A New American Dream

Jeremiah (my partner) and I don’t dream of getting rich, or owning a big house with a white picket fence and a two-car garage, or driving a fancy car.

Rather, we dream of a world where our children will have a decent chance of survival and good quality of life – a world with drinkable water and breathable air, a world where food is nourishing and our food system isn’t controlled by profiteers, a world without debt slavery, extreme violence, or pervasive depression. The current state of world affairs is just a glimpse of what’s to come if we continue down this trajectory of endless exploitation and extraction, and it makes Jeremiah and I question whether it’s fair and responsible for us to bring another life onto this planet.

And for ourselves, we desire to live simply, connected to nature and loved ones, with enough time and energy to live a regenerative lifestyle, taking good care of our bodies and the land that nourishes us. We know that a healthy, balanced lifestyle brings us peace, joy, and fulfillment.


But for us and for many, the pressures of living in our society result in unhealthy, disconnected lifestyles. I spend much of my time working to pay off debt and rent. Even though I am fortunate enough to be passionate about my paid work, I notice it taking a toll on my body. I don’t have the time or energy to get enough exercise or consistently feed myself as well as I would like to. And financial insecurity is a source of stress for both of us. Between student loans and the high cost of living in the Bay Area, it seems highly unlikely that we can afford to “settle down”—at least not in the traditional sense—here in Sebastopol, the small town in Northern California where we met.

Sure, it’s probably safe to say that in our culture it’s normal to be chronically stressed and unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to accept the status quo as absolute. After all, we only get one chance at this human experience, and we’re committed to living it to the fullest.

Fortunately, we are both pretty unconventional—one of the qualities that has attracted us to each other—and willing to try new things. So, after much talking and dreaming and researching and planning, and a bit of divine intervention, we decided to try something radically different in hopes of cultivating a lifestyle that really works for us, a lifestyle that is aligned with our values and will help create the kind of world we will feel good about bringing children into.

Like countless others who are pursuing the New American Dream, our intention is to live in community, grow our own food, and reduce our reliance on the fossil fuel-powered mainstream economy as much as possible. We seek to build equity in the land we cultivate: understanding the fragility of our financial system, our retirement plan is to literally harvest the fruits of the trees we plant in our youth rather than invest in a 401K (more on this in a future blog post).

Because land in Sonoma County, CA is ridiculously expensive (though we’re still hopeful about the potential of a community land trust), we are beginning our farming/homesteading endeavors this summer in Wisconsin, on some land my parents own near my hometown. We will grow as much of our own food as possible, and make many of the other products we consume (toiletries, cleaning products, candles, etc.), little by little extracting ourselves from the exploitative global consumer economy, and creating opportunities for others to join us.

homeownerTo free up enough of our time to be able to launch our regenerative agriculture project—without going into debt—we are eliminating the cost of rent from our expenses. Instead, we are converting a 6’ x 12’ enclosed cargo trailer into a Tiny House on wheels. We will park our very tiny house in Wisconsin during growing season, and bring it with us next winter as we look for seasonal opportunities in warmer climates.

We anticipate our fair share of challenges—and indeed, are already encountering some as we attempt to make an aluminum box into cozy living quarters—but it seems a small price to pay for freedom, good health, and the knowledge that we are doing our best to leave behind a livable planet for future generations.

We’ll be blogging regularly about our homesteading endeavors, so stay tuned! We’re looking for collaborators and are happy to share what we learn.

AND if you’d like to support this worthy undertaking, we are currently fundraising to purchase a work truck that will be vital to our operation. To make a contribution, please visit: http://www.plumfund.com/fundraising/mobilize-a-regenerative-lifestyle

Images (from top): 1) a snapshot of our most recent garden at the Big Red Barn in Sebastopol, CA – this is the kind of regenerative footprint we want to leave behind us wherever we go!; 2) our new home – a 6′ x 12′ cargo trailer!

Meet Your Neighbors, Change the World

Originally posted at www.transitionus.org

“Houses don’t make neighborhoods – neighbors make neighborhoods,” a friend recently told me.

