Transitioning Ann Arbor to Self-Reliance

Group works toward ambitious goal of a self-sufficient town
Cecile Green blows air through a metal tube to start a fire in an earth oven at the July 19 Reskilling Festival.

Cecile Green blows air through a metal tube to fan a fire in an earth oven at the July 19 Re-Skilling Festival, organized by Transition Ann Arbor. Green taught a class in how to build these ovens, which are made of clay. She described this one as cupcake-sized. (Photo by the writer.)

“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.

Participants in a Transition Town meeting in May at the Ann Arbor Friends meeting house.

Participants in a Transition Town meeting in May at the Ann Arbor Friends meeting house. (Photo by the writer.)

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:

  1. Set up a steering group (also called “initiating group”) and design its demise from the outset.
  2. Raise awareness.
  3. Lay the foundations.
  4. Organize a “Great Unleashing.”
  5. Form working groups.
  6. Use open space technology.
  7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project.
  8. Facilitate the “Great Reskilling.”
  9. Build a bridge to local government.
  10. Honor the elders.
  11. Let it go where it wants to go.
  12. 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.

arbor brewing

A Transition Ann Arbor video viewing at Arbor Brewing Company in June. (Photo by the writer.)

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.

Nate Ayers of Transition Ann Arbor and Anya Dale of the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission listen to Kirk Westphal

During a meeting last month at city hall, Nate Ayers of Transition Ann Arbor and Anya Dale of the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission listen to Kirk Westphal, a planning commissioner. (Photo by the writer.)

“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.

Molly, leading a canning class at the July 18 Re-Skilling Festival.

Molly Notarianni, who manages the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, led a canning class at the July 19 Re-Skilling Festival, organized by Transition Ann Arbor. (Photo by the writer.)

What’s Next?

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.”


  1. July 23, 2009 at 11:38 am | permalink

    This was a cool event. I learned how to darn socks!

    I love the 12 steps, but one thing I’m wondering about is hometown security. I’m all about post-apocalyptic stuff and inevitably, there is always some issues with others seeing what you have, pulling out arms and suddenly they have what you used to have. I’m not suggesting we all take up arms and secure and hold the buildings (although I will happily lead the group that takes Arbor Brewing :)) but this is one area that I rarely see addressed. I didn’t think to write this on my suggestion form–and honestly, I wouldn’t even know what to write–so I’m bringing it up here.

  2. By jcp2
    July 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    I’ve wondered about that as well. In a post-apocalyptic society, wouldn’t the initial most important survival skill involve being one of the strong that oppresses the weak? Why learn all these skills when with a organized armed miltia you can have other people provide these skills for you? I am envisioning a mixture of Mad Max crossed with Somalia, but in a more temperate climate.

  3. July 23, 2009 at 8:49 pm | permalink

    There are many scenarios – maybe hundreds – under which a winding down might take place. We can hope that the real one is not a sudden, total collapse of society, but rather a gradual retrenchment and re-education. Transition’s goal is to build a resilient community. That implies that we become more competent and resourceful, and more locally interdependent, as global resources become less available to us. I might argue that we have already been doing that to some extent over the last couple of years. The local food movement, for example, has made some excellent advances. And many people have adopted an ethic, if not a practice, of sustainability in the classical sense. Meanwhile, because of the stresses on our local economy, people have become more careful with use of resources.

    I’d rather be thoughtful, pursue simplicity and self-reliance, and learn useful skills not matter what the outcome. If the hordes come, it will require some rethinking, but I hope that survivalist type of scenario doesn’t appear.

  4. By Mary Morgan
    July 23, 2009 at 10:52 pm | permalink

    At one of the meetings I attended, the issue of disparities between communities came up in the discussion. I’d characterize the approach of TT organizers as one of outreach, and trying to loop in people from other areas who can start similar movements in their own communities. There does seem to be a strong utopian strain in all of this, or at least a grounding in hope and optimism. That said, I’m not sure it’s possible to predict how people would respond if confronted with gun-toting marauders trying to confiscate the stockpiles of canned peaches (or darned socks) – hope our future doesn’t serve up that scenario.

