An Onion, A Dandelion, A Loon And A Magazine

The Transition Town Peterborough Story and Legacy

CHERYL LYON – What do a magazine, a purple onion, a loon and a dandelion have in common? And what possible role could they play in surviving the climate crisis?

In 2009 corporate world retiree Fred Irwin brought his business experience, his boundless energy, and training in the Transition Town movement to create Transition Town Peterborough (TTP).

The Transition Town movement began in Totnes, England in 2005 and spread to the US, Canada and Europe. Each expressed itself in different ways according to local culture, environment and geography.

Its logo cleverly illustrated the fundamental and vital shift away from fossil fuels towards a restored human relationship with Nature.

TTP brought “Transition Principles” to the city and surrounding communities. These principles [SEE box following this article] aim to bring communities together “to reimagine and rebuild our world” in the face of the worsening climate crisis. What to do? How to think differently now?

A small band of volunteers, including local citizens Michael Bell and Joan Michaels, assembled around Irwin and put Transition Town Peterborough on the local scene in an explosion of activity to localize responses to the climate crisis. In a spirit of “defiant positivity,”1 these volunteers adopted “transition thinking.” Such thinking aims to strengthen local community resilience as the ground of responses to the climate crisis in ways that people would both want and enjoy. Where else do we experience climate change impacts but in our surrounding natural environment, in our local businesses, food, energy and water resources, and our own inner ability to cope with radical change?

Localization means crafting an alternative to our deeply pervasive and destructive global economy. As someone put it:

“You’ll never get people to build a system that takes so much effort to build and maintain when the superstore at the mall is only a ten-minute drive away.”

Resilience Imperative. p. 328.

Resilience and permaculture: the heart of transition thinking

Resilience can be thought of as “the degree to which we can self-organize, learn and adapt.” Or it means our ability to bounce forward out of crisis into a new state of being where some qualities and structures will endure and others fade according to what people value and agree upon – all within an understanding of our deep human relationship with the natural world.

Permaculture sees the interconnection of all life and creating a sustainable balance between humans and nature as the basis of living through the climate crisis. It focuses on “care of the earth, care of people, and dispersal of surplus time, money and materials” (Mollison & Slay,1999). Permaculture prioritizes local food and energy and human social systems that work with and mimic nature when thinking about how to adapt to or mitigate climate change impacts. Founder Rob Hopkins credits permaculture as a primary inspiration for the worldwide Transition Movement.

But back to Transition Town Peterborough (TTP.) It incorporated as a non-profit body and the fun began! Yes, fun. Responding to the climate crisis was not to be boring or dreary!

First up in 2009 was the launch of a free magazine called the Greenzine. It aimed to support the local economy as a means of localizing climate crisis responses. In its original paper format, TTP volunteers delivered it to drop points throughout the Peterborough area. TTP did not rely on grants to pay for its production. The magazine paid for its printing with the income from local business advertisers – illustrating in itself localization as vital in both understanding and surviving the climate crisis.

Volunteer Michael Bell, a publisher in his own right, generously helped launch and maintain the magazine. Other unique initiatives then followed. They attracted a core of volunteers, too many to mention individually, but every one of them important to the innovative successes that followed and which gave the community positive examples of how to stay healthy and together through the climate crisis.

Next, the onion entered the scene when Transition Town Peterborough created the Purple Onion Festival – a free admission, family-friendly, community-building, autumn celebration of local food and culture, and the life-sustaining connections between local farms and cities, producers and eaters.

Local farmers and food vendors joined local musicians, crafters and organizations working in food justice, urban gardening and environmental education for a day of getting to know one another over food from local sources prepared by local chefs. The festival gave participants a feel for the life-sustaining relationship between farms and cities. Early Purple Onions Festivals started off the day with climate justice rallies led by youth – those who would be bearing the harshest effects of a global economy based on oil and hyper consumerism.

The loon, a local, iconic bird of the Peterborough/Kawartha area, entered the scene at the first Purple Onion Festival. It was the symbol on the bills of TTP’s experimental local currency named the Kawartha Loon (KL). TTP used the model of existing local currencies in other communities, like Bristol England and the Berkshire region of the United States.

The KL was the only medium of buying and selling at the Festival. Festival-goers exchanged their Canadian dollars for KLs, just like exchanging them when travelling abroad – with the bonus of a discount rate to make their purchasing from local vendors more attractive. The KL put a tangible object in your hand to help you think about how money does or can work in a community; to feel that immediate connection to fellow citizens who feed us; and to think what local policy or legislation might support a local economy.

A dandelion popped into local imagination when Transition Town created Dandelion Day, a spring festival to complement autumn’s Purple Onion. The bright, spring dandelion flower symbolized the newness and the joy found in making the transition into a stronger local community. This second economic localization event focused on local businesses supplying health and wellness services. They too used the KL for exchange of goods and services. At the end of both Festivals, people re-exchanged their KLs for Canadian currency again or kept for them continued use throughout area businesses which accepted them.

