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This Changes Everything. So Now What?

This Changes Everything. So Now What? thumbnail

“Economic Power is always tied to Political Power. And what is happening is that we want political power, but we put ourselves into economically powerless situations and wonder why we aren’t more empowered.”

-Ashley Sanders

Blog post submitted by Russell Evans, Transition Lab

In the last year, I’ve read and enjoyed the discussions coming out of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, as well as the great article Six Myths about Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question. The core point within both of these is that our lifestyle needs to fundamentally change if we have any chance of addressing the climate crisis.

Yet missing from this conversation are ideas that are both practical and radical. Ideas which could serve as a blueprint for what a fundamentally different lifestyle would look like. Just as changing lightbulbs won’t be enough, we also know that occupying Wall Street is not a practical choice for most Americans. So what we need are ideas which are radical enough to cause widespread change, yet practical enough, that folks living in the suburbs could put them into practice.

I think ideas like this are what most environmentalists have been searching for. Disappointed that I couldn’t find any answers myself, I started a number of projects in 2010 to experiment with practical and radical ways that I could at least transition my own lifestyle. Since then, this project has become an award winning school called Transition Lab, and I am now sure that we have come up with some of the steps needed to creating the change we need.

The following is a blueprint for how all of you can get to work right now. I also know these steps that are both practical and radical because everything that I describe here has already been accomplished in a small, rural, and ridiculously conservative town in Western Colorado. That is to say, if we did this here, you can do this anywhere.

So let’s start by identifying where we are:

If we agree that an economy based on unlimited resource extraction is destroying the planet, and that our consumeristic lifestyle is the thing that keeps this economy in motion, then debt is the biggest and most powerful force that guarantees our continued participation. Why? Well if you are like my wife and I, we owe around $200,000 between our home mortgage and some student loans. Most Americans are in similar situations. Since all of that debt is in dollars, most of us will choose to participate in the global economy to try to pay it off. If we don’t, our system is set up to take all that we have earned and own away from us. It’s that powerful. Barring the unlikely scenario of major debt strikes or loan forgiveness programs, the status quo is not going to let us off the hook. So, at least until the debt (that we voluntarily have taken on) is gone, we need to keep participating in the global economy whether we like it or not.

In the same way that debt essentially forces us to participate in this economy, it also prevents us from being the truly creative individuals who will develop more elegant ways of living. Why? Well, the more debt we have, the more we concentrate on earning money to pay off that debt, and the less freedom we have to plant gardens, meditate, take care of our relatives, spend time with our neighbors, or work to pass a carbon tax. In other words, debt leads to creative paralysis.

So, in order for us to create radical change, we have to reconsider what our relationship with debt is going to be. Then we can figure out how to practically make a living in ways that could empower our creativity.

I’m going to divide up the suggested action plan using one simple determinate: How much debt do you have? We’ll start with folks who owe MORE than $50,000 in debt. For those of you who owe less than this, I’ll have some suggestions for you in a moment. But for now, let’s focus on the majority of American’s who own more than this. Ready? Here we go:

Practical and radical step #1: Those who are in debt, that own homes, could “exchange rent” in their guest bedrooms for work on resilience building projects.

Here is a case study: My wife and I wanted to be more resilient by growing food in our yard instead of grass. We didn’t have the time to do this though because we were busy paying off our debt. Our friend Evan was in a similar situation: He was trying to make a living as an organic chef and gardener, but couldn’t find enough work to meet his basic needs.

The three of us came up with a simple plan: We would exchange rent in our home with Evan, if he would garden and cook for us for 15 hours a week. 7 months later, Evan had converted 3000 square feet of lawn into garden and got to cook meals the way he loved. We got an incredible garden and a personal organic chef without having to pay cash for it. Meanwhile Evan worked a regular job, and saved over $4000 in rent to pay off his own credit card debt. It wasn’t just a win-win. It was a win-win-win-win.

This kind of relationship is a really big deal because it simultaneously empowered creativity, while reducing our dependence on the global economy to meet various basic needs. It also worked on a scale big enough that it made a substantial difference in where our food came from.

