ILLUSTRATION BY RON MONNIER
Towns in Transition CONCERN ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE HAS PROMPTED PEOPLE IN COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE GLOBE TO TAKE MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS. AND, AS MICHAEL GREEN REPORTS, THEY ALSO HAVE SOME FUN TOGETHER.
On a hot Saturday morning a dozen locals have gathered around the wooden bench in Mark Kilinski’s kitchen, in the Geelong suburb of Bell Post Hill. With Kilinski giving instructions, the locals are filling and shaping pierogi – Polish dumplings. Everybody is talking or laughing, or doing both at once. People are making friends, their conversations almost too good-natured to be true. “It’s much more fun to cook together, isn’t it?” marvels Anne, who lives just across the road. “That’s the thing about community,” chimes Dee, a wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked librarian from the local school. The activity has been organised by Transition Bell, a group of locals dedicated to transforming postcode 3215 so its residents can deal with the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil – the point when global oil production reaches its maximum rate and then begins to fall. Many observers argue that oil supply has already passed its peak, or will soon do so. Members of Transition Bell want to remake their suburb into a food-producing, low-energy, low-emission, tight-knit neighbourhood. For well over a year, the group has been an official member of the thriving international Transition Network. The first transition town was developed in Kinsale, Ireland, in 2006. Later that year, Totnes, in Devon, England, adopted the idea. Now there are nearly 160 worldwide. In Australia, there are 13 official Transition Network initiatives and dozens more preparing to sign on. The movement took off last year, following the publication of The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Totnes project. In his handbook, Hopkins
argues that “the end of what we might call the Age of Cheap Oil (which lasted from 1859 until the present) is near at hand, and…for a society utterly dependent on it, this means enormous change”. Both peak oil and climate change, he continues, “are symptoms of a society hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and the lifestyles they make possible”. Interest in the movement now extends well beyond the English-speaking world, to continental Europe, South America, Asia and South Africa. An updated Australian and New Zealand edition of the book came out in March. Subtitled Creating Local Sustainable Communities Beyond Oil Dependency, it details a grassroots approach to sustainability, in which each group strives for change, aiming to live better with less. Naresh Giangrande, another founder of the Totnes project, visited Australia recently as part of a six-country speaking and training tour. “Two years ago, if somebody had told me that I would be in Australia on a worldwide tour teaching people about transition towns I would have said to them, ‘You’re crazy, it will never happen that quickly’,” he says. In Totnes, residents have started a slew of projects, from community gardens and a local food directory to business swap meets and eco-makeovers. They’ve even created their own currency, the Totnes Pound, which can only be used in the town. Giangrande says the biggest achievement so far has been building broad support among the town’s 8000 residents, as he argues that it’s crucial to engage people from all walks of life. “The fundamental message is that our
GETTING TO KNOW YOU THE SHAREHOOD (THESHAREHOOD.ORG) Started in Melbourne last year, this is an ingenious website that, together with a simple letterbox drop, will help you to not only meet the family across the road, but also borrow their circular saw. SUSTAINABILITY STREET (SUSTAINABILITYSTREET.ORG.AU) A basic training program in eco-living, this aims to achieve a 30% reduction in waste, water and energy consumption and to facilitate locally devised and energised sustainability projects. It has been run in over 200 places across Australia since 2002. CAN I BORROW A CUP OF SUGAR? Tried and true method of meeting the neighbours.
system is unsustainable. It’s not really a question of should we or shouldn’t we [change]. We’re going to have to.” The Transition Network involves a complete reassessment of every system on which people depend: food production, clothing, transportation and housing. Despite the daunting scale of change he envisages, Giangrande sees cause for both optimism and joy. “For many people, the environment is very scary because if you take a close look at it you realise that we’re in quite a deep hole. Transition is one of the few things that comes with a message of hope. A whole bunch of small actions by people all over the world add up to something rather big and rather wonderful,” he says.
*** Communities on the Sunshine Coast (which has a population nearing 300,000) were among the first in Australia to become part of the Transition Network. This suggests that a desire for action has moved towards the mainstream. For more than two years, Transition Sunshine Coast co-founder Sonya Wallace and others have been preparing an Energy Descent Action Plan to present to the Sunshine Coast council. The plan will be a blueprint for a regional makeover, from households “all the way up to legislative change, transport systems and all the big picture stuff that you can’t do as an individual or as a community”. Beneath the broad Sunshine Coast group, small transition towns are sprouting. Wallace herself lives in Eudlo, west of Mooloolaba, where the 850-strong community has established a food co-op, a seed bank and informal car-pooling, as well as running backyard permablitzes (working bees with a veggie twist: volunteers work to transform gardens into organic food-producing Edens). “We’re trying to get people to talk to their neighbours and build some community resilience,” she says. Last November, a storm walloped Brisbane’s northern suburbs, causing severe floods and extensive damage.
Amid the devastation, however, came an unexpected sense of community. “As this massive storm went through, people came out of their houses and started talking to their neighbours. They’d never spoken to their neighbours before,” Wallace says. “It generated street parties.” A similar, though more dramatic, story emerged following Victoria’s horrific bushfires in February. In the Monthly, author Richard Flanagan wrote of his visit to Kinglake: “Beyond us the police teams were turning over tin, turning up more and more dead, yet everywhere I looked I saw only the living helping the living, people holding people, people giving to people.” Scientists predict that the changes wrought by global warming will lead to more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts, fires and floods. For Wallace, the Transition Network is partly about preparation. “We’re trying to get people to work together before a crisis hits, because then it’s a bit too late to work out who the workers are and who has the skills.” Back in the Bell Post Hill kitchen, another participant, Andrew Lucas, is adamant that his group’s activities are enjoyable. “It is a really inclusive thing, not just a sustainability group filled with environmentalists. [The transition towns idea] doesn’t tend to alienate people because you’re talking about what we can do to look after each other. That sort of thing is missing in communities at the moment.” The local region has a long-standing mix of residents from different backgrounds, especially Eastern Europeans. Lucas says there’s an enormous amount of practical knowledge behind closed doors, like the recipe for pierogi. He hopes neighbours will share things like their cooking, preserving and gardening know-how. “We declared that this postcode will be the fruit tree capital of Geelong – pretty hilarious, because it’s not like we have anyone competing,” Lucas says. “There’s another postcode, Transition South Barwon, and they’re talking about becoming the shiitake mushroom capital!” Last year, at Transition Bell’s request, a local nursery offered a 50% discount. Residents cleared their stock in one weekend. Lucas wants to organise more bulk ecobuying deals with nearby businesses. As he explains: “You can get people motivated to take action, you get much better discounts and you’re putting money back into local businesses as well, so it’s a win-win.” The people in Mark Kilinski’s kitchen end up making about 300 dumplings in just a few hours. Conversation whisks through organic gardening, household efficiency and renewable energy, as well as future activities for the community. But, as always, the proof is in the eating. Janine, a first time attendee, sits at the table, her plate already empty. “Delicious,” she says sweetly. “We want some more.” Michael Green is a regular contributor to The Big Issue. In ‘The Money Pit’ (Ed#327), he dug into the boom/bust cycle of Roxby Downs’ mining industry. For more information on Transition Network, visit transitionnetwork.org and transitionsunshinecoast.org.
The transition town movement in Australia