Archive for May 25th, 2009

One down, eleven to go

By David Parkinson

Seeds, awaiting the right moment to create new life...

Seeds, awaiting the right moment to create new life...

Last Wednesday (May 20 2009), the Unitarian Hall in Cranberry was the scene of a meeting which might end up having some historical importance. I was happy to be part of this meeting, and I’m excited to see what the next steps will be, since this was the inaugural get-together of a new group, Transition Powell River.

It seems as though 2009 is the year that Transition starts to go mainstream: none other than the New York Times published a recent piece on Transition, and even Elle magazine got into the act with a piece titled “Do Worry, Be Happy.” So what is this thing called Transition?

All it really is a set of procedures for starting out with two big realizations:

  • we are approaching — or possibly have gone past — the point of maximum worldwide oil production;
  • climate change is a real problem, largely man-made, and we must reduce carbon emissions drastically and quickly.

Little by little, these realizations are seeping in from the fringes of respectable public discourse and starting to occupy centre stage in average people’s understanding and in the decision-making of political leaders. But they are such enormous and far-reaching sets of facts which pose huge problems to us all, on an individual and community level. How are we supposed to deal with the fact that we are at the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels? How can we reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to have a meaningful effect on the earth’s atmosphere?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by questions like these. And in a society which tends to keep us all separated from one another, we all feel as though we are dealing with this on our own. Should we buy the recycled toilet paper? Change our lightbulbs? Start bicycling to work one day a week? Ditch the car altogether?

So we start from the two big assumptions and add to them (as if they weren’t enough) the geographical isolation of the Upper Sunshine Coast. So now we’re facing an ongoing and accelerating decline in the availability of fossil fuels, leading to ever-higher prices. And the need to sharply reduce carbon emissions. And to deal with the fact that higher prices for gas and oil mean higher prices for all goods shipped to us from outside the region. And maybe we need to start seriously planning for occasional disruptions in supply.

And so what are we supposed to do with this litany of seemingly insurmountable problems?

This is where the Transition movement comes in (and not a moment too soon). The main idea behind creating a transition to a future of limited fossil fuel supplies and reduced carbon emissions is that we need to harness the creative energy of the whole community in order to have the greatest chance of success. Here are some of the questions we need to start answering:

  • How are we going to feed ourselves as the costs of oil-dependent agriculture and transportation rise?
  • How can we travel around the region more efficiently?
  • How can we heat our homes as oil, natural gas, and electricity become more expensive?
  • What will the basis of our regional economy be?
  • What are the expected effects of climate change on our water supply and on our capacity to produce food regionally?

What attracts me most about the Transition approach is what it is not. It is not something for our political leaders to sort out. Nor is it something that individuals are expected to cope with (which would almost certainly mean: through their choices as consumers). Instead, it is a community-based approach to coping with some very heavy realities and coming up with solutions and mitigations which make sense to the community.

The City of Powell River is still engaged in its effort to create a Sustainability Charter for the region. At the point of writing this, the City is looking to hire a consultant for the final phase of creation of the charter, which will be a brief document outlining some goals and policies for making the City more sustainable (however that is defined). This is a good thing, but it’s not clear how regular citizens will engage with the outcome of this charter — for all we know, the resulting policies may have much to do with lowering the City’s consumption of fossil fuels and overall carbon footprint and not so much to do with helping all of the inhabitants of the region to reduce their individual and collective footprint. Governments are good at some things, but galvanizing activism is traditionally not one of them.

So one of the nice things about this Transition Powell River effort is that it belongs to us. It was started up by one local person, Kevin Wilson, who read The Transition Handbook and got fired up with enthusiasm. He contacted some friends and put the word out through a few local email lists and in Immanence magazine. And so we met last week and started the ball rolling; you can read Kevin’s brief summary of the meeting here.

And that brings me to the title of this week’s column: “One down, eleven to go”. This refers to the twelve steps to Transition, which are a good introduction to the whole idea. If you take a few minutes to read through them you’ll get a good sense of how loose and organic the process is. Transition is not a set of rules and formal procedures for getting from here to there; they’re designed to be more like a set of attitudes and approaches which allow the genius of the participants to find expression. Like the twelve principles of permaculture, which I discussed last week — what is it with the number twelve anyway? — they are ways of thinking about a tough problem and maximizing the chances of coming up with good solutions. I am very drawn to problem-solving strategies like these, since they allow for the greatest amount of human creativity and freedom. Any jackass can follow a set of rules, but only a community of people focused on a common task can converse, debate, argue, disagree, and eventually (we hope) work towards the best overall solution — which may be no single person’s preferred solution, but one that everyone can live with and contribute to.

And so the “one down” is the very first of the twelve steps: “Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset”. Which is what we did last Wednesday. The slightly funny part of this step, of course, is the second clause: “… and design its demise from the outset”. Why is that a critical part of the formation of a steering group? The idea, as explained in the twelve steps document, is that one of the first actions for the steering group to get going on is to start forming working groups which will tackle specific areas of concern, such as food supply, water supply, housing, energy, transportation, etc. Once a few of those groups are up and running, the steering group dissolves and a new group is formed by appointing a delegate from each of these working groups.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Success depends on bringing more people in and getting them involved in making a real impact on our region’s resilience and capacity to withstand some coming challenges. It’s scary stuff sometimes, but better faced as a community than as a bunch of isolated individuals. Interested? If you want to know what’s going on with our Transition effort, email Kevin Wilson and keep an eye on the Transition Powell River blog.


Post facto

May 2009
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