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How the Transition Movement is Spreading Across America

Transition’s focus on resilient communities finds a middle ground between the ‘drop in the bucket’ of personal action and the depressing inertia of government.

When I set out to investigate the appeal of  Transition, a sustainability movement that has spread to 1,105 towns in 43 countries over the past eight years, I started with what I thought was a basic question: What are “Transition Towns” transitioning to?

“Resilience,” I was told. “What does that mean?” I asked, thinking vaguely of steel. “The ability to absorb shocks to a system!” was the reply. Well, yes, but …? Pressed for details, Nina Winn, who runs a Transition initiative at the  Institute of Cultural Affairs in Chicago, said, “I don’t think there’s a conclusion. Like when a person’s trying to self-improve, it’s a constant growth. Our communities would grow to be a lot more intimate. We wouldn’t be hesitant to ask for that cup of sugar or tomato. The streets would be narrower instead of expanding; there would be fresh produce on every corner that was grown just down the street. You would see people on the street because of that—because where there’s food, there’s people.”

Such bucolic but fuzzy visions are typical of Transition, which is more about shifting paradigms than prescribing solutions. With an it’ll-take-shape-as-we-go ethos, most Transition Town websites sport a “cheerful disclaimer”: “Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. … Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.”

On a basic level, however, the experiment seeks to address what  founder Rob Hopkins sees as a source of frustration in the environmental movement: Personal action feels like a drop in the bucket, while governments often move at a glacial pace.

“Until now, there’s been the things you can do at home on your own—changing your lightbulbs and sharing your lofts and things—and then there’s everything else that someone else is meant to do: the sort of mythical ‘they,’” says Hopkins. “Transition is what’s in the middle, what you can do with the people on your street.”

The seed for Transition came in 2004 when Hopkins, a young teacher with a degree in environmental quality and resource management, encountered the concept of peak oil: the theory that easy-to-reach oil will run out at a specific date—some say 2020—precipitating a rapid decline in oil availability followed by the collapse of civilization as we know it. At the time, Hopkins was teaching a permaculture course at the Kinsale College of Further Education, an alternative school on Ireland’s southern coast. Permaculture is another one of these concepts that, as Hopkins notes, is “notoriously difficult to explain in two minutes in the pub,” but it’s most commonly described as an ecological design movement that sees nature in terms of interlocking systems. Alarmed by peak oil, Hopkins assigned his students to apply the principles of permaculture to the problem.

The result was a concrete plan to make Kinsale dramatically less fossil-fuel dependent, with recommendations such as a green buildings officer and a horse-and-cart taxi. The Kinsale Town Council enthusiastically adopted the plan, and the principles underlying it became the precepts of Transition, as outlined in Hopkins’ 2008  Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience and as adopted by Transition Towns worldwide.

But it would be a mistake to think that becoming a Transition Town means setting off on a clear-cut path to energy independence. From permaculture, the movement has inherited a non-linear, bottom-up approach—even the original 12 “steps” outlined in Hopkins’ handbook have been renamed “ingredients.” If the Transition movement has a sine qua non, however, it is the belief that communities must become more resilient in the face of three catastrophic threats: peak oil, global warming and economic instability. Whether the movement means to avert or adapt to future disasters is ambiguous; when I ask, Transition members tend to respond, “Both!” as though I have just recited their favorite koan.

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