The Transition Handbook- The Hands

Moving from ideas into action!

In the previous two blogs about the Head and the Heart of The Transition Handbook-From oil dependency to local resilience, by Rob Hopkins,  I talked about the how we arrived here, how change happens, and the role of positive visioning in order to move towards a 'post-oil world that is actually preferable to the present.' (pg 133).   The Transition movement is a way to rethink our present trajectory and to provide tangible solutions to build community resilience and empowerment in the face of climate change and peak oil. As always, I recommend that if you want more in depth information, to read the book and go see for more information.

This blog is about the 'Transition model' and how to make it happen in your community.  The Transition model is a 'positive solutions-focused way of gathering those around you together to start exploring community-scale responses to peak oil and climate change.' (pg 133)

The first Transition Initiative was launched in September 2006 in Totnes, and since that the Transition movement has become one of the fastest community led movements in the world.

"The essential message of this part of the book is that we cannot do this as individuals, and that both climate change and peak oil have to underpin both our thinking and our decision making.  We need to think bigger, we need to work together with other people and we need very much to accelerate our efforts." (pg 133)

Monks at a monastery hidden in the mountains above Lalibela, Ethiopia, watching
a paraglider. Photo by Jack

The Transition concept

Transition Initiatives are based on four assumptions:
  1. "That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it's better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
  2. That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil.
  3. That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
  4. That by unleashing the collective genius of the future with less oil, could if enough thinking and design is applied sufficient in advance, be preferable to the present.  There is no reason why a lower-energy, more resilient future needs to have a lower quality of life than the present.  Indeed, a future with a revitalised local economy would have many advantages over the present, including a happier and less stressed population, an improved environment and increased stability." (pg 134-135)

Six Principles of the Transition model

  • Visioning
  • Inclusion
  • Awareness-raising
  • Resilience
  • Psychological insights
  • Credible and appropriate solutions
Most of these I have already touched on in the previous two blogs.

Fasilides Castle, Gondar, Ethiopia.  Gondar was once the capital of the the Ethiopian Empire. Ethiopia has an incredible history- from ancient empires to rock hewn churches.  Ethiopia also has some of the world's oldest human fossils, found in the the Afar Depression, part of the Rift Valley.  This is where the famous 'Lucy' was found.

Permaculture in Transition

As you know, from other posts- I am very interested in permaculture.  How permaculture influences, informs and inspires the Transition movements is fascinating.  Especially considering that many people apply permaculture to gardens, and don't think to apply permaculture to the social fabric and the problems in our communities.

Permaculture is  "the design 'glue' and the ethical foundations we use to underpin Transition work, to stick together all the elements of post-peak settlement." (pg 137)   In a talk at a Northern California Permaculture Conference in October 2013, Rob Hopkins describes how Transition is a Trojan Horse to stash all the goodness of permaculture as well as different philosophies and visions from other movements. The Transition movement is is an inclusive, positive, community-based initiative that has a big following.  It is also a wake up call to permaculturalist to scale up, increase the rigour, and to ask for participation from all those living in their hermit homes in the forest, mountains and edges, to come and share what they have learned with everyone.  Toby Hemenway, the author of Gaia's Garden (an excellent book on permaculture), has written an interesting article on the Transition Movement and Permaculture.

Rosa abyssinica blooming in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

How to start a Transition Initiative

How do I start a transition initiative?  First... to address some barriers and some questions that people often ask of Rob Hopkins. 

The Seven 'Buts'

  • But... we've got no funding
  • But... They won't let us
  • But....There are already green groups in this town, and I don't want to step on toes
  • But... No one in this town cares about the environment anyway
  • But...Surely it's too late to do anything?
  • But... I don't have the right qualifications
  • But... I don't have the energy for doing that!
Rob Hopkins has excellent answers to all these 'buts' so don't let any of them stop you!  He quotes Goethe in saying:

" Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!"

Hiking through the Ethiopia highlands, on the way to Mount Abuna Yosef (4,260 m asl).  We were there at the end of the dry season, so the landscape is quite brown and dusty.

There is a power in starting this movement. The right people, and the right energy will come.  But before I go into how to start a Transition initiative, a few points on scale, politics and how Transition initiatives are structured.


What is the ideal scale for a Transition Initiative?  'It depends....'  This transition needs to happen on all levels eventually but that doesn't mean you should start on a national level.  As Transition initiatives are community-led, it's best to start with you community.  It could be a town, a valley or a neighbourhood.  Start small and build from there.

