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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.

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One item in the Transition tool kit is “reskilling” – reviving energy-frugal skills that past generations took for granted, such as how to repair something rather than buying new and how to grow and preserve food. Says Proulx-Lough, who has spent time in Totnes twice this year: “A workshop on darning socks – that’s practical action, and an excuse to do things together!”
Among other Transition activities:

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• Planting nut trees on street corners and orchards in the city.

• Signing up 50 people to buy solar hot-water heaters so the units can be purchased at a discount.

• Interviewing seniors who recall what living a low-energy life was like.

• Holding bicycle-repair workshops

If a Transition Town outwardly looks no different from any other community, it’s because much of the “action” takes place behind the scenes: organizing lectures and films that build awareness; networking with other locations on the Web; meeting with city officials.

Every initiative is different. “It’s all about asking questions of your community and encouraging people to solve their own problems,” says Proulx-Lough. Creative, idiosyncratic responses reflect a town’s culture and history or piggyback on other local programs. Lewes, in East Sussex, a market town for the better part of eight centuries, is poised to launch its own currency. The goal is to stimulate the local economy and help insulate it from the vagaries of the national and global markets. (The Totnes Pound, accepted in about 60 local shops, has been in circulation for more than a year.)

Some communities, like Totnes and Boulder, with their reputations for alternative lifestyles, might seem natural spots for Transition groups. The same could not be said for Penwith, a high-poverty area at the southwestern tip of Britain. Ms. Gray describes the challenge of persuading a population struggling with day-to-day subsistence to devote time and resources to such an ideal:

“Penwith is like an island,” Gray says. “People feel insular, and there are high levels of drug addiction and unemployment.” She ran a dairy farm there for several years and now lives in northern California. As a farmer, a parish councilor, and someone with a business background, she could speak to people with diverse backgrounds. “To do this, you need someone who’s a bit of a chameleon,” she says.

While there were plenty of naysayers, Gray did gain community support. “Everybody has a hook,” she says. “You just have to find it. Rising oil prices: They get that hook. Penwith is at the end of the supply chain. If oil goes high enough, people won’t get it here. Therefore it’s important for laying the structure” for a low-carbon future. Ironically, Penwith’s very isolation may mean an easier shift away from oil: “People in Penwith actually remember what life was like without oil. People made do,” she says.

US size, car dependence are hurdles

The fact that, unlike the UK, most US communities were built around the car is a challenge for the Transition movement in the US. Another is the na­­tion’s sheer size. “It’s difficult to know how best to organize,” says Pamela Gray (Jennifer’s mother), a trustee of the Transition Network, whose focus is building resilience into healthcare systems. Britain has a strong, cohesive media that reaches a broad audience, she notes, whereas in the US it’s more diffuse.