  5. By anon
    July 25, 2009 at 12:08 am | permalink

    Please, stop the naivete: the concept of self reliance is a fool’s paradise for people unable to admit or understand the complexities of the modern world. The reality is that the modern world is extremely interconnected and cannot be disconnected without drastic consequences. Are you going to build your own refrigerator, grow your own lumber, forge your own dental instruments? The list is almost endless; I haven’t even mentioned things like cell phones or even a radio.
    I support the conservationist ideals, but where is the social justice for the existing disparities of wealth regionally and globally? No wonder rich people always worry about poor people taking stuff.
    The solutions to the problems of our current paradigm cannot be “think locally, act locally.” The focus must be global.

  6. By Sarah Ross
    July 25, 2009 at 5:33 pm | permalink

    I think overall, gun totting isn’t sustainable. Once you’ve pillaged all the food and / or maimed and killed the people who produced it you’re out of luck. Besides that, it’s likely that the people who share and cooperate will be in the majority and that they will learn to manage their resources in sustainable ways, and so will out live the gun totters.

    It’s interesting to notice how hard it is to tell the difference between the fear filled fantasies we’ve been presented with on TV and in the movies and the real life scenarios that are much more likely to actually play out around us.

  7. July 25, 2009 at 7:48 pm | permalink

    Mary, you can have my darned socks when you pry them from my cold, dead hands :) :)

  8. July 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm | permalink

    What seems most important to me is our conversation. We can begin to relate more deeply to one another. We ALL have much more in common than we sometimes recognize. Yeah, you think Some Idea is cool,and yeah,I think it’s a bundle of nonsense. But we both have kids to feed, a mortgage to handle, dreams to actualize, flat tires to repair, and a love of ice cream!

    Let’s keep the conversation alive. In person. Not only through our all-too easy electronic light boxes, but through gatherings, pot lucks, block parties and barn dances! We’re in/on this (Grandmother Earth) together; we might as well act like it.

    Michael Andes, “Community Connections”, Ann Arbor

  9. By Mary Morgan
    July 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm | permalink

    Michael [#8]: I’m not sure if this is the “Community Connections” you’re referring to, but here’s a link to the Community Connections listing on A2Spark’s website: local networking groups and meet-ups. It’s not comprehensive – it doesn’t, for example, list the Yellow Barn – but it’s a start.

  10. By Emlbee
    July 27, 2009 at 11:20 pm | permalink

    Wow. How did a festival about canning and sock-darning bring such dark commentary? I hope no one thinks these skills will help them confront the apocalypse. But I do think they are good skills to know right now (I missed the festival, but wanted to go). Not necessarily because they are really going to save us in some dire scenario, but because it just makes you feel good to take care of yourself, rather than relying on some external, and in our society, usually corporate, entity to take care of you for you.

    And, speaking of Right Now, our current wealth in the US depends on the military might of our government, and slave labor that makes our cheap consumer goods. So, perhaps in some small way, growing one’s own food, etc., can help that. But IT IS NAIVE (and I think somewhat convenient) to think that’s all we have to do. We can’t disengage from the world and expect to solve GLOBAL problems.

    Also, I hope Ann Arbor doesn’t turn into some kind of stockade where we hoard all the good stuff and leave the poor outside to starve. It’s close enough to that all ready. And if you want to live in a stockade, there are plenty of gated communities you can join. And there’s plenty of militias, too. If that’s the world you want to create, I encourage you to enact your ideals.

  11. By CBuzz
    July 28, 2009 at 12:16 am | permalink

    I suggest reading the graphic novel, Apocalypse Nerd. It is a frictional comic about two friends who take a vacation in the mountains in Washington State during a nuclear attack by North Korean on Seattle. The book addresses many of the post apocalypse issues discussed on this forum. They have it at the library or you can order it from Vault of Midnight Books.


