The Power of Positive

Why is it that sometimes we work on a project or give a presentation and it feels like such a struggle?  Other times we give a similar presentation or work a similar project and it goes smoothly and effortlessly; the pieces fall together so well that we can hardly keep up with all the great positive energy.

This week several events have me thinking about positive approaches and what creates the flow of change.

The first event was a very successful presentation that Transition Los Angeles gave at Bioneers LA; the energy in the room afterwards was tangible excitement about positive possibilities.

The second event was a key meeting regarding the community garden we've been trying to install in my local neighborhood.  For ten years this land has sat empty, caught in political quagmire; this week it felt like someone had greased the skids as the project zipped into high gear.

The third incident reared up in harsh contrast: a piece I read by Michael Brownlee which asserted -- among other things -- that the rate of the Transition movement in the U.S. "seems to be slowing."  Whoa, certainly not around here!

Transition Los Angeles, as I have explained before, is a city hub.  With the number of people, we could even be called a region.  Interest in Transition here seems only to be accelerating.  Right now we are getting 2 to 3 requests per week for TLA speakers or appearances, and this is the middle of the holidays when I would think things would be slow.  In October our list of area-wide events grew so voluminous that we had to cease sending out one merged area-wide newsletter email; we will now be sending news in several blasts, one for each local neighborhood.  The number of new potential initiators and new groups interested in these ideas continues to expand, and other organizations are now seeking our input on projects and issues.  Transition might not yet be a household word in Los Angeles, but we're certainly gaining solid strides.


When I read the Brownlee piece, between the lines of his writing I could feel his struggle.  I could feel the drive of urgency, in that painful and unproductive way that urgency can drive us toward panic.  I felt for him, because I know this space.  I know this panicked energy.  I have been there personally.  Usually the best thing for me to do in such moments is to go out and spend a heavy sweat session tilling a section of my vegetable garden, actively doing something positive, getting back in touch (literally in touch) with what is tangible, fresh, alive, and real.

Personally, when I get caught up in that panicked urgency -- that feeling of "We've gotta change this whole society, NOW!" -- my writing topics, my powerpoint presentations, my selections of topics for our budding local neighborhood group, and the agenda items I pose at our TLA area-wide core team meetings reflect my panicked mood.  I tend to phrase things in the negative -- with lots of weighty "should"s, "must"s, "need to"s, and ultimatums -- and when I do that, things don't usually turn out very well. 

In those times my mind churns with the heavier aspects of this Transition world -- the Stoneleigh talk, the latest EIA and IEA peak oil projections, the (lack of) news from the latest climate talks -- I find it hard to break out of the doom.  I'll tend to make dark reading choices which further perpetuate the negative spiral, and many of Brownlee's quoted sources have been among these.  I get really caught up in the "half empty" part of the glass.  And I forget the lively lessons we're being sent daily from the UK and from Transition initiatives around the globe.

The early Transition materials twinkle with British humor, even with abject silliness.  For goodness sake, one of the key players over there is a clown!  Some of the Transition projects around the world glow with art and beauty, and it communicates through their photographs.  Others share music.  These are very special parts of this Transition journey -- precious experiences to be enjoyed and treasured.

All these things remind me to lighten up a bit.  My presentations go better when I joke with the audience instead of cursing when the projector doesn't work.  Our events go more smoothly and feel better when we laugh together to lighten the load of Knowing.  And everything seems to go better when we phrase things using the invitation of "lets" -- Let's do it.  Together we can.


"Martin Luther King did not proclaim 'I have a nightmare,'" Brownlee tells us Speth once wrote.  Perhaps that is precisely why we remember and refer to King's speech more than 40 years later.  America connected, very powerfully, with King's dream.

When I learned about Permaculture and things Transition, Bill McKibben was berating society in his frustration because no one was listening.  Environmentalists had been crying "I have a nightmare" for three decades and they were getting sorry little progress for their efforts.  This prompted Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus' 2004 article which declared "Environmentalism is dead."

Peter Rood and I founded our little organization in the Westchester area of Los Angeles -- the organization that eventually became the initiating group for Transition in Los Angeles -- because we wanted to Do Something about our environmental issues.  We didn't know what at the time, but we did know that we wanted to do something positive. 

