April 19, 2009
The Green Issue
The End Is Near! (Yay!)
By JON MOOALLEM
The stage lights went up at the Panida Theater, a classy old movie house in Sandpoint, Idaho, and the M.C. stepped out of the dark with one finger high in the air. There was an uprising of applause and cheering. Then, shouting like a head coach before a bowl game, she said, “Sandpoint, are you ready?”
It was a Friday night last November. All around the little town of Sandpoint, beetles were blighting north Idaho’s pine forests. The previous day, the U.N. reported that emissions from automobiles and coal-fired power plants were collecting in brown clouds over 13 Asian and African cities and blocking out the sun. Iceland’s main banks had crumpled, and American auto executives were about to fly to Washington in private jets to plead for a bailout. Off the coast of Africa, Somali pirates were hijacking oil tankers. But the folks at the Panida Theater wouldn’t stop clapping. The Sandpoint Transition Initiative, a new chapter of a growing, worldwide environmental movement, was officially coming to life.
The Transition movement was started four years ago by Rob Hopkins, a young British instructor of ecological design. Transition shares certain principles with environmentalism, but its vision is deeper — and more radical — than mere greenness or sustainability. “Sustainability,” Hopkins recently told me, “is about reducing the impacts of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.” But that assumes our industrial society will keep running. By contrast, Hopkins said, Transition is about “building resiliency” — putting new systems in place to make a given community as self-sufficient as possible, bracing it to withstand the shocks that will come as oil grows astronomically expensive, climate change intensifies and, maybe sooner than we think, industrial society frays or collapses entirely. For a generation, the environmental movement has told us to change our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic consequences. Transition tells us those consequences are now irreversibly switching on; we need to revolutionize our lives if we want to survive.
Transition’s approach is adamantly different from that of the survivalists I heard about, scattered in the mountains around Sandpoint in bunkers stocked with gold and guns. The movement may begin from a similarly dystopian idea: that cheap oil has recklessly vaulted humanity to a peak of production and consumption, and no combination of alternative technologies can generate enough energy, or be installed fast enough, to keep us at that height before the oil is gone. (Transition dismisses Al Gore types as “techno-optimists.”) But Transition then takes an almost utopian turn. Hopkins insists that if an entire community faces this stark challenge together, it might be able to design an “elegant descent” from that peak. We can consciously plot a path into a lower-energy life — a life of walkable villages, local food and artisans and greater intimacy with the natural world — which, on balance, could actually be richer and more enjoyable than what we have now. Transition, Hopkins has written, meets our era’s threats with a spirit of “elation, rather than the guilt, anger and horror” behind most environmental activism. “Change is inevitable,” he told me, “but this is a change that could be fantastic.”
After developing the rudiments of Transition with a class he was teaching at an Irish college, Hopkins moved to the English town of Totnes, and, in 2005, began mobilizing a campaign to “relocalize” the town. The all-volunteer effort has since been busily planting nut trees, starting its own local currency and offering classes on things like darning socks in order to “facilitate the Great Reskilling.”
More than 80 other initiatives across England have followed, including one in Bristol, a city of nearly half a million people. Worldwide, there are now more than 150 official Transition Towns (communities with an active group of citizens), and last winter, trainers from Totnes traveled the globe to run workshops, leaving activists on three continents to begin the relocalization of their own communities — autonomously and with whatever financing they can raise. (The Transition revolution is, loosely speaking, a franchise model.) Sandpoint, Idaho, was the second Transition Town in the United States after Boulder County, Colo. They have been joined by more than 20 others in the last year, including Portland, Maine; Berea, Kentucky; and even Los Angeles. But the American arm of the movement is expanding far faster than it is accomplishing anything, which is why the event in Sandpoint that night was so significant. The Sandpoint Transition Initiative was the first in North America to hold this kind of coming-out party, meant to engage the community in its work. This constituted Step 4 in the 12-step Transition Process laid out in Rob Hopkins’s Transition Handbook, the jargon-filled manual at the center of the movement. The handbook calls this event “A Great Unleashing.”
