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The Transition Movement In The United States
(And "Deep Transition")

By Alex Smith

21 February, 2011

Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock interviews Michael Brownlee. Trnascript


Alex Smith : The Transition movement has spread from the United Kingdom to North America. Michael Brownlee is a gateway for many people discovering this new vision of living and community building. Brownlee co-founded Transition Colorado.

Michael, welcome to Radio Ecoshock.

Michael Brownlee : Thanks Alex, glad to be here.

AS : Michael, just to let the listeners know what to expect, I'd like to suggest a game plan. Let's start with a brief explanation of what Transition is - that can take hours, but let's try for a few minutes. Then, we'd like to hear from your seminal article in Transition Times, "The Evolution of Transition in the U.S." A little history first, before we dive into the new proposals for "Deep Transition". If we have time, I'd like to end up with stories from Transition Colorado, a few on-the-ground examples of what people are doing.

So - for the many listeners who already know about climate change and Peak Oil, what is the Transition movement?

MB : The transition movement is about preparing our communities for the local impacts of these global crisis, like climate change and fossil fuel depletion or Peak Oil, and economic decline as well.

Because what's happened, over the last 60 or 70 years especially, is as the economy has becoming increasingly globalized, our communities have lost their capacities to meet their own essential needs, locally. So the Transition movement is about relocalization – finding ways to make it possible for our communities to regain those capacities again.

The movement started in the UK just over 4 years ago in Totnes England, where Rob Hopkins, a long-time permaculture teacher, decided to see if he could create a community-wide process in that little town, for relocalization. He mapped out a process in his experience there, which other communities have begun to pick up around the world.

The movement has, much to his surprise, grown quite rapidly in 15, maybe 16 different countries now. So it spread.

One of the reasons that it's important is that it is the first thing that any of us have seen that gives us a sense that there is a process, that there is a pathway that we can bring to our communities to move toward relocalization, to make the transition off of fossil fuel dependence, and become much more resilient and self reliant. That, in a nutshell, is what the transition movement is about.

AS : How did this British initiative appear in the U.S. and what existing institutions did it build on?

MB : It began in the United States because there were several of us, in many communities, in this country and others, that were attempting relocalization. Although we were quite clear that we didn't know how to do it. Many of us had been inspired by the Post Carbon Institute, founded by Julian Darley, who had begun this idea of a relocalization network.

But by the time Rob Hopkins and this transition process came along, we were all pretty hungry for a methodology, a pathway toward relocalization. So we'd been watching what he was doing over there.

I finally went over in early 2008 I guess it was, to see for myself if all the good rumors about transition were true. I went through a 2 day transition training in Scotland, and made my pilgrimage down to Totnes, England to meet with Rob Hopkins and some of the other leaders there. I saw what was happening in the UK, and was very excited and inspired by it. I felt that 'this had to come to the United States.'

So I and several other people in the U.S., began organizing, reshaping our relocalization work around transition. Our organization here in Boulder, Colorodo actually became the very first officially recognized Transition Initiative in North America.

It has spread. Since that time I think there are now 79 officially recognized Transition Initiatives in the U.S. And we don't know how many, but probably another couple of hundred that are what the movement likes to call “mullers” - those who are considering utilizing the transition process in their communities.

AS : Could you just name some of the larger or more advanced places in the U.S., that are taking on this transition challenge?

MB : Let's see. Transition Sand Point Idaho is maybe the farthest along of the new crop of Transition Initiatives. They did their big unleashing public event in November of 2008. They are now working on their Energy Decent Action Plan for their community. They seem to be very strong. But it's a small community of about 8,000 people, much like Totnes.

On the other end of the spectrum is, believe it or not, Transition Los Angeles, which is addressing not just the city of L.A., but the whole L.A. Basin of about 14 million people or so. It's a huge challenge. But there are a number of very, very committed people there who are taking the lead, and inspiring neighborhoods, and smaller communities in the L.A. area, to join together in this transition process.

Those are the ends of the scale. And we see many other cities in between. Ann Arbor is strong. Bloomington Indiana is strong. There are many other initiatives across the country. There is a new initiative that is strong showing up in Sarasota Florida. We are glad to see the South East moving in this direction. Those are some of the ones that are doing well out the re.

AS : This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith, here with Michael Brownlee, the co-founder of Transition Colorado.


Michael, why do you think the Transition Movement, as envisaged by Rob Hopkins and others in the UK, might have to be modified to work in America?

MB : I think we are discovering, as we attempt to enroll communities in the transition model, or the transition process, that the U.S. is different. Our culture is different. Our history is different, our mind-set is different.

Some of the aspects of transition that were created in the UK need to be adapted for here. For instance, the transition works as if was defined by
Rob Hopkins and The Transition Handbook – speaks really to Peak Oil and climate change as the primary drivers. It does not mention the economic situation that we are facing. I think that we have felt that more painfully in here in the U.S., than they have in the UK until fairly recently.

So we have felt from early on that we had to include that in our presentation, to help people understand what is happening with the economy, and the kind of impact that that might have on their communities and their own lives.

