This piece first ran in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Nonviolence magazine.
As an early childhood educator as well as a meditator, I am aware that the most challenging moments of the day are during transitions — when we are in the midst of shifting our mind and focus from one thing to the next. We need to pay attention to transition moments and prepare for them with constructive skills that will help us move to where we want to go.
What about transitions on the mass scale, from one worldview to another? From one way of operating a community or an economy to another, one that’s more just, healthier and nonviolent?
The Transition movement comprises communities around the world and is dedicated to moving away from dependence on fossil fuels and resilience: personal, political and ecological preparedness. To glean insights on this movement, I spoke with Marissa Mommaerts, Director of Programs at Transition US, a nonprofit that supports Transition Initiatives across the United States and works in partnership with the UK-based Transition Network, which supports the international Transition movement as a whole.
What is the mission of Transition US, and when did this work begin?
Transition US is a national nonprofit hub for the international Transition movement, a network of communities that are re-imagining and rebuilding our future, moving away from dependence on fossil fuels toward local resilience. Our mission is to catalyze and strengthen a national network of citizen-powered groups who are building local resilience through community action.
Transition started in Kinsale, Ireland in 2005, when a British permaculture educator, Rob Hopkins, was teaching a two-year permaculture course at a community college. Permaculture is an ecological design methodology based on how natural ecosystems work. For their final project, Rob and his students came up with an “Energy Descent Action Plan” to transition their entire community off fossil fuels, emphasizing localization, renewable energy, reducing consumption, eliminating waste, etc. What emerged was a model for healthier, more connected and resilient communities that use less energy than we currently consume. The concept began to spread organically, and the Transition Towns Movement was born.
Since 2005, Transition has spread to more than 50 countries around the world, and in 2009, Transition US was formed to support and nurture the grassroots movement in the US. More than 150 Transition Initiatives have formed in communities across the US, from Maine to Texas to Washington and everywhere in between. We are a bottom-up, decentralized movement. Transition looks different in every community, based on local context and the strengths and interests of local organizers.
Marissa Mommaerts’ permaculture-style medicinal herb garden in Sebastopol, CA_Marissa Mommaerts, Transition US
If you could think of a song that would be the anthem of the Transition US movement, what would it be?
What immediately came to mind for me was REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” I was at the Transition Network conference in the UK last fall, and we had an amazing international dance party with Transitioners from around the world. When this song came on I thought, “Yes, this is our anthem!” and really let loose.
Right now our civilization is powered by fossil fuels. Transition is about preparing for a world that drastically reduces its reliance on fossil fuels and relies instead on reducing energy consumption, building local renewable energy sources and localized economies. We believe this transition is both necessary and inevitable, because we cannot continue with an infinite growth model on a planet with finite resources. We know the future will look very different than the present. But we believe it will be a healthier, more connected, abundant, joyful and fulfilling future — one that works for humanity and for the planet.
How did you get involved personally and why?
When I started college, I was on a mission to learn how to solve the world’s greatest problems: poverty, war, hunger, environmental destruction, etc. Five years later I had a master’s degree in International Public Affairs and had traveled, studied and volunteered in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Peru and throughout Central America.
My first job out of college was at a think tank in Washington, DC, where I staffed world leaders on a project to increase global access to family planning by educating policymakers about the link between women’s health, population growth, global sustainability and national security. After less than two years I was very frustrated. I saw how many resources are poured into global summits like the international climate change negotiations and Rio+20, without having much of an impact.
I wasn’t sure what the alternative was, but I knew in my heart there must be a better way. So I quit my job, began traveling and ended up in Northern California on a friend’s permaculture farm. I realized permaculture was a bottom-up strategy for feeding people while healing the natural environment and our societies. I began looking for opportunities to get more involved in this work, and found Transition.
If I wanted to start a Transition town, what would I have to do? Do I have to start an entire town? Can it be a household?
If there isn’t already an active Initiative in your area, I suggest starting small and building relationships. There’s a permaculture saying: “Start where you are, with what you have.” That could be your home or neighborhood. One thing I love about Transition folks is that most of us really “walk the talk.” We embody a low-carbon lifestyle in our homes and personal lives, and can draw from that experience as we teach others in our community.