The Transition Handbook reads like an imaginative take on a corporate-management text. It recommends techniques for building consensus, from bureaucratic-sounding protocols like Open Space Technology to an exercise in which people decorate a potato like a superhero. “The Transition model,” the founder of one English Transition Town explained to me, “provides a structure, a foundation for organizing.” And along with Transition’s emphasis on hopefulness over fear, this rigorous playbook seems to set it apart from earlier grass-roots crusades. It is, Transition leaders say, what they hope will allow the movement to bring in the people that conventional activists have failed to reach and, just as important, keep everyone focused through the messiness and disillusionment every community-organizing effort encounters and many do not survive.
At the Panida, the keynote speaker was Michael Brownlee, the director of the Transition effort in Boulder and a representative of Transition U.S. — an even newer group that is forming to help the movement spread in America. He was like the Transition equivalent of a middle manager flown in from corporate.
Brownlee gave his own variation of the standard PowerPoint presentation distributed at Transition trainings. Up on the screen behind him came a slide showing the three convergent emergencies that Transition aims to help us through: climate change, the unraveling of the global economy and peak oil. The theory of peak oil concludes that the productivity of the earth’s oil wells will soon peak — if it hasn’t already — and, once production falls short of demand, the market for our fundamental resource will rapidly spiral into chaos, potentially pulling much of society down with it.
Brownlee spelled out some probable outcomes, quoting peak oil’s pantheon of thinkers: Oil hits $300 a barrel by 2013. Middle Eastern exports cease. Things we take for granted — supermarkets, suburbs — quickly become impossible, and the world sinks into an “unprecedented economic crisis” that will “topple governments, alter national boundaries,” incite wars and “challenge the continuation of civilized life.” Brownlee paused after reading that last quote. He hadn’t even gotten to climate change and the implosion of the American dollar.
It was all surprisingly easy to imagine. Lately, an apocalyptic bile has been collecting in the back of America’s throat. Our era has been defined by skyrocketing line graphs, and it’s easy to wonder if we have finally pushed something just a little too far and are now watching everything start to teeter over. Maybe it’s not our dependence on oil, but the carbon we have plugged up the atmosphere with. Or global population. Or credit derivatives. We’re all starting to career down the other side of that hill — which hill, specifically, is up to you. But it’s the shadowy side, and none of us can see the bottom.
In Sandpoint, though, people were trying to move the stale chatter of environmental collapse out of the health-food store and into the 21st century — to pull each incongruous part of their community together and make their town, collaboratively, the blessed place they all knew it could be. At a time when so much fuzzy energy for change ricochets through our culture, and even Chevron ads ask us to use less oil and harness “the power of human energy” instead, Transition seemed to offer this sold-out theater in Idaho both a vision and a lucid, 240-page instruction manual with which to give it a try.
Would it work? Nobody could say. But as Brownlee finished, and the crowd suddenly re-erupted into applause, even just trying it seemed to feel wonderful. Next, a group of kids raced onto the stage in Sgt. Pepper garb, holding inflatable guitars. Later came a “sustainable performance arts” troupe (they use biofuels when fire dancing) and a woman who sang about rain and peace. By the time the last guitar duo performed “Here Comes the Sun,” everyone in the room was so keyed up — so ready to turn the impending dark age of peak oil and climate change into a renaissance — that no one heard the slightest menace in the line “Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.” Or if they did, they just kept singing along anyway.
The second phase of the Sandpoint Transition Initiative’s Great Unleashing weekend began the next afternoon. A four-hour meeting was called to divide people into working groups, Step 5 in the Transition Handbook. Each working group would focus on a necessity of the town, like food, energy or transportation. They would develop projects, then research and write a plan delineating what steps Sandpoint must take in order to relocalize over the next several decades. The Transition Handbook calls this crucial document an Energy Descent Action Plan. Producing one is Step 12.
More than 100 people turned out for the meeting in the gymnasium of a local charter school. Everyone wore name tags. Richard Kühnel, who started the Sandpoint Transition Initiative with some like-minded friends in his living room, drew a shining sun on his.
Kühnel, 54, is a smiling stick figure of a man, with wispy hair and a whitening beard. He has worked as a software designer on and off since he was a teenager but also has a degree in “ecosocial design” from Gaia University. (He is Austrian and moved to Sandpoint in 1995 with his wife, an alternative-medicine practitioner.) Kühnel organized the initiative’s first meeting early last year after returning from a pilgrimage to Totnes, where he attended one of the first Transition trainings. He was attracted to the movement, he told me, because it alone seems to understand how to persuade people to address the world’s gloomiest challenges without shoving them into denial or depression. “We are not fighting against something,” Kühnel told me. “We are for something. I wanted to be part of the solution, positively responding to all these challenges here in Sandpoint.”
Sandpoint is a town of 8,100 people, rimmed by the Cabinet and Selkirk Mountains and bordered by picturesque Lake Pend Oreille. Like many Western towns, it is the mottled product of a century of migration. Railroad workers were followed by timber workers. In the 1970s, young, long-haired back-to-the-landers arrived, and many persevered even as northern Idaho ossified into a conservative stronghold. Last year, after the rise of Sarah Palin, who is a Sandpoint native, a local magazine ran an account of the couple of months she spent there as an infant before moving to Alaska. “I was in the eighth grade,” a former baby sitter told the magazine. “I held her.”
Transition seeks to “unleash the collective genius of a community,” as Hopkins often puts it — to unify a town behind a single, critical purpose. And at first glance, unifying Sandpoint might seem impossible. But those living on the land, whether out of a left- or right-wing ideology, do have a lot in common, including an astounding amount of resourcefulness. Peggy Braunstein, who came to Sandpoint from New York 27 years ago, told me that for her and her neighbors, many of whom live off the grid, life without oil “isn’t so overwhelming or shocking. People here have already lived a scaled-down life. We’ve already bartered and shared, canned together.” A local green-tech entrepreneur told me that Transition should not have too much trouble “bridging the rednecks and the hippies.” (“The best way to bring them together is a Willie Nelson concert,” he joked.)
At the charter school, everybody found seats in a circle. Many balanced legal pads on their laps. Kühnel’s wife, Berta, began by asking everyone to join hands. She instructed them to close their eyes and transmit energy around the circle in a clockwise direction. “We’re going to journey into 2030 and see what’s there for us,” she said. She told them to feel their bodies lifting into the clouds, falling back to earth as rain, then joining a river, “flowing forward in time.” The river ran through Sandpoint. It was the future now, and Berta asked everyone to look around: “What’s the technology? Is there technology? How do we dream? How do we live?”
Sandpoint’s mayor, a painter and former hardware wholesaler named Gretchen Hellar, was sitting next to Berta. When I asked her later what she made of the exercise, Hellar told me: “First of all, I’m not a good-feelings, touchy-feely kind of person.” She added, “People wanted to talk about where we can put community gardens, how can we make our downtown more viable.” John T. Reuter, a Republican city councilman a few seats over, told me that when Berta told them to hold hands, he was looking around the room, counting up the people he knew Transition just alienated.
The crowd split into groups of nine to draw their visions. Bruce Millard, a local architect who builds with straw bales, quickly emerged as his group’s moderator. Quite tall, with a ponytail and mustache, Millard bent over and drew several circles on his group’s sheet of paper with an orange crayon. He envisioned a hub-and-spoke system: many villages, each with a different specialty, with downtown Sandpoint as a trading post in the middle.
The group started brainstorming, assuming there would no longer be cars or a power grid. One village might grow food. Another should educate children.
“Where are we going to put the corpses?” someone asked.
“Eat ’em!” said a woman in braids.
“Can you just make a rule that everybody’s cremated?” a somber-looking woman in a blazer asked. Her husband was sitting with his face in his hands.
“Well,” Millard said, “it takes a lot of energy to cremate people. Besides, now we’re getting into rules.”
Millard’s sketch happened to look a lot like the master plan of Fourierism, one of the most popular secular utopian movements in American history. In the early 1800s, Charles Fourier, a Frenchman, proposed, in a series of jargon-filled writings, a self-sufficient community model called a “phalanx.” A central estate or “phalanstery” would be surrounded by tradesmen’s workshops, cultural institutions and farmland.
Fourier was horrified by what he saw at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. His fears may sound familiar: that dishonest lending and capitalism in general would lead to the enslavement of humans by big companies; “industrial feudalism,” he called it. And, not unlike Transition, he aimed to overhaul society one phalanx at a time. Fourier claimed to have reduced all possible human personalities to a number of essential types. From there, it was simple math. He calculated that if precisely 1,620 men, women and children were collected in a 6,000-acre phalanx, they would — all by merrily following their individual passions — end up satisfying all the phalanx’s essential needs. “The new amorous world,” he wrote, would rise out of “the new industrial world” by the force of “passional attraction.”
By the mid-1800s, more than 15,000 Americans had experimented with Fourieristic living, many drawn to its promise during a severe economic downturn. But Fourier’s belief that acute scientific modeling could bring disparate people together didn’t hold. It reflected, the historian Carl J. Guarneri writes, “the naïve faith that . . . Baptists would get along with freethinkers and intellectuals would make great farmers.” Arguments tore phalanxes apart. So did debt. All but eight failed within three years.
It has been an American impulse since the Puritans: feeling the world racing in the wrong direction and withdrawing to a small, insular place to start over. Hippies came to Sandpoint in the 1970s for similar reasons: to live solitary, self-reliant lives. But going back to the land was tough, particularly since many never lived on the land in the first place. (“I couldn’t build things with my hands,” one man, once part of a small commune called Huckleberry Duckleberry, told me. “It was futile.”) By the early ’80s most had either moved into town or left the region.
Now, maybe because our various crises have escalated, or because it costs so much to disappear into your own parcel of wilderness, opting out no longer feels like a possibility. One of Transition’s more oblique arguments may be that we can’t escape anymore. We have to work together to remake the places where we already live.
By now, around the charter-school gymnasium, one group was imagining year-round farmers’ markets in the buildings that would, by 2030, no longer be banks. Another discussed bicycle parking and nodded benignly at a man who pictured everyone living in caves with Internet connections. Millard’s circle was ticking off ways they could travel between the villages they had drawn. “O.K., so we’re walking, we’re bicycling, we’re skiing,” he said.
“Kayaking!” someone offered.
Peggy Braunstein spoke up, worried about the snowy north Idaho winters. “We’ve got a problem,” she said.
“There’s no problems,” Millard told her. “In a dream there’s no problems. There’s only solutions.”
Karen Lanphear, who has been steering the Transition Initiative alongside Richard Kühnel since its inception, found this portion of the meeting excruciating. “I thought we squandered at least an hour or an hour and a half of people’s time,” she told me later. Lanphear is a commanding woman of 62 with short, styled gray hair and a doctorate in education. In many ways, she is Kühnel’s temperamental opposite. She feeds off his visionary energy but felt compelled to run their earliest meetings with timed agendas.
In the six weeks before the Unleashing, Lanphear met with the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association, the University of Idaho extension office and the branch manager for U.S. Bank. She was the keynote speaker at the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Women in Business luncheon and penned six editorials on Transition for the local paper. Lanphear told me she has a gift for “building coalitions.” This was apparent. But it wasn’t clear if everyone she briefed had the same frame of reference. Karl Dye, head of the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation, told me, “All the things Transition’s doing basically line up with what we’re trying to do, which is create better-paying jobs.” He saw a lot of promise in Lanphear’s group, though he also said: “If you start a business to produce food locally and there are opportunities to make money by taking it to other areas, you’re going to do it. You may believe in Transitions and local production and local consumption, but hey, man, we’re still Americans.”
At the time of the Great Unleashing, most people in Sandpoint presumably hadn’t heard anything about Transition. But the ones who had often found a way to interpret the movement as extensions of their own visions. Having watched second- and third-home owners, retirees and tourists rush into Sandpoint, many latched on to Transition’s vague promise of building a better, quainter community. A minister told me she was glad that Transition wasn’t “a greenie, hippie, far-out thing.” But Michael Boge, the City Council president, seemed to complain of exactly that, telling me he didn’t understand why the group had to cheapen a good idea by “inventing a new word for it and wrapping themselves in that catchphrase.” (The new word Boge objected to wasn’t “Transition”; it was “sustainability.”) Still, Boge, who owns five drive-in restaurants and is active in a long-distance motorcycling club called the Iron Butt Association, told me that he felt allied with Transition’s ideals. “I’ve bitched about this to my friends for years: we need to make a concerted effort to get off fossil fuels,” he said. “And I truly believe that with the country and God behind us, we can do it.” Transition was a prism, offering a slightly different view of Sandpoint depending on how each person turned it, but always shooting out lots of rainbows.
Transition’s message is twofold: first, that a dire global emergency demands we transform our society; and second, that we might actually enjoy making those changes. Most people I met in Sandpoint seemed to have latched onto the enjoyment part and run with it. The vibe was much more Alice Waters than Mad Max. (Jeff Burns, a local food activist who joined the food working group, was a conspicuous exception. “Some people on the food group want to feel good,” he told me, “and some people want to figure out how to feed 40,000 people in case the trucks stop rolling.”)
Michael Brownlee, the keynote speaker from Boulder, sat silently in his chair during the charter-school meeting. That night, he told me that the unflinching cheeriness of everyone involved made him optimistic. But he also worried that people didn’t yet understand that “just because you’re passionate about a particular issue like transportation or water or local food doesn’t mean that you have the skills to do the research, analysis or planning around that issue.” He later added, “If I knew how to convey how serious, how urgent the situation is without sending people into fear and helplessness, it would take a great burden off of me.”
During the next few days, I surprised myself by actually arguing with people in Sandpoint about whether they were doing Transition properly — with enough intensity, given the stakes. “I can’t live with the ambiguity of pending disaster,” Lanphear told me. “I was raised to believe there are no problems without solutions.” She said she didn’t believe things would become as bad as Brownlee and others predicted. She had a lot of faith in the ethic and ingenuity of younger generations and also told me, contradicting what seems like a central tenet of Transition, “I think technology is going to be one of our saving graces.”
A few months after the Sandpoint Un-leashing, I went to a meeting of the new board of Transition U.S. in Sebastopol, Calif., north of San Francisco. The organization had just partnered with the Post Carbon Institute, another peak-oil-focused nonprofit group, and received $280,000 of seed money. The board had signed the lease on its new headquarters 12 days before I arrived.
Transition U.S. is designed to offer guidance to Transition initiatives forming around the country and to organize trainings. Already it had communicated with activists in more than 900 communities. Jennifer Gray, who started the second Transition Town in England and then went to California to found Transition U.S. last year, was spending most of her time fielding phone calls and e-mail messages. She took it as a good sign that no one in Sandpoint was reaching out to her.
Transition insists that initiatives be completely bottom-up organizations. There’s no central oversight, and the movement is expected to evolve slightly differently wherever it springs up. The trajectory of each initiative shouldn’t be controlled too tightly even by its local leaders; Step 11 in the handbook is really more of a mantra: “Let it go where it wants to go.” Like a Fourierian phalanx, a Transition Town should be the product of the passions of its residents — all of its residents, equally. Unlike Fourierism, though, Transition doesn’t claim its method is mathematically guaranteed to succeed. It simply posits that our best hope is to “unleash the collective genius of the community” and hope all the right pieces spill out. “We truly don’t know if this will work,” Rob Hopkins asserts in a mission-statement-like document called the “Cheerful Disclaimer!”
Consequently, the structure Transition sets forth is intentionally very minimal, and improvisation is encouraged. The handbook’s 12 steps needn’t be done in order (Hopkins now calls them the 12 “ingredients”), and communities are free to skip ones they don’t find useful. Ultimately, the most profound thing Transition offers isn’t a methodology at all but a mood.
“The genius of the Transition message, as I see it, is that it takes what we should be doing to avert these crises and turns it into something that sounds inviting and positive and uplifting,” Richard Heinberg, a Transition U.S. board member, told me in Sebastopol. Heinberg is an icon of the peak-oil fringe and the author of the seminal, comfortless book “The Party’s Over.” In 2007, he published a wider-ranging volume called “Peak Everything.” Still, Heinberg said he worries that Transition risks losing people in the elation it inspires. He has been debating with Hopkins whether, in addition to devising a long-term descent, Transition should emphasize preparing for disasters that Heinberg says are unavoidable or already unfolding, like volatile gas prices or “being sideswiped by economic catastrophe and weather disruptions.”
Eventually he expects the energy grid to weaken or shut off entirely and, like Michael Brownlee, he told me he considers martial law or worse persecution possible as resources become scarcer. Jennifer Gray, meanwhile, told me she expects “a big population die-off.” Heinberg said, “There’s nothing wrong with being motivated by fear if there’s something to be genuinely afraid of.”
I returned to Sandpoint in late February. The 11 working groups formed at the charter school in November were meeting regularly. They ranged in size from half a dozen to about 20 people and were all filing minutes to a steering committee as they plotted their first projects.
Jennifer Gray describes one of Transition’s goals as creating a “parallel community,” putting things like local power generation or local food networks in place to survive the slow crumbling of our current ones. But for the most part, the projects evolving in Sandpoint seemed designed to make the town’s current infrastructure a little greener and more livable. One group hoped to facilitate energy audits, making Sandpoint’s buildings more efficient users of the energy grid. The mobility working group, meanwhile, was planning to install a barrel of brightly colored flags at a dangerous intersection downtown. Pedestrians could pick up a flag and cross the street waving it, making themselves more visible to automobile traffic. Ideally, one member told me, they would persuade the city to put a traffic light there, “but that’s two, three years down the road.”
I was also surprised by the degree to which Transition members were intermixing with city authorities. Shortly after the Great Unleashing, Shelby Rognstad, a young cafe owner and an early Sandpoint Transition Initiative board member alongside Kühnel and Lanphear, was appointed to the town’s planning and zoning commission — a significant position, because Sandpoint was writing its first new comprehensive plan in 30 years. Rognstad spent the winter reading thick books on urban planning and cut down his involvement with Transition significantly. His outlook was changing. “Philosophically, I want to look 100 years down the road and just shoot for that vision,” he told me. “But the city’s only going to go for what’s real and achievable right now, in this fiscal year, in this election cycle.” He said he was thinking of running for office.
Kühnel was serving on the mayor’s advisory council on sustainability, a panel that was assessing a proposal by Transition’s food working group for an organic community garden.
By all estimates, the food group was far ahead of the others. When Jeff Burns approached the city about doing a garden as a first project, the parks director immediately pulled out satellite maps and started recommending plots. The parks director and the mayor had already scouted locations for gardens and were only waiting for some kind of volunteer organization or beautification committee to come and ask for one. Transition was given a third of an acre of an unused athletic field near the center of town and agreed to help keep the rest of the property weed-free in exchange. The food group had already lined up donations of seeds and tools and had a built-in pool of exuberant volunteer gardeners. A groundbreaking party was planned for early May.
And so, the Sandpoint Transition Initiative was taking its first steps. They were baby steps and, it seemed, pointed in only the general direction of the revolutionary postcarbon future the Transition Handbook had called them toward last fall. Other working groups are now volunteering to help the Chamber of Commerce, which happened to be starting its own “buy local” campaign. Transition Initiative members will organize a contest to design the campaign’s logo and will go around town, asking shop owners to hang up posters. Lanphear told me, “As long as we get the work going in the right direction, it doesn’t matter who gets the glory or the credit.” Richard Kühnel chose to see it in an even more positive light. He told me, “I feel whoever wants to participate and whose ideas are aligned with ours, that’s who the Sandpoint Transition Initiative is” — whether those people know it or not.
