills.” In an age of mass media, individualism, and consumerism, he says, these community-building skills have withered—but we need them urgently now. “I feel this is the primary part of reskilling,” Mundy says. “I can’t stress this enough.”
These efforts—planting gardens, putting energy descent plans into place, building community—may not be enough to avert the catastrophic change that many see coming. “Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale,” says a banner on the Transition Network website. “We truly don’t know if this will work.” But, crucially, the movement’s principles and attitudes have galvanized people, getting them out into their communities and their gardens. What started as a school project in Kinsale is now a worldwide experiment that’s truly putting the idea of local resilience to the test.