U.K. Transition Conference and after

From Glasgow I took the train to Liverpool, home of the Beatles. Yes! I walked around a bit, went to Matthew Street, where there’s a large banner over the street declaring this is the birthplace of the Beatles. There’s even a Beatles shop with all sorts of memorabilia. It really was quite fun. On the tourist map I found Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes, and there’s even the Liverpool John Lennon Airport!

Arrival evening at the 5th U.K. Transition Conference, held at Liverpool Hope University, my first thoughts were, “I don’t know anyone and I’m here all alone! But I’m soooo excited to be here and I’m sure I’ll soon feel right at home.” I did meet up with Ralph and Thomas from Paris and Naresh from Totnes, U.K., all three of whom I had met at the French Transition Conference last month. I also recognized Laurie from the U.K., who I know through Quaker circles. Boy, it’s a small, small world. After dinner on the first evening was a “meet and greet” session, where we did mixer/silly exercises to help us know each other, which was a big help. There was “pub” time too, with beer, cider (what we call hard cider in the US) and wine. So I retired to my room that night a bit more at ease and eager for what was to come.

Saturday, Day 1

We began with a plenary session getting us up to date on what’s happening in the Transition world. There are now 375 official Transition Initiatives and 422 Mullers (those who are organizing and have intentions of continuing) in 34 countries. That’s pretty amazing growth for something that started just 5 years ago. And there’s so much enthusiasm among the participants of this conference. Some have been at it for the five years and some are looking for others to help them initiate a group. Rob Hopkins, author of The Transition Handbook and co-founder of the Transition movement, talked about the maturing of the idea and that there is soon to be a new book, The Transition Companion, Making your community more resilient in uncertain times, that draws on the experiences of the many Transition initiatives and helps put the ideas into practice. Green Books, the publisher, has created a “blad” (book layout and design) which has been given to all participants and is available on Rob’s website, which you can access here: http://transitionculture.org/wp-content/uploads/Transition-BLAD-low-res.pdf. The book defines tools and ingredients for Transition, and it isn’t as prescriptive as the older book, recognizing how each community needs to adapt the concepts to their situation. I attended a workshop about the new ideas in this book, and now I can’t wait to read it and introduce it to my community. (For US readers, it’s being distributed by Chelsea Green Publishers.)

I attended a workshop about using the new book and about examining the ingredients for Transition. We participated in a couple of exercises using cards that summarized the ingredients. In one exercise, held in small groups, one individual told the story of their Transition initiative, and the rest of us helped to identify the ingredients used in that story. It’s an exercise that every group could use to see what they’ve used and what they haven’t and to reflect on whether some ingredients would be helpful now.

There were theme/interest groups ranging from “arts and culture” to “working with media/publicity/communication.” It was hard to choose since they all were so relevant to working with my Transition group. I chose “bridges to local government and strengthening community” and am really glad that I did. Within that group we split up into more specific interests and I was in a group exploring, “ways to approach local government with an outcome of trust and mutual respect.” Some in our group had a lot of experience with this and it was really helpful. We explored ways to approach local governmental officials without turning them off. I am very interested in the next step our group need to take at home–introducing ourselves to the town council, and offering our collaboration on making Charlotte a resilient community.

Another choice we needed to make the first day was picking a “hot topic” theme for a discussion. I chose “Scaling Up.” Here’s the description:

We come together inspired by the vision of Transition, we start tree-planting projects, re-skilling groups, and so on. If we are serious about making Transition happen on the scale required, do we need to step up a level to make new businesses, livelihoods, and infrastructure happen? Are those initially drawn to Transition equipped to take that step? What holds us back?

We used a “fishbowl” format for the discussion. Six chairs were set up around a table and five people volunteered to go first. At any point in the discussion, someone looking on could sit in the sixth chair and someone else at the table needed to leave the discussion. It was just as exciting to watch the participants as being one of them. The conversation was lively, and lots of good ideas were discussed. My contribution to the fishbowl was my concern that the businesses created would be really needed by the community and that the jobs would be meaningful and paid fairly. It was heartbreaking to hear from recent university graduates who couldn’t find work.

Creating jobs through community-based businesses is cutting edge Transition work and being done in Totnes and several other British Transition initiatives. An example of such a business just starting up is a community bakery. What does it mean to have community businesses? Who are the investors? Who provides the needs assessment? Although I came away with many questions, I really believe that this is the next wave of work for Transition groups. It will help define us as relevant to the community instead of just an upstart fringe group.

That evening we again congregated at the “pub” in the university dining area and were treated to some live music from three men who were the childcare workers for the conference. It was terrific!

