Recycling Rationalization

January 30, 2009

The Transition Town Mov

By Carolyn Baker

For several months I have been meaning to write a review of Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, dermatologist but other things got in the way – like a planetary economic meltdown and out-of-control climate change that exceeds some of the most dire predictions by climate scientists. I should have spoken out earlier in support of this movement, information pills but I didn’t. Now, as we commence this new year, I am.

I will begin this book “review” by telling you that I find nothing – absolutely nothing wrong with The Transition Handbook. If that then makes this article into a commercial for the book instead of a review, so be it.

For nearly a year I have been emphasizing in my writing that a positive vision must be held in consciousness alongside all of the abysmal events unfolding around us. Even as I have been insistent on staring down the collapse of civilization, I have embraced at the same time what could be and have held in my mind and heart the threads of the new paradigm that so many of us are working to create.

Thus it has been with great pleasure and relief that I have looked deeply into the Transition Town movement and found it to exemplify everything that I believe comprises effective relocalization and the shaping of alternative economies and vibrant communities. Not only am I in awe of what the people of Totnes, the first Transition Town in the U.K., have accomplished, but more so, that the Transition Town model has become contagious and is spreading to a variety of places throughout the world, in the United States, and closer to my own local community here in Vermont. I’m additionally pleased that the Transition Handbook is now being distributed here in the U.S. by a Vermont publisher, Chelsea Green.

The Transition Town movement is all about preparing for energy descent and climate change and addressing the relationship between the two by essentially viewing them as two different aspects of the same problem.

James Howard of Powerswitch in the U.K. states:

(Jim, please indent this graf) Peak Oil and Climate Change are a bigger threat together than either are alone. Our biggest hope is to similarly converge our understanding of them, and how to deal with the problems they present. Peak Oil and Climate Change must be fused as issues – an approach is needed to deal with them as a package. If we are looking for answers, the environmental movement has pushed suitable ones for a long time. Peak Oil presents a tremendous chance to push those solutions ahead; failure to incorporate a full understanding of Peak Oil into the solutions argument for Climate Change would be an abject failure.”(p. 38)

Fundamental to the Transition Town movement is the notion of resilience. It is defined in the Transition Handbook as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” (54) In other words, resilience does not mean putting a fence around one’s community, refusing to allow anything in or out. It means “being more prepared for a leaner future, more self-reliant, and prioritizing the local over the imported.” (55)

Three requirements for a resilient system are: Diversity, Modularity, and Tightness of Feedbacks. Diversity simply refers to the number of elements in the system – people, species, businesses, institutions, and sources of food. What matters is not so much the number of any of these entities but the connections between them and the diversity of responses to challenges, the diversity of land use, and the diversity between systems. Not only does an analysis of the diversity of the place make top-down approaches redundant, but it reinforces the wisdom of “working on small changes to lots of niches in the place, making lots of small interventions rather than a few large ones.”(55)

Modularity of a structure refers to the parts of the system that can re-organize in the event of a shock. It is a key facet of designing an energy-descent plan because the more modularity, the less vulnerability to disruptions in wider networks. As the Transition Handbook states: Local food systems, local investment models, and so on, all add to this modularity, meaning that we engage with the wider world but from an ethic of networking and information-sharing rather than of mutual dependence.” (56)

Tightness of feedbacks analyzes how quickly and strongly one part of the system can respond to changes in another part. Globalization and national systems can weaken feedbacks, whereas in localized systems, the results of our actions are more obvious and allow the community to bring the consequences of its actions closer to home. (56)

In summary, it is possible that a future with less oil could be more positive than the current addiction to fossil fuels, but only, says the Transition Handbook, “if we engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination,” which is indeed what the handbook is all about.

The format of this mini-workbook-sized manual is extremely appealing. It is printed on heavy recycled paper, designed with simple, natural color tones, and is chock-full of exceedingly practical group exercises for clarifying and practicing its principles.

To its credit, this book does not sugar-coat the daunting reality of Peak Oil and Climate Change, but rather, offers a positive vision of preparation and myriad practical steps for manifesting it. An entire chapter is devoted to the somewhat paralyzing terror of everyone’s “End of Suburbia” moment and the resulting “post-petroleum stress disorder,” but also emphasizes that alongside that epiphany, we must cherish not only a positive vision but one that we can realistically and pragmatically implement.

