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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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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.

Transition Bristol

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.

"You can have lots of people who understand how to do stuff–gardening, home energy saving, bicycle repairs ... but the magic lies in helping communities get together."

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.”

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