5 Sep 2011
In conversation with Transition US: a transcript
In July I did a ‘webinar’ thing with Richard Heinberg and Carolyne Stayton of Transition US, about how Transition is developing and about what will be contained in the ‘Transition Companion’. With deepest gratitude to Rani of Transition Palo Alto, the poor soul who bravely transcribed it and must be utterly sick of the sound of my voice, here is the transcript. We’ll be doing it all over again on September 12th, and you can hear the audio of the last one here. Maybe see you there.
Carolyne Stayton: Welcome everyone, this is Carolyne Stayton with Transition US. I’m here today with Richard Heinberg. Good morning to you Richard.
Richard Heinberg: Good morning Carolyne.
Carolyne: And Richard will be our host on the call today with Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement. And good afternoon to you Rob.
Rob Hopkins: Good afternoon-morning.
Carolyne: Ha, ha whatever it is.
Carolyne: I wanted to mention a few things now before we begin the program. One is that Rob’s new book, The Transition Companion, published in the US by Chelsea Green, is expected out, by October 24th I believe, and you can pre-order that through a link on our website, transitionus.org.
Carolyne Stayton (Transiton US)In the US, we now have 93 official Transition initiatives, and several hundreds forming. At this point, official or forming Transition initiatives are in almost all of the 50 states. For those who are mulling, it would be great for us to hear about you and your good work, so please go to our website, which links to the Transition Network and let us know who and where you are.
Join us again on September 12 for another conversation with Rob. Also join our Harvest Share, running September 21 to October 21 where we will measure pounds of food shared or hours volunteered in the process of sharing harvests.
Finally, we ask that you consider making a donation to Transition US so that we can keep on offering these types of programs. You can do that too by going to our website transitionus.org.
Our program today is structured along these lines: expect to be on the call about 75 minutes. For 20 minutes or so we get to hear Rob wax eloquently about highlights from the recent Transition conference and the Transition Movement. Then Richard will ask Rob questions based on those submitted by a number of you. Towards the end, and this is where it gets a little fuzzy in the possibilities, Richard and Rob might engage in some dialogue, or Richard and I might ask additional questions ourselves based on further questioning that we’ve received from all of you. It is possible that we will even have time to open the mic for a few calls, and we’ll see how that runs.
Richard Heinberg (Post Carbon Institute) Now I wanted to introduce Richard Heinberg, our host for this call. Richard is the author of ten books, including his latest The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Senior fellow in residence at the Post Carbon Institute, Richard is best known as a leading educator on peak oil and the devastating impact it will have on our economic, food, and transport systems. His new book argues that limits to debt, plus tightening natural resource constraints, mean that the era of economic growth, stretching back to the end of World War II, is at an end. However, if we adapt wisely, we can enjoy a higher quality of life even as we consume less. As a sought-after speaker, Richard has presented throughout the world, and has been featured on radio and television, and in documentaries including The End of Suburbia, and Leonard DiCaprio’s The Eleventh Hour. Richard, thank you so much for joining us today and hosting this call, and it is my pleasure to welcome you.
Richard: Thank you, Carolyne. It’s a pleasure for me to be on the call with so many Transition folks, and especially to have the opportunity to have this conversation with my friend Rob Hopkins.
For those who don’t know him, Rob is the originator of the Transition concept, and co-founder of the Transition Network. For the 11% on the call who don’t know what Transition is, we have the ideal person on the phone to tell us. He spent many years teaching permaculture, cob-building, mostly, when living in Ireland. He’s now based in Totnes, in Southern England. He’s a member of Transition Town Totnes, works part-time for Transition Network, publishes transitionculture.org, which, if you don’t have that website bookmarked on your computer, that’s a good thing to do.
Rob Hopkins (Transition) He’s the author of the Transition Handbook: from Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, which came out in 2008. And he says, he spends generally far too much time thinking about Transition stuff. He is also a trustee of the Soil Association, the winner of the 2008 Schumacher Award, and a fellow of Ashoka International. He’s hard at work finishing up his new book, Transition Companion, which will be out in the US in October of this year.
So that’s enough introduction I guess. As Carolyne said, we wanted to start this call by hearing from Rob. There’s just been a Transition conference in the UK, and I imagine we would all like to hear a little description of what happened, and what the state of Transition initiatives is at the moment. So, Rob, why don’t you just take over the microphone and spend maybe 20 minutes bringing us up to date.
Rob: Thank you very much, and it’s lovely to be here. As some of you know, I gave up flying five years ago, so this is probably the closest I’ll get to having this kind of event in person. But it’s been wonderful over the last few years seeing how Transition has taken root in the US.
It’s been very very exciting to see that whole process unfold.
I have no idea how anybody should do Transition in the US. I can pass on some of the experience from here, but we’ve always imagined Transition from the beginning as being like a huge social experiment. What we’ve done is to create some simple tools, some simple principles, and an invitation to people to be part of an experiment on an enormous scale, and that’s really what’s happening.
For the 11% of you who don’t know what Transition is, basically it’s a bottom-up, grassroots-led response to peak oil and climate change, which is about making the places that we live more resilient, i.e. able to adapt to shocks, about making them more local, but seeing those as an enormous opportunity. Both Carolyne and Richard mentioned the Transition Companion. What we did five years ago and then with the Transition Handbook, was to put out the idea.