Transition Initiatives can form at whatever scale is most appropriate for your group and community (that’s why we’ve changed the name from “Transition Town” to “Transition Initiative”) — a neighborhood, town, city, island, valley, etc.
The neighborhood is an important scale for building community resilience, because we’re only as resilient as those around us! We have a great project called Transition Streets (transitionstreets.org) that helps people make changes to their own homes, meet their neighbors and start organizing on a neighborhood scale.
We also recommend building a small team of committed individuals that represent various parts of the community. Then as the effort expands, it will find a foothold and grow naturally within these circles as well as connect these circles to each other.
After this “initiating group” or “core team” has solidly formed and begun to spread within the community, register with Transition US to become an Official Transition Initiative, which means your group will be listed as part of the US Transition network and receive extra support from Transition US.
What are some key skills that help people in the Transition US movement feel most effective and inspired in their daily labors?
Great question! Becoming an effective, inspired Transitioner is a constant process — this is challenging, cutting-edge work. We have a huge mission and a small budget, so we have to be very resourceful and conscious of avoiding overwhelm. Here are some of the skills I see as especially important:
- Systemic thinking: understanding the interconnectedness of the systems we depend on. Since most of our civilization depends on fossil fuels to function, getting off fossil fuels requires much more than putting up solar panels. We need to redesign our food, water and sanitation, transportation, housing, healthcare and manufacturing systems and so much more. We need to think long-term and understand the impacts our choices as consumers and citizens have on the big picture.
- Community organizing: convening people around an important issue, inviting real participation, designing and executing a campaign or project and creating a sense of community ownership over the process and outcome. This does not come naturally to everyone, but there are many resources and trainings you can draw from to learn and practice.
- Good social and collaboration skills: self-awareness, conscious communication, conflict resolution, etc. The hardest thing about working with people is the people! This is especially true in a collaborative, egalitarian, post-hierarchical setting (like most Transition Initiatives). In order to work effectively as a group, you need to be very aware of the way you yourself are showing up and participating, and be well-equipped to navigate interpersonal challenges with other members of your group. Transition US provides a lot of resources to support Transitioners in developing these skills, like our “Effective Groups” and “Power of Conflict for Building Community” trainings.
- Permaculture/homesteading/DIY/renewable energy, etc.: hands-on, concrete skills that you can use to build resilience in your own life and share with others. Teaching hands-on skills is a fun, empowering way to engage people in Transition, and it tends to be more successful than preaching about what people should or shouldn’t be doing. We call this type of hands-on learning “reskilling.” Hands-on skills also provide a balance to the community organizing and advocacy work, where you don’t always see the direct results of your efforts. I know many Transitioners who relax by getting their hands in the dirt and growing things.
- Inner resilience: personal practices to help you avoid burnout and be able to face the realities of the world we live in without being paralyzed by anger, grief or fear. I think this is part of what the Metta Center for Nonviolence would call “person power.” An important piece of Transition is our “Inner Transition” work, which helps us build inner resilience through positive visioning. Our Western culture (especially in the US) tends to be more action-oriented than contemplative, so we also strive for a sense of balance between being and doing.
- Movement-building: collaboration with other community groups and local governments in order to expand our base and grow our impact, as well as collaboration with the broader Transition movement to craft a shared narrative and strategy.
Transition founder Rob Hopkins (turning compost) and members of Transition Milwaukee at the Kompost Kids community compost site in Milwaukee, WI_Dan Felix, Transition Milwaukee
Gandhi created models of Transition Towns during his campaigns, but he called them ashrams, or spiritual communities. How do you see the Transition movement fitting into the nonviolent revolution — building the world that works for everyone?
Much of the violence in our society is the result of an economic system based on exploitation and extraction and an accompanying culture of disconnection and isolation. Racial injustice, extreme wealth inequality and even terrorism are all tied to the violent and oppressive methods the dominant economy utilizes to extract resources, exploit labor and consolidate wealth.
Transition was created to be a model for empowering individuals to take constructive action in creating a world free from dependence on fossil fuels and a violent economic system, while at the same time re-weaving the fabric of community and connection.
