Crash Course Meets Transition Town

by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Great minds think alike. Or at least some of them do, some of the time. So it is that Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell each invented the telephone, Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk each found a vaccine for polio, and Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin each developed a theory of natural selection to explain evolution.

Rob Hopkins in Transition Town Totnes

More recently, while Rob Hopkins was developing his ideas about making the transition “from oil dependency to local resilience,” the subtitle of his Transition Handbook, Chris Martenson was developing his Crash Course to explain why he thinks “the next twenty years are going to look very different from the last twenty years.”

I don’t know either man to speak to, but it seems clear that Hopkins (who keeps himself pretty much in the background) started with energy issues, while Martenson (who does quite the opposite) started with the economy. Both, however, have come to address what Martenson calls the Three E’s – Economy, Energy, and Environment.

And, to my delight, both were present (Hopkins, who lives in Devon, England, in spirit; Martenson, who lives in Montague, Massachusetts, a half hour’s drive from where he spoke, in the flesh) at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts, one night last week. Representing Hopkins and the Transition Inititive were two members of Transition Town Totnes (England), of which Hopkins is the co-founder.

Martenson’s Crash Course – its title a delicious double meaning – is about economic, energy,

Chris Martenson, Ph.D.

and environmental disasters – a crash of the world as we know it. It’s also a six-hour condensation of what it took him more than four years to research and learn. The course is available to view for free on his web site (it’s divided into chapters so you don’t have to see it all at once), and as a DVD you can download, or buy, or get from someone like me, who got it from someone and makes copies to hand to people, with Martenson’s generous encouragement.

Hopkins’s Transition Handbook starts with the indisputable premise that we’re running out of oil and that that’s going to alter life as we know it. Where Martenson’s focus is more nearly (but not entirely) on individual survival, Hopkins’s is much more on developing the skills and attitudes that will facilitate the survival of communities. Hence Transition Towns – and there are many, worldwide, and more in the formative stages, including Transition Northampton, where we saw the two streams begin to flow together, and Transition Warwick, the nascent effort in my town of 750 people.

Call me classist if you wish, but I see the difference in emphasis between the two approaches as one between the middle class and working class experience. I don’t see the Martensons getting into no-till gardening in a big way, developing hands-on skills the way the Transition folks are doing. That’s not to say one is better than the other – we need people who have experienced having real money to work with (Martenson has a PhD in pathology and was a vice president in a Fortune 300 corporation) and who have learned to live with less.

One of the best things I heard all evening came from Becca Martenson, who introduced her husband and apparently has a role in the multi-day Crash Course seminars that are part of what they offer.

We have decreased our standard of living, but we have greatly increased our quality of life.

If we could all start doing that, perhaps the crash might be more like a thump.

With supreme hubris, I took notes through Chris Martenson’s at-least-90-minute presentation (his slide file was named “Northampton 50 minute”) thinking I’d give you a precis. I can’t, because I can’t decide what’s less important than something else, and can be left out. The man is a master of organization; he provides mountains of information about our economy in bite-sized pieces, each built upon the last, until you’re sitting there with your mouth open thinking, “Oh, that’s how it goes.”

Case in point: for three or four years now my husband and I have been looking at prices of things we used to buy in the supermarket and saying wryly, “Aren’t you glad there’s no inflation?” Chris Martenson told us why there is, why it doesn’t show up in the government’s statistics, and how much actual inflation there’s been in the past few years.

I’m still stuck with the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator when I want to compare dollar values in two different years, but in future I’ll provide their numbers with a pinch of salt.

The thrust of Martenson’s information is this: The way the world’s economy is structured, it must grow from one year to the next. It takes energy to make the economy grow. But the supply of energy is shrinking, and there’s no way to make it grow. So what do we do about the economy?

What we must do, he says, is create a solution that doesn’t depend on the status quo. Will we do this by default, or by design?

The Transition Initiative is one form of design. That’s why I was so delighted to see the two people from Totnes, who gracefully adapted what had to be a much longer presentation into one of about fifteen minutes. Surely they didn’t fly across the pond for that. Transition is about conserving resources, not wasting them. They told a bit about what they’d done, encouraged us to be creative and hopeful, and got people from many towns assembled in the hall to meet in clusters and discuss where they wanted to take the Transition movement in their locality.

Action is the antidote for despair.

In spite of all the gloomy forecasts that confronted the audience, there was an air of determined optimism that gives me reason to hope that the world will weather what comes without falling into the trap of violence. Statistics say I won’t be around to see how this all comes out. My genetic heritage says I will. Either way is OK with me. I came home from Northampton with faith in the future, as different from the present as it will be.

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2 Responses to “Crash Course Meets Transition Town”

  1. I am going to get my hands on that “handbook” and read it. Wow. Cool. Excellent work.

  2. Thanks for this report. Intriguing.  I’ve shifted more to bicycling, less use of my car, and agree that quality of life has improved.  A few years ago I was motivated by the film The End of Suburbia.

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