The End Is Near! (Yay!)

SUBHEAD: Transition Towns phenomena begins spread in the United States By Jon Mooallem on 19 April 2009 in The New York Times Image above: The main drag in Sandpoint, Idaho. Source - The New York Times [Editor's note: This is the opening of a long article available through the link above.] The stage lights went up at the Panida Theater, a classy old movie house in Sandpoint, Idaho, and the M.C. stepped out of the dark with one finger high in the air. There was an uprising of applause and cheering. Then, shouting like a head coach before a bowl game, she said, “Sandpoint, are you ready?” It was a Friday night last November. All around the little town of Sandpoint, beetles were blighting north Idaho’s pine forests. The previous day, the U.N. reported that emissions from automobiles and coal-fired power plants were collecting in brown clouds over 13 Asian and African cities and blocking out the sun. Iceland’s main banks had crumpled, and American auto executives were about to fly to Washington in private jets to plead for a bailout. Off the coast of Africa, Somali pirates were hijacking oil tankers. But the folks at the Panida Theater wouldn’t stop clapping. The Sandpoint Transition Initiative, a new chapter of a growing, worldwide environmental movement, was officially coming to life. The Transition movement was started four years ago by Rob Hopkins, a young British instructor of ecological design. Transition shares certain principles with environmentalism, but its vision is deeper — and more radical — than mere greenness or sustainability. “Sustainability,” Hopkins recently told me, “is about reducing the impacts of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.” But that assumes our industrial society will keep running. By contrast, Hopkins said, Transition is about “building resiliency” — putting new systems in place to make a given community as self-sufficient as possible, bracing it to withstand the shocks that will come as oil grows astronomically expensive, climate change intensifies and, maybe sooner than we think, industrial society frays or collapses entirely. For a generation, the environmental movement has told us to change our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic consequences. Transition tells us those consequences are now irreversibly switching on; we need to revolutionize our lives if we want to survive. Transition’s approach is adamantly different from that of the survivalists I heard about, scattered in the mountains around Sandpoint in bunkers stocked with gold and guns. The movement may begin from a similarly dystopian idea: that cheap oil has recklessly vaulted humanity to a peak of production and consumption, and no combination of alternative technologies can generate enough energy, or be installed fast enough, to keep us at that height before the oil is gone. (Transition dismisses Al Gore types as “techno-optimists.”) But Transition then takes an almost utopian turn. Hopkins insists that if an entire community faces this stark challenge together, it might be able to design an “elegant descent” from that peak. We can consciously plot a path into a lower-energy life — a life of walkable villages, local food and artisans and greater intimacy with the natural world — which, on balance, could actually be richer and more enjoyable than what we have now. Transition, Hopkins has written, meets our era’s threats with a spirit of “elation, rather than the guilt, anger and horror” behind most environmental activism. “Change is inevitable,” he told me, “but this is a change that could be fantastic.” After developing the rudiments of Transition with a class he was teaching at an Irish college, Hopkins moved to the English town of Totnes, and, in 2005, began mobilizing a campaign to “relocalize” the town. The all-volunteer effort has since been busily planting nut trees, starting its own local currency and offering classes on things like darning socks in order to “facilitate the Great Reskilling.” More than 80 other initiatives across England have followed, including one in Bristol, a city of nearly half a million people. Worldwide, there are now more than 150 official Transition Towns (communities with an active group of citizens), and last winter, trainers from Totnes traveled the globe to run workshops, leaving activists on three continents to begin the relocalization of their own communities — autonomously and with whatever financing they can raise. (The Transition revolution is, loosely speaking, a franchise model.) Sandpoint, Idaho, was the second Transition Town in the United States after Boulder County, Colo. They have been joined by more than 20 others in the last year, including Portland, Maine; Berea, Kentucky; and even Los Angeles. But the American arm of the movement is expanding far faster than it is accomplishing anything, which is why the event in Sandpoint that night was so significant. The Sandpoint Transition Initiative was the first in North America to hold this kind of coming-out party, meant to engage the community in its work. This constituted Step 4 in the 12-step Transition Process laid out in Rob Hopkins’s Transition Handbook, the jargon-filled manual at the center of the movement. The handbook calls this event “A Great Unleashing.” The Transition Handbook reads like an imaginative take on a corporate-management text. It recommends techniques for building consensus, from bureaucratic-sounding protocols like Open Space Technology to an exercise in which people decorate a potato like a superhero. “The Transition model,” the founder of one English Transition Town explained to me, “provides a structure, a foundation for organizing.” And along with Transition’s emphasis on hopefulness over fear, this rigorous playbook seems to set it apart from earlier grass-roots crusades. It is, Transition leaders say, what they hope will allow the movement to bring in the people that conventional activists have failed to reach and, just as important, keep everyone focused through the messiness and disillusionment every community-organizing effort encounters and many do not survive. At the Panida, the keynote speaker was Michael Brownlee, the director of the Transition effort in Boulder and a representative of Transition U.S. — an even newer group that is forming to help the movement spread in America. He was like the Transition equivalent of a middle manager flown in from corporate. Brownlee gave his own variation of the standard PowerPoint presentation distributed at Transition trainings. Up on the screen behind him came a slide showing the three convergent emergencies that Transition aims to help us through: climate change, the unraveling of the global economy and peak oil. The theory of peak oil concludes that the productivity of the earth’s oil wells will soon peak — if it hasn’t already — and, once production falls short of demand, the market for our fundamental resource will rapidly spiral into chaos, potentially pulling much of society down with it. Brownlee spelled out some probable outcomes, quoting peak oil’s pantheon of thinkers: Oil hits $300 a barrel by 2013. Middle Eastern exports cease. Things we take for granted — supermarkets, suburbs — quickly become impossible, and the world sinks into an “unprecedented economic crisis” that will “topple governments, alter national boundaries,” incite wars and “challenge the continuation of civilized life.” Brownlee paused after reading that last quote. He hadn’t even gotten to climate change and the implosion of the American dollar. It was all surprisingly easy to imagine. Lately, an apocalyptic bile has been collecting in the back of America’s throat. Our era has been defined by skyrocketing line graphs, and it’s easy to wonder if we have finally pushed something just a little too far and are now watching everything start to teeter over. Maybe it’s not our dependence on oil, but the carbon we have plugged up the atmosphere with. Or global population. Or credit derivatives. We’re all starting to career down the other side of that hill — which hill, specifically, is up to you. But it’s the shadowy side, and none of us can see the bottom. In Sandpoint, though, people were trying to move the stale chatter of environmental collapse out of the health-food store and into the 21st century — to pull each incongruous part of their community together and make their town, collaboratively, the blessed place they all knew it could be. At a time when so much fuzzy energy for change ricochets through our culture, and even Chevron ads ask us to use less oil and harness “the power of human energy” instead, Transition seemed to offer this sold-out theater in Idaho both a vision and a lucid, 240-page instruction manual with which to give it a try. Would it work? Nobody could say. But as Brownlee finished, and the crowd suddenly re-erupted into applause, even just trying it seemed to feel wonderful. Next, a group of kids raced onto the stage in Sgt. Pepper garb, holding inflatable guitars. Later came a “sustainable performance arts” troupe (they use biofuels when fire dancing) and a woman who sang about rain and peace. By the time the last guitar duo performed “Here Comes the Sun,” everyone in the room was so keyed up — so ready to turn the impending dark age of peak oil and climate change into a renaissance — that no one heard the slightest menace in the line “Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.” Or if they did, they just kept singing along anyway. For the complete article... see also: Island Breath: Portland Freedom Tribe 2010 9/29/08

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