Local Visionaries: Transition groups plant the seeds for a homegrown future
By Rachel Trachten, photos by Nicki Rosario
At Albany’s “Great Unleashing,” the talk was of growing food, going solar, and living more simply. On a Sunday in May, groups gathered inside the Veterans’ Memorial Building and on the lawn, posing such questions as: Can we create a community garden along Albany’s Key Route? How can we use less water and electricity in our homes? Can community members exchange services rather than dollars? Led by the grassroots organization Transition Albany, the Unleashing was designed to motivate the public and set hands-on projects into motion.
Transition Albany is one group in the international Transition Initiative, co-founded in 2006 (under the name Transition Towns) by British permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins. The group envisions a not-too-distant future in which oil is scarce, unaffordable, or both. Hopkins seeks to meet the dual challenges of limited oil and climate change by drastically reducing carbon emissions while creating resilient, self-sufficient communities. He proposes a fiercely optimistic model in which residents of a neighborhood, town, or city band together to grow food, generate power, and build using local materials. For example, instead of driving to a supermarket, a family engaged in Transition might walk to a neighbor’s house to share or barter homegrown vegetables. Potluck gatherings, a neighborhood tool library, or a community-owned solar energy company might come next. The process should be creative and joyful, according to Hopkins.
Since the first Transition Town was formed about six years ago in Totnes, England, the movement has grown to 360 groups in 34 countries.
“Transition is happening whether it has the name or not,” says Catherine Sutton (pictured at right), who started Transition Albany in October 2009. A three-day training in Oakland gave her the optimism and drive to form the group, while Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience was her manual in the process. “We’re moving back to a more community-based, local way of living,” says Sutton, whose permaculture garden includes plums, pears, blueberries, lemons, numerous vegetables, and four chickens.
The group has been holding events every few weeks since its formation: an Earth Day walk, potluck meals, films like Mad City Chickens, a workshop on saving water, and a picnic with the historical society at which older residents spoke to younger ones about life in Albany during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Such lore can be invaluable for Transitioners as they seek to learn skills once common in an earlier time, when local was more about necessity and less about lifestyle choices, and such hands-on activities as gardening, woodworking, and sewing were often taught at school or practiced at home.
When Sutton invited Linda Currie to speak to the Albany group, the Berkeley sustainability expert found herself drawn to Transition, and began attending Sutton’s events. Currie has worked with Bay Localize, teaching church congregants to make their homes more energy efficient, and also teaches a class in Albany called “How to Lower Your Carbon Footprint.” She began sharing ideas about Transition with her friend Susan Silber, a longtime environmental educator and community organizer. The two decided to start a Transition group in Berkeley, and as a first step, they joined the 10/10/10 Day of Action. On this day, people worldwide took positive action on climate change through activities like planting gardens (see photo at left), repairing bicycles, or installing solar panels. Currie and Silber worked with local nonprofits to promote the Day of Action in Berkeley, where 32 hands-on projects got started. The duo then launched a Berkeley Transition group in February 2011.
A month later, Transition Berkeley drew about 70 people to the Ecology Center for an event about sharing. The topic is a perfect fit for Transition, a way to reduce consumption and build connection among neighbors. Attorney Janelle Orsi, who co-authored the book The Sharing Solution, led the discussion. Orsi’s background includes time spent living in a casual co-housing community of four households in which a vacuum cleaner, tools, a washing machine, and garden space were among the things shared.
At the Ecology Center, people came up with long lists of things they’d like to share: a lawnmower, a car, common space for creative work, child care. But obstacles also bubbled up—fears of being taken advantage of or possessions damaged. For some, it’s a point of pride to own their own lawnmower; others don’t share simply because they don’t have to.
The question arose, How can these be barriers be broken down? “Personal relationships are key in building fertile ground for sharing,” said Orsi. “Likewise is letting go of the expectation that sharing is always perfectly reciprocal.” The event wrapped up with a discussion of the ways in which neighbors depend on one another during a snowstorm or earthquake and the possibilities for creating neighbor-to-neighbor sharing in everyday life.
Orsi co-directs the Sustainable Economies Law Center, where attorneys map out the legal terrain of a sharing-based economy. Gray areas abound. For example, you can certainly cook dinner and ask friends to bring a side dish. But what if you ask friends to chip in a few dollars each? You haven’t opened a restaurant, but you’ve entered a gray zone between business and personal activity. Orsi helps set up arrangements like cohousing organizations or car-sharing clubs, and advocates for new laws that encourage sharing, barter, and cooperative ownership.
Transition groups also embrace a range of alternatives to the traditional “Work for money; use the money to buy stuff” approach. Sutton envisions a future in which people go into business for themselves and offer skills in trade or even establish their own local currency. In Totnes, the first Transition Town, residents strengthen their local economy by using a currency called the Totnes pound.