There are other cultural differences that I think are important. For instance, in the UK there is – this is just my personal observation, and I'm sure other people may see this differently, - but I sensed when I was over there a greater sense of community than we have in this country. My observation about the U.S., for a long time is that community may be our scarcest and most endangered resource here.

Communities have been kind of hollowed out by globalization. So our culture has been experiencing a kind of silo effect. People are not accustomed to working together and collaborating and co-operating and co-creating in the form of a movement. They are much more focused on individual effort, individual lifestyles.

So, it's harder to catalyze a kind of grass-roots movement here in this country, it seems, than it is in the UK.

We also noticed in the UK that there is a greater curiosity about the facts, the realities of fossil fuel depletion, the realities of climate change. When I saw public presentations over there, people had many, many questions, penetrating in-depth questions.

In this country, it seems like we are a little less interested in the facts. We are much more interested in opinions. So that makes it difficult to present some of these ideas.

Those are just a few of the things that compel us to adapt the transition model to our own culture. In fact, I think that it has to be adapted to every community, because every community is unique. It has it's own unique challenges.

While there are principles and guidelines in transition that are certainly applicable anywhere, just as in permaculture for instance, how transition is implemented in a community will vary, from community to community.

There is one other thing that happens here sometimes in the United States, and that is if something is invented across the ocean, we try to implement it exactly as it is. Rob Hopkins is obviously brilliant. He is a great leader, and the movement is growing, so we'll do it just like they did, and we discover 'Oh, it doesn't work that way.”

We need to take greater responsibility for adapting and evolving this transition process ourselves. I think that is true across the movement.

AS : I have to agree. You know I was at a meeting of Village Vancouver. They are even looking at the differences between different parts of the city, and how they would adapt. Everybody has to come up with their own plan. We have a bunch of tools on the bench, but you have to pick out what really works where you are.


The other thing that I was thinking about, as I was thinking about this interview, was just the fast-moving events right now in the Middle East. We had a situation in Egypt where – I mean we presume that the transition movement, there is going to be a lot of time to make this transition.

But within a week, in Egypt, the police disappeared, the banks are closed, the ATM's are empty – a lot of problems in a short period of time. We hope that doesn't here – but I wonder, how can the transition movement take into account the possibility of a sudden change?

MB : I think that's one of the tensions between the leaders of the transition movement in this country, and those in the UK. I think that we clearly have a greater sense of urgency here, than they do there. I think that is partly a cultural phenomenon. But in any case, we feel that it is crucial to look at the short-term potential for some of these kinds of problems.

The transition process, as it has been defined, takes a while to implement. I mean in Totnes England, where this all began, they just I think finally published their Energy Decent Action Plan. It took them nearly four years to get to that point, and they are just at the beginning stages of starting to implement that plan.

And so other communities are looking at this and saying 'Gosh, it took them that long, it looks like it may take even longer here, do we have that much time?'

So people like Richard Heinberg have been pleading for transition initiatives to say 'Of course we need to be looking at the long term planning here. But we also need to develop scenarios for the short term, as well.' Because we could see dramatic price spikes in oil, or even temporary outages or shortages in oil.

We could see the rising global food crisis begin to hit home in parts of this country. In fact, that is beginning to happen in some places, especially to those who don't have a high level of income.

There are other things that certainly could happen. Weather events, terrorism events, but we are not well prepared to be resilient to be able to withstand whatever shocks may come in the short term.

We are increasingly encouraging people to develop short term contingency plans, as well as the longer term planning process. Where that really comes home, for a lot of people, is in their own personal preparation. I mean doing things that Chris Martenson for instance is recommending: that we all have a reasonable supply of food and water, and other essentials in case of emergency. So that if something significant happens in the short term, we are not completely vulnerable. We'll actually be in a position that we can assist in our community.

AS : Yeah, I'm taking some of those steps myself. I do agree with the Mormons about having a year's worth of food if you can. I think I have that much, but probably I would just end up feeding most of my neighbors with it. And I've gotten to know my neighbors, and I think that is another really important step in the short term planning. Would you agree?

MB : I absolutely agree. I think that's wonderful. Certainly the model that we have seen from the Mormons, and a few others, is very relevant to us now. They have learned a lot how to prepare for challenging times.

I think many of us need to take those lessons to heart. Not only on an individual level, but at a community level. We are seeing, for instance, a greater interest in building, on the Mormon model of community canneries. I think this would really essential that in the future we localize food processing. Because we are going to need to be able to eat locally, year round. Without that kind of food processing and storage, we are not going to be able to do that.

There is a movement underway, to develop that kind of infrastructure that can help us be resilient.

AS : And it can also save you money in tough economic times.


This is Radio Ecoshock, our guest is Transition teacher Michael Brownlee.

Michael, you called for "Deep Transition." Talk to us about this, and take a few minutes to explain what you mean by that.

MB : Let me just say that where this has emerged for us is out of the work of doing training for transition leaders. The other co-founder of Transition Colorado, Lynette-Marie Hanthorn and I are Certified Trainers in the Transition Network. We have been doing these two and three day trainings around the country.

