The State of this Particular Union Circa Jan. 2013


[Most everything in here is/was true. It was written throughout the Fall & Winter, and some things have changed since then, though. If things seem a bit pessimistic, that’s partially because they’re not factoring in the cool events & new opportunities we’ve gotten more recently. 🙂 It’s still a useful snapshot of a couple months ago, though.]

The Transition Movement is, in theory, supposed to ignite an entrepreneurial flame that quickly engulfs a town or neighborhood, transforming the citizenry into a diversely-skilled and fiercely determined army, ready to turn their economy into something that doesn’t need fossil fuels to be prosperous: something less globalized, something relocalized, something more human-scale. And with it comes all sorts of elements of a new economy: solar panels, thermal mass heating, building retrofits, rooftop gardens, urban agriculture, more local businesses, local currency, and increased community health and well-being. That’s the ideal.

In reality, it has caught on in many places. There are now 10-plus books, countless newspaper articles, and even more countless blog posts, all about what’s going on with Transition and, for instance, its social enterprises (my favorite part): the Green Valley Grocer in Slaithwaite, Yorkshire which raised shares from the community to take over the local grocer which was closing down, The Fujino Power Company,  Japan, the Lewes community solar power station in Sussex which was funded by over £300,000 raised in community shares, the Brixton Pound in London (a local currency), and Chris Condello’s Whtiney Avenue Urban Farm in notoriously crime-ridden Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh—among many other things.[1] The Transition Handbook was, in 2008, in the top ten most read for Parliamentarians in the U.K.[2]. The movement is in over 34 countries and has about 420 initiatives worldwide, since it started in 2005-06[3].

That does not mean it has caught on quite as fast or as strongly as anyone would like. Just because there’re 420 initiatives does not mean that each initiative has had success in anything but fits and starts. And we know this for sure in Pittsburgh; we’ve had lots of steps forwards as well as lots of steps back. The Transition LAUNCH training in the neighborhood of Larimer did not really launch: it got swallowed/absorbed by the larger initiatives there. Sustainable Monroeville, one of the initiatives we’re connected to, keeps on, though Transition Sewickley has not had that much activity as of late. Our leadership didn’t do as well as it could’ve, and we’ve had to spend time nursing the organization back to some vague form of health.

The Transition Movement’s international leadership tries to caution people, to tell them that things won’t always work out, that no matter how hard you try, there’ll always be failures amongst the successes. This is documented by the international Transition Network (both in InTransition2.0 and The Transition Companion): some initiatives launched and never really got off the ground; some failed right away, some had success and imploded later[4]; some just never have the kind of success their founders had hoped, despite their continuing. Transition’s international leadership acknowledges that the whole thing is a “social experiment on a massive scale,”[5] and that even if it spreads far and wide and has all sorts of success otherwise, no one knows for sure if it’ll do anything to really make life that much more livable in the warmer and more resource-scarce world we’ll be living in.[6]

When we’re reminded of this kind of thing, it calms me and others like me, to know that it’s an experiment, and that no stage of it is guaranteed to fail or succeed. It gives me a reason to be more patient with the messiness that is TransitionPGH’s history: because whether what we do becomes a shining beacon of awesome or a dire warning of terribleness, we’ll take its lessons and carry on with that knowledge, and so will others.

Our Past and Present

What’s happened with TransitionPGH so far is probably not much more messy-looking to dispassionate observers than it is to any of us on the inside. We have plenty of badly executed and planned events, initiatives, and relationships to make it hard to deny. That said my lens is a rather neurotic and flaw-obsessive lens, colored by an anxious adolescence. I very well may not see enough of the good parts of what I’m doing or what others are doing. In any case, here’s how the overall story bears through some of my pessimism.

TransitionPGH was like a flimsy metaphor: trying hard to be meaningful to and connective with its audience, yet ultimately lacking that power. The root cause was probably a mixture of unprepared & youthful leadership, as well as lack of diversity in people, events, and ideas, a root cause that has yet to be entirely corrected.

