Transitioning to a Positive Future

by Rusty Pritchard

Circulating under the radar, in the hands of community organizers, victory gardeners, slow food advocates, social justice workers, climate activists, locavores, and do-it-yourselfers, is a book—rather a couple of books—written by a Brit who is subverting not only the dominant narrative of globalization and runaway economic growth but also the gloom-and-doom of much of Western environmentalism. The Transition Handbook (2008) and the newer Transition Companion (2011) receive little public press but have captured the imagination of thousands of people concerned with restoring the integrity of local communities and the resilience they display in the face of disaster and shock. Beginning in the United Kingdom but rapidly becoming a worldwide phenomenon, the Transition movement is taking root in the US as well.

Emergency preparedness as it is typically understood is about getting communities back to where they were before the crisis hit—whether that is a tornado, hurricane, flood, or fire. The Transition movement purports to prepare communities for the deeper crises that will come with the inevitable disappearance of cheap oil, the disruption that will accompany climate change, and the collapse and retrenchment of the global economic system.

How is this to be done? In the dominant industrial-environmental complex, the indicated responses to energy crises, global warming, and economic instability are about national and international policy: treaties, agreements, laws, and regulations that constrain behavior and restrict freedom. Innovation, when it is sought, is believed to emerge from investment in “research and development” with an optimism that technology can and will save us. Individual households are fed messages about green purchasing and recycling but encouraged to stay on the treadmill of resource consumption. Little attention is given to the communities and institutions that could generate true novelty and that sustain changes in lifestyles.

In the Transition movement framework, new ideas come from “unleashing” (a favorite word) local people to think about local solutions to their problems, reconnecting in ways that counter the modern deconstruction of social relations, and reorganizing to buffer cities, towns, and villages from outside shocks.

Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out the value of “intermediate institutions” in the 1830s America he described—book clubs, volunteer fire departments, social clubs, burial societies—and described their functional value for social stability, political organizing, and local problem-solving in response to difficulty. Social scientists like Robert Putnam and cultural commentators like Chuck Colson have lamented the decline in “social capital” that comes with the loss of these institutions. Transition movement advocates agree, and they put forward a host of ideas for replenishing that social capital.

In Berea, Ky., one of the first US municipalities to declare itself a “Transition Town,” residents banded together to create a “50 x 25” goal in response to external threats, including the loss of electricity from ice storms, the loss of jobs due to regional economic shifts, and the threat of climate change. By 2025 they aim to be using 50 percent less energy, sourcing 50 percent of food locally, and generating half of their income through locally owned, independent businesses. Like other Transition Towns, they also address the “great forgetting” induced by our integration into global markets, whereby we lose the ability to grow and preserve our own food, mend our own clothes and houses, and repair our own machines; re-skilling workshops involve residents helping other residents recover that knowledge.

Failure to pass meaningful climate legislation or economic reforms after the financial crisis has left many despairing for the future. But that’s putting all our eggs in the political basket. Fans of the Transition movement suggest that reforming communities and municipalities first will pave the way for meaningful change. For Sherry Maddock, a missionary who lives with her family in an intentional community in inner-city Lexington, Ky., seeing the work in Berea and reading the Transition books enlivened her thinking about what working for shalom in her neighborhood meant. “The things I had been reading were pretty bleak. But the Transition movement seemed completely, extraordinarily positive.” She has found the books to be relentlessly practical—and highly applicable to her urban experience of working for the common good.

Peak oil was the original impetus for Transition initiatives as they emerged in the UK, and that theme continues to be woven into most Transition conversations, but the current fossil fuel boomlet has taken the edge off that perceived crisis, according to Maddock. She also cautions that the movement has yet to attract significant interest among poor and minority populations, but she says that may be changing as people discover the virtues of self-reliance.

Andy Mellen and Neil Hollow are British Christians who see the pros and cons of the Transition movement in the UK, and they encourage Christians to engage, noting an interesting convergence:  Both Transition and Christianity invoke a powerful and positive vision of the future. “With Transition, the future is a sustainable, resilient, vibrant community; for Christians, the future is the full appearance of the kingdom of God.” There’s no reason to doubt that the hopes and energy behind the Transition movement are God-given desires for shalom, and that Christians could find a happy partnership there.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the CEO of Flourish (FlourishOnline.org), an environmental ministry.


Interested in learning more about the Transition Movement?
Check out these resources:

• British Christians Andy Mellen and Neil Hollow have written an entire book about the concept of peak oil (No Oil in the Lamp: Fuel, Faith, and the Energy Crisis, 2012), and their chapter on Transition Towns is particularly helpful. The book was reviewed in the Fall 2013 issue of PRISM.

• The foundational books for the movement are by Rob Hopkins: The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (2008) and The Transition Companion: Making Your Community Resilient in Uncertain Times (with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, 2011).

• Several feature films are available online; the most recent is the one-hour In Transition 2.0. For those who are limiting their screen time (as we all should be!), try a dose of Rob Hopkins via his TED talk.

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