So here’s why step #1 has to be the starting point for building a fundamentally different lifestyle:

None of us have the resources necessary to pay cash for the improvements our world needs to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Governments are no more likely to spend money on building a green economy than we are to spend $10,000 to have a contractor plant our massive garden for us. There simply isn’t enough cash around. But my point is that the real work we need be to doing to doesn’t require that many dollars. We happened to use this model to relocalize our personal food system and it worked. Then we realized “Skilled Residents” like Evan could take on all kinds of wonderful projects and put enough consistent time and energy into them that they would yield some big results. In the last few years, through Transition Lab, we have arranged for young people to live with homeowners in exchange for launching grassroots political campaigns, running timebanks, and providing affordable eldercare. Most importantly, when we engage in projects like this, we rebuild the relationships that we have lost with one another over the last 50 years. We are beginning to rely on one another, instead of cash, to get things done.

Another piece of good news is that due to our excessive lifestyle of the last 50 years, we have the perfect infrastructure already in place to get all the work done that we need to do. In every community, with every demographic of people in this country, there are large homes with large yards and vacant guest bedrooms that could house all of the young social visionaries on the planet. This is an infinitely renewable resource that could allow massive amounts of people to get to work right now without changing anything else. Even more importantly, these kinds of relationships allow young people to meet their basic needs (food, utilities, and housing) without ever having to go into debt or participate significantly in the global economy in the first place. It’s practical, radical, and possible!

This gets me to the second group of people who owe less than $50,000 in debt. These people tend to be young and either about to go to college, or maybe halfway through. For these people, I offer:

Practical and radical step #2: Become a Skilled Resident.

There are a lot of reasons to go to college, as well as a lot of reasons not to, and I’m not going to get debate that here. What I do want to point out is that we all know folks in college who are paying lots of money for room and board, when they could be living as skilled residents and saving money instead. We also all know college grads who are living with their folks, unable to get a job with the degree that they earned, and working crappy jobs just to try to meet the minimum payment on their student loans. In fact, according to the Department of Education there are more college grads who live with their parents than live with roommates now. If there was ever a sign that the economy is going down the tank, this is it. But again, I see this as an opportunity. We don’t need more people working in the global economy. We need to just re-direct the energy and skills of those unemployed and underemployed to our local communities.

So if you are one of these people, and want to save money, do what you are actually passionate about, and get ahead in your life, here is how to change things: First, commit a couple hours a week to addressing a need in your community. It could be volunteering as an organizer for 350, picking up trash in the river, taking care of the elderly, or becoming an advocate for social justice. Pick whatever you want, but my suggestion is you pick just one thing. (It should probably be the thing that breaks your heart the most because you’ll need to be passionate about it so that you’ll want to continue when things get hard.)

Then as soon as you pick your project, you’ll immediately find people who are interested and supportive of the same thing. Some of these will be homeowners like me with staggering amounts of debt, who wish we could commit more time to projects like yours, but are too busy working every day. Then start developing a relationship with these potential hosts. Have dinner with them, talk about your ideas, work together on shared projects to see if spending more time with them would be a good fit. After you have developed a solid relationship and proved your trustworthiness as well as work ethic, then ask, “Would you give me rent in your home if I commited 10-15 hours a week to this?” (We calculate the hours needed to work a week based on a $10/hr wage, and divide that by the average rent cost in our community.) Point out to your potential host how much work could be done without ever giving money to a distant charity and how the host could help guide the project and even get credit for sponsoring you.

I think that this is the most radical, practical, and useful relationship that any of us could engage in for many, many reasons. The first is that we currently live as consumers to meet all our basic needs. We buy our food, we pay for rent, and all have utility bills. With a skilled resident relationship, we immediately stop being consumers and instead have to advocate for our basic needs in ways that make us better citizens. These are relationships that require communication, boundaries, assertiveness, collaboration, and compassion to be successful. These are also exactly the skills we need to develop to be successful beyond our doorsteps in the fight for clean air, water, social justice, fracking, and so on. By working in relationship for our basic needs, instead of being consumers of needs, we fundamentally change how we walk on the planet.

This relationship is even more powerful than just the obvious benefits of having your basic needs met. If you do something that you are passionate about for 10-15 hours a week, then you become empowered to do whatever you want for the rest of your week. Maybe you have to work a full time job to pay off those loans (which you will be able to pay off quickly because nearly all the money you earn can be directed towards them). Or you can do something inspiring like starting your own small business or spending time to discover all your gifts and talents.

