Belgium, Netherlands, and Sweden

You remember how I wrote that my contact in Ireland asked if I wanted to meet at a pub for a pint, and how my contact in England asked if I wanted to meet during a day of volunteering at a farm? Well, my contact in Belgium wanted to know if I wanted a walk in the woods! Louis and I responded with a resounding yes. Marc Van Hummelen is a forest ranger in Tervuren, just outside of Brussels. Tervuren is a municipality in the province of Flemish Brabant, in Flanders, one of the three regions of Belgium. Marc works for Royal Donation, a government organization for natural areas that is required to provide its own financial need, receiving revenues from logging and renting buildings among other things. Marc works at an arboretum and an adjacent forest that covers about 400 hectares, total. His job is partly enforcement and partly maintenance and upkeep of the forest. He’s provided half of a very large, grand, old house on the premisses (the other ranger lives in the other half) where he lives with his wife and three children. It’s a glorious setting and he very much appreciates the gift of place and work.

The forest is magical with huge old beech trees lining the walkways. Marc is very knowledgeable about the trees and plants and the geologic history of the area. It was obvious that he loves his work, and our two hours spent walking over much of the area was enchanting. Marc liked commenting that we were now in “China” or the “United States” as we walked through areas planted with flora of a particular country, as is common in many arboretums. We delighted in the hedge that Marc created out of bending saplings at an angle and then supported by some upright sapling trunks. He’s creating a permaculture garden in his back yard and already had planted some young fruit trees and had prepared an area for vegetables.

Marc also invited us to have dinner with him and his family before people would arrive for a “Transition Cafe.” The cafe style usually allows people to speak in small groups around particular topics, but this night we all stayed together as we explored the ideas of transition, sustainability, and our personal choices. I was given a chance to share about my journey and I interviewed Marc, Isabel Vandermeulen, and Olivier Bori who all serve on the core group of Transition Tervuren.

When he moved to the forest, and felt so lucky to live there, he made a commitment to himself to try to make a difference for the environment. He was already working with several environmental organizations including a pre-order food cooperative when he read The Transition Handbook in 2008. Marc took the lead and organized a first gathering which was an informal discussion about peak oil and climate change. About 45 people attended. Others joined Marc and they began showing documentaries. Five serve on the core team and three of them have taken the Transition Training. There are 110 people on the email list. They’ve since had several workshops on candle-making, preserving food, and alternative ways of eating. They also sponsored “24 hours without electricity.”

For Marc the Transition Movement is a synthesis of other activities that he was already part of. Those activities were all from the same perspective of creating a better environment, but acted very independently, without much communication, which Marc thought odd. He had talked to people about creating an umbrella organization but it didn’t catch on. Then he found Transition and it was just what he was looking for. As an organizer of the movement, he feels he treads on tough ground. He wants to make sure that he doesn’t predominate the discussion or direction of the group. He avoids sharing what his dream is, since it needs to emerge from the collective whole. He is living his own vision in his backyard, using permaculture, living simply, building a simple composting toilet, etc. He talked a bit about the difficulty for leaders to share in the creativity of a group instead of directing it. He wants to see a “hearts and soul” group created, but it hasn’t happened yet. He said that is where the visioning will happen. Marc is both optimistic and pessimistic about a world vision. He sees initiatives popping up all over the place, but opposite that he sees that there a few billion who are oblivious to the problems and the need for chance. So, overall he’s pessimistic, but that is part of his drive to change things, and to encourage more and more people to come to this initiative. “If I was content with the world, maybe I wouldn’t have helped start Transition Tervuren,” said Marc.

Isobel has had a long-standing concern for nature and animal rights and upon finding Transition Tervuren immediately wanted to join. She wanted to learn more about peak oil and climate change. But basically she joined because of her great concern for Earth and the raising of animals for food. So, vegetarianism and energy conservation are two of her main focuses. She’d like to learn how to live more in harmony with nature. She imagines a Tervuren where everything is local, “where we work locally, where we generate energy locally, where all shops are local, where we don’t use cars to get around, where we create our food locally, where we learn together, and where we get to know each other again.” She would like to see the whole town as one vegetable garden. Although she hears that Belgium doesn’t have enough land to feed its people, she doesn’t believe it. She believes if all the available land was used for food production, there would be enough. Isobel knows that the Transition idea is growing, and that other European countries are changing, but she feels Belgium is not making the necessary changes and feels pessimistic about the future.

Olivier is an IT specialist and used to think that technology would solve the world’s problems, but now understands that there are better solutions and he found hope in the Transition movement. He likes the focus on local and organic agriculture. Olivier said that “with the other people in the group you can work together, and with Transition you can change things.” Before he came to Tervuren he was working with another environmental group, but it had no collective consciousness, like the Transition idea offers. He likes that Transition is not political. Olivier’s vision includes a citizenry with a changed understanding of what needs to be done to become resilient. It’s a place where people ask each other for help to make the changes. He thinks people will change only if they are forced to, like the people of Cuba had to change when oil supplies were no longer available because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He hopes for a place where everyone enjoys their gardens and where true resilience is found. Olivier says that in his heart he has much hope for the future, but when he looks at what is going on he doesn’t have that hope. “But if you concentrate on negative things, you begin to be consumed by the negativity,” he said. He would like things to change quickly, and if you look back 10 years ago, people didn’t know about climate change, and in spite of the many lies from the government and others, we are learning the truth. Not long ago he was depressed about the fate of the world, but because of Transition, and the people he is now working with, and the fact that even some of his family members have made some changes, he has hope that the concepts will spread like a virus and that change is possible for the world.

