In this introduction to 10 Stories of Transition in the US, Transition US Co-Director Don Hall explores the past, present, and future potential of the international Transition Towns Movement. As Hall explains, Transition is an innovative and continually-evolving approach to cultivating community-based sustainability, which just might hold some of the keys to unlocking a better world for us all.
Since its founding in 2005 in the UK by an inventive, young Permaculture teacher named Rob Hopkins, the international Transition Towns Movement has been inspiring and encouraging people to come together in their local communities to address some of the most challenging issues of our times. Currently, an estimated 1,200 Transition Initiatives are active in 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica, activating the public, revitalizing local food systems, strengthening local economies, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and patiently mending the torn fabric of society.
To be clear: this was not meticulously planned from the outset. When Hopkins helped his students at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland to compile and publish Kinsale 2021: An Energy Descent Action Plan and co-founded Transition Town Totnes, the first official Transition Initiative in the world, he and his collaborators could not have anticipated how far the ripples of their actions would spread. Nevertheless, their brilliance and early success were soon noticed and imitated by nearby cities and towns, and Hopkins quickly realized that he needed to do something to support this burgeoning movement.
So, in 2008, he published The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Nestled among many other groundbreaking insights, it proposed “Twelve Steps of Transition” that other communities could follow. The Steps, which included forming an initiating group, raising awareness, partnering with like-minded organizations, forming working groups, and developing practical projects provided a sneak-peek into what was formerly terra incognita. However, even at this early stage, Hopkins stressed a note of caution to his readers:
“These Twelve Steps emerged from observing how the Transition Town Totnes initiative evolved, and from other communities contacting us to ask what we were doing. They don’t take you from A-Z, rather from A-C, which is as far as we’ve got with the model so far. These steps don’t necessarily follow each other logically in the order they are set out here; every Transition initiative weaves a different way through the Steps, as you will see. These Twelve Steps are still evolving, in part shaped by your experience of using them.” – Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook (p.148)
Perhaps overlooking this cheerful disclaimer, many Transitioners began to embrace the Twelve Steps with near-religious fervor, as commandments handed down from on high. This trend eventually became so troubling to Hopkins that, only two years later, he announced his desire to “throw the whole model up in the air.” The following is an excerpt from an essay that was circulated prior to Transition Network’s 2010 International Conference, flanked by a satirical cartoon drawn by Hopkins himself:
“Why might we need to rethink the way we conceive of what Transition is, and how we communicate it to others? The 12 Steps, or 12 Ingredients of Transition, have been, until now, how we communicate what Transition is, and how it works. But over time, it has become increasingly redundant, as Transition becomes a broader, deeper and more complex model […] Also, one gets the sense sometimes that some would have it that the 12 Steps were carried down from Totnes Castle carved on tablets of stone by a man with a long white beard. In planning for the second edition of The Transition Handbook, the temptation became overwhelming to throw the whole model in the air and present it in a completely different way.” – Rob Hopkins, Transition Network 2010 Conference Booklet (p.6)
This “completely different way” eventually became The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, which was published in 2011. However, before it made its appearance in physical form, Hopkins posted chapters of The Transition Companion in serial to his (now former) blog, Transition Culture, which were subsequently commented upon by Transitioners from all over the world, refining them and making them even more applicable to a wide variety of contexts, from the favelas of Sao Paulo to the megalopolises of the United States.
Transition first arrived here in the US in 2008, with support from the international Transition Network and Post Carbon Institute. In the decade since, a total of 164 official initiatives have sprung up across 38 states. These mostly volunteer-run groups have learned how to do a lot with little, producing the festivals, free stores, solar energy co-ops, local investment clubs, gleaning projects, and victory gardens you’ll read about later in this publication. While all of these efforts are undoubtedly worthy of celebration and replication, a question still remains: how will the Transition Movement deliver on its audacious intention to help spread positive social change around the world, not just a little in some places, but pervasively and everywhere?
I personally believe that at least part of the answer to this question lies in the rediscovery of an often-overlooked gem of early Transition thinking: the Five Stages of Transition that Hopkins outlined in his Transition Companion. From my perspective, they provide the most accessible roadmap for Transition Initiatives who want to continue to deepen their engagement, broaden their reach, and scale up their impacts over time:
“A journey from one place to another can take a number of different routes, but will usually pass through a series of distinctly different landscapes. You don’t necessarily notice when you leave one and enter another, but there are moments when you realise you are in a very different place. The Transition journey is similar. You find that you move from raising awareness, showing films and trying to interest people to noticing you seem to have created an organisation that has different needs from those it had originally, and then later to starting to think about what new businesses and infrastructure your community needs. Each stage is like finding yourself in a distinct landscape.” – Rob Hopkins, The Transition Companion (p.15)
To me, the initial “Starting Out” stage of this process is best represented in this series by Transition Twin Cities’ Grove of Life and Building Community with Transition Streets. It’s about harnessing the interests, skills, and energy of “early adopters,” building a reliable base of support, and observing how the messages you send out into the world and the activities you engage in are embraced (or not) by your local community. It’s essentially throwing a bunch of things at the wall and seeing what sticks. What sticks is what you carry with you into “Deepening.”
