You never can tell. Back around 1750, it likely would have sounded far-fetched to predict that the British colonies in the Americas would revolt and gain their independence. The stock market crash that opened the Great Depression no doubt seemed impossible during the height of the Roaring Twenties. The dotcom bubble, the housing bubble … not many would have believed just a few years ago that the high-flying good times were about to crash to earth. What was being discussed by an earnest group of about 50 people at a Woodstock gathering last week may have sounded equally unlikely. And yet …
Pamela Boyce Simms, an Ulster County resident and passionate representative for the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub, spoke at a joint meeting of Woodstock Transition and the Woodstock Time Bank, two grassroots groups looking for alternatives to the way things currently are.
Simms told the audience that the time has come to build a new economy. “The current economy, the way we do things now, is broken,” she declared. “It’s time we make a move to unplug from the economy. Transition is preparation for an economic meltdown.”
There was a massive rift between the rich and the poor in our society, added Debbi Adelman, coordinator of the Woodstock Time Bank. “And the middle class is sliding into that chasm. We have to find a way to value humanity, to value our time rather than measuring value in cost.”
“Time banks” allow members to register and list the skills they are willing to share. By banking the time they spend offering services to others, they can get services from other members.
“Let’s be clear,” Simms said. “This is not a barter. This is putting an equal value on each member’s time, and allowing them to bank the time they spend to redeem for equal time from other members.”
There are three upstate time banks and a 3,000-member one in New York City, Adelman said. Woodstock’s has been reorganizing after finding that members were banking hours but not using those hours to get services. “We’re getting a new slate of members who are willing to exchange services,” she told the group. “And we want people to join us in helping to make the time bank grow.”
Simms said the time-bank concept was an example of the kind of sustainable plans that Transition advocates, but there is a fundamental problem that everyone acknowledged must be addressed: the equality question. In the time-bank concept one hour of time for one hour of service is equal, no matter what the service. That means an hour with your doctor, if he or she participated, would have the same value as one hour of singing lessons. Or snow plowing. Or legal services. Or dog walking. Some in the audience questioned the sustainability of that.
“I’ve asked my electrician about joining Time Bank,” one person remarked, “and he told me with the training and the license fees he can’t afford to do it.”
“That’s the challenge,” Adelman agreed. “What we need is a mindset shift. Right now, the value of everyone’s time doesn’t equate, but it does in the ideal world.”
The ideal world is what both movements are working toward. Members are convinced that the current economy, with its focus on money and gain and its reliance on limited resources, is hurtling toward self-annihilation. Their goal is to have sustainable, practical new local economies in place before that happens.
“Transition” is a social movement that began in the United Kingdom and has now spread across the globe. The movement’s goal is to create local, sustainable communities independent of the need for fossil fuel.
The American home website, TransitionUS.org, is up-front with one fact. They don’t know whether it will work. They refer to Transition as “a social experiment on a massive scale.” They have adopted some of the functional rules that worked for the Occupy movement appealing to many communities — clear guidelines, open communication, the reinforcement of a sense of community. Right now four towns in upstate New York are officially on board: Woodstock, Marbletown, Ossining and Hastings-on-Hudson.
Local Transition members are actively working to build a community of like-minded residents. They are working with town officials in Woodstock to pursue sustainable energy plans.
“Our goal is resilient communities,” said Caroline Ritchey of Woodstock Transition. “Europe is farther along on this. And what we’re seeing is that once the groups are established they tend to form alliances with local government and work together.”
Manna Jo Greene said the seven-county Mid-Hudson Valley Sustainability Plan created for the regional Economic Development Council, offers a roadmap. It looks for sustainable answers to current issues in water, energy, land use, open space and agriculture and materials management (once known as waste management).
Is state government really interested? “They’re ignoring the policies that came out of the sustainability plan,” reported Greene. “Those principles should be guiding economic development.”
New York State under the Spitzer administration was strongly behind the concept of Smart Growth — clustering development around population centers and transportation hubs. That idea is still popular with groups like Empire State Future, a coalition of 69 businesses, non-profits and civic groups. Peter Fleischer, ESF’s executive director, said his group monitors decisions made by the Cuomo administration, and “so far economic development gets more money than sustainability.”
Perhaps it all sounds a bit idealistic. It is. But in the oft-quoted words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”