  12. By Linda Diane Feldt
    July 28, 2009 at 8:09 am | permalink

    Self reliance encourages self reliance, and I agree it is also illusion. We need to work in community, and support activities that build a strong community. I taught a class at the festival on wild harvesting plants for food and medicine. I like having that knowledge now, and it has change how I view the world and my place in it.
    What I like even more is sharing that knowledge. And it does make a difference in my food bill now, and in decreasing my health care costs. That’s an obvious benefit, and likely why the interest in this sort of thing is higher than I’ve seen in the last 20 years.

    I like thinking about those skills and making time to practice them. They are useful today, not just if the world as we know it ends. This was a generous endeavor, all volunteers. The idea of sharing basic knowledge is really powerful.

    Here is my part. I do a daily twitter on what you can harvest locally for food and health: Link to Wildcrafting Twitter feed. so that you can learn more about what is abundant and available in this area.

    So no matter what, people know more now and can enjoy it.

  13. By abc
    July 28, 2009 at 8:54 am | permalink

    And I thought Bezonki was the only frictional comic. I guess I gotta get out and read more.

  14. By Rod Johnson
    July 28, 2009 at 10:31 am | permalink

    “How did a festival about canning and sock-darning bring such dark commentary?”

    I think the answer is that many folks are feeling quite fearful about this whole issue right now, and there aren’t a lot of places they can explore their darker thoughts, so they come out in places where there are opportunities. I know quite a few people who are entertaining scenarios of doom while simultaneously raising kids and going to work every morning. The cognitive dissonance has to be tough.

  15. By jcp2
    July 28, 2009 at 12:52 pm | permalink

    There actually isn’t much cognitive dissonance at all. While Ann Arbor may be relatively ordered, the scenario where a small group of individuals regularly coerces goods and services from a much larger group is alive and well in both this country and countless others.

  16. By Rod Johnson
    July 28, 2009 at 10:12 pm | permalink

    I’m not seeing the connection between your two sentences there, sorry. Or with what I was saying, which is that going about our daily lives as if our current lifestyle will last forever, while simultaneously knowing that it can’t causes cognitive dissonance. While you may be right about your coercion point, it seems kind of disconnected from mine.

  17. By Sara
    July 30, 2009 at 5:10 pm | permalink

    Michael [#8] said: “But we both have kids to feed, a mortgage to handle, dreams to actualize, flat tires to repair, and a love of ice cream!”

    I have no kids, rent apartment, am baffled by phrase ‘dreams to actualize’, have no bike or car (so no flat tires), and am lactose intolerant.

    I guess we’re quits? :)

  18. By Pam
    July 30, 2009 at 9:05 pm | permalink

    I missed the event and hope there is another one. I want to learn the skills that my grandmother could have taught me like darning socks, canning, weaving, etc. I do it because I want to have a deeper connection to my life, to reduce my costs, to ensure that I truly KNOW what I am putting into and on my body. I want to raise backyard chickens, eat their eggs, and them (in time). BYW, I am a left-wing female gun nut and will happily teach anyone to shoot who wants to learn. I intend to go duck and goose hunting this fall because $50 per bird (the price for a frozen goose) is simply out of the question for me.

  19. August 13, 2009 at 3:47 pm | permalink

    Sorry,Pam (July 30) …I didn’t mean to leave you out! I bet somewhere we have something in common. “Actualizing our dreams” is another way of saying reaching our goals or working with a sense of purpose.

    You’re invited to a gathering of the “Community Connections”
    group on Monday, August 31st, at 621 W. Summit St, Ann Arbor. It’s a pot-luck beginning at 6, meeting from 7 to 9. We’re beginning to explore avenues for fostering our relationships
    and recognizing our interdependence in these challenging times…