The Transition Initiative

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I am a new subscriber to Orion Magazine after reading selected articles for some time. Their move to offer a web-based edition eliminated my last reason to avoid more paper coming in the mail. I can’t think of a better way to discover and read well-written articles evoking both the dreadful state of the world and powerful ways to change the situation. This is not a place for those whose approach to sustainability is to green everything. The current issue, July/August 2009, has a number of articles worth reading. I have already just posted an entry about an article questioning the efficacy of individual actions in turning the tide of unsustainability.

Another article, The Transition Initiative, argues quite the opposite: that individuals, empowered by involvement in a community, can prepare for a future reflecting both the realities of climate change and the finiteness of the Earth’s resources and also the fulfillment of the fundamental human concerns about relationships with others. The idea of the Transition Initiative is to start preparing for the effects of climate change and peak oil now. Central is the building of community ties and reconnecting to the Other.

Many people today experience a strange hollow in the psyche, a hole the size of a village. Mandy Dean alludes to this when she explains why she was drawn to the Transition Initiative: “One of the awful things about modern culture is separation and isolation; we’ve broken down almost every social bond, so the one bond left is between parent and child. In this extreme isolation, we don’t interact except with the television and the computer. We’ve lost something, and we don’t know what it is, and we try to fill it with food and alcohol and shopping but it’s never filled—what we’ve lost is our connection to our community, our place, and nature. Stepping back away from that isolation is very healing for people; getting people into groups where they can do things together starts to reverse that isolation.”

The central premise of this movement, now rapidly spreading in the UK, is that the right scale for action and change is at the community, not individual or national scale.

Many people feel that individual action on climate change is too trivial to be effective but that they are unable to influence anything at a national, governmental level. They find themselves paralyzed between the apparent futility of the small-scale and impotence in the large-scale. The Transition Initiative works right in the middle, at the scale of the community, where actions are significant, visible, and effective. “What it takes is a scale at which one can feel a degree of control over the processes of life, at which individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers… participants and protagonists instead of just voters and taxpayers. That scale is the human scale,” wrote author and secessionist Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1980 book, Human Scale.

The Transition Initiative fits well into the concept of Sustainability by Design. Community is a critical cultural concept for sustainability. It carries a sense of a system, not individual, isolated actors, as the functional unit. The specific practices, described in the article, build directly on caring for both the Earth and the Other, and can help restore a sense of what it is to be human. Community is deeply engrained in our cultural DNA, but has been pushed far into the shadows by the narcissism and individualism of our modern culture. The proponents of the program have done a very careful job of balancing the stark realities of the present and future with a positive and hopeful vision.

“We’re doing work for generations to come,” says Giangrande. You can’t change a place overnight, he says, but you have to begin now in the necessary urgency of our time. “We’re facing a historical moment of choice—our actions now [are] affecting the future. Now’s the time. The system we know is breaking down. Yet out of this breakdown, there are always new possibilities.” It’s catagenesis, the birth of the new from the death of the old. The process is “so creative and so chaotic,” says Giangrande. “Let it unfold—allow it—the key is not to direct it but to encourage it. We’ve developed the A to C of transition. The D to Z is still to come.” Brave, this, and very attractive. It is catalytic, emergent, and dynamic, facing forward with a vivid vitality but backlit with another kind of ancient sunlight: human, social energy. 

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