- Ari Moore’s photograph of her notes from a presentation in Ithica about the Transition Towns model of transition to a post-oil future.
The Walking Dead,” AMC’s series about surviving among the undead, is a cult hit, announcing the arrival of the zombie apocalypse as a pop culture phenomena. It’s not difficult to read between the lines for the metaphor about society’s collective fears for the future.
The growing “prepper” movement takes those TV fears to the bunker. Preppers are serious about survival (weapons and ammo are de rigueur) and strive for self-sufficiency, going off the electric grid, hoarding precious metals, and storing food against a possible apocalypse, currency collapse, or post–peak oil societal breakdown. Die-hard survivalists make it clear: If desperate, unprepared neighbors knock on their fortified doors, these unfortunate souls might as well be flesh-eating zombies. Because they’re not getting any of the stored grain, water supply, or stockpiled medical supplies.
Beyond the Bunker
Enter the Transition movement. Spawned by worries about peak oil and fears of economic collapse, it’s an “anti-zombie apocalypse” response to concerns about uncertainty. Transitioners prefer to build more resilient communities rather than domestics bunkers. With over 100 US initiatives and hundreds more in 34 countries, Transition has grown rapidly since its birth in Totnes, England.
Transition educates and organizes communities to be more resilient and self-sustaining, and less dependent on outside sources of food, fuel, and other necessities. "Transition initiatives have spawned community gardens, farmers markets, and even winter farmers markets," says Carolyne Stayton, executive director of Transition US. "Some have created some schemes around seed saving and seed sharing as well." Groups have also focused on home weatherization and clothes swapping. In Los Angeles, the Transition community swaps clothing and other goods and they coin their efforts “Recession Relief.” Stayton says, "Other community benefits are bicycle repair coops, reskilling workshops of all kinds, plus a number of efforts focused on aging such as Aging in Place and Elder Salons that provide both community and resources."
The Marbletown Transition Initiative grew out of a series of community awareness film screenings organized by Deena Wade. At a recent meeting, Michelle Hughes, director of the High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, said her biggest concern was “giving children a positive vision of the future.”
Transition is also percolating in New Paltz, Woodstock, Kingston, and Saugerties. Woodstock’s Kevin Kraft reports: “Our initiating group has been in touch with over 200 residents. Groups are forming which are concerned with permaculture, food supply, water, and energy.” The Hudson valley is poised to become a Transition hub and a model for regional resiliency planning.
Cornelia Wathen and Fay Loomis, who helped initiate Transition Marbletown, reported over 20 health professionals volunteered to start the Rondout Valley Holistic Health Center, which will open one day a month at the Marbletown Community Center. The community response was so strong people called months before opening to make appointments at the free clinic. Loomis notes: “Transition is not just a lot of buzz. People are ready to jump in.”
Affordable, locally grown food is a big concern. Marebletown Transition attendee Jacob Diaz has a CSA in Lamontville. Organic chef and food producer Lisa Jones wants to launch a community grain project. Rik Flynn, president of the volunteer-placement group Ulster Corp, stresses, “No one should be hungry in Ulster County,” and was already working to bring local produce to food banks serving a hungry population that needs help now, not in some dystopian future. Marbletown Town Supervisor Michael Warren says enthusiastically, “Transition Marbletown is a great addition to our community.”
A Global Movement
While Rob Hopkins, cofounder of the Transition movement and author of The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, has become the voice of the movement, Transition initiatives, much like Occupy, are self-replicating and nonhierarchical. It’s self-governing with different local manifestations. “With Transition we have a cheerful disclaimer: We don’t know if this works,” Hopkins says. “Transition is an invitation to be part of an experiment on a historic scale with people who are all around the world trying to figure out what to do at this really crucial point in history, to make places we live more resilient and less vulnerable. And what that will look like in New York will look very different than anywhere else.”
Transition by its very manifestation asks the question: Should we be paranoid about the future or oil depletion in the first place? Besides increasing community action on things like renewable energy and energy efficiency, there’s much hope from advancing technology. Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil says, “We are applying nanotechnology to solar panels. And the cost per watt indeed is coming down at a rapid rate. The amount of solar energy we’re producing is on an exponential rise. It’s been doubling every two years. It’s only eight doublings from meeting all our energy needs.”
From Scarcity to Abundance
Similar optimism is reflected in the book Abundance, co-written by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis. The authors hope to “help change the world’s conversation from its current pessimistic focus on scarcity to abundance.” Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil co-founded Singularity University, which aims to “facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
Hopkins is not as sanguine as Diamandis and Kotler on the ability of technology to solve future problems. “Transition is not anti-technology, but technology is also not a silver bullet,” Hopkins says. “Transition is in effect an international movement of communities that are relocalizing. It’s a global movement of communities localizing but sharing it globally using the web and all of the available resources. It’s quite and interesting juxtaposition of things made possible by technology.”
While not giving up techno fixes, many are embracing a simpler life and Transition-like positive thinking. Tom Shadyacs documentary film I Am: The Shift Is About to Hit the Fan emphasizes that “humans actually function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude versus their negative counterparts anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear.” The film notes that while Charles Darwin is best known for the phrase “survival of the fittest,” he used it only twice in The Descent of Man. The world “love” appears in the book 95 times.
Have Your Pie in the Sky and Eat It Too
Transition advocates are not just pie-in-the-sky optimists. Wolf Bravo, in Marbletown, wants to start a tool-sharing scheme where people who can fix or build things will trade resources. Because of climate change, freak weather, and economic uncertainty Transitioners know society could break down. Surely many members of Transition initiatives worldwide own guns and have a well-stocked larder. But instead of fretting over converging catastrophes à la James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, advocates from Brazil to Brooklyn are developing concrete plans to become more resilient.
Rob Hopkins contextualizes Transition as an empathetic preparation for potential future shocks: “Transition is a compassionate response," Hopkins says. "It’s not a selfish response." When discussing the bunker mentality prevalent in some peak oil survivalist groups he says, “The idea that peak oil means inevitably the irrevocable crash and collapse of absolutely everything is really quite dangerous. We are saying, ‘Well actually there is another way to do this,’ which is about rebuilding community assuming there is good in the people around you, assuming that actually they have skills and insights and connections that you can all benefit from sharing.”
Whether or not we’re one of the many living month to month and one step away from a financial crisis—or one of the lucky with a nest egg to fall back on—we’re all pulled between the doom and gloom of James Howard Kunstler and Ray Kurzweil's techno-optimism. But if Darwin was actually more Woodstock than Omega Man, things might just be looking up.
Transition and other groups like Green Drinks are connecting face to face and on Facebook, creating on- and offline communities, and seeking local connections to solve worldwide problems. Corneila Wathen of Transition Marbletown explains what Transition means for her: "Community is the heart of Transition—joining our hearts to create a happy, abundant life together.”
Preppers might think Transition types touchy-feely. Hopkins says he got a lot of flak about being naive when he wrote the blog post “How Survivalists Got It All Wrong.” Are we naive to think we can prepare for the future and survive it—without barricading ourselves in homes?
Personally, I’d rather help build a local grain mill as opposed to a fallout shelter. I mean, if I’m going to survive the zombie apocalypse I’ll need a few friendly neighbors, a fresh locally made baguette now and then to keep my mojo going, and some locally produced spirit to get through all those dark and lonely nights. Hopkins says, “If it’s just about everything breaking down and people living in bunkers with four years of baked beans, I don’t really want to be around to see that."
Transition Culture Transitionculture.org
Transition Marbletown Transitionmarbletown.org
Transition Network Transitionnetwork.org
Transition US Transitionus.org