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Imagine a world where we no longer rely on oil for transportation or fuelling our economy. Rather, we live in local communities where we collectively grow our own food, trade goods, swap ideas about health and lifestyle and exchange services using a local currency. This scenario is called a Transition Town (TT) and it’s not some distant utopian vision; it’s already happening around the world, including here in Australia.
According to followers of permaculture (those who advocate sustainable agricultural design and the enrichment of local ecosystems) it’s the best response to peak oil, the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached. And increasingly, many local authorities, including those all around Australia from Bellingen on the Sunshine Coast, to Maleny in Queensland and Newcastle in New South Wales,
agree, and are setting up Transition Towns nationwide.
“Transition Towns are one of the most exciting outcomes of permaculture thinking and action in the world today,” says David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture. He explains that TTs are based on four key assumptions:
1. Inevitably we will experience life with dramatically lower energy consumption, and it’s better to plan for that eventuality rather than be taken by surprise.
2. Our communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil and climate change.
3. We have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
4. By unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively designing our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognise the biological limits of our world.
In Bellingen, NSW, that involves a community garden tended by local cook Stuart Kilby to help feed himself and his son, Moss. It means he only works part-time and trades vegies and gardening skills with neighbours and friends.
In Eudlo, Queensland, it’s all about beekeeping, food preserving lessons, seed saving and, in broader terms, “connecting to community,” as local member Anne Gibson expresses it.
“Our lives have changed radically,” she says. “We are closer to nature and we’re having fun.”
Where in the world it began
The TT movement began in 2005 when Kinsale in Ireland became the first Transition Town. Co-founder Rob Hopkins then moved to the United Kingdom and, with friend Ben Brangwyn, founded Transition Towns UK.
“The Transition Movement is a rapidly growing, ‘viral’ movement, which began in Ireland and is now underway in thousands of communities around the world,” says Hopkins. Currently there are believed to be upwards of 150 registered Transition Initiative communities worldwide.
“Its fundamental premise is that a response to climate change and peak oil will require action globally, nationally, and at the scale of local government, but it also needs vibrant communities driving the process, making unelectable policies electable, creating the groundswell for practical change at the local level.”
Hopkins says that, as we enter the world of volatile oil prices, resource constraints, and the need to situate ourselves more within local economies than the global one, we will need to actively link satisfaction and
happiness to community, skills, meaningful work and friendships.
“Resilience thinking can inspire a degree of creative thinking that might actually take us closer to solutions that will succeed in the longer term,” he says.
He adds that resilient solutions to climate change might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp), thereby stimulating a range of potential local businesses and industries; the installation of a range of urban food production models; and the re-linking of farmers with their local markets.
“By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed,” says Hopkins.
“It’s [the] availability of food that really hits home,” says Sonya Wallace, an enthusiatic permaculturist who lives in the tiny Sunshine Coast town of Eudlo (population 800) and who has recently witnessed the devasting effects of the Queensland floods nearby.
She’s become a sort of one-woman evangelist, travelling to places from Melbourne to Noosa to do presentations on TTs, as well as leading by example in her home community.
“I learnt about permaculture in 2006, then saw David Holgrem speak about TTs and an Energy Descent Action Plan (preparing people for climate change and peak oil) and I got really excited,” she says.
A year later, she established Australia’s first TT for the greater Sunshine Coast municipality, where the council has recently completed an Energy Transition Plan that details how the region can begin moving to cleaner and renewable energy.
With more than one million people expected to settle in South East Queensland in the next 20 years and 180,000 of those on the Sunshine Coast, the council believes it needs to plan for and manage this growth in a green way.
Six years ago, Wallace moved to Eudlo and helped establish one of several splinter TT groups that are now dotted around the area.
The tiny town now has a food collective supporting local markets, a seed saver group, a beekeepers’ collective, a solar cooking group, a health hub that holds natural wellness days and an energy descent action planning team. Permablitzes – community garden working bees – are another initiative.