The amoeba of cultural change

December 3, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIn the Q&A section of public presentations we often get asked “How do you tell people about Transition …”  Then the questioner launches into a vivid description of how his attempts have failed to get through to his Hummer-driving brother-in-law, or his boss who vacations in the Bahamas, or his fellow churchgoers who rhapsodize over malls and “bargains” at big box stores, or his neighbor with the pristine, overwatered chem-lawn. 

You can plug in a multitude of variables to describe the opulent consumption but in each of these instances the approach has failed for the identical reason:  Our questioner doesn’t understand how to use and work with the dynamics of cultural change.

In his 1999 book Believing Cassandra, Alan AtKisson outlined a model which has helped me enormously in targeting my efforts, relieving frustration, and becoming much more effective in my approach.  In a nutshell: don’t start with the people who are natural laggards and reactionaries.


AtKisson asks us to imagine an amoeba — you remember that microscopic single-celled thing you saw in biology class.  As the amoeba senses a molecule of food, it stretches and elongates out to embrace it.  Eventually the entire amoeba organism follows in that direction.
Image Removed

Human societies — in AtKisson’s explanation — move like that amoeba.

An Inventor gets a New idea.  But this new idea is so “out there” (and the inventor perhaps isn’t all that swift at explaining it in terms the man-on-the-street can understand) that the idea is a bit out of reach.

Along comes the Change Agent who understands the esoteric technical talk of the Inventor.  The Change Agent grasps the New Idea and is able to translate it into simple, comprehensible language that hooks others in.

A wise change agent works with Transformers — people who are influential and respected leaders of existing groups within the community as a whole.  The Transformer hears the Change Agent’s explanation, translates the message still further to appeal to her group, and begins getting large numbers of mainstream people on board. 

The movement is now underway.  Admittedly, the original idea has now been somewhat distilled and customized in the process.  But forward motion has indeed begun.

At the back end of the amoeba, you’ll find the Laggards.  Perhaps by personality type, these people prefer to sit back and watch new developments unfold for a while before they’ll jump on board.  They’ll never be the leaders in anything.  But you’ll also find that as the whole amoeba slinks along, the laggards will move along too.  They won’t allow themselves to be left out!

Another important group at the back end of the amoeba is the Reactionaries.  These are people who have a vested interest in having the status quo stay firmly in place.  Atkisson prompts us to think of oil company executives.  They will dig their heels in, resist and fight with everything they have.

Atkisson mentions another group, the Iconoclasts.  In my experience, these are people who latch onto an idea and cling to it for reasons entirely their own.  Think of art-for-art’s-sake artists, or hard-core green tech devotees.  They may be helpful to your movement or quite a hindrance — it all depends on whether their unique take dovetails with your core purpose.  If it misses the mark, the iconoclasts may create a very noisy and counterproductive distraction.


By understanding how cultural change works, we can better focus our efforts and energies where they can do the most good.  Rob Hopkins, Transition Town Totnes, and the Kinsale EDAP equate to the “Inventors” in the amoeba model.  Transition Trainers and early initiators are among the first round of “Change Agents” translating those great ideas into specific tools we can latch on to and use.

Perhaps you, reading this article, are a hopeful lone initiator in an area yet without a Transition iniatiative.  You’re serving the role of Change Agent, and you’ll need to translate the ideas — customize them — into something that will appeal to the unique flavor of your local community.  But who do you approach first — the guy with the huge house on the hill and the guzzler SUV?  He may represent the biggest stick in your craw, but he’s not the best place to start the Transition ball moving!

Use the amoeba:  find Transformers.  Find existing local leaders who might be sympathetic to any small aspect of your (locally translated) Transition message.  Chruch leaders?  Maybe one or two would come on board the Permaculture FairShares message and evenutally inspire the inner Transition effort.  The guy who runs the local garden center might come on board and eventually help pioneer your local food working group.  The leaders of the local bicycle club might embrace the low-carbon and powerdown messages and provide insights into transportation reform.  A local teacher might want to work with her kids and start a community garden project.


