Toward local resilience and economic vitality

Because life as we know it cannot continue indefinitely, a nearby community becomes the latest Transition Town

I have an obscure and secret addiction.

I regularly read blogs by homeschooling, homesteading families. I have followed some of these families through the (home) births of several children and through multiple seasons of gardening, canning, spinning, knitting, sewing, and barn building.

I try to imagine life as part of an isolated, self-sustaining family unit where everything needed is made at home and by hand. Not unlike my childhood fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder, it all seems too good to be true. Or too hard to be possible. Or too remote to be my reality.

In fact, such families, although highly self-sufficient, are not 100-percent self-sustaining. No nuclear family in this day and age really is.

As a divorced mother of three, it is no longer an option for me, even if it were doable. How would I have time to raise my food and make my clothes, when I rent a tiny apartment and work outside the home 32 hours a week?

By many counts, my current lifestyle is inherently unsustainable. Yet, I have an intense desire to do something.

In small ways, I strive to “live lightly on the earth” by recycling and composting as much of my waste as possible. I air dry my laundry, and I even wash and hang plastic bags for reuse.

I drive a hybrid, I combine errands whenever possible, and I've sworn off of air travel completely. I limit my purchases, and when I shop I do so thoughtfully, buying organic, used and/or locally made items whenever possible. I belong to a CSA, and this year I started a small vegetable garden.

I used to think that if everyone made such modest lifestyle changes, our planet would have the opportunity to heal itself, and all would be well.

I no longer believe it to be that simple.

* * *

A few years ago, I became involved in the Transition Towns movement, the idea behind which is that life as we know it cannot continue indefinitely: the climate is changing, oil and other resources are running out, and the global economy is unstable.

So, rather than be caught unawares, community members band together to gradually transition away from dependency on oil and foreign imports and toward a more localized economy.

There are many ways to go about this task, but the general idea is that, before making changes, we need to know our neighbors better first. With whom do we share this particular bit of geography? What do we love about our community? And what talents and skills can each of us contribute?

Since a family cannot survive on its own, perhaps a collection of cooperating families and individuals might be able to endure whatever awaits us.

My Transition Town organizing group met every fortnight for a year and a half, raising awareness among our fellow Northfielders by writing articles, planning community picnics, showing movies, and leading discussions to introduce folks to this idea of increasing local resilience and economic vitality.

Eventually, we held our “Great Unleashing,” to further develop the concept of local sustainability with interested neighbors, where more ideas were contributed and a variety of working groups were formed.

* * *

Many months and many meetings later, Northfield's Transition Town movement is familiar to most of our community.

We established an online email list to which more than 300 townspeople now belong. We have a tool-lending library at our town transfer station, and a nascent community garden, which grows vegetables for our local food pantry.

One group is working to increase recycling in our town, while another is trying to establish a “third place” - a welcoming venue that is neither work nor home. We organize “re-skilling” workshops, where neighbors share practical skills such as chicken raising and canning.

These efforts are modest compared to some other Transition Towns, and it is, quite frankly, difficult to know if they are making our community any more cohesive, localized, or even sustainable.

But what we and many other groups around the globe - Transition and otherwise - are doing is likely insufficient to save our planet.

I know that our planet's ability to support human life is limited. From what I have read, and what I understand, we simply cannot survive: We have depleted our resources, polluted our air and water, released so much carbon into our atmosphere, that there is no way to effectively heal the wounds that the human race has inflicted on our Mother Earth.

How much longer will she continue to support us? Some say as few as 20 years - maybe fifty, if we're lucky. It is as though we are all passengers on a collective Titanic of climate destruction.

* * *

A former alcoholic once told me, “Once you pull your head out of the sand, there is no putting it back in.” There are moments when I wish I could do just that.

Sometimes, in the dark of night, an intense fear bubbles up inside of me. Like hot lava, anxiety rolls out of every pore, disrupting my sleep, quickening my heartbeat.

I wonder if my eldest child should bother going to college.

Will my middle son's unique musical and athletic talents ever be of use to him?

What difference do a few low-watt light bulbs make?

Will my daughter ever know the joys of motherhood?

What will happen to all the unknowing creatures when the planet heats up beyond their frail bodies' capacities to endure?

It is in these frightening, middle-of-the-night moments, when I feel so very much alone. I catch my breath, stop myself from crying out, or - even worse - from burying my head in the sands of my pillow and blankets, trying to pretend an ignorance I can no longer possess.

Breathing the long, slow breaths that bring me back to center, I remind myself, once again, in the words of Joanna Macy, “to commit daily to the healing of our world and the welfare of all beings.”

What more can I do?

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates