Transition Keene

Traveling down on the train to Brattleboro, I had time to reflect on this journey that I’m on. I feel so lucky to have such a great opportunity to meet with people who are dedicated to helping solve the critical issues that we face on our little blue planet. The enthusiasm, dedication, hard work, and optimism is infectious. I was headed to meet with folks involved with Transition Keene, in New Hampshire, and Putney, in Vermont. These two transition initiatives are incredibly different, one being in a city of 22,000 and one in a town of 2,600. What would they have to share about their experiences? (You’ll have to wait for the next blog post to learn about Putney since there was so much to share about Keene and an extra post at the end.)

Not surprisingly, I was not disappointed! Steve Chase and Katy Locke shared a bit about their Transition town of Keene, New Hampshire, where lots of great initiatives are happening. Keene’s Antioch College has had a major influence on the innovations in the city. As well, city government has been responsive to sustainability initiatives. Since far-reaching, legislative change at the national level was not going to happen, the city of Keene joined ICLEI (, an international network where local governments would join together to move ahead to make the changes towards sustainability. The town recently went through a comprehensive planning process that included a lot about sustainability and resilience.

So, I asked why they need a Transition Town in such a vibrant community. Katy said that the Transition movement brought a framework to the good works of the city. For instance the town plan is not framed in terms of peak oil and climate change and the intersection of the two. She pointed out that the Transition method brought a deeper and more focused vision toward what some of the decision-making processes need to be. Steve added that when you use the word transition, people really resonate with it. They understand that we have to get from here to there. It helps have a can-do attitude and encourages people to get involved. The website also offers an umbrella understanding of the work, portraying the incredible work of the city and bringing the many factors of the city together. Their challenges have been the usual for everyone, the busyness of folks who you hope would throw themselves into the work, and who instead make excuses. Their successes have been fostered by partnering with local groups already working in Keene as well as initiating some Transition events.

When asked individually about their commitment to Transition and vision for Keene, Katy shared she was involved because it “lit her up.” She doesn’t consider herself an activist. What she loves about Transition is its accessibility and the fact that it looks at “head, heart, and hands”, the whole person and the whole of a community. That it doesn’t need to be adversarial, and connects and interweaves communities. She wants to belong since it’s so full of heart.

Steve shared that when he was a teenager he has actively opposed to the war in Vietnam. At that time he read Donella Meadows book, Limits to Growth, which was concerned about imperialism, where rich countries exploit poorer countries. Steve understood that, “if there are indeed real limits to the supply of resources and the earth’s absorption capacity we would either need to intensify our war against the poor, or do what our grandmothers were telling us all along–that we have to get along and share.” He thought the second option would be better, and that not only would we need to re-develop, but also “de-develop.” He felt that the Transition Movement presented a positive vision that was also incredibly joyous and that it didn’t matter what your political party affiliation was.

Both Steve and Katy were introduced to Transition through an Awakening the Dreamer Symposium ( They are both trainers for that movement. They now understand that Awakening the Dreamer gives you the “why” and Transition gives you the “how” for significant, real, change.

Steve has a general vision for Keene which includes four big goals, listed on their website at Using less energy and shifting to renewable and safe (Keene is quite near Vermont Yankee nuclear plant) are two goals. Another goal is the question, “How do we maintain what we love and treasure of our community and even enhance it?” And the fourth is to focus on re-localizing the economy more, emphasizing green-collar jobs.

Katy’s vision for Keene is very much about low-tech, accessible solutions. She sees–rather than mono-culture lawns–food gardens, and neighbors sharing their care. She sees greenways instead of streets. She’d like to see the re-vitalization of what once a rail hub. Keene has decided that they are going to be the healthiest counting in the country by 2020. Although there are many exciting parts of the “Vision 2020”, Katy wants to bring to this conversation the exploration of low-tech solutions to health care.

Katy’s global vision is a world where local production is central and where imports and exports are only those items that enhance the community. It would mean a fair trade system that would be balanced in its imports and exports. Steve has taken so much inspiration from what is happening in other parts of the globe. He’s interested to see how the movement will adapt and change as it moves from more affluent communities to developing communities. His one concern is with all the focus on re-localization that we won’t stay focused on global solidarity. He mentioned a 3-minute video by Vandana Shiva where she was asked whether the Transition movement could have a definite benefit to developing communities and she answered with an emphatic “yes,” with an explanation. I couldn’t find that particular video, but here’s the link to one where she explains that yes quite well.

I’m very encouraged by this vision and I’m grateful to Katy and Steve, who have helped me along on my quest.

Steve recently posted an answer to someone’s challenging remarks about the Transition movement and he has given me permission to share his response here. I have shared most it here but have edited out a small part of it, since it is quite long, but I feel that it still gives justice to Steve’s thinking. It’s a wonderful affirmation of the Transition work.

