“The hills are alive with the sound of music, tra la la la...” is what I was singing to myself on the day we were walking through the countryside, laughing and talking and sharing about ourselves. I either felt like Julie Andrews or Heidi. (I know, I know, Julie was in Austria and Heidi was in Switzerland, but it still felt like that.) But I get ahead of myself....
The French Alps
Other than a few distracting aggravations on the four trains from Barcelona to Grenoble (like my credit card company deciding that when I was trying to buy train tickets in a very crowded station with a long line behind me and using a language that wasn’t mine, was the time to decline authorization), I was mesmerized by the scenery as we eventually made our way into the French Alps. Grenoble was a much larger city than I had imagined and my wish for a day exploring a small French village was not granted. That doesn’t mean that the city isn’t lovely and the setting with the great mountains all around isn’t spectacular, but coming from a town of 4,000 people in Vermont, I get tired of the big city bustle after a few days, so most of my time in Grenoble was spent catching up with my writing.
Arriving at the French Transition Conference
The next day I headed deeper into the mountains by train to my destination in Trieves where there was scheduled an all-France Transition conference, Fete de la Transition apres petrole (Feast of the transition after oil). The ascent was breathtaking with brief views of quaint villages, farmland, and high mountains. Trieves is a district made up of a number of small villages. Trieves en Transition was the first Transition Initiative in France which is why the conference was being held in this very out-of-the-way, but exquisite, place.
When I arrived at the Clelle-Mens train station Pascal Lluch picked me up. It turns out that Pascal lives in this fairyland. He makes his living leading walks in many places in the world, but loves it most when he gets a group to walk around his chosen homeland. Does it interest you? Go to www.randopays.com. We arrived during lunch and a plate of wonderful food was brought to me. It included a half of a zucchini sliced lengthwise grilled with scrumptious cheese on top, some delightful soft cheese, salad, and bread. What a way to begin this conference. Then I was introduced to many wonderful people.
Dinner at the Conference
An interview with Naresh Giagrande
Naresh Giangrande came from Totnes, England to support the conference and the special celebration of Transition Trieves becoming official to take place the next day. Naresh co-founded the Transition movement with Rob Hopkins back around 2005. How lucky could I be to meet him at this conference? In about 2002 he received an email from a friend about how rapidly our climate was changing and it woke him up to the immediacy of the problem, recognizing that it was something our generation had to deal with. Then, after a lot of research, he also learned about peak oil and began giving talks wherever he could until he met up with Rob Hopkins in Totnes, who was involved with permaculture. The two of them decided to collaborate and the Transition movement was born. Rob wrote the book and Naresh created the trainings. He does ask himself if there’s anything else that he should be doing that would take him away from the Transition work and the answer keeps coming--no, because it’s a positive, nurturing, hopeful process. It’s like a virus and is infecting so many people and places and it gives him hope.
“The challenge for our times is how to create the Transition,” said Naresh. His vision includes a re-localized economy, living more simply, with mobility reduced, but what excites him is how to create system change, how to move from where we are to where we need to get. He does say that the vision needs to be informed by hard science as well as our feelings and our intuitions. “A hundred years ago in Totnes we used to create the cake and import the icing. Today we import the cake and create only the icing. We need to turn that back around” said Naresh. Totnes is a town with lots of agricultural land around and so the transition is really possible there. He mentioned what Bill McKibben did in his book, Eaarth, the concern by many that small town life will be boring if we don’t have the level of external entertainment to rely on. How can we assure people that life can be rich and full through relationships instead of relying on what we know consider entertainment?
Naresh often sees the deep cynicism in the young people he meets who no longer believe that the current system will give us what we need. He believes that we are in the melt-down phase. He understands that an inner transition is an essential part of the Transition movement. Naresh shared, “As I do this work and change inside, I see that there are times when I go into a “liquid state” and that’s the state where I think we are in--entering this liquid state and people are going in many directions, eco-villages, transition work, etc. and this multi-directional quest for a changing world gives me hope.” At the end of a Transition Training Naresh doesn’t tell the participants to now go out and do Transition work, he instead says “don’t go out and create a Transition Town, go out and do something different, we need diversity and we’ll be the geese honking you on your way.”
