What is a Transition Town?

The ‘Transition Town’ movement burst onto the scene merely six years ago in Ireland, and yet already there are almost two thousand Transition Towns around the world. There are dozens right here in Australia. Given that some people are saying this is one of the most promising and important social movements on the planet at present, it is timely to ask ourselves: what exactly is a Transition Town?

In order to understand the concept of transition, one first needs to understand that the transition movement is a response to a certain set of social, ecological, and economic problems. Over the last two centuries, industrial societies have experienced unprecedented economic growth, fuelled by a cheap and abundant supply of coal, gas, and most importantly, oil. While this brought with it many benefits, industrialisation also has an ominous dark side that today threatens to overwhelm those benefits.

Most obviously, our planet’s ecosystems are being fatally degraded in the name of limitless growth, with the careless overconsumption of fossil fuels contributing to climate change with potentially dire consequences. Furthermore, the flow of crude oil – the world’s most important source of non-renewable energy – is going to stagnate and eventually decline in the foreseeable future, making oil much more expensive. This means that oil-intensive industrial societies in particular need to begin preparing for this energy descent, high cost future, without delay. What is most troubling of all, however, is that the high consumption lifestyles causing these problems often fail to fulfil their promise of a fulfilling and meaningful life. In other words, many have worked hard to acquire the ‘nice stuff,’ only to find themselves dissatisfied with a consumer-orientated existence. It seems that somewhere along the path of human development we took a disastrously wrong turn, and yet consumer capitalism marches steadfastly on.

If once we might have hoped that our national governments would honestly confront these great challenges and respond appropriately, everyday that hope withers further away. At the recent Rio+20 environmental conference, for example, the world’s political leaders made a (non)commitment to try to solve the problems caused by growth by pursuing even more growth. This is but the latest sign that the world’s governments do not have a clue, including our own.

It seems, then, that any solution to today’s social, economic, and ecological problems will not be solved and probably only exacerbated at the highest governmental level. It follows that it is up to us – ordinary people, in ordinary communities – to step up and confront these problems ourselves, at the grassroots level.

Against this backdrop, the Transition Town movement has emerged in cities, towns, and suburbs around the world, seemingly out of nowhere. Refusing to wait any longer for governments to act (or fail to act) on our behalf, groups of engaged citizens are taking things into their own hands, at the community and suburban levels. While this movement is brutally honest about the problems of climate change, peak oil, and economic instability, the movement is characterised more than anything else by its defiant positivity. It is showing by example that the transition to a new, post-carbon form of life is a process that can be extremely liberating and fulfilling.

One of the defining aims of a typical Transition Town (or Transition Initiative, as they are also known) is to relocalise and decarbonise the economy, in order to become less dependent on the globalised, oil-dependent economy. This involves coming together as a community with the ambitious, long-term goal of using mostly local resources to meet local needs. For example, rather than relying on industrially produced food that is imported from all around the world, Transition Towns try to maximise local, organic food production and exchange. Rather than relying on fossil fuel energy, Transition Towns take steps to radically reduce energy consumption while moving to renewable sources. Rather than mindlessly embracing consumerism, participants in Transition Towns are stepping out of the rat race, reimagining ‘the good life,’ and discovering that community engagement provides great wealth to those brave enough to get involved.

As well as relocalisation, another key concept in the Transition movement is ‘resilience.’ This refers to the ability of an individual or community to withstand societal or ecological shocks – shocks that can be expected in the future, sooner rather than later, if we continue down the path of growth without limits. In order to become more resilient, communities need to relearn how to provide for themselves in ways that were commonplace not so long ago. This might involve sharing more of our assets with neighbours, rather than each individual having their own. Or it might involve ‘re-skilling’ ourselves to acquire the lost arts of mending clothes, preserving food, or entertaining ourselves for free. Fortunately, this path to sustainability and resilience is filled with hidden joys and unexpected delights, in ways that perhaps need to be experienced to be fully understood.

Of course, these are early days, and the challenges that Transition Towns are facing are daunting, to say the least. To be sure, it will not be easy to build a new, simpler way of life from within industrial civilisation. Everything will conspire against us. But the Transition movement provides a glimmer of hope in these dark times, and that glimmer is everyday growing brighter.

Let’s enjoy the adventure.

Further Reading/Watching:

[Editor’s Note: Administrative representatives of Transition Towns are invited to add their profile, and their transition project, to www.permacultureglobal.com, so people can find, network, support and share with you easier.]

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Dr. Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer in ‘Consumerism and Sustainability’ at the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne. He also writes regularly at the Simplicity Collective and helped create The Simpler Way Project.

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