By Dave Meyer (United States)
In 2012 my wife and I had the chance to travel in Latin America filming grassroots environmental initiatives. We saw many amazing projects, but none so inspiring as the last ones, the Brazilian Transition Towns.
The first Brazilian transition town we visited was in Granja Viana, a wealthy suburb of Sao Paulo. Our hosts picked us up in a car because public transportation didn’t reach the rest of the area. We drove along palm-tree lined streets and passed gated communities to reach the core team meeting in a beautifully designed house with an outdoor pool and two car garage.
The second transition town we visited in Brazil was in Brasilandia, a poor favela inside Sao Paulo. We were still in a car for the visit, but this time because it wasn’t a great idea to walk around the streets with our camera equipment. The walls were lined with graffiti and the air was thick with pollution. Garbage was piled up in empty lots and music blasted from cars and shop fronts. The whole neighborhood was an explosion to the senses, from sound to smell to the blaring sun and heat radiating off the pavement. The two towns couldn’t have been more different.
The Transition Towns Movement started in the UK in 2006 to help communities adapt to climate change and peak oil by coming together to build resilience. The idea is that these challenges require urgent action, but that, “If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.” By community they can mean a whole town, a neighborhood in a city, or even just a few houses located near one another. The movement proposes a twelve step process to find the must vulnerable and least sustainable parts of the group and then to repair them by designing more lasting structures.
No two transition towns are the same. In Granja Viana, resilience means trying to get people to consume less, or trying to drive their consumption to community-building, sustainable ways. In Brasilandia, they work more to building resilience and independence into the way people live, and to cultivating pride in their own (primarily African) roots and strengths.
After looking at both towns for any amount of time, a question can’t help but pose itself: Is Brasilandia really poorer? In a purely socio-economic sense there’s no doubt – in Brasilandia, people fight malnutrition and violence, living in housing that is substandard to say the least. But in an ecological, “Transition Movement” sense, it’s far less clear.
As fuel prices continue to rise, which is poorer: a community well-served by cheap official and unofficial transportation systems, or one where private cars are the only way to get around?
As climate change begins to shake the global economy, which is poorer: a community experienced in making every cent last, that knows how to re-use every available resource until it is absolutely and truly waste or a community used to the idea of simply disposing things the moment they look old and then replacing them with new ones, no matter where in the world they have to be imported from?
In Sao Paulo, the two communities work together and share ideas and experiences. It is an exchange based on mutual respect that goes both ways, with Brasilandia learning from Granja Viana as much as Granja Viana learns form Brasilandia. With the instability that climate change promises for our future, it is a model the world would do well to heed.
The poorest have a lot to teach the wealthiest about how to live without destroying the planet, about how to live in the face of change and hardship, and about how to live in community. To make these exchanges work takes respect, patience, and humility – without them, we will all wind up the poorer.