Transition Culture

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

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8 Oct 2013

Letter from America #2: Local action can change the world

I just reached the end of my first full week in the US, and to say it’s been hectic would be an understatement.  After two days in New Orleans, Peter (Lipman, Chair of Transition Network and my travelling companion) and I headed to Boston.  That evening I spoke at an event, at Tufts University, which was very well attended.  It brought together students, Transitioners from quite a radius around Boston, and others too. 

The poster for the Tufts event

After I spoke, Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn and Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg also spoke about what they are doing to make their places more sustainable.  It was actually rather impressive, with initiatives from recycling to renewable energy to urban agriculture.  The talk was streamed live online.  You can read an article about it from the university paper, with the unlikely title of Hopkins, local mayors discuss community here. 

A Boston street scene

That night we stayed that night in the home of Chuck Collins of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition and his family.  Very delightful to sleep in a proper bed in a proper home after the sterile anonymity of hotels.  The next morning Peter and I co-presented a talk to a breakfast gathering of community activists, funders and others at the Brewery, home to a number of innovative local businesses, which was well attended and went really well. 

Lipman takes the piss

Peter and I addressing the Jamaica Plain breakfast meeting.


After that, I went on a group guided tour of JPNet’s work, led by Chuck.  The group’s work is a fascinating manifestation of Transition and will be the subject of a future, more detailed post. 

Chuck leading the JPNet tour

We then drove to Portland in Maine, initially along highways lined with sprawl, shops, restaurants and so on, all strung out along the side of the road for mile after mile.  After a while this tailed away and we were driving through landscapes lined with amazing autumn-coloured forests: vibrant reds and orange, all shades of yellow, vibrant dark burgundy.  Incredibly beautiful, especially when reflected in the lakes we passed. 

When we reached Portland, we went to The Resilience Hub, a centre for permaculture, Transition and other local resilience initiatives and met Rachel Lyn Rumson and Lisa Fernandes, permaculture teachers based there.  Then it was off to the Unitarian Church, venue of the evening’s talk, entitled Local Action Can Change The World.  We arrived and got set up before people started arriving.  The event was a sell out, and by 7.30 was absolutely packed.  It was introduced by Rachel and Lisa, and I was joined on stage by John Rooks of the SOAP Group who talked about what Transition looks like in the business world.

Rob speaking in Portland 

I really enjoyed giving the talk, and it seemed to go down well, with a standing ovation, lots of book signing and lots of talking to people.  We then went to a bar in the middle of Portland which was having some sort of craft beer festival taking place, with all sorts of amazing beers on offer.  To hear about the craft brewing revolution taking place in the US is one thing.  To be handed the menu at the bar is quite another. 

After a couple of delicious brews, we headed to the ferry, and crossed to Peaks Island, off the coast of Portland.  We were staying the night at the home of Mark Swain, a permaculturist whose garden had been designed with old friends Charles and Julia Yelton, international permaculture designers/teachers, who were also there.   His home was set deep in the woods, alive with autumn colours.

Mark's permaculture garden

Protected cropping beds

The following morning we had a tour of the garden, with its ponds, protected cropping beds, fruit trees and much more, before heading back across on the ferry to pick up a hire car in order to drive to Rhinebeck (NY) to the Omega Institute to speak as part of the Where Do We Go From Here? Conference.  Omega is a kind of upmarket spirituality/activism kind of retreat centre place, set in the woods in a beautiful place.  Bill Clinton had spoken the day before me, and I was on after Paul Hawken and Janine Benyus (the biomimicry author).


Omega did feel slightly (in terms of buildings) like the Dharma Initiative in Lost, but it was very beautiful, with amazing food, some fascinating people, and a chorus of cicadas from the surrounding forest.  It felt very relaxed and friendly.  I met up with Paul Hawken and did an interview with him which will be posted here soon, and then had a very good night’s sleep. 

The hall where the talks took place (in the rain)

Next morning we were up and off for the train to New York.  Nothing quite prepares you for New York.  Once you get over the heady bouquet of urine that follows you everywhere in the city (I did check, it wasn’t me), what strikes you most is the sheer scale of it.  A visit to Time Square revealed that in the planters along the street were cabbages and kale!  An unexpected surprise. 

Snacking on kale in Times square

We had a bike ride through the city with a few local cycling enthusiasts who had kindly offered to show us the sights, sampling the recently-added cycle lanes and green corridors added to the city.  Most remarkable was the Highline, a length of elevated train line turned into a forest corridor running through the city for about 30 blocks.  It is planted up with trees and shrubs and is quite gorgeous.  I even spotted some chokeberries ready for harvest.  At one point there was an orchestra playing surrounded by a big crowd which was a delight. 

While in New York we went to a couple meetings with gatherings of funders, including one the following morning that was also attended by Michael Shuman, expert in local economies, and author of a number of books on the subject.  I had spoken to Michael via Skype before but this was the first time we met in person.   I enjoyed it when he said “local economic development is the only form of economic development that works”.  Fascinating discussions ensued about what it might look like if philanthropy were to get behind Transition. 

With Michael Shuman

On our way to that meeting we passed again through Time Square and enjoyed Steve Lambert’s “Capitalism works for me!” installation in the square.  It’s a huge illuminated sign which allows people to vote yes or no.  At the time of visiting, the no votes were in the lead by 247 to 217. 

Capitalism works for me

That lunchtime we spoke at a Resilience Roundtable at the Municipal Arts Society of New York which was great fun.  All sorts of community resilience activists from across the city.  The microphone didn’t work, so given that it was a long thin room, we had to stand halfway down the hall and shout.  All added to the resilience theme of the event!  Great questions and discussions. 

Peter and I speaking at MASNYC

To visit New York was a fascinating experience.  Buildings so tall that in the cloudy misty weather that featured most of the time we were there meant you often couldn’t see the tops of the tallest buildings.  New York somehow embodies the worst excess of economic disparity, what happens when the free market is allowed to rule unfettered, but at the same time some of the best, in terms of the spirit of the people, the diversity, the food, the sheer breathtaking enormity of everything.  I’m delighted not to live there though. 


And that was that for our New York experience.  Peter headed home and I headed for Houston for the next leg of the trip.  More to follow.  

I must just give some thanks here, to Maggie, Asher, Irene, Carolyne, Amber, Desiree and everyone who has made this whole trip work.  Thanks so much.