“I love Richard’s energy,” Councilman John T. Reuter told me during my last afternoon in Sandpoint. “I can’t say that enough times. I just think he’s the best thing since sliced bread. But I guess I can’t really say that because sliced bread is a problem — that’s part of the industrial-food complex. So he’s better than that! Richard is the best thing to recover us from the crime of sliced bread.”
Reuter is 25. Bearded but otherwise baby-faced, he is one of three City Council members under the age of 31. He comes from a family of Greek Orthodox sheep ranchers in southern Idaho and now heads the county Young Republicans. He talks fast, scurrying through wry digressions like a comedian at a Catskills resort.
“Have you read Rob what’s-his-name’s book?” he asked me, meaning the Transition Handbook. Almost before I could answer, he said, “I read that whole thing.” Reuter didn’t like it, though. “There’s no question oil is a limited quantity,” he said, adding that we should prepare for a life without it. But the handbook struck him as overly pessimistic, resigning humanity to the sort of druidic life people at the charter school were romanticizing. “I guess I don’t celebrate the loss of energy the way some of the people in the Transition group do,” he said. “I like having a dishwasher.”
What Reuter said he felt was wonderful about the Sandpoint Transition Initiative was how quickly it was rejuvenating people’s faith that the changes they craved were worth working for. “To say the group has only created a community garden so far really isn’t sufficient,” he told me. “It’s something really more substantive: they’re bringing people to the process.” It was easy to argue that at the initiative’s core, in place of any clearly defined philosophy or strategy, was only a puff of enthusiasm. But Reuter seemed to argue that enthusiasm is an actual asset, a resource our society is already suffering a scarcity of. “There’s just something happening here that’s reviving people’s civic sense of possibility,” he later said. “Politics is ‘the art of the possible,’ right? I think what the Transition Initiative is doing is expanding what’s possible in people’s minds. It is expanding people’s ability to dream bold. And that’s what we need to do: dream bold. Because people have been limited by their own imaginations.”
More than anyone else I had spoken to in Sandpoint, including the initiative’s own organizers at times, Reuter was able to articulate a cohesive understanding of what Transition was actually doing. The movement wasn’t going to unify everybody in Sandpoint, he said: “I know that’s their dream, but I just don’t see it happening.” But it was inspiring for Reuter to watch the group emerge as one fervently turning gear in the larger mechanism of self-governance.
“It’s like any other civic organization,” he said approvingly. It wasn’t a very romantic notion, and maybe achieving that status so easily was a sign that the initiative wasn’t really tackling the level of paradigm-busting work Transition wants to awaken us to. Maybe that will turn out to be regrettable. But, as utopian movements go, it also struck me as an unusually constructive outcome.
Writing an Energy Descent Plan or building a parallel community — bridges to carry us over the terrible time ahead and into a world we long for — wasn’t going to be Transition’s strength or its usefulness, as Reuter saw it. “Government used to be the place in our community where people came together and made civic decisions,” he told me. “That’s what we should do again, and that’s what’s going to bring us back together: not having government be this force somehow outside of us, that’s bearing down on us or annoying us, but as a force that we actually embrace and want and that does what we want.”
Reuter had a utopian vision, too: the one laid out in the U.S. Constitution. And the Sandpoint Transition Initiative seemed to be moving Sandpoint closer to that ideal in its own small way, even though it was working out of a totally different handbook. They were managing to make the functioning democracy in their town a little more productive. For a wide range of not-always-consistent reasons, people in Sandpoint decided that Transition could help them build the world they wanted. And now, only because enough people stepped forward and made that decision, Transition actually looked like a good tool for the job. They were picking it up by whatever handle they grasped. They were swinging it as earnestly as they could.