Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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16 Jul 2008

10 Books I Am Reading At The Moment…

Once again the pile of books by my bed is reaching heights that are beginning to verge on the life threatening. I am developing the terrible habit of starting several books at once, and so I have about 10 books on the go at the moment (don’t try this at home kids) all of which are wonderful and insightful in their own ways. I’ve done this listing-of-useful-books thing before, and it seemed to go down well, so here it is again….

These books probably reflect my interests at the moment, looking for new insights as to what makes people tick and, most importantly, what makes them change (for the application TTT is making for the Big Green Challenge), and also looking at leaderless structures and new thinking on collaborative organisations (for the Transition Network structure document, coming soon). You could do a lot worse than leaping into this pool of enlightening literature, each one deservant of being the only book by your bed.

Spiral Dynamics: mastering values, leadership and change. Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. Blackwell Publishing.

I am a bit of a late-comer to looking into the subject of Spiral Dynamics, but it offers a fascinating analysis of our culture, and how we might turn it around in time to address the challenges of Transition. Offers an evolutionary overview of the stages individuals and cultures more through, and has very much got me thinking about how this overlaps with the work done by Transition initiatives.

Eat Your Heart Out: why the food business is bad for the planet and your health. Felicity Lawrence. Penguin.

An in depth analysis of the current state of the global food system, working through grains, meats, fats and so on, and setting out clearly the perilous and earth-damaging ways in which we feed ourselves. Also provides a fascinating insight into how the Transition concept is bedding down in the wider world, as Lawrence dedicates an entire chapter to a car journey with me and Patrick Holden and how a peak oil awareness entered her life on a backseat driving through Wales.

Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Naomi Klein. Penguin.

Essential reading which puts the work we are doing with Transition initiatives in an broader and much more alarming context. Sets out how what started in South America as Milton Friedmann-inspired economics, which required economies to be ‘shocked’ into becoming unfettered ‘free’ markets, accompanied by profound social shocking, ie. torture, disappearances, genocide, has now gone on to underpin much of modern economics. Profoundly alarming, but possibly adds an insight that in the same way that the Shock Doctrine looks for upheavals and instability as an opportunity to impose itself, perhaps we need to conceive of Transition as being something that can be ready to do the same, much like how ‘seed bombs’ can be used to colonise bare ground with beneficial species immediately after disturbance. Not a book that does good things to one’s faith in human nature.

Wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything. Don Tapscott & Anthony D. Williams. Atlantic Books.

This book argues that the future of business, of technology, of publishing, or most things in fact, lies in collaborative working and sharing information. Abounds with amazing stories of people letting go of their exclusive authorships and producing wonderful, unexpected and rich work. A fascinating insight into the way we could be working, although it does leave one wondering whether the internet is actually sustainable in the long term, and if not, whether these collaborative approaches would struggle without the technology which made them possible in the first place.

We-Think: the power of mass creativity. Charles Leadbeater. Profile Books.

An inspiring look at the role of collaborative working, with the book at a good model of the product of collaborative working. ‘We-Think’ was published online as a draft and then comments were invited from whoever was interested. A passionate statement that the future lies in working together more rather than less, and through collaborating our work can be more than the sum of its parts.

The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organisations. Ori Brafman & Rod. A. Beckstrom. Portfolio Books.

I am going to review this book in more depth soon, in essence it is a fascinating look at new organisations, modelled on the starfish (cut off its leg and the leg replicates into a new starfish, rather than spiders, where the spider sits in the centre of a web). It analyses the power of leaderless organisations, and has proved a great inspiration in the design of the Transition Network. One of the areas it places a lot of importance in is the role of the catalyst, and their analysis of what makes a person a good catalyst is fascinating.

Depletion and Abundance: life on the new home front. Sharon Astyk. New Society Publishing.

I have been fortunate enough to see an advance copy of Sharon’s forthcoming book, which I think you will enjoy greatly. It provides a rarely heard perspective on peak oil and on the changes already underway, from a point of view rooted in family, the home, the land and the community. Beautifully written, this book will challenge many assumptions and offer timely insights which have thus far been absent from the peak oil literature.

