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

When it comes to local resilience, it takes all kinds: Building bridges for a post-oil America
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Michael Brownlee, co-founder of Transition Colorado, says U.S. Transition Towns are based on the original British model and attract the same kind of people. What’s different about the United States—what Brownlee calls “ground zero for climate change”—is that there’s more work to do here than anywhere else to achieve food independence, freedom from fossil fuels, and the network of relationships necessary in a Transition Town.

“There’s much less a sense of community and connectivity here,” Brownlee says. “It makes it much more difficult for people to think in terms of self-organizing as a community around these issues.”

In other countries where the Transition Town movement is taking hold, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, residents more readily accept the challenges presented by peak oil and climate change and are more eager to take action.

“There is just a markedly greater degree of denial here in the U.S. with things like fossil fuel depletion and climate change and economic decline,” Brownlee says.

“We get conservatives who remember how it used to be when neighborhoods and community had a stronger sense of familiarity, community, and mutual support, and we get hippies who have always dreamed of a stronger sense of community.”

That makes sense, Brownlee adds—after all, the United States has long been the world’s largest consumer of energy and is more dependent on the fossil fuels that accelerate climate change.

Still, the 74 U.S.-based Transition initiatives—out of 321 worldwide—bring people of all backgrounds into their fold, says Tina Clarke, a Transition trainer who has helped start more than two dozen initiatives in the United States.

“We get conservatives who remember how it used to be when neighborhoods and community had a stronger sense of familiarity, community, and mutual support, and we get hippies who have always dreamed of a stronger sense of community,” Clarke said. “We get all kinds of people interested in local foods and local economic resilience for themselves and their families.”

For years, the environmental movement was considered a fringe effort in the United States, Clarke says. But when Transition initiatives emphasize the rising costs of oil and the need for community action, it resonates across the political spectrum.

“The model is a wonderful model for bringing people together because it starts with relationship-building,” Clarke says. “It starts with including everyone in the conversation and inviting everyone to a huge party.”

Brownlee started the first U.S. Transition Town in 2008 in Boulder, Colo. When he initiated the first Transition training in September of that year, what he found was not lifetime activists, but novices to the movement.

“For many of them this is the first time in their lives that they have felt called to get involved at a significant level,” Brownlee says.

U.S. Transition Towns are still in their infancy, Brownlee says—they are mostly in the “awareness-raising” stage and have yet to devise comprehensive community plans. But what he does know is that the ideas of local food and reskilling are catching on and Transition Towns are making positive strides.

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Transition Colorado’s biggest success so far is its Great Reskilling program, in which 8,000 person-hours were dedicated to teaching others basic skills such as canning, home and clothing repair, and raising chickens­—things that our grandparents or great-grandparents took for granted, but most of us today don’t learn. The response has been so tremendous, Brownlee says, that other groups are teaching their own reskilling programs.

“So many other organizations and even schools are offering that kind of thing now that we don’t have to do it,” he says. “It’s going on everywhere.”

Businesses are catching on to serving local food, as well. Today, Boulder County has more than 80 restaurants that offer local food, compared to just seven in 2006.

“They’re experiencing community at a level they’ve never experienced it before,” he says. “It is one of the most encouraging things that we see happening anywhere in the world.”


Lynsi BurtonLynsi Burton wrote this article for , the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine.  Lynsi is a newspaper reporter in Bremerton, Wash.

Header images courtesy of (left) and by Dorothy Brackett (right)


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