Friday, April 29, 2011

What is Transition?

If I were given just one word to describe Transition, what would it be?


Relocalization is the antithesis of globalization, which means it is the sine qua non of democracy. It is an essential precondition for democracy. It is also a deliberately buoyant response to the tripartite challenge that is peak oil / climate change / financial collapse. Relocalizers say "hey, more of the same probably won't work. Let's try something different. Let's disengage from this global clusterf@#k and chart our own course." Thanks to James Howard Kuntsler, by the way, for that wonderfully descriptive word. I tried hard to think of another, equally eloquent descriptor -- and failed.

If I were given two words to describe Transition, what would the second one be?


Resilience builds on relocalization. It qualifies it. It says that simply getting back to here isn't quite enough. It acknowledges directly that this isn't going to be a Sunday walk in the park. This Transition business is serious. Just as in Maslow's hierarchy of needs self-actualization comes after physiological and safety needs like food, water, shelter, security, in Transition we can't expect to maintain or improve our quality of life if we don't secure those basic needs that are under direct and concerted assault by peak oil, climate change, and slow-motion financial collapse. We know it must be possible to build resilience to these threats because these threats have faces -- ours. Peak oil is a fundamentally human phenomenon because (though the amount of oil is determined by geology) we have a choice in how we respond to it. There's nothing inherent in the laws of nature that humankind bury its head in the sand upon being confronted with the entirely prosaic fact that a non-renewable resource will eventually be exhausted. We could acknowledge it as a fact and then move on. Climate change is a fundamentally human phenomenon because the present bout of it is a direct and completely predictable result of evaporating billions of tons of ancient carbon into the atmosphere in what amounts to the blink of an eye. We've known for well over a hundred years that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas. And financial collapse? Despite mainstream economists' protestations to the contrary, economics as a science is a far cry from, say, geology, physics or chemistry. It has much more in common with sociology or political science than anything. This means it is a fundamentally human problem and, thus, amenable to human intervention. Screw the invisible hand.

Finally, if I had a third word with which to describe Transition? What would it be? This is the easiest:


Relocalization and resilience are necessary but not, as they say, sufficient conditions for saving our buts from the many-horned dilemma that is today's world. The final, and ultimately most necessary condition, is restoration. Even though I referred to climate change as an inherently human phenomenon, there will come a point, if it hasn't already, that the train set in motion by human hands will stop responding to those hands and start listening to higher-order beings: gravity, for example. And thermodynamics. Try getting into an argument, with thermodynamics, over who should be conducting the train: we'll see who wins.

At the risk of sounding terribly cheesy, we need to restore our connection with our planet, with the Earth. Against all reason, we've come to believe that we live outside of nature. Anyone paying attention can see the daily examples to the contrary, supplied by our apparently contrarian universe. We were able to believe, for a short while, in our invincibility, thanks to the discovery of seemingly endless free energy in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. That was a blessing for some and a curse for most. Now we've got to deal with the consequences. We need to restore our planet's damaged life-support systems.

It is my belief that, doing so, we will find new purpose and new fulfilment. I believe there is no other way. This is what Transition means to me.

Oh, by the way -- there are a few other 'R'-words out there that I might use, but I'll leave them to your imaginations ;-)

The Fundamental Problem

I just came across this video of Thomas Linzey, of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which is an amazing organization that has, for example, helped Ecuador institute the rights of nature right into the fabric of their national constitution. In this series of four videos, Linzey gives a powerful speech describing the roots of our present-day problems. You might be surprised to hear what he has to say.

CELDF is also very active in Pennsylvania. They recently helped the City of Pittsburgh assert local rights against a state legal framework that left them with little authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing of natural gas. Well, with CELDF's help, Pittsburgh has banned fracking within city limits.

A Transition

Most of you who read this probably know I also maintain a weekly e-newsletter for Transition Lancaster. One of the major features of that newsletter is the collation of what I consider to be Transition-related news and opinion from around the state, nation and world. Typical categories include climate change, peak oil and other energy-related news, economic and financial news, updates on hydro-fracking the Marcellus Shale here in PA, food, land-use, and more.

As much as I enjoy forwarding on news in that fashion -- and I do -- it's become, at times, a bit of a burden. Also, I'm not convinced it's the most effective way to do it, or even the best use of my time.

I have concluded that my single over-riding goal for the near-term is bringing more people into the local Transition movement. Transition Towns are sprouting up all over this region, like wildflowers after a Spring rain. There's a Transition Lancaster, a Transition Harrisburg, a young Transition York, a Transition Town Media (PA's first official TT), a nascent Transition Ambler, a Transition Philly, and more.... Transition is clearly an idea catching on, and for good reason. However, we here in Transition Lancaster need to be doing a better job helping more people to become actively involved, to know what that means, and to see the benefits to them personally.

I intend to refocus the weekly newsletter around that goal. I also want to make better use of this blog. Right now, at a post a month, it's really really underutilized. As an experiment, I'm going to start treating this as my "news" feed, rather than the newsletter. I'll also be publishing the occasional original essay, such as City of Trees. In fact, I have one germinating in my brain right now called City of Bikes, and another, called The Recycled City. You might think you know what those titles mean, but you just wait ;-)

Well, let's give it a shot, shall we?

Friday, April 1, 2011

City of Trees

This is the first in a new series I'm calling Lancaster 2030. In it, we'll be taking a look back on Lancaster from a vantage point 20 years in the future. What will Lancaster be like? How did it get to be this way (in 2030)? It's impossible to know for sure, but one thing is certain: "you've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." Let's figure out where we're going, then aim to get there.

Lancaster City (PA) -- Hard to believe, but not even 20 years ago, Queen Street was twice as wide -- twice as much asphalt! I almost didn't believe it myself, but the old satellite photos are not to be denied.

Now, as we all know, Queen Street is dominated by the verdant and beautiful -- and invaluable -- Queen Forest Corridor, which itself is part of the much larger Lancaster Urban Forest Reserve. Well, that's what the planners call it, anyway. To the rest of us, who've grown up with it, tended it, walked in it, ate from it, heated our homes from it and studied in it, it's just another part of our home, our beloved Lancaster.

This is the first in a series of retrospectives on the evolution of Lancaster since the Great Transition began nearly 20 years ago. In this inaugural report, we'll look at what many consider to be the foundation of Lancaster's Renaissance -- our very own Queen's Forest.

Some history
In the Spring of 2012, the second oil shock in four years hit hard. While, in 2008, the price of oil ran up to US$147 per barrel, the 2012 price was much more muted -- not even US$130. However, with the US economy still limping through a half-hearted -- and much disputed -- recovery from the "Great Recession," and many nations around the world experiencing cascading economic crises (what commentators today call "the death throes of the infinite growth paradigm"), even a muted oil shock was a big enough straw to finally break the camel's back. Economic activity came to a screeching halt nearly everywhere. Many were declaring it a second Great Depression.

Paradoxically, this moment proved a liberating one for many older American cities, particularly Lancaster, with its access to high-quality farmland, fresh water, and relative immunity (unlike the old coastal cities of New York, Miami and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia) from sea-level rise (though we have had our share of coastal refugees). Although the price of gasoline had dropped back below US$2, it turned out that most couldn't afford the gas at any price (and with hardly anyone buying gas, there was simply no incentive to invest in new oil infrastructure, exacerbating the problem). We were a city unemployed, and if what little money available wasn't going to food, it was going to housing and other necessities.

The boom in home gardening, which began after the 2008 financial collapse, really picked up in 2012, til it seemed like nearly everyone was growing food in any sunlit corner of the Earth they could find. Community gardens, such as at County Park and some School District property, really began to take off, particularly among renters.

Late in 2012, Mayor Gray took a decisive step when he imposed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Though decried by the banks, this action was very popular and has been credited with averting  a new homeless crisis and preserving the burgeoning spirit of solidarity among the citizens of Lancaster.

Studies from that time show that many had less leisure time than before, yet since they were now working from home, they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction.

A brutal winter
The winter of 2012-'13 proved a devastating one. Though 2012 was, worldwide, the hottest year (yet) on record, one of the counter-intuitive effects of global climate change was that winter temperatures could be as extreme as summer temperatures. In the Northeast, the immediate cause was the disruption of Arctic weather patterns which resulted in occasional spikes of frigid Arctic air lashing southwards, coating the land in ice and snow for months on end. Compounding this was that many could no longer afford the natural gas or oil they needed to warm their homes. It was a crisis. Riots very nearly broke out at one point when, during one very cold morning after an even colder night, over a dozen sick and elderly people were found dead in their homes. The cause? Exposure.

The people were demanding action, but what could anyone do? It later came out that city staff, along with several non-profits worked feverishly throughout the winter months on a plan to save the city. "Those were some cold meetings," said one staffer, in an interview a decade later. "Even the city couldn't afford much heat and, besides, we all felt strongly we had to share the pain with the vast majority of Lancastrians, or live as hypocrites."

The Queen's Forest Working Group, or simply the Group, as they came to be known, had realized something many had yet come to accept: times had changed, and the traffic that was would never return. The city simply had too many miles of useless roadways. With most people now walking or bicycling, the streets were now eerily quiet -- and eerily empty. Recognizing the changed shape of the world, the Group hatched an ambitious plan: they would tear up half the city's roads.

And they'd begin with Queen Street.

Though brutal, the Winter of '12-'13 was mercifully short, with Spring coming a full two weeks early. This was the Group's cue. They quickly unleashed over three thousand residents in a massive public works project -- tearing up twenty feet of road down the entire length of Queen Street, from just north of the bridge over the Conestoga to the train station in the north. Many workers were paid in food, which the city and county had begun to accept in lieu of the old US dollars for property taxes. Many more, though, joined in for the sheer joy of tearing up the macadam, and the satisfaction of doing something with their hands for the greater good. The city then used a substantial portion of its ration of diesel fuel to haul in nearly 30,000 cubic yards of top soil, compost and mulch. And then they began to plant trees.

A forest born and a city reborn
Half-planned, half-wild, Queen's Forest became an icon for a city reborn. The plan was for the forest, stewarded by a corps of trained permaculturists, to provide food, fuel, stormwater management, cool air in the increasingly hot summers, wildlife habitat and a salve for a city in deep need of healing.

In just a few years' time, the planners and foresters expected the new Queen's Forest (the core of a planned city-wide system) to provide a substantial portion of the city's heating needs through a combination of a new centralized boiler system and the production of synthetic gas, or syngas, from sustainably charring biomass from the forest. The syngas would be a nearly 1:1 replacement for the now hard-to-get natural gas.

The next few years were tough, but the spirit of self-help and community action cultivated in those early days proved resilient.

Amazing how much a simple idea can change things, isn't it?