Thursday, 4 September 2008

Great News

For the last two years I have worked with a group called FADA, helping prepare villages here for peak oil and climate change, and I’m pretty proud of what we have done. And now the latest news: We have helped make the nearby town of Kildare into the world’s latest Transition Town.

First, let me praise this group. It has existed less than two years, has had little money and no more than a dozen people at any time, sometimes we have invested more time in FADA than in our day jobs, and have asked patience from our families. Some projects have required us to stand in the cold Irish rain for hours, or sit through tedious meetings in rented rooms, or argue with decent people. But this group has made things happen.

It doesn’t always seem like it – just as rapid-fire news chronologies often feel slow when they happen, as background noise amid the obligations of mundane life, so do movements often feel like they are barely moving. Then we look back and realize that in two years we have:

• Organized an Energy Fair that drew thousands of people;

• Spoke to 300 teenagers about the Long Emergency at the area theatre;

• Created a mobile gardening unit to turn residents’ lawns into vegetable gardens;

• Published a weekly column on peak oil and climate change for the local newspaper;

• Persuaded the CEO of the county’s largest industry, Newbridge Silverware, to invest 250,000 euros in changing his business to bio-fuels and solar power;

• Brought Catholic and Protestant churches together endorse a common campaign against climate change;

• Appeared on numerous radio and television interviews in English and Irish, including co-appearing with Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins;

• Spoke from the pulpit of area churches for Lent;

• Hosted a talk on peak oil by Irish television personality Eddie Hobbs;

• Drew Irish television host Duncan Stewart to speak at an event;

• Organized workshops for students on how they will deal with the coming changes;

• Helped create a local gardening allotment and Farmers’ Market;

• Brought local teens together to create a FADA Og, or Young People’s FADA;

• Moderated political debates between candidates of several parties;

• Spun off a business that audits local homes for energy efficiency.

If this sounds like some serious bragging, keep in mind most of it wasn’t me personally. I wrote most of the columns and gave the local talks, somebody else spoke from the pulpits and spoke to the factory CEO, still others started FADA Og.

Some of these projects were disappointments – the Eddie Hobbs event, held on a dark rainy night, drew only a fraction of the people we had hoped for, and most of the auditorium was empty seats. The lot we hoped could become a community garden turned out to be weeds growing thickly through toxic tarpaper, and could not be used. But some went well, and now FADA – the name is a play on words in Irish, a word meaning “slow down” and an acronym for “Fuinneamh An Dúchais Againn,” or “Our Strength is Here in Our Native Place” -- has helped Kildare become an official Transition Town.

Transition Towns are also a new movement, begun in Kinsale, County Cork, of communities that acknowledge peak oil and work to wean themseves off fossil fuels. To officially qualify as a Transition Town, members of a community must meet with existing groups and local officials, talk to other towns already on their way, and start projects to make the area more self-sufficient and resilient. Then, these groups must draught a plan to make them largely independent of fossil fuels over the next 20 years or so.

The movement began with a few activists in 2005, and only three years later almost a hundred towns in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Chile have met the stringent criteria to be declared official Transition Towns. Many more communities, including some in Mexico, Israel, Argentina, India and Brazil, are working to qualify.

The path to independence will vary from one community to another, but such towns will typically work to create area gardens and food production for when food becomes even more expensive; promote local sources of clean energy; promote local composting instead of centralized rubbish disposal, and draw a growing proportion of the community into the efforts.

In some towns, residents interviewed local pensioners to learn how things were done before fossil fuels were cheap – where the townspeople’s food came from, how people traveled, and how goods were transported. Most Transition Towns have their own web pages sharing their stories, and many local efforts have been made into videos on YouTube.

While Kinsale was the start of the movement, it remained the only Irish town to join until Kildare qualified earlier this year. Transition Towns have been especially popular in England – so much so that they were featured recently in the long-running BBC soap opera The Archers.

Some people, when they first hear about peak oil and climate change, flirt with the idea of moving to the country and trying to live self-sufficiently. Country life, however, requires a long list of skills, tools and experience, and most of us are ill-equipped to suddenly move to an isolated area and start from scratch. Eco-villages have the advantage of community, but they too have sometimes tried to build an infrastructure from scratch, and have required modern urbanites to plunge into a very different life.

Transitions are easier when taken slowly, with a plan, and as a group, whenever possible. Our challenge is not to act as though everything has broken down when it hasn’t -- we have electricity, running water, heat, public transportation and even broadband -- but to understand that some of these things might have problems in the future, and prepare for it now, together. Transition Towns are dealing with peak oil by starting where they are.

I remember a scene from a very good newspaper article about a soldier’s funeral, in which the reporter describes the small, personal details of the assembled grieving family. Then, as the family prepares to leave the white cross, the father slowly looks around, in tears, and sees hundreds of white crosses spreading into the distance in all directions.

In the same way, I thought about the course of the last two years of our lives, and about the millions of uncelebrated people in towns around the world that have had the same frustrations and tiny victories, and how they moved, and moved, and moved, until they were a movement. The largest movement that has ever existed. And I don’t feel alone.

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