As we left Belgium, Louis and I were so impressed with the number of very large wind turbines we saw dotting the landscape as we traveled by train and bus through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. Clearly these are countries that are serious about a future less dependent on fossil fuels. And I’ve never seen so many bicycles in all my life as are being used in Amsterdam. I read that it was the land of bicycles, but I really had no idea. Of course there are bike lanes everywhere. Streets are narrow for the cars because there are separate, off road lanes for bicycles, and other strips for pedestrians. Bicycles are tethered in every extra square inch in the city. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands everywhere. Pedestrians have to be careful of both cars and bicyclists at each intersection and not walk in the bike lanes, which is easy to do since often the pedestrian and bike lanes are delineated only by some contrasting color bricks. Amsterdam is a city made for bicycles. And we noticed the same kinds of bike lanes in Hamburg, Copenhagen, and cities in Sweden. Really, you have to see it to fully comprehend its magnitude.

Before leaving for my trip I had contacted the Transition Initiatives near the cities I would visit, picking the cities because there was a nearby Initiative. So, I reserved my trains, buses, and ferries before I left. Unfortunately the Transition Initiative near Amsterdam didn’t respond to my inquiry, but I was already booked to be there. Fortunately my neighbor, Kathy Blume, who attended the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 provided an email introduction to a political activist in Amsterdam she had met at the talks. Wout-Jan Koridan graciously agreed to me with me and Louis while we were there and I’m so pleased we had the time together.

Wout-Jan was born in Amsterdam, practiced as a physical therapist for a time, and then moved into administrative work. He transitioned out of the administrative work because it no longer satisfied his need to make a positive difference in the world. He explained, “I am a spiritual person having a human experience instead of a human having a spiritual experience,” an idea he learned from reading Teilhard de Chardin. The day before we met he had just finished a four-month course on Conscious Leadership for Sustainability which had profoundly moved him. He believes that creating the container for creative thinking is more important than defining the change, and instead letting the creative emerge. As well, he’s been quite influenced by Gunther Pauli, who inspired the founding of the Global Zeri Network (

He went to the Copenhagen talks to participate in the Klimaforum (the alternative to the formal UN talks, with a motto of “system change not climate change,” and I understand to have been a much more lively and informative experience) as an associate with the Center for Human Emergence of the Netherlands and was a host for Climate Solution Meshwork, which facilitates co-creative collaboration opportunities. Louis and I met with Wout-Jan at the Center for Creative and Spiritual Awakening, a center for many holistic activities in Amsterdam.

Wout-Jan’s draw into the work of collaboration and of being more in touch with nature goes back to his early life of going to the mountains on holiday with his family. In the early 80’s he was protesting the development of nuclear power. Then the report, Limits to Growth, from the “Club of Rome” (a global think tank) was a real wake up call. There have been many sources of inspiration over the years. He kept wanting to put into practice what he learned.

Amsterdam is highly ranked as a sustainable city, partly because it isn’t burdened by a history of heavy industrial work and because it does have a history of being a multi-cultural city. Amsterdam also has a history of encouraging the freedom to be yourself , which Wout-Jan says encourages experimentation and creativity. All this, plus the focus on bicycles and public transportation is to say the Amsterdam is a terrific place. But there’s still room for improvement. Recently there has been a focus on Amsterdam becoming more sustainable, with a focus on renewable energy. There are also many local, small, citizen initiatives like making your neighborhood a better place to live, or like transforming now-ugly open spaces into useful, more vibrant, beautiful places. Wout-Jan would like to see stronger local agricultural efforts since at present much of the local food comes from heated greenhouses and there’s a lot imported from far away.

Wout-Jan said “the illusion that we will fix the current economic system is false. Since we have created these systems by perceived needs, the better question is what will help us co-create new, sustainable, transformed systems. We need to turn inward to understand what makes us want these things that aren’t sustainable. It’s not a financial or economic crisis, it’s a crisis of consciousness… What drove us to create this system that has us focusing on individual health and welfare, has brought us suffering, inefficiency, and unbalance…. We need to create the space, compassion, and encouragement for a recognition of the systems and drivers that have brought us into the current crisis and for a transformation.”

Wout-Jan sees a lot of local initiatives striving for a better world, and spreading all over the planet. He noted Paul Hawkin’s work on recognizing the hundreds of thousands of organizations that are helping to create a world-wide “great turning.” He believes there’s a global coherence occurring. Wout-Jan believes that “energy is building up, the changes are speeding up, the need for action is growing, and at the same time, at least in my experience, there is this need for more personal development, spiritual development, at least to enable us to serve this transformation, to do what we can in our local initiatives, and in connection with others.” After our talk we took a delightful walk through the “central park” of Amsterdam which was crowded with bicyclists, walkers, picnickers, and families enjoying the serenity and beauty of the place. I felt much gratitude for that day.