I want to point out how much of a game changer this could be. Right now, there are an estimated 1.5 million non-profits in the U.S. and each one of them needs the money of people who are dependent on the global economy to keep the doors open. Most of them pay for offices, salaries, and mailings, with the end goal of getting volunteers and citizens to work on various social causes. What if we flipped this model on its head and for every non-profit in our country, there was just one skilled resident each putting 10 hours of work into their community in exchange for rent? What if each of these residents was a grassroots organizer, who was taking on specific projects that had been identified directly by the residents of their community to make it better, and it didn’t cost any money, didn’t require any additional fundraiser dollars, and the whole time they could also work part time jobs to pay off their debt, while they gained the economic freedom and real world experience to do what they loved? And while we are at it, instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money to send out children to college, what if we invest that money in relocalization projects that our children could launch in our communities?

This would change everything. And it has already started. While Transition Lab is still tiny, our graduates have already taken on projects as diverse as they are. In addition to some of the projects I mentioned above, our graduates are now doing things like working to build tiny house communities, starting edible garden businesses, and planting permaculture gardens in the lawns of frat houses. We are doing this ourselves with a minimum of upfront cash. No government funding, no non-profit grants, no secret millionaire. Just us.

So here is practical and radical step #3 for everybody: Start by building relationship with everything around you.

The relationships that I’ve described above are ways to reimagine what we can do as a community. I’m discouraged when I hear people offering “solutions” that are about rejecting relationship and valuing isolationism. For example, both the hippies and neo-cons are building closed communities (communes or compounds) where they can wait out the apocalypse with like-minded folks. But surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals behind a wall in the middle of nowhere doesn’t sound like very much fun to me. Not only that, but it is a model that can’t easily be scaled up, and most closed communities gradually fail. On the other hand, through our work at Transition Lab, we are transforming our neighborhoods garden by garden and street by street. This is really similar to the Transition Streets project, but with one key difference: If there are folks who are economically encouraged to dedicate 10 hours a week to these projects, week after week, then we can get a lot more done.

Now, several years into our projects, I’m on a first name basis with nearly everybody in a two block radius. The reason is simple: We have a surplus of veggies and can use these as offerings to build relationship beyond my circle of friends. Taking a bag of carrots to the low income seniors, or eggs to the Tea-Party metal worker, are ways to build bridges and talk. They see that we share the same values like a strong work ethic, care for neighbors, and an ability to listen. Despite how we label ourselves politically, these are the values that are the most important to me, and I think are most important to all of us. If the apocalypse does come tomorrow, I could call on each one of these folks to help out with different things in my life because we know each other as human beings. Ultimately, being surrounded by diverse yet caring neighbors is what I want in my life. And after all, it is fundamentally easier to develop relationships now than to fight a civil war later.

However, I think what we are doing at Transition Lab goes much deeper than merely creating a better survival strategy. I think that the biggest problem with our world is that we do not live in relationship with most things in our lives. We are not really connected to where our food comes from, where our phones are made, or where our gas is drilled. This often makes the ecocide all around us distant enough that we are able to keep on going about our lives without much thought to the consequences of our actions. Conversely, when we start growing our own food, hosting skilled residents, and working with community, we make fundamentally different choices that consider the well-being of one another and not just our pocket books. These are the ways to fundamentally change how we live and approach our lives. I am also convinced that these are the most powerful radical actions that we can take towards healing our planet and ourselves. If you have both the courage, desire, and joy to want to change the world around you, the steps above are a great way to get started. The suggestions that I have made are not always easy, but they are effective, and I know they work.

So Now What? Here’s how I can help you, and how you can help me.

If you want some good resources on setting up the skilled resident relationships that I’ve described here, I have given two talks with Transition US specifically on the subject. You can listen to those for free here and here.

