Going Local with Transition Towns

transition town

Sitting beside her wood-burning stove one snowy afternoon last January, Kim Latham ticked off her recent lifestyle changes: She installed an energy efficient geothermal heating system, grows her own vegetables and approaches new purchases with caution. What she does buy comes mostly from local farms and farmer’s markets. “I’m always looking to reduce waste,” Latham says. “I haven’t bought clothes for a year.” Inspired by a weekend workshop on the “transition” movement at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey, Latham says it suddenly became clear that “doing nothing wasn’t an option.” Now she is one of thousands of people working together in transition towns, local communities pro-actively preparing for an oil-scarce future.

As of this writing, there are 360 official transition towns in 31 countries, including 85 in 29 U.S. states—with over 100 more U.S. groups interested. The movement began in the British town of Totnes in 2006, but most U.S. transition towns are less than two years old. They aim to reduce fossil fuel use, and help mitigate climate change, by relocalizing. This means shifting production closer to home. If enough food, building supplies, energy and goods are sourced locally, towns and neighborhoods could become resilient—survive, and even prosper—when oil becomes scarce.

The movement is also about creating functioning communities, with the idea that strong neighborhood networks will help towns to weather future energy shocks. “We’re addressing the issues of peak oil, climate change and economic instability, but really the message is we’re pulling together as a community,” says Paul LeVasseur, a core member of the transition group in Putney, Vermont. “We’re building these strong ties with one another and getting to know one another in a way that, when the challenges come, we’ll be ready as a community to respond collectively.”

transition townAlthough there are guidelines for establishing transition towns—inclusivity and networking are key—initiatives in each location evolve differently. The Totnes model has its roots in a small rural town. U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, adapt the model to urban neighborhoods. Some find that preparing to live a less consumer-oriented lifestyle requires an “inner transition”—a psychological paradigm shift. Others are just passionate about project-oriented solutions. And there’s a natural tension between approaching an oil-scarce future in a fun-loving, celebratory manner, as suggested by the transition movement’s founder Rob Hopkins, and being ready to survive imminent crises

Hopkins himself admits in a “cheerful disclaimer” that, “We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.” The Totnes transition plan for relocalization sets goals out to 2030. U.S. transition towns are nowhere near local food security. Most are just beginning to develop plans to transition away from oil dependence over the next two decades.

Confronting Peak Oil

The driving force behind the transition movement is the triple threat of climate change, peak oil and economic disruption. Hopkins suggests that proactive preparation is the only choice. Cutting back on fossil fuels now is vital to reduce climate change—and surviving an oil-scarce future makes shifting to a low-energy lifestyle imperative. “Peak oil” refers to the global peak in oil production,

followed by oil shortages and rising prices. It’s not entirely clear when we’ll hit peak, but it will be soon (if it hasn’t happened already). A Pentagon report released last year reads, “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” But the International Energy Agency’s 2010 annual report suggests that conventional crude oil production has already peaked.

transition town

“The scientific consensus is that oil peaked in 2006,” says Carolyne Stayton, executive director of Transition US. Formed in 2009, the nonprofit connects transition groups throughout the country. It works in close partnership with the Transition Network, a United Kingdom-based organization that supports the international transition movement as a whole. Recent donations of over $100,000 to Transition US reflect the growing domestic interest in the movement.

Transition towns evolve when just a few people—such as Latham and three like-minded friends who together established Transition Newton in New Jersey—feel an urgency to start raising awareness. Typically, films and talks, followed by a public launch event, clarify what a local transition to low-carbon living might look like. Groups to explore relevant issues—including food and energy production, transportation, waste reduction and recycling, building new skills, local currency and health—emerge spontaneously. Projects range from green building and biofuel co-ops to vegetable gardens and backyard chickens. Though often spearhead by local experts, groups welcome everyone and decisions are made by consensus.

“Nobody runs it, and nobody has the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” says Pat Wentworth, a member of the food group in the Sandpoint Transition Initiative in Idaho. “It’s consensus, basically. You just go out and do it—you’ve got to get your ego out of it.”

Supply and Demand

A tangible benefit of transition communities is the explosion of community gardens and their contributions to food pantries. Reliance on soup kitchens increased by as much as 27% in the last two years, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s 2010 Annual Report. Homegrown, pesticide-free vegetables also help families improve health and cut costs, especially given the 2%-3% rising food prices predicted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2011.

transition town

Nearly all transition initiatives—from L.A. to small towns like Putney—quickly establish community gardens that donate produce to the needy. The Sandpoint Transition Initiative community garden, for instance, donated well over 1,000 pounds of vegetables to food banks in 2010. By applying for grants, the group also helped install gardens in several local schools that now provide vegetables for school lunches. Gleaning projects, in which volunteers collect leftover crops from local farms, are also flourishing. In Sarasota, Florida, the transition group harvested 6,138 pounds of produce since the project began last October.

While community gardens are a significant first step, establishing food security is complex business. Michael Brownlee, cofounder of Transition Boulder County in Colorado and one of the transition pioneers in the U.S., focuses his efforts on local food security. But there’s a disconnect with conventional farmers in the area. “We’ve developed an economic model around food and farming [in the U.S.] that’s heavily oriented towards exporting,” says Brownlee. “So in Boulder County, for instance, 97% of what’s produced on the farms here is exported. We need to begin reversing that, but that’s such a huge paradigm shift for farmers. They don’t know how vulnerable big agribusiness is in the face of fossil fuel depletion, in the face of a declining economy.”

Relocalization calls for small-scale farming, which demands different skills than industrial farming. In fact, low-carbon living requires reclaiming many skills our grandparents took for granted. Transition groups offer local residents a large array of such re-skilling classes. Choices range from food preservation, cheese-making and repurposing old clothing, to timber frame building, woodland management and hunting. Transition Colorado has taught over 7,500 people such classes, and Ann Arbor, Michigan just hosted its fourth re-skilling festival. In Sandpoint, classes are offered through the Folk School, a concept that originated in Denmark to provide local, noncompetitive, cooperative and lifelong learning opportunities. “Our concept is teaching arts and crafts for sustainable living,” says Karen Lanphear, a founding member of the Sandpoint Transition Initiative.

But transition towns don’t just aim to turn back the clock. Some are exploring the feasibility of biofuel co-ops. In Laguna Beach, California—which boasts about 1,000 transition members—biofuels, electric bikes and Ubuntu, a free computer operating system, are on the agenda. In Sandpoint, two engineering experts have built a 25-gallon still and are experimenting with local plants, grains and waste products from bakeries to make ethanol.

Preparing for fuel and economic disruptions plays a big part in planning for a resilient future. Some transition communities are even exploring how to establish local currencies (see sidebar, “Make Your Own Money,” page 30). Meanwhile, tool libraries, seed swaps and barter fairs, such as one held in Seattle, Washington, last year, offer ways of meeting neighbors and getting by with less money. The Ballona LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) in the Transition Los Angeles community, for example, puts people with skills or time together with those needing help. Exchanges run the gamut from solving computer problems to pet sitting. “I definitely know people who are out of work and look at these systems as something that can help,” says Joanne Poyourow, a founder of Transition Los Angeles. “Is it something that’s full-fledged enough to do an adequate job of that yet? No, but give us time, we just started.”

Pulling Together

Building bridges to local government, one of the “Twelve Steps of Transition” outlined in Hopkins’ book, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependence to Local Resilience (Chelsea Green), occurs naturally in small towns. Members of the Sandpoint Transition Initiative gave input to plans for a cogeneration plant being developed by the town council. The head of Transition Putney’s energy committee, Daniel Hovis, also serves as a core member of Transition Putney. In larger communities, such as Portland, Oregon, and Santa Cruz, California, transition groups have contributed to city Climate Action Plans.

Networking with other groups as well as local government, is a key transition strategy. In fact, cross-fertilization is highly encouraged. The newly formed Transition Cheltenham in Pennsylvania plans to work with COOP (Chickens Owners Outside Philadelphia) to raise backyard chickens. And many transition groups evolve from local environmental groups. Transition Fidalgo and Friends in Washington grew out of a local climate-change group, and Environmental Change-Makers in Los Angeles hosted the first transition training in California. In Putney, LeVasseur makes a point of working with Post Oil Solutions and other local groups. “Mother Earth doesn’t care which organization is going to take care of her,” he says. “We just have to get the work done. This collaboration thing is really, really, critical. We can’t compete with each other.”

And many are attracted to the transition movement’s support side—known as “heart and soul” groups. Thinking about oil depletion and climate change can quickly conjure doomsday scenarios of food shortages, gasoline lines and worse. Heart and soul groups allow people to face and share their fears, anxieties and guilt. “We’ve had evenings where people have been in tears saying ‘I’m really afraid for my grandchildren, for my children and what we’ve done to the earth,’” LeVasseur says.

The groups also offer spiritual, emotional and psychological help for the “inner transition”—or change in attitude and values—that many feel is necessary to live a less consumer-focused life. “Transition has much more to do with how you work together with other human beings,” says Richard Kuhnel, a transition trainer and permaculturist. “And how you perceive your relationship to nature, and systems thinking.”

The awareness-building aspects don’t appeal to everyone. “In Portland, there are some people who are very active in transition, constantly going out and doing things,” says David Johnson, a founder of the Portland Transition group and board member of Transition US. “But you’ll never see them at a heart and soul meeting.”

The Local Approach

Approaches to transition differ in other ways, too. One of the hallmarks of the movement has been its positive approach—celebrating the benefits of living in a low-oil, less consumer-oriented society. The idea is to gradually adopt a more sustainable lifestyle over the next decade or so—and enjoy doing it.

But Brownlee and others, such as economist Nicole Foss, consider the situation critical. Brownlee worries that unless people sense real urgency—and even fear—they won’t take the steps necessary to really relocalize. “There is the potential for the economy to unravel significantly in the next couple of years,” he says. “Even in Boulder, Colorado, denial about our predicament is rampant and preventing this community from [taking action].

As in other environmental movements, there is no agreement on how best to incorporate spirituality. In a talk Brownlee gave at Xavier University in Cincinnati, he emphasized the emerging place of the sacred in the U.S. transition movement. “We need to regain and reclaim the sense…that everything is spiritual, that this planet, this Universe, this continent, and this movement are all about the sacred.”

While some appreciate this holistic view, it’s one of many within the grassroots movement. “There are multiple levels of approach and that’s part of the beauty of this—that we’re honoring each other’s worldviews and belief systems and everything else coming into it,” says Patricia Benson, a founding member of Transition Northfield in Minnesota, and board member of Transition US.

Differences, after all are what makes a place “local” in the first place. “By the time we all get “transitioned” it’s going to be a very local thing,” says Poyourow. “What we’re doing in L.A. is vastly different from what they’re doing in Totnes. It’s inspired by what they’re doing, but it’s vastly different.”

CONTACTS: Sandpoint Transition Initiative; Transition Los Angeles; Transition Network; Transition Putney; Transition US.

PATRICIA HEMMINGER is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in New Jersey and the associate editor of Pollution A-Z (MacMillan).