Birthing a Transition Initiative

Richard Heinberg’s latest book, The End of Growth–Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, clearly outlines why we’ve come to the end of economic growth after so many years of continuous, unbridled growth which created a bubble that was bound to burst. Fortunately he provides some guidelines for “Life After Growth” instead of only focusing on the doom and gloom. I was delighted that he suggests Transition Initiatives as a viable alternative which lends support to what I believe is the hope for the future. Sometimes I ask myself why I’m reading another book about the doom and gloom senario. But often each author provides another piece of the puzzle and Heinberg’s book definitely does that.

As a counter to the doom and gloom, I just read that Local Motion (my county’s bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization) won another important victory in Burlington. From their website: “The Public Works Commission voted 4-to-1 on October 19 to approve a city-wide 25-mph speed limit! After 11 years of advocacy, Local Motion succeeded in getting the City to adopt this forward-thinking policy. Livable communities require slow streets. A car-pedestrian collision is 9 times more likely to be fatal at 30mph than 20mph. Slow and constant speeds (in contrast to fast stop and go traffic) mean less traffic noise, more predictable behavior, more fuel efficiency and greater safety. To our knowledge, Burlington is the first Vermont municipality to do a city-wide study and set a city-wide speed limit. Our hope is that communities across Vermont will look to set village-wide or town center wide limits that can be clearly conveyed to the public.”

This is what good, engaged Transition Communities can do. Burlington was one of the first cities in the country to develop a sustainability plan, The Legacy Project (, which provided the foundation for many good initiatives, such as Local Motion. That kind of activity is often the precursor to the great work of Transition Initiatives. In my small town the Charlotte Sustainable Living Network morphed into Transition Charlotte. During my travels I have encountered similar stories in many towns and cities. What difference does Transition bring to the work? It provides a common, well-planned framework and common language to help communities recognize the network of good work being done nearby and around the world. It can also be the link among all the separate good works in a community, allowing the good workers to feel part of something larger.

In like fashion, Bloomington-Normal, Illinois the Vision 2020 initiative has been wondering if helping to create a Transition Initiative will provide the glue needed to continue their work. I was invited by Carolyn and Roy Treadway, Quaker friends of mine involved with Vision 2020, to give a public talk earlier this month in Bloomington-Normal and meet with those who showed interest in becoming the core initiating group.

Carolyn, being a great organizer, arranged for radio interviews, the talk being video-taped, and brought out a crowd of more than 90 people. She also arranged for me to meet with Becky Wilson, a local Transition Trainer. Becky and her husband Bill are the co-founders of Midwest Permaculture and helped found Transition Stelle, a non-incorporated village of 100 people, which first started as an intentional community. Becky was present at the talk and following discussion to provide official perspectives and offer her and her husband’s (another Transition Trainer) ongoing support for the efforts. At the end of the talk a group of about 15 people stayed to discuss next steps. I’m anxiously awaiting news about whether they are moving forward to be the next U.S. Transition Initiative.

Bloomington-Normal, twin cities with a population of about 130,000, is in the heart of the U.S. “breadbasket.” The cities are surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans which are grown mostly to feed meat animals and to make high-fructose corn syrup. In the midst of this politically conservative area (Illinois has the most nuclear reactors than any other state in the nation with no plans to decommission them) is a University whose students and faculty provide some innovation and there are pockets of terrific conservation efforts. Carolyn and Roy gave me a tour of conserved lands with large wind turbines surrounding them. One small effort we visited is the M. J. Rhymer Family Nature Preserve and Center with re-constructed wetlands, where they are also planting a small forest and prairie. It was very impressive.

When I asked Carolyn what draws her to wanting a Transition Initiative in her area she said that when she heard this quote from Rob Hopkins; “the Energy Descent Plan should be more like a holiday greeting and when you read it you should feel bereft if you do not spend the rest of your life working on this,” the latter part of that sentence grabbed Carolyn because it was a description of the kind of life she wanted to live. She then took a weekend Transition Training and made a commitment to bring the news of Transition to Bloomington-Normal. That was in March of 2009.

Carolyn was also trained by Al Gore four years ago to be one of the first climate presenters and has given more than 50 climate talks since then. She was also trained by Joanna Macy to give despair and empowerment workshops. She sees a link among the Al Gore, Joanna Macy, and Transition work. The Transition Training’s heart work is based on the work of Joanna Macy. Carolyn recognizes that Transition presents a positive approach to change and prefers that to just focusing on the problems. She said presenting just the bad news at the climate talks is not fun.