The Transition Handbook said, what would it look like if there was a movement all around the world of people doing this? In doing the book, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to look out at this network and see what people are doing, invite their stories, reflections, photographs, drawings, and so on and so on.
Within five years we’ve gone from just one initiative here in Totnes, in Devon, which I’m looking out on from here with rain and seagulls, to there being 375 official initiatives and 427 mulling initiatives. The indications we get from a number of places is that that’s not scratching the surface. There are many more who just haven’t let anybody know what they’re doing.
If you look on the map for Japan, for example, there are only two or three registered initiatives, but anecdotally we know there are about 40 groups working there. And this is in about 34 countries.
Transition has gone from an idea pulled together over pints in Devon pubs to an international phenomenon. It’s amazing and humbling to see that happening. Often we’ll sit around the computer here in the office and go, “Look at this! My God it’s absolutely extraordinary!”
In the Transition Handbook, and in the Primer, which was the first guide, we have the “Twelve Steps of Transition.” Early on people started turning up here in Totnes and saying “This is great, what are you doing exactly? And how does that work?” We really had no idea quite what we were doing – we were making it up as we went along and drawing together the tools and the ideas lying around us.
So we put together the 12 steps, which seemed to represent what we were doing. That was the state of the art when the first book came out.
But now, three years later, after looking around and seeing what people are actually doing, we became aware of the limitations of that as a model. Some people were feeling tied to a chronological “first you do this, then you do this” approach.
And also, in that model, the last of the 12 steps was to do an Energy Descent Action Plan, i.e. to write a community-led bottom-up Plan B for that place. Here in Totnes we did that last year. Strictly speaking we’re finished now and can go back to our daily lives and say, “Well, didn’t we have fun for the last three years?” But of course that’s really only the beginning of the whole process.
So we wanted to rewrite the Transition model in such a way that it was more reflective of what people are actually doing. What’s come out is the idea of Transition as a collection of ingredients and tools. In the same way that when people want to cook they look in at the same pantry full of ingredients, but they cook different things from them, we’ve come to see these ingredients as being solutions to problems encountered by communities trying to do the Transition process – solutions which we’ve seen happen enough times to have confidence that they are going to work.
The foreword to the book was written by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, a food activist and TV chef-guy over here. He said it’s like giving a great cake recipe to a dozen different cooks, and watching how their particular ingredients, techniques, and creative ideas produce subtly different results.
We’re not saying, you have to do this, then you have to do this. It’s really giving people the range of different things they can do. Although we do note that there are certain overall stages to it. Like when you are making a cake, you don’t just put the flour in a bowl, put it in the oven and expect to get a cake. You have to do the butter and the sugar first, then the eggs and then the flour, but there’s lots you can do within that.
So there are five stages we see in the Transition process:
Starting out, the process where you meet some friends and get together and say why don’t you do this?
And then Deepening, which is where you start to really connect it out and become an organization and start to something really meaningful.
Connecting, which is when you go much deeper in the community and build a broader coalition around what you’re doing.
And then there’s Building, which is one of the things that distinguishes the Transition approach, which is saying, “Look, if we’re serious about the intentional localization of this place and its economy, then we need to start being strategic and start scaling up what we do and our thinking.”
The fifth one is called Daring to Dream, which is about what would it look like if this is what happened everywhere, what does this look like at scale.
Doing the book led to hearing fantastic stories from different places. Lewes Sussex, which is one of the first Transition groups, have just covered the roof of their local brewery with 544 solar PV panels. They raised 310,000 pounds from a community share option in four weeks in order to do that. The brewery brewed a special commemorative beer called Sunshine Ale to celebrate. Two years before, when Transition Town Lewes launched the Lewes Pound, they launched a beer called Quid’s Inn to celebrate that as well.
In London, Transition Town Tooting did this enormous event called the Trashcatcher’s Carnival, which brought thousands of people out onto the street to celebrate taking care of the Earth All the things were made of recycled materials. In an event they had afterward to reflect on it, people said if we can do that, we can do anything, which is a fantastic thing to engender in a community.
Here in Totnes, we just ran a project called Transition Streets, which engaged 500 households in carbon reduction. On average they’ve cut their emissions by 1.2 tons. A third of them have installed solar PV systems. But when I meet people here in the street in Totnes, they don’t say, “I’ve just done Transition Streets and saved myself 1.2 tons of carbon,” what they talk about, because it works on a street-by-street level, is the connections they’ve made with neighbors and the new projects that are emerging from that.
In Norwich they did a big study called, “Can Norwich Feed Itself?” Off the back of that, they identified the key things they needed in order to start moving towards a more localized, resilient food system, which has led to them creating a new mill, new farms, and so on.
As I’m sure all of you have found doing Transition, it’s not all plain sailing. It’s not a magical model that you just plug it and it produces miracles on a daily basis. There’s conflict, there are challenges around engagement, around sustaining momentum over the long term, around whether the people who come together with the passion to do this actually have the skills to move it forward. Maybe we’ll touch on some of that in the questions. In the new book we’ve tried to go into those problems and provide people with skills to get around them.