From the very start, we didn't proclaim nightmares; we were about solutions (at least most of the time).  We taught people to use reuseable bags and eat local food off real china plates.  We taught people how to save water.  We dug up a lawn and planted a very public front yard vegetable garden.  When "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, we helped people discover What We Can Do about global warming.  We watched Bill McKibben shift to positive action, and our group joined his first Step It Up campaign which yielded more local actions than he'd ever dreamed possible. 

We focused on What We Can Do, and we trusted that the bad news would come along for the ride. We didn't beat people over the head with it.  Along the way, we discovered that people do know a lot about "the full extent of our predicament."  They know as much as they can emotionally handle at the moment, and that is usually a lot more than they're given credit for.

When Hopkins' work came on my radar, I liked his approach because he too was about What We Can Do. His approach was about communities, and working together, which really struck a powerful chord.  Yes the understanding of the serious stuff was in there, but Hopkins and friends were doing something positive about it.

Positive sells.  Positive is enticing.  Positive action gets the blood pumping and the energy flowing, and suddenly the sense of possibilities starts growing.  The hope grows, and with it, the creativity.  And it's that creativity we need to bring out and tap into if we're going to succeed in designing a Creative Descent from this energy and consumption pinnacle.

In this week's presentation at Bioneers LA, Anneke Campbell, one of the founding members of Transition Los Angeles and Transition Mar Vista, spoke of how the Transition movement is about living the life we wished we could anyway.  It's about living in deeper connection with our neighbors, living more simply than most of us have for most of our lives, and it includes the clear feelings of doing the right thing and living meaningfully with intention and purpose.

Like King, the Transition movement also has a dream:  that life after oil could be better than what we have now, if we prepare and plan for it.  And that dream draws people in.  It prompted Orion Magazine to write “If the Transition Initiative were a person, you’d say he or she was charismatic, wise, practical, positive, resourceful, and very, very popular.”

At our meeting this week here in Los Angeles with the mayor's office and the massive school district's representatives, we didn't beat them over the head with the nightmare.  We talked about the dream: of people having access to land on which to grow food, of kids learning how to grow food, being able to pick fruit from the trees.  They shared their dreams: of kids learning what it means to sell at farmers market, of having a culinary arts program so that kids could learn to prepare healthy food.  Another community group shared their dream:  that this abandoned acre of land can become beautiful and open to all.  Together, we'll start installing the garden in January.


"We will need a uniquely American approach to Transition," Brownlee writes, and I wholeheartedly agree with that line.  In fact, that is precisely what all the Transition materials encourage us to do:  adapt the materials to the unique needs of our local area.

From my initial foray into things Transition, I have been translating.  I live in the middle of the 5th largest metropolis in the world, more than 10 million people.  Even my local "neighborhood" in L.A. is more than 4 times Totnes' size.  Things get wildly different when you are coping with our scale.  Totnes and the Transition Network don't tell us how to put their materials into place here -- they don't have answers.  No one has ever done something like this before.  We have had to translate and develop a uniquely L.A. approach. 

When Brownlee writes "just transplanting the UK approach to Transition here may not work very well," it sounds like he's been thinking of the Transition model the way a suburban developer might:  trying to create little cookie-cutter replications of Totnes all over the place.

The very roots of the UK invention encourage creativity.  We weren't handed a plastic mold; we were offered a very loose set of suggestions.  They used to be called "guidelines," now evolving into "patterns."  Like a poem, they're open to terrific interpretation and reading-between-the-lines.  And some of the guidelines overtly encourage customization and a unique local approach.  That means we are all translators.  We're translating (sometimes literally) the Totnes/Hopkins message into what our individual communities need.  (I wrote more about translating new ideas here)

I see a beautiful richness happening in the reality unfolding around me.  Even here within the Los Angeles basin we already have unique flavor developing within each of our local groups.  The T. Mar Vista core team meets for casual chai.  Inglewood is growing up within a Catholic church.  T. San Fernando Valley knows from the outset that they really will be a region someday.  T. Culver City is integrated deeply into the City and political processes.  The choice of event topics, the choice of projects, and the feeling in the room during the meetings varies widely from site to site. 

As I read the materials coming from other U.S. initiatives, the variety pours forth.  Sebastopol's community mapping sounds great -- I hope one day we can try it here.  The tapes from the Transition Cascadia Regional Summit were awesome; I learned a lot by listening to the speakers from Reno and Whatcom and what they are doing there.  Here in L.A. we've had Transition visitors from Kentucky and Illinois, and we hear how they are going about it. The uniquely American approach, infused with rich local wisdom, is already underway.

