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The evolution of Transition

The evolution of Transition
by Michael Brownlee

The emergence of the Transition movement in the last four years or so is one of the most hopeful signs in the early 21st century, and Transition may yet turn out to be one of the fastest-growing, most inspiring, and most significant social change movements we have ever seen.

For those of us who had already been working towards relocalization for some years, the community-wide Transition process that Rob Hopkins and his fellow pioneers began developing in Totnes in 2006 was the very first sign of a clear and replicable pathway to community resilience and self-reliance in the face of the converging global crises of fossil fuel depletion, global warming, and economic collapse.

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.

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.
One of the core principles of Permaculture has to do with valuing what’s happening at the edges of a system. As David Holmgren says, “The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”
Seriousness and urgency. First, there is a growing and indisputable recognition that our collective predicament is far more serious and more urgent than many of us had been willing to actively contemplate. This is being increasingly reflected in the larger Transition movement, sometimes to the apparent dismay of its founders. Part of the discomfort, of course, is the unavoidable recognition that, as John Michael Greer tells us, the situation we face is not a problem that can be solved, but a predicament of our own making to which we must now quickly adapt. It’s very important to name our predicament, and to name and express how it’s impacting us, what we are feeling about all this.

And with this comes the realization that while the long-term Energy Descent Action Planning process is essential in our communities, we must also quickly develop short-term plans to respond to likely near-term events—things like breakdowns in food or fuel supply chains, or a sudden collapse of the stock market, or a weather catastrophe, or even a widespread health crisis. Richard Heinberg has been pleading for this kind of emergency planning for years now as a core part of every resilience program. Few in this country have listened, and now time is very short.

Emergence. Second, we’re beginning to learn about Emergence—or what Christopher Alexander calls “Unfolding,” the evolutionary process by which the universe itself self-organizes, finding profound and practical lessons in how to catalyze Transition in our communities. We’re in the process of learning about what is emerging in the Transition movement itself. In our communities, we’re learning about what it is that’s wanting to emerge there, far beyond our hopes and fears and desires. And in ourselves, we’re discovering what it is that’s wanting to emerge in us—and through us.

Self-organization. Third, in a closely-related way, we’re also beginning to learn the meaning of “self-organization,” which is actually a core principle of Transition, though little discussed. We’re discovering that catalyzing self-organization of a community around relocalization or Transition is entirely different from community organizing!

Permaculture principles and ethics. We’re also beginning to understand how essential the principles and ethics of Permaculture are to the Transition process. These have not been translated very explicitly into the Transition literature, and yet they are fundamental to Transition. This translation will become increasingly important over time, because Permaculture is based on a very deep understanding of how life works.

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