I am also looking for folks to help pioneer these models and develop them into even more elegant ways of living. One way to do this is to develop a website that connects “Skilled Residents” with hosts. Think of this as an Airbnb, but that would provide affordable housing for change makers. If you have web-development skills and want to help me with the project, get in touch. Transition Lab is even willing to give away free tuition for folks who will help me with this and a number of other projects. For more information on this visit

And that gets me to the final piece: Transition Lab is always looking for visionaries who want to help us evolve our projects and replicate these things across the globe. If you have the courage to pioneer a new economy, come join us. We’ll be expecting you.

Transition US

15 Comments on "This Changes Everything. So Now What?"

  1. Makati1 on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 6:08 am 

    ‘Transition’, always good for a fun read, if it is not practical in most areas of the US and not one in one hundred have any idea how to grow veggies in the stuff we call ‘soil’. But, go for it if it makes you feel like you are doing something to make the world better.

    Even easier would be to stop consuming unnecessary ‘stuff’, like folding chairs, huge plastic containers, high embedded energy concrete pavers, etc. (It takes a barrel of oil energy to make one cubic yard of concrete. Those pavers look like at least a barrel of oil was required to make and deliver them.) And that asphalt roof is going to need replacement in a few years.

    Overall though, it is a small home and looks like it is not using a lot of stuff to maintain it. So many other ‘transitioners’ are upper middle class ‘yuppies’ (does that date me?) pretending to do something “save the planet” relevant. Modern day ‘hippies’. LOL

  2. Davy on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 7:40 am 

    Article said “This Changes Everything, as well as the great article Six Myths about Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question. The core point within both of these is that our lifestyle needs to fundamentally change if we have any chance of addressing the climate crisis.”

    Anytime I see “This changes everything” I am suspect. These folks will be small seeds of the future at best after a shit storm of destruction. They will be vulnerable seeds cast in the wind with the hope of finding something post BAU to grow in. They are not going to change BAU or AGW trends. These trends are too powerful with too much momentum. No amount of transition efforts are going to be able to apply the pressure needed to counteract the destructive forces of a BAU slowdown.

    AGW is hopeless despite those who constantly whine here about it. I ask you AGW’ers to be honest and tell everyone how many people are going to die when carbon consumption goes down voluntarily or involuntarily. Show us the graph of carbon reductions needed with a likely corresponding population reductions.

    I also ask the folks living in the heart of overshoot in our global mega cities to be honest and tell me how the food is going to be supplies and the waste moved out in an aggregate decline of energy. All this while your cities especially in the vast population overshoot of Asia are still growing. That does not even begin to explain all the other consumption and corresponding high energy distribution required to maintain complexity.

    These transition folks need to think about the migrations from those mega population centers and how quickly they will overwhelm their little doomstead. I would say to these transition-ites just be honest and admit how ugly and dangerous the descent is going to be. Realize all your efforts may be useless if descent is strong enough and your transition location poorly placed. Quit the hopium of a transitional BAUtopian alternative and embrace mitigation and adaptation policies that acknowledge pain, suffering, and death for everyone transition-ites included. There is no hiding for anyone with the coming shit storm.

  3. WelshFarmer on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 8:29 am 

    Article like this make me kind of sad.
    We are lucky enough to own of a medium sized organic farm with, good soil and water, mild climate, fantastic neighbours, good buildings, ample timber, solar, hydroelectric, excellent health, and no city within one hour driving etc…
    – and even I am not sure we could survive the sort of transition that is coming thundering down the tracks.
    My advice to anyone living in the city who thinks BAU is coming to an end sometime some ? Get out of Dodge, Get a Life, get the necessary skills and you might just survive the 21st century.

  4. Rodster on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 8:57 am 

    This biggest problem not mentioned in this article is the fact that you need an overgrowing population to pay for future debt. That’s the way our financial system has been made.

    There are way too many people already competing for far too few jobs trying to keep a DYING global economy based on oil moving forward. And it has to continue moving forward and expand or it collapses.

    Then you have large corporation who want to replace low skill jobs with robots, so add more to the unemployment line.

    This entire financial, economic and banking system is a recipe for a disaster and the newly formed AIIB that the Chinese have formed is not the answer and just kicks the can down the road.

    The more worrying part is the depletion rate of precious resources like clean water for a growing population.

