What comes next 

Transition arrives in Missoula with a question mark

Anne Little sat in a corner of the University Congregational Church on a recent Thursday night, selling copies of a book she thinks will save Missoula. The Transition Handbook, written by Rob Hopkins, presents a grassroots framework for how a community can become more resilient in an age of climate change and peak oil. The Transition movement originated six years ago in the United Kingdom and, since the publication of Hopkins' book in 2008, has spread to more than 900 towns, cities and neighborhoods across the world. Little, who ordered "as many copies as she could" through Fact & Fiction for last week's introductory Transition meeting, is part of a growing number of locals who believe it's time the movement reached Missoula.

"I think it's our only hope," says Little, who serves as vice chair of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, or MUD. "I think we can't expect big government to help us in any way, shape or form. They've had their chance and failed. Now it's time we do something for ourselves."

click to enlarge Missoula news
  • Photo by Steele Williams
  • Missoulians gather on the evening of Nov. 15 to mull the Transition concept at the UM FLAT (Forum for Living with Appropriate Technology).

More than 100 people filed into the UCC to learn more about the local effort, which technically has yet to start. The group that organized the event is called Transition Town Missoula? (motto: "Help us remove the question mark"). It's made up of nine women referred to as "mullers"—as in, they are mulling whether or not to make Missoula an official Transition Town. The meeting's featured attraction was a presentation by climate expert and University of Montana professor Steve Running, who isn't affiliated with the Transition Network but recognizes "this is a smart time for people to get more self sufficient in both a personal and communal way."

"Part of what appeals to many of us is that Transition is in line with many of Missoula's core values," says Claudia Brown, one of the mullers. "Our role as the initiating group is to educate and raise awareness and organize, but ultimately it will be up to others to decide where to take this."

The Transition concept operates under the premise that energy supplies are dwindling and communities must work together now to prepare for the future. The handbook details how that collaboration can occur so existing groups are honored, new groups are formed and all of them can adapt to a community's specific needs. In practice, established Transition Towns have created community supported agriculture, shared transport, local currencies and energy-saving clubs. Various Missoula nonprofits are already doing some of these things, but a local Transition effort would better coordinate and build around them.

"The movement is very young, but the concepts behind it have been in action in Missoula for a very long time," says Little. "MUD itself has been doing these things for 30 years, with things like the tool library and truck-share program. In a way, Transition is like MUD on steroids."

Many attendees of the introductory meeting had already participated in some form of the Transition Network. Derek Kanwischer, who helped found the UM FLAT sustainability house, first learned about Transition Towns a year ago and built an informational website (transitionmissoula.org) in hopes of starting something in Missoula. He's now working with the mullers.

"What I like is that there isn't a focus on policy or technology," Kanwischer says. "The focus is on how you live and how the community lives. We have a community that's already really powerful, and Transition Town puts the emphasis on utilizing that."

Hudson Spivey, a student in UM's environmental studies program, attended the meeting after taking part in similar events in Roseburg, Ore. Transition Town didn't take off there for a variety of reasons, he says, including the fact that most of those interested couldn't avoid driving to each of the meetings. "Missoula is small enough for this to actually work," says Spivey. "If there's any place Transition Town could happen, it's here."

But not all attendees shared the same optimism. Jay Bostrom, a Spanish teacher at Big Sky High School, takes part in a study group that originated out of Occupy Missoula. The "free school" meets every Thursday evening at the University Center—"we decided to become 'Occupy the University,'" he says—and happened to make the Transition movement its first focus. The mullers recently reached out to the group, and Bostrom, who admits he's still skeptical of the Transition concept, went to the UCC expecting to hear ideas from the community.

He was surprised the event instead focused mostly on Running, who closed his presentation with suggested sustainability solutions. Running mentioned, among other things, buying a Prius and replacing one's gas lawnmower with an electric one. Members of the audience yelled out that he should consider eliminating his lawn altogether.

"For many of us, it was troubling that that was how a Transition Town meeting was being presented to the community," says Bostrom. "I would have liked to hear ideas from others in the room. Frankly, and with all due respect, I think they would have had better ideas and not the same tired lines of cultural capitalism."

Brown understands the criticism and concern. While grateful for Running's presence and enthusiasm, she regretted not budgeting more time for group discussion and specific talk of Transition Towns. But Brown quickly points out that the movement is in its infancy and mistakes are going to happen. In fact, the handbook itself includes a prominent "Cheerful Disclaimer!" It reads: "Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. We truly don't know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale."

Brown isn't under any false illusion. She understands there's only so much she and the other mullers can do. After all, there's a question mark in the group's motto for a reason.

The next Transition Town Missoula? meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 29, at noon in the Missoula Public Library.

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