A few stories that align with the second Deepening stage include Transition Sarasota’s Suncoast Gleaning Project, The Spread of Repair Cafes, and Woodstock NY Transition’s Working Group Support. Now that your initiating group has a better sense of what’s working and what’s not, it’s time to build organizational stability, focus on what you do best, and establish a track-record for success. Then, with more and more people joining your cause, you will eventually have the volunteers and fundraising potential needed to take on somewhat bigger projects that require more than your initiating group can do by itself, leading naturally to the formation of working groups.
The Evolution of Transition Town Media and Justice and Diversity in Transition both demonstrate key aspects of the third stage of “Connecting.” Until you have established a track-record for success and proven that you can be depended on to do quality work, you may find some important doors closed to you. It is often the case that the most strategically-valuable partnerships – such as those with local businesses, major cultural institutions, and local governments – will wait to see if you will be of benefit to them before collaborating with you. In a very different way, relationships with historically-oppressed communities also need to be built on a strong foundation of trust, which can only be established over time.
A few of the best examples of Building in this country so far are Local 20/20’s Local Investing Opportunities Network, Transition Milwaukee and the Victory Garden Initiative, and Transition Fidalgo and Friends’ Vision 2030. Here, at long-last, Transition Initiatives possess the organizational capacity, financial and human capital, and connections needed to take on the biggest projects they have probably dreamed about since the very beginning. While Transition groups usually have to be opportunistic at first, in Building, they’re able to think and act more strategically, deciding which projects will make the biggest difference and tackling them in a more methodical fashion.
The fifth and final stage of “Daring to Dream” points to what might happen if a highly-interconnected network of thousands of initiatives worldwide stepped up their level of effectiveness and impact to the Building stage. People everywhere would begin to take notice, the mainstream media would start covering our stories more regularly, and politicians would have to respond to the rising demands of their constituents. This is possible. In fact, this possibility is what Transition has been pointing to all along.
Beginning with our first National Gathering, which took place in 2017 in Minnesota, a second wave of Transition has been gathering momentum here in the US. Leading up to and immediately following this event, Transition US convened and expanded our national advisory board (called our “Collaborative Design Council”) and helped to launch several national working groups and communities of practice focused on growing the new economy, supporting regional hubs, cultivating social justice, fostering disaster preparedness, and exploring the topic of inner resilience. Transitioners all over the country are feeling reenergized, volunteers and new partners are stepping forward, and new initiatives are once again springing into existence.
We are also currently in the process of designing a new website that will facilitate better networking and peer-to-peer learning among grassroots leaders, revamping our communications strategy, and establishing a national organizing framework that will provide additional support for local initiatives, regional hubs, and national working groups. We are also taking on a few new projects, such as Ready Together: A Neighborhood Emergency Preparedness Handbook, developing advanced training courses, and planning a second National Gathering and Movement Strategy Summit on bridging community resilience and social justice movements.
It’s been said before, but these are truly the best of times and the worst of times. More frequent natural disasters, supercharged by climate change, as well as the ongoing circus in Washington, are waking more and more people up every day to the realization that we can no longer afford to be merely passive consumers of somebody else’s products. Instead, we are being called to become actively involved in reshaping our world, starting with our beloved local communities. It’s up to us to answer this call. We need to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, trust our intuitions, and set forth on this heroic journey of Transition. If Transition US can be of any assistance to you on your journey, please let us know.
Photo Captions and Credits
1. Some of the hundreds of community leaders from all over the country who attended the first Transition US National Gathering in 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. They’re saying: “Come join us!” Photo by Les Squires.
2. A map of approximately 1,000 Transition Initiatives worldwide, available at www.TransitionNetwork.org/Transition-Near-Me.
3. The cover of The Transition Companion by Rob Hopkins, which provides a useful roadmap for how Transition Initiatives evolve over time.
4. Transition US Co-Directors, Carolyne Stayton and Don Hall, carrying the banner at the Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice march in San Francisco in September 2018. Photo by Hannah Eckberg.