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Communities plan for a low-energy future

‘Transition initiatives,’ begun in Britain, aim to empower people to tackle effects of climate change and decline of oil.

By Judith D. SchwartzContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2008

Volunteers from Transition Forest Row in East Sussex cut grass and weed around gooseberry bushes in a field loaned to them by a nearby college.

Courtesy of Mike Grenville

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A year ago, Pat Proulx-Lough felt so overwhelmed by reports about climate change that she couldn’t even listen to the news. “My husband was finishing a dissertation on water resources, and I became hopeless and fearful,” says Ms. Proulx-Lough, a therapist in Portland, Maine.

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Fast-forward to summer ’08 and Proulx-Lough is not just hopeful, but excited about the future.

What happened? She tapped into the Transition movement.

Transition Towns (or districts, or islands) designate places where local groups have organized to embrace the challenge of adapting to a low-oil economy. As the movement’s website (www.transitiontowns.org) states, it’s an experiment in grass-roots optimism: Can motivated citizens rouse their neighbors to act in the face of diminished oil resources and climate change?

“We don’t know if this will work,” says Ben Brangwyn of Totnes, England, who in 2007 helped launch the Transition Network to support Transition Towns worldwide, “but if we leave it to the government it will be too little, too late. If we do it on a personal level, it won’t be enough. But if we do this as a community, it may be just enough, just in time.”

The Transition movement is high-concept and hands-on, combining homespun common sense and camaraderie (bread-baking workshops, “seed-sharing Sundays”) and sophisticated 21st-century organizing (Skype audio conferencing, online wikis, open space technology).

Each Transition “initiative,” as it’s called, begins with a core group willing to serve as a steering committee. In Sandpoint, Idaho, for instance, Richard Kuhnel assembled a group through small discussions at his home. Next comes an action plan and lots of old-fashioned unpaid legwork.

While the concerns – climate change and peak oil (the idea that the world will soon pass its maximum petroleum production and start to decline) – are somber, the approach is upbeat. As the movement’s founder, Rob Hopkins, is fond of saying, “It’s more like a party than a protest march.”

Such ebullience is not typical of ecological realism. According to Michael Brownlee, who was active in the Boulder County, Colo., Transition launch, “the gloom many people feel stems in part from a sense of powerlessness.” The Transition movement advocates no-nonsense routes to local preparedness, rather than waiting for government to step in. “People come in very concerned about climate change, the economy,” Mr. Brownlee says, “but as they become involved in projects … they rediscover community. Once they feel reconnected to those around them, it changes their whole outlook. The anxiety and depression fall away.”

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