How can we help make Transition happen? (Q&A at Skagit Human Rights Festival)

March 23, 2011

I had the privilege last night to sit on a Transition panel at the Skagit County Human Rights Festival, which Chuckanut Transition did a great job of organizing. There was an excellent slide show/movie they made (and included our Great Unleashing video), then a scenario for attendees to discuss, and then Q&A with the panel, which included Evelyn Adams from Transition Fidalgo and Friends, Sarai Stevens and Chris Soler from Chuckanut Transition, and Paul Kearsley and myself from Transition Whatcom.

I thought the questions asked were good ones, so I’ve written out some short replies below for you all to consider. You can ask Paul K. for his take on the vegan vs. local diet – he had a good answer on that one.

Panel Questions

Why did you get involved with the Transition movement?

I have been involved in the peak oil and relocalization movement for several years, and when The Transition Handbook came out, and Transition Training came to our area, I felt it was just the thing to take community organizing to the next level, in regards to the issues of peak oil, climate change, relocalization, and resilience. I felt Transition offered a brilliant set of principles and easy to follow steps, as well as being very balanced in addressing the Head, The Heart, and the Hands.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Personally, the biggest challenge has been one of available time. Finding enough time to work on building resilience in my personal and family life, in my work life, and in my community as well is a challenge.

I think one of the biggest challenges for Transition groups is to learn the skills of how to work effectively as a group in terms of having efficient meetings that are inclusive, enjoyable, and get a lot accomplished. Learning to work together effectively may be one of the most important things we do to prepare for peak oil, climate change, and economic instability.

Why do you think it’s so hard to get people fired up about climate change?

Think about it! We’re asking people to engage in long term planning, sacrificing present pleasures for the sake of a hoped for better world in the future. And the most we can offer is that if we plan well and sacrifice now, the future might be less bad than it otherwise would be. Why would people even want to think about that? In Transition, we try to “make it more like a party than a protest march.” We find that we develop great friendships with kindred spirits, are comforted by the support of these like minded folks, feel fulfilled by doing meaningful work in the world, and make sure we continue to have as much fun as possible. Rob Hopkins says “if it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right!

A great publication I highly recommend is Climate Communication and Behavior Change. It looks to me to be one of the most well thought out approaches and is chock full of practical suggestions. An essential blueprint that should be studied closely and applied widely.

How do you think the transition focus can influence the Envision Skagit 2060 process?

Think through every issue that might come up in this process, and look at it through a lens of peak oil, climate change, and an economy that might not ever recover to its past glories. This is the ‘new normal.’ Talk to those involved about the issues they’re looking at and are already concerned about, but try to bring this new perspective to the conversation.

What is the reality of the future in terms of energy – will alternative energy sources be able to replace fossil fuels? Can’t we just change over and continue to do what we’re doing?

World oil production since 2005 has been essentially flat. Most likely the peak happened in 2008, and we’ll soon see a more marked decline. In addition, the remaining oil isn’t all ours to buy, as has been made clear with recent geopolitical events in the Middle East. It looks like the days are over when the west could support autocrats in the Middle East who made sure we got all the oil we needed (read “Oilquake in the Middle East” by Michael Klare). Much of the oil that is left is more environmentally destructive to extract, is much more expensive, and has a lower payback of usable energy (tar sands, Bakken Formation shale oil, deep water drilling, etc.)

The Robert Hirsch report for the U.S. Dept. of Energy, 2005 on peak oil: “…without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking”.

We need to do all we can with alternative energy sources, but we must remain realistic. The energy density of fossil fuels is incredible and not easily replaced. It will take years to scale up alternatives, and we will likely never have the same level of energy we’ve had with fossil fuels. Wind, solar, and other alternatives combined provide less than a couple of percentage points of the energy we consume in the U.S. We have to think honestly about putting a priority on reducing our energy consumption by as much as, perhaps, 80%. This is why in Transition we talk about “Energy Descent.” The expectation we have is that we are on a downslope of energy availablilty and usage. Our goal is to make that downslope smooth and gentle, rather than like going off a cliff. Find out more by going to

The transition movement seems to be an alternative to the “gloom and doom” messages we’ve been hearing for the last 30 years. Can you talk about that and whether it’s a more effective way to get people involved?

My experience is that it is definitely a more effective way to get people involved. The Transition movement is committed to telling the truth as best we can determine it, but at the same time to really focus on the positive response we can make, and to focus on working together as a community. We really don’t think a survivalist approach (heading to the hills with guns and a storehouse of baked beans) is a viable long term solution.

One of the important Transition Statements is known as “The Cheerful Disclaimer” on the Transition Network Website:

Cheerful disclaimer!

“Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact.

We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.

What we are convinced of is this:

• 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.

Everything that you read on this site is the result of real work undertaken in the real world with community engagement at its heart. There’s not an ivory tower in sight, no professors in musty oak-panelled studies churning out erudite papers, no slavish adherence to a model carved in stone.

This website, just like the transition model, is brought to you by people who are actively engaged in transition in a community. People who are learning by doing – and learning all the time. People who understand that we can’t sit back and wait for someone else to do the work. People like you, perhaps…”

What does a transition lifestyle look like?

* Consuming less, but having more fun

* Producing more (whether it be food, fiber, or services for the local community) while having fun

* Reskilling – learning lots of DIY skills that our grandparents knew how to do

* Participating in the rebuilding of community resilience – the ability to absorb shocks from the outside

Can you talk about how the movement would support individuals who are having a hard time making needed changes? How can a community support each other toward success? What is involved? Is it important?

