Transition Albany’s Great Unleashing

Written by Kentaro Toyama on May 26, 2011

ALBANY, CA: “Urine, if you dilute it and drink it, is great for your health,” a woman claimed. My disbelief must have registered on my face, because she continued, “I used to do it all the time. It’s good for you!” I wasn’t sure that something that my body works so hard to get rid of should be ingested.

Luckily, Lourdes Gonzaga, the woman leading the group came to my rescue: “Of course, even if you doubt its medicinal value, urine is still great for your garden if you dilute it with water. It’s rich in nitrogen.”

And so went one lively discussion on a sunny California day at Transition Albany’s Great Unleashing, last Sunday, May 22nd. As with other Transition Towns, the goal of Albany’s Great Unleashing was to reach out to the local community and to invite more participation in the Transition movement, and to this end, it was a success. Over the day, over a hundred people gathered in the main auditorium of the city’s Veterans’ Memorial Building, to discuss and celebrate all things Transition – not bad for a town of 18,500 residents! 

The day started with a greeting from Albany’s mayor, Farid Javandel, and moved onto a plenary overview of the rationale underlying Transition. Attendees then broke up into “open space” discussion groups, in which people participated in group discussions around the topics of their choice. Topics included cooperative food gardening, a time bank to exchange services, alternative housing, community security, and natural options for medicine (the last being the group I participated in, in which the conversation above ensued). Later in the evening, Richard Heinberg, author of books such as The Party’s Over and Peak Everything, delivered a rousing lecture based on his upcoming book, The End of Growth. There were musical performances by Carol Swann, Betsy Rose, AshEL SeaSunZ, and Crow for Day, and the day closed with some contra dancing!

Richard Heinberg presenting

Richard Heinberg presenting

Transition Albany was founded by Catherine Sutton, an Albany resident who, for most of her life, has questioned the modern world’s preoccupation with material accumulation. I caught up with her the day after the Unleashing at a local café. Sutton could be actor Ian McKellen’s kinder, better-looking sister. She is tall, with white hair in a short bob, and carries the aura of someone used to command. But she’s always ready with a warm hug for friends, and encourages volunteers with a cheerful smile.

Sutton first heard about Transition in 2008 at an event in Oakland, and it was there that she found her present calling. She began by inviting friends to her house and giving Transition presentations (“a bit dry, but they get to the point”), and soon after convinced some of them to start a group in Albany, California. She drew courage from stories of other Transition Towns – she has visited several in England, including Totnes – and followed many of the guidelines provided by Transition documents.

It turns out that Albany has been cited by one study as California’s greenest city, so it was ripe for Transition. It sponsors its own clothing, produce, and dinner swaps, as well as a citywide garage sale. The city has begun to plant edibles in place of old landscaping on city property. The city council has committed to LED streetlights and has put in place a climate action plan.

Nevertheless, Sutton says that it’s been a challenge to get involvement from the broader community. Many of the city’s residents are affiliated with UC Berkeley in the next town over, and in spite of the university’s progressive reputation, people are often too busy with professional and family life to engage with Transition. Sutton herself strives to “get away from behind the PC,” and go out into the community to take opportunities to talk to people face to face.

I asked Sutton what advice she might give to a budding Transition Town, and she responded that it was important to get to know a community’s thought leaders and to “strike there.” The first priority is to listen, and to understand the concerns that people have. She emphasizes that Transition is not a group or an organization, but a movement, and that the essential activity was to build a network that would collectively bring about the change we all seek. People are often already engaged in urban farming, re-skilling, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, even if they don’t call it Transition. Connect the dots and the future appears!


Kentaro Toyama is visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. He is writing a book tentatively titled A Different Kind of Growth: Wisdom in Global Development.

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