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Transition period

Small is beautiful, local divine, and Truro could lead us to sustainability as one of Canada’s Transition Towns.


The Living Earth Council wants Truro to be a Transition Town. It's a new concept with a 40-year backstory.

"It came out of permaculture in the '70s," Tina Clarke says. She's an environmental consultant and a certified "Transition Towns Trainer" from Massachusetts. She'll be in Truro on May 1, giving a two-day workshop on the idea.

"People realized during the OPEC energy crisis that our whole food system is based on oil," Clarke recalls. Realizing they were at the mercy of oil producers, small-scale farmers tried to create a more sustainable, permanent, agricultural system. By mimicking ecological relationships, permaculturalists created diverse, resilient farms without waste---where bees pollinated plants and slugs were eaten by chickens that gave thanks for the meal by dropping free fertilizer into the soil.

But whatever permaculturalists did with the land, everything else---roads, buildings, consumer products, utilities and institutions---was designed to run on cheap oil. The need for sustainable infrastructure inspired Rob Hopkins, a British permaculture teacher, to start Transition Towns in Kinsale, Ireland and Totnes, England. The goal was to tap into the creative energies and collective wisdom of communities and create local energy production food, and transportation.

In Kinsale, Hopkins and his students presented the concept to the city council, which adopted an energy independence plan as a result.

Four years later an official certification process has been developed and there are nearly 300 Transition Towns in more than a dozen countries, including nine in Canada.

"Towns" in this case includes everything from small urban neighbourhoods to actual townships. Ottawa is one and so is Cocagne, New Brunswick (population 2,700).

Cocagne became Canada's seventh transition town, and the only one east of Ontario, in November. The Transition Cocagne website captures the spirit of the movement: "There is no precise recipe to follow---only the will and creativity of people like you to lead this ambitious initiative."

"It's a lot of rebuilding relationships in our communities," Clarke says. "You need face recognition, like in the old villages that were pretty self-sufficient economic units."

The trick is bringing everyone together in that small would-be economic unit, building trust, getting people to cooperate and systematically assess solutions.

"In Totnes, England, people who had yard space connected with people in apartments," Clarke says. "The apartment dwellers grew food in their neighbours' unused yard-space and increased local vegetable production seven percent."

That's the essence of the movement, linking one-off projects into a network of solutions for an entire area, and matching needs to excesses. One industry's waste is another industry's input, and one person's old couch might come in handy at the local community center---if the community centre folks know it's available.

Many transition towns develop their own currencies, available for purchase at par with the national currency and redeemable at participating retailers. It keeps all the money local.

These efforts were started to stave off the calamities of climate change and peak oil---the point where oil production begins its interminable decline. Two of the oil industry's leading companies, Exxon-Mobil and Shell, have already acknowledged that cheap oil is extinct.

All new supplies will be hard to access and very expensive, which is why one of the world's most accurate economic forecasters, Jeff Rubin, predicts $225-a-barrel oil within two years.

In a system where everything depends on cheap oil, that means last year's global economic collapse was just a warning shot. And so, financial motivations have crept into the big picture of the transition movement.

"Half the oil industry thinks cost spikes will happen in a year," Clarke says. "The other half thinks more efficient technologies will stretch that period out. Everyone agrees it will happen and 500 think-tanks are pondering when and how fast prices will rise." Estimates vary, but when the oil hits the fan we're looking at four to nine percent annual declines in our productive capacity.

All of which leads to the foresight of Truro's Living Earth Council, a small group of residents dedicated to social and environmental transformation.

Member Andrea Caven hopes Clarke's upcoming workshop will help Truro "find ways to support existing, and encourage new, activities that contribute to the transition of the Truro area to a powered-down, sustainable future."

And so, perhaps, a small town shall lead us.

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