Transition and local politics

Transition is a community led movement, which interfaces with local politics and authorities. It is not led by local politicians or governments, even though they will be involved as the movement grows. The first steps of a transition movement is to build awareness (see Step 2 below), not to write government policies.  The politicians will be supportive as they see it as a energetic movement that local people are actively involved in.  Often, as Transition initiatives form, there will be a sub-group that liaises with local government officials. (See Step 9 below)

The Project Support Project concept

The Transition model uses the Project Support Project concept (PSP) to organize the movement.

"This is the idea that the role of the Transition initiative isn't to do everything itself, to become a developer, a bank, an energy company, landowner, training organisation, and so on.  Rather its work is to support the energy to make things happen, and to support the emerging projects, as well as being to structure itself so that, as much as possible, it enables and supports those developing the projects on the ground." - Transition blog, Transition blog, Transition as a Pattern Language, the 'Project Support' concept, Sept 21, 2010

This makes the movement more dynamic, as there is no centralised power controlling everything.  It allows events flow and evolve as people become inspired and want to take action.

The end of an Ethiopia Christmas Services, celebrated on Jan 7, 2013.  Ethiopia follows its own calendar, the Ge'ez calendar, which has 12 months of 30 days

The Twelve Step of Transition

These are the steps Rob Hopkins suggestions in the Transition Handbook.  He says they are still evolving and are not in any particular order.   There are also a very helpful resources on the Transition network to guide you through the basic ingredients of setting up a Transition Initiative.  Lots of people all over the world have done this.  You can do it too!

"Look at the world around you.  It may seem like an immovable, implacable place.  It is not.  With the slightest push - in the right place - it can be tipped."

1. Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset.

  • Gather a group of minded people to create a steering group
  • At the beginning, define the lifespan for the group
  • Get through steps 2 to 5
  • Once 4 sub-groups are created, the original steering group will dissolve and the new steering group will then be made up from one person from each of the sub-groups

2. Raise awareness

  • Familiarize people with the concepts of peak oil, climate change and basic environmental concepts.  Don't assume that people already know about these issues!
  • Often, Transition movements will show films like 'The End of Suburbia' to help raise awareness. "you can never assume that everyone has seen the films and that no one will come if you show them again." (pg 149)
  • Films, talks and events should not be solely depressing.  You want people to think, but not to go home with 'post-petroleum stress disorder' (see the last blog for info).  Find a way for people to speak with each other at the events so they can give each other some support.
  • Awareness raising is also about building networks on which your Transition Initiative will grow. This is very important- get people to speak to each other!

3. Lay the foundations

  • Network with existing environmental and decision making organisations in town.
  • Make sure they know you want to support and collaborate, rather than to duplicate. Acknowledge the work that they do and stress that they have an important role to play.  Request their input into the Transition process.
  • Give presentations to these groups about peak oil and how it relates to climate change.  Tell them about how it might affect the community, as well as how it might present challenges and opportunities. Put forward the idea that the Transition process could start to bring the community together to think about how to deal with the challenges, and start creating solutions.
  • The work that you do here to gather information, network and raise-awareness will help later on while you are starting to build the Energy Descent Action Plan, and putting projects into action.

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia, Geladas (Theropithecus gelada) grazing on top of the plateau

4.Organise a Great Unleashing

  • After all the steps you have taken to raise awareness and network- this is about propelling the momentum into the next steps. The Unleashing "marks the arrival of the project, and it is a celebration of the community's desire to act." (pg 157)   
  • The timing of the Great Unleashing relates to what you observe in your community and the collective judgement of the steering group.  In Totnes it was based on "the fact that numbers attending events were steadily increasing, more people wanted to stop us in the street to talk about it, and also the fact that we were getting impatient to kick it all off." pg 153
  • It is an important event, and should be organised with great care.  It usually takes place six months to a year after you start raising awareness in the community.
  • "It should be a powerful, passionate, informative and inspirational evening that people will remember for many years to come.  Don't rush." (pg 159)

5. Form groups

  • Form groups that can focus on each aspect of an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP)
  • You can help these groups to form by organising events or workshops that focus on a specific aspect of energy descent- eg food, livelihoods, local economies.  Often at these events, inspired people will come forward to start a sub-group on the topic at hand
  • Not everyone who offers to start and facilitate a group has the skills.  Set up training to help these groups facilitate and plan effective meetings.
  • The facilitators/or a member of each sub-group should meet on a monthly basis to know what the other groups are doing. 