Reno famShe’s lived in the same house for three years and trades produce over the fence with one of her neighbors, but doesn’t know many of her other neighbors. But with the arrival of a new baby, my friend yearns for the sort of neighborhood she grew up in—where everyone looks out for each other –and is wondering how to go about building relationships with more of her neighbors.

My own neighborhood is a quirky one, a shared rental property with a dozen eclectic tenants in close quarters, two of them in a longstanding feud that’s landed one of them (briefly) in jail. My household, made up of a handful of young people who try to live simply and do our best to leave behind a livable planet for future generations, seems to be thriving amidst the chaos. But whenever I’m in the front yard tending to our unruly permaculture garden and look across the street at our neighbor’s front yard, with its few sparse pear trees in a field of barren earth—both withering from drought and persistent herbicide use—I’m reminded that we’re only as resilient as those around us.

Just 43% of Americans know most or all of their neighbors by name. This needs to change. Whether we’re trying to create a safer neighborhood for our children, grow food in our front yards, or build resilient communities that can withstand the increasing impacts of climate change, we have got to get to know the people who live around us – and more than just their names.

sheet mulchingMy suggestion is to start simple, by sharing something – cookies, flowers, or produce from the garden. Host a neighborhood potluck. Ask to borrow a tool. Share ideas on how to make your street a better place to live. Build a friendship, a relationship based on trust, and then we can start talking to our neighbors about why it’s important to sheet mulch and grow food in our front yards.

At the same time, we’ve got to be willing to respectfully embrace the conflict that might emerge. And we need to learn how to communicate and collaborate better so we can deal with those tensions.

secret biomass sourceEarlier this year I gave a presentation on permaculture, Transition, and community resilience at a sustainability conference in Chico, California, where the impacts of the drought are strikingly evident. Some of the audience members wanted to transform their lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes but were hesitant due to concern about what their neighbors might think.

When the world is burning—as Northern California literally is, right now—fear of what the neighbors might think is not a good excuse for staying inside of our houses instead of taking action and making the changes we know we so desperately need. If you need an extra boost of courage to knock on your neighbors’ door – think of your children and grandchildren, and the kind of world you’d like them to inherit. Or try out Transition Streets.

Impact_MapThis past spring, twelve neighborhoods in cities across the US –from San Diego to Missoula to Newburyport to Charlottesville—participated in a social experiment called Transition Streets. Neighbors came together for a series of 7 sessions to explore a handbook full of practical actions and tips for creating sustainable households and resilient neighborhoods. Each week neighbors focused on a different topic: energy, water, food, waste, and transportation, identifying actions they wanted to implement in their own homes and volunteering to help each other as needed.

By the final session, neighbors had fixed drafts and leaks, installed compost bins and greywater systems, swapped recipes and ideas, shared tools and skills, learned how to read their water meters and who had lived in the neighborhood the longest. But what participants most valued about their Transition Streets experience were the relationships they built with their neighbors.

transition_streets_screenshotIn some cases, participants had lived in the same neighborhood for years without knowing each other, and by the final session of Transition Streets they not only knew each other’s names, but also their interests and skill sets, seeing each other as friends, allies, and resources in imagining and building a better place to live.

Now anyone can participate in Transition Streets by visiting transitionstreets.org, where you can download the handbook as well as tools and tips to help you reach out to your neighbors.

There’s also a crowdfunding campaign to support the national roll-out of Transition Streets happening this fall. Already more than twenty inspired neighbors across the country are planning to bring Transition Streets to their communities, and our goal is to reach 100 neighborhoods by spring.

garden_4.27.14As Transition Streets spreads, our neighborhoods and communities become more connected, fulfilling, and resilient, at the same time reducing our dependency on fossil fuels.

I feel the urgency of the times we live in, and challenge us all to take a step toward making our neighborhoods more resilient: knock on a neighbor’s door, share something, or start a Transition Streets group in your neighborhood.

And if you can, consider supporting the Transition Streets crowdfunding campaign.

For me, it’s time to go tend to that front yard garden and see which of the neighbors stops by to ask what I’m up to. Hopefully I can send them home with some of our abundant squash and a vision for a neighborhood full of front-yard gardens.

