BEREA — What if the energy supplies, food systems and other foundations of our modern economy and lifestyle suddenly changed? How would your community cope?
It's a notion more of us have been thinking about during the past year. We saw gasoline spike to $4 a gallon last summer, then watched our consumption-driven economy slide into a deep recession.
Berea is one of nearly 150 communities around the world participating in a project called Transition Town. It is a citizen-driven effort to develop local strategies for coping with inevitable change in energy supplies and economic conditions that are no longer sustainable or good for the planet.
The Transition Town movement was started in 2004 by Ron Hopkins, an environmental educator in Totnes, England. Most Transition Towns are in the United Kingdom and Ireland, although the movement has spread to every inhabited continent except Africa. In addition to Berea, 17 other U.S. communities have signed on, including Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder, Colo.
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"The next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years," predicted Richard Olson, director of Sustainable and Environmental Studies at Berea College and a leader in Berea's Transition Town effort. "But what they are largely depends on the actions we take."
Here's why things will be different: The world's population of 6.7 billion will grow by nearly one-third over the next 40 years amid increasing worldwide demand for dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. Fisheries are diminishing, as are forests and fresh- water supplies. Climate patterns are rapidly shifting.
Decades-old economic structures, lifestyles and food-supply systems based on an endless supply of cheap oil, natural gas and coal must change. "We're going to be using less energy — and soon — so why don't we plan for it?" Olson said.
These changes may seem like doom and gloom, but the solutions to them don't have to be. In fact, Olson said, smart strategies could create stronger communities, more healthy lifestyles and happier people. "A future with less oil could be better," he said.
Transition Town Berea, an outgrowth of an organization called Sustainable Berea, has citizen groups looking at ways the Madison County city can be less vulnerable to global changes. It's a good model other Kentucky towns should consider.
For example, how could a community increase its ability to feed itself if high energy costs made it no longer practical to truck in produce from California, poultry from Georgia and grain from Iowa? How could more support for local farmers result in healthier, better-tasting food that is less vulnerable to contamination like we've seen in the recent peanut scare?
Citizen groups in Berea have come up with a variety of ideas, many of which hark back two or three generations to what our conservative ancestors would have considered simple, common-sense steps.
Among them: Teach interested residents to grow gardens, put up food and plant berry bushes and fruit trees. Promote the local farmers market, the use of local food in Berea restaurants and facilitate creation of local certified kitchens and food-processing businesses.
Provide home energy-use audits and low-interest weatherization loans to promote less energy use and save people money. Partner with local builders to promote "green" construction methods and consider future energy needs in zoning and land-use decisions.
Better connect the town with walking paths and bike trails, organize carpools and convert the municipally owned utility to a "smart grid" that could gradually integrate more decentralized sources of renewable energy. Support and promote locally owned businesses, and set up internship programs at them for local high school and college students.
To challenge the community, Transition Town Berea has adopted some ambitious goals around the slogan "50 by 25." By 2025, the group would like Berea to use half as much electricity and have half of it come from renewable sources. It also would like to see half of local food grown locally.
More than 60 people jammed into a room at Berea College last month to see Olson's presentation on Transition Town strategies. It was heartening to see Berea Mayor Steve Connelly among them. Too often, political leaders are so focused on the next election that they're afraid to think long-term.
Connelly said the Transition Town group's goals for Berea are ambitious, but worth striving for. "You can't argue that there's a lot of truth in what's being said," he noted afterward. "We have to change. It's truly in our best interest."
Change is inevitable. How will your community survive — and thrive?