How communities are succeeding despite the odds

In these trying times, we can gain strength from each other and the natural world. [29 November 2011 | Peter Boyer]

The Hepburn Wind turbines catch the breeze at Leonards Hill, south of Daylesford. PHOTO HEPBURN WIND

The Hepburn Wind turbines catch the breeze at Leonards Hill, south of Daylesford. PHOTO HEPBURN WIND

As I write this there’s a glorious day outside. Green grass is still moist from yesterday’s showers, buds everywhere are bursting into flower and leaf, and the dog lies snoozing in the sun. All would seem well in this wonderful slice of paradise.

But somehow things don’t feel right. Despite the sun, I feel a sense of unease and foreboding.

I’m not alone. Signs everywhere are that the stable, benign times we in the developed world have enjoyed for so long have gone. Not going, gone — replaced with something much more fraught. These anxious, uncertain times are starting to look permanent.

Governments of countries both rich and poor are under siege. The challenges they face, whether it’s angry crowds in city streets or widespread, chronic financial turmoil threatening national, corporate and personal viability, are proving more than they can handle.

Some governments have been broken, their institutions trashed, their leaders arrested or killed. Others remain, but their vitality is being drained, their viability questioned. It isn’t just Libya or Somalia or Afghanistan we’re talking about. It’s Italy, France — even Germany and the US.

That’s only part of the story. Behind all the political and economic turmoil is the growing realisation that our governments are simply incapable of dealing with the environmental consequences of our long years of economic prosperity.

In these difficult times we tend to turn inward. I’m naturally optimistic, but what’s happened in the political and social landscape over the past year or two has blunted my optimism. Friends and colleagues tell me that they’re experiencing a similar sense of unease.

All of us are concerned that we as an island community, in common with communities around the world, are over-reaching ourselves and need urgently to reduce our use of energy and other resources. These people have begun to come together under the “Transition” banner.

The Transition movement began in Britain as a response to impending peak oil, and has since spread to Australia and numerous other countries. Next weekend Tasmanian “Transitioners” will meet at Nubeena to develop a five-year plan to help individual communities develop resilience in the face of massive, inevitable change.

They have much to report that’s positive. The “Channel Living” group, for instance, has produced a community-supported tool-kit for more sustainable agriculture. Several groups have run successful bulk purchases of solar panels, and efforts by the Molesworth group to raise awareness about sustainable communities have enjoyed both local and international success.

The idea of resilient communities is catching, it seems. A day ahead of the Nubeena meeting is “Green Communities for Tasmania”, an Australian Institute of Architects half-day forum in Hobart on planning sustainable cities and towns.

The visit to Tasmania this month by Jack Gilding, director of Hepburn Wind — sponsored by the Tasmanian Climate Action Council — was a timely reminder that some Australian communities have already taken giant steps on the sustainability road.

Hepburn Wind is a cooperative wind-farming venture that arose out of a meeting six years ago in which the people of Daylesford, northwest of Melbourne, and the nearby settlement of Hepburn Springs formed the Hepburn Renewable Energy Association.

As Jack Gilding reported to his Hobart audience, this “community social enterprise” is now operating Australia’s first community-owned wind farm on a hill 10 km south of the town. Its two two-megawatt turbines churn out enough power for nearly all the community’s 3000-odd residents.

Hepburn Wind operates as if it were a commercial venture but is actually a community cooperative. Most of its $13 million capital came from 1200 mostly-local members, each of whom gets a vote regardless of the number of shares held.

Hepburn Wind has had its problems. A sudden drop in the value of renewable energy certificates over the summer of 2009-10 threatened its future, but as the REC scheme was adjusted and with steadily rising electricity prices, the venture started to look more attractive.

Now, with the involvement of a commercial power company, Hepburn Wind is getting top dollar for the power it feeds into the Victorian grid, and all the shareholders can look forward to real financial dividends flowing from their investment in an energy company with a secure future.

Neither big developments like Hepburn nor smaller-scale efforts by Tasmanian communities happen easily. The uncomfortable fact is that we’re trying to use rational processes to tackle something so big and abstract, so removed from our current comfortable lives, that it defies belief.

The biologist Paul Ehrlich has called this “evolutionary mismatch”. Our hunter-gatherer brains evolved to deal with threats right in front of us, like a charging lion. We’re hard-wired to ignore evidence of the creeping, invisible threat posed by a slowly cooking planet. Even if we’ve grasped that it’s real, it’s doubly difficult to motivate ourselves and others to act.

The fatigue I see around me would suggest that Ehrlich has got something here. To counter it, we have each other and the wonderful natural environment we’re so privileged to call home. From each of these we get the strength and resolution to continue.

• “Green Communities for Tasmania” is at the Australian Institute of Architects, Hobart, on Thursday (call 62141500 for details). The 2½-day Transition Tasmania strategic planning forum “Shifting Gears” starts at Nubeena on Friday (email or call 62501111).

• The Tasmanian Government is seeking public submissions for a review of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council by John Ramsay & Associates. Submissions (closing December 16) should be addressed to or posted to PO Box 404, Sandy Bay, TAS 7006. For more information see or tel. 6233 2757.

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