What to Tell the Neighbors

Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience. Read more interviews.
Marissa Mommaerts works with Transition U.S. the national hub for the International Transition Towns movement. She also is helping to organize the Northern California Community Resilience Network, an emerging group of permaculture, transition and community resilience grassroots groups. She’s also part of Transition Sebastopol and the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence.
Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared this conversation with her.
Ken: You’re a woman of many hats, including a red bicycle helmet [Marissa biked to the conversation]. How do you define community resilience?
Marissa: Well, there’s kind of a standard response to this; the ability to bounce back from challenges…, the community’s ability to respond and adapt to challenges. The challenges we’re looking at are ecological and economic mainly….
It’s resilience in terms of, “Will the human species be able to survive, and how many other types of species will be able to survive?”
That means that we can’t continue with business as usual. So it’s not resilience to be able to return to what we’re doing, it’s resilience for us to be able to survive and thrive.
Ken: [A]s a moderately old person, who’s relatively set in my ways, can you help me visualize what that actually looks like in practice?
Marissa: So at an individual level, I would say emotional resilience, to respond and adapt to changes, to be open to change. Economic resilience, so our ability to meet our basic needs is independent of a very fragile, vulnerable financial economic system. It means a lot of household changes that better prepare us to meet our own needs and to weather things like natural disasters and increasing variability of weather patterns,….
For example, rainwater and graywater [systems], and securing our own food and rebuilding soil, all those things can happen at a household level.
Then taking that out another level to the community, these same sorts of changes, but aggregated at the community level. It means having relationships with each other, and knowing where we can go to for different types of support. Having a network within which we can meet our needs so we’re not, again, dependent on a centralized, vulnerable, system for things like food and water.
Ken: I know that you’re living a life that’s a little bit different than probably I was as a young person. I had an apartment and maybe housemates…but it was predicated on, “We’re young, and we’re not making very much money, so [let’s] live together for a while, but that’s not really the end goal.” Do you want to talk about the way you’re practicing resilience?
Marissa: Sure. I live in a house with minimum of three roommates, often more, and that’s because we don’t have a lot of money. We understand that there are a lot of people like us who want to be living sustainably and either can’t afford to or encounter other barriers… it’s almost illegal to live sustainably, because of zoning and things like that.
There’s just a lot of barriers, so we use the space that we have, which is the rental house with a nice yard and very relaxed landlords, to be able to practice, scale up, and share our knowledge, and share our resources, and help other folks learn and experience what it’s like to live in a community where we really look out for each other.
We take turns cooking, we make most of our food from scratch. We get it as locally as possible, either we’re growing it, we’re getting it from the neighbor down the street, our CSA farm share, which is a little bit further down the street, or from the farmers’ market. We’re learning how to, for example, rebuild topsoil, and how to conserve and move water as efficiently as possible, to take care of our garden.
We’ve rebuilt a ton of habitat for birds and bees. It’s incredible to see how much wildlife is in our backyard now. We’re setting up systems that will be resilient, so even if we leave, the systems will continue to thrive, because we don’t imagine we’ll be living there forever since it’s a rental property.
Then there are things like alternative healthcare. We also have a really resource-intensive, fragile health care system, so we’re exploring alternative medicine and herbal medicine and studying how to practice herbal medicine and how to grow the herbs that we need.
I think for a lot of young people like me, who probably have a significant amount of student debt and also want to do work that is meaningful and not necessarily well-paid, we have to be really creative about how to meet our basic economic needs.
One thing is work trade, so we don’t have to actually pay for rent….. That’s a great thing that folks that are more established can offer, if they want to help build resilience in the next generation, if they have extra room available in their home and are willing to offer that.
I’m trying to minimize my dependency on fossil fuels as much as possible. My car broke down, as you know, about a year ago, and I decided I was done with it. I’ve been practicing getting stronger and biking since then and taking public transport. It feels so good, it’s really liberating. So basically trying to get out of the dominant extractive, exploitative economy as much as possible. Doing as much making or homesteading as possible.