One of the things that’s emerged for me is this concept – I remember Transition Colorado ran an event a few months ago about food, and the subtitle of it was “Food Relocalization as Economic Development.” This idea of localization as economic development is a really big idea of our times.
And, so, Transition and through the work of Richard, and Post-Carbon Institute, and so on, this process of looking at how do we respond proactively to climate change, to peak oil, to economic uncertainty, to economic unraveling. These things have been largely happening at the margins, and certainly not with much support from the mainstream political establishment.
An extraordinary report came out a few weeks ago from the World Economic Forum, that looked at risk, and tried to set out the key risks that face world governments over the next 10 years. The three risks they identified as having the biggest financial impact and that were most likely occur were: climate change, economic price volatility around energy, and the economic crisis.
Transition has a four or five year head start on central government and local government getting their heads around these things that are inevitably coming our way. We can’t underestimate the importance of what people have been doing in Transition over the last five years.
At our conference Richard talked about a quote that really struck me. It was a quote from Milton Freedman which Naomi Klein uses in Shock Doctrine. Many of you know it but I’ll read it again because it’s very useful:
“Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function, to develop alternatives to existing policies and to keep them alive and available, until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
We’re talking about Milton Freedman in this case, so I’m sure his idea of the politically desirable is certainly going to differ somewhat from ours.
But within that, there’s a powerful thing which I noticed at the conference for the first time: the idea we’ve been talking about in Transition for the last five years in terms of moving into times of great change. It is starting to happen around people.
We got a taste at the conference – through people coming from different parts of the world to the conference – of starting to see that in practice. We heard about in New Zealand where they’ve had the big earthquakes recently, of places where the Transition groups, and the work that they’ve been doing over the last four or five years, were a part of communities pulling together and adding to the resilience that meant that they were able to respond quickly.
We heard from people from Japan, about what’s happening there, in terms of how the Transition groups are where a lot of the key thinking is in terms of what happens next. We heard from Brazil, where there was a town the name of which I’ve forgotten now, but which was involved in very bad floods about eight months ago, and largely was washed down the hillside. Transition tools and principles and thinking are underpinning the regeneration of the place.
We heard from people in Spain in Barcelona where they’ve have been having something close to a revolution over the last few months – largely unreported by the news media. The main squares in all the main cities were occupied by people arguing that the politics needed a complete rethink in the country. In those squares Transition was one of the key things that people were organizing themselves around.
Peak oil literature for the last four, five, six years, often likes to put the idea that when things get bad, everybody reverts to being absolutely horrible to each other. Everything unravels very quickly, and what comes to the fore is a selfish, head-for-the-hills approach.
In those places where Transition had got into the drinking water, into the DNA, when things did get difficult, [Transition processes] kicked in. I’m not making any claim that that would be the universal phenomenon, but that’s been fascinating to see it happening on the ground. What I picked up from the conference was a deepening of maturity in the whole thing. The whole thing felt deeper and better rooted.
There was a lot of discussion around social enterprise: the argument that if we’re going to make Transition happen at a community level, we can’t depend on people with deep pockets coming in to resource it for us. We can’t depend on government funding it. We need to work out different ways of doing it. This idea of social enterprise, setting up viable livelihoods to do this, was a big stream throughout the whole conference.
Somebody made a comment, which indicated how far everything had moved in a short period of time. They said, “What would it look like if a Transition initiative was to design its awareness-raising program as a social enterprise?” Two years ago nobody would have asked that. But there was a level of maturity there which I found really interesting.
A couple other things I wanted to draw together. One of the pieces of work we want to do at Transition Network next year or so is to look at the potential of all of this.
One of the big debates happening over here at the moment, which some of you may have been following, is around nuclear power – whether the UK should have a new generation of new nuclear power stations. George Monbiot and Mark Linus caused anguish for some people by saying, of course we need nuclear, if we’re serious about climate change we need nuclear power.
I’m taken with the idea of looking at the carbon savings, the increased resilience, the economic impacts, of a program of localization. At the moment, things like nuclear power plants are always pitched in terms of how much money they’ll create, how many jobs they’ll create, how much carbon they’ll save. Yet we in the relocalization movement never use the same arguments for what we’re talking about. From the perspective here in the UK, if we were to quantify the jobs creation, the skills opportunities, the carbon reduction through localization, I think we have something which could have way more impact and relevance than nuclear power.
That’s a big piece of what we want to do.
There was a piece in the Guardian last week called “Has the Green Movement Lost Its Way?”. At the Transition Network Conference I said that’s the wrong question. The question should be, whether a movement based on localization, resilience, engaged optimism, bottom-up responses, enterprise and culture, has even started to scratch the surface of what it could achieve. I don’t think it has.
It’s been remarkable to see what many of you have been doing over the last five years. Increasingly what we’re talking about is one of the big ideas of our time.
I’ve talked for about 20 minutes, so back to Richard for whatever happens next.
Richard: (laughs) Okay, thank you so much, Rob, that was great. As you were talking about the conference, a question came up in my mind. I wonder if you could just describe the setting – where it was, how many people were there, what kind of facility, and the nuts and bolts of the conference for folks who weren’t there.