A fabulous chapter in the middle of the book on the “Psychology of Change” underscores how change happens and how we tend to proceed through it emotionally, emphasizing that “change doesn’t happen all at once. Rather it occurs in increments or stages.” (85) The various stages of change are explored, with emphasis on their characteristics and what may be helpful to move people on to the next stage of the process. Some aspects of addiction diagnosis and treatment are utilized in order to address the depths to which most people in the developed world are addicted to the fossil fuel/consumption-based lifestyle. Fundamental to this addiction, as with all others, is the belief that change isn’t really possible. With remarkable skill, the Transition Town movement utilizes a number of effective strategies for assisting people who are stuck in abject pessimism by helping them envision the possibility of change and the certainty that it can be made.

At the core of the Transition Town movement is the Transition Initiative, which is an “emerging and evolving approach to community-level sustainability,” and many of these initiatives are appearing not only in the U.K. but in the U.S. They are based on four key assumptions:

1.    That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise

2.    That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany Peak Oil

3.    That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now

4.    That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet (134)

At the core of the Transition concept is permaculture, which while difficult to explain in one sentence, is essentially a design template for assembling the various components of any community – social, economic, cultural and technical in the most efficient way possible. (137) The 12 Principles of Permaculture, established by its founder David Holmgren, are explained, and examples are given regarding how they have become the foundation of Transition Towns throughout the world. How the principles will be implemented – in fact how any aspect of the Transition concept will be implemented anywhere, depends on the unique people and conditions of that place, which is one of the jewels of this movement. It does not offer cookie-cutter prescriptions but rather, possible strategies that can be uniquely applied to one’s community and region.

An entire chapter is devoted to how to start a Transition initiative, and although not directly related to the addiction to a fossil-fuel lifestyle, Twelve Steps of Transition are offered. The most impressive of these for me is the first one: “Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset.” What a relief! No chance of this group becoming an entrenched, hierarchical, power-driven monster; no chance of success unless the entire community is engaged and becomes more effective in bringing about transition than is the steering group; no need for one or two individuals alone to try to save the world.

The last half of the book is primarily devoted to an analysis of the first year of transition in Totnes and some of the practical manifestations of transition there. And finally, the book concludes with the “viral spread” of the Transition Town concept throughout the world. An extensive appendix includes a generous offering of further exercises, forms, questionnaires, and an energy descent action plan.

How does a Transition Town know if it has become resilient? What is the measure of viable transition? Here are a few resilience indicators:

* The percentage of local trade carried out in local currency
* The percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius
* The ratio of car parking space to productive land use
* Degree of engagement in practical transition work by the local community
* Amount of traffic on local roads
* Number of businesses owned by local people
* Proportion of the community employed locally
* Percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius
* Percentage of local building materials used in new housing development
* Percentage of energy consumed in the town
* Amount of sixteen year-olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetables to a given degree of competency
* Percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius.

Are these not the most axiomatic of preparations for Peak Oil and Climate Change? The Transition Handbook offers both stunning inspiration and an assortment of ingenious, yet commonsensical tools, for actualizing the concept of relocalization.

The Handbook concludes with these remarkably uplifting words:

[indent] While Peak Oil and Climate Change are understandably profoundly challenging, also inherent within them is the potential for an economic, cultural, and social renaissance the likes of which we have never seen. We will see a flourishing of local businesses, local skills and solutions, and a flowering of ingenuity and creativity. It is a Transition in which we will inevitably grow, and in which our evolution is a precondition for progress. Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were: we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled, and ultimately, wiser.

With all my heart, I want to support Transition Towns in my community and around the world with the hope that their implementations are not too little, too late. Yet, even if they are, I cannot think of a better place to direct one’s energy, time, and passion –regardless of outcome – as we navigate with realism and resilience, the collapse of civilization.

Carolyn Baker lives in Vermont and is an adjunct professor and manages the Speaking Truth to Power website at She may be contacted at

By Steve Klinger

There seems to be a disconnect between what advocates and officials involved in city and regional recycling efforts say and the day-to-day reality facing southern New Mexico residents who want to dispose of their household wastes responsibly.

The public relations arms of the city and the new South Central Recycling Partnership tout the area’s recycling efforts publicly while the bureaucracies that run the actual programs accommodate their own priorities far more diligently than they do the needs of residents.

Las Cruces backed away from curbside recycling a couple of years ago after questionable pilot studies indicated residents did not want to pay for the limited choice of pickup services the city was prepared to offer. Instead, herpes
funds were used to add extra drop-off bins for newspapers, injection
corrugated cardboard and aluminum – but not plastic. Those with plastic recyclables were told to take their items to the West Amador Recycling Center or the newer Foothills Landfill facility on the East Mesa. And glass has never been accepted at any city facilities, hygiene
with the explanation given that there is no market for selling it.

The West Amador Facility has long been accepting yard waste (tree limbs, brush, grass clippings and leaves), where it is processed by city chipper machines and hauled to Foothills for composting. But the city announced last month that yard waste will be accepted only at Foothills after Feb. 28, thus compelling west side residents either to pay to dump their yard waste at the West Amador transfer station or else haul it all the way across town through the city’s worst traffic to Foothills.

I contacted city, county and South Central Solid Waste Authorities about the yard waste change and was told by the city and SCSWA that most of the yard waste is generated on the rapidly growing east side, which seems counterintuitive since most of the trees and brush grow closer to the river. (They said they had studies but no one provided me with one.) Further, they told me they need the space at the West Amador Recycling Center to expand regional recycling programs, which will be coordinated by SCSWA, and the switch will save money because the city was having to transport 50-100 loads a month of chipped yard waste from West Amador to Foothills for composting and then bring the compost back. I was invited to a monthly SCRaP meeting to learn more.

What I learned was that there’s plenty of space around the West Amador facility (if not right in the yard) and no good reason I was made aware of why yard waste can’t be collected at both locations. What I learned was that it’s all about budget and image. How big could the Earth Day display be and what wording could be used in the city’s upcoming newsletter piece to avoid saying the city was postponing the start of single stream curbside recycling? How could we all work together to grow the culture of recycling while putting a smiley face on the curtailment of services?

I learned too about the unfortunate collapse of regional and international markets for paper, metal and plastic, and I do understand that budgets must be met and resources used efficiently.

But the questions I brought were never answered: How does it make sense to close a yard waste facility that the city solid waste administrator admitted was backed up with traffic on Saturdays and make residents drive an extra 10-20 miles round trip, with their pickups and their trailers, clogging traffic on Amador and Lohman and Telshor, burning extra fuel and inevitably casting their stray branches and leaves for motorists behind them to deal with? What about all the extra burning that will take place when farmers and residents face the choice of a ridiculous trip all the way through town or torching their leaves and tree limbs? Is this a sustainable solution for a city that just signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to reduce its non-renewable energy use and find green solutions? (The city manager said in an e-mail he’d look into the location change. I never heard back.)

And why was there no public input before this major change in policy? Where is the respect for public opinion when so many people are affected? Why has not a single council member spoken up about this issue?

Frankly, long before this new policy, we had found the West Amador facility a most unpleasant place to do recycling. We’ve always joked about the Recycling Nazis who seem to spend most of their time standing around looking for something put in the wrong bin or some false move by a resident trying to use the facility. Hold it, there, Mister, you’ve got to take those leaves out of the bag. Wait, that log is too thick, put it back in your truck. No way, we don’t take those plastic containers, even if they are Number 2 – no opaque plastics.  Sorry, you’ve got to flatten that cardboard.

The hours have been another deterrent.  While most residents want to recycle on weekends, the West Amador Center closes at three on Saturday (it used to be one) and is closed Sundays. It closes at four on weekdays. The Foothills Center now has the same hours. What are they, banks? Isn’t it clear that to encourage recycling it’s smart to make it easier for residents to do it, not harder? Why is there always the feeling that they’re doing us a favor?

Cities smaller than Las Cruces and more remote from major markets have somehow found the resources for single stream curbside recycling. Counties have seen it as their responsibility to provide services to encourage recycling, save landfill space and protect the environment for the sake of future generations. Twenty-million-dollar county buildings are nice, but solid waste services are a little more important.

As an attendee at the last Progressive Voter Alliance meeting said in exasperation after an update on the recycling changes was presented, “The recycling program is a sham!” The room burst into applause.

We are still well back in the 20th century, in government attitudes as well as facilities. Heaven forbid that a sanitation worker might have to cut up a cardboard box or pull the glossy inserts out of a newspaper. Stay open at the times people want to use the recycling facilities and maintain convenient locations? Sorry, show up when and where it’s convenient for us.

As far as I’m concerned, the system’s not all right, and it’s bad enough we have to convince our leaders to wake up to responsible 21st-century waste disposal and recycling programs.
But don’t insult our intelligence with the hypocrisy of projecting an image of a gung-ho, go-green community when the reality is clearly a culture of bureaucrats and sullen sanitation workers who rationalize every obstacle they put in the paths of residents who want to recycle.


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