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Skill Up, Party Down

Transition Towns plan a gentle descent from oil dependence—and have a blast in the process.

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Throughout all the fun, Ciaran Mundy, co-founder of Transition Montpelier, emphasizes community-building skills. "I feel this is the primary part of reskilling."

Photo by Mason Inman

Reskilling

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.

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In U.S. Transition Towns, the Big Challenge is Bringing People Together

“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.


Mason_Inman_headshot.jpgMason Inman wrote this article for A Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine.  Mason is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.  He focuses on climate and energy issues, and blogs about resilience at Failing Gracefully.

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