Concern about the environment and climate has led people in communities across the globe to take matters into their own hands – and to enjoy themselves while they’re at it.
One blazing hot Saturday morning – the day that will later become known as Black Saturday – a dozen locals gather around the wooden bench in Mark Kilinski’s kitchen, in the Geelong suburb of Bell Post Hill. Under his instruction, they’re filling and shaping pierogi, Polish dumplings.
Everybody is talking or laughing, or doing both at once. It’s pure peaches-and-cream: people are making friends, their conversations almost too good-natured to be true. “It’s much more fun to cook together, isn’t it?” marvels Anne, who lives just across the road. “That’s the thing about community,” chimes Dee, a wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked librarian from the local school.
The activity has been organised by Transition Bell, a group of locals dedicated to transforming postcode 3215 to deal with the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil [see below]. They want to re-make their suburb into a food-producing, low-energy, low-emission, tight-knit neighbourhood.
For well over a year, the group has been an official member of the thriving international Transition Network. The first transition town – Totnes, in Devon, England – was launched in late 2006. Now there are over 200 worldwide. In Australia, there are 18 official transition initiatives and dozens more preparing to sign on.
The movement took-off last year, following the publication of The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins, cofounder of the Totnes project. Interest now extends well beyond the English-speaking world, to continental Europe, South America, Asia and South Africa.
An updated Australian and New Zealand edition of the book came out in March. Subtitled ‘Creating local sustainable communities beyond oil dependency’, it details a grassroots approach to sustainability, in which each group strives for change, aiming to live better with less.
Naresh Giangrande, another founder of the Totnes transition town, visited Australia recently as part of a six-country speaking and training tour. “Two years ago, if somebody had told me that I would be in Australia on a worldwide tour teaching people about transition towns I would have said to them, ‘You’re crazy, it will never happen that quickly’,” he says.
In Totnes, residents have started a slew of projects, from community gardens and a local food directory, to business swap meets and eco-makeovers. They’ve even created their own currency, the Totnes Pound, which can only be used in the town.
Giangrande says the biggest achievement so far has been to build broad support among the town’s 8000 residents, rather than just among the usual suspects. Given the gravity of the problem, he argues, it’s crucial to engage people from all walks of life.
“The fundamental message is that our system is unsustainable. It’s not really a question of should-we-or-shouldn’t-we [change]. We’re going to have to,” Giangrande says. “We’re not going to have any choice once peak oil and the effects of climate change become apparent. We’re going to have to make do with fewer resources and with less energy.
“It’s not just a bit of tinkering at the edges; we need to completely rethink just about every system that we depend on for life – for the food we eat, for the clothes we wear, for the buildings we live and work in, and for our transport.”
Despite the daunting change he envisages, Giangrande sees cause for both optimism and joy. “We’ve created the present system and we can create something else. Let’s harness the collective genius of our communities to create something even better than what we have now.
“For many people the environment is very scary because if you take a close look at it you realise that we’re in quite a deep hole. Transition is one of the few things that comes with a message of hope. We all can be involved and a whole bunch of small actions by people all over the world add up to something rather big and rather wonderful,” he says.
The Sunshine Coast was the first Australian community to become a part of the transition movement and, at about 300,000, the group caters to an unusually large population. For over two years, Sonya Wallace and others have been preparing an Energy Descent Action Plan to present to the Sunshine Coast council. It will be a blueprint for a regional makeover, from households “all the way up to legislative change, transport systems and all the big picture stuff that you can’t do as an individual or as a community.”
Beneath the broad Sunshine Coast group, small transition towns are sprouting. Wallace lives in Eudlo. Among other initiatives, her 850-strong community is starting a food coop, a seed bank and informal car-pooling, and running backyard permablitzes. “We’re trying to get people to talk to their neighbours and build some community resilience,” she says.
In mid-November, a storm walloped Brisbane’s northern suburbs, causing severe floods, structural damage to thousands of homes and even a Prime Ministerial visit. Amid the devastation, however, came an unexpected sense of community. “As this massive storm went through, people came out of their houses and started talking to their neighbours. They’d never spoken to their neighbours before,” Wallace says. “It generated street parties.”
A similar, though more dramatic story emerged following Black Saturday. In The Monthly, author Richard Flanagan wrote of his visit to Kinglake: “Beyond us the police teams were turning over tin, turning up more and more dead, yet everywhere I looked I saw only the living helping the living, people holding people, people giving to people. At the end of an era of greed, at a time when all around are crises beyond understanding and seemingly without end, here, in the heart of our apocalypse, I had not been ready for the shock of such goodness.”
Scientists predict that the climatic changes wrought by global warming will lead to more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts, fires and floods. For Wallace, the transition project is partly about preparation. “We’re trying to get people to work together before a crisis hits, because then it’s a bit too late to work out who the workers are and who has the skills.”
Back in the Bell Post Hill kitchen, before the hot sky fills with smoke, Transition Bell’s founder, Andrew Lucas, is adamant that his group’s activities be enjoyable. “It is a really inclusive thing, not just a sustainability group filled with environmentalists. [The transition towns idea] doesn’t tend to alienate people because you’re talking about what we can do to look after each other. That sort of thing is missing in communities at the moment.”
The Bell area has a long-standing mix of residents from different backgrounds, especially Eastern Europe. Lucas says there’s an enormous amount of practical knowledge behind closed doors – like the recipe for pierogi. Among other things, he hopes neighbours will share their cooking, preserving and gardening know-how.
“We declared that this postcode will be the fruit tree capital of Geelong – pretty hilarious, because it’s not like we have anyone competing,” Lucas says. “There’s another postcode, Transition South Barwon, and they’re talking about becoming the shiitake mushroom capital.”
Last year, at Transition Bell’s request, a local nursery offered a 50 per cent discount. Residents cleared their stock in one weekend. Lucas wants to organise more bulk eco-buying deals with nearby businesses. “You can get people motivated to take action, you get much better discounts and you’re putting money back into local businesses as well, so it’s a win-win,” he says.
All up, today’s neighbours-cum-pastry-cooks make about 300 dumplings in just a few hours. Conversation whisks through organic gardening, household efficiency and renewable energy, as well as future activities for the community.
But as always, the proof is in the eating. Janine, a first time attendee, sits at the table, her plate already empty. “Delicious,” she says sweetly. “We want some more.”
Transition, peak oil and climate change
The transition concept is pushed along by twin threats: peak oil and climate change. Peak oil refers to the point in time when global oil production reaches its maximum rate, and afterwards, begins to fall. There is no agreement on its timing, but many observers argue that supply has passed its peak, or will soon do so.
In The Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins writes that “the end of what we might call the Age of Cheap Oil (which lasted from 1859 until the present) is near at hand, and … for a society utterly dependent on it, this means enormous change.” Both peak oil and climate change, he continues, “are symptoms of a society hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and the lifestyles they make possible.”
Can I borrow a cup of sugar?
Saying hello to your neighbours is the new black. Here are some complementary getting-to-know-you schemes:
Started in Melbourne last year, The Sharehood is an ingenious website that, together with a simple letterbox drop, will help you to not only meet the family across the road, but also borrow their circular saw.
A basic training program in eco-living, Sustainability Street can work in your street, school or local sports club. It has been run in over 200 places across Australia since 2002.
A permablitz is a working bee with a veggie twist. Volunteers from a network of permaculture gardeners and your neighbours (if you can convince them) come to your house and work with you to transform your garden into an organic food producing Eden.