What is Transition?

By Paul Heft

The Transition movement is a community organizing effort intending to help small, local communities plan for a difficult future, and transition to a sustainable way of living. The key threats that are addressed are:

  1. The looming disappearance of cheap oil, which has underpinned industrial economies’ expansion for over a century—a problem often known as “Peak Oil”
  2. Climate Change, which can be minimized through drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions

Facing these threats is very uncomfortable for most people, but the Transition movement asks that we look at them squarely. While developing nations increase their demands for oil and other resources—gradually catching up with the US and other developed nations—supplies are being strained. Extracting the additional barrels of oil is becoming more and more expensive, so we can expect prices to rise significantly. Substituting other sources of energy is likewise very expensive. We will see the cost of all energy going up, while at the same time we must use much less of some sources of energy—oil, coal, natural gas, etc.—because they create carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that are dangerously changing our climate.

The Transition movement encourages a growing awareness of the challenges of energy supply and climate change, asking us to discuss how those may affect our communities. There will be effects on our food, energy, transport, health, economics and livelihoods. It asks each community to consider how to increase its resilience in the face of our changing circumstances—planning to depend less on such fuels and drastically reduce carbon emissions, which implies greatly reducing energy usage. It asks us to develop plans covering 15 to 20 years into the future.

Some people in the Transition movement are adding a third major threat to consider, in addition to tight energy supplies and climate change: the threat of recurring or prolonged economic crises.

Increasing resilience means being able to roll with the shocks and disturbances, whether foreseen or not. The alternative will be terrible strains on our systems of supplying food, energy, medical care, housing, finance, and the various goods and services we have come to depend on.

A key strategy proposed by the Transition movement is relocalization: modifying our way of life, and our economic systems, to become less dependent on distant sources of what we need to live, thereby drastically reducing our need for the fuels and other energy sources that will become very expensive. The idea is to produce as much as possible locally, and to not depend on national governments and multinational corporations to lead.

Another key strategy is encouraging bottom-up planning, relying on the increased creativity that arises from engaging as many people as possible within a community. The Transition movement expects that local solutions will vary, and will consist of many small interventions that point to a future of abundance on different terms than at present. Our collective genius can lead to ways of living that are more connected, more enriching, and fit the limits of global resources.

The Transition movement is a grassroots movement. While it has formed an international network, it expects local communities to act autonomously, to be creative in asking questions and setting goals for change. The movement does not attempt reforms in government, it doesn’t campaign, it isn’t political.

My particular interest is gardening and food security, so I start by asking related questions. As fuel and other energy costs rise and we try to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, can we continue to ship food from hundreds or thousands of miles away? Can farms continue to rely on fertilizers made from natural gas?

We may want to grow a very large proportion of our food within our own community, with minimal inputs. Might gardens look much like they do now, but show up in more yards? Or might we grow a lot more fruit and nut trees? Potatoes? Compost crops? Might we rely more on large plots than individual yards? Share the labor with other people who don’t own the gardens? Farm the foothills or the baylands? In what ways might we suffer hardships, or enjoy advantages over our present lives?

Paul Heft
Palo Alto, California
December 3, 2009

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About bart

My wife and I live in a small condominium in the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2004-2009, I was the main editor for the Energy Bulletin website (http://energybulletin.net). In previous lives I was a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard, a high school teacher and a newspaper reporter and editor.

One thought on “What is Transition?

  1. Great summary, Paul!
    And we can’t do any of this without community, a way of living in which we learn to care about the common good. We not only need to produce local and buy local, we need to live local — coming together with our neighbors, enjoying convivial street life, creating our own entertaiment with potlucks and movie nights and parties.
    The wonderful thing about the transition movement is that it’s so positive! Researcher Tim Kasser has found that when we give people too much bad news, they tend to shop more! Not exactly what we want.

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