The Transition Movement in the U.S.

One of the key roles of Transition that sets it apart from other efforts is a commitment to continually raise awareness about our collective predicament. We’re sometimes criticized for this. I find it very helpful that Gus Speth recounts that in The Death of Environmentalism the authors remind us that Martin Luther King, Jr., did not proclaim, “I have a nightmare.” Speth’s incisive reply to them is that “King did not need to say it—his people were living a nightmare. They needed a dream. But we, I fear, are living a dream. We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead. Here is the truth as I see it: we will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.”

The Transition Movement, who prepares local communities for the challenge of Peak Oil and climate disruption, is facing some special challenges as it moves from its home base in the UK, to the United States.

“the U.S. is ground zero for The Long Emergency. We are the world’s largest user of fossil fuels. With less than five percent of the world’s population, we burn about 25 percent of the world’s oil (two-thirds of which we have to import). We are also the largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for at least 25 percent of the total. Some would have us believe that China is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, but this ignores the fact that much of what China produces is for consumption in the U.S. In fact, one-third of the world’s industrial products come to the U.S. We are the world’s most significant contributor to fossil fuel depletion, and environmental degradation, and global warming. And now, with the entire globalized economy based on the U.S. dollar, which is based on an abundant supply of cheap oil, we are also the world’s greatest contributor to economic decline—which is likely to soon become economic collapse, or at least long-term economic depression.”

Michael Brownlee summarizes:

“There are now 77 officially-recognized Transition Initiatives in the U.S., along with 17 in Canada (and none in Mexico). But this is a nation of some 300 million people. Canada has about 35 million.

The UK claims 170 officially-recognized Initiatives, with a population of just over 60 million. Granted, the movement in the UK has been ongoing for a couple of years longer than in the U.S., but the rate of adoption does seem noticeably slower here. To approach a similar level, we’d need to somehow get to nearly 400 official Initiatives over the next 18 months. That would be truly extraordinary growth, and I’d really like to see that happen.

Sadly, however, the rate of adoption in the U.S. seems to be slowing. Transition is hardly a household word in this country, and mainstream media have given the movement scant attention. What’s happening here?”

In this long article, Michael then reflects on the ‘transition’ of the transition movement as it encounters the special situation of the U.S.:

“What I want to address here is the evolution of the Transition movement, particularly in this nation, and to reflect on where it’s gotten to and where it’s headed.

There are three principal themes I’d like to consider. First of all, the context for Transition (or at least our understanding of it) has changed dramatically since the model was first articulated. In other words, we have a much more sharply defined sense of what we need to be preparing our communities for.

Secondly, the Transition model first emerged from a culture very different from ours. And I think we’ve already seen indications that just transplanting the UK approach to Transition here may not work very well. We will need a uniquely American approach to Transition, and that is just beginning to take shape—but I think it will require that we once again declare our independence from England, and establish our interdependence.

Thirdly, Transition itself is in transition. Transition is a self-organizing, emergent, “open source” movement that is evolving in sometimes unexpected ways (perhaps always in unexpected ways). And this, to me, demonstrates one of the great strengths and resiliencies of the movement, that it is flexible enough to adapt locally and evolve globally. What’s beginning to emerge in the movement, particularly around what we could call the Inner Transition, is of special significance—and it’s here that I would like to go a little deeper, suggesting an approach to Transition that is both uniquely American and that can perhaps breathe new life into the movement here.

To begin, let’s look at the current state of the context for Transition, the reasons why Transition is so needed, so urgent—in other words, what we are preparing our communities for. I’ll try to talk about these things in a very succinct, bottom-line manner, without building the arguments or citing the data—which are now abundantly available.”

After discussing Peak Oil and climate disruption, he argues that attention to the long emergency of economic decline, is what initially defines the reality of American communities:

“The third area we must talk about is the economy, and this is precisely the arena that the founders of the Transition movement in Totnes have been so skittish about taking on as part of the context for Transition—until very recently, thanks to American Chris Martenson and Canadian Nicole Foss (who writes under the name “Stoneleigh”). Here, we need to know that economic decline will soon accelerate to inevitable collapse. There will be no long-term economic recovery. The underpinnings of modern human society (and the global economy) as we have known it are fundamentally unsustainable, and they are beginning to unravel before our eyes.

