Why Transition, Whatcom?
by Rick Dubrow and David MacLeod
Rick Dubrow graduated from MIT with a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics. He owns A-1 Builders and Adaptations in Bellingham. His passions include mountaineering, wilderness travel, writing and nature photography.
David MacLeod, a lifelong resident of Whatcom County, is a cofounder of Transition Whatcom and a member of the Transition Whatcom Initiating Group. He also edits the weekly Sustainable Bellingham Community Newsletter, serves on the Bellingham and Whatcom County Energy Resource Scarcity/Peak Oil Task Force, and helps produce workshops for Cascadia Training & Mediation.
Do We Really Need Another Nonprofit?
Why did we bring this model to Whatcom County? Do we really need it when we already have the likes of Sustainable Connections, RE Sources, Sustainable Bellingham, Conservation NW, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Whatcom Watch (!). Oh no, Uncle Bill, another non-profit? What’s that about?
Cindi Landreth, one of the founders of Transition Whatcom and a member of its Initiating Group, describes us using the analogy of a crazy quilt … the synergistic stitching together of all of these kindred groups into a blanket, a quilt, that provides resilience to this great community of ours. Our goal is not to be an umbrella group encompassing other pre-existing organizations, but instead to participate with the diverse organizations in Whatcom County in stitching them together much like a diverse ecosystem of kindred organisms humming as one.
And, specifically, we exist to create an Energy Descent Plan or EDP, referring to one of the main projects that a Transition initiative sets out to achieve: the creation of a 20 year ‘Plan B’ for their community, looking at how it might transition away from its current oil dependency, and towards a low carbon, resilient way of working.
This word ‘resilience’ keeps popping up, so let’s define it: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks” (Rob Hopkins, 2008). In Transition, the concept is applied to settlements and their need to be able to withstand shock.
It’s time to leave generalities behind and get into the meat of what a Transition Initiative is all about: its principles and its stepping stones towards resilience. Then some thoughts about your potential involvement with the movement and some further reading and references so as to learn more.
Our Core Vision and Principles
Transition Whatcom’s vision is resilient and more self-reliant communities throughout Whatcom County with a local food supply, sustainable energy sources, a healthy local economy, and a growing sense of vitality and community well-being.
The 7 Principles of Transition
These Principles are a slightly abridged version of the 7 Principles found at the Transition U.S. website, http://www.transitionus.org/initiatives/7-principles.
1. Positive visioning. Transition Initiatives are based on a dedication to the creation of tangible, clearly expressed and practical visions of the community in question beyond its present day dependence on fossil fuel. Our primary focus is not campaigning against things, but rather on creating positive, empowering possibilities and opportunities.
2. Help people access good information and trust them to make good decisions. Transition initiatives dedicate themselves, through all aspects of their work, to raising awareness of peak oil and climate change and related issues such as critiquing economic growth. In doing so they recognize the responsibility to present this information in ways that are playful, articulate, accessible and engaging, and which enable people to feel enthused and empowered rather than powerless.
3. Inclusion and openness. Successful Transition Initiatives need an unprecedented coming together of the broad diversity of society. They dedicate themselves to ensuring that their decision making processes and their working groups embody principles of openness and inclusion. It makes explicit the principle that there is no room for ‘them and us’ thinking in the challenge of energy descent planning.
4. Enable sharing and networking. Transition Initiatives dedicate themselves to sharing their successes, failures, insights and connections at the various scales across the Transition network, so as to more widely build up a collective body of experience.
5. Build resilience. This stresses the fundamental importance of building resilience, i.e., the capacity of our businesses, communities and settlements to withstand shock. Transition initiatives commit to building resilience across a wide range of areas (food, economics, energy etc) and also on a range of scales (from the local to the national) as seems appropriate and to setting them within an overall context of the need to do everything we can to ensure environmental resilience.
6. Inner and outer transition. The challenges we face are not just caused by a mistake in our technologies but are a direct result of our world view and belief system. The impact of the information about the state of our planet can generate fear and grief that may underlie the state of denial many people are caught in. Psychological models can help us understand what is really happening and avoid unconscious processes sabotaging change.
7. Subsidiarity: self organization and decision making at the appropriate level. This final principle embodies the idea that the intention of the Transition model is not to centralize or control decision making, but rather to work with everyone so that it is practiced at the most appropriate, practical and empowering level, and in such a way that it models the ability of natural systems to self-organize.
12 Key Steps on the Transition Journey
The Transition Network has provided these 12 steps as a suggested (not rigid) pathway to guide our Transition journey. Slightly edited for length and for the application to Transition Whatcom.
1. Set up a steering group and design its evolution from the outset. This stage puts a core team in place to drive the project forward during the initial phases. The idea is that a steering group is formed with the aim of getting through steps 2 – 5, with the understanding that once a minimum of four subgroups (see #5) are formed, the steering group disbands and reforms with a person from each of those groups. This requires a degree of humility, but is very important in order to put the success of the project above the individuals involved. In our case, we’re calling our initial steering group the TWIG: The Transition Whatcom Initiating Group.