Rob: It’s a major activity every year, trying to find a different place where 300, 350 people can come together under one roof in such a way that they can sleep there and eat there and all have a room big enough that they can all fit into it. We’ve managed it in previous years, so this year was the first year that we went quite a long way north in the UK. This year’s conference was in Liverpool at a beautiful place called Hope University. It’s had a history of being a religious-based university but I don’t think it’s so much now. Very lovely place in Liverpool.
We had about 280 people, mostly from the UK, but there were people from Japan and Spain, France, Germany, and a few other places. We had two and a half days together, and a mixture of workshops, going into depth on different issues. There was nuts-and-bolts stuff, there were workshops on how to run energy companies, how to do social enterprise, how to do energy descent plans. There were workshops on how to run groups successfully, how to manage conflict.
Normally we’d have lots of Open Space events, but this year we decided not to do that. Instead we used the Fishbowl technique, which is a way of having very good, focused, deep discussions. Everybody sits around the outside and three or four people sit in the middle, start a conversation. One by one they go out and someone else takes their seat. That enabled us to go into some of the what we were calling the hot topics, things that were very live for people, and to reflect on them in more depth.
We had silly open mic evenings, people making fools of themselves. We had a talk by a woman called Jay Griffiths, who wrote a book about wilderness [Wild: An Elemental Journey]. There was football, lying in the sun, and the food was great. The Transition Network’s website has a complete archive of talks, notes and photos. For the first time we had what we called “social reporting,” where people interviewed each other, rather than having one person going around interviewing everybody. We had somebody filming different people interviewing each other.
As ever, it was taking itself out of its comfort zone, and lovely to meet old people – old friends, lovely to meet new friends, and I came home absolutely exhausted. (laughs)
Richard: (laughs) Great. Since we have limited time, let’s dive into some of the questions that folks have sent in. There were dozens of them, many very good questions. There’s no way we’re going to be able to get to all of them, but Carolyne and I have gone through the questions and tried to highlight some of the ones that look like they’re probably going to be interesting to toss about.
So let’s just dive in. Charles Carson Wood says, “Many people in my region of California seem preoccupied with short-term financial matters, making enough money to pay the rent and so on. They don’t seem to care much about or have much energy left over to address the long-term issues of peak oil and climate change, and so on. With this difficulty in mind, how would you suggest that we help shift people’s focus from short to long-term and therefore encourage them to get more involved in the local Transition movement?”
Rob: Certainly not the first time I’ve heard that question! (laughs) It’s a universal thing I think. My sense is that very often we focus on the need to bring the unconverted on board and reach beyond the usual suspects, as it were. But alongside that is the argument that we need to make sure that the people who are on board have the right tools. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Tipping Point book says that tipping point is around 17-18% of a place, it’s not everybody. It’s important to get the maximum engagement we can, but sometimes that can become an obstacle to actually just getting on with it and doing things.
The cooperative movement that started in the UK in the 1850s-1860s was quite similar to Transition. It really started to kick in when it started to create meaningful livelihoods for people. Certainly here in Totnes, a lot of the problems where people don’t understand what Transition is, or are critical of it, [would be lessened] if we get to the stage where we’re creating a significant amount of activity in the local economy.
Our town council voted at Christmas to become a Transition Town Council. That was based largely on a report we did that showed the economic impact that Transition Town Totnes was starting to have. The Transition Companion argues that we will see the economic possibilities presented by localization, and start to create those new livelihoods, those new trainings, those new businesses.
We need to be open and playful and creative and fun and engage as widely as we can, not beat ourselves up excessively that we haven’t got everybody in town running around going, “Isn’t Transition wonderful?” But our duty, our service, really, is to start to create a livelihood for businesses that would support people in such a way that maybe in 10 to 15 years’ time, it’s not called Transition anymore, it’s just the key way the local economy works. It becomes a complete no-brainer when it’s creating work for people.
So I would say: be inclusive, be open, keep inviting people in, but also don’t let that be a distraction from getting on with that it.
Richard Heinberg: Right, yes, totally agree.
Here’s a question from Elizabeth Thompson who says, “You wrote recently that peak oil may not be the best framing for Transition going forward. Would you like to expand on that?”
Rob: Heh heh, that’s me being naughty. What I was talking about there was misinterpreted a little bit, because I wasn’t saying that peak oil has outlived its usefulness as a way of framing Transition.
I was just trying to voice something that I was starting to notice here in Totnes which has been going now for five years.
A comment was made to me by a member of the community who runs the museum here, who grew up here – an old Totnesian. He was reflecting on where we’d got to after five years, and he’s very supportive of what we do.
He said, “At this stage most of the people in the town have come into contact with the peak oil and climate change arguments and discussions. Most people have made up their minds one way or the other. Some people have decided that climate change is all a con cooked up by Communists – that’s what they’ve decided and that’s their world view. To continue to keep those arguments to the fore at this stage [is not helpful], when you’re really trying to create a broad consensus and bring as many people on board as you can. Maybe there’s something to be gained from making those things more implicit and less explicit. And focusing on the concept of resilience and localization.”
