First, though mine is a pedestrian- and bike-friendly town, we drive far more than we walk or bike. Whether or not one is conscious of it, cars make us feel rushed and busy. Most drivers tear up to a red light. Our 25 mph speed limit is routinely broken. I’m no social scientist, but from my observations, people who depend on their cars for every errand, do not make good neighbors or stronger neighborhoods. In my townhome community, it is the dog-walkers and the young parents out with a stroller who get to know each other. We don’t have to become best friends, but friendlier and more helpful would go a long way.
Second, we have no walkable downtown or town center with the mix of diverse small merchants to draw residents in for those casual encounters and conversations that connect us. Manufactured downtowns are no substitute, no matter how many musicians they hire or networking events they sponsor. (I’ll save my riff on networking vs. community for another time.)
Shoppers conditioned to the mall atmosphere with mind-numbing music are not generally interested in other people. We are a fairly affluent town dominated by the largest shopping mall in the region. Big Box stores, fast food and restaurant chains, line a major thoroughfare, offering impersonal service, at best. I would trade them all for a friendly chat with the guy at my local hardware store about which hose won’t kink up on me.
In a sense, we’ve designed for things like privacy, personal space and comfort, and security – the number of gate-secured communities here is astounding given the relatively low crime-rates —when, the truth is, what the world needs is people who are more trusting, capable of sharing (e.g. the Open Source revolution), creative and flexible.
On Wednesday, I had lunch with a young permaculture teacher who was about to launch a four-week course. We agreed that we both do our best thinking outdoors, so although it was a day of heavy rain, we sat in a Tiki hut in an environmental education center where she is a graduate assistant. As you may know, the Transition movement was founded by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher himself. It draws on many of the principles of this nature-centered discipline, so I am excited by her invitation to talk about Transition with the students in the course and to learn from them.
That I had to drive nearly a half-hour to have this meeting wasn’t lost on me, of course. I live in a county the size of Rhode Island, with a population perhaps even more socio-economically diverse. Also like RI, much of our wealth is a fact of location: the Atlantic Ocean washes both our shores, bringing us tourism and high-end real estate, and all the services that support both. To have the two major sources of our wealth at risk from a rising sea should be a fact that brings us together to search for solutions, right?
My next meeting with a veteran community organizer took me to a town also some distance from mine. I was there to explore the possibility of introducing the ideas of Transition. This community more closely resembles the small towns and cities where the Transition movement has caught on, all around the world. It is walkable, with a vibrant downtown, many festivals, an up-and-coming community garden, and a lot of civic pride. As an outsider, albeit an enthusiastic and frequent visitor, I am at something of a disadvantage here as I would be anywhere I don’t have roots (though I do have friends). So I was really grateful for the honest assessment I took away, that the Transition message might not be welcomed by all, that is could be controversial. I couldn’t help but remember Rob Hopkins’ caveat: there were no guarantees that Transition will work everywhere…or at all.
I decided this morning to research sources other than my Transition texts on what makes a community respond to climate change with action, rather than denial in one form or another. The answers (from a NASA study) may surprise you. In some cases, a community gets activated because of an obvious problem like flooding or drought or a Sandy-size storm. The 911 response, you might say, where people who may not agree on what the underlying causes of the crisis are, can still come together to rebuild smarter and prevent or mitigate future crises. In other words, they are not waiting for action from the government.
” Successful groups take action against climate change even though they don’t completely understand everything that might be needed to reach their long-term goal. They proceed by trial and error to make progress step by step. “— Dr. Ron Brunner, University of Colorado
But in many others, economic opportunity is the impetus. There are numerous examples, but one of my favorites is the Danish island of Samsø which began working on reducing its carbon foot print in 1998 (via locally-funded wind turbines) and today produces excess energy it can sell. Closer to home (and pre-Transition movement), there is the Ithaca Hour, a form of currency invented in 1991 in Ithaca, NY, that keeps money circulating in the community, about $100,000 at the moment.
Communities that support local businesses, grow (or raise) much of their own food, find ways to save money on energy, and clean up their air, water and soil, are not only better positioned to withstand future uncertainties. They are places most of us want to call home.