Indeed, those previous leaders were eager to remove themselves from their positions when they did. They said they were going to get audiences of ten thousand by 2012. By this point in time, we may not have truly established communication with 1000 people, let alone 12000. They said that they were going to have Transition-sponsored little league games, that they were going to have drum circles in the middle of Market Square, and all these other major events. They knew they couldn’t follow through, at the same time that they were saying they could. When people wanted to do something, instead of just sit around in a coffee shop planning Transition activities, they didn’t know how to get pickaxes and shovels into people’s hands. When burdened with the responsibility of crafting events and keeping in constant communication, they dropped off the face of the earth and let events fall through. They had their income issues, their family issues, their life issues, their emotional issues. When they talk about it now, it sounds like some temporary cosmic miscalculation granted them such great responsibility.

Not many of us have become shining examples of working through your own issues to become a jewel—in the end, they’re in the ranks of the legions of people who, faced with the possibility of forging some sort of meaning out of this existence beyond dead end clerk-ships and corporate office jobs, they take on too much, too soon.

The unfortunate part about those people was that, ideologically, they were probably the sort of people you’d want leading this movement: pragmatic, business-oriented, analytically-capable, yet open to new ideas and able to communicate with people from all walks of life—not lacking the ability to collaboratively work with those they disagreed with. Any partisan ideology was held at bay.

They left, and a void appeared in the emptiness. This was filled by new age “Woo!” spirituality.[7] This included homeopathy, raw foods, tantric sex, “revolutions in consciousness,” Mayan calendars, Silk Road-obtained drugs[8], the science of psychedelics, “exploring your inner deity,” reiki, massage, tarot readings, “healing,” therapeutic arts and crafts—you could go to three events in a day and find someone interested in each of those things at each event. It wasn’t just singular events and individuals: it was whole nonprofits and identifiable special interests largely composed of spiritualists who just don’t really seem to feel the need to improve that much upon 60’s hippie lifestyles and philosophies. Despite being almost uniformly environmentalists, they don’t seem ready or willing to commit to combatting the more widely-held concerns about carbon emissions, Peak Oil, or general ecological collapse with business and engineering-savvy solutions acceptable to the mainstream (a gateway drug for environmentalism!), which frustrates the heck out of people like me (and scares me).[9]

I’m not convinced they can give us the appeal to the mainstream we need, nor am I convinced they can provide the structure and strong-willed people we need to accomplish long-lasting change. We could build backyard gardens for the elderly and make a small business or collective out of it; we could show the hottest, most critically-acclaimed documentaries, we could have trash sculpture parades; we could build entire social enterprises and maintain them as fully-fledged businesses—if we had more than a handful of people on board more than a little savvy in managing this kind of thing. As it stands, a lot of our events & initiatives have been poorly conceived, poorly planned, and poorly executed.

I certainly share in that blame. I continued to hold Tuesday Transition meetings even though no one really came, and even though no one really got anything done. I overlooked details like this for long periods before I corrected myself: no one who did come really came from the same neighborhood, which would’ve helped to get something started and accomplished. I stopped those Tuesday meetings: I decided then that 3-5 hour potlucks every other Saturday would be a good event to have for Transition. People stopped coming to those, too, so I stopped them.[10]

I was thrust into the role of coordinating communications without being tested to see if I was prepared to be in that position; without guidance or any real history of organizational successes to inform my behavior, I took on stuff randomly, and too much stuff too quickly, as the last batch of leaders did; I started to crumble under that weight, as others did; I struggled to leverage my time & energy more intelligently—and I, unlike the previous leaders, managed to glue myself together. I struggled to deal with the fact that I’d taken on too much that I couldn’t fulfill—but I eventually did. And so I haven’t had to remove myself from leadership just yet, unlike the people that came before me.

Hope and solace is held in the fact that we’ve learned what we should’ve done and can do better, just as the Transition Companion suggests. The problems we had, we have demonstrably learned from, given the things that are going well, these days: Our (irregular) email blast of Transition events, which, along with our event listing site has been enough to attract cool, diverse, and useful people to lots of cool, diverse, and useful things: Action Housing Green House events, Maren Cooke’s Sustainability Salons, apple & pear pickings at the Stephen Foster House, new documentary screenings, etc. Finding/creating and advertising those events are things we’re doing well, despite setbacks.