All the people who might come on board are already on board and convinced. All the people who aren’t, aren’t going to be convinced by the current thinking. Maybe it’s just something I’ve observed in Totnes and may not be relevant anywhere else – but my observation was that a more powerful way of moving forward may be to shift the focus to economic resilience, the whole localization as economic development strand, in such a way that you can quantify potential economic benefits to the place. But that in no way substitutes for the base and the thinking that we’ve put in place through focusing on peak oil and climate change.
Richard: All right. Okay, here’s a trick question but it could be open-ended. It’s a big one. Sumukhi says, “How do you see the Transition model needing adaptation for sprawling North American suburbs that lack a sense of community, unique identity, and clear geographical boundaries?”
Rob: As I said at the beginning, I’ve never visited North American suburbia, so I only know about it from The End of Suburbia (laughs). There have been very interesting debates around the time of that film, which still are useful, about: Are we talking about the end of suburbia, and that the whole thing is inherently a disaster? Then there is David Holmgren’s suggestion that if we can rethink suburbia, it could provide the great market gardens to feed our cities.
Having a background in permaculture, my sense is that a re-imagining, a re-inventing of suburbia is really important. Research we did here in Totnes [confirmed] the power of people who just get on with it and get started. The people who start turning their gardens into food gardens.
The other day I was watching Keith Johnson’s Transition Bloomington’s talk on TEDx, where he showed two fantastic slides of his house before and after. Before it was all just lawn and now it’s a food forest.
A study done here recently showed how putting up solar panels in a town, the more there are, the more people – they’re contagious. They become infectious. I suspect the same is true for really beautiful, well thought-out food gardens as well. So, I don’t have a magic wand for suburbia, but my sense is that there’s enormous potential there for those spaces, when the mind becomes focused, as I think it inevitably will be over the next few years.
Richard: Let’s hope so.
Richard: (laughs) Joanne … As a resident of suburbia speaking.
Rob: You’re one of those people. You’ve got your chickens now.
Richard: Yeah, yeah
Rob: You’re one of those people who’s infecting suburbia with an edible [unintelligible]
Richard: Joanne Poyourow says, “It would be great to hear your take on the speed of societal deterioration. In the Transition Handbook and other materials, you view the unraveling as taking place relatively slowly. In the time you’ve been working on these issues, do you think the Transition, the building of alternative structures, is happening faster or slower than you originally expected?”
Rob: Some things are happening much faster than was imagined. Certainly the economic situation has changed much much faster than expected, certainly in the last few days here, although it has nothing to do with peak oil and climate change. I don’t know how much people and the media in the US have been following what’s been happening in the UK with News International. Rupert Murdoch’s empire in the UK has been crumbling to dust over the space of about a week and a half. In terms of the media in the UK, it’s like the Berlin Wall coming down .
I’ve always been cautious about the argument that everything’s about to collapse catastrophically. I’ve had online debates about this with Michael Burnley and different people, because it’s not what I see happening. There’s certainly more in the idea of the long emergency. A slower move into a contracting economy feels more like what’s happening.
In terms of whether Transition’s happening fast enough to deal with it, I suspect it probably isn’t. Although as I said before, one of the interesting things at the conference was hearing stories from around the world, seeing places where things have gotten very very bad.
Spain and Greece are what I think the UK is going to be like in a couple of years. William Gibson said the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. It was interesting to see how, with the situation they have there, how Transition was coming to the fore as the way people were starting to respond.
But I’m always very wary of people who say, “Everything’s about to collapse, imminently!” My experience is that it’s much more complex than that. Maybe some things are moving very quickly, but in other areas change happens very very [slowly]. You’re far better read on this than I am. What’s your take?
Richard: (laughs) As with many things, maybe it’s good to be prepared for both contingencies. You know, have a bugout bag and backup plan in case of a natural disaster or rapid collapse, and you’ll have a long-range plan that you’re working on, and…
Rob: Yes, yes. Some of the things we’ve been working on in Totnes are good for both eventualities. What was fascinating with the Brazilian thing was how appropriate those tools felt to people when half their town had been washed away down the hillside. Those were the tools people picked up. I don’t have anything to back it up in terms of research, but I always wonder, if you can get [Transition concepts introduced] … It may feel to people as if they’re working in a small community which is largely disinterested, and they’re doing their own projects, and it might feel like it’s small.
But I remember when I was living in Ireland, I used to teach an evening class every Thursday evening at University College Cork. About 20, 25 people came to this class. One evening after class this guy came up and said, “Rob, how many people would you say are doing your class?” I said, “Well, there are 22 here.” So he said, “I’d say it’s way more than that.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, I go home, every Friday morning I’m in my garden. And at least 25 people in my neighborhood walk past and they say, ‘What did they teach you last night?’ ”
We have no sense of where these things go, really, and where these ideas get to. That was the intriguing thing about hearing these stories from places where things have become more difficult.
Richard: Let’s move on to some questions more about working within Transition initiatives and how they evolve.
