Localizing essential to survival

Posted Oct. 29, 2010, at 12:07 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.

Would you be interested in participating in a community orchard?

“Would you be interested in participating in a co-op to purchase energy-saving appliances or equipment?

“Would you be interested in investing in local ‘green’ businesses?”

These are a few of the questions on a survey circulating in Orono to assess the community’s potential for strengthening local resources in ways that will enable it to survive the transition from oil to alternative sources of energy. Generated by Sustainable Orono, a group of about 30 residents formed last spring, the survey collects information on household interests and practices associated with food, recycling, energy use, economics and transportation.

“The goal is reduced use of and dependence on fossil fuels,” said Richard Hollinger, who convened the first gathering last April.

Sustainable Orono is one of several groups in Maine and some 500 worldwide inspired by the Transition movement, founded in the United Kingdom in 2006 as a positive approach to a future without oil. Transition initiatives also exist in Brunswick, Hancock County, Belfast and Portland, as well as Woodstock and Cocagne, New Brunswick.

“We’re facing some serious crises,” Hollinger said. “We have to work at the local level around the world to solve them.” He defined three interlocking crises: peak oil, climate change and economic instability. Peak oil is the point when expansion of oil production becomes impossible and the race for what is left suddenly drives prices up as supplies diminish.

Hollinger, special collections librarian at the University of Maine, learned about the Transition movement as he was trying to make his own household more sustainable and realized it would be more cost-effective to work jointly on projects, such as installing solar panels. When he read “The Transition Handbook” by visionary Rob Hopkins, he said, “This is what I was looking for.”

While Hopkins stresses oil shortage and climate change, Hollinger adds the financial crisis to the challenges requiring community cooperation.

“You have to make it work for the poorest people in the community,” he said. He envisions ways to keep money in the community by encouraging investment in local businesses or creating a fund that would invest in environmentally sustainable businesses.

“We can use investments to create change,” he said. “We can invest local as well as buy local.”

Hollinger’s counterpart in Woodstock, New Brunswick, echoes his enthusiasm for decentralizing.

“Relocalization is one of the big factors in the Transition movement,” said Steve Helle, one founder of Transition Town Woodstock. Also started last spring, TTW is engaged in awareness-building parallel to that of Sustainable Orono — monthly documentary films on energy issues, participation in community fairs and arts festivals and sustainable energy demonstrations.

Helle said communities in northern Maine and New Brunswick are well suited to become Transition Towns.

“We haven’t drifted as far away from the localization that existed 100 years ago,” he said. “We’re spread out, so each town is unique, not interconnected with neighboring suburbs.”

Presque Isle City Planner Jamie Francomano also observed that a hub community in a remote region has advantages over communities in sprawling, highly developed areas when it comes to adapting to a post-peak-oil economy.

“I came 500 miles north for this job,” Francomano said. “One thing that first intrigued me was Presque Isle’s potential to become a model for sustainable development.”

Noting the city’s remote location, surplus farmland and well-established, compact commercial center, he said, “This combination helps make Presque Isle Maine’s quintessential service center community.”

Using food supply as an example, he envisioned a time when the price of transportation would limit the distance food, especially produce and dairy, could travel to reach our tables.

“With a little planning ahead, downtown Presque Isle will be well-positioned as the place to go in our region for farm products in the peak-oil scenario,” Francomano said.

Planning ahead is what the Transition movement is about. In Helle’s words, “Communities that recognize, anticipate and prepare will be better off than those that don’t.”

And, in the words of the “Final Point” on the transitiontowns.org home page: “Climate change makes this carbon reduction transition essential. Peak oil makes it inevitable. Transition initiatives make it feasible, viable and attractive (as far as we can tell, so far …).”

To learn more, visit www.transitiontowns.org

and www.transitionnetwork.org.

Kathryn Olmstead is a retired University of Maine associate dean and associate professor living in Aroostook County. She was the founding director of the Maine Center for Student Journalism at UMaine. Her columns appear in this space twice monthly. She may be reached by e-mail at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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