First, just to let you know that my next post will reflect the talk I had with folks from Transition Putney. I’m trying to keep each post just long enough to keep your interest!

The Question

IS TransitionUS JUST A SORT OF YUPPIE SUBSTITUTE FOR TAKING SERIOUS POLITICAL ACTION ON, SAY, THE YANKEE G.E. NUKE PLANT IN VERNON, VTAND THE 100+  such plants that are scattered across our country? In a few words, are you simply DIVERTING US, with cutsie-pie, from doing serious and adult things?

The Response

Dear Dennis,

I’m not clear if you are just stating a conclusion, or if you are actually curious about the question you have raised. Anyway, below, I’ve tried to take your question seriously and answer it at some length. If you are not really interested, please just delete this message….

My guess is that you likely agree pretty much with the Transition movement’s analysis. If so, we already have a lot of common ground…

First, please remember that many Transition activists do actively engage in elections, lobbying, issue campaigns, and some–like myself–even engage in and support nonviolent direct action. We are not diverted. We are just adding another tool to our activist tool box by doing Transition organizing. Second, I also encourage you to consider the Transition movement’s main strategic orientation–which is essentially what Gandhi called the “constructive program”–as a supplement rather than a distraction or a diversion from other types of activism. I personally think that any successful movement for fundamental social change will require a local-level constructive program of education and action like that focused on by Transition initiatives, as well as elections, lobbying, issue campaigning, opposition to certain types of development and technologies, and nonviolent direct action. Different movements, organizations, and networks might focus on one or two of these types of tactics and not others for various reasons, but all of these approaches to change are likely needed. If we can agree on that, then we have tons of common ground–we are just focusing our primary strategic energies in different needed areas. Might you possibly agree with this?

Why I Have Come To See The Transition Movement’s Strategic Approach As A Valuable Addition

My becoming a local Transition organizer was not a surprise to my family, my closest friends, or my colleagues in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England. They all saw my new work as consistent with my previous work over the years as both an activist and an activist educator. While the Transition movement often attracts people who have not been social movement activists before, some of us are fairly old hands. I am one of those old hands.

Back in the mid-1970s, for example, when I was relatively new to grassroots activism, I helped organize a series of weekly study circles for environmental, peace, and social justice activists in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Our aim was to help each other see beyond the next demonstration, the next hot-button issue, or even the next volunteer shift at the food coop or community garden. Several of us sensed that we needed to go beyond our urgent, but largely unreflective activism. We wanted to create a more thoughtful politics than our heart-felt, but somewhat knee-jerk responses to date. The assembled participants in this series of study circles had decided to work together in order to construct a deeper, more mature analysis, vision, and strategy to guide our activist work in an emerging age of global ecological crisis.

I loved our living room gatherings in Twin Cities. Each week, after a potluck supper, we would settle-in for two and a half hours of reports and discussions based on our readings and our experiences. The learning process was participatory and lively–consciously rooted in the popular education theories of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Topics of the study circles included the environmental crisis, ecological limits to growth, North-South relations, US social justice issues, militarism, alternative social and economic visions, Gandhian nonviolence, and other organizing strategies. The curriculum for these “Macro-Analysis Seminars” was developed as a program of activist self-study designed by a Philadelphia group that was part of a national activist network called Movement for a New Society.

Looking back, I see now that we were working together to systematically construct and refine a collective action framework that was similar to the emerging “Transition Model” of today in many, many ways. I especially remember reading and discussing Bill Moyer’s groundbreaking 1972 essay, “De-Developing the United States Through Nonviolence.” Echoing central themes from Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook, Moyer explained how modern industrialized societies would at some point need to make a significant break from the dominant development model of ever-escalating economic growth and ever-expanding energy use and pollution. In light of emerging research, such as the Limits to Growth report put together by a team of MIT scientists, Moyer argued that there is increasing evidence that “there are not enough resources (including minerals, fossil fuels, water), and the environment’s pollution-absorption capacity is not great enough” to sustain the dominant pattern of industrial development for too many more decades.

Anticipating the problems of peak oil, climate change, and the unsustainability and injustice of the global economy, which are all highlighted by the Transition movement today, Moyer argued that “complete world development” along the lines of the dominant industrial growth model is impossible. He then concluded that “over-developed” industrial nations like the United States will therefore have to choose between intensifying their war against the poor and the planet, while still risking future decline or collapse, or creatively “de-developing” themselves and finding ways to transition to a more just, sustainable, and fulfilling way of life. As he noted in the piece, “In this long-range vision of a more egalitarian world in which the industrialized nations are de-developed, the standards of happiness would be based more on human relationships and individual actualization than quantities of material consumption.”