This is partly because the entire globalized economy is based on the U.S. dollar, which is based on cheap oil. And now the whole system is beginning to come apart.

When you hear predictions of economic recovery, just remember that those economists and politicians who are making these predictions are the very same ones who were predicting not so long ago that there was virtually zero chance that we could slip into an economic recession—and we now understand they were saying this at a time when we were already at least a year into recession.

We need to recognize these rosy predictions for what they are, and prepare for the end of economic growth as we have known it.

In our lifetime, we will most likely experience roller-coaster periods of global recession followed by weak and partial recoveries; this will ultimately give way to grinding, long-term global depression. In the process, many of the institutions on which we have come to rely as anchors for certainty and normalcy and sanity will surely fail, some of them slowly, some of them suddenly and spectacularly. It will be a chaotic time for the next several decades, and the chaos will prevail long after most of us have left this planet.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed that we tend to think of fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and economic decline as three separate global crises. But of course they are all deeply interrelated. When we say this, it seems so obvious. But we’re just beginning to wake up to this reality: Our growth economy is based on cheap fossil fuels, and burning fossil fuels is obviously dramatically altering our climate. Therefore, economic growth as we have known it cannot and will not continue. Our Industrial Growth Society cannot and will not continue.

This is what James Howard Kunstler has called The Long Emergency. And this is really what we are preparing ourselves and our communities for.

Clearly, we are entering into a prolonged period of profound change, an era of “unintended consequences.” The changes that are coming our way will profoundly alter not only how we live, but even how we conceive of ourselves, how we think about the world, and how we see the future. And not only will we have to learn to cope with severe disruption to our conception of ourselves and the world, but we will also need to forge a new vision of the world that we can live by. Where will that vision come from?

The larger context for the Transition movement, of course, is that all communities are in transition, whether we realize it or not, whether there is a formal Transition Initiative present or not—and so are all cultures, all nations, and all institutions. We are in a transition as a species, even as a planet in a larger Universe. Of course the outcome of this great Transition is profoundly uncertain and unpredictable, perhaps even unknowable. But this is what we’re all preparing for.”

What is specifically happening with the Transition Movement is that it is shifting towards a Pattern Language approach (the same as used by our friends of the p2p urbanism group):

“In his Cheerful Disclaimer, Rob Hopkins candidly and humbly admits that Transition is a massive social experiment and we really don’t know if it will work. Well, with the stakes as high as they are, I think we need to explore finding the ways to help ensure that it will work, especially here in the U.S.

I want to be very clear here. I do think the Transition model or process is a revolutionary development, one of the most important we’ve seen to date. But we should recognize that Transition itself is now undergoing radical change, one that is most especially needed in the U.S.

The important thing to acknowledge here is that Transition is evolving very quickly—based both on what has been experienced in communities all over the world, and on what is seeking to emerge in and through this movement. You could say that Transition is in transition! And pehaps the most visible sign of this evolution is a radical reframing of the Transition model by Rob Hopkins himself.

To his credit, Rob Hopkins was horrified to see that his early attempts to articulate a Transition process became a sort of catechism for emerging Transition Initiatives, so he is now in the early stages of a valiant attempt to sweep away the rapidly-forming accretions of tradition—how is it possible for a movement to establish “traditions” in a scant four years?—and to replace them with a re-conception of Transition as something called “a pattern language,” following the example of famed architect Christopher Alexander.

Shortly before the international Transition Network conference in England in June, Rob sent out this message, which took many by surprise:

In the interests of promoting non-attachment to ideas and enshrining the principle that none of us really know what we are doing, as encapsulated in the ‘Cheerful Disclaimer’, for the Transition Handbook 2.0, I am taking the original Transition model and throwing it up in the air, using ‘A Pattern Language’ as a way of re-communicating and reshaping it.

With some excitement, we had learned early this year that Rob was heading in this direction. And now we see he is slowly writing the Transition Handbook 2.0, pattern by pattern, on his blog, inviting input and feedback. It’s a very ambitious and creative project. Not everyone is happy about this reframing, however, including some of Alexander’s long-time students—but it’s on its way nonetheless.”

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