Feature

Towns in transition

G Magazine

As world discussion turns to peak oil, towns and regions across the world are taking it upon themselves to prepare for the occurrence. Welcome to the phenomenon of the Transition Town.

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"It's really about giving people their power back; about getting hands-on," says Eudlo TT member Anne Gibson.

Credit: iStockphoto

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Australia's first Transition Town on show at the Transition Sunshine Coast Fair Day.

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Anne and Bryan Gibson collect fresh produce from their kitchen garden.

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The Eudlo TT Seed Savers group busy at work processing seeds.

Seeds

Herb seed packets from the Eudlo TT Seed Savers group.

Solar cook

A solar cooking demonstration for Eudlo residents.

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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.

Australian TTs

“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.

Wallace grows her own organic herbs, salad greens, vegetables, flowers, nuts and even coffee. She’s also a beekeeper, seed saver, cob oven builder, local food advocate and soap maker.

Before becoming involved in permaculture she worked full-time for the Queensland Government in emergency services. It’s only since 2006 that she’s acquired all the skills she currently practises. She has also switched to working part-time, made possible in part by the fact that her home and garden help sustain her. “At this stage I’m self-reliant, not self-sufficient,” she says.

Like many other Eudlo residents, Wallace also belongs to a LETS (Local Energy Trading Scheme) group where she barters goods and services with neighbours. “It’s all about an alternative, positive solution,” she says.

Eudlo TT member Anne Gibson produces a community newsletter that updates greenies in the wider area on permaculture and TT news. “I have my finger in a few different pies,” she laughs. She met Wallace in 2009, after she had moved from Brisbane, where she says she and her family lived a life very disconnected from community.

“Now we have a stack of ducks, a kitchen garden and we’re reconnecting to our source of food and to our neighbours.” Gibson is involved in workshops on planting, food preserving and storage techniques and skill sharing. “It’s really about giving people their power back; about getting hands-on.” She’s also the head of the Eudlo TT Seed Savers group. “To cover costs, we sell the seeds at local markets and events like the Qld Home & Garden Show,” she says.

Retirees John and Maria Parry are also part of the Eudlo TT community. They moved from Melbourne about four years ago and planted an orchard that includes feijoas, bananas and pawpaws, and an organic vegetable garden. “We eat what we can and give the excess to friends,” says John. “We only have one acre but we have lots of tanks for our own water and the garden and solar hot water. We just decided that, with peak oil and the way the world was going, we wanted to be more self-sufficient.” The Parrys have experienced a complete transformation of their lifestyle but John has no doubts the change has been for the better.

Communities who become involved usually begin by raising awareness about peak oil, climate change and the need to undertake a community-led process to rebuild resilience and form groups to look at all the key areas of life (food, energy, transport, health, heart and soul, economics and livelihoods). Organic gardening courses, local food cooperatives, healthy cooking classes, garden kitchens at local schools, community worm farms and composting centres, and bulk fruit tree sales are all activities that may follow.

But, as with the core principles of the movement, the process is very organic and can vary from place to place (there’s no right or wrong model), with the focus on communities working together to increase the sustainability of their town and, ultimately, their lives.

The 12 steps for a transition town

Hopkins and Brangwyn have laid out twelve key steps for communities to follow in their transition journey.

Step 1: Set up a core team to drive the project forward initially.

Step 2: Raise awareness. Build networks and raise community awareness through film screenings, public forums, presentations to existing groups and letters and articles in the local papers.

Step 3: Lay the foundations. Network with existing groups.

Step 4: Organise a great unveiling. This creates a memorable milestone and enjoyable event to build momentum and involve the wider community.

Step 5: Form subgroups. Tap into the collective genius of the community and create a number of smaller groups to tackle strategies for specific areas, eg, food, waste, education, housing, transport, etc.

Step 6: Use open space technology. This means running working sessions around related issues. Sessions have no set agenda and are driven by open discussion.

Step 7: Develop visible practical manifestations of the project. For example, tree planting events, a community garden, a farmers market, carpooling or car sharing scheme, trading scheme, a slow food festival, etc.

Step 8: Facilitate the great reskilling. Connect with community members to learn and implement training in skills that were essential in a lower energy society, for example, building, machine and clothing repair, cycle maintenance, practical food growing, etc.

Step 9: Build a bridge to local government. Gaining interest and support from the local municipality is essential.

Step 10: Honour the elders. Community members who directly experienced the transition to cheap oil, especially the period between 1930 and 1960, can provide invaluable knowledge about the invisible connections between the different elements of society and how they supported daily life.

Step 11: Let the project go where it wants to. The role of the transition initiative is to act as a catalyst, not to come up with all the answers.

Step 12: Create an energy descent action plan. The practical actions identified by each subgroup to increase community resilience and reduce the carbon footprint eventually form this plan.