Carbon reduction: takin’ it to the ‘streets’

Through ‘Transition Streets’ meetings, these Sonoma neighbors are working to stop climate change one block, and one get-together, at a time|

“Transition Streets.” It sounds like some trendy Broadway musical, or perhaps a modern-day halfway house for folks moving from hardship to security.

According to Ed Clay, cofounder of Transition Sonoma Valley, the colorfully urban-sounding title actually describes a citizen training program for small groups of neighbors, committed to making better decisions about energy-consumption and its effect on climate change. Originally developed in the UK, the grassroots curriculum was designed to educate and encourage positive environmental action on a street-by-street, family-by-family basis.

“Transition Streets,” says Clay, “is about creating closer community and saving money, but mostly about finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Carbon footprints. Another colorful term with a street-level vibe, it describes the specific amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds that are released into the atmosphere by the consumption of fossil-fuels. The more fossil-fuel-derived energy one uses, or is used to support that person’s consumption, the larger the carbon footprint.

“Every decision we make has some effect,” says Clay. “Transition streets is a way to learn what those effects are, and what we can do, as individuals and as neighbors, to make the right decisions. Then, as neighbors, we make a commitment to do something specific by the next meeting, and then we come back and report on how it went.”

According to Clay – whose neighborhood Transition Streets group is the first in the Valley to complete the seven-session program – these intimate coffee-klatch-style gatherings are a powerful step in a movement that began 10 years ago under the name of “transition towns.” The transition towns idea was developed in 2006 to encourage entire city populations to reconsider how their lifestyle choices are contributing to global warming. A project of the Transition Network, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to reducing the potentially devastating effects of climate change, transition towns began popping up in the United States in 2010.

To officially become a transition town, at least two people from that town must take a special training offered by the Transition Network. Several years ago, Clay, along with Tim Boeve and other locals, took the training and brought the transition towns concept to Sonoma, helping co-found Transition Sonoma Valley. Together, they established a website (, began advocating for what Clay calls “a sensible local energy policy,” set up a series of public meetings, and promoted screenings of documentary films such as “Transition to a World Without Oil” and “The Economics of Happiness.”

Clay estimates that more than 1,000 people in town saw these movies. But he acknowledges that the effort, while positive, did not result in the widely popular carbon-reducing groundswell he was hoping for.

“Showing documentaries,” he now believes, “does not change people’s behavior. The most effective way to change people’s behavior is for people to see their friends and neighbors changing their own behavior.”

When the Transition Network first developed the transition streets curriculum – basically a guidebook with “lessons” on energy, water, waste, transportation and the like – Clay decided to introduce the idea to the neighbors on his Third Street East cul de sac. Out of 12 houses on his street, individuals from seven households said they’d like to participate. Though there have been a number of other transition streets groups in Sonoma County, Clay said his is the first in the Valley.

“This,” he says, “is the most exciting thing I’ve been a part of since I brought the idea of transition towns to Sonoma,” said Clay.

Vic Zarzana, who lives a few doors down from Clay, agrees that transition streets has been an immensely positive experience.

“What it’s done for me,” he says, “is to take a lot of complicated issues, break them down a little, and get me thinking about what I do every day. We have one world. I want to leave it in better shape for our kids and grandkids.”

Zarzana goes on the describe some of the practical tips he’s picked up from the meetings. Many of the participants now use surplus bath water in their gardens, share tools with each other rather than purchase new ones, reduce the number of hours certain appliances are operated.

Asked if such small citizen-level steps can truly have an impact in a world where so much environmental damage is done on a nation-wide scale, he says effective global change must begin with individuals.

“What we do matters,” he says. “If nothing else, leading by example can inspire others to do the same thing. The earth is in trouble. I can’t affect what a whole city does, but I can make decisions about what I do.”

Patricia Akay, another Transition Street participant, agrees.

“I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve learned,” she says. “I live alone, and now I know how to turn things off if I need to, and all kinds of things I can do to save energy, to save money. With each chapter in the curriculum, my eyes have been opened. And now we all help each other, which is wonderful, too.”

Clay, who is hoping that other groups of neighbors in the Valley will follow in his neighborhood’s carbon-reduced footsteps, and form other transition streets groups. He points out that interested people can find information about how to do that on the Transition Sonoma Valley website.

“The greatest part of the whole process,” he remarks, “is the sense of community that’s developed in our neighborhood, just by coming together to talk about these issues.”

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