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While leaders in all levels of government discuss the realities of global economic distress, uncertain future energy supplies, and the overarching threat of climate change, a quiet evolution is making real progress in developing strategies to help us transform our communities to adapt to these upcoming challenges.

In over 150 cities in 14 countries, ‘Transition Town’ communities are raising awareness of the threats associated with peak oil and climate change, and taking practical steps to prepare for a post-industrial future. And rather than dwell on bleak scenarios, participants in this grass-roots movement see future communities being more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than we see today.

Each Transition Town is independent, developing its own plans and working on its own priorities. But the common denominator of all Transition Towns is a bottom-up, participatory process for all major decisions in each community.

“If we collectively plan and act early enough there’s every likelihood that we can create a way of living that’s significantly more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than the oil-addicted treadmill that we find ourselves on today.”

Transition Towns website

Initiated by Louise Rooney and environmentalist Rob Hopkins in 2005, the “transition towns” movement is dedicated to drastically reducing carbon emissions on a local basis, developing alternatives to oil, and nurturing resilient local economies. Instead of looking to federal governments for money or leadership, transition towns are taking on the responsibility themselves. They are committed to working as communities to find new and better ways to live in harmony with nature while meeting essential needs.

Dealing with the threats of peak oil and a changing climate requires fundamental change, beginning with the notion of individual ‘well-being’ as dependent on material acquisition. This entails redefining the very nature of community and culture so that people can move beyond the ‘infinite-growth’ economic model and begin to develop more locally based lifestyles that are more self-reliant, interdependent and meaningful.

The key areas commonly examined are food, energy, transportation, local economics, communication, systems of care and the arts.

Each Transition Town has its own priorities and issues it is working on. For instance, Multnomah County in Oregon has launched the Multnomah Food Initiative – a public engagement process that will bring the community together to create a shared vision, shared goals, and the first comprehensive community food action plan in the nation.

In Santa Cruz, CA, they are holding a reskilling expo where people can learn about composting, beekeeping, water catchment and nonviolent communication, in addition to workshops about peak oil and local economics.

Folks in Newburyport, MA are hosting a climate change debate as part of a six part series on global warming and climate change.

Any town can become a Transition Town, regardless of size, demographics or political orientation. All that is required is an initiating group of individuals who come together to adopt the Transition Model, with the intention of engaging a significant proportion of the people in their community to kick off a Transition Initiative. The Transition Initiative is a comprehensive process of raising awareness, building bridges with existing community groups and local government, and forming groups to look at key areas of life which are impacted by climate change, with the goal of launching a community-defined “Energy Descent Action Plan” over a 15 – 20 year time span.

While each community develops its own plans and priorities, the Transition Model provides a structure to help the process move forward. Participating communities are also encouraged to connect with other community transition initiatives to share ideas and experiences. This results in a coordinated range of projects across all energy-related areas of life that strives to rebuild the resilience we’ve lost as a result of cheap oil and reduce a community’s carbon emissions drastically.

Coordinating these initiatives and ensuring some uniformity of process has been the job of the Transition Network Ltd, a legally constituted charity that oversees the different forms of transition that seem appropriate to different scales of action: towns, cities, counties, countries. Its stated intention is to “inspire, encourage, support, network and train communities as they adopt the Transition model in response to peak oil and climate change, building resilience and happiness”.

In 2008 The Transition Handbook, written by Hopkins, was published by Green Books, and it has become the guide for communities seeking to participate in the transition to sustainability.

The Transition Network suggests a list of seven principles of transition that enable a diversified response grounded in the local context. These are:

  • Positive Visioning: Transition initiatives are based on a dedication to the creation of tangible, clearly expressed and practical visions of community life beyond dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Trust and Empowerment: Transition initiatives are based on telling people the closest version of the truth that we know in times when the information available is deeply contradictory, and then empowering appropriate responses.
  • Inclusion and Openness: Successful Transition initiatives depend on the unprecedented coming together of diverse sections of society.
  • Sharing and Networking: Information sharing and learning are key principles of resilient ecologies that are central to transition.
  • Building Resilience: How communities respond to shocks is critical to the transitional path beyond fossil-fuel dependency. The movement is explicit in its intention to build resilience across key economic sectors (including food, energy and transport) and across a range of appropriate scales – from local to national.
  • Inner and outer transition: Transition is a catalyst to shifting values and unleashing the energy and creativity of people to do what they are passionate about.
  • Subsidiarity: Self-organization and decision making at the appropriate scale are key principles drawn from resilient ecological systems.

Participants find the process of developing a Transition Initiative empowering. Envisioning how communities can come together in adapting to new ways of supporting each other is a positive step in bringing cooperation on par with competition. People imagine a future with healthy communities, where there’s less need to commute, where neighbors know each other, where business is local and people have skills that they are sharing. And although it will take big changes and considerable economic rebuilding before communities can successfully adapt to more limited resources, taking the first visioning steps is a practical tonic to the stress we carry under the weight of awareness about climate change.

“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 Towns website

View a TED talk on the Transition Movement here.

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