Transition recognizes that we can’t just keep these issues at the intellectual level, and that these issues can be very disturbing – we need places where people can come together and support one another on the individual heart level. Transition also recognizes that for the scale of change that needs to be made, there can be many psychological barriers, and many inner resources need to be developed. The Transition Handbook presents the “Stages of Change” model as one option for helping people move from Pre-contemplation to Contemplation, to Preparation, to Action, and then Maintenance. We also sometimes use the Addiction model – our culture is, in many ways, addicted to oil, and addiction recovery skills can be very useful.

Most important is the support and encouragement we can offer each other as we work together. Seeing each other do the work and make needed changes can be very powerful motivators.

What concrete actions can I take to reduce my use of fossil fuels before prices force me to do so?

Start with reasonable steps that you can achieve without a lot of effort, but be sure not to rest on easy laurels – make sure the “baby steps” move relentlessly forward on your “power down” path. Think of ways to tie in increased efficiencies with reduced consumption. Examples: Drive a hybrid, but also cut your driving in half, using your bike and public transportation more; install solar hot water or tankless hot water, but also take shorter showers and reduce the number of times you bathe each week. Install flourescent light bulbs, but also unscrew half the bulbs in your bathroom vanity AND try out not turning the lights on at all sometimes. Keep in mind “Jevons Paradox,” (and its variant, “The Rebound Effect“) which tells us that if we focus only on efficiencies, people will tend to use the efficiency gains to use the product more, resulting in no net reduction of the resource.

Try giving yourself designated fossil fuel vacations. The period of lent is a good opportunity to devote 1 day a week to zero fossil fuel use (though you might want to leave the refridgerator plugged in. My wife and I did this – it was great fun and we learned a lot.

Begin growing as much food as you can, and support local farms and gardens as much as possible. Support local food diversity for local consumption. Weatherize your home and replace inefficient appliances with efficient ones when the old needs to be replaced (recognize the already embedded energy in old equipment – it doesn’t always make sense to buy something new when you calculate the energy required to make the product). Get alternative transportation options in place – buy bicycles & equipment for your family, and support alt transport infrastructure in your community.

Would a vegan diet or local diet have less impact on climate change?


What can my neighbors and I do together to better weather joblessness and other effects of financial disruptions caused by peak oil?

These times are a great opportunity to build community cohesion. Begin a neighborhood Transition group…but you might decide to do it “under cover,” never mentioning peak oil or climate change. Just focus on ways you can support one another, regardless of political or idealogical affiliations. Invite neighbors to your home to discuss Emergency Preparedness, which everyone can relate to. Go from there to supporting one another with chores, sharing tools, barter, etc. Our culture emphasizes individualism that usually means paying professionals for services rather than asking for help from our neighbors. We need less self-sufficiency and more community reliant neighborhoods.

What is local currency? How do you create it? How does it work?

“Local, alternative and community currencies replace the money drained away by the mainstream money system, allowing the people to continue trading the essentials of life. Local currencies cannot be removed from the communities in which they circulate, because the members issue Life Dollars as and when they need them by trading their goods and services within their communities. This is democratic money, issued in sufficiency by the people to meet all their local trading needs. Bank money is issued in scarcity for the private profit of the banks and multi-national corporations, who frequently act antisocially at a community level.

When the next recession (like now) or depression hits the mainstream economy, our members will continue to trade as if nothing has happened. Fourth Corner Exchange Life Dollars are immune to the unstable perturbations of the mainstream economy. They retain their value and continue to perform their primary purpose of facilitating trade between members under all conditions and at all times. Traditional bank-issued money has never been capable of performing this simple social task. This is its main failing.” (from Fourth Corner Exchange website)

The Transition Network has a book on Alternative currencies by Peter North, called “Local Money: How To Make It Happen in Your Community“. Do check out, our local currency in Bellingham and surrounding region. If you’re not ready for an alternative currency, consider at least moving your money away from the national banks and into local credit unions. See the “Move Your Money” campaign underway by the Financial Workgroup at Transition Whatcom, with the big Move Your Money day coming up on April 16th.

What are Transition Towns? How would they differ in urban vs. rural settings?

Originally called “Transition Towns” because that’s the scale they began at with “Transition Town Totnes” in the UK. Now formally called “Transition Initiatives” they can be at any scale, from the neighborhood level, to large cities, counties, and regions. At the county and regional level, these groups, like Transition Whatcom, serve as a hub to smaller scale neighborhood and rural area initiatives.

“The Transition approach empowers communities to squarely face the challenges of peak oil and climate change, and to unleash the collective genius of their own people to find the answers to this momentous question: For all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we:

Dramatically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change);

Significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil);

Greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?

Transition Initiatives make no claim to have all the answers, but by building on the wisdom of the past and accessing the pool of ingenuity, skills and determination in our communities, the solutions can readily emerge. Transition Initiatives believe it is past time to start re-creating our future in ways that are not based on cheap, plentiful and polluting oil but on localized food, sustainable energy sources, resilient local economies and an enlivened sense of community well-being.”

David MacLeod

I live in Washington state and consider myself a social permaculturist (exploring “invisible structures”), and am involved with the Transition Initiative movement as a co-initiator of Transition Whatcom.  Transition Training in 2008 from the original UK Trainers Sophy Banks and Naresh Giangrande, and Permaculture Design Certificate earned at Inspiration Farm (where I lived for about a year and a half), 2009.  Introduction to Integral and Integral Sustainability from Alan Seid, of Cascadia Workshops. I have a particular interest in what I call Integral Permaculture, as well as PatternDynamics (TM) (informed by both Integral theory and Permaculture). In January of 2014 I became the first person in the PatternDynamics Community of Practice to receive Level II (b) Accreditation, certifying me as a facilitator of the PatternDynamics workshop. Also known to be a “peak oil activist,” I am an occasional contributor to (formerly Energy Bulletin), and have been a panelist at Seattle’s Green Fest.

Tags: Building Community