Monday, 4 February 2013

Transition Town

Transition Town: A Tonic for the Peak Oil Blues
Alex Munslow

The term "Peak oil" warns of the end of cheap and plentiful energy. An expanding world population of 6.5 billion suggests a limit for growth will eventually be reached (if it hasn't been already) and no combination of current alternative energy sources will sustain the world's accelerating thirst for power. As oil production inevitably declines and resources become scarce, the world faces a turbulent descent. We depend on a globalized economy that is completely reliant on ready supplies of this non-renweable resource. But envisioning a life without the luxuries afforded by abundant oil can quickly lead one to denial. It's much easier to absolve our responsibility to some higher authority – the government, the oil companies, technology, God.
The exact tipping point in world oil production cannot be plotted exactly until a clear decline can be seen, by which time it will be too late. Experts analyzing this situation are divided between "early tippers" and "late tippers" – those who think world oil production has already peaked, or is about to peak in the next few years, and those who believe there are decades left. The Hirsch Report, a US Energy Department study into the effects of Peak Oil, claims that without at least a decade of preparation, the world economic, social and political cost would be "unprecedented." Without this "timely mitigation," confronting the effects of Peak Oil and climate change will be like trying to put up a new tent in the dark. If government reports warn us that at least a ten-year transition period is required if we are to survive the energy descent, the burning question is: When do we begin the transition?
In the UK we have seen the emergence of the Transition Town as a preparation for the coming oil crisis. Like most good ideas, it doesn't seem like a new one so much as an idea remembered. Its origins lie in the raised beds of Permaculture, the Australian agricultural design system pioneered by David Holmgrem and Bill Mollison. Inspired by the ideas of author Richard Heinberg and Dr. Colin Campbell of ASPO, a Peak Oil awareness organization, the first Transition Town began in Kinsale, Ireland in 2004. Imagining a sustainable arrangement for life in the post-oil future, permaculturalist teacher Rob Hopkins and students from his Sustainability course collaborated on a town-planning strategy called the "Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan." Hopkins and his team presented their plan in a timeline of achievable steps taken over several years. At the heart of their strategy was the idea to turn the obstacles of the energy crisis into opportunities for building local resilience and revitalizing the community. Encouraged by great enthusiasm for the idea, Hopkins took the Transition Town vision to Totnes in Devon.
The Transition strategy begins with the formation of a small steering group (designed with its own demise from the beginning). In the early stages, local awareness is generated by a series of lectures, film viewings, and meetings. Compelling Peak Oil documentaries such as The End of Suburbia and The Power of Community serve as tools of mass tribal initiation at these gatherings, awakening people to the challenges of the coming crisis. After the town hall screenings, local audiences are encouraged to discuss the issues raised by the films and suggest ideas and solutions to their own community's oil dependency.
Existing local environmental and community organizations are invited to jointly organize events that respond to these issues, with smaller groups assigned to specific concerns such as food security, waste and recycling, education, housing, transport and local economy. By a combination of serendipity and synchronicity, these roles are generally filled by the appropriate people at the required time. The momentum behind the project builds up over a period of months until the official "Unleashing" event finally launches the plan to the general public.
In order to assist communities working towards these goals, the Transition Network was set up by activist Ben Brangwyn to support and train town leaders as they adopt Transition Initiatives. Through its work across the UK, the Transition Network aims to "unleash the collective genius" within communities, leading to a more resilient and fulfilling lifestyle. Last September there were only two Transition Towns in the UK; inspired by the successes of Kinsale and Totnes, there are already around 90 towns now at various stages of transition, from "mulling it over" to fully "unleashed."
The Transition Town strategy avoids an "us and them" mentality, building bridges between community members and local government. The approach developed to relocalize the Totnes economy was endorsed by the Town Council, and a new local currency called the "Totnes Pound" is accepted by many local businesses and shops. Strategies like this may one day stop the flow of money out of local communities, providing a protective buffer between a healthy local economy and fluctuations in the national currency.
A general objective of Transition Towns is to preserve or reintroduce the importance of farming within a community, working towards local food production with less reliance on transport and chemicals. The benefits to this shift are obvious: local food production sustains the local economy and bolsters the overall well-being of a community. "Seed swaps" are an excellent means of strengthening local farming and working towards sustainability. At these events, heirloom seed varieties are freely exchanged in an effort to revitalize the genetic diversity of crops while bypassing legislations written to protect corporate monopolies. According to UK law, seeds cannot be sold legally unless they appear on the EU National Seed List. Registration is expensive, so only a few seeds make it on, and these are generally owned by a handful of companies who have dominated the commercial market with hybridized seeds. These genetically modified seeds are designed to produce sterile plants, forcing farmers to buy a renewed supply each season and resulting in the extiniction of many seed varieties. Seed swaps side-step the corporate seed industry and thus play a crucial role in reclaiming control of local food production.
Transition Town meetings often employ the self-organizing method of "open space." According to this arrangement, attendees are invited to create the agenda and host their own discussion groups, within which participants freely move about. Whoever shows up to the meeting are the right people; whenever it starts is the right time; and when it's over, it's over. Those who attend have chosen to be there and are willing to contribute. Each group records the conversations, and at the end of the day, the full group reconvenes for feedback and comments, which are then made available via an internet wiki.
Transition Towns provide training and courses to facilitate what has become known as "The Great Re-Skilling." This begins by interviewing the elders of the community. To return to a lower energy future, it is necessary to engage with those who directly remember a lower energy society and re-learn skills that their generation took for granted. To instigate change, it is important to first understand the psychological barriers to transformation. The Transition Town model offers a set of creative tools for communities to engage with the dual problems of both Peak Oil and climate change. It deals practically with the physical manifestation of the problem and can be conveyed very simply to a large number of people at once.
Cheap oil has allowed western societies to cut through the intricate web of beneficial relationships that once held communities together. Transition Town is a grassroots movement of people learning to relate to each other again. Behind the descent plan is the belief that with creativity and imagination, and under a well-designed strategy, the future without oil could be preferable to the present.