Generating interest in ideas like sharing and barter is one goal for Transition groups; connecting people to local events like garden work parties is another. Laurence Schechtman (known by most as “Laurence of Berkeley”, he’s pictured at the top of this article) has been coordinating weekend gardening events for the past four years. On a Sunday in May, Transition Berkeley member Bonnie Borucki hosted about 10 people, who spent the afternoon digging, planting, chatting, and enjoying a potluck in her lush garden. Schechtman brought out his mandolin and asked one of the volunteers to name her favorite song. Edibles were everywhere—lettuce, chard, collard greens, peppers, apples, avocados, and lemons in various stages of growth. In Borucki’s front yard, three volunteers turned soil, trimmed rosemary, and removed fungus from a nectarine tree. Two of these young men, members of a small urban farm community in Fruitvale, are working to create Transition 36th Avenue, a block-long Transition Initiative. The third is hoping to bring Transition to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. In Borucki’s backyard, several of her neighbors prepared a bed for planting tomatoes.
“Gardening together is just the beginning,” says Schechtman. “We want cooperative neighborhoods where people can rely on each other in many ways.” In advance of these work parties, Schechtman often goes door to door with the host, meeting neighbors and passing out invites to the event. Some neighbors end up sharing the food they’ve grown; some become ongoing “garden buddies.”
Rebecca Newburn, Catalin Kaser, the Richmond Rivets Transition group, and the public library gave a twist to the garden party concept with their Richmond Grows project. Through this initiative, the library “lends” seeds for vegetables, herbs, and flowers, and volunteers teach people how to return seeds from the plants they grow.
Transition fosters inventive projects that, like the Richmond seed library, spring from the interests and skills of people within the community. Transition is also a collaborative movement, eager to use what already exists. In the East Bay, Transition groups partner with local nonprofits and connect residents to such activities as garden work parties, family cycling workshops, environmental education, and skill shares. Individual Transition members also offer “Heart and Soul” meetings, where people involved in the movement talk about emotions of despair or frustration and how to work through them. Organizers want to avoid feelings of guilt and helplessness; instead, people are encouraged to start small and find joy in taking action.
Pictured: Rebecca Newburn, founder of the Richmond Rivets Transition group at a Richmond Grows seed saving class. (Photo: Trish Clifford)
Although Transition does not endorse political candidates or parties, groups do work in concert with local governments. Sutton presented her ideas on Transition to Albany city staff members early in her group’s development. At the prompting of a local resident, the city started a free clothing exchange and a produce swap. Albany City Manager Beth Pollard attended the Great Unleashing, where she brainstormed with residents about ways the city can support the movement—for example, by negotiating with vendors of solar panels for better prices.
In Berkeley, Climate Action Coordinator Timothy Burroughs views Transition Berkeley as a partner in carrying out the city’s ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below year-2000 levels by the year 2050. “In order to achieve the goals, everyone has to play a role, and the Transition groups are innovators,” says Burroughs. “It’s community members taking the initiative to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, to grow food, drive less, and use less energy.”
Cities throughout the U.S. are forging their own versions of Transition. Ninety groups are registered on the Transition U.S. website, and thousands of “mullers” (groups in the early stages) worldwide are thinking about diving in. Transition San Francisco is collaborating with the public library on seed lending and with Kitchen Gardens SF to bring expertise in permaculture to local homes and businesses. A newly forming Transition group in North Oakland offers a weekly volunteer opportunity in the garden at City Slicker Farms. Kensington resident Steve Aultman recently created a Transition Kensington Facebook page and, in a letter published by the Kensington Outlook, invited the community to join him.
At Albany’s Great Unleashing, participants talked, listened, laughed, sang, offered new ideas, and reinvigorated old ones. “If we took a step back,” says Sutton, “we’d see the incredible richness in our communities. People are our biggest asset.”
Freelance writer and editor Rachel Trachten is a regular contributor to The East Bay Monthly and Conscious Dancer magazines and a columnist for examiner.com. She likes to share homegrown lemons and blackberries with her Berkeley neighbors.
Transition worldwide: www.transitionnetwork.org
Transition Culture: www.transitionculture.org
Transition U.S.: www.transitionus.org
Transition California: www.transitiontownsca.org
Transition East Bay mailing list: https://groups.yahoo.com/group/transitioneastbay/
Transition Albany: www.transitionalbany.org
Transition Oakland: www.northoaklandtransition.wordpress.com
Richmond Rivets: www.richmondrivets.org
Transition San Francisco: www.transitionsf.org
Transition Kensington: www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives/kensington-california
The Ecology Center: www.ecologycenter.org
Laurence Schechtman: 510.540.1975 or Laurenceofberk@aol.com
Sustainable Economies Law Center: www.sustainableeconomieslawcenter.org
Bay Localize: www.baylocalize.org
Victory Garden Foundation: www.victorygardenfoundation.org