July 24, 2010

Woollahra gives birth to Transition

It’s interesting what sorts of things councils are becoming involved in these days. Transition Towns, for instance. These are usually citizen initiatives but in June Woollahra Council became the first in the Eastern Suburbs, perhaps the first in Sydney, to host an introductory activity around the theme.

The event attracted local people as well as members of Transition Bondi, an active group that has been showing videos on Transition themes and hosting talks. Bondi is probably the most active of Sydney’s Transition teams.

The session filled the room at the EJ Ward Community Centre in Paddington and was run by TransitionSydney, a Transition hub that has been fostering new, local Transition groups and providing training for them in effective processes to engage people.

Woollahra Council’s environmental educator, Melissa Sellen, opened the session. TransitionSydney’s Fiona Campbell (who is Randwick City Council Sustainability Education Officer although she didn’t appear in that role at the event) started the session then handed over to Peter Driscoll and Sarah Hatcher. Following an introduction to the Transition Town concept, the World Cafe participatory process was used to identify things that worked when it came to the sustainable living themes that Transition Towns focuses on.

Globalising the local

Transition Towns — also known as Transition Initiatives — demonstrates how online media has globalised what is essentially a social movement centred around the localisation of life necessities such as food, energy and water supply. This has occurred in only three years, dated from the time the Transition Totnes program in the UK made its start. Transition groups are now found throughout the industrialised world.

This ‘alternative globalisation’ enables the sharing of information and ideas between community organisations worldwide. The Internet might have been a boon for business, but it has equally been a boon for community-based organisations.

A basis in global trends

Overseas, Transition Initiatives are a community-based response to climate change and the likelihood of peak oil — the peaking of production of the global oil supply and the likelihood of increasing prices for anything using oil in its production (such as food) or operation as supply progressively falls behind global demand.

In Australia, we rank fresh water up there with climate change and peak oil as foci for Transition Initiatives for reasons obvious to all Australians — that fresh water is a resource in sometimes short supply over much of the continent, including the cities.

The path taken by many Transition teams has been to engage communities in developing responses to these trends. Usually, this culminates in the production of an EDAP — an Energy Descent Action Plan  — so named because more expensive oil fuels in steadily diminishing supply will force people to adapt their ways of life and how we produce our necessities. Transition commentators say that it is better we start now to make a controlled adaptation to a world of expensive and diminishing energy supply rather than leave it too late and have change forced upon us.

Unlike climate change, no serious opposition to the peak oil scenario has emerged. There are few doubters, especially given that the scenario was devised by petroleum geologist, Dr Colin Campbell (http://www.peakoil.net/) and was based on the work of the oil industry geophysicist, Dr. M. King Hubbert.

What there are differences of opinion about have been potential responses to peak oil, with some proposing nuclear energy to provide the baseload energy supply topped up with renewable energy as a substitute for oil in non-transportation applications such as supplying our cities with power. Some, including a surprising number of environmentalists and sustainability advocates, believe that energy from new types of safer reactors will also help to address climate change by weaning economies off coal-fired energy with its carbon emissions.

This, clearly, is an idea that elicits argument and some energy analysis, such as the UNSW's Dr Mark Diesendorf (who spoke at last year's Randwick City Council Ecoliving Fair), claim that Australia is so well endowered with potential sources of renewable energy that we could power the entire country with it, supplemented by energy conservation.

A social process

Transition teams prefer locally-based, smaller scale solutions. While production of an EDAP has been the path taken by many Transition teams, it is not universally accepted as the way to go. Some say that there can be other, local priorities requiring a different approach.

An EDAP might be the product of months of community deliberation and group processes led by a Transition team, but it is a milestone rather than a final product. The aim is to have the EDAP adopted as policy by local government, but even this is far from the end point of the exercise. Policies have to be implemented and that calls for skills in advocacy. What is unclear is how widespread those skills are among Transition teams.

Something new

Transition Towns is something new in Australia and there has been discussion about how to apply it in a large, global city like Sydney. The direction adopted is to establish local or regional Transition Initiatives to develop solutions for local areas and to lobby local government. The TransitionSydney hub was established to address the need for skills in group processes and other areas needed by Transition practitioners and to provide the networking that is necessary to Transition Initiatives in a metropolis like Sydney. TransitionSydeny aims to establish a community of practice around Transition.

Unlike sustainability education that was once provided by voluntary community groups like those involved in Permaculture and alternative energy, Transition Initiatives are not the sort of thing that local government will take up the responsibility to provide. They remain in the community domain and seek the cooperation but not the leadership of local government.

This is what was good about Woollahra Council’s introduction to Transition evening. Council’s Melissa Sellen made it clear that Council was not setting up any sort of Transition group and that doing so was up to those in the local community who are interested. That this makes sense is attested to by the fact that some of those who attended the event have now gone on to Transition Bondi.

Woollahra’s initiative in offering the event in partnership with TransitionSydney provides an example of how collaboration between government and community can open new, local opportunities.

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