If collapse is nigh, get to know your neighbor

Nicole Foss does not paint a pretty picture of the near-term future.

Energy will get more expensive. The financial system will collapse when the biggest debt bubble in history pops. Real estate values will plummet. Wealth will disappear. Jobs will get more scarce. Climate change will wreak havoc soon enough but in the meantime, we’ve got real problems.

But despite the apocalyptic nature of her world analysis, Foss got a warm reception from several dozen people on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus Monday afternoon. Foss, who lives and works in Ottawa, Canada, has established something of a guru status among people convinced that humankind needs some pretty serious behavior modification.

An analyst and speaker who blogs at The Automatic Earth, Foss is a short woman with cropped silver hair and a speaking style that delivers punch after punch, PowerPoint graphic after graphic on return on energy investment, the great market collapses in modern history, the diminishing ability for new oil discoveries to meet the demand.

But 45 minutes into a densely packed talk, just when you think she’s going to sell you a book for $29.95 on where to invest cash or to pitch you a gold-buying scheme, she hits you with “the most important thing you can do.”

Build community.

Sure, there are individual actions to take — hone Depression-proof skills like growing things, fixing things, even entertaining; get rid of debt; think about where you want to be when a cratered economy she predicts makes mobility difficult. (“If you’re going to get stuck, it will be good to have thought through whether you’re in a good place to be stuck.”)

But above all, “focus your effort at the local level” and built trust among the people around you, she says. Think about resilience.

Foss is a proponent of a loose-knit organization that is getting a foothold in Minnesota, called Transition Towns. If you check out various Transition Towns websites — Transition US or Transition Twin Cities, you find advice on everything from canning food to building chicken coops to bartering to creating time banks (you spend time providing a service and somebody else does the same for you.)

Several chapters have started, one in Northfield and, more recently, several more in Twin Cities neighborhoods — Corcoran and Longfellow in south Minneapolis, for example, and St. Anthony Park and Mac-Groveland in St. Paul. They’re a disparate bunch, each talking in its own way about neighborhood actions or perhaps just plain talking.

Jonathan Bucki, a St. Paul organizational consultant who has been involved in the movement, said what the community groups have in common is a focus on trying to make a more resilient society, prepared for a huge economic, climate and energy system buffeting. There’s less of a change-the-world mentality than an adjust-to-the-change-that’s-coming philosophy.

“We don’t all have to agree photovoltaic is the way to go,” he says. “We don’t want everybody to have chicken coops (although Bucki has one) or biodiesel cars. Let’s try lots of things.”

And, although many people involved in Transition Towns are motivated by a belief that big change is nigh, Bucki says to think of an apocalypse isn’t right either. He puts the future somewhere between the wonderul world of George Jetson and the bleak universe of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

“There’s a middle path,” he says.

At this point, Transition Towns in Minnesota seems to be about conversation and philosophy as much as concrete actions. But if you’re intrigued, check out the website or drop in for coffee Wednesday mornings at the Blue Moon Coffee Cafe at 38th Avenue and Lake Avenue in Minneapolis or the Cahoots coffee shop on Tuesday afternoons at 1562 Selby Avenue in St. Paul.