“I want to demystify canning and make you feel powerful!” quipped Molly Notarianni, holding up a Mason jar full of jam. She was speaking to a group crammed into a room at the Rudolf Steiner High School, who’d come to learn about canning, oven building, medicinal plants and other skills of self-reliance.
This day-long event wasn’t just a dabbling into traditional domestic arts. Saturday’s Re-Skilling Festival – which drew about 150 people to Steiner’s bucolic campus on Pontiac Trail – fits into a broader effort, one that aims to strengthen the local economy and gird the community for a time of dramatically reduced resources.
Called Transition Ann Arbor, it’s led by a small group of residents who aren’t elected officials, aren’t business leaders, aren’t even all among the usual suspects of community activists. So who are they, and what exactly are they doing?
Transition Ann Arbor: The Beginnings
The Chronicle first heard of this effort late last year, as word spread that a Transition Towns training session would be held here in January. Though its focus is local, this is an international movement, started in Kinsale, Ireland by Rob Hopkins. He was teaching a permaculture course there several years ago and assigned a class project: Design a plan to move away from dependence on oil, and create a local culture of self-reliance. That project has now spawned initiatives in over two dozen communities worldwide, including Ann Arbor.
About 50 people turned out for the January session, which was facilitated by Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie Hanthorn, who lead a similar effort in Boulder, Colo. Five people who attended that training – Jeannine Palms, Jeanne Mackey, Lisa Dugdale, Nate Ayers and Jeannine LaPrad – formed a local “initiating group,” and since then have been chipping away at a Transition Towns plan that’s structured after popular 12-step programs, but focused on society’s “oil addiction.”
The assumption behind Transition Towns is that we’re reaching a convergence of three crises: 1) a moment when oil production can’t meet demand, forcing us to confront a future of dramatically lower energy use; 2) climate change, which requires a drastic reduction in carbon emissions; and 3) worldwide economic instability. The Transition Towns movement is all about preparing communities to retool for this future, and the 12-step program is an outline of how to do that.
Understanding the 12 steps was the focus of a May 27 event The Chronicle attended, organized by the initiating group at the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting house on Hill Street. That’s where we first met Palms and Mackey, two of the group’s five members. When Palms, a preschool teacher who’s long been interested in sustainability issues, told us when she came across the Transition Towns concept “it seemed so right on.”
About a year ago, she joined a book discussion that Sustainable Ypsi was holding, focused on the Transition Handbook. Mackey, an instructional designer at the University of Michigan, eventually joined the discussion group, too. (Ypsilanti has its own Transition Town effort under way as well. Their initiating group meets at 10:30 a.m. on the fourth Friday of each month, at Beezy’s Cafe.)
The 12 Steps
So what are the 12 steps that Transition Ann Arbor is following, more or less? The steps are described in detail on the Transition Ann Arbor website, and the YouTube videos are posted there, featuring Hopkins talking about each step. In the simplest form, they are:
- Set up a steering group (also called “initiating group”) and design its demise from the outset.
- Raise awareness.
- Lay the foundations.
- Organize a “Great Unleashing.”
- Form working groups.
- Use open space technology.
- Develop visible practical manifestations of the project.
- Facilitate the “Great Reskilling.”
- Build a bridge to local government.
- Honor the elders.
- Let it go where it wants to go.
- Create an Energy Descent Plan.
There is certainly structure here, but there’s also a lot of latitude. That approach is actually part of the plan: Step #11 – “Let it go where it wants to go.” With the small group who gathered in May, Palms emphasized flexibility.
The program included a Q&A. One of the questions was how the Transition Towns model, which was first launched in a town of 6,000 people, could work in a city the size of Ann Arbor, with more than 100,000. Palms conceded that it might evolve into something different here, though she noted that there were Transition Towns in larger cities too, like Los Angeles. Maybe it will evolve into smaller neighborhood groups, she said.
The May meeting was one of four held that month to “raise awareness” (Step #2), with a repeat of that cycle of meetings in June, held at Arbor Brewing Company.
Also in June, three members of the initiating group – Palms, Mackey and Nate Ayers – addressed Step #4 (“Build a bridge to local government”) by meeting with city staff, Mayor John Hieftje, Anya Dale of the city’s environmental commission, and planning commissioner Kirk Westphal. In introducing the session, Matt Naud – the city’s environmental coordinator – said the environmental commission has a sustainability group that’s interested in these same issues. “I’ve always said, if residents are interested in working on something, we’re interested in supporting it,” Naud said.
Nate Ayers of Transition Ann Arbor gave a presentation about their efforts, emphasizing that “very much so, this is a social experiment.” A large part of the movement is focused on “relocalization”: 1) expanding local food, energy and goods production; 2) developing a local currency, like the Berkshire region in Massachusetts has done with its BerkShares system (or on a smaller scale, the local Dexter-Miller Community); 3) reducing energy consumption while improving environmental and social conditions; and 4) be a model community for these kinds of changes.
“I can’t really think of a better place than Ann Arbor to be a model,” said Ayers, an educator with the Ann Arbor Public Schools and founder of the Burns Park Green Energy Association.
In a discussion following the talk, Naud said the Transition Ann Arbor effort dovetails nicely with the 10 environmental goals that city council approved in 2007. Those goals include achieving local food sufficiency and 100% renewable energy. Naud offered to help by providing data and information – as an example, he said the city’s recently completed tree inventory included the locations of street trees with edible fruit, and those with medicinal uses, which might prove useful.
Hieftje offered to propose a resolution at city council supporting Transition Ann Arbor.
There was discussion about how people might react to the effort, with Naud pointing out that some residents might resist using a local currency or object to the assumption that oil production has reached its maximum supply – a concept known as “peak oil.” It’s important, he said, that people can get involved at different levels.
Jeannine Palms, a Transition Ann Arbor organizer who attended this city hall meeting, agreed that there could be different levels of buy-in. She said people could liken it to insurance – they’re preparing for self-sufficiency in case the crisis occurs.
Sunday’s Re-Skilling Festival (Steps #8 and #10) was enough of a success that organizers hope to do a similar event in the fall. About 20 instructors covered topics that included keeping backyard chickens, darning socks, spinning and weaving, making medicine from plants, and heating water with solar power.
Transition Ann Arbor organizers are also forming work groups (Step #5) – the first two will likely be on food and energy, Ayers said. When the work groups take over, the initiating group will dissolve (Step #1).
Meanwhile, they’ll be working to get more people involved, and holding more events to raise awareness (Step #2). All of this is leading up to the “Great Unleashing” (Step #4), an event to mark a critical mass of involvement from the community. That will likely happen in six months or so, organizers say.
But nothing is set in stone, and the transition could occur in any number of ways. As Ayers told city staff in June, “Any sense of control is illusory.”