Here in Los Angeles we’ve been aware of the amoeba model for quite some time.  Our early initiators stumbled upon the New Ideas of Hopkins, Holmgren, Jeavons, and a multitude of others and began working with them.  At times we worked directly with mainstream people, learning to translate the ideas of these brilliant Inventors into something that people could latch on to.  But we found our efforts moved much more quickly when we began working with people in Transformer-type capacity.

Peter Rood, the co-founder of our initiating group, brought Transition ideas to other religious leaders.  He connected me with the leader of a local yoga center, and I translated Transition ideas to work with the yogic yamas and niyamas.  I gave a series of classes in August 2008, and today many of those attendees are the founding core team of Transition Mar Vista.

We’ve connected with the leaders of major local environmental nonprofits, in one case gaining audience with their internal leadership team.  We encouraged that nonprofit to broaden their climate change agenda to include peak oil, to expand their food-production-related programs, and to emphasize hands-on reskilling and community-building.  Today their fruit tree giveaway program is well-known throughout the city and is growing larger each year.

We have shared the story of the formation of our LETSystem with nonprofit leaders who work in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.  These leaders will — literally — translate the tools of economic resilience in a way we cannot hope to achieve without them.  We share our resource lists far and wide, and only after months or years might we hear the results.

AtKisson doesn’t mention that part.  But the people at the leading edge of the societal amoeba might never know the full roll-out affects that follow on their heels.


Here in L.A., the Hummer driving past our community garden may cause us to grit our teeth.  In a moment of despair it may make us feel like nothing is changing (but given a bit of relection, the NUMBER of Hummers seen on the road has significantly decreased in recent years!)  But the Hummer driver isn’t our target in early Transition outreach.  Neither is the die-hard global warming denier.(1)

We understand that there are vast numbers of people who ARE concerned about societal problems and want to “do something” — but in many cases they simply don’t know what to do.  When we repeat the basic understanding of the Transition movement (“If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late / If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little / But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.”) they nod their heads in agreement. 

When we speak in terms of “adapting to erratic weather” and “the end of cheap oil” and “economic hard times,” they’re completely with us.  They DO yearn to feel more connected with their local neighbors; they DO want to live a simpler life, at a slower, more reasonable pace; they DO want to do what is right for the earth and other people on it. 

THIS is the “richly prepared garden bed” in which to seed Transition ideas for a great and productive yield!

By understanding the amoeba of cultural change, we can trust that — as larger and larger portions of society move along toward saner-future ideas — the Hummer driver will hasten to get on board.  He certainly won’t want to be left behind!

We’ll notice one day that the chem-lawn has been replaced with drought-tolerant exotic ornamentals, and a few years later is changed yet again to include rainwater harvesting and edible landscaping.

Already, economic pressures emphasize shabby-chic, repurposeing, and simplification within many social circles.  They’re showing up in the Style pages of major media.  Fuel prices and economics conspire to constrict the Bahamas-flying. The opulent-consumer laggards will come along in time, brought along by a wide variety of reasons. 

But meanwhile, as we cultivate the beginnings of a movement, we can work more wisely and effectively by focusing our efforts toward those people who will flesh out the leading edge of the amoeba of cultural change.



(1) For how we address global warming deniers see “answering the killer question” at

Alan AtKisson explained the Amoeba of Cultural Change in Chapter 9 of his 1999 book Believing Cassandra, which used to be accessible for free online but I can no longer find it.  From his company’s website it appears that he still teaches seminars in the amoeba concept today. shows that an update of his book is due out in January 2011.

The amoeba diagram, as updated, presumably by AtKisson.  More simplistic diagram here

Video of Alan AtKisson demonstrating the amoeba with a group exercise – You Tube 4:37

an older online article by AtKisson which describes the amoeba

Joanne Poyourow

Joanne Poyourow is the co-founder of the Environmental Change-Makers in Los Angeles.  In their 10 years of operations the Change-Makers have done many things including building two community gardens, and initiating Transition ideas in many areas of Southern California.

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior, Media & Communications