One other thing we do is we make all of our own cleaning and toiletry supplies. So soaps, cleaners, and all that sort of thing, because it’s cheaper, it’s fun, and we know that we’re not putting toxic chemicals into our bodies or into the environment.
[T]here’s so many things, and it’s a gradual process. It’s going to take me probably many more years to be where I really want to be in terms of feeling resilient and I’m having a positive or regenerative impact on the planet, but it feels good to be moving in that direction and to have made some progress.
Ken: Wow that’s really cool. So that’s sort of personal on the household level. Then what’s the next layer at the community level?
Marissa: Well a piece of it is…rebuilding relationships that have been lost over the last few decades as we’ve become increasingly dependent on money to meet our needs: we go to a job, we make money, and then we use that money to pay for what we need. We’ve had to rely less and less on other people, and also our lifestyles are set up in a way where we’re pretty isolated. We drive around in cars, we’re not out on the streets. People are afraid to leave their homes in some cases.
Ken: People are afraid to let their kids walk to school.
Marissa: Exactly. I was just in Chico a couple of weeks ago, giving a talk there and people’s biggest hesitation for responding to the drought and doing a permaculture retrofit on their homes is, “What am I going to tell my neighbors? How am I going to talk to my neighbors about this? What if my neighbors don’t like it? What do you think about being the only person on your block who’s doing this?”
It all comes down to being able to handle conflict and tension and being willing to step outside of your comfort zone. My main piece of advice was get to know your neighbors. It helps if you share something with them or give them cookies, give them things that you grow in your garden and then you start a friendship. Then you can start to have challenging conversations, where they’re coming from at least a place of trust or friendship. So, rebuilding relationships and learning how to work together.
We are organizing a lot of different types of community events to raise awareness, to help people build skills that they need like gardening, homesteading, natural building, and things like that. It helps us learn how to collaborate in a non-hierarchical way, which is what we need when moving out of the age of hierarchy and into the age of collaboration and cooperation.
Then once we’re organized enough, we need to also be engaging with local government and influencing local policy. We’ve seen success in Sebastopol, just by showing up to important City Council meetings with solutions, then also demonstrating that we have the people power to mobilize in support of those solutions, and help implement those solutions. Makes it a lot easier for local government to agree to move forward with the solutions that they really need, and sometimes aren’t equipped to address. For example, the emergency drought regulations coming down from the state. Our City Council doesn’t necessarily know how to do a huge public campaign to reduce water use, and what are all the household-level changes….
Ken: And they’re probably worried—in the same way as, “What will the neighbors think?”—they’re probably worried about, “What will the voters think?”
Marissa: Yes, so if we show up at a City Council meeting and the room is full of people who are in support of graywater and front-yard gardening, it makes it really easy to say yes.
Ken: Making it easy to say yes, that’s an interesting way to put it. [Often] people…think about responding to all this big megachallenges [by] ripping up the existing systems and replacing them in this very large-scale way. But your philosophy sounds like it’s very individual, household, community—and then you get into the governmental and large-scale levels.
Marissa: I think both are important, but the household changes are things that can happen regardless of what sort of political will exists at the higher levels of government and … we can see changes happening at the local level. We can see impact, we know that there are positive impacts, but yeah I think we need both ends.
One other piece that I didn’t mention before, is we can also organize in our communities to take back control of public resources. We need to reclaim our political power. There’s some great work happening with organizers reclaiming the commons or communities reclaiming public resources to be used for the benefit of the community, especially if they’re being used inappropriately or are being underutilized. For example, one thing that’s going on right now in Albany, California, I just watched a documentary about it last night, “Occupy the Farm.”
Ken: Oh yeah, the Gill Tract.
Marissa: Yeah, the Gill Tract Farm. There’s some great organizing happening there to keep this last piece of prime agricultural land in Albany from being paved and developed as supermarket….
We need to stand up, and we need to reclaim those resources. In Sebastopol we have, for example, a community food forest at our city hall and library. So that’s public space, and we’re using it to produce free food for the community. We also have a very vibrant seed library—[those] are popping up in a lot of communities. Regaining control of our seeds is one of the most important things we need to do to have resilient local food systems. There are other things between the household and government level that are also political in nature.