More impressions and interviews with two of the co-founders of Transition Trieves
In the dining hall there was a large map of France and people put up stickers to show where they came from and most of France was represented. I was surprised by the number of people from other countries who are now living in France. I met folks from Germany, Scotland, England, Switzerland, and the U.S. Interestingly, many of France’s Transition initiatives were started by these foreigners, but soon French locals joined in. The people at the conference were enthusiastic, but awed by what needs to be done.
I spoke with two of the initiators of Transition Trieves, Pierre Bertrand and Jeremy Light. Jeremy, a biologist, had a revelation 50 years ago while in Antarctica and has worked on environmental issues ever since. He came to Trieves from England to work at the Center Terre Vivante (Living Earth), an ecological center. Jeremy saw Transition as a logical movement to enhance the work he was already doing. He would like to see Trieves be much more locally reliant and believes that’s the essence of being resilient. He avoids any prescription of what should be, instead encouraging many different initiatives. He also described the Transition movement as spreading like a virus around the planet. It’s very broad in scope and invites all to join in.
Left to right: Pierre Bertrand, Jeremy Light, Ralph Bohlke
Pierre discovered the peak oil problem in about 2004 and realized it was a crucial problem for our society. He had a background with a number of environmental groups and was disappointed in their usual, activist approach. Then when he read Rob Hopkins book, The Transition Handbook, he said, “This is it. Because here there were many things that could help us transition rather quickly. And Jeremy and I decided to found it in Trieves.” He believes that their valley is ripe for the Transition--that it can be an energy-producing place in addition to an agriculture-producing place. There’s a rich, cultural life in the villages and people have strong relationships to one another. Instead of supermarkets, there are many small shops. The evidence of the success of their efforts is that last fall there were 12 to 15 initiating groups and now there are more than 50. He vision is primarily about agriculture. Trieves is part of the global food market and what is produced there is not consumed locally and Pierre wants to see that reversed. Now 40% of the population works out side of the region and he’d like to see more people working locally. He’s impressed with how many people around the globe are working on solutions, but they are working within the dominant financial system, forces that are very strong, and this will bring us to hard times. Pierre said, “The Transition Movement can bring people together before they start fighting one another.”
Are we pessimistic or optimistic about the future?
One morning two of us elders were talking with a young man who was very pessimistic about whether the work could get done in time. He saw that the crisis is now and was impatient with the step-by-step approach of the Transition work. Susan (more about her later) and I tried to explain that the only way to a transition was working with those who live where we do, and shared that the importance of believing it would make a difference. It’s heartbreaking to hear of the despair of this young man. I hope we can all reach out to those in despair and give them hope.
Antoine Fernandes was the chef for the meals at the hostel. In Grenoble he co-owns a restaurant which includes a bookshop and vegetable store. The restaurant is proud to use mostly local food. Although Antoine is a political activist, he is also pessimistic about how far the Transition movement can really transition. Though he did say that he has a two-year-old child and that he can’t afford to be sad about the future, so working with others helps him out of that sadness. He does appreciate how the movement in Trieves has brought together a lot of initiatives which is key to living into the vision of a post-petroleum world. He said that if he was the local dictator he would bring in local industry to transform what is grown into products for sale. This would provide jobs and infuse money into the economy. Antoine would also like Trieves to include clothing manufacturing and paper production. In other words, his vision includes more local business to become self sufficient. He thinks we need to change our relationship with time. We need to slow down--our travel, our work, our entertainment.