Community Orchards Handbook. Sue Clifford & Angela King. Common Ground.

Another utterly gorgeous book from common ground, a must for Transition initiatives planning to set up community orchards. Everything you could ever want to know about setting one up, legal, organisational stuff alongside practical tips and inspiring case studies. Comprehensive, visually sumptuous and based on years of practical experience, in a way that Common Ground books usually are. A more detailed review will follow soon.

Alcohol Can Be A Gas: fueling an ethanol revolution for the 21st century. David Blume. Mother Earth News books.

I can’t claim to have done more than skimmed this vast, encyclopaedic tome yet, but I look forward to it. Although I remain deeply sceptical about the role biofuels such as ethanol will actually end up playing in a post-oil work, look forward to see how he handles the whole scaleability issue, and was fascinated by his critique of Pimentel’s work which is so critical of the EROEI of biofuels. This feels like about 5 books put into one, and I wonder how many people will read it from cover to cover, but as a treatise on the role of local ethanol production, this is beyond compare.

Organic Gardening: The natural no dig way. Charles Dowding. Green Books.

One that I have found very helpful this year in the garden. Focuses particularly on no-dig approaches which are not usually the core focus of most gardening books. Charles runs an extraordinary market garden and this book condenses much of the practical experience he has gathered over the years. Very useful for its advice on individual vegetables.

Have you been reading anything recently that you think we ought to have a look at? Do post your suggestions below…

Categories: General

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


June Emerson
16 Jul 2:23pm

Just read ‘Ancient Futures Learning from Ladakh’ by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Peter Matthiessen. The first part tells of the harmony and simplicity of the Ladakh way of life as it was for hundreds of years, until the tourists came in the 1970s. The second part gives a heartbreaking account of what happened next. It is a microcosm of what has happened all over the world, but in Ladakh it happens very fast. The third part gives hope as the ‘modernised’ Ladakh people realise what they had, and have almost completely lost, is what many in the world are now searching for.

Steve Hall
16 Jul 3:09pm

There is a really good book by a thouroughly good bloke called ‘The Transition Handbook.’ Other than that I can highly recommend taking a break from all this admittedly facinating non fiction and picking up Lord of the Rings for some good old fasioned back garden summer novel absorbsion. Or the ‘Life of Pi’ for something to really get excited about. Other interesting not eco stuff is ‘in search of schrodingers cat’ a book on quantum physics and reality for the layman. And ‘ sophies world’ a look at the evolution of western philosophy in novel format. Hogging the space now but I look forward to picking up some good tips on transition type books from all you intelligent cats out there.

Graham Burnett
16 Jul 7:01pm

Is this really your bedtime reading Rob??? Blimey!! saw Andy Langford do a talk on Spiral Dynamics once at a Permaculture Convergence, couldn’t make head or tail of it!!

One book I’d thoroughly recommend is ‘How To Be Free’ by Tom Hodgkinson, which is light enough that you genuinely CAN read it in bed, but none the less has serious points to make about how we need to slow down and reclaim our culture and our freedom. plus lots about organic gardening and permaculture… Just like what it will be in the post transition society in fact! I don’t agree with everything he says, but the overall tone is rather like a rambling pub chat, albeit one sided… unfortunately you can’t say “Hang on Tom, I think you’re talking bollocks now” when he comes out with rather naive comments about the importance of Class for example…

Also I’m currently reading ‘Wild’ by jay griffiths, again, not really one for by the bed, indeed its pretty grueling in places with its actual and philosophical accounts of the devastation ‘civilisation’ has wrought upon the wilderness and its peoples…

I’ve also got Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Red Mars’ by the bed, but unfortunately i got bored with it around page 400 and havn’t picked it up again lately, too much technical detail and not enough pictures for my woeful attention span I’m afraid… Regulars that do get dipped into at bedtime include Paul repps’ ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’, Alan Moores collected DC ‘Swamp Thing’ comics and david Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture – Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability’

17 Jul 8:45am

I also struggled with Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Red Mars’ but then picked up his trilogy on climate change which is set in the near future and couldn’t put it down.

