Reflections on two days with Stoneleigh

When an international peak oil celebrity comes through Totnes, Rob Hopkins often posts a brilliantly insightful interview with carefully crafted questions and thoughtful interchanges.

Last week, Nicole Foss (pen name "Stoneleigh") came through Los Angeles.  Rather than sitting down for an hour or so of focused interview like it sounds Hopkins does, ours was a multi-day visit unfolding amid the stark realities of our Transition operations.

Nicole arrived on my doorstep a few hours early while I was still scrambling to print future events fliers for distribution at the evening's event, and simultaneously giving my homeschooled daughter a spelling test.  I made lunch while Nicole availed herself of my wifi.  Soon we were dashing off to connect with other members of the Transition LA team, copy the fliers, dress for the evening, then jump into our carpool.  (breathe!)

Nicole, TLA core team member John Tikotsky, and I spent about an hour and a half sitting in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic through downtown L.A. en route to the evening's venue.  Many times I have sat on that iconic stretch of freeway with luxury glass towers on either side.  To me, with deep knowledge of peak oil and economic contraction, that stretch of landscape is perhaps the ultimate tribute to our ecological disconnect and oil-fueled folly.  It was delightful to drive through there immersed in peak-aware discussion:  agreeing that, without energy, those towers will become pretty much useless beyond the fifth floor; that without pumping, water won't reach the third.  Savoring together my teen son's vision that a lane or so of freeway would be plenty adequate for two-way bicycle transportation, freeing up miles and miles of open space throughout the city for water harvesting and food production.

It was a relief to escort an out-of-town visitor who saw things in their appropriate light:  rather than oohs and ahs of admiration over high-flying freeway interchanges, we spoke quietly and seriously about the similarly-constructed Oakland freeway that pancaked, and how one might navigate a city with bridges downed from earthquakes.  Those downed bridges would likely be irreplaceable due to economics and post-petroleum times.

On Friday, between appearances, we had snatches of Transition discussion over the kitchen table.  I made her breakfast with eggs from my backyard chickens -- she has a farm flock several times the size of mine -- and she expressed enthusiasm that city folk are now trying such things.  She voiced her frustration that so often cities' regulations foolishly block the very things their citizens will need to survive the times ahead, things like front-yard vegetables, urban chickens, and hanging out the laundry.  All in the name of "property values" (which, once you've been through a Stoneleigh lecture, you know is a completely laughable concept).

Nicole's youngest daughter is the age of my son.  I found a knowledgeable parent to whom I could pose my nagging questions:  Are you sending yours to college?  Her answers were as varied as the three young adults she is launching into the world.  Sort of.  Maybe.  Perhaps not.  But in any case, don't go into debt over it.  The salaries this crumbling economy will be paying when they emerge from school will never be adequate to repay those college loans.  Nicole shared my cynicism that any of the school systems are preparing students for the realities of the life they will experience in adulthood.

How much do your kids get of what you do?  Quite a bit, she said.  One of hers is currently in school to become a massage therapist, which sounds like she's headed for a powerdown career.  Another is a budding opera singer -- not exactly what I would think of as far as a powerdown or lean-times career, but it does qualify for that part of Nicole's presentation where she quips "Be entertaining -- truly entertaining people rarely starve."

We didn't take her to the typical first-time-in-L.A. tourist landmarks.  Instead we took her to the weekly potluck lunch gathering at one of our community gardens where she had a chance to mingle with yet another circle of people.  Our short drive took us through the much-embattled-and-now-built-upon local wetlands where we pondered whether sea level rise and seawater incursions into groundwater basins would erode reinforcements within concrete footings and destabilize buildings.  We scoffed at the tsunami warning signs, which would hardly "prepare" for what we saw in Japanese videos.  We talked about San Onofre and its proximity to L.A., its totally inadequate seawall, its similar design to Fukushima, and its track record of safety violations.

I did take her to Venice beach, where we wandered the shoreline with my young daughter.  Nicole seemed happy then, reminiscing over other much more northern beaches she had visited around the world.  We found beautifully colored seashells to show each other and talked further about our children, their peers, and their possible futures.

Although she owns a 40-acre farm near Quebec, Nicole Foss isn't there much.  She says they grow some vegetables, "as much as my daughter has time for," and they rent out the fields in order to continue to qualify for a farm designation for taxes.  She figures that one day her farm would be a good place for an intentional community, but it dosesn't sound like she has done much to begin making that happen.  She hasn't found much connection within her local community and neighborhood, and flings stinging quips about how Canadians are the greatest per-capita energy consumers on the planet with no plans to do anything about it.  As we wandered two gardens, intensely planted with food and medicine, Nicole hardly seemed to notice the functional plants; she photographed the succulent and cactus demonstration garden instead.  She spends much of her time traveling and lecturing.  Although she drives rather than flying, it's not from an ethics decision like Hopkins made, but in effort to keep touring costs low.  This is her chosen work, and light and lift came into her voice when she talked about making a living doing meaningful work.  Upon our final goodbyes, she admitted that if she wasn't out doing lectures, she'd go crazy from what she knows.