I and others personally intrinsically find joy and satisfaction in being able to plan, advertise, and execute these events. Even if we don’t get paid, we can keep doing this because we like doing it, and we’re just incidentally waving the Transition banner over it.[11]


The Future

The big thing now is trying to get other people involved. Education Director Alex Dale had to leave, too, before really getting started with too much of anything other than a TPGH reboot, just due to the sheer amount of time his PhD and Engineers for a Sustainable World national directorship takes from him. Yet, myself and Mark Dixon keep on. I’m the main person on the Steering Committee, and it seems I’m about to be joined by a Heinz Public Policy school professor from CMU with a more impressive resume than anything I’ve seen as of yet while doing this.[12]  College students are high on the list, of course: I’ve tried to get various clubs at Pitt to come out to Larimer events and Transition events, and have previously mostly failed: but I tried again with a club called Enactus on Pitt campus, and this time the conversations have tended more towards actual action. Why? They’re a relatively new club, and were looking for events and projects at the time, apparently.

It’s also about which populace to target. Apparently there’s some research to suggest that national policymakers, if they want to encourage entrepreneurialism, should go after those with at least one degree above high school.[13] It might be the same for us—it certainly tends to be easier than dragging neighborhoods like Larimer or Homewood up from the unfortunate things that have happened to them. It’s likely that we’ll end up targeting current students and post-undergraduates anyway, just due to the intuitive sense it makes to try to provide TPGH’s specific kind of tools to those already-equipped to use them. That said, it would be unfortunate if TPGH goes after the wrong population and thereby becomes less capable than it could’ve been.

People come and go, events come and go, initiatives come and go, whole factions of people come and go, entire organizational strategies come and go, and we’re affected by all of this… We try to learn from the past, and sometimes, we do.

As always, the game is moving as we play it. Everything remains fresh and thrilling, as well as utterly challenging, chaotic, and evolving. It’ll be an interesting future, and an interesting reincarnation of this essay, written 1-2 years from now, or even this summer.

Or even Tuesday.

[1] These examples were filmed in the international Transition documentary’s second incarnation, InTransition 2.0, an update to InTransition 1.0 (which is available free online). Likewise, the Transition Handbook is the predecessor to the Transition Companion, which is the big, chock-full-of-good-stories-and-information-and-analysis tome of the movement, containing all the latest prose and pictures on Transition worldwide. InTransition 2.0 documentary site here:

[2] It is indeed up there: It is difficult, however, to tell whether The Transition Handbook is 10th most read, or if it’s simply tied for 5th place.

[3] 2005-2006-ish is the official description.

[4] Which, if you study entrepreneurship, is not really that unbelievable. considering the sheer number of variables at work in community organizing efforts as well as business entrepreneurship, and considering how many businesses, and even successful ones, fail.

[6] One thing these seemingly-humble people don’t acknowledge: that other people will see the Transition model, its supporters, and its brand, and maybe think, “We can build a better brand.” On an international level, we may start to see competitors for public attention and consideration that even more closely resemble us as an international movement than the individual, local incarnations.

[7] This term coined by a friend of Alex Dale’s, and passed on to him.

[8] Fascinating subject, the Silk Road: it’s an underground internet trading post that can’t be accessed through any Google search; apparently it has enough safeguards for people to feel comfortable selling guns, drugs, and other illicit and illegal material.

[9] More scathing words I generally let others write: “…they themselves have themselves become the distillate of everything about the culture they deride and define themselves as opposing, the narcissism, the materialism and complacency and unexamined conformity—nor the irony that the blithe teleology of this quote impending New Age is exactly the same cultural permission-slip that Manifest Destiny was, or the Reich or the dialectic of the proletariat or the Cultural Revolution—all the same. And it never even occurs to them their certainty that they are different is what makes them the same.” David Foster Wallace’s narrator character, in “Brief Interview #20.”

[10] These were fairly unilateral decisions: while there were people coming to these events, no one was really helping me put them on, of course.

[11] As someone who is, again, capable of negativity, I ask: does this seem hopeful enough? Is it right to talk about the negative aspects so lengthily and to put that discussion before the discussion of less negative things? [I am asking you this too, Mrs. Williams.]

[12]Started two businesses in India and now lobbies people in boardrooms for more socially and environmentally-conscious activism:

[13] Saw a lecture by a Thomas Schott and two authors, brothers, named Hovne; they presented at this World Economic Forum on findings tabulated from surveys done world-wide.



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