Transition Towns Offer Hope for the Future

In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!
— Donald J. Trump

Reading tweets like this from President Trump incites a mixture of humour and sadness in me.  I can’t even tell which sentiment is stronger at this point.  Since his exiting the US from the Paris Agreement last year it is difficult to take this person seriously about any utterance he makes on the environment, to include his suspicion that “global warming” is a theory advanced “by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  The entire planet is suffering previously undocumented shifts in temperature that have been recorded since 1880 and we are facing a pollution crisis that has resulted in people in certain cities around the planet having to don face masks to leave their homes.  And just yesterday Trump announces that he “feel[s] strongly about the environment.”

According to The Ocean Cleanup, eight million tons of plastics enter the oceans every year, most of which has resulted in FIVE giant garbage patches (literally vortexes of pure garbage) floating in major bodies of water.  And I write “five” even though this number is relative given that just last summer another patch in the Pacific was found that is larger than Mexico and scientists are now grouping them together as singular, but larger, garbage patches such that now we have one spanning from off the coast of California all the way across the Pacific Ocean the the coast of Japan. Even shipping routes in smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea.  And then there is the tragedy of marine life which is under threat from oxygen depletion, the ablation of ice sheets, the melting of massive icebergs, and the fact that coal is still the primary driver of most economies today.

First, I want you to take a look at Greg Shirah’s and Horace Mitchel’s Garbage Patch Visual Experiment, courtesy of NASA. This large expanse of garbage is avoidable and is not coincidental to this pattern.  This is a major trade route between North America and Asia and despite the movement of the waters in the oceans, this ecological disaster is exemplary of the damage we are inflicting on the planet. It is also the key to how we can stop.

Transition towns are gaining in popularity today as they seek to move populations towards self-sufficiency while reducing effects of peak oil, climate damage, and economic instability.  The transition movement has been growing since its 2005 inception in the town of Totnes (UK).  Rob Hopkins officially got the transition movement beginning the following year by prompting the community to address how it might stop contributing to the above-mentioned garbage vortex as well as other ecological and social problems through action, through change.

Everything Connects states of transition towns:

Transition towns are local communities proactively preparing for an oil-scarce future in a warming world by reducing their dependence on fossil fuels and helping mitigate climate change by re-localizing, shifting production closer to home and creating functioning communities with the idea that strong neighborhood networks will help towns to weather future energy shocks. Transition towns address the issues of peak oil, climate change and economic instability by creating a strong, connected, self-sufficient community.

Transition towns offer the ability for communities to reclaim their local economies, create an environment that nurtures entrepreneurship, rethink how we work and to allow individuals to update their skills or even retrain in order to realize this conceptual town. Transition towns have now spread to over 50 countries.  The models or approaches are potentially endless in number, the ethos of this movement is to account for ecological and economic impacts of human existence through smart gardening, architecture, and business models.

Yifeng Zhu’s wonderful thesis, “Floating City in the Pacific Garbage Patch,” documents ways in which we can change our current behaviour towards the planet from recycling nappies for “light soil” and/or earth architecture practices found in the Library Delft at the University of Technology in Delft, Netherlands.  And green architecture is just beginning to look at how we might redesign our buildings in ways that might absorb some of this “garbage”. The United Kingdom is one country that is tackling transition towns head on and has been since 2006.

In her report for the British government, “The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets,” Mary Portas writes that 97 percent of all groceries are sold through just 8,000 supermarket outlets with only 3 percent representing local business. Transition towns look at how to grow the 3 percent. Portas sums it up stating:

To really get high streets working for us I have thought about what Government – central and local – needs to do. But the public sector alone cannot create vibrant high streets, however hard they try. There is also a part that landlords and retailers must play. And, crucially, the part that all of us can play as people that meet, trade and shop in high streets around the country. Together everybody is going to have to give a little bit to help our high streets to be vibrant and successful.

While this model of the high street (in the US, “Main Street”) sounds a reverse from the development of hyper-modern and post-modern malls originating in the US during the 1960s, it’s probably because it is. Malls and the mass migration to large cities have left ghost towns throughout parts of the US. And where people have remained, we have witnessed massive economic impoverishment and lack of industry and jobs.

For every pound a local business generates, three times more income is created. Studies also show that towns with more independent businesses have more social capital, a higher quality of life, better civic organization, and fewer supermarkets. When a community wants to take responsibility for its economic future, it needs only find what its priorities are and start there. Renewal energy, food, planting, investment models?  All of these are options in the design of transition towns.

In London there are approximately forty-five transition initiatives in neighborhoods where people can influence policy, regulations regarding new businesses, green initiatives, and so forth. In Brixton in the south of London, there is the Brixton pound which you can pay by text and the local council do part of their payroll in the Brixton pound.  And Brixton is home to the country’s largest inner-city, co-operatively-owned renewable energy project on a social housing estate, with many homes powered by solar panels installed on the roofs of the poorest homes. And just a few miles to the south, Crystal Palace has a vibrant food market and community garden and a trash catcher’s carnival where everything is made from rubbish.  And in north London, Kilburn has been the site of an experimental garden being run from the Kilburn Jubilee tube line. There have been many more such garden projects underway in recent years.

Around the UK, there are many more examples of transition towns such as Bristol where the Bristol pound has a lot of support from the city with its mayor’s salary being paid in Bristol pounds. And the transitioning of the city has included the investment of £2.2 million in the Bath & West Community Energy which includes Community Share Offers.  This means that locals have the opportunity to invest relatively small sums in local energy schemes with a good return on their investment.  They have also committed to working with local businesses which translates to economic benefits of the renewable energy projects being retained locally.

And outside the of the UK, Transition Towns in forty-three countries around the world are seeing similar interests and shifts towards the local infrastructure and economy. In Norway there are 170 and in Japan there are 40, formed by people of both the left and right since ecological and local concerns are subjects that span political views.

And in the United States there are currently 163 transition initiatives that have focused on seven primary principles.  What is most interesting about initiatives I have visited is the focus on local economies in this age where being self-employed is quickly becoming the most common form of employment (currently approximately 34 percent of the total workforce, and is projected to be 50 percent by 2020).  For instance, REconomy is another UK initiative which works to network with communities to help them transform their local economies while becoming more sustainable.  What this means in practical terms is that investments and projects can stay local and outsourcing becomes a thing of the past which encourages a fair price for trade and fair salaries in return. This is clearly a push-back against globalization.

This also means that any shopping and production can be undertaken locally and any benefits to the consumer in the form of discounts or contracts extended for work, will go to the local community.  There are even more economists taking on transition in terms of future economic sustainability in an age where benefits in the UK are being slashed, putting poverty at unthinkable levels and in the US where the government’s draconian politics are inflicting harm on our nation’s poorest, these economies are vital. Detroit comes to mind as a model for how we need to organize with entrepreneurial innovation at the helm.

The reality is that the previous model of the metropolis is no longer viable for a growing number of humans. Many are moving from the larger cities to which they flocked after university and are moving back to their countryside origins, others are opting for towns where walking and bicycle are sufficient means of transport locally, and many are finding that the most unsuspecting, even underpopulated areas of the country, are perfect settings for their skill sets. The ecological rewards can only be positive in this day and age of economic fragility, job insecurity, and the ability for many of us to work from long distances with work to be submitted online. Transitioning is not only sustainable and communal, but it is proving to offer a healthier and happier way of living.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Julian.