‘Forty Signs of Rain’ is the first volume of the trilogy which tells the story of the efforts of a loosely connected group of scientists, campaigners and politicians to provoke a national response to the climate crisis. By the third book the president talks about permaculture in his address to the nation.

Great bedtime reading!

17 Jul 8:47am

A book I would like to add to everyone’s reading list is “Web of Debt” by Ellen Brown. I only came across it the other day but it looks like the book I have been waiting for to explain where money comes from and, in so doing, why we are on this treadmill to turn the planet into consumer goods. It seems like everything ultimately is owned by the banks as they have the power to create money at the stroke of a pen each time they make a loan, which then has to be paid back with interest (for which of course another loan is taken out somewhere else … ).

I won’t spoil the punchline, but here’s a thought: at one time the state of Pennsylvania issued its own currency, which was like a loan from the government to the people — it was repaid with interest and the interest was used to do public works, as opposed to being returned to private corporations called banks. Not only that, but the interest repaid effectively replaced income-tax, which is what governments use now to repay the interest on the money they have borrowed from (guess what?) banks.

Give me a local currency any day!

Mark Forskitt
17 Jul 9:09am

Ha, I’ve got a 220 page Island Strategic Plan to review – thats going to be hard work. It is supposed to be a 10 year view but as neither peak oil nor food security gets a mention its not a very secure foundation to plan a society.

Then there is the recent medical health officer’s report, which show Jersey has possibly the highest incidence of alcoholism and obesity in the developed world.

Oh and there is the Keeping Jersey Special report on tackling the ‘problem ‘of an ageing socity. That’s predicated on getting more workes from elsewhere to pay the increasing costs and keep up the tax revenues.

Sustainability and transition culture thinking really haven’t significantly impacted on our policy making. In fact they have barely scratched the new shiny go for growth gas guzzler that is the Jersey economic model.

Oh and then there is the work, the family and all the usual living to get on with.

I’m feeling overwhelmed and a bit beleaguered. I would love the time to read some positive stuff on the future….

17 Jul 9:38am

… and how could I forget “Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil” by Zachary Nowak?

John Walker
17 Jul 10:04am

From reading some of the above posts, it sounds like what’s needed is a little less exercising of the grey matter and some more hands-on action. To that end, there is really only one book you need: Grow Your Own Vegetables, by Joy Larkcom. Fruit is trickier as there is no definitive guide; the best bet would be to search out a second hand copy of The Fruit Garden Displayed. It has some black and white photos (shock, horror) but it’s sound.

Jane Buttigieg
17 Jul 3:20pm

Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’. Read it for the first time recently and it’s totally fantastic.

Shaun Chamberlin
17 Jul 10:37pm

‘Reinventing collapse’ by Dmitry Orlov. A totally different perspective from someone who saw the Soviet collapse first-hand. Essential (and very enjoyable!) reading.

I wrote a full review on my blog here:

ps I can’t go without seconding the recommendation on Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’. “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”.

fin de mundo
18 Jul 12:20am

These are great books. I also have two huge piles going beside the bed. I too am usually reading several simultaneously. However, I have found that it is essential to include some selections grounded in the love of nature. I would recommend Robert MacFarlane-The Wild Places and Mountains of The Mind. Also Roger Deakin-Waterlog or anything by John Muir or John Burroughs. When the fear and turmoil start to wind me up these books give me a reminder of what we’re hoping to reconnect with after all the tribulation to come.

Kamil Pachalko
18 Jul 2:05pm

hey great selection of books above. I’m surely going to check some of them out.

At the moment the one I’m trying to crack is Paulo Freire “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Didn’t expect to find so many insights and parallels with the process of co-education I’m trying to practice when meeting groups and exploring with them Transition.
I always deny I’m an expert. What I look for are answers from within the community and people can be so creative though they deny it;)
see post it tool write up.

So keep the reading up and maybe this post could be changed to a link on transition towns network page detailing a transition library:)

Chris Vernon
18 Jul 3:25pm

Another nod towards Dmitry Orlov’s book. A fascinating account, a metaphor in every other sentence!

