Transition cities are sprouting up across the province as urban environmentalists prepare for the triple threat of rising energy costs, resource depletion and climate change.
By Ivor Tossell
The movement that is changing the face of environmentalism started with a school project six short years ago.
Rob Hopkins, who taught permaculture (which includes the science of growing sustainable crops close to home) at a continuing education college in the rural town of Kinsale, Ireland, asked his class a question: The era of cheap energy is about to end, so what – right here, in this town – can we do to prepare for it? The students started with the premise that in 2021, their town would have half as much oil than is currently available, and that the price of energy would cause major disruptions in the global supply chains providing for almost all their needs.
His students created what amounted to a road map for the near future, a document packed with hundreds of recommendations – practical, incremental suggestions on how to prepare for daily life in a post-oil time. From competitions among towns to see which could grow the most food locally, to recycling standards for demolished buildings, to medicinal herb farms, to alternative currencies, the students took a no-stone-left-unturned approach to the transition they saw coming. “It is not the work of professionals,” Hopkins wrote in the resulting document, which he prosaically titled Kinsale 2021: An Energy Descent Action Plan. “It may occasionally be guilty of naivety, being misinformed or overly optimistic, but it is our attempt at starting this process rolling.”
The project did more than that. The document so impressed Kinsale’s town councillors that they adopted it as a guiding policy. In a few short years, the practical ethos of so-called Transition Towns spread to the United Kingdom and, from there, around the world. Transition Network, one of the websites devoted to tracking the movement, has plotted its spread: hundreds of local projects have sprouted globally in recent years, especially in Europe, North America and Australia.
Today, Transition Initiative groups are appearing across Ontario, in urban centres such as Ottawa and Toronto as well as rural areas such as Prince Edward County and mid-sized communities such as Peterborough and Guelph. The groups conduct seminars, hold festivals, run publications, share information, plant gardens and coordinate any number of small, local initiatives.
The popularity of the movement springs at least in part from the ripped-from-the-headlines urgency of its message: a triple whammy is coming in the form of the end of cheap oil, climate change and economic instability. To address it, a new strain of environmentalism has emerged that combines environmental concerns with a small-business sensibility and a streak of individualist self-sufficiency.
The Transition movement has no single creed; every local group seems to hew to a slightly different vision. But some themes are pervasive: community focus, local self-reliance and using less energy rather than seeking to produce more of it – or, as one activist succinctly put it, “more simple living.” Transition groups tend to work across a variety of disciplines, ranging from food security and energy planning to transportation and economic development, trying to foster local-scale innovations in all of them.
Transition Guelph, for instance, has taken on a variety of small projects. Last spring, it launched a “treemobile” program through which fruit-bearing trees are planted around the city, and another initiative in which private landowners can have their urban fruit trees harvested and split the crop between owners and community kitchens. The Transition Guelph team launched two community gardens, working closely with other local groups. An alternative transportation group is working with bicycle shops to run bike-repair workshops, pushing maintenance capabilities out into the community. Yet another has undertaken the task of a “skills inventory” – a community registry of who has skills they would be willing to share, “everything from beekeeping to permaculture to darning socks,” says Chris Mills, the co-founder of Transition Guelph.
Since the Transition movement is polymathic by nature, it is well suited to serve as an umbrella for existing environmental initiatives, even lending them a new focus and urgency. “Often, Transition groups find themselves as hubs for things that people are already doing,” says Sami Grover, an environmental blogger who has written extensively about the movement. A Transition organization might, for example, bring the people spearheading a local-food movement together with those involved in social justice, and introduce both to neighbourhood businesses, says Grover.
The power of local networking is just as potent in the rural reaches of Prince Edward County, the picturesque peninsula on the shore of Lake Ontario, where environmental activism co-exists with the monster homes of wealthy retirees and the more pragmatic concerns of local farmers. “The part I’m really interested in is building a community that you can rely on,” says Christine Renaud, a member of the Prince Edward County Transition Group, which has been organizing lectures, many emphasizing self-reliance. The talks have covered everything from debt reduction to surviving economic turmoil to growing crops in winter and the finer points of producing sprouts.
The talks have found an audience among county residents who see the potential for a sustainable future – in some instances, by looking to the past. “At one time, ending in the late fifties and early sixties, Prince Edward County grew massive amounts of vegetables, and there were canning factories here,” says Myrna Wood, a member of the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, an Ontario Nature member group and one of the groups that invited Renaud to speak to its members. “All of that was closed down as agriculture in Canada became industrialized.”
But Renaud sees networks of skills and cooperation as critical to communities’ survival in a precarious future. If rising oil prices cripple the corporate-run, long-distance supply chains that deliver our staples today, people will fall back on skills available locally, she says. “There’s also a kind of building of trust, and being able to have a good time with other people.”
The Transition movement has its survivalist streak, too. Indeed, if the movement has a watchword, it isn’t “sustainability” – a term some people consider to have been greenwashed by commercial overuse – but “resilience”: the ability to withstand the trials that are coming for our global infrastructure. “The whole world is rushing for sustainability, which is really not attainable in the lifetime of anyone living on the planet,” says Fred Irwin, the affable but blunt force behind Transition Town Peterborough. “It’s all about community resilience.”
To drive his point home, Irwin posits a familiar scenario gone awry: “What will happen if the power goes out for three hours – and then three days?” Three hours is nothing out of the ordinary. But extend that outage, and the Western world gets into trouble. As it turns out, Irwin says, Peterborough stores three days of food reserves. Like much of the country, the town is woefully ill prepared for prolonged blackouts or fuel shortages.
So Transition Town Peterborough, like others, is fostering community projects that will help build that resilience: a slow-food festival this fall, permaculture seminars and a quarterly magazine spreading the message. The organization is also building networks between small businesses. For many Transitioners, strengthening small, local companies is as important as establishing small, local food suppliers.
Will the Transition movement gain traction? In communities like Guelph and Peterborough, municipal and university officials have shown interest and offered support in the form of providing meeting space and sending officials to work with Transition organizers. The uptake in the general population, however, has been slow. Irwin says that local politicians understand the Transition movement as a community builder, but aren’t engaging with the broader shift away from oil. “It’s a hard sell in Canada,” says Irwin, noting that a vast, cold country with a dispersed population is an energy hog by default. “Emissions are going up, and energy demand is going up.”
But observers from other disciplines are taking note. “I frankly think that they’re really on to something,” says Lloyd Alter, a prominent Toronto architect and conservationist who blogs for Treehugger.com. “All of my studies over the last couple of years have been about how old buildings and old communities were designed before oil started running everything, and they will survive after. This is exactly what [Transition groups] are doing.”
Mills of Transition Guelph compares the movement to the minority in pre-war Britain who believed that war was coming and took steps to prepare for it by doing things like planting gardens and building bunkers – blazing a path for the general population. “When war did break out, people asked: ‘What did you do? And what do I do next?’” Thanks to the prepared few, says Mills, the rest of the country had an answer.
Ivor Tossell is a Toronto-based writer who covers urban affairs and technology.