Transition: Another Side of ‘Local’


This article from the Sunday NY Times magazine has some interesting and controversial “food for thought” about the future of the economy and local communities. The piece focuses on the “Transition” movement, whose central idea is that to be sustainable in a coming era of no oil, society will have to “relocalize” to feed itself, etc:

For a generation, the environmental movement has told us to change our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic consequences. Transition tells us those consequences are now irreversibly switching on; we need to revolutionize our lives if we want to survive . . .

[Transition movement founder Rob] Hopkins insists that if an entire community faces this stark challenge together, it might be able to design an “elegant descent” from that peak. We can consciously plot a path into a lower-energy life — a life of walkable villages, local food and artisans and greater intimacy with the natural world — which, on balance, could actually be richer and more enjoyable than what we have now.

A great deal of the “malaise” that afflicts us as a culture is built upon our collective use of things and consumables to satisfy what are essentially emotional and spiritual needs for community and connection to other people. The irony of most people’s lives is that they chase objects and material comfort only to discover — if they’re lucky enough to attain their objectives — that those “things” make false promises. The way we have defined success in the culture is quite impoverished overall. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to have a money tree in the back yard and I recognize the foundational importance of material stability — i.e., Maslow’s needs hierarchy, which I largely accept.

Yet if we all had enough wealth to stop “working” or worrying about money we probably would behave differently and not continue chasing more money. We’d probably start working on personal creative pursuits, the collective good or doing something to help others. I tend, because of this belief, to be somewhat mystified when I read about Internet entrepreneurs who no longer have to work, but are working on their next startup.

One of the most important conversations that my now-deceased father ever had with me involved him asking me the question: “What would you do with your life if you had $10 million in the bank?” The ideas that came into my head were immediate and clear. Am I doing those things? No. Hopefully one day I will be able to.

5 Responses to “Transition: Another Side of ‘Local’”

  1. MiriamEllis Says:

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    I have been impressed with efforts being made in Mendocino County, CA. towards local sustainability, and just this week, I was driving through Bolinas in Marin County, CA. and couldn’t help noticing the gigantic solar panels everywhere. Even on the fire station.

    Bolinas is considered to be the nation’s birthplace of Organic Farming, and Mendocino is the first county to ban GMOs. In a new local economy, farmers will be the broad layer that makes up the bottom of the pyramid, and they will be where everyone can see them. Unfortunately, most modern people are wholly disconnected with the idea of food, because most of it is shipped into their supermarkets from afar. This has disastrously altered mankind’s understanding of the importance of the people who provide the most basic of life’s requirements – food.

    Also, on this level, I see people who know how to bring clean water to the society for both farming and drinking.

    Then, I believe, of secondary importance in the pyramid, would be artisans, grain mill owners and people with medical knowledge. We might see some special things on top of that (spiritual people, dispute settlers, people with skills at communicating with the folks in the next village over the way).

    I can imagine barter becoming a great deal more important. If you visit homesteading forums you will see how frustrated small farmers are that laws prohibit them from selling meat and dairy products to their neighbors because it isn’t USDA-inspected (whatever good that provides as this point). We can’t have silly laws like this in a new economy, that get in the way of people reconnecting with the basics of survival – food and water.

    My best advice to people right now is to start growing their own food, wherever they possibly can, even if this is only in pots on a balcony or roof. Get the cheapest place you can with the biggest yard. The yard is the goldmine, and your lack of space can be supplemented by the larger space owned by a neighbor who is going to move towards growing grain instead of heirloom tomatoes. Trade him your well-digging services for 100 lbs of flour.

    Maybe it all sounds like a pipe dream, but the signs are there that this is the road to the survival of the human species, ultimately, and we should be looking with extreme interest at the living models provided by American Indian tribes as well as the U.S. colonial farming communities who realized they were going to have to start making their own ceramics rather than importing them from Europe.

    I’d recommend that anyone interested in this subject pick up Buffalo Bird Woman – a fantastic book about the self-sustaining Hidatsa people in pre-reservation times.

    Important subject, Greg.

  2. Michael Wood-Lewis Says:

    Just finished the article and came across your blog post, Greg. Important topic, indeed. Even without the current attention to this subject brought on by looming global perils (economy, environment, war, disease, etc.).

    The whole concept of localism (e.g., as put forward by is finally getting some traction.

    Our observation… one can’t get very far with this approach if neighbors are strangers to each other… which is, increasingly, the case in the United States. So, we created and launched Front Porch Forum and now 40% of our pilot city subscribes and 93% report increased civic engagement because of FPF.

    While we might lose the internet when catastrophe hits (say it ain’t so!), at least here in greater Burlington, VT, real face-to-face networks of neighbors are flourishing, catalyzed by Front Porch Forum (

  3. Can local save us from global? at Ghost of Midnight Says:

    […] Sterling writes recently… This article from the Sunday NY Times magazine has some interesting and controversial […]

  4. Greg Sterling Says:


    Agree that people must find ways to come together and trust each other.

  5. Greg Sterling Says:

    Thanks Miriam. All of this involves a change in values and culture, which will either take time or be imposed from without by climate change, etc.

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