His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when asked about the differences between the world’s faiths, usually chooses instead to focus on what they have in common. “The purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts” he says. In 2004 I had my climate change dark night of the soul. The urgency, the imperative nature of the scale of what we have to do, and the precariousness of what we could so easily lose, really landed within me. It wasn’t a good place to be. When I emerged from the other side, and began the process of piecing together what we now call Transition, one of the key questions for me was “what would a compassionate response to climate change look like?”
What would it look like, I wondered, if we saw climate change as a remarkable gift, as our opportunity to practice loving kindness on a vast scale, to design an approach that started at the community scale and went on to inspire a shift at all levels, which brought us closer together rather than driving us further apart? It is this question of what a compassionate response could look like that has driven me since the Transition began.
Here in the UK, sociologists talk about there being “an epidemic of loneliness”. An epidemic of loneliness. For the dysfunctional economists, planners and advisors who drive our economy ever onwards, that is considered an entirely acceptable side-effect of progress. But we can already see in the projects and activities emerging through the Transition movement that it is perfectly possible to create an economy that makes us healthier, better-connected and happier.
A study of the Bristol Pound (the local currency in which the city’s former Mayor took his full salary) found that people using the currency had substantially more conversations than those that didn’t. A Repair Cafe run by the Transition group in Pasadena in the US offers to repair anything for free, the only trade required is that while the repair takes place, you sit in a chair opposite the fixer and tell them a story about your life.
Transition Town Media in Pennsylvania opened a Free Store, but they see it, rather than as being about the goods, or the trade, as being a “compassion-building exercise”. In Brussels, in a community best known as a red-light district, families have created a food garden in the street, and found that for the first time ever, people stop and talk to each other, children come out to play, a community begins to meet itself.
In London, a member of Transition Kensal to Kilburn reads a story about an elderly woman who died and whose body lay undiscovered for 6 years, leading him to wonder, on his busy London street, if he died, who might notice? In response, and inspired by noting grapes growing in neighbouring streets and by meeting an 80 year old Italian man, he kicked off the ‘Unthinkable Drinkable’ project, which resulted in everyone on his street coming out and taking it in turns to tread wine in the traditional manner. The resultant wine, ‘NW6’ (the area’s postcode) was, as they readily admit, “borderline undrinkable”, but in reality they have fermented, created, initiated something far more important. In the same way, what was the garden project in Brussels really growing? What was the Repair Cafe really repairing?
Ruah Swennerfelt’s book is a hugely important contribution to the growing literature on Transition. Since its inception, Transition has taken itself in many unexpected directions, has continually surprised us, has popped up, like mushrooms in an Autumn field, sometimes in places we expected it to, and sometimes where we really didn’t expect it to. The interest of the world of faith communities, initially reflected in Tim Gorringe and Rosie Beckham’s book The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, has been one of those unexpected, yet delightful, developments. Rising to the Challenge takes it to another level, and has done us a great service. It does what Transition does so beautifully, it seeks common ground.
I am often heard to say that the building of common ground is one of the great tasks of our times, putting our own egos, positions, familiarities to one side in the interests of finding common ground. Mahasiddha Machig Lhadbron, an 11th century Tibetan mystic, wrote:
“To realise the essence of consciousness…
Approach what you find repulsive
Help whoever you think you cannot help.
Let go of anything you are attached to
Go to places that scare you.
It is advice that is as useful when working to build community resilience as when trying to realise the essence of consciousness. While those rooted in activism tend to feel drawn to doing, to rolling their sleeves up and making projects happen, those rooted in faith can also bring tools and insights rooted in being. It’s an area that distinguishes Transition from other similar community-led approaches, I think, the focus it gives to the inner life of groups, to the need to factor in personal resilience. It recognises that there is no point trying to replace the current way in which our culture and our economy works by pushing for an alternative but trying to get there by behaving in the same ways as what we’re trying to change.
In Transition, great care is taken to ensure that groups know how to run successful meetings, how to resolve conflict, how to design meetings that people will actually look forward to going to, to the observation that how a project is done is as important as what the project itself achieves. And this in turn requires creating spaces for stillness, for reflection, for listening. Something faith groups have been doing for more than just a little longer than Transition groups.
I think that as well as an environmental case for Transition, we are also building a case for it being a public health and wellbeing strategy. We know that acting more compassionately has beneficial impacts on the people around us, it can be infectious, it can make us healthier and more able to resist disease, it can generate more pro-environmental behaviour and it helps us overcome depression. When done well, Transition creates numerous invitations for people to act kindly, to act compassionately, to connect with others in a world that increasingly isolates us.
Just as Transition focuses on the art of finding and nurturing common ground with those around us, so this book focuses on finding and nurturing common ground between faiths, common ground that could yield so very much in our pursuit of a stable climate and more resilient world. While it is important that Transition itself is not co-opted by any particular faith or spiritual perspective, and remains open and inviting to as many people as possible, it offers, as this book shows, a powerful tool for faith groups to come together around.
So thank you Ruah, thanks to everyone whose stories appear in these pages, and may this book prove to be the catalyst that it deserves to be.
Rob Hopkins, Transition Network.
You can download ‘Rising to the Challenge: the Transition Movement and People of Faith’ for free here, or order a hard copy through Amazon.