Joanne Poyourow
18 Jul 9:22pm

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew. It has lots of practical stuff, like mushroom log cultivation, rainwater collection, rocket stoves and bioremediation, as well as more “normal” stuff like composting, home livestock, and edible forests.

But I will second Steve in recommending that really awesome book The Transition Handbook. My copy is now full of bookmarks of things to do and try here in Los Angeles.

Graham Strouts
19 Jul 10:55am

Great list Rob thanks. Glad to see Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”- essential for understanding the world today.
I would like to add anything by Michael Pollan- I am reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” right now- ideal for the bedside table, lyrical and stimulating;
and also the wonderful “The World Without Us” by Alan Wiseman which takes us on a journey around the world to consider how rapidly nature would return were humans to suddenly disappear- great insights into both our predicament and our relationship with the natural world.

21 Jul 1:44pm

My book pile has now reached heights that threaten to squash me during my sleep!

There is so much to read about the head and hands of Transition, which can end up being quite overwhelming. I thought I would offer a couple of suggestions for when that all gets too much.

The first one isn’t a book, but something I have found really useful for the inevitable sleepless nights. Joanna Macy’s DVD “The Work that Reconnects” is truely inspiring. She is an awesome lady and her work has completely changed my own perspective on what is happening at the moment.

And, on a similar note, Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is also a highly recommended antidote to feeling bogged down by the complexities and difficulties facing us. This novel offers one possible vision of the future. Set in a world dealing with the after effects of both the collapse of industrial civilisation and climate change, she lays out a vision of how one city has evolved into a sustainable haven.

Happy reading!!

21 Jul 1:47pm

There are some good reads coming out in these comments.
Try ‘Endgame’ by Derrick Jensen- strong words calling us to bring a sick civilisation crashing down- the longer we leave it the worse it will be, I can’t say I agree with it all but it’s a useful catalyst of ideas.
And ‘The Theory of Everything’ by Ken Wilber- in the vain of spiral dynamics, a must for permaculture designers- with his 4 quarant approach taking off around the world, it’s a clear path of how to bring Holism to what we do.
Happy reading.

Jason Cole
22 Jul 2:35am

A book I read a while ago was “Jersey: Not Quite British – The Rural History of a Singular People” which describes how rural life used to be like in Jersey. Don’t let the fire go out!

I recently read Dmitry Orlov’s “Reinventing Collapse” where he points out a critical difference between the Russian and American systems is there being no incentive for planned obsolescence in Russian equipment – meaning their level of resilience is much better.

He introduced an interesting idea of being semi-nomadic, whereby you could be known by a number of communities, and move between them as necessary.

I’m currently reading “Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times” which is looking very good indeed. So far it has explained soil chemistry and I have a far better understanding of what discriminates good soil from poor soil.

Graham Strouts
22 Jul 10:21am

I read Wilber’s “A Theory of Everything” a few years ago and became very interested in Spiral Dynamics and the developmental model of change:
Q: “Why dont more people care about the world?”
A: “Because they havent yet reached World centric Consciousness”.
While I still think this is a valuable approach to understanding the world and human behaviour, Wilber’s “integral theory of everything” is not really so integral after all: there is no mention of the role of energy in aiding psychological development, or any discussion of how decline in available energy after peak oil might effect the stages of growth- Orlov’s book would suggest a likely reversion to earlier stages of survival modes as we become forced to compete with each other more.
Wilber’s concepts of “Third Tier” and transpersonal stages appear to be purely speculative and his methodology highly questionable.