Transition communities are re-imagining and re-designing the vital systems upon which we depend (food, water, energy, transport, housing, healthcare, etc.) to be community-oriented and ecologically regenerative. Like Gandhi’s cotton campaign, Transition — and countless other organizations and movements around the world — are building an alternative economy from the bottom up, an economy that will someday either displace the dominant extractive economy or serve as a lifeboat when the dominant economy collapses. Look at what has happened in places like Greece and Spain, where economic collapse has led to the rise of solidarity, gift and sharing economies. People are coming together and helping each other meet their basic needs.
The Metta Center for Nonviolence encourages people in the nonviolent movement to personalize their relationships. How do Transition communities build supportive, nurturing systems that undermine separation and competition?
Transition is all about relationships and mutual support: we believe connected communities are the foundation of the social change and ecological resilience we need in order to survive as humanity on this planet.
We strive to create localized communities where people know their neighbors and see each other as friends and resources; where the economy is based on relationships, and businesses exist to serve the community rather than extract wealth and resources; where elders are valued and integrated into society; where diversity is seen as beneficial and where fewer people are marginalized, vulnerable or isolated.
As much as we can, we embody these ideals in our daily lives, and we know at a visceral level what kind of societal transformation will be possible once this fabric of community and connection really spreads and permeates our culture.
One of the most inspiring and unique things about Transition is the type of people it attracts: folks who are warm, open-hearted, welcoming, tolerant, caring, generous.They share a positive vision of the future (despite being all too aware of the realities of the world in which we live). I know I can visit any Transition Initiative in the US and meet people who feel like family, who will open up their homes and share meals with me. And I will return the hospitality.
What community guidelines might people consider adopting, based on the experiences of those in the Transition US movement?
We don’t have any official guidelines, but rather a collective culture or ethos. Here are a few informal guidelines for developing a more resilient community:
- Get to know your neighbors — by more than just their first name.
- Reduce consumption — buy less “stuff” and use less energy.
- Support local food producers and resilient regional food systems.
- Know your watershed, and use water wisely.
- Support local, independent and resilience-building businesses.
- Switch to community-scale, renewable energy sources.
- Walk, bike, carpool or use public transportation when possible, rather than driving a personal vehicle. Avoid flying, especially long distances.
- Reduce waste, recycle and start composting.
- Build resilience on your street and in your neighborhood by using Transition Streets, facilitating an emergency preparedness plan or holding block parties
- Collaborate with community groups, schools, libraries and more.
- Get involved in local government. Show up to city council meetings, hold your elected officials accountable, collaborate with local government agencies or run for office. Develop your own person power — your inner strength, resilience and self-awareness.
- Hone your skills in effective collaboration and conflict resolution.
To learn more about each of these guidelines and tips for implementing them into your daily life, visit transitionstreets.org. You can also find a list of principles and ingredients for Transition Initiatives at transitionus.org.
In three words, what is the REAL transition you are trying to manifest?
Thriving resilient communities.
Describe a joyous moment in your work.
“Work parties” are a staple of Transition. It’s a way to build community while getting our hands dirty and creating concrete manifestations of the positive future we envision. The saying “many hands make light work” really rings true — it always surprises me that we seem to accomplish exponentially more work at work parties.
A couple of months before I moved out of my last rental house, we hosted a garden work party to help get our garden in good shape for the next tenants. We hoped that if the garden was attractive enough, future tenants would put as much love into it as we did. In the three years we’d lived there, our backyard had grown from a barren patch of earth into a lush habitat for birds, bees and humans, with lots of food and medicinal herbs. We wanted it to continue thriving.
I had expected a couple of people to show up for the work party and help us pull some weeds, but we had so many eager helpers that we were able to not only tidy up our backyard garden but also install a beautiful front yard garden with raised beds and a raspberry patch. It was an intergenerational, multicultural affair. My friend’s elderly father from Ecuador, formerly a carpenter, was having a blast building raised beds with help from a few younger folks. Neighbors drove by slowly, some of them taking photos of us. Everyone was just thrilled to be enjoying a beautiful day together, “paying it forward” by creating this beautiful garden for whoever would be lucky enough to move in next. Looking around and seeing those happy faces — and how the front yard had been transformed — I was filled with joy.