Transition Albany: A Local Response to Climate Change

Meet Catherine Sutton, the initiator of Transition Albany—the effort of a 1.7-square-mile California town (population 16,500+) to transform itself into a self-reliant and resilient community.

Posted by Pamela O'Malley Chang at Jan 06, 2010 11:40 AM |
Transition Albany: A Local Response to Climate Change

Poster for a "Potluck Feast of Local Food," organized by Transition Albany.

Catherine Sutton, as a British teenager in the '60s, frightened her sister with dire predictions of nuclear catastrophe. Today, as the initiator of Transition Albany—the effort of a 1.7-square-mile California town (population 16,500+) to transform itself into a self-reliant and resilient community—she represents one of the brightest spots of hope on my horizon.

The Transition Town concept began in 2005 in Kinsale, Ireland where permaculture student Louise Rooney worked up a project for her town to develop a plan to cope with global warming, rising oil prices, and the economic instability they will cause. Rooney's project was honed and replicated in Totnes, England, in 2006, and as of December 2009, has spread to some 256 "official Transition Towns" in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, North and South America, and elsewhere. In addition, hundreds more places are Transition "mullers"—towns (or cities, or neighborhoods) where people are thinking about developing their own Transition plans.

Becoming an official Transition Town doesn't give a place any particular solutions for how to face the future. Rather, it's a recognition that a collection of local individuals have agreed to seek a community response to the challenge of climate change and diminished oil supplies and to abide by certain philosophies and guidelines in developing that response. On its website, Transition Towns says:

  • “Climate change makes this carbon reduction transition essential
  • Peak oil makes it inevitable
  • Transition initiatives make it feasible, viable and attractive (as far we can tell so far...)

We truly don't know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. 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.”

Transition offers training workshops and sets out guidelines for how to get from good intentions to concrete actions. These include: building awareness, identifying and developing partners, holding "open space" discussions that help participants to define their own needs and solutions, creating visible projects, and eventually, spinning off the steering committee members to subcommittees so that no particular clique dominates.

Transition promotes: “People who are learning by doing—and learning all the time. People who understand that we can't sit back and wait for someone else to do the work. People like you, perhaps."

Catherine Sutton happened to be visiting England in March 2009 where she learned about transition towns and saw the movie “The Age of Stupid” about a post-global-warming survivor in 2055 speculating on why we didn't do something about global warming when we first knew about it. Two months later, she enrolled in a Transition training workshop in Oakland, California. In the months between May and October, she talked up the Transition concept to friends and neighbors and forged a Transition Albany steering committee and website. In October, Transition Albany held a kick-off event, a “Local Foods Potluck Feast.” This was where, carrying my tomato salad, I first met Ms. Sutton and some 30 or so others, and where we saw the film “Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.”

Since then, Transition Albany has sponsored free films at the library: “The End of Suburbia,” “A Crude Awakening,” and “Microcosmos,” as well as held an open space forum on “Where and How to Grow More Food in Albany,” all part of the "building awareness" phase of the Transition process. Transition Albany, still in the "muller" category, is currently applying for official Transition Town status.

In late December, I invited Sutton to tell me how she came to spearhead Transition Albany. She is a tall, lithe, gray-haired woman who was locking her bicycle up outside the teashop where we met. Our conversation was far-ranging and engaging, touching on Sutton's study of Russian in university, her encounter as a young woman with guru Prem Rawat from whom she learned that if she listened to the stillness within her, she would find a place of strength that never wavered. We talked of her single-handedly raising her son, of her interest in Balkan folk dance, and that she had just become a grandmother. In the end, I found myself unable to pinpoint why Sutton has stepped up to the challenge of this job beyond the fact that it's a job that needs doing and that she's available and inspired enough to want to create a true sense of community in the place where she happens to be living. And that's what gives me hope: that ordinary communities might create a viable, vibrant Plan B in a world without a Plan A.

Pamela O'Malley ChangPamela O'Malley Chang wrote this piece for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Pamela is co-founder of Sarana Community Acupuncture in Albany, California and a contributing editor of YES! Magazine. This is the first in a series of blog posts about Transition Albany.

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