Transition Towns

🕔Oct 04, 2011

In the spring of 2007, as floods and landslides blocked many of the transportation links that connected some northwestern BC towns to the rest of the province, residents began to witness unusual scenes of food hoarding and fuel shortages. Grocery-store shelves were stripped bare of essential items such as bread and milk, and some gas stations imposed 20-dollar limits on fuel purchases. In 2003, Prince Rupert was without natural gas for more than a week when a landslide in a remote area ripped through the PNG supply line. In the shops, plug-in oil heaters were scarcer than sunshine in the city of rainbows, and many folks with gas furnaces and water heaters camped out with friends lucky enough to have hydro as their main energy source. Fortunately, neither of these minor natural disasters lasted longer than a few days and, other than certain people having to endure powdered milk on their breakfast cornflakes, no true hardship was suffered.

However, the fact that only a few days of supply-chain disruption can cause grocery-store shelves to empty has begun to raise concerns, not only in northern BC but around the globe. A rapidly growing permaculture movement that began from a college project on the other side of the world will be making its mark on Prince Rupert this fall, as residents embark upon the process of turning their small city into a Transition Town.

The Transition Initiative aims to provide communities with strategies and processes for moving away from dependence on fossil fuels as the effects of climate change begin to be felt and the onset of peak oil approaches. Peak oil is variously described as either the point at which petroleum extraction begins to decline, or the point at which the cost of extracting a barrel of oil exceeds the price for which that same barrel can be sold. Internationally, researchers and analysts believe that peak oil will have a negative economic impact; closer to home, imagine the troubles created if the fuel needed to haul food thousands of kilometres from farms in Mexico to grocery stores in northern BC was simply no longer available.

No firm rules
One of the main forces behind the development of Prince Rupert’s Transition group has been Lee Brain, a young website designer and computer-skills educator. He is adamant that, although struggling to stay viable at the moment, Prince Rupert is capable of realizing opportunities for a stable and enduring local economy. For the last 12 months he has been instrumental in researching other communities’ experiences, contacting Transition facilitators, and developing the process that will launch Rupert on its own Transition journey. “Transition is about everybody coming to awareness and working together to co-create a system in this community that would really sustain us,” says Brain. “Resiliency is the key word—are our systems able to withstand shocks?”

The glory of the Transition movement is the fact that there are no firm rules for how each particular group approaches the challenge of attaining resiliency, but in general the process has three main phases. First comes a year-long period of networking and large-scale community education, in which a small steering group aims to connect people and projects, such as Smithers’ GO2 car-share network, that already fall under the Transition mandate. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” says Brain. “You utilize existing initiatives, existing groups, existing businesses—things that are already going on—and you start to connect them into the framework.” Ideally, the Transition “brand” is attached to these current groups and in this way gains exposure within the community.

After a year of building up buzz, putting on educational documentary nights and holding practical, hands-on workshops on topics that illustrate Transition principles, an event called the Great Unleashing is held at which the entire community is invited to participate in the pinpointing of key topics. Open Space facilitation techniques are used to design the Great Unleashing’s agenda. People write down areas of personal interest and post them in a “parking lot.” The parking lot is then organized, grouping similar interests or concerns together. People find the group they are attracted to and spend time brainstorming creative answers to the problems they themselves have identified. “It’s all about trusting the collective mind of the community to come up with the solutions,” says Brain. “By the end [of the Great Unleashing] all these working groups have been created on topics that community defines.”

The third phase is the creation of an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP), a document that lays out the process of weaning an area and its populace from dependence on fossil fuels. The plan may be as much about quality of life as it is about life after oil: how do youth in the future interact with their community? How is access to clean water and pure air maintained?

“We dream it up as a community,” says Brain, “and then we back-cast the steps to now, on how to get there.” Unlike other official community plans that already exist, Prince Rupert’s EDAP will be an even more meaningful document because it will have been created by the community it purports to refine.

Social experiment on a global scale
Currently in the world, few Transition groups are at the point of planning their energy descent. Of more than 450 current initiatives, most are still in phase two, as various working groups exert themselves in countless arenas; for example, the creation of local currencies such as the Saltspring Island dollar or, like Village Vancouver, building a mobile urban orchard in a former False Creek industrial lot. Towns are not the only things being altered; a certain degree of inner transformation is an inevitable part of the process of growth and education.

Some of the movement’s original participants, residents of the village of Totnes in the UK, which became the very first Transition Town in 2007, freely acknowledge that Transition is a social experiment on a massive global scale. “Nobody really knows where it’s going,” says Brain. “It’s a journey that we all jump on board with. It’s exciting and scary, but that’s one of the best principles of Transition—trusting the process.”

The Transition Initiative has many compelling aspects, but one of the most captivating elements is the fact that ordinary people have the opportunity to truly have an impact in the future resiliency of the place they live and love. It allows people to step in and speak up without necessarily having to be experts on topics that concern them, and to see concrete enterprises emerge from those conversations.

Despite Prince Rupert’s challenged economic situation and its physical location at the end of a long highway with practically zero traditional farmland, Lee Brain believes that there are opportunities for a better quality of life that are waiting to be extracted from the hearts and minds of the people that live here. “What’s going to happen for energy? Personally, I don’t know,” says Brain, “and I don’t know how we’re going to grow food here. I do know that there are people in this community who will know, and that’s the whole point of Transition.”

For more information visit, or simply google “Transition Town.”