  5. gdubya on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 9:16 am 

    So, mak & Davy: since we are all so screwed would it be best to do nothing? To spend & consume in an orgy of peak whatever? Or to live a life that in some way agrees with your personal ethics?
    Since growing food and helping your neighbours is a futile gesture what do you suggest-looking atKim kardsshin photos & listening to justin beaver? Or posting”we’re all gonna die” comments where 3 people might read them?
    This planet is in a desperate state, and each one of us has in some way declared that we are powerless to do anything.
    Well fuck that.
    I can do what I can, and live a life that is a little closer to ‘sustainable’ and hope that it helps. If we all die in a tea party nuclear exchange I guess I will regret that I didn’t drive a jet ski or snowmobile in circles.
    If I die of old age with a few friends farming our remote property that will be good enough.
    And if we produce ‘that small group of survivors near the poles’ at least we are not the mindless breeders that seem to be the problem. So yes, it is probably pointless. But I am even less fond of all the alternatives.

  6. penury on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 9:20 am 

    I agree with all the comments already posted. Transition will be fine for the few who can and will adopt it. For the remainder, I am sorry but the transition will be more difficult. War, hunger, poverty, famine, disease are coming to a neighborhood near you.
    There are too many people, there is too much debt, there are not enough obtainable resources or jobs to maintain a minimum standard of living for the populations of the developed world and certainly not enough for the developing countries. BAU is over and now begins the slow but constant decent into the abyss. Survival for the few might be prolonged thru some of the people who adapt, but it will not be as the author hopes. In an interconnected world it is very difficult to become unconnected.

  7. Davy on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 9:45 am 

    GW, just be honest friend. I am living how these folks in the articles are living but I am honest that a shit storm is ahead with no guarantees of success. Nothing is worse than a huge let down of unrealistic hopium. This is what leads to despair and the loss to all efforts. Efforts must be maintained through thick, thin, sickness, and health. Better to go into battle understanding the odds than with the unrealistic fantasy of success.

  8. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 10:42 am 

    The longest journey begins with a single step……

    Make sure you are moving in the right direction…..

  9. Plantagenet on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 10:44 am 

    I like this article. Whats not to like about a group of bohemian friends living in the suburbs and growing kale where their lawns used to be?

  10. Solarity on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 11:41 am 

    Liberals deny that climate change is merely a natural progression. Realists believe that climate change is simply a natural cycle phase, and deny that it is anything else.

    One hundred million years ago, the world was significantly warmer than it is today. Historical facts prove that the world experiences a natural cycle of heating and cooling, that has occurred for millions of years and will continue to happen long after we are gone.

  11. Plantagenet on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 12:32 pm 

    Of course there are natural climate cycles. But that doesn’t change the fact that humans are causing Greenhouse Warming now by pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.


  12. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 12:43 pm 

    Climate change is real.. we can deal with the cause or we will deal with the effects.

    Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches | World news | The Guardian

  13. GregT on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 2:12 pm 

    “The three of us came up with a simple plan: We would exchange rent in our home with Evan, if he would garden and cook for us for 15 hours a week. 7 months later, Evan had converted 3000 square feet of lawn into garden and got to cook meals the way he loved. We got an incredible garden and a personal organic chef without having to pay cash for it. Meanwhile Evan worked a regular job, and saved over $4000 in rent to pay off his own credit card debt. It wasn’t just a win-win. It was a win-win-win-win.”

    Not in the long run. Once you and your wife have your house paid off, Evan still gets to work as your personal gardener and cook, in exchange for a room in your house.

  14. jjhman on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 2:46 pm 

    Whenever I see the kind of smug, brainless comment such as that from Solarity above I experience a mix of sadness and anger. Most often these trollish comments are accompanied by a name that shows up once and just disappears. Thanks for that at least.

  15. R1verat on Wed, 25th Mar 2015 6:22 pm 

    I believe the concept of this article is good. Anytime one can be in a win-win situation, its all good.

    Unfortunately in my area (Midwest) I’ve been very frustrated just trying to locate someone that actually is willing to do any form of physical labor. One of the local extension folks recently sent out a blanket email, asking people if they had any job leads for the recent grads. I told her if she located one that didn’t mind making $15 an hour cash for helping around my acreage, to send him/her over. Haven’t heard from her since. Now this is good wage in my rural area so what if you offer a room & no one bites?

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