2. Awareness raising. This step is about identifying key allies, building crucial networks and preparing the community in general for the launch of our Transition initiative.
For an effective Energy Descent Action Plan to evolve, its participants have to understand the potential effects of both peak oil and climate change – the former demanding a drive to increase community resilience, the later a reduction in carbon footprint.
We’ll have events such as movie screenings, talks by experts in their field of climate change, peak oil and community solutions, articles in local papers (like this one), interviews on local radio, presentations to existing groups, and more. All part of the toolkit to get people aware of the issues and ready to start thinking of responses.
3. Lay the foundations. This step is about networking with existing groups and activists, making clear to them that the Transition Town initiative is designed to incorporate their previous efforts and future inputs by looking at the future in a new way. Acknowledging and honoring the work already done in this community is important — we recognize the vital roles existing groups have played and will continue to play.
4. Organize a great unleashing. This step creates a memorable milestone to mark the project’s “coming of age,” moves it right into the community at large, builds a momentum to propel our initiative forward for the next period of its work and celebrates our community’s desire to take action.
In terms of timing, we estimate that six months after our first “awareness raising” event (which occurred June 18) will be about right. Regarding contents, it’ll need to bring people up to speed on peak oil and climate change, but in a spirit of “we can do something about this” rather than doom and gloom.
5. Form subgroups. Part of the process of developing an Energy Descent Action Plan is tapping into the collective genius of the community. Crucial for this is to set up a number of smaller groups to focus on specific aspects of the process. Each of these groups will develop their own ways of working and their own activities, but will all fall under the umbrella of the project as a whole.
Ideally, subgroups are needed for all aspects of life that are required by our community to sustain itself and thrive. Examples of these are: food, waste, energy, education, youth, economics, transport, water, and local government. Each of these subgroups is looking at their area and trying to determine the best ways of building community resilience and reducing the carbon footprint. Their solutions will form the backbone of the Energy Descent Action Plan.
6. Use Open Space. Open Space Technology has been found to be a highly effective approach to running meetings for Transition Town initiatives. In theory it ought not to work. A large group of people comes together to explore a particular topic or issue, with no agenda, no timetable, no obvious coordinator and no minute takers.
However, what tends to happen is that by the end of each meeting, everyone has said what they needed to, extensive notes have been taken and typed up, lots of networking has taken place, and a huge number of ideas have been identified and visions set out.
7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project. Our project needs, from an early stage, to begin to create practical, high visibility manifestations in the community. These will significantly enhance people’s perceptions of the project and also their willingness to participate. One of our early projects has been “The Franklin Park Gardening Group” in the York neighborhood. Chris Wolf started this group as a way to better get to know her neighbors, share gardening tips and tools, and to slowly introduce the Transition model to these neighbors.
8. Facilitate the great reskilling. If we are to respond to peak oil and climate change by moving to a lower energy future and re-localizing our communities, then we’ll need many of the skills that our grandparents took for granted. One of the most useful things a Transition Initiative can do is to reverse the “great deskilling” of the last 40 years by offering training in a range of some of these skills. We’re looking at reviving the defunct Northwest Freedom University for this purpose, perhaps as Transition University. We also support and hope to partner with the Center for Local Self-Reliance and other organizations involved in reviving lost skills and lost arts.
We hope that our great reskilling program will give people a powerful realization of their own ability to solve problems, to achieve practical results and to work cooperatively alongside other people. They’ll also appreciate that learning can truly be fun.
9. Build a bridge to local government. This step emphasizes the necessity of cultivating a positive and productive relationship with our local governmental authorities. Whether it is planning issues or providing connections, we hope to have them on board. When we create an Energy Descent Action Plan, we’ll want input and support from government planners and office holders.
10. Honor the elders. For those of us born in the 1960s when the cheap oil party was in full swing, it is very hard to picture a life with less oil. In order to rebuild that picture of a lower energy society, we have to engage with those who directly remember the transition to the age of Cheap Oil, especially the period between 1930 and 1960.
There is much to be learned from how things were done, what the invisible connections between the different elements of society were and how daily life was supported.
11. Let it go where it wants to go. This step tells us our role is not to come up with all the answers, but to act as a catalyst for the community to design their own transition.
The steering group needs to keep its focus on the key design criteria – building community resilience and reducing the carbon footprint – and watch as the collective genius of the community enables a feasible, practicable and highly inventive solution to emerge.
12. Create an Energy Descent Action Pan. Each subgroup will have been focusing on practical actions to increase community resilience and reduce the carbon footprint. Combined, these actions form the Energy Descent Action Plan. That’s where the collective genius of the community has designed its own future to take account of the potential threats from peak oil and climate change. We will coordinate this countywide, citizen-led Energy Descent Action Plan by creating a collective 20 year vision of Whatcom County. From there we will devise the paths on which we may achieve our objectives.
