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Saving the Environment, One Town at a Time: An Introduction to the Transition Movement

Joshua Tree National Park | Christopher Michel | Some Rights Reserved
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Watch more films about environmental issues at the first-ever Earth Focus Environmental Film Festival in Los Angeles this weekend.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Southeast Iceland | United Nation Photos | Some Rights Reserved
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Southeast Iceland | United Nation Photos/Some Rights Reserved

Temperatures are rising and long-standing records are breaking every year. Massive icebergs, some the size of Rhode Island, are melting down and floating off into the sea. While the existence and origin of global warming is debated on social media and among politicians, scientists are sounding the alarm. According to NASA, “97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” But, for many Americans, environmentalism is so big, so complex, so global, that it feels impossible to get involved and create real change.

The grassroots nonprofit organization, The Transition Network, addresses this sense of paralysis directly. Founded in the United Kingdom by Permaculture educator Rob Hopkins in 2006, the transition movement spread to the United States shortly after. The mission of Transition US is to give local communities the tools, information and resources to help “build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis.” The organization argues that communities cannot wait for governments to act on climate change quickly enough to avoid catastrophe. They also believe that single individuals do not wield enough influence and know-how to go it alone. For the transition movement, the best possible approach is for communities to connect neighbor with neighbor, town after town and street by street, strategizing on the best way to activate initiatives that combat climate change.

The overarching goal of transition is that communities will become more resilient and able to readily adapt to global changes, such as oil price spikes, economic upheaval and other unpredictable shifts in the economic, environmental and political landscapes. The thinking is, this sense of agency in the affairs and destinies of any given community will hopefully drive smart policy and active preparation.

The term “transition” in an environmental context is that, as a global community, cities, towns, businesses and government must work together to transition from a polluting, carbon-heavy society to a post-carbon world. Both here in the U.S. and across the world, citizens are creating “Transition Towns,” designating their communities as partners in the transition movement. Even beyond towns, the transition movement is experimenting at the street level with “Transition Streets,” a hyper-local neighborhood initiative that connects neighbors to raise environmental awareness, encourage conservation and hold informational meetings for the community. Currently there are 12 Transition Streets pilot projects across the U.S.

For a community to officially join the transition movement and register with the Transition Network, there is a three-step process. The first is called the “Initial Stage,” which essentially means a small community group gets together to explore the concepts around transition and discuss possible initiatives to tackle. The second stage is called “Mulling” (as in, mulling it over). This is an important step, as Transition US requires the group to read their transition handbook and guides to developing a successful transition plan. Finally, after that work is completed, the “Official Stage” of the process is for groups to apply with the Transition Network via an official application. After that is accepted, the transition group is listed on the official Transition Network list of organizations.

Members working | Transition Network | All Rights Reserved
Members working | Transition Network/All Rights Reserved

In California, there are currently over 40 Transition groups registered with the Transition Network, focusing on a variety of initiatives. One example is Transition Joshua Tree, a self-described “community-building network of individuals and affiliated projects,” focusing on a variety of topics relevant to the high desert community, such as water rights, food insecurity, permaculture and more. In a unique twist, Transition Joshua Tree includes the services of what they call a “Heart and Soul Team,” a collaborative group focusing on conflict-resolution, setting group norms, wellness exercises and group health assessments. In its Constitution, Transition Joshua Tree lays out the mission, guiding principles and action objectives in clear, precise language. The organization announces that they are in this for the long run, predicting that their work will evolve over the next “10 to 20 years.”

“Transition US was a fountain of information for the founders of TJT,” said Transition Joshua Tree Communications Director Susan Jordan.

“The original leaders went to Transition US training retreats, which helped our local group move forward,” she said. “We didn't have to reinvent the wheel.”

There is another registered Transition organization in the California town of Fairfax. Sustainable Fairfax’s branding has a more traditional feel but similar to Transition Joshua Tree, its initiatives include water conservation, sustainable gardening and reducing the community’s carbon footprint. In addition, they focus on involving young people by including a “Youth Blog” that publishes environmental articles written by local high school students.

Joshua Tree National Park | Christopher Michel | Some Rights Reserved
Joshua Tree National Park | Christopher Michel/Some Rights Reserved

With an active online presence and smart use of social media, Sustainable Fairfax is funded through sponsorships from local businesses and has the support of both Fairfax’s Mayor Barbara Coler and the local Chamber of Commerce. This combination of community involvement, public-private partnerships and youth outreach is the type of coordinated effort that could serve as a model of a successful, grassroots transition movement.

The differences between the branding, structural organization and initiatives of both Transition Joshua Tree and Sustainable Fairfax highlights the flexibility of the transition movement. Any community can tweak its message and initiatives to fit their specific needs and concerns, while using the framework of Transition US to help craft its mission. Regardless of the geographic location, the issues surrounding energy conservation, water resources, economic security and carbon emissions could apply to any region in the world. How these issues are tackled and the partnerships that are created are up to the community.

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