Sunday, Day 2

We began the morning with an exercise called a group journey enquiry. We began in our usual plenary space for announcements, and then all 250 of us were asked to get up and walk to the food court (just in the next building), find a table to join three or four others, and be all settled within five minutes. We were told this could be done if we moved in complete silence. And we did it! We were then reminded that, although we often remark how beautiful are the flowers we see, the support and foundation for that beauty come from the roots, stems, and leaves. We could infer from this that the work we are doing is the plant, and the flower is the culmination of that work. It was a lovely image.

The people at the tables were then asked to answer the question, “What makes our groups at home work well?” Our group’s answers to this were:

–beginning in silence
–having a short check in
–meeting outside
–having an agenda and goal for the meeting
–having a minute taker
–mutual trust and respect
–sharing your best hopes for the meeting
–fun and playfulness
–celebration and downtime
–everyone coming prepared
–taking responsibility for our tasks
–bringing the meeting to a close in a timely manner and expressing gratitude
–providing time for evaluation and feedback
–being able to name a problem and being able to accept constructive criticism

One of our group mentioned that successful groups spend 25 percent of their time in celebration.

We were then asked to answer the question, “What is it that we find challenging in our groups?” We responded with:

–not following through on promised tasks
–the burden of doing most of the work
–one person dominating the group
–too many leaders competing with one another
–the opposites of the answers to the first question

Following that exercise we were led through a guided meditation into the year 2021 and asked how our group and its work had evolved. We then shared what our visions were in our small group and were then asked to collectively depict our visions in a creative form with marking pen and a large sheet of paper. The resulting beauty of our work was not so much in the drawing, but in the processes we sank into. We worked so wonderfully together, giving time for everyone, listening carefully, respecting each other, and our time included laughter. It’s really beyond words. We bonded in a significant moment. Our drawing of a flower with words along the roots, stem, and flower petals was truly a collaborative effort. Each group then shared what they had learned with one other group, using the picture as the basis for the story. I came away with a euphoric feeling that swept me through the rest of the day.

That afternoon I attended a workshop on “Social Enterprises–turning Transition-friendly ideas into jobs.” This was a lecture-style workshop with multiple presenters who had successfully worked with or helped create community-based businesses, some being non-profit, and some more traditional. Although the legal issues were particular to the U.K., the ideas and inspiration were incredible. All you need to do is look at http://www.sustainingdunbar.org and you’ll see an amazing array of community projects coming from the Transition initiative in Dunbar, Scotland. Here’s from their “about us” section of the website:

Sustaining Dunbar is for everyone living or working in the Dunbar and East Linton ward of East Lothian. It provides a network to enable people to get together with others who share similar interests and want to work together to plan and start building a sustainable, low-carbon community which is resilient enough to cope with the challenges which we face from climate change, peak oil and global economic instability.

Like the other two Transition initiatives I visited in Scotland, they are a non-profit company which allows them to receive funds, seek out grants, and enter into contracts. Their latest enterprise is a community bakery, about to open later this year. It’s a stand-alone business, unlike some of their other projects, which was necessary because of some legal issues. But the fact that they were flexible enough to work it out, rather than give up because it wasn’t going to fit into their previous models, is a real credit to the group. If a Transition group helps create these enterprises in the community and each enterprise tithes some amount of profits back to the Transition group, there’s money to initiate new enterprises and to pay for Transition staff.

The important issue here is about being paid for your work, rather than community work so often being only volunteer work. That doesn’t mean that volunteers aren’t important to the work of the community. Volunteers are often the backbone of a healthy community. But it does mean that those who spend many hours a week on a project deserve a fair wage for their work–if funds can be found. I suppose the size and complexity of town or city, and the possibilities of creating social enterprise would be a factor in whether to organize as a non-profit. It raised lots of questions that I’m sure I’ll be mulling over during the coming months.

During the day I had the good opportunity to interview Rob Hopkins. Rob is a hard guy to get away from the crowd for an interview. He’s much in demand and I’m appreciative of the time he generously shared with me. Rob looks like he’s about 25, but his oldest child is 15 so that math doesn’t work, does it? He holds an MSc in Social Research and recently completed a PhD at the University of Plymouth with a dissertation entitled “Localisation and resilience at the local level: the case of Transition Town Totnes”. Quite the busy fellow since he has almost completed another book (see day one) and is a family man! But I think he thrives on people and the creative process.

I asked Rob what drew him to his work on transition and resilience. He answered, “I think the spark was a fairly long night of the soul after seeing the video, The End of Suburbia and Colin Campbell coming into my class of students in Kinsale (Kinsale College of Further Education) and talking about peak oil. I had never ever thought about it before. I had been involved in environmental things for years and years and I’d never even clocked it as an issue and it came so out of nowhere.”

