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Fred Irwin, founder of Transition Town Peterborough (Ont.) shops at the local farmers market. Photo by Clifford Skarstedt

Kicking the oil habit

Sooner or later, plentiful oil will be a thing of the past. Transition Towns are starting now to prepare for the future.

By Lisa Van de Ven

There’s a piece of wisdom Ben Brangwyn likes to remember when he feels like no one’s listening. It’s something an older gentleman in his native England once told him about the Second World War. Brangwyn says something strange happened as Hitler was threatening to invade Poland. The Brits went to the beach. They visited the pubs and watched the football games, too. In other words, despite the crisis ahead, the vast majority of the population continued with business as usual, as if nothing was happening. Only about five percent, Brangwyn says, started preparing for the war.

“When Hitler did invade and all hell broke loose, 95 percent of the population were running around saying, ‘What are we going to do, what are we going to do?’ and that five percent said, ‘Well, we’ve figured out quite a few of the answers here already,’” he says, adding, “That could be exactly where we are right now.”

Brangwyn — speaking over the phone from Totnes, a town of around 7,500 in South Devon, England — is the co-founder of Transition Network, a non-profit grassroots organization designed to help communities around the world prepare for another crisis entirely: peak oil.

With flow rates thought to be slowing in the world’s oil fields and fewer viable fields being discovered, experts predict that oil will become scarcer and progressively more expensive. As that happens, civilization as it exists today — dependent on cheap fossil fuels for everything from food to manufactured goods — will have to change.

Founded in 2006, and based on principles first developed by Brangwyn’s co-founder Rob Hopkins, Transition Network was developed to help communities prepare for that change while also reducing their impact on global warming. Today, there are more than 200 “Transition Towns” around the globe, with Totnes being the very first. Their purpose? Building awareness of peak oil, sure, but going even further than that: making connections with local agriculture, creating more resilient local economies and developing “Energy Descent Action Plans” to determine a community-based course of action for the post-peak oil years ahead. “Life in the 21st century is going to be about living locally — be prepared to be good neighbours,” James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, once said; the Transition Network is setting that idea in motion.

Visit Peterborough, Ont., on any given day and you may be hard-pressed to see that change under way. The first of Canada’s Transition Towns — there are nine now in total — this community of around 82,000 has the same familiar fast food restaurants and big box stores as any North American city. On a Friday night in October — similar, maybe, to the pre-war Britain Brangwyn talks about — many of the locals seem more concerned about welcoming the weekend than solving the world’s fossil fuel dependency issues.

In fact, Fred Irwin — the founder of Transition Town Peterborough (TTP) — admits the group has their work cut out for them. He’s not worried, though. “We have a saying,” he says, “and that is, ‘Those who come are the right ones.’”

While only about one percent of Peterborough’s population has gotten involved in TTP so far, Irwin expects things will pick up when oil prices start rising again. A former lubrication engineer for Imperial Oil, Irwin learned early on to look at the world through the eyes of oil. He didn’t need to see prices skyrocketing to know where they were headed; he’s been talking about the threat of peak oil since the 1970s. When he first heard about the Transition Town movement, it sounded like it might offer some of the solutions he’d been looking for. He actively pursued Transition Town status for Peterborough in 2007, getting official recognition from Transition Network in September 2008. Peterborough’s city council — by a margin of five to four — acknowledged the movement in May 2009.

“It seemed like the Transition Town movement was custom-designed for a place the size of Peterborough, with farmland around it,” says Irwin, who’s now retired and living just outside the city. “But if you look just at food, it’s still importing about 95 percent of the caloric intake from [on average]
2,400 kilometres away.”

Like any good addiction program, Transition Network has a 12-step process for getting its towns off oil, and Peterborough is still working its way toward spiritual awakening. Raising awareness on the issues of peak oil within the community is a group priority, as is what Transitioners call “the great reskilling”: teaching people the skills needed for a more localized lifestyle, such as how to identify local medicinal herbs and how to electrify their bicycles. They’re also teaching courses on sustainable agriculture, working with city council to try to reduce the municipality’s energy consumption, and even advocating a local currency to help promote a more resilient local economy.

It all culminates in Step 12: creating the Energy Descent Action Plan, which includes timelines and milestones to reduce the city’s oil dependency and cut its CO2 emissions by what Irwin expects will be at least 80 percent.

That may seem like a lofty goal now, but Gregory Greene, for one, sees the Transition movement as capable of addressing several world issues at the local level. The Toronto-based director of the peak oil film The End of Suburbia is currently working on a new documentary, ResilientCITY, which focuses on the Transition movement and others like it. “Look at the 100-mile food movement, the slow-food movement, the farmers market movement, the recession, which shows we need to bring jobs back [to the local communities],” says Greene. “The potential for Transition to grow and to be ready for those shocks that are coming and the inevitable focus on localization is incredible.”

Despite the Transition movement’s potential, it’s not without its critics. Some charge that Transitioners are trying to live like their great-grandparents instead of considering existing technologies and advances. Even co-founder Brangwyn admits they don’t have everything figured out yet. “To successfully navigate this transition, we have to get from A to Z. The Transitioners have figured out how to get to D or F, maybe,” he says. “There’s a huge amount that we still have really no concept of.”

Still, it’s a start. And for Brangwyn it’s an important one. Even as most of the world goes on as it always has, he’s preparing to lead a more localized life. If others follow suit, he adds, churches — experienced at building communities — are going to play a role. Already, a separate group in the United Kingdom called Christian Ecology Link has created Churches in Transition, a campaign designed to get churches working alongside the Transition Town movement.

Greene foresees growth for the Transition movement in the years ahead. “A lot of Transitioners see themselves on the periphery right now, on the fringe of their communities,” he says. “As these issues heighten . . . I think Transitioners will find that they become resources for their communities.”

In other words, as 95 percent of the population runs around saying, “What are we going to do, what are we going to do?” maybe the Transitioners will be the ones to assure them, “We’ve figured it out.”

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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