Ken: Yeah. There’s lots of a political nature. And this is an insight from the Sixties, that the personal is the political and vice-versa, right? So when you start making all those changes, as I think you said, “It’s almost illegal to live sustainably.” You’re skirting the margins of what’s acceptable both socially and legally.
Marissa: Another piece is whatever we do at the household level, we’re shifting resources out of the exploitative, extractive economy and into building our regenerative economy. The more of us who do that, the less we’re feeding an extractive economy.
Ken: Actually that touches on a topic that I wanted to hear you talk about, which is the relationship between community resilience and justice.
Marissa: I think they go hand-in-hand. It’s essentially the same systems of extraction and exploitation that have degraded our environment to the extent that has happened, and have created really vulnerable, marginalized communities. It’s an opportunity to address both. It’s the right thing to do, to address both.
Ken: By both, what do you mean?
Marissa: Both community resilience and environmental regeneration—environment and people. We have to address injustice as against the environment and people together…..
[W]e can’t have resilient communities if we don’t have justice. We’re only as resilient as those around us, whether that be our family, our neighbors, the neighboring community, or even the neighboring country. Right now there are many communities that are much more vulnerable to the increasing impacts of climate change and ecological and economic instability. As long as they’re vulnerable, no one else is secure because, if people are facing life-or-death situations, they’re going to fight to survive. They’re going to migrate, they’re going to do whatever they need to do to continue living, and it’s going to affect everyone around them.
We sometimes joke about Sebastapol being a “Sebastobubble,” because it feels so isolated and insular, but it’s really not. We have to be prepared to absorb the impacts of climate migration from the Bay Area, from Southern California as that region can’t hold the density of people that it has [in the event of] drought and sea level rise and things like that. So we have to be prepared to absorb that here in Northern California. So it’s good to think in the long term, about those types of demographic changes.
Ken: I was thinking about this the other day, when we were at Canticle Farm in Oakland. I walked over there from [the subway]. There were two houses a few houses apart on opposites sides of the street. The first house had chickens and had food growing and it was a family that looked like, just to judge by appearances, had fairly recently immigrated here from Central America. And then five houses up there was a house with chickens and food growing, and it was a bunch of young hippies. These are two demographics actually building resilience in this neighborhood.
It’s ironic in a sense that the people who are living the suburban lifestyle—driving everywhere, not knowing their neighbors, and being dependent upon a brutal economy and fragile food system—are actually, in some of the ways you talked about, [most] vulnerable…. [I}t sort of inverts our impression of who’s vulnerable and who’s resilient, when you think about longer term..
We’re only as resilient as those around us, whether that neighbor or a neighboring country…has been practicing resilience because [they] choose to, or because [they] have to.
Marissa: Yeah, that’s a really good point…. It’s our responsibility to address injustices that set people up to be more vulnerable.
Ken: There’s a response that I’ve heard from some people about the term “resilience.” And that is, “We’ve been resilient for a number of generation or years, because we’ve had to be. Because we’ve been economically marginalized. Because we’ve been environmentally dumped on. Because we’ve been brutalized by military interventions and our rights have been violated. So we’ve had to be resilient. Frankly, we want to be in a world where we don’t have to be as resilient.”
So there’s that kind of irony…in saying, “OK, well, the future is all about resilience.” Meanwhile, there’s people who have been trying to get out of [having] to be quite so resilient. Does that come up as a justice issue in some ways?
Marissa: [Y]ou’re right, there is a lot of incredible resilience work happening in many different types of communities, and it’s important to honor and recognize that, and not to think that we’re creating community resilience at Transition U.S. or in this [Post Carbon Institute] office. That’s one important piece that links to a bigger issue, which is that it’s going to take a lot of work for us to be able to address social justice issues…. So, the environmental movement, for example, and Transition to a degree as well, have been largely white.
Ken: Increasingly not so.
Marissa: Yeah, yeah, but in order to really address social justice we need to be willing to do some serious personal work, and understand and reflect on our role in an economy that’s built on structural racism. We have to be able to approach that with a lot of humility and patience in order to make any real steps forward, I think.