The Totnes birthplace of the Transition movement continues to inspire us.  They are developing new ideas for their geography and, for the most part, sharing them quite openly for the world to copy.  The international Transition Network valiantly tries to be a place where all of us, U.S. included, can share what we are learning and developing so that others can do it too.  In short, we all need each other.  No one initiative, no one area, no one country or continent is in this alone.  We're all in this mess, and it's going to take all of us -- working together and sharing ideas -- to design a way out.


"Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails." -- David Ehrenfeld

Joanna Macy speaks of the three dimensions of the Great Turning.  Traditional environmentalism is in many cases a manifestation of Macy's first dimension:  Stopping Action, preventing further destruction, actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings. 

The Transition approach as outlined by Hopkins and now being experimented with and customized around the world, is primarily a movement growing up within Macy's second dimension: Creating New Structures, the creation of structural alternatives.  The Transition movement also touches upon Macy's third dimension, a Shift in Consciousness, a shift in our deeply ingrained values.  While some of the "heart and soul" elements do cross over, this third dimension is not the only focus of the Transition movement.

In his piece, it sounds like Brownlee seeks to morph the Transition movement from Macy's second dimension into the third.  It sounds like he wants to change an apple into an orange.  But that would leave the world with no apples.

One of the reasons I came to the Transition movement was that it seemed to me to be the most viable, most broad-based, deepest-thinking "second dimension" approach available.  There simply aren't any other organizations I have found which are Creating New Structures with as considered and informed and panoramic a scope. 

I have found other Creating New Structures organizations which were single-topic.  I have found other organizations which attempted to be panoramic but which lacked the concrete.  In my personal opinion the Permaculture movement -- in the hands of David Holmgren -- becomes panoramic in theory, but in practical manifestations here in the western U.S. has shown up to be rather narrow, mostly addressing the rural but sidestepping the urban issues.  It has taken Hopkins' interpretation of Holmgren's philosophy to create the marvel we have in the Transition movement.

Holmgren created the Permaculture Flower, a diagram I have long used in my presentations because it describes the panorama of human experience.  Traditional environmentalism in many cases concerns itself with one or two petals of the Flower.

Hopkins' brilliance is that he (or perhaps he and Giangrande) has created a way of applying Holmgren's Permaculture philosophy to each of the petals of the Flower:  to communities, to urban issues, to politics and economics.  The Transition movement is What We Can Do to move forward toward a more lasting human culture, beginning not with a clean slate but with what we have now.  It takes into account a full and realistic assessment of our power-hungry buildings, our paved cities, our urban demographic, our globalized food system, our crumbling economy.  It combines the reality of now with the dream of what can be.  It calls into action the collective creativity of the local people.  And then it creates a plan.

There are other organizations which are working to address the things Brownlee describes in his bullet points.  I would venture that no human being today truly meets Brownlee's mandate to "understand the spiritual reality of how to live on earth."  But there certainly are other groups and thinkers who are exploring what Macy calls the "third dimension."  Pachamama is one that comes to mind.  Or a peak-oil-aware environmental ministry within the Unitarian Universalist association of congregations.  Or the varied work of Starhawk.  Perhaps even the Emerging Church ideas of Phyllis Tickle.

But there is no other movement I have heard of that is creating a plan, putting in place new structures to replace the broken ones we have now, in local community after local community, cultivating an effort that is crafted grassroots by the people.  There is no other network I have heard of that is organized with the intent to so effectively address Macy's second dimension.  It's not perfect, and we have absolutely no guarantees that it will work.  But it's the best we've got. 

And at least around here, it is drawing the curious, the dabblers, the serious, and the passionately committed.  Like any social structure, it grows in fits and starts.  Rather than a mathematically calculated linear growth expectation, here in L.A. (in true local form, I must add) we're learning to surf the waves of volunteerism's ebbs and flows. 

Meanwhile, positive change is happening.  We're accomplishing some really great concrete projects, and linking and networking a great set of people.  This week has included some deeply heartfelt events, even if the promo fliers billed them as "garden swaps" and public speaking appearances.  Even if all this doesn't work out in the end, it sure is worth every moment of now.

Joanne Poyourow is a blogger at Transition U.S.  She is the co-founder of the Environmental Change-Makers, the group that brought Transition ideas to many areas of Los Angeles.  She serves on the core team of the Transition Los Angeles city hub.  At the moment she is up to her ears in drawings for the new Community Garden at the local middle school and her chickens are clamoring to be fed. 

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