After Peak Oil and Global Warming

While governments dither with their responses to global warming and peak oil — and free marketeers deny that there is a problem — a groundswell of commoners are taking the lead in building a new sort of locally based, sustainable civilization. The Transition movement is an audacious grassroots effort to imagine and plan for the inevitable disruptions that will arrive with climate change and declining oil supplies.

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.

The movement recognizes that meeting the challenges of Peak Oil and climate change will require more than better public policies; it will require an interior change in ourselves and how we find meaning and satisfaction.

Rooney and Hopkins hatched the idea of transition towns in Kinsale, Ireland. Hopkins then took the idea to Totnes, South Devon, in England, when he moved there in 2005. The idea quickly spread, and there are now 150 towns in fourteen countries that consider themselves Transition Towns.

What this means is that a town has organized itself to give serious consideration to the implications of Peak Oil and global warming. Transition towns have mobilized significant support from ordinary people in the community and from its leading institutions, including businesses, schools and civic organizations. Their shared, self-appointed task is to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions and how to increase the community’s “resilience” once oil is no longer plentiful.

The Transition Initiative looks at how people will obtain food, energy and health care, and how they will manage transportation and education. The project studies how people will earn livelihoods and develop more meaningful lifestyles that are less dependent upon material acquisitions and economic growth. The end result is an “Energy Descent Action Plan” that plots a community-devised strategy for transforming itself over the course of 15 to 20 years.

From the outside, the whole process may sound dreary. But that’s not how it feels to participants. As an article by Brian Goodwin in Resurgence magazine reports:

One of the remarkable features of the Transition movement is that, despite the gravity of our situation, there is a sense of empowerment and excitement that results from inviting people to discover their own solutions to the problems we face. They are not being told what to do. Threat and blame do not liberate people; invitation to participate in designs for radical transformation does. This is a truly bottom-up movement of deep change which people recognize is increasingly necessary.

At a Transition Town meeting in Brixton, England, Claire Milne spoke to a meeting about the town’s dependence on outside food. As reported on Flickr, Milne said: “Our current food system invests 10 calories of fossil energy to get 1 calorie of food energy out. We import more than 40% of our food. As oil and gas supplies dwindle this will present problems. In the city we are reliant on supermarket distribution chains, but supermarkets only hold enough food to feed us all for three days, leaving us ‘nine meals away from anarchy’ should our imports be interrupted.”

At bottom, the Transition Towns movement is about raising consciousness and changing culture. It’s about showing how the Western habits of hyper-individualism and material acquisition are intimately wrapped up in our dependence on oil, which has contributed greatly to global warming. The Transition movement is attempting to redesign the very nature of community and culture so that people can escape debt-dependence and growth pathologies, and begin to develop more locally based lifestyles that are satisfying and meaningful.

The whole process is about commoning — the practices needed to develop a commons. The Transition Initiative invites everyone from the community to participate. It is not something that government simply delivers from on high. Transition initiatives expressly honor seven principles: position visioning (“tangible, clearly expressed and practical visions of community life beyond dependence on fossil fuels”); trust and empowerment; inclusion and openness; sharing and networking; building resilience; inner and outer transition; and subsidiarity (“self organization and decisionmaking at the appropriate scale”).

The Transition Towns website admits: “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.” It’s hard to imagine a more visionary yet practical approach to the dire challenges that face us in the years ahead.

For more, visit the Transition Towns website, the Transition United States website or the Wikipedia entry on Transition Towns. Or read the excellent article in the July/August 2009 issue of the Britain-based Resurgence magazine.