Lost in Transition

[6th article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared on The Atlantic online, April 2, 2011.]

“Do you worry about whether you’ve buried the entrails deep enough?” was among the questions I heard at my first Transition meeting, in Albany, California. The meeting featured an informal discussion with Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City, who had converted an empty plot of land in the Oakland inner city into a viable vegetable and animal farm. Carpenter had just mentioned raising rabbits for food, and what she did with the remains. The woman asking the question was concerned that if they weren’t buried far enough below, rabbit entrails would rot and contaminate the rest of the farm. “Two feet is enough,” was the confident response from Carpenter, who then proceeded to talk about how the gall bladder could also be used for green ink.

Gall bladders for green ink? How did I get here?

While I was in India, there was a year when the price of some basic foods rose by as much as 40%, due to international shortages. It hardly affected me, but for the low-income communities I interacted with, it was a life-constricting squeeze. Families skipped meals and everyone had to find more work. Hikes in global oil prices were equally painful. Gasoline is subsidized in India, and because the Indian government had no choice but to raise prices, there were strikes and protests. But, what could the government do? The problem was global.

Every gallon I consume is one less gallon on the market. By some estimates, resource consumption among North Americans is 32 times greater than it is in the developing world. As the global population grows and resources become scarcer, the poorest people in the world are hit first and worst. As a person from a rich country engaging in international development, I’m part of the problem that I’m trying to help solve.

So, when I returned to the United States, I looked for organizations that were addressing the issues here. Transition was one. The movement’s basic premises are that the consequences of peak oil and climate change are imminent; that governments and entrenched powers are not yet taking necessary action; and that the most practical response is for local communities to transition to resilient, localized communities that wean themselves off of fossil fuels and long-distance trade. Though every community is encouraged to find its own solutions, the dominant activities are to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, to start gardens and otherwise grow food locally, to experiment with local currencies, and so on.

The movement was begun by Rob Hopkins, a British teacher of permaculture and natural building. Permaculture is itself a methodology for sustainable living, where food is grown not by fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive agricultural techniques, but through organic means that doesn’t take more from the environment than it puts back.

Hopkins’s genius with Transition was to start a movement that is incremental, grassroots, and optimistic without being moralizing. The allure of Transition is that it seeks to find a more meaningful, connected way of life that is ultimately happier than the lives that many of us lead on our achievement-oriented hedonic treadmills. Joining the movement isn’t as much about doing the right thing as it is to aspire to a more satisfying life.

Transition Towns might be considered the latest in a history of intentional communities that have experimented to find more enlightened alternatives to modern economically driven urban life. They have something in common with some religious monasteries, hippie communes, Israeli kibbutzes, artist colonies, meditative ashrams, Gandhian villages, and other communities that have deliberately sought alternatives to mainstream society. But, unlike communities that isolate themselves, Transition Towns seek to evolve existing cities, towns, and villages, transitioning them gently from oil-addicted materialism to sustainable community.

Transition Towns and philosophically affiliated groups now exist all over the world, in various stages of resilience. There’s a good chance there’s one near you.

A common Transition goal is to reduce energy consumption, and below is a graph of my carbon footprint showing only that part due to transportation. It’s based on estimates of my travel from last year. (I used a tool from the Cool Climate Network at UC Berkeley. You can calculate your own carbon footprint here.)

Because I fly so much, air travel is responsible for almost all of my total ecological footprint, and it’s the footprint of a giant. Everything else I do is negligible in comparison. For maximum impact, I should stop flying, but at least in the medium term, I won’t because of work and family. But if everything else is negligible, should I even bother with driving less?

One thing I like about groups like Transition is that they are consistently upbeat about changes in personal attitudes and behavior. One principle is to encourage small steps, especially at the beginning. People talk about starting with one basil plant, or one day a week of biking to work, or changing to energy-efficient light bulbs.

In the long term, it’s definitely not enough just to change our lightbulbs, but we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere has to be with us. This argument was eloquently made in an article by Michael Pollan published in The New York Times in 2008, which I highly recommend. It was titled, “Why Bother?”

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do.

In making our move, it can be daunting and discouraging if we keep reminding ourselves of the magnitude of the challenge. It’s again a problem of the difference between reality and what motivates us. An emphasis on virtue encourages us to make progress, because it presents us with a climbable gradient, not a steep wall we have to clear all at once.

So, I do try to drive less, and even though it has minimal impact on the environment, I think of it as building my self-control muscle. Othrerwise, I’ve been slow to do more than lurk at Transition activities, and I have since moved far from Albany. But my interest in Transition has been piqued, and I hope to get more involved. Maybe I’ll see you at a meeting!