22 Jul 9:58pm

Thanks for another great book list. I’ve recently been inspired by Joanna Macy’s ‘World as Lover World as Self’ – I love the way she weaves the Buddha’s teachings together with ‘the sustainability revolution’. We could all do with a little less grasping.
‘Non-violent Communication’ by Marshall B. Rosenberg is full of spot on tips to improve these skills in the future.
Orlov’s ‘Reinventing Collapse’ gets my vote too – humour takes away much of the worry.
Chris Salewicz’s ‘Redemption Song – the definitive biography of Joe Strummer’ is a good reminder of the punk DIY ethic which opposed the bloated corporate rock of the previous generation. Holmgren refers to self-reliance as political action ‘undermining the market share and psychosocial dominance of the centralised and large-scale economies that support and maintain addictive and dysfunctional behaviour’ (‘Permaculture, Principles and Pathways…’) Self reliance as punk DIY ethic!
Looking forward to ‘Bridge at the End of the World – Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability’ by Gus Speth. Have to wait for the paperback.

23 Jul 2:44pm

Allow me to recommend a new book by Path Murphy called “Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change”. Murphy is the ED of Community Solutions, he was the co-writer and co-producer of the film “Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil”.
Briefly, Murphy says that for advocates of Plan A is just “business as usual”, there is no need for any change, economic growth is the only way to go. Then, advocates of Plan B are happy with a status quo, their life styles, and hope to simply replace non-renewable energy products with renewable ones. They still believe there are no limits to growth, that a green market with solve everything, that is the government’s and corporations’ responsibility to make all necessary changes, not the consumers! He even says that Al Gore and many environmentalists are supporters of this Plan B.
On the other hand, the two key ingredients for his Plan C are Curtailment and Community. He says: “this plan implies permanent societal change to reduce consumption of dwindling natural resources in order to control and mitigate climate change. It calls for a resurgence of small local communities as the alternative to the American way of life that must be abandoned; And it accepts a reduced standard of living as part of being global citizen.” The key action in his Plan C is to curtail, meaning buying less, using less, wanting less and wasting less. In other words, we need to change, from being consumers to curtailers…

WOW ! this sounds quite radical, quite un-American, isn’t it ? I truly believe this is the way to go, and we need to begin curtailing.. yesterday !

The ideas in this book go along so well with Rob’s Transition Handbook.

good reading !

24 Jul 6:55am

1) Since reading Rob’s post on 20 June about the Amen Drum Break, I’ve been on a bender of cultural exploration! I never really ‘got’ hip hop before watching the video he posted, but since then I’ve had my eyes and ears opened to nothing less than the cultural history of our times. The key book that has made sense of this for me is The Pirate’s Dilemma, by Matt Mason. I’m now recommending it to everyone I can (and as you might expect, you can pay what you want for a download).

The point is that remixing is the way our culture (and possibly all culture) works. As Lawrence Lessig says (download source pdf):
“The idea, first, is that you take creative work, mix it together and then other people take it and they remix it; they re-express it. In this sense, culture is remix; knowledge is remix; politics is remix. Remix in this sense is the essence of what it is to be human.”

So I strongly agree with Josef’s comment, that the Transition Handbook, and other transition info, could be made remixable, by putting it onto a wiki, or suchlike. Or maybe just an annotated ‘webliography’, as has been done for Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody – a book I’d also highly recommend.

A recent report by Charles Leadbetter, Remixing Cities, shows how some of these ideas can take hold in urban governance.

2) I have a concern with the way most people tend to be pretty certain that Peak Oil either is or isn’t happening. It’s hard to take F Scott Fizgerald’s advice that “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” So Robert A. Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not is very helpful and provocative. Basically, the story we tell ourselves about certainty is completely wrong. What we think happens is that we weigh up the evidence then decide what it tells us. For Burton, neuroscience shows certainty to be “neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.” Instead, certainty is a feeling and as such it “arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” For the transition movement, I think this helps to suggest that we should be wary of acting or not acting out of feelings of certainty. One reviewer said “Being certain is nice, but it’s doubt that gets you an education”.

hoon teo
1 Aug 10:58pm

I recommend the Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu. Not a modern book, incredibly old in fact, but one of the Toaist texts. I think it is central to the ‘Hearts and Minds’ part of transition, inso far that it says that everything that is required to deal with conflict wisely, with honor and victoriously is within all of us.

[…] couple of weeks later, Rob was reading Charles Leadbeater’s We Think and then in his Transition Network structure proposal he wrote: […]