Michelle Calusi says, “If we want to bring some of the smaller projects to scale and have bigger impacts, we want to see groups ask themselves about the actors and functions in their community systems, housing and economy and land use and energy groups can all work together. For example, what’s the joint effort that comes from that approach rather than staying in their respective groups? Is there a Transition Town where the core group is driving this kind of dialogue and collaboration?”
It sounds like she’s asking about the collaboration between the various groups within a Transition initiative.
Rob: Certainly one of the things that’s emerged here in Totnes after doing the Energy Descent Plan was the idea of a catalyst project. We identified a number of projects that felt integral to moving forward. Some of them are from the building group, some from the business and livelihood group, some from the food group, energy group, and so on. There is a lot of collaboration in that way. Those groups are supporting each other and seeing those things as holding together.
The idea of an Energy Descent Plan underpinned people coming together to do Transition initially because it was based on that pilot work we did in Kinsale. Nearly five years in, though, there are still only about two or three places that have actually done one. It is a big piece of work. To do that kind of strategic overview and to imagine how it might all hang together is a big piece of work.
One of the things that’s being developed here, and in Hereford and Manchester, is the idea of an economic blueprint. Hopefully it will be a lighter, easier piece of work. It is about quantifying the benefits to the local economy of this process of intentional localization, and then looking strategically about how the Transition group working with others can actually deliver that. So, that might be a different tool which is explored in the Transition Companion. But how groups work and how they work together is still emergent in different places.
Richard: Here’s a complementary question from Jim Coale. He’s asking, “How can we expand our partnerships and awareness-raising efforts with other organizations?” He mentions 350.org, Bioneers, Sierra Club, ASPO, and other organizations that can have similar interests.
Rob: It was great to see the event that was done in the US a few months ago – the Garden Day together with Daily Acts and 350. Those kinds of things are fantastic. On the local level, with local initiatives, those kinds of collaborations are useful and important.
We have to be careful with them though. If they go right, if they work well, and if everybody gets out of them what they wanted, then they’re wonderful. But if people go in with different expectations that don’t end up being met, they can be more complicated.
Here in Totnes the local school reinvented itself as a trust school, a cooperative school. They asked Transition Town Totnes to be the first partner in that trust. Although they surveyed the parents and over 90% of them thought that was a good idea, there were some who felt that Transition Town Totnes wasn’t appropriate to be a partner with the school because it’s inherently a political organization, linked to the Green Party, with a political agenda, [a charge] which is easily responded to.
But that perception of Transition as being alternative and emerging from the left can either confound or cement partnerships.
If a Transition group makes partnerships with all the usual people, there may well be things to be gained from that for particular projects. But sometimes, in terms of the wider community, it can cement the idea that you’re deep-green, radical, alternative, left-wing. In a sense the more powerful partnerships are the ones that we can create with people where it’s not expected: the Chamber of Commerce, or the local Rotary Club. Those kinds of partnerships are worth exploring. Maybe they are worth the extra bit of relationship-building and trust-building they might require.
Richard: A couple of related questions about moving beyond the choir of outreach, inclusivity, and accessibility. Brendan Burke says, “How can students best interact with Transition?” Alisa Seed Bennett asks, “What are some good ways to get young people involved? Pre-teen and teenage young people in particular?”
Rob: Good questions, yes. There’s been some great stuff happening with students here. This idea of “What’s a Transition University?” – lot of thought has gone into that. I’ve suggested that maybe they look at Transition Edinburgh University. They have a website, which – if you Google “Transition Edinburgh University,” you’ll find what they’ve been up to. They’ve started to look at the whole question of what a Transition community looks like in a place where everybody goes home in the summer, and everybody changes over every three years. They’ve been doing some fantastic stuff working with that. Some other universities as well have started to look at that.
My sense is that a university should be something that you leave not just with your appropriate bits of paper and having had a life-changing three years. It should also be a place where Transition ways of doing things, and local food-growing and energy conservation and so on, is just an everyday part of how everything functions. Hope University where we had the conference the other day would make a fantastic market garden. All these lawns all over the place would be fantastic. It would be a great way for students to support their studies.
There should be courses in a lot of this stuff, hands-on courses. And there should be places that are universities in Transition – as institutions embedding this kind of stuff. There’s huge scope for students to start looking into that. Transition Edinburgh University have developed some good resources and tools for that.
In terms of working with younger people, in school there’s a huge amount that can be done. In the Forest of Dean, Transition Newent got the school to start teaching a course called “Environmental Land-Based Science.” The school was a bit wary and I think the local Transition group resourced them to put up a big, big poly tunnel on the grounds of the school and gave them support with teaching on the course. What they found was that all the kids – and this is unsurprising to people involved in Transition but I think for the school it was a revelation – the kids who did the course spend more time outside, working physically and learning how to grow things. In all their other areas their results went up because of that. So the school is really getting behind that now.
We can learn a lot from the youth climate movements and the work 350.org are doing around engaging young people. At next year’s Transition Network conference we want to have the first day as a Transition youth gathering. Then to move on from that into the main gathering with the young people doing a lot of the facilitation. There’s more that can be done in Transition initiatives in terms of engaging young people but a lot of young people are starting to move on that.