This unconventional perspective challenged all of us active in those long ago study groups. Back then, almost all progressive activists still claimed that we should–and could–grow our way out of imperialism, poverty, and war by forever expanding the economic pie available to all people. Some of us, of course, also added that we should throw in some wealth redistribution policies in order to further enhance both social equality and democracy, but we were still firmly committed to unending economic growth. After exploring Moyer’s ecological perspective, however, most of us in the study groups were able to begin moving beyond the dominant pro-growth consensus that held together most conservatives, liberals, and even self-styled radicals at the time.

Several of us in the Twin Cities, and several others influenced by Moyer’s thinking around the country, went on to assist the formation of a regionally-rooted, but nationally-networked movement that waged numerous nonviolent direct action campaigns across the country opposing the proposed construction of 1000 new nuclear reactors in the United States, which we saw as a dangerous and very flawed attempt to maintain the dominant model of business as usual.” This “de-development” movement was ultimately successful at capping the number of US nuclear reactors at less than 200, which is a significant victory even though we wished the final number had been zero. At this particular point in US history, however, and perhaps given the limits of our oppositional organizing model, we were not able to build a strong enough movement to go farther and achieve our long-range vision of a transition to a decentralized, non-nuclear, post-oil economy built on a foundation of extensive energy conservation, an overall reduction in global energy demand, and switching to safe and renewable energy sources produced largely at the local and regional level.

By 1980, Moyer and co-author Pamela Haines wrote a new piece stressing that the “anti-nuke” movement would be wise to reframe itself as a positive, safe energy movement and “actively advocate alternatives as well.” As Moyer and Haines put it in this new piece, we need to be “calling for a shift from the traditional hard energy path of massive centralized generating plants using nonrenewable fuels to a new soft energy path of flexible decentralized generation based on a diversity of mostly renewable energy sources.” Why? They argued:

It is not enough to add [the fossil fuels industry] to nuclear power as another system that must be fought. We need a vision of what we want America’s energy future to look like, so that we can develop a strategy for the citizens’ movement to get from here to there. Without a vision, we don’t know where we are going, we get frustrated and stuck in protest, and don’t have a basis for deciding what to do next. It is also important to have some ideas of what the transition period looks like so we can have benchmarks for recognizing our victories along the way.

Now, close to 30 years later, this unfinished agenda has been strongly lifted up by the international Transition movement. We can see these visionary themes in the Transition movement’s call for efforts to foster community resilience, promote energy descent planning, and move forward on the redevelopment of sound local economies that are just and sustainable. Such a constructive, community-driven program for a more relocalized and sustainable world was certainly raised for our consideration in Moyer’s writings, but he left it largely undeveloped in light of his more urgent priority of challenging nuclear power plant construction through local nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. With the Transition movement, this largely neglected element of Moyer’s and Haines’ thinking is now being put front and center again.

Not surprisingly, this new movement excites me. In all my work as an activist and activist educator since the 1980s, I have been puzzling over, and experimenting with, how to move toward the long-range, sustainability vision that was first brought to my attention by Bill Moyer and people like Pamela Haines. After all these years, one of my core conclusions is that it is no longer sufficient to put all our hopes into a mass revival of using the grassroots social action tools of electoral campaigning, voting responsibly, lobbying our elected officials, or even putting real “street heat” on corporate or government officials by participating in nonviolent protests and direct action campaigns.

Please do not get me wrong. I still believe that all of these forms of civic engagement are very important and still needed–and should be engaged in by active citizens everywhere. Yet, like most Transition organizers, I have also come to believe that something else–something very important–needs to be added into the mix of our activism and placed much closer to the center of our work. That something is a networked global movement of grassroots organizing aimed at creating relocalized, resilient, and sustainable economies and communities through positive, practical, citizen-led projects and alternative institutions.

Now the future may prove me wrong about this strategic conclusion, but I think it safe to say that I didn’t arrive at this perspective from an immature, unreflective, cutsie-pie, yuppie perspective. I would thus encourage you to see us as potential allies in the wider movement for fundamental social change, and refrain from calling us names in the future. Frankly, calling potential allies names seems counterproductive to me. Anyway, that observation aside about the tone of your email. I do think your basic question is a very reasonable one and I’ve done my best to answer you fully and thoughtfully.

In closing, I just want to say thank you for all of your activist work and your efforts to contribute to the transition to safe and renewable energy sources and greater energy conservation. I certainly see you as a strong ally in this effort and hope you come to see me and my compatriots in the Transition movement as potential allies as well.


About ruahswennerfelt

I am searching for a global vision for a sustainable, resilient world in the face of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability.
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