Up till then he had been following the traditional permaculture path of building his own house, growing his own food, planting his forest garden, gathering his water, and generating his own energy. Then peak oil came out of the blue and tipped everything on its head. Where he lived he was dependent on his car to make connections with his friends. He was struggling with this dilemma when a month later the house he was building burned down. So that threw everything up in the air. As he looked around for people focused on the peak oil issue, he found that not many had it on their radar, other than the Post Carbon Institute and some re-localization folks. He had read David Holmgren’s book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability with a small group of people and was excited by it. Also, there weren’t guidelines about how we might restructure our lives to survive in a post-oil society. Rob’s work with his students to develop an Energy Descent Action Plan for Kinsale, which focused on post-peak-oil survival, helped him find a solution. And after much consideration, he and his family decided they wanted to return to England.

So Rob moved to Totnes with his family to see if he could “scale up” the embryonic ideas of a new way of life. He serendipitously met Naresh Giangrande in a pub and then joined forces with others. Richard Heinberg (author of several books related to peak oil) and the late David Flemming (one of England’s “peak oil” whistle blowers) came to give talks. Transition Totnes was kicked off and “went ballistic.” Another incredible moment was when Ben Brangwyn, attending an early Transition conference, said to Rob, “you need a network to support this work and I’m willing to give it a year of my time to make it happen.” And so the Transition Network was born. Rob was sharing how this came about because of the dedication and creativity of a number of people, many not named here.

Rob’s vision of the future is like an overlay of many different things he has already seen, not something just created in the mind. It’s very tangible and real. But it would be inherently local, with much less intrusive advertising to encourage purchasing things we don’t need. Food would be grown everywhere, in the cities on small bits of ground and rooftops. One day growing food would be seen as a really cool, hip occupation, being a young entrepreneurial market gardener is going to be like what Bob Dylan was in 1963.

Rob’s vision includes buildings that would be constructed of recycled materials, hand-crafted lovingly and with pride. Buildings would be made for the community and by the community with skilled crafts people, such as was done in centuries past. He noted that great cathedrals took up to120 years to build and that many people worked faithfully on these projects knowing they would never to see them completed! (In an earlier blog I wrote about the idea of a slow-work movement to complement the slow-food and slow-money movements.) Local currencies and local banks would support the work.

He sees this future place as one that is “a really vibrant and really delicious place to wake up and be part of, a really thrilling place.” Rob believes this is all doable. It is just a process of scaling up what he sees is already being done. For him what Transition does is help people think about scaling up what they are doing. He gave the example of the straw-bale builder whose goals go no further than building a few a year, instead of scaling up to a larger scale to make these homes available for many more people. Transition can provide the incentive, the vision, and the creativity for this scaling up. This is probably the cutting edge of the Transition movement today. Rob called it Transition’s growing up. It’s about becoming relevant to the community, creating livelihoods and a sound economic system for the post-oil world. He said that in one of the workshops someone asked what it would look like if you organized the awareness raising stage of your Transition Initiative as a social enterprise? Wow!

Rob said one of the really interesting things he’s seen is the idea that resilience is something that needs to happen everywhere, not just here [in the developed world]. He went on to say, “We’ve creamed the fat off the developing world for the last 400 years, and the idea that we would put up the fence and say ‘we’ll not sort this out for ourselves’ is irresponsible. We need to have two processes that run in parallel–re-localization here, understanding that total re-localization is impossible, but maybe working toward an 80-percent/20-percent mix of local and imported goods. There’s the process of contraction and convergence, with the developed world scaling down and the developing world scaling up. Helping to create food security in the developing world is really necessary.”

Rob said that over the last four years people would ask what Transition would be like in the developing world and he’d respond, “I have no idea!” He hoped that they would sort it out for themselves, and has been very impressed with the work that Transition is doing in Brazil. Rob was strongly suggesting that the people in each initiative have to figure out what works for them. He mentioned one London Transition group coming to ask how Transition would work in their economically-challenged area and again received the reply, “I don’t have any idea, go sort it out for yourselves.” Now that group has done amazing things. We did agree that having several people in the group who have attended the Transition training was helpful, but his main point is that each location has its own challenges, culture, and environment, and that there isn’t one blueprint that “fits all.” This dynamism is what attracts me to Transition and it’s what I’ve seen in my travels. (In fact, the folks from Barcelona gave a talk about the Spanish revolution and how Transition is working in the streets there.)

Rob concluded, “there’s a quote in the new Transition book (Transition Companion, available this fall) which is off the sleeve notes of the Velvet Underground 1969 Live album, ‘I wish it was a hundred years from now, I can’t stand the suspense.’ The beauty of Transition is that you do see the unfolding successes and you start to get a taste of it. In Totnes, in the five years since we started, I can now walk down the street and see 200 nut trees we planted. We had our first harvest of almond trees in the park, there’s food being growing where there was none before, there are 150 solar systems that weren’t there before…. It gives you a taste of what’s possible and drives you on to the next bit.”