A monk at a monastery above Lalibela, Ethiopia displaying ancient Christian artefacts
Photo by Jack

*Remember Step 1?  If you have moved through steps 1-5 it's probably time to change up your steering committee!

6. Use Open Space

  • Open space technology is where people come to meet with no agenda, no pre-designed roles, and no coordination.  There are some basic rules, and after that it's up to the people to make it a productive meeting.  It seems like it shouldn't work, but it actually does.  The events are usually fun, creative and productive.
    • "The Four Rules
      1. Whoever come are the right people.
      2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
      3. Whenever it starts is the right time.
      4. When it's over, it's over.
    • The Law of Two feet: " If, during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their feet and go to some more productive place."" (pg 168)
  • Open Space Days are days that use open space technology to get people to talk, network, connect on a particular subject.
    • For these events, Rob Hopkins suggests to:
      • Think of a specific question that will be the theme of the event.
      • Personally invite specific people, who are knowledgeable in the subject.
      • Have someone taking notes and upload them live on a wiki.

7. Develop visible practical manifestations of the project

  • You need put your words into action from the start!
  • Highly visible projects will change people's perception of the project and their willingness to join.
  • Make them uncontroversial and photogenic

Teff haystacks near Geech Village, Ethiopia, 3600 m asl

"If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.

8. Facilitate the Great Reskilling

  • We have lost many skills that our grandparents took for granted- we need to relearn these skills in order to move into a post-oil life.
  • Reskilling events:
    • bring people together,
    • build networks, create a sense of belonging
    • learn skills
    • foster a 'can do attitude'
    • link generations
    • are an opportunity to create visible Transitions manifestations in the community
    • encourage problem solving
    • are fun!
    • are empowering!

9. Build a bridge to local government

  • Establish positive, productive relationships with local governance early in the process.
  • Check out plans and policies that have already been generated by your local government and see if you can collaborate on pertinent plans.

10. Honour the elders

  • Many of us do not remember a time before cheap oil.  Find those who remember the time before and between the 1930's and 1960's and see what life was like in their towns/cities/communities.  You can learn alot about your town, history, and the skills required to build a post-oil community from the stories of the elders.

Sunrise at Geech Camp, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

11. Let it go where it wants to go

  • See what emerges from the process, and let go of your control!
  • "your role is to act as a catalyst for the community designing this transition and to facilitate people asking the right questions, rather than to come up with the answers." (pg 172)

12. Create an Energy Descent Action Plan

  • "An EDAP sets out a vision of a powered-down, resilient, re-localised future, and then backcast, in a series of practical steps, creating a map for getting from here to there." (pg 172)
  • Steps of an EDAP:
    1. Establish a baseline
      • eg. current status of food, health, energy consumed etc
    2. Get the Local Community Plan 
      • find current government plans to take into account in the EDAP (if relevant)
    3. The Overall Vision
      • What would the community look like in 15-20 yrs with more resilience, less energy consumption?
      •  Use the visions inspired by Transition Tales and Open Spaces Days
    4. Detailed visioning
      • Each sub-group defines their vision
    5. Backcast in detail
      • sub-groups list timeline, prerequisites, activities and processes needed to achieve the vision
      • define resilience indicators (to tell if you are going in the right direction)
    6. Transition Tales
      • articles, stores, pictures, moves to show what the vision is
    7. Pull together the back-casts into an overall plan
      • make sure all the groups plans work with each other
    8. Create a first draft
    9. Finalise the EDAP
      • the plan should still be continually updated as times goes on
    1. Celebrate!

"The EDAP should feel more like holiday brochure, presenting a localised, low-energy world in such an enticing way that anyone reading it will feel their life utterly bereft if they don't dedicate the rest of their lives towards its realisation." (pg 175)

Beyond Step 12

Put it all into action!  Once you have the EDAP, the role of the Transition Initiative is  to implement the plan!  Get your hands dirty and get into it!

Waterfall in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

"I talk a lot about adventure stories and the thing I like about adventure stories is that at the beginning it nearly always seems hopeless.  Harry Potter began his life in the cupboard under the stairs, without a very promising-looking future, Frodo did not seem a very likely hero, and you may be thinking to yourself "What, me? Take on climate change and peak oil?"

At the beginning of the journey you can feel under-resourced for the job, but we find our strengths and we find our hidden abilities by rising to the challenge.  One of the things that helps us rise to the challenge is when we can express our vision for what we'd like to happen."

- Chris Johnstone speaking at the Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes, 6th September 2006 (pg 176)


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