Our first stop in Sweden was to meet Anton Adreasson of Transition Alingsas. Anton was born and grew up in Alingsas (about 45 kilometers from Gӧteborg) and after a 10-year period of living in Gӧteborg, returned about a year and a half ago with his wife. He now has a 3-month-old son, and appreciates living near his family. Anton has never had a drivers license! He and his wife do not own a car, but occasionally borrow his parent’s car which his wife drives. Upon returning to his home town, he joined Transition Alingsas (in Swedish it’s Omstӓllning Alingsas) which had started in 2009. There are 5 to 10 people (depending on the day) on the core team. They host Transition Cafes every Monday evening and about 10 to 15 people attend. Sometimes they host a speaker at the Cafe. They host a “ning” site (a social network) which has 72 members, and have a website.

Several years ago students from a university outside of Alingsas completed a research project about Alingsas’s potential sustainability. Recently Transition Alingsas, Passivhus Centrum, and a consortium of local NGO’s invited local government council members and representatives of the various, local political parties to review the student’s research results, and to discuss a sustainable Alingsas for the future. About 100 people attended the lively and informative session.

Transition Alingsas (a city of about 40,000) has hosted study circles on the topics of peak oil, growth, and small farms. They’ve also offered workshops on keeping bees, preserving food, and pickling. This year they were invited to be the local organization responsible for a small plot in a park, Plantaget. They decided to showcase an edible garden. Louis, my cousin Eva (who happens to live in Alingsas), and I visited the garden and we were very impressed with the bounty to be found in such a small area.

Anton’s interests in nature began early in life when he joined an organization, run only by youths, dedicated to encouraging youth field biologists. He participated in this organization from the age of 15 until he was 25. The main question about change always ground to a halt because there never was enough money. He helped organize another environmental group in Gӧteborg and kept asking why they didn’t have enough money to do what was important. He recognized that the international economic system, one focused mainly on profits, was the root cause of the problem. He also recognized that trying to change that system would be near impossible. He was attracted to the Transition movement because it was doing something concrete, locally, and offered something that could create change. He also feels that being in a small city enhances the possibility of having an impact.

Alingsas has an incredible bike path system through the city, so I asked what would be different about Alingsas in the future. Anton explained that Sweden is oil-dependent on Denmark and Norway, two countries who are saying that soon they will only have enough oil for themselves. The only other country that could supply oil is Russia and they’ve just installed a pipeline to China and Anton is certain China will out-bid Sweden for that oil. This is a crisis that is not being talked about in the public enough, but is a huge issue for the energy future of Sweden. It will affect everything. Sweden is an importing country, importing a huge amount of products as imbedded energy. He joked that Sweden may not be as bad as the United States in oil-dependency, but asked, “is it good to have a claim of ‘not as bad as’”? So, Anton’s vision is for a healthy post-petroleum economy and community. The main issue for Anton is to offer a common awareness of the issue. He doesn’t have the solution, but feels each group will find their own solutions. Anton is not pleased that Sweden is talking about “green growth” and wonders who will fund this growth and wonders how this can be sustainable? So, one solution is a local focus rather than a national focus.

Anton said that in Sweden they have a good history of well-educated people being drawn to environmental organizations and work, but it’s hard to bring the masses to the understanding of what is needed. It’s always the same people. The Transition idea holds out hope for a global movement. Though he did say that focusing on Transition is better than focusing on a “movement.” Stay focused locally, keep it leaderless, allow the ideas for change to emerge from the people, all of them.

I timed my trip to Sweden to coincide with Midsummer Celebrations. So, with cousins and extended family we did celebrate in the traditional way. We stayed at Peter (my 2nd cousin) and Greta’s summer home on a lake and went to a neighboring village for the singing and dancing around the midsummer pole. Then we returned home for herring, potatoes, various other swedish dishes, and, of course, snaps (a strong, alcoholic beverage served in small glasses). One doesn’t drink the snaps without first some song of celebration, so all through the dinner there were many songs. I reveled in this experience of my heritage, with wonderful people.

I’d like to end this post with a few comments about Sweden, to maybe dispel some of the myths we hear. I asked my family about the amount they pay in taxes, since in the U.S. we hear that they pay 70%. Well, the average, middle class family pays about 30%. It’s based on a graduated scale and the more income you earn, the more you pay, same as the U.S. Everyone I talked with in my family (who are kind of politically centrist folks) was content with their health care and educational system. (They don’t pay tuition, though do have to buy their own books.) We were told that the economy and Swedish Kronor is strong. Those I talked with were pleased that Sweden is focusing more on renewable energy and sustainability. So……

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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2 Responses to Belgium, Netherlands, and Sweden

  1. Anne Liske says:

    Ruah: The picture of you at Midsummer is a delightful highlight. What a joy it must have been to be part of the celebration! Anne


  2. It was really amazing. I almost cried with delight. It’s my long, lost heritage! And to be there with family was terrific.


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