As part of its economic thinking for the future, TTP engaged with local Trent University’s Community Research Centre students who found a 25% shift towards total production and purchase of food locally could be worth about $400M annually to the local economy within 10 years, and put a regional and small business focus on economic development.

The Transition ethos included understanding how the constant realities of climate catastrophes reported from around the world were weighing on the human spirit. Inner resources, and well as Earth’s natural resources, were depleting. Undaunted, TTP began a series of small group gatherings to address what they called the Inner Transition of heart and soul to a different world.

The ever creative and energetic TTP volunteers convinced the City and County of Peterborough to officially declare September “Local Food Month” and accompanied that declaration with TTP’s Local Food Guide – a free directory of local food suppliers.

The Greenzine goes online

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. People stayed home, businesses restricted entry, and early fears of contagion from surfaces discouraged picking up the magazine at supermarkets or other locations. More than that though, prefiguring what could happen in a prolonged, severe climate event, the Greenzine sole revenue source – local, small business advertisers’ – suffered greatly. Their advertising in the magazine dried up. Undaunted, and in the spirit of necessary risk-taking and experimentation in times of crisis, volunteers resurrected the Greenzine! It’s still free but now online, here!

Covid-19 also prevented TTP from introducing its Transition Neighbourhoods Project. This community-strengthening initiative aimed to encourage neighborhood network-building, to host conversations that would end social isolation, and empower groups to work on long-term environmental and social change together right in their local ‘hood.’

Transition Town Peterborough’s Legacy

The Transition Town Movement appeals mostly to those well versed in climate change and those participating in the market economy. Yet everyone is suffering in one way or another under the prevailing economic system that depends so heavily on fossil fuels and extracting maximum profit from every sector of nature and human life. Can local grassroots movements change these deeply-entrenched, global paradigms?

Indeed, where has any effective movement started but in conversations among people connected to one another i.e. locally. Transition thinking evolved and matured to recognize that certain aspects of middle class life will have to go, given the mounting speed and impacts of the climate crisis. What best defines them both is their continuing commitment to climate crisis action and the powerful motivation of love and concern for the upcoming generation. [SEE box below article for transition Principles.]

Paradox, contradiction and irony confront us in our search for the right responses in these perilous times,

“There are simply no answers to some of the pressing questions. “[We] continue to live them out, making [our] life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams.

The Greenzine continues the positive spirit of individual and community possibilities and resilience so needed through this time of an enormous, planet-wide transition. The magazine is one of Transition Town Peterborough’s legacy of tangible models for adaptation and mitigation to sustain and strengthen our lives together in community as the climate crisis worsens.

Climate thinker and poet Susi Moser may sum up the local impact of transition thinking and where we all may be at this juncture:

“… if you ask me now
Well, if you ask me now what brought us together? – I would say “emergency.” The Great Emergency…
I’d say, we started to help each other through
even if we could barely imagine the ‘toward’.
We at least named how transformation hurts,
how continuity and stability are bloody lovely things …
how much love we will need
how the voices of the future are already among us.”

Maybe – A Mirroring Poem
Respect resource limits and create resilience. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions and reliance on fossil fuels and use precious natural resources wisely.

Promote inclusivity and social justice. Increase the chances of all groups in society to live well, healthily and with sustainable livelihoods.

Adopt subsidiarity (self-organization and decision making at the appropriate level). Work with everyone to decentralize decision-making to the most appropriate, practical and empowering level

Pay attention to balance. In responding to urgent, global challenges, create space for reflection, celebration and rest to balance times of activism. Engage our heads, hands and hearts in collaborative and trusting relationships.

Be part of a global experimental, learning network to create change more quickly and more effectively, drawing on each other’s experiences and insights. Be bold in finding new ways of living and working. Seek and respond positively to feedback.

Freely share ideas and power. Transition is a grassroots movement where ideas can be taken up rapidly, widely and effectively because each community takes ownership of the process themselves.

Collaborate and look for synergies. Unleash collective genius for greater impact together than as individuals. Build creative and powerful partnerships, designing events and activities that help people make connections.

Foster positive visioning and creativity. Encourage imagination and new stories about the future.

Respect resource limits and create resilience. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions and reliance on fossil fuels and use precious natural resources wisely.

Have fun and celebrate success!

An Onion, A Dandelion, A Loon And A Magazine © 2024 by Cheryl Lyon in the Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

  1. “The Transition Movement: Questions of Diversity, Power and Affluence”. E. Alloun & S. Alexander. Simplicity Institute Report 14g, 2014. ↩︎

1 Comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your history of Transition Town Peterborough. What great writing of an inspiring story- the surface of which I had some knowledge and experience, but not the full extent of its action in the community. I heard the Kawartha Loon has been retired – was that a hard decision or did the pandemic kill that as well. I hope it does not mean the end of the organization or The Greenzine, which I had forgotten is on line now, and to which I am about to subscribe – I always picked up the print copy whenever I came across it.
    I also loved the overview of Annie Proulx and her latest book. Barkskins was a huge book that I could not put down, fascinated by the dynasty it described , but horrified at the decimation of eastern N. American forests and the impact on the First Nations in both countries and on our current climate crisis. I will now try to find the book.

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