Richard: Brilliant. Several people asked questions about group dynamics, decision-making processes within Transition initiatives, holding meetings, organizing, conflict-resolution tools. An example is Scott McKeown of Transition Sebastopol, who asks, “What new kinds of group dynamic tools and conflict-resolution methods have been found to be effective in some of the more advanced Transition initiatives?”
Rob: Ooh, I’m the wrong person to ask that, really.
Richard: Ha, ha, ha
Rob: I don’t mean that because I always just fall out with everybody (laughs) and I don’t care what anybody thinks.
There’s now a very skilled pool of Transition trainers both in the UK and in the US who bring those skills to Transition projects. Our experience has been that sometimes people do the Transition training and then they’re surprised that so much of it is focused on groups and communication and conflict. We felt that it’s important from an early stage that a Transition group has those tools in place. It makes such a difference in terms of the long-running viability of a project that it gets those skills at an early enough stage. That was one of the reasons why at this year’s conference, group work was given such prominence. There was a big group activity around working together as groups and so on.
Although conflict is something that comes up a lot, it’s amazing that after four or five years, with 800 Transition initiatives that we know about, you could count on one hand the ones that have hideously fallen out with each other. We tried to ingrain those qualities of respectful communication and healthy conflict-resolution. But in terms of the tools that people would find useful, that’s a question for people to put to their local, wonderful Transition trainers.
Richard: There was a big bucket of questions having to do with Heart and Soul and spirituality. I’m just going to read a couple of them.
Alan Zulch says, “I’m curious whether Rob has any new thoughts or impressions regarding the status of Heart and Soul work or other related inner work aspects of Transition.”
Patricia Dee says, “Can the Transition movement also speak to those of us who want the kind of sustainable communities you develop because they’re more soulful, intimate, and right, rather than just as a solution to what we fear is happening to our resources?”
Rob: When we started doing Transition, I thought it was an environmental process. It felt like we were doing a bottom-up environmental response. But after five years I really think it’s a cultural response, a cultural process. What does the culture of this place need to look like in order to be best prepared, most resilient, for uncertain times, whether they’re rapid or more staggered?
And so, the Heart and Soul aspects, the inner Transition side, has a vital role to play. We talk about “What does post-trauma counseling look like?” Part of the role of the inner side of Transition is, “What does pre-Transition counseling look like in that way?”
How can we support people to weather that kind of shock and those kinds of changes? At the conference, you got a sense of how skillful a lot of the tools are that have come through the inner Transition, through the work of Sophy Banks and others. They have fed into the Transition movement the need for good communication, supporting each other, creating a space to digest distressing or bad information or bad news or whatever.
Transition is something which should be nourishing on lots of levels. There’s always that question, “Does Transition build happiness? Does Transition build well-being?” There are lots of projects I’m around where you get a good sense of that. I taught permaculture for 10 years. Nobody ever came up to me and said, “I was doing all right until you taught me how to garden. It was downhill all the way from there.” I think these skills are really enriching. The inner part of Transition is one of the things that distinguishes it from other approaches.
My personal take is that there is a need to make sure that we maintain a balance. [...]
What people should first see about Transition is the “Hands,” what’s happening on the ground, the change that it’s making. Then you get a sense of the “Head,” in terms of the understanding, why people are doing that stuff. But it’s the actual people doing stuff that’s the hook.
When people get into it, then you get a sense of the inner Transition, of where that side of things comes from. If the inner side of it is very up front, there is a danger we become seen as esoteric andwooly. I don’t think that’s the case with what Transition groups are doing.
Richard: There are some questions from an entirely different angle, having to do with politics. Here’s Chris Smith saying, “I’m new to the Transition Town movement. Do you consider this a political movement? A local Transition member says that it’s not, and I find this curious if true.”
Ruah Swennerfelt says, “I’m interested in bridging the political divide in our town. Have you had success with this?” And John Duvall says, “What place does the Transition movement have in the political arena whether at the municipal, state, national, or international level?”
Rob: Good question. I think it would be political with a small “p.” Political in the sense that everything that we do in our life is political. It’s been a very active discussion and debate within Transition over the last couple of years about the role of activism in Transition and the degree to which Transition groups should be involved in campaigning. My sense from the outset is that Transition is more powerful for not being explicitly political, and for not starting out with a big list of whose fault everything is. And for not listing things that immediately identify it with the left or the right.
I did an interview with Michael Schuman a while ago on Transition Culture. He was talking about the need to present Transition in such a way that it appeals to the more conservative members of our community. I think he’s onto something there. Certainly Totnes, although it has a reputation for being quite alternative, is in many ways a quite conservative town. One of our great successes here has been that we are pretty much embraced by the establishment as doing something valuable to the town. As not being a thing of the left or the right, or as being a political campaign.
We are a group of ordinary people who want to make this place more resilient. There are aspects of the Transition approach, aspects of the model and what we talk about, which appeal more to the right than the left. Certainly the whole idea of localization – in UK politics anyway – has more of a historic resonance with people on the right than people on the left. Other elements are more on the left than the right. So I think that although Transition is trying to do something profoundly political, it’s important that we work as hard as we can to come in under the radar and maintain an open dialogue with people with a wide range of positions, and that we try and find common ground with people wherever we can. My sense is that that’s what lots of Transition groups are doing very well.