Carolyn’s vision for Bloomington-Normal includes a community interested in energy descent. “We live on the very best, fertile, prairie land and I’m sad that all that land is being used for commodities rather than for food.” She wants to see a strong effort on agriculture–small-scale, organic farming and also on saving energy in homes and businesses. She hope’s Bloomington-Normal’s efforts to support electric vehicles will grow into efforts to improve all kinds of public and private transportation.

On her better days Carolyn feels there is a global movement for change, but isn’t optimistic overall. Her big question is whether we can change fast enough. She concluded by saying that the work she is doing is for all species on earth.

Roy has been involved in environmental concerns for 50 plus years. He’s worked for a healthy planet both professionally and privately and felt that maybe we were on the brink of real, positive change with a new federal administration and has been disappointed by the lack of governmental innovation. He sees that helping to promote individual and community awareness may bring about swifter action, though he won’t stop writing those letters and pushing for change from the top as well. He sees the Transition movement as a good vehicle for community efforts.

Roy wants to see Bloomington-Normal be a sustainable city that lives within its own means–that it becomes bicycle and pedestrian friendly, develops a better public transportation system, and limits its population growth. He wants all buildings to be built or retrofitted in energy-efficient ways. He sees that some of this has been started in his city, but is hoping for much more.

Roy doesn’t see a global transformation going on. He believes that people are asleep and that they think we’ll find cheap substitutions for the dwindling cheap oil. He doesn’t see the politicians and people in charging buying into the idea that radical change is needed. He thinks that people are uninformed about what a world of ten billion people will look like and that they think we can continue to feed and house and care for that many people on earth without using up our natural resources. But his pessimism doesn’t stop him from acting and he’ll put time into Transition Bloomington-Normal, if it comes about.

I was so lucky that Carolyn introduced me to Becky Wilson. She and her husband Bill have been facilitating Training for Transition weekends in the Midwest for a number of years. They operate a Permaculture landscaping business and really throw their full lives into helping build healthy communities. Because Becky came to Carolyn’s house before my evening talk, we were able to exchange ideas, excite each other, and she graciously allowed me to interview her.

One of the main things that drew her to Transition is that it came out of the Permaculture movement and she and her husband’s primary business is education and permaculture. When Transition came along they realized that it organically emerged from a Permaculture course Rob Hopkins was teaching because the concepts went “viral” on the internet over the Permaculture network. Becky and Bill were excited (Becky said they thought it was “way cool”) that Rob had taken the Permaculture Principles and applied them to communities instead of just to farming. They had previously founded a group, Center for Sustainable Community, looking at David Holmgren’s (one of the Permaculture founders) work on transferring Permaculture ideas farther out to ways of living. They were strongly encouraged to take the first training in the U.S. by some friends of theirs who had gone to the U.K. for its first training. Since then they have jumped in fully to the work. Now when they teach Permaculture Design courses they bring in the Transition aspects to their teaching. (I strongly recommend Holmgren’s book, Future Scenarios, which looks at four possible outcomes of peak oil and climate change.)

Becky’s vision for her area includes seeing more renewable energy uses, better public transportation, and less agri-business farming. Where she lives there are a number of small villages that all send their children to unified schools. The schools become the hub and the strength of the bonds among the residents is very much like the vision of Transition.
She doesn’t think there’s a world vision yet, but that it’s emerging. She does think that people from all walks of life and all continents see that what is happening now, with wars, shipping goods globally, etc. is not sustainable and hopefully from that realization, the people will demand change.

My personal life right now is very focused on the end of the gardening season. We’ve canned pasta sauce, apple pie filling, peaches, pears, and jams. We’ve frozen or stored almost everything else, though still have to bring in the potatoes, turnips, and beets. We still have to plant the garlic and spring onions (Egyptian walking onions–what fun). Then, before the snow flies, we’ll have to get the beds ready for winter. I love the cycle of the seasons and look forward to the dark winter for reading, quilting, and planning the spring plantings! But in the meantime there’s more coming about Transition…..

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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4 Responses to Birthing a Transition Initiative

  1. annisveggies says:

    I am looking forward to your “more” over the winter months. It will be good for all of us to have things to inspire during that time.


  2. Ruah Swennerfelt says:

    Thanks! I’m hoping to get inspired over the winter. I have just visited Transition Los Angeles and am making plans to skype interview folks from Brazil next month.


  3. hi Ruah, I just posted a suggestion for Friends involved in the Occupy effort to read your blog. Are you on Facebook’s Occupy, Quakers! yet?


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