One question several people had, including Ralph Bohlke from Germany, was whether Transition can happen in a large city. He lives in Paris, a city of 11 million people, and, although there are several Transition Initiatives in various districts, people in Paris often associate across district lines, which makes it more challenging. Ralph was a part of an anti-globalization movement that has a reputation for being aggressive and only mentioning what was wrong. When Ralph cam across the Transition Movement, he was thrilled that it took all the wrong into account, but was proposing an alternative. Paris is reported to be the most densely populated city in the world. Paris is not resilient and doesn’t have the capability to be a buffer for anything. Paris has to create more spaces, more green spaces for growing things and for breathing space. He would also like to see the streets with less cars. The relationships of neighbors is almost non-existent. Roof-top gardens are impossible because most of the roofs are slanted. If you make some streets only pedestrian, it becomes a place for people to gather, something that is lacking. Ralph sensed a global unhappiness, but the people don’t know how to put a name on it. He wants to put words to it so the unhappiness can be defined as a first step, including imagining the Transition for Paris.
Drawing visions of the future of the area
Workshops at the conference
The first day I was there there were workshops that had begun the day before. Many people were happily creating solar ovens out of recycled materials to take home with them. They took apart dryer bins for their stainless steel reflective material and used old kitchen cabinet parts for the boxes. Not only did they gain some carpentry skills, but they would now be able to reduce their carbon footprint, using their ovens. I learned that the sun shines 300 days a year in France! Another group was learning about and applying a combination of lime, plaster, and ground up hemp as an interior finish. It’s better than concrete-type plaster because it doesn’t cause the environmental damage that concrete does. This was being applied at a self-built, two-family, passive-solar house being constructed nearby. The young man building the house said that the neighbor complained that the house wouldn’t look like his and was oriented south instead of toward the street. Change and innovation can bring difficulties everywhere.
An interview with a peak oil expert
I heard that Benoit Thevard has visited many of the fledgling initiatives to give talks on peak oil. People spoke highly of his ability to explain things in a way that the complex subject is readily understood. Benoit, who has a degree in energy engineering, lives in Chateanneuf-sur-Loire and hopes to begin a Transition initiative there. He’s already approached local government about peak oil, food needs, and basic needs for resilience and at that event 25 people gave him their contact information. He earns his living from speakers fees and has much support from his family, including his grandmother who gives him a room in her house. He’s very interested in education and has programs for the very young as well as for those in secondary school (high school). In 2009 he was in Quebec in an eco-village, working with an energy expert who explained about peak oil and there discovered the Transition network. He thought it was a very good idea, because it’s based on a scientific observation with an objective of resilience. Back in France he decided to give conferences about peak oil and realized he could not define the problem without giving a real solution and giving something for people to do to make a difference. “You don’t have to wait to do something, you can do it now,” he said. Benoit believes that people won’t make the change without understanding the problem and the Transition movement provides the foundation for that change.
Benoit would like to improve the self sufficiency in food and healthcare in his region. He’d like to see a new burst of a social link among people. He thinks the use of oil and energy, in general, separates us from each other. Benoit believes that since the new generation didn’t experience the war and it’s deprivations, they don’t know what it’s like to not have enough in the supermarkets. He recognizes that we don’t have a long time to work before the peak oil problem hits us and we may be faced with not much food on the shelves. Benoit wants people to understand we’re on a planet with finite resources, and with that understanding, a global solution is possible.
More impressions and interviews
There were young families with children at the conference which included workshops for the children. We were in a very simple hostel-like facility which offered space to families and groups with a large kitchen, shared showers and toilets, and dorm rooms. The view from the back included the famous Mont Eiguille (Mount Needle), named so because it looks extremely thin when viewed from the west. At dinner, a delightful plate of vegetarian food was offered and bottles of wine came out, purchased by individuals. Two of us decided to purchase a bottle the next day for dinner.
Anne Ambles from Transition Mayenne in Northwestern France took some time to speak with me. They’re just beginning, with two really committed and 10 people coming to meetings. They’ve had one public lecture on peak oil and climate change that was very successful. They recently had a booth at the local foods market (similar to a farmers market) displaying two trays, one with local, seasonal products, and one with typical products consumed in the home. On each tray were energy calculators. Anne is attracted to the Transition movement because it is what is needed now for humanity and the earth. When she discovered the movement, she found that utopia was possible.