In terms of the activism debates, very often when people have a background in activist politics and campaigning against things, there’s a certain language that we use, a certain identity we take on, in which we lose a perspective on what a turnoff that can be for a lot of people.
We encourage people in Transition to be mindful about how we communicate and to be as inclusive as we can. If you [follow the thinking of] Bob Hirsch and other people – and you’ve talked about this as well, Richard – we need to create something akin to a wartime mobilization. In terms of the scale of the response and the rapidity with which we need to turn things around, we need everybody on board and everybody playing to their strengths. In terms of politics we need to be really mindful of that.
Richard: Right. We just have five minutes left on the call. There’s one last question here, which is not a particularly thorny one, that might be fun to end with. It has to do with the role of arts and celebration in Transition.
Sandy Hughes says, “I believe that cultural arts – theater, music, painting, writing, et cetera – play a powerful role in promoting and inspiring others to join the Transition movement. Are you aware of any successes in this area that might serve as shining examples, as such community involvement?”
Rob: Good question. The idea that Transition is a creative, playful process is really good. Part of that comes in terms of the whole visioning side of Transition. How do you bring the kind of future that we’re talking about alive for people? Through storytelling and so on. Certainly in the new book there’s more of those silly, made-up stories from the future with Photoshopped pictures to get across what it could be like.
One of my favorite ones – I mentioned it briefly at the beginning – was the Trashcatcher’s Carnival in Tooting, the first Transition project in the UK to get funding from the Arts Council. It was an amazing street carnival with about a thousand people involved in the carnival itself. About 8000 people came out to see it. They used something like a million old plastic bags and crisp packets, lots of willow. Everything in it was reused and recycled. You’ll find films of it on YouTube. Lots of music and dance, and performance. Tooting has also developed “Transition in Two Hours,” an interactive performance piece that gives people a sense of the Twelve Steps through different activities, big, silly props and so on.
The arts have a huge role to play and we’ve only started to scratch the surface. The arts are able to touch people on a different level and document processes in really imaginative ways. And they’re able to give people a taste of what Transition could be like in a way that written words or films struggle to do.
It’s a question to throw back at the person who asked it. What do they think? What are they doing? We need to share those stories even more and hear what people are doing around these things.
Richard: That’s great. We’re just about out of time. This has been a fabulous 75 minutes, collectively picking one of the most wonderful brains on the planet. Your ability, Rob, to switch gears at a moment’s notice and give us some brilliance on so many of these questions has been just delightful. So, … Carolyne, are you there?
Rob: It’s fun though, isn’t it?
Richard: Yes, yes, it’s been a pleasure. Carolyne, are you on the phone still, here?
Carolyne: Yes I am.
Richard: Anything you want to say close off the meeting?
Carolyne: I was wondering, Rob, if you wanted to first make any closing comments, and then I’ll have a few things to share as well.
Rob: Okay. We’re doing this again in September, aren’t we? So, there’ll be an opportunity – it’ll be nice next time to hear from some of the people on the call as well. As I say, it’s flown by and it’s been interesting to hear the questions and also to read the much bigger list of questions that everybody’s sent in. It was interesting to get a snapshot of where people are at in the US and where the thinking is at. I think it’s good as well to give an acknowledgment to the wonderful work Transition US is doing. We’re huge admirers of what you guys have been doing there, as you picked up the question of “What would Transition look like in the US and what support does it need?” It’s remarkable what Transition US has achieved in the small amount of time and the resources that you have there are fantastic.
In terms of creating The Transition Companion, I’d like to thank everybody in the US, some of whom I’ve recognized as being on this call as well, who’ve sent in photos and stories and shared your thoughts and who commented on and pulled a bit from the earlier drafts of the ingredients online. I’m grateful for your feeding into this enormous collaborative effort that we’ve been doing over the last 18 months.
It’s been a pleasure, and thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of it. And I’ll look forward to September.
Carolyne: Thank you so much Rob, and thank you so much Richard, for joining us today. I wanted to mention that there will be a recording of this on our website, so please share with others. And also, if you could make a donation for this, and to help us continue offering this type of work and all of the work that we’re doing to support Transition initiatives all over the nation and in other countries as well to some degree, as well as our work in expanding the training to be more comprehensive for the needs of Transition leaders. That can be done on our website, transitionus.org
There are several webinars coming up. One is on “Engaging Local Government” with Karen Studders who was with the EPA for 35 years. She understands federal government concerns as well as Transition and is a really good translator for us to government.
“Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making” is on August 9 with Tim Hartnett who’s just got a new book out with New Society Publishers. And we have a monthly tele-salon – the next one’s August 11th, and it’s an audio open space, where we discuss what’s up for people on the call at that time. They’re really rich and rewarding, and a lot of great information gets shared, so please avail yourself of any of those things.
Remember the Harvest Share coming up, and we’ve got some information on our website about that. And just now I’m going to turn it over to Carl so he can un-mute everyone and we can give Rob and Richard a hearty thank you.
All: Thank you (chorus of voices) Thank you Rob and Richard.
Rob and Richard: Wow. Thank you.