Transition Movement Seeks to Build Community Resilience Amid Energy, Climate Change and Economic Crises

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Posted July 17, 2013

Interview with Chuck Collins, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The annual Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro, Vt., is a gathering focused on sustainable living, resilient communities, and the personal, inner transformations that are necessary for both. At this year’s Summit, June 5-7, some of the plenaries and workshops included presenters on the Transition Movement, made up of people who recognize the seismic shift in society that’s occurring due to peak oil and climate disruption, and who want to prepare themselves and their communities to make that transition as smoothly as possible.

They’re learning how to make clothing, preserve food, and harness renewable energy sources. Another key feature of the Transition movement is its adherents’ commitment to building personal relationships and a network of mutual support.

Chuck Collins, is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of the group’s program on Inequality and the Common Good. In 1995 he co-founded United for a Fair Economy (UFE) to address issues of economic inequality; his latest book is “99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It.” He's also a Transition activist in Jamaica Plain, an economically and racially diverse section of Boston. When he heard about the Slow Living Summit, he asked to facilitate a plenary session on “Transitioning to a new economy,” and recruited Massachusetts Transition trainer Tina Clarke and environmental activist and systems thinker Gus Speth to be presenters. He also facilitated a workshop on Emergency Preparedness, after which Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with him about how these various strands of the progressive movement can be integrated.

CHUCK COLLINS: I think the more authentically local you are, the less ideological you often are. There’s an issue that completely cuts across politics; you can be a climate [change] denier, but you probably think that communities should be prepared for blizzards and power outages and earthquakes and ice storms – things that come along through no fault of our own. So there’s an example where people talking to their neighbors in a non-ideological way can maybe build some interesting coalitions. The anti-fracking movement across New York state is a great example of place-based response to an outside threat. That does get a lot of people in action. So, I think we haven’t paid enough attention to the more neighborly, face to face, small group, bottom-up organizing, and those cells are important. At the same time you need to have a cohort of people who, for whatever reason, who are paying attention to the science of the times around climate change and want to engage directly to test power in that area.

It’s really fundamentally about organizing block by block in neighborhoods. Everyone agrees we should know our neighbors, know who’s vulnerable, and we want to help each other. And when people are in relationship, then you can have conversations: "Have you noticed we’re having more weird weather events? I think that’s connected to the changing climate; we have to respond to that, too." I think that’s a very bottom-up way to both diversify and get more people to face an over-arching, catastrophic threat that isn’t just one of ten things anymore that we should be worried about; it’s going to have an over-riding impact on the economy, and the food system, and work, and energy and everything, so it does have a special status. As much as people say, "Oh, that’s an environmental issue," Mother Earth bats last, and she has the final say.

BETWEEN THE LINES: At this conference and among Transition communities in general, the vast majority of folks involved are older white people, most coming from relatively educated and skilled backgrounds. How much of a problem is this?

CHUCK COLLINS: At the local level I think it’s really a big problem if local organizing efforts haven’t figured out how to bridge class and race diversity in their community. It’s going to hold us back. That’s a huge part of what we’re trying to work on in Jamaica Plain. We have an organizer who’s Latino and we’re trying to bridge the multiple (Jamaica Plains residents) in doing events in Spanish and doing events in different venues, and, more important, connecting the themes that are most urgent to low-income and communities of color to the Transition agenda, and vice versa. But I’m also not totally surprised; if you think about if people have the slack, or social capital if you will, to be future-oriented, to look at external threats that are somewhat abstract. That is really not for everybody. Most people live in the present in terms of their economic needs, or they live in the past, even, and it’s a somewhat small segment of people who read and think about threats in their more abstract state – you know, the number of parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. Pretty soon that’s going to change – extreme weather events, the challenges of another economic downturn, whatever it is – will become a teachable moment and an organizing moment around the transition.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One other question is the whole issue of language and how you’re going to address this issue. If you talk about “transition” it could mean anything, it could mean a lot of different things. In Jamaica Plain, I guess they call it “resilience circles” — who could be against resilience, right? Does it matter what you call it? Just like the concept of “global warming” – oh, warming is so nice! Instead of calling it “climate catastrophe.” So words really are important. What do you think about the vocabulary that’s out there so far, and do you think there’s something else that would be better?

CHUCK COLLINS: Well, I think we have to keep testing out; nothing’s going to work for everybody, no advertising slogan works for everybody. I think we have to be open to making mistakes, recognizing mistakes and changing the framing and the messaging. For instance, in our neighborhood, if you organize and bring people together under the banner of climate catastrophe and peak oil, you’ll get a crowd in the room, but it’ll be one crowd; it’ll be people who have sort of that environmental framework. If you say, "How are we going to face rising food and fuel prices and how are we going to connect with young people about the jobs of the future and their livelihoods and how to get out of debt and have good lives?" that brings another group of people: the equity group. There’s the environmental people and the equity people. Each of them have urgencies that are kind of different and focused in different places. They’re both legitimate urgencies. But we should not be too locked in to any particular language or framing.

Learn more about the Jamaica Plain Transition movement by visiting http://jptransition.org.

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