Monday,Day 3

On the last morning of the conference, after hearing Rob’s take on what was happening in Brazil, I chose to attend a workshop given by three Brazilian women. One of the women, May East, currently lives at the Findhorn community in Scotland. The other two women were Isabella de Menezes and Monica Picavea. It was difficult to choose from the assortment of great options. I’ve been curious to know how a Transition initiative might work in developing nations, and I had met the dynamic women the night before and was intrigued. I wasn’t disappointed. There are several Transition initiatives in Brazil and one is located in Brasilandia, the slums of Rio de Janeiro. In August of 2009 an international Transition Training in Sao Paulo generated three Transition initiatives. There were challenges to the idea that the global “North” would have something to offer when so many sustainable projects were already underway. But they soon came to realize that the structure of Transition did have a lot they could build on. There was then a Training in Rio de Janeiro, where several more initiatives were founded, including Brasilandia.

Isabella talked about Transition Granja Viana, where she lives. The projects they have initiated include, exchange fairs, waste projects, organic vegetable promotion, and ecouraging responsible voting. They are planning to do an “Art everywhere” project, painting lamp posts, etc. A Heart and Soul group is about to begin. They are also planning to sponsor a “Spicing your memories” event where people bring pictures of their families and share their cultural history. (Brazil is a multi-cultural country.) And at some point they want to construct a building as a hub for Transition activities.

In Brazilandia there are many sub-sections of the slum, each with a name and a sense of pride of place by the inhabitants. At the edge of Brazilandia is the biggest urban forest in the world, which supplies 80 percent of the water for Sao Paulo. A huge part of the Transition education is about the value of the forest and they are “moving the forest into the city,” transplanting trees into yards and trying to stop development encroaching on the forest. In addition they are reviving stories of the history of Brazilandia to share in the schools and growing edible gardens on school property. Other projects include,
Zero waste efforts. They’ve mapped where waste is in large heaps around the area, removed it very publicly, and encouraged people not to continue to throw waste in these areas, but instead only at designated places.

The presenters said that the Transition concept adds to what is already happening because it brings a way to design their future and creates a learning environment. Transition brings a whole systems approach which, importantly, includes the inner transition concept. “Brazilians are ready to take their destiny into their hands,” said May.

It was a terrific conference and I’m eager to review what I learned there and to see how I can bring some of it to my Transition community and how I can share it with others in Vermont.


Before the conference I received an invitation through a new reader on my blog, Alice Yaxley, to visit her in Coventry, England, and learn about what is happening there. I fit the visit into my schedule just before leaving for home. Alice and her daughter met me at the train station. Alice lives in a post-World War II housing “estate,” built for returning service members, with labor from German prisoners of war. The whole town of Canley, at the edge of Coventry, was created for this purpose. She has transformed her small front and back yards into major food production. Alice and others have negotiated an acre of land on a now-unused school field for a community-owned market garden. There are 6 on the steering group and 50 volunteers, and they have received some grant funds to get them started.

Alice is on the periphery of Transition Coventry and attends events, but is not on the core group. Coventry is a city of about 300,000 people and, like other large city Transition Initiatives, is now considering becoming a hub group. They have begun with the usual films, speakers, and food-oriented events. Alice is drawn to the Transition movement because “it’s spread world-wide so fast and it has the possibility of driving our sense of urgency into change.” She likes that it’s focused on neighborhoods and on ordinary people who what to make changes. Alice’s vision is focused on food production and wants to see the green spaces in Canley converted to edible gardens. She want to see “food grown everywhere.”

Alice hopes there’s a world vision emerging, but she is clear that the vision is emerging for her, and that the next step for her is what changes all the possibilities. As a Quaker, she believes, “that God invites us into the future, which is where the vision emerges, and that part of our spiritual path is to be listening with our heart and with all of our senses and just taking the next step into the vision, and then everything changes again, and then listening and turning ourselves in, to God again….”


It was a wonderful, peaceful end to my journey. Just before meeting with Alice I had spent time with cousins in Sheffield, some of whom I had met for the first time. My journey has introduced me to family, and Transition family members–an ever broadening circle. At the conference I began some networking with people from Japan and Brazil, and when I return will begin Skype video interviews with them and with people from initiatives in the countries I won’t be physically visiting. I hope my blog will provide intimate details about these groups that will inspire others throughout the world.

I returned to Vermont in the early morning of a full-moon setting and a lovely water lily in my pond, with greetings from a happy husband, granddaughter, and two cats. Ahhhh…….

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 U.K. Transition Conference and after

  1. annisveggies says:

    Thank you so much for such a detailed description of all your experiences.


  2. I’m now planning a trip to Illinois and California in October. I’ll be writing a bit before then. I’m glad you appreciated the descriptions of my experiences.


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