Rick Dubrow here … another TWIG (Transition Whatcom Initiating Group). Out on a limb, once again! Always seeking frameworks that make more sense than the mainstream paradigm that continues its treacherous destruction of life.
Transition has captured my attention because it stresses what’s worth working towards. I’ve spent my formative years working against this and that. Yes, there’s plenty of this and that to choose from, but this and that continues its relentless downward spiral. I don’t like to feel as though I’m being sucked down a toilet bowl, spinning ‘round and ‘round, this way and that … downwards.
Transition, instead, works for something instead of against this and that. The energy here is more positive, more fun. Working on a powered-down, post-petroleum lifestyle and community is very much aligned with my greatest passion … wilderness travel. So re-skilling and resilience building fits me like a glove. In the wilderness you leave a trailhead with a limited amount of stuff on your back and then your primitive skills, intermediate technology and resilience define how comfortable you will be. Transition, in so many ways, brings my civilized living in closer alignment to my wilderness living, as it should be.
I remember the excitement I felt when I first read about Transition in an email. I immediately emailed Cindi (my wife; another TWIG; VP at A-1 Builders and Adaptations; certified permaculturist; residential designer; cool human) with the link, asking her to check it out.
She had just done the same thing, emailing me with similar information and excitement!
Thus our path towards Transition began. It led us both to San Francisco in December of 2008, where we took the two-day Training for Transition (T4T); then the four-day Training the Trainers workshops. We became two of the first 19 Americans trained to train others to train their communities to initiate a Transition Initiative (TI).
Cindi has already facilitated her first T4T in Seattle and is well on her way to help many a community down this path. I, instead, decided to focus more of my time and attention locally … towards growing and fertilizing Transition Whatcom. For the time being, I decided to bail on helping other communities (beyond Whatcom County) through this effort towards birthing TI’s.
So where am I spending this time and attention? I guess I call it dancing. It’s the dance of growing an organization, that balancing act of attending to appropriate infrastructure prior to initiating this and that without the ability to manage it; to help it grow; to pay attention.
A key principle in the application of permaculture to a parcel of land is to do nothing but observe it for about a year; restrain oneself until one knows how water moves through it; where sunlight falls; where are the cold spots. Premature action sucks (although that’s not how the permaculture text books put it!).
We TWIGs are doing two things … creating infrastructure, while we observe the terrain (our community), while we disperse perhaps the greatest message of all from the Transition movement: facilitate others to initiate actions that are aligned with their values.
You see, TWIGs are catalysts; Transition is catalytic. We’re here to shake, rattle and roll the physical and chemical reactions necessary to bring online the work groups the community needs to instill resilience … local and healthy food, small and energy-neutral shelter, renewable energy, intelligent transportation that addresses emergency climate change and peak oil, blah-blah-blah. You know what’s needed.
Day by day, there’s more and more, of this and that. Right here - right there — out there — watch for us; watch for more and more of this and that.
Stay tuned to our website (http://transitionwhatcom.ning.com)) watch us grow; help us grow; be that growth. Be a bud upon the TWIG. Help us observe this great community and birth projects, awareness raising and learning that create a future aligned with the values you live by. Help us align our values with our actions.
“(A Transition Initiative) starts with just a few thoughtful and committed people. … Our aim is to get everyone on board with Transition, but I don’t think we will in time for the shocks that are coming. Even if the larger part of our community isn’t prepared, we have this small shabby group of people who at least have a methodology for organizing and getting together and collectively trying to figure out how to survive.” — Jennifer Gray (Transition U.S.)
Consider joining this group of shabby ones. We plan on having fun with this. We’re exhausted of fighting against the things out there that threaten the very basis of life. Instead we want to imagine into, and help build, the very something we’re for.
Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook concludes with these remarkably uplifting words:
“While Peak Oil and Climate Change are understandably profoundly challenging, also inherent within them is the potential for an economic, cultural, and social renaissance the likes of which we have never seen. We will see a flourishing of local businesses, local skills and solutions, and a flowering of ingenuity and creativity. It is a Transition in which we will inevitably grow, and in which our evolution is a precondition for progress. Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were: we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled, and ultimately, wiser.” §
The Transition Handbook:* From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2008, 240 pages, paper, $24.95
The Transition Timeline: For a Local, Resilient Future by Shaun Chamberlin, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009, 192 pages, paper, $22.95
Powerdown:* Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World by Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, 2004. 288 pages, paper, $16.95
Peak Everything:* Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, 2007, 224 pages, hardcover, $24.95
Permaculture:* Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren, Holmgren Design Services, 2002, 286 pages, paper, $30.00
Future Scenarios:* How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change by David Holmgren, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009, 136 pages, paper, $12.00
Depletion and Abundance:* Life on the New Home Front by Sharon Astyk, New Society Publishers, 2008, 288 pages, paper, $18.95
Plan C:* Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change by Pat Murphy. New Society Publishers, 2008, 304 pages, paper, $19.95
Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society by Ted Trainer, Springer, 2007, 200 pages, hardcover, $69.95
*Available at the Bellingham Public Library or the Whatcom County Library System.