The second piece of your question…I think resilience doesn’t have to mean scarcity…. I’m much happier than I was living a more normal life ….
[I]t feels like a better way of living for me. I can’t say that that applies to everyone, but it doesn’t have to be about living with less, or with scarcity. What I think needs to shift is equity, so that people are sharing resources equitably, and it’s not that some people are forced to be very resilient because they’re living on the margins of a global economy that has exploited them for centuries. It’s because we’re all doing the best that we can to live with the legacy that we’re inheriting, and try to survive and thrive as a species.
Ken: So how does it feel better, if you don’t mind me asking [another] personal question. How does it feel better?
Marissa: Well, a big piece of it is connection to nature. I get a lot of fulfillment out of that, out of working in the soil and just understanding Nature and how incredible it is in a way that I never did, even growing up in Northern Wisconsin, and then living in cities. I didn’t have that sort of awareness. My life is simpler to a degree. I would like it to be a lot simpler than it is currently, but it just allows for everyday life and simple things to be really pleasurable. Also, having deeper, more meaningful relationships and connections, and really feeling like I’m part of a community, which is not something I’ve experienced before. I’ve had a lot of friends, but this is bigger than that. It’s really a whole community, which is pretty amazing.
Then there’s also the not having as much nagging guilt about the negative consequences of my lifestyle, which I still have some for certain things, like every time I put gas in the car when I borrow my friend’s car. But less and less of that.
Ken: So I just want to back up. We were talking earlier sort of conceptually about the work you’re doing, and also the way you’re living…. [I]s there a broad framework that you use to evaluate both the way you’re living and also the work that you’re doing around community resilience?
Marissa: Sure. So very simply I would say, “Utilizing solutions that are Nature-based and people-powered.”
Ken: That’s pretty elegant.
Marissa: I think the most important thing that needs to happen is for people to reconnect to Nature, and to each other. To Nature, so that we understand ecosystems and lifecycles, and how much we depend on them. Also because, like I mentioned, there is something really fulfilling about having that connection that I think a lot of people are trying to get through other sources, like accumulating material wealth, or television, or addiction. There’s some sort of a void that a lot of people have, and…reconnecting with Nature is one way to fill that void. I guess it’s similar to different types of spirituality that people have.
Then reconnecting to each other so that we’re able to function as healthy communities and also so that we are willing to take more responsibility for the impact our actions have on other people.
Then we also want solutions…that empower people to take back our political and economic power, so we’re not externalizing our power to make change to the Federal government or to corporations. We are taking back our power to make change.
The Transition framework is essentially Permaculture applied at the community scale. Permaculture is an ecological design tool that relies on three main ethics, which are Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, or return of the surplus. Every design decision we make should look at and be based on how well it will care for people, how well it will care for the planet, and whether it distributes resources equitably.
Then there’s also a set of design principles, things like “produce no waste,” “use and value renewable resources and services,” and “use small and slow solutions.” That’s why we’re looking at things that are low-tech [at the] household level versus things like seawalls. This is all based on how Nature creates and Nature designs. So they’re the frameworks that I use.
Ken: So let me ask you to play a wish game. If you have to think of one form of support that would that would best enhance the work of community resilience, what would it be?
Marissa: I think our biggest barrier right now is access to resources, both financial and economic resources to support people who want to dedicate their lives to doing this work, when our economy is structured so differently. Or even just so that it makes economic sense for people to grow food. The fact that farming in a way that isn’t exploitative of people or extractive of land isn’t profitable—when food is one of the things that we need to survive—is ridiculous!
We also need access to land, whether that’s urban lots, vacant lots, medians, things like that for growing food in cities and food deserts. Huge pieces of land that can be used for carbon farming, sequestering carbon, and restoring ecosystems, so that our bioregions can absorb and weather some of the shocks that we are expecting.
Ken: Yeah it’s a pretty daunting sort of resources.
