Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Being a catalyst (aka defying the elevator speech)

Transition Initiatives, the popular community response to the combination of our energy, economic, and environmental woes, are often called "catalysts," a catchy word with an interesting definition.

In simple terminology, a catalyst is a person, organization or thing that precipitates an event.

Yet another, more complicated, definition is more intriguing. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that causes or increases the rate of a chemical reaction without undergoing any permanent change to itself. A catalyst can cause a chemical reaction to occur in cases where it might otherwise be impossible (at a lower temperature, for example). A catalyst can also be present at relatively small amounts compared to the reactants.

This definition captures some of the complexities of Transition Initiatives, often small bands of people aiming to create big change. After all, what's needed to address our very big problems, in the end, is nothing less than a revolutionary shift in attitudes, behaviors and systems. The changes coming will necessitate revolutions in the fundamental, most basic, aspects of life: the way we grow and cook our food, heat and cool our homes, get from one place to another, make a living, access water and use energy.

Yet despite our large goals, Transition groups don't usually aim at the heart of large institutions. We don't agitate for political upheaval - we are non-partisan and avoid political fights. We don't even claim to have all the answers to the questions we raise, because the answers will be different for different communities and individuals, different over time, space, and circumstance.

Instead, we are trying, by raising awareness, engaging in dialogue with communities, making resources available, and connecting existing structures and organizations, to catalyze a series of chemical reactions that will result in a stronger and healthier community super-structure, one that will be more sustainable and resilient, more readily able to withstand the shocks that are traveling toward us in waves.

The chemical definition of catalyst captures the diversity of strategies of the Transition group in Oklahoma City. If you look at our 70+ activities and events over the last three years, you might see a disorganized, messy, scattershot approach to our mission of transitioning OKC to local resilience. Our activities range from film screenings to presentations and panels, networking events and permablitzes, retreats and trainings, extending to large events like Oklahoma's first full Permaculture Design Course, Moving Planet OK and the Local Food Meet & Greet. So are we about local food, permaculture, health, the environment, sustainability, solar panels, biking, composting, community gardens, or what?

Yet peering through the lens of the catalyst, Transition OKC has a collection of catalytic strategies with a clear goal. We connect people and organizations to each other and to needed resources, expand the reach of existing health and sustainability groups, and raise the profile of concepts like re-skilling, permaculture, and going local. All the while, we model zero-waste events by composting and recycling, demonstrate social equality by our non-hierarchical approach to partnering, and remind people that we need community and a local economy to thrive. It's hard to capture this range of activities in an elevator speech, but lucky for us, the word catalyst exists.

What's the next catalytic step for Transition OKC? Expanding the support and capacity of composting and community gardening in Oklahoma City. Look for details coming soon - we're raising funds through Groupon the entire week before Earth Day. Find out more on April 16th.

No comments: