Reflections on a Transition Tour

December 13, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIn October, Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins made his first (and probably only) tour of the United States. Fortunately for us, the announcement that concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere had surpassed 400ppm for the first time in 4.5 million years made Rob rethink the no-fly pledge he had made seven years earlier after watching An Inconvenient Truth.

As he wrote in his blog on March 16, 2013, four months before his big trip "across the pond":

“What haunts me every day, and no doubt will for the rest of my days, is what I will reply to my grandchildren when they ask me what I did during the time when climate change could have been brought under some sort of control, when the necessary changes could have been put in place to create a low-carbon, resilient and thriving culture that nurtured healthy human cultures. Was I as effective as I could have been? Did I do everything I could have? Having reflected on this for some time, it feels churlish to decline an opportunity that could potentially have a far greater positive impact than the negative impact of the flight.”

— Rob Hopkins, "Why I’m Marking Passing 400ppm by Getting Back on an Aeroplane"

Strangely enough, Rob arrived in New Orleans on the first day of the US government shutdown (October 1st), visited Boston, Portland, Maine, New York, Houston, Austin, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee, then flew back to his native England on the day our federal government reopened (October 17th).

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Rob Hopkins in Times Square. Photo by Asher Miller.

During these two weeks, he gave dozens of public talks and media interviews, met with countless sustainability groups and thought-leaders, and somehow still found time to post "Letters from America" on his blog. For better or worse, by the end of this whirlwind tour, Rob definitely got what he had wished for back in March: "I would expect to return home wrung out like a sponge."

Our national hub, Transition US, took advantage of the excitement whipped up by Rob’s visit by announcing it as a "national unleashing" for Transition and publishing the first edition of "Resilient Times," a newspaper full of hopeful imaginings of what life might be like in 2020. Local communities likewise harnessed this energy by building other activities around Rob’s public talks, such as the Fall 2013 New England Transition Gathering and the "Just Doing Stuff" Town Fair, organized by Transition Pasadena.

My Transition Tour

Image RemovedAlthough nowhere near as grandiose or demanding as Rob’s, I accidentally ended up on my very own Transition tour around the same time.

It all started when, earlier that Summer, I was invited to co-facilitate a two-day Transition Launch training in Milwaukee, October 14-15, that was planned to coincide with Rob’s visit there.

Next, I was planning to take Nick Osborne’s Effective Collaboration training and "train-the-trainers" course in Amherst, Massachusetts, September 21-23, but a conflict with those dates unexpectedly arose, so I ended up taking them both in Los Angeles, October 5-7.

Now, with less than a week between these two engagements, it seemed foolish (not to mention, wasteful) to fly home after my time in Los Angeles only to leave again for Milwaukee five days later. So I gave my friends at Transition US a ring to see if I could spend that time hanging out in Northern California, supporting Rob’s visit there. No doubt feeling the weight of coordinating three rounds of Effective Collaboration, 12 stops on Rob’s tour, and helping out with the Northern California Transition and Permaculture Convergence all at the same time, I immediately received a resounding "Yes!" from Carolyne, Marissa, and Maggie, who were gathered on the other end of the line.

The First Leg: Effective Collaboration, L.A. Style

Image RemovedAs my plane descended into the seemingly endless sprawl that is Los Angeles, the thought crossed my mind: "How does one Transition a beast like that?"

Certainly, at least part of the answer is effective collaboration. Because most of what happens in Transition is born in a group, the quality of the communication and decision-making, and the strength of the relationships between its members, all have a tremendous effect on how much we will be able to accomplish.

As my observations, as well as the findings of at least one nationwide survey, confirm, working together can often be the most challenging part of Transition. Fortunately, UK-based Transition Trainer Nick Osborne has made it his life’s work to provide change-makers with the tools they need to create higher-performing groups.

When I listened to the tele-seminar that Nick offered through Transition US back in August, it was clear that he was the real deal. Nick has taken his 20 years of experience working with various social change projects, intentional communities, and ecovillages, along with his vast knowledge of conventional and cutting-edge leadership models, and distilled it all down into an intense, but digestable and engaging, two-day workshop.

A three-minute video introducing some of the concepts behind Nick’s work:

The thing that I most appreciate about what Nick has put together is that he uses the Stages of Group Development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing) to provide a framework that addresses all aspects of group life. I had already learned many of the skills and methodologies Nick teaches in the training (establishing agreements, formal consensus, Nonviolent Communication, and conflict resolution, to name just a few), but I have never before seen them stitched together so seamlessly.

I also immensely enjoyed talking with Nick informally about Holacracy, a new "operating system" for organizations that we both believe could be a game-changer for Transition Initiatives and other related groups. The only downside to Nick’s enthusiasm for this promising model of agile organization is that once he briefly introduced it during the training, it seemed that was all that anyone wanted to hear about!

I am hoping to facilitate what might be the first Effective Collaboration course taught by a US trainer in February in Sarasota, so if this has caught your interest, please stay tuned.

The Second Leg: Transition 3.0?

When I arrived in San Francisco after leaving Los Angeles, it was immediately obvious that I was now in a much more hospitable environment. I mean, where else can you pick up a burrito made with pasture-raised chicken and other local, organic ingredients at the airport?

Following a couple of days of holding down a desk at the Transition US office in Sebastapol and a short (but deeply satisfying) hike in the redwoods, I hopped into a car bound for Oakland, where Rob Hopkins would be having a conversation with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation at The Grand Lake Theater that evening. Here’s a quality recording of the event:

For those who may not be prepared to watch the entire 93-minute video right at this moment, suffice it to say that there was a very spirited discussion between Rob and Gopal about the role of social justice in the Transition Movement. While no lofty epiphanies emerged from this conversation, it was great to hear these two brilliant guys passionately debate an issue that truly matters.

Effectively, Rob used the same presentation everywhere he went, and I’d like to suggest that it – combined with his most recent book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, the Transition Infographic that was unveiled in June, and the 28-page essay, "Climate After Growth: Why Environmentalists Must Embrace Post-Growth Economics and Community Resilience" that was released to coincide with the start of his US tour – might constitute a meaningful upgrade of Transition thinking, from Transition 2.0 to 3.0.

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Signpost at the Solar Living Institute, the venue for the 2013 Building Resilient Communities Convergence. Photo by the author

If you accept this premise, then allow me to outline what I see as the three key features of 3.0:

1. Transition as Local Economic Development: Initially, Transition was framed as a grassroots response to the threats posed by peak oil and climate change. While that is still the case, to some extent, Rob’s primary focus appears to have gradually shifted away from Energy Descent Action Plans to Local Economic Blueprints, and from basic awareness-raising to putting into place the infrastructure needed to sustain a post-carbon society.

2. Scaling Up: Since the early days of Transition, initiatives have been creating their own local currencies. However, now there is the Bristol Pound, which "combines printed notes, an Open Source Pay-by-Text system, and integration with the local credit union. It’s accepted as payment on city buses, and the City Council pays part of its staff’s salary in the currency. The mayor also takes his full salary in Bristol Pounds." ("Climate After Growth," p.17) Similarly, there have always been energy-related Transition projects, but now there is Brixton Energy: "London’s first community-owned solar energy company. It has so far raised 200,000 pounds in three share launches. Brixton Energy offers local shareholders a good return on their investment, trains young people in a range of skills related to installing renewable energy systems, and generates a fund for energy efficiency measures in some of the poorest housing in the area." ("Climate After Growth," p.16)

3. Resourcing Transition: There is a growing recognition that, to create, maintain, and grow these scaled-up projects, Transition Initiatives need more money, professional skills, and staff than has previously been the norm. Rob spoke repeatedly during his time in the US about "the doughnut effect," where "all the energy goes into emergent projects and enterprises while the core – which links everything together – goes empty. Providing income for paid staff for core activities can open up incredible opportunities." ("Climate After Growth," p.21)

Signs that Transition 3.0 is beginning to take hold were all around me during my time in Northern California, probably the biggest hot-spot for Transition in North America. The desire to attract greater resources to Transition was manifest at a beautiful fundraiser I attended in Petaluma, and the ambitious Building Resilient Communities Convergence in Hopland was scaled up beyond any other Transition event I’ve heard about happening here in the States.

The Final Leg: Brew City Abundance

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Rob and the author chatting it up at Milwaukee Makerspace. Photo by Dan Felix

One doesn’t typically think of Milwaukee as the kind of place where one would want to live, but it only took me a few hours before I was hooked. Real neighborhoods within easy biking distance from downtown, little to no traffic, and a proliferation of edgy creativity seeking to transform its depressed industrial economy, all pointed to the "Brew City" as fertile ground for Transition.

But it was the people that made this final leg of my trip possibly the best. Many of the people that attended the two-day training facilitated by myself and Sarah Zahner (rhymes with "co-trainer") were local, but the entire Brew City Abundance Week (which included our training, a Tour "of the most innovative and unique example of resilient and resource-abundant urban systems" in Milwaukee, and a "Brew City Bash" with Rob Hopkins and Mayor Tom Barrett) served as a magnet for Transitioners from all over the Midwest to come together and begin building a regional network.

Our training went remarkably well, as did the tour, which I mostly slept through. Finally, towards the end of the Bash, which was attended by an estimated 400+ people, I had my chance to ask Rob the one burning question I had been sitting on for weeks: "While there’s definitely lots of great Transition projects and groups here in the US, there’s not anything yet that approaches the scale of the Bristol Pound or Brixton Energy. Why do you think this is?" Rob said he didn’t know. Whether he responded this way out of fear of being chased out of America by an angry mob brandishing pitchforks, or whether it was just an honest answer, I’m still not completely sure. Nevertheless, I was happy to get a second chance to ask him the question again in private the next morning.

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From left to right: Marissa Mommaerts, Transition US; Nicole Bickham, Transition Milwaukee; Tom Brandstetter, Transition Milwaukee; Rob Hopkins; Ann Hippensteel, Transition Milwaukee; Jessica Cohodes, Transition Milwaukee; Dan Felix, Transition Milwaukee. Photo by the author

As we walked together along the shore of Lake Michigan, a pit stop on our final drive to the airport, I expected a less politic response. Instead, he turned my question back on me: "What do you think?" I admitted that I wasn’t entirely sure, but wondered aloud if many of the differences between our two countries could be explained by our geography and divergent history. I also mentioned to Rob that I suspected we might not be aiming high enough here in the US.

In what was likely the last meaningful thing I said to Rob before he vanished behind a security checkpoint at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, I shared my hopes that we would be able to build on the momentum that his trip had created, and that the examples he shared with us would inspire us to reach for new heights previously undreamt of.

Don Hall

Don Hall is the Training Coordinator for Transition US and the author of The Regeneration Handbook: Transform Yourself to Transform Your World.

Tags: Transition movement