Transition cities: Mission impossible?

January 3, 2011

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. “

— Lewis Carroll

In 2005, while I was writing a novel which envisioned the transformation of Los Angeles (and while Rob Hopkins was putting the final touches on the world’s first Energy Descent Action Plan with students in Kinsale, Ireland), I attended a Permaculture seminar in Santa Barbara, California.  The Permaculture movement asserts that we could consciously design a more sustainable or permanent human culture

In a breakout session that day, called “Urban Permaculture,” one of the participants commented, “This is all great for the rural areas, but what do you do about a big city like Los Angeles?” 

The instructor threw up his hands and shrugged.  It’s impossible.  Someone laughed uncomfortably.  Amid a crowd of what should have been Southern California’s most forward thinking, out-of-the-box designers, there were no answers.

People have said it to me directly over the years, in person and in email.  It’s impossible.  How can you even think about Transition in Los Angeles?  It’s too big.

Within Transition circles we counsel each other to “start where you are.”  Well, where I am is in the middle of Los Angeles, the eleventh largest metropolitan area in the world, 10 to 12 million people.  This is my home town.  This is where we started.


 Sensible people say it’s impossible, but impossible things are happening every day.

The Transition movement in Los Angeles is unfolding today via a series of neighborhood initiatives.  Our city hub supports seven active local initiatives which are holding regular meetings.  Others occasionally hold Transition-style gatherings.

On any given week, there are several Transition-type events offered within our local network (and countless more offered by other groups).  Two years into this work, our direct email lists reach perhaps 2,000 people, with immediate distribution far beyond that.  Our speaker’s bureau maintains a brisk schedule, each week fielding several requests from other groups.

The local Transition initiatives have spawned time banks, community gardens, rainwater harvesting installations, a backyard food redistribution network, and monthly clinics on alternative health care.  Our more colorful events have included bread baking workshops, 100-mile meals, “Repurposing Old Clothes” workshops, and a Chicken Run Party where participants built a coop together.

Peel back the surface of any of these projects or events and you’ll find far more than a cool, greener thing to do.  There is a conscious effort to create comprehensive solutions to the great challenges that humanity faces today, namely peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction, combined.

Back in 2005, when I was driving home from Santa Barbara, if you’d told me that within five years all these things would unfold, I’d have laughed through my pain and declared it was impossible.


“The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.”

 – Army Corps of Engineers motto during WWII

The critics are right:  It is “too big.”  So we don’t think about that very much. 

In our Transition Los Angeles circle we focus upon the task at hand: creating positive change, changing hearts and minds, right within our immediate neighborhoods.  Once a month our core team gathers and we dare to take a peek at the bigger picture, perhaps to plan outreach to untapped geography within our city.

But for the most part, we focus on creating a supportive atmosphere for each other and for newcomers who similarly want to transform their own local neighborhoods.  We are a network of many people doing very positive local things.  We remind each other to start small, to create change where you know you can, and to trust that the rest will happen.

It is impossible to think about transforming Los Angeles, to think about transforming our entire society, western civilization, the globalised economy, our modern world.  It’s too big.  But what are our alternatives?  To give up and do nothing?  In my mind, inaction in the face of these problems is unconscionable.

There are some people who like to broadcast the doom, supposedly “waking people up” to what is wrong in the world.  In my mind, mere telling of the bad news alone – without any solutions – is completely inadequate.  At this point in human history, we must reach beyond mere awareness-raising, into taking positive action.

And that is where the Transition movement comes in.


“Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.”

— David Ehrenfeld

Joanna Macy speaks of the three dimensions of the Great Turning.  Traditional environmentalism is in many cases a manifestation of Macy’s first dimension:  Stopping Action, preventing further destruction, slowing the damage to Earth and its beings.

The Transition approach as outlined by Hopkins and now being experimented with and customized around the world, is primarily a movement growing up within Macy’s second dimension: Creating New Structures, the creation of structural alternatives.  The Transition movement also touches upon Macy’s third dimension, a Shift in Consciousness, a shift in our deeply ingrained values.

One of the reasons I embraced the Transition movement was that it seemed to me to be the most viable, most broad-based, deepest-thinking “second dimension” approach available.  There simply aren’t any other organizations I have found which are Creating New Structures with as considered and informed and panoramic a scope.

David Holmgren created the Permaculture Flower, a diagram I have long used in my presentations because it describes the panorama of human experience.  Traditional environmentalism in many cases concerns itself with one or two petals of this Flower.

Rob Hopkins’ brilliance is that he has created a way of applying Holmgren’s Permaculture philosophy to each of the petals of the Flower:  to communities, to urban issues, to politics and economics.  The Transition movement is What We Can Do to move forward toward a more lasting human culture, beginning not with a clean slate but with what we have now.

The Transition movement takes into account a full and realistic assessment of our power-hungry buildings, our paved cities, our urban demographic, our globalized food system, our crumbling economy.  It combines the reality of now with the dream of what can be.  It calls into action the collective creativity of the local people.  And then it creates a plan.

And there it’s pretty unique.  I don’t know of any other organization that is creating a plan, putting in place new structures to replace the broken ones we have now, in local community after local community, cultivating an effort that is crafted grassroots by the people.  I haven’t heard of other networks that are organized with the intent to so effectively address Macy’s second dimension.  The Transition approach is in its infancy, it’s not perfect, and we have absolutely no guarantees that it will work.  But it’s the best we’ve got.


“A Transition initiative supports the energy to make things happen, and then supports the emergent projects.”

— Transition Network, discussion of pattern language

It is impossible to think of transforming Los Angeles with a 20 person city hub core team or a few thousand emails.  But we have to remember that we’re not alone.

There are hundreds of other organizations within this vast city that are also working on facets of the problems.  There are organizations working on the global warming aspect, organizations working on more sustainable power sources, organizations working on bicycle transportation and urban agriculture and waste stream and transforming our public educational curriculum.

Our fledgling local Transition network has a role to play in all this – or perhaps many separate roles toward one big agenda.  The big agenda is of course preparing our populace for the crises ahead, namely peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction, combined.

One of our roles is as the banner carrier for the trio of crises.  Some organizations are single-focused, perhaps promoting solutions to global warming yet they don’t include peak oil concepts.  It’s up to us in the Transition movement to continually presence the convergence of the trio.

It’s up to us to point out when a proposed “solution” might work for global warming but isn’t feasible in a time of economic contraction.  It’s up to us, with a considered and calculated approach, to raise the trio of problems in front of governmental planning commissions.  It’s up to us to get people thinking about the how we will solve life issues given that these problems are a simultaneous set.

We do this by becoming the one who ask questions.  “How will that work with peak oil?”  “How might you accomplish that through times of economic contraction?”  With a polite and well-placed question, we might be able to plant the seed of an idea, and to engage the creativity of another organization’s team in designing new structures.

Transition L.A. encouraged the local tree-planting nonprofit to think about how their operations might change in view of peak oil.  We encouraged a local environmental justice nonprofit to contemplate how they might continue to function despite economic contraction because we need them on board.

Yet another of our roles is as the facilitator.  By creating the space for good things to happen, they will.  Our September 2008 “Life After Oil” conference created the space for the Transition movement to begin to take hold in Los Angeles.

It’s important to remember that we don’t have to do it all.  We don’t have to host every reskilling class in the greater Los Angeles area.  The magnitude of the proposal is ludicrous, and there are many qualified individuals and organizations out there who are already doing a fine and capable job.

Which brings up another role, that of weaver.  We, who understand the trio of challenges and have glimpsed the panorama of solutions work that will be required to meet these challenges, are uniquely situated to get people working together.

We could call it “networking,” but in my sense of what is needed, we need to transcend old definitions of networking.  Rather than introducing people to each other (say, for a business deal), we are weaving the fiber of new structures.  By creating a new way of people working together we are weaving the very cloth that the future will be made of.

You could say it’s a pretty impossible task, but we’re working on it.

Joanne Poyourow is the cofounder of the Environmental Change-Makers, the initiating group that brought Transition ideas to Los Angeles.  She continues to serve on the core team at the Transition Los Angeles city hub.  She is the author of two books, a blogger at Transition US, and her articles frequently appear on Energy Bulletin.  In her home neighborhood she has designed two community gardens, where she manages the plantings for abundant year-round harvests.

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