Friday, August 12, 2011

My Summer of Sustainability, Part VI

This is my sixth and final entry in a six-part series on sustainability.

Sometimes all roads seem to point in one direction. This summer I've been having that experience with the concept of sustainability: assessing where we are now, what will be possible in 30 years, and how do we get from here to there.

The basic premise I'm working with is that humans are rapidly exhausting our supply of accessible resources, such that something has to give. That is, it is not even remotely possible that we can continue for another generation the materialistic lifestyle we're become accustomed to in the US—unless we're willing to forcibly deny the
equitable distribution of what's left and to tolerate massive suffering elsewhere in service to the status quo. Rather than continuing the charade that underlies the bumper sticker "How did our oil get under their sand?", I've started looking at two questions: a) How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming; and b) How to peacefully navigate the social challenges that such a massive shift will require.

These questions affect me both on the personal level (how will I live, and what am I called to do to help society to a softer landing in the decades ahead) and on the professional level (what role should FIC play in education and preparation; what is my role as a process consultant to better prepare groups to handle what's coming).

When thinking about sustainability, I like the metaphor of a three-legged stool: there's a ecological leg, a social leg, and an economic leg—and you won't have a very stable piece of furniture unless you have three stout legs. I am interested in what it takes to develop strong legs, and also the integration of the whole, so that the stool will be a tool.

As this is a big, all-encompassing topic, I'm going to tackle it in a six-part series, roughly in the order in which I've been bumping into this conversation over the past two months. Here's the outline:

Proposal to build a working model of sustainability
II. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
III. Sustainability and Cohousing
IV. EDE Course at Dancing Rabbit in 2012
V. Increasing sustainability offerings on campus
VI. Transition Towns

• • •
Transition Towns

The articulation of this concept is fairly fresh—only about six years old. Like the name itself, what's happening under its banner is in transition. It's main premise is that there are two large challenges coming down the road that contemporary society is not particularly ready for: peak oil (psst! we're running out) and climate change (the ice cap is melting, and
CO2 levels are spiraling dangerously upward).

The concept of transition towns arose out of the work of a Brit named Rob Hopkins, who in 2005 was a permaculture educator at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland. His class developed a transition plan that was adopted that year by the local town as the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan.

Returning to England the next year, he took his thinking out of the classroom and established a prototype transition town in Totnes, a resort town of about 25,000 near Plymouth where he was working on his doctorate.

Based on the enthusiastic response to his work, Hopkins wrote The Transition Handbook in 2008. The subtitle is
From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. In an effort to expand into the US, in December 2008 the Transition Town leadership offered a 4-day train-the-trainers workshop in this country and 21 people participated. These are the folks now authorized to help transition towns get set up in the US.

At the moment there are 95 official Transition Towns in the US and 384 worldwide, and the movement is growing.

Understanding that this must be developed at the grass roots level (what else could local resiliency be based on?) the Transition US group has been careful to not be too directive, and to allow plenty of room for local shaping by each group. While laudable in one sense, this diffusion has also resulted in foggy guidance, leaving groups groping for the skills needed to succeed, or even ways to learn what others are doing and learning.

It's one thing to not dictate; it's another to not lead.

This is not an easy movement to connect with. Figuring that intentional communities in general—and FIC in particular—have expertise in collaborative processes and bringing disparate parties to the table together, we have on multiple occasions (including with two of the original 21 trained TT facilitators) offered to help develop the capacity to do the hard work. To date, however, not a single invitation has been answered.

I suspect there is no one in authority to accept our invitation, and our offers have gone unaddressed by default. (Of course another possibility is that no one in a position to accept understands its worth.) At one meeting with a local TT organizer, I was politely told that I might "better devote my time focusing in the Midwest, where people were not so advanced in group dynamics and might better use my help; out here on the West Coast we don't need that kind of assistance." Yikes! If only that were true.

It's one thing to encourage local resilience; it's another to encourage local resistance.

In my view, one of the most exciting aspects of the transition town blueprint is that it calls for all the stakeholders in a local area to sit down together and make common cause. The heavy lifting here is bringing together segments of the population who don't typically talk with one another, getting everyone to see the need to set aside petty squabbles to build together a workable future. We're talking about business people working it out with environmentalists; elected officials meeting with teachers; clergy getting together with local bar owners.

Even with a common goal—the ongoing viability of the local area—there will be wide disagreement about what that looks like or the best way to get there. As a culture, we are not used to managing these kinds of conversations well, and as far as I can tell most of the transition towns in the US have not yet gotten past preaching to the choir—where the people attending meetings are equally green when it comes to environmental values and political savvy. The real work will not begin until the disparate stakeholders are in the same room together.

I worry about the challenge ahead. While I think the transition town movement is a good initiative, I think the organizers are naive about what it will take to succeed. It's sobering, for example, to realize how much steady work I get trying to help cooperative groups untangle gridlock—and my client base is almost wholly comprised of groups with an explicit commitment to both diversity and cooperation. If I'm seeing that much curdle among the cream of the cooperative crop, how are we going to prevent the milk from souring when we don't have enough electricity to power our refrigerators?

Optimist that I am, I remain hopeful that the intentional communities movement will ultimately find a reasonable intersection with the TT initiatives, and that we can move together. In the tough times ahead, we'll need all the allies we can find in the effort to walk our sustainable talk.

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