Marissa: Mm-hmm. We’re thinking really creatively about how to do that. So like I mentioned, work trade instead of dollar money, to support people to do this kind of work so they don’t have to pay for housing. There’s a group in Colorado, Transition Lab, that’s been really successful in doing that, and [there are] other examples of it as well. Then there are things like taking back public lands again, like the Gill Tract Farm, or our community food forest that’s reclaiming land that is supposed to be a public good, and using it for the common good. Then there’s using marginal land, like really degraded vacant lots and medians and things like that, that can be regenerated and used for food production.
Ken: In my neighborhood there’s this one guy who started farming the median, then he started farming next to the stairs that connect two of the streets, and then he went over to this piece of city property that – was right of way for a street, but has been just a vacant lot for a long time. Now all of the sudden, we’ve got food growing everywhere, and people stopping by and people making contributions….. So it’s really interesting to watch how that builds community, just by the act of somebody getting started with it.
Marissa: Yeah, we have neighbors stopping by whenever we are working in the front yard to ask what we’re doing. I’m sure some of them will start to look into it themselves.
Ken: And you know, if they going to start to look into, [that] at least begins to build up understanding and acceptance into that as a OK thing to do.
Marissa: [Another] thing in my wishful thinking world is an equal playing field at least. So that our legal and political systems, our government systems aren’t set up to just support economic activity, but are really set up to support people and the continued existence of humanity.
Ken: That actually anticipated the next question, “Is there a state or local or federal or, I don’t know, international policy shift that would [generate] really strong leverage?”
Marissa: Well there are a few things that come to mind, one being reversing Citizens United, another being there’s a movement for community rights and rights of Nature. So that’s kind of trying to re-balance the political system by giving communities the right to self-govern and to determine what kind of business they want in their communities and also giving ecosystems the right to exist. I don’t know if that would be powerful enough to stop some of the forces that we’re dealing with, but right now one thing that I see as a huge leverage point or a huge opportunity with the drought in California is some serious work to incentivize local, small-scale, sustainable farms. Our whole nation’s food system is dependent on industrial agriculture, and a lot of industrial agriculture is taking place in areas that are really vulnerable now, like California.
Ken:  It’s producing, what, 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables?
Marissa: Yeah. I think that alone should make the [political] climate more favorable for local farming, the fact that the Central Valley is in such a tough place right now. But I would love to see some regulation on industrial agriculture and/or serious efforts to raise up local sustainable farming….
[I]f we use the Central Valley sustainably, it would not only make our food system more resilient, it would help us sequester carbon, it would help us alleviate the impacts of the drought. There’s so many benefits to shifting away from that model of agriculture.
Ken: You mentioned Transition Lab, you mentioned Transition US, you mentioned the Northern California Community Resilience Network. Are there other places that you recommend people go for either information or inspiration?
Marissa: Sure. There are 154 Transition Towns right now around the U.S., and more are forming—and more that we don’t even know about. So one thing people can do is connect to their local Transition Town, which you can find on the Transition U.S. or Transition Network websites. [M]aking the in-person connection to people doing this work in your community is huge, it’s a really important way to move forward. I also always recommend Resilience.org, particularly the Guide to Building Thriving Resilient Communities and the Weaving the Community Resilience New Economy Movement reports…..
I’m a huge fan of Movement Generation. They’re promoting resilience -based organizing with a lot of political strategy around moving assets and capital into the hands of those communities that have been most impacted by the extractive and exploitative economy. They put justice at the center of their resilience framework, which I really appreciate. It also seems the most powerful and effective way for us to do this work.
I also always recommend taking a Permaculture design course. Which is 72 hours. [it’s] particularly [helpful] for understanding how ecosystems work, which impacts all of our decisions moving forward. It’s…”must-have” knowledge…[and] pretty easy to find.
Ken: Anything that I haven’t asked you about that you want to share?
Marissa: Well I’ve mostly been talking about my own experience and a little bit about Transition US, but there’s such incredible work happening all around the country. So many grassroots groups who are—like you said—giving so much of their time, energy, personal resources, and are so committed and they’re such wonderful, inspiring human beings. They deserve a lot of support and respect, and I’m so grateful for everyone who I’ve met doing this work and keeps me motivated and inspired.
There’s such a diversity of work that’s happening