As we've been working with this, and working with our own initiative and others in Colorado, and other initiatives across the country, we are seeing – well first of all, you can't expect people to learn how to relocalize a community over a two day workshop.

This is an enormous challenge that we are all facing, in relocalizing our communities. And I am now talking about those who are already leaders, or part of an initiating group in a transition initiative, or those who want to be. I'm not just talking about the general public here.

But for those people, who find themselves deeply called to this work of catalyzing relocalization, and transition in their communities, - they need tools and perspectives and processes and experiences that will support them in this work. So just getting people inspired and excited and somewhat informed is not adequate. We feel that these people need much, much more. There are other tools and processes besides what is being currently offered in the transition movement that we think are going to be increasingly essential for those leaders.

And so “deep transition” is about bringing in some of those other processes and perspectives and tools, and making them available to transition leaders. That includes things like the perspective of “new cosmology”, or the Universe story first presented by Thomas Berry and Brian Swinne [spelling]. Which is a science-based understanding of the process of evolution of the Universe itself, which allows us to really connect to the underlying processes of life.

This gives us really important clues as to how we can move in our communities, to catalyze what is essentially – transition or relocalization is essentially an evolutionary process. We are learning we can't make transition happen in our communities. We can only be catalysts for transition.

How do we learn that?

We bring in some other perspectives like spiral dynamics . It gives us tools for understanding different peoples' consciousness, as they are being confronted by these challenges, and these opportunities. And how we can help them to respond.

So this does a lot in trying to build a grass roots movement. Understanding where people are, so we are not creating something that is divisive in our communities.

There are many other pieces to it. An aspect of it I would say is what we think of as the inner transition work. Sometimes called “heart and soul.” This is understanding that we all have been deeply affected by what I will call the industrial growth society. It is a mind-set. It is a paradigm that has actually created the predicament that we all find ourselves in collectively today.

And because of that paradigm, we all to a degree have become separated from Nature, and disconnected from natural processes of life. We have been disconnected from each other. We have been disconnected from the deeper aspect of our own souls even.

So, for this work to be truly resilient, truly sustainable, we feel that these things need to become reconnected. A lot of the work in deep transition is about that. And making that possible... some people speak about the importance of “decolonizing our minds” from the industrial growth society. That is a process that we are call going through. We are all waking up. We are all learning what the greater realities are, that we are living in.

Maybe I'll stop there, and just say that deep transition is an exploration of what we most need to know and understand and experience – in order to be what we think of as “evolutionary catalysts” in this time. To help heal and regenerate our communities.


AS : Getting our feet back on the ground, Michael, tell us what is happening in Colorado.

MB : In Transition Colorado, our focus here, our transition work primarily is focused on revitalizing the local food and farming system. We feel that food is the area where we are most vulnerable. Because we are so dependent on external resources.

In Boulder County, we spend 700 million dollars a year on food. Less that 1 percent of that is for locally produced food. So it is radically out of balance, which makes us very vulnerable, - and economically very weak. We are working to rebuild food and farming here through awareness raising campaigns, through investment funds, through 'Eat Local Week', through a local eat local resource guide and directory – a magazine that we publish here. Lots of events, lots of re-skilling, getting people involved in gardening, and raising chickens and bees and goats. And being responsible for raising some of their own food.

Learning those fundamental life skills that were taken for granted by our parents and great-grandparents, but somehow we didn't inherit. So that's the primary focus for us.

Part of it is to bring in the awareness the rebuilding our food and farming system here, may be the most important thing that we can do in terms of economic development locally, in terms of contributing to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions AND contributing to the health of our children, and the health of our communities. And this is happening for many transition intitiatives. This has become a major focus for our work here.

That is just one aspect.

AS : If people want to find out more, what resources do you recommend?

MB : transitionus.org is the national organization, and that will connect you in with a lot that is happening with transition across the country, and around the world.

Rob Hopkins' blog is transitionculture.org That is a daily blog five days a week, really excellent.

Our web site is transitioncolorado.org And there is also a social networking site for the state, which is transitioncolorado.ning.com

AS : I'll toss all those links into the blog for this show, at ecoshock.info

Our guest on Radio Ecoshock is Michael Brownlee. He's a co-founder of Transition Colorado, a Transition speaker, writer, and trainer. Michael, I really appreciate talking with you.

MB : Well thank you very much for the opportunity Alex. It's great to talk with you.

AS : I'm Alex Smith, for Radio Ecoshock. Thank you so much for listening.

Download this interview from ecoshock.org . There is no copyright on this program, so share it with your friends and neighbors for non-profit use.

Download the complete 1 hour program " Transition - The West Coast Scene " (the Brownlee interview, plus a report from Transition Los Angeles, and Village Vancouver).

Alex Smith is host of Radio Ecoshock, a one hour program on the environment, Peak Oil, and threats to our civilization. It is broadcast by 24 college and community radio stations, plus Green 960 AM San Francisco. You can subscribe to the free mp3 Radio Ecoshock Show podcast right on our main page, at ecoshock.org.]





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