Transition Day in Mens
After our lovely walk through the countryside we entered Mens where most of the buildings are pre-sixteenth century, approached a small wine shop, and were invited into the wine cellar to choose our wine. The proprietor was quite a talker and kept turning to me while speaking rapidly in French even though I told him I didn’t speak French. Others helped with the translation, our choices were made, bottles paid for, and we walked the rest of the way to the community building. It all felt like a fairy tale to me. We sat outside the building, eating our lunch, cheeses, and raw veggies, popped a couple of bottles of wine and had a grand time. I kept having to pinch myself to be sure this was all real.
At that point I had the chance to interview Kris French and Susan Cerezo. Kris, a transplant from Oregon, living in Montpellier with her French husband, Pascal. Transition Montpellier is a start up and has discussion groups and a screening of In Transition where 60 people attended. She is drawn to Transition because it’s very connected to permaculture, which was her door to Transition. Although Transition recognizes the serious problems, it very quickly moves into finding solutions and optimism, and how we can create a new future for ourselves. Susan moved to France 40 years ago from England and lives in Burgundy. There are 4,000 people living in her town, but there are also small villages surrounding that increase that population base. She helped start her Transition group last year. There are now 11 in the pilot group, 20 “on the edge” and 100 on the email list. After 40 years of being an activist and thinking a lot about where we are headed as a planet and seeing how hard it is to get people together, she came to burnout and felt depressed. She then realized that something was missing, that there was a lack of a spiritual side to her work and she became a Buddhist practitioner. That led her to discover Joanna Macy and her work, and met up with her in England. That immediately gave her courage and while in England met some people in the Transition movement and recognized that this was just right for her, that that’s the way to do it--it’s joyful, its open to everyone, it’s positive, and it’s local.
In Montpellier the politicians already have a vision and created a pedestrian center in the historic part of town. It has an urban plan in place and is already working on a good transportation program. Kris wants more spaces for community gardens and is involved in a community orchard. She envisions food gardens on their balconies and lots more green spaces used for vegetables, applying permaculture principles as much as possible. She also imagines a lot of work being done on waste management and helping people understand that waste is a resource. Kris and Pascal gave up their car about 6 years ago and are committed to living in city centers, so good public transportation is essential for them. Susan sees a countryside full of people interacting socially and helping each other again, not being so suspicious of one another and living such insular lives. He vision really is about community.
Kris thinks the global vision will be made up of many smaller micro-visions, clusters of activities and synergies. If we think too much about the global vision it’s overwhelming and not within our reach and people then tend to feel helpless. In Permaculture you work with zones that help you configure your space. You start with zone zero which is your personal dwelling and Kris is working on her personal zone first, then radiating out farther from home. She said, “small actions really do make a difference. We don’t need to think about how we are going to save the world. Let’s just think about how we are going to be happy on our neighborhood block and walk through our towns and like what we see. It really needs to start small. The Transition is really global and I feel the solidarity with others, but will continue to focus where I live.” Susan does have a global vision. Susan sees that things are “stepping up around the world.” She sees this as a great adventure and that it’s a wonderful time to be alive.
Inside the building were booths representing various Transition initiatives in France, (mostly in Trieves) permaculture, composting, a free zone of clothing and stuff, and much more. There was a table where people could draw or write about their own 2050 visions. Before dinner there was a public celebration of Transition Trieves becoming official with the mayor and other local politicians at hand and for speeches and a welcoming by Naresh. It was really very moving. The building was packed with people and all who worked so hard to make this happen felt it was a very successful day. The last two bottles of wine were opened for dinner and shared around with much gaiety and well-being. Following was music and dancing. A delightful day!
The hills in Trieves are alive with a song of what is music to my ears--a song of peace, of hope, and of a resilient future.
Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Transition Charlotte, Vermont. She and her husband and live in an off-grid house, making their electricity from solar energy and growing much of their own food. Ruah has embarked on a search for answers to the question of how our civilization will survive the current “perfect storm” of peak oil, climate disruption, and economic contraction. "Like a quilt, each piece (each initiative) is unique and beautiful on its own, but the finished quilt is something greater than the parts. I hope that my research will reflect this whole as a blueprint for our necessary transition," writes Ruah. Her search will take her to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Europe, and North America. See her recent blog entries >>