As I reflect back on my time with Nicole, it seems to me she is a person burdened with very heavy knowledge about the future of our world.  Her chosen mission is to share those dark secrets, because others must know the truth and the breadth of it in order to do anything about it.  Everyone whom she encounters becomes another opportunity to share in-depth about that which she knows.  She is immersed in The Dark Side day in and day out and there doesn't seem to be much relief.

This morning I was cataloging Transition Los Angeles' film library, and came across a DVD of Sophy Banks.  Merely handling the DVD reminded me of Sophy's soft voice and the balance she tries to instill within the Transition journey.  I'm reminded of how I personally can get immersed in the tsunami effect of the Dark Side.  It sweeps over everything around me.  Like the "hot particles" from Fukushima that Nicole talks of, the dark ideas lodge deep inside and fester, tempering my view of the world.  Those are the hardest times.  Which is why my chosen mission has been to share *what we can do* about The Dark Side.  How to begin to turn it into light.

After hearing the Stoneleigh talk three times (once via the video of the UK Transition Conference, and sitting through both L.A. sessions), it doesn't affect me as much.  Certainly my two days with Nicole have informed and broadened my digesting knowledge, such that I am certain the things I have learned will dribble out over a very long period of time rather than condensed to a single blog post.  But interestingly, two days with Nicole didn't pop me back into another shell-shocked "End of Suburbia" moment.  I guess I've already had that.

Nicole departed L.A. on Saturday morning, as I dashed to a leadership meeting for the community garden we are building.  Instantly I was up to my eyeballs in construction details and fundraising plans.  This is the roll-up-your-sleeves kind of thing I like to do.  Cleansing action, positive results, knowing all along, through hard work and occasional frustration, that we're making a difference.  When we get done there will be yet one more food garden.  True, it isn't enough, but it is something and it's real.  Positive action, plus striving to live more and more of the powerdown lifestyle that I teach -- that's what keeps me from going crazy.

The Stoneleigh talks are heavy stuff.  I recommend them highly to every community.  You absolutely must fold this economics information into all of your plans for the future (why?)  But I have a few recommendations:

  • Community discussion followup event.  After our local groups show a dark peak oil movie like "End of Suburbia," we don't turn on the lights and send everyone home.  We hold a discussion, to help people process and integrate what they have just seen, and to begin to see that together we can start building solutions.  The Stoneleigh talks run long, so an after-discussion is hardly possible unless you are lucky enough to get her on a weekend (in which case schedule her talk for mid-afternoon).  I strongly recommend that, even as you calendar Stoneleigh, calendar an after-event.  A discussion circle a few days or a week later.  You'll need it.
  • What We Can Do.  Nicole told us the DVD she sells online is of the older version of her talk.  In it she goes into more detail about the problems.  She has since shortened that portion and goes into more detail about what we can do about it.  But in my opinion it is still not enough.  You, the hosting group, will have to make up the gap.  You will have to showcase all the financial solutions around you.  At our Pasadena showing, we had a presentation from the local time bank.  If you have anything like that in your area, make it available to your audience, and help them to see the possibilities.

Here is the "Economic Resilience" handout (pdf) we offered attendees at the L.A. Stoneleigh events.  I'll be revising it to fold in more of Stoneleigh's recommendations, but for now it is a condensed version of my "Economic Resilience" piece.

  • More than the usual suspects.  Reach out into new populations, well beyond your Transition email loops and beyond green and political contingents.  Invite Rotary, business leads groups, and more.  DEFINITELY get it into the newspapers and post fliers at public places around town.  The Stoneleigh material applies to everyone, whether they are working in business, social justice, environmental issues, or government.  Try to engage as many people as possible for this particular event.
  • Remember the inner Transition balance.  Be gentle with yourself.  Plan nothing for the day after (or perhaps plan an inner Transition circle).  Make sure you, your local leadership, and your participants are taken care of.  You will need time to come to terms with these ideas.

Our two L.A. area events went well and we now have 150+ more people who have been exposed to these paradigm-shifting ideas.  We have plans to buy Stoneleigh's "Century of Challenges" DVD and show it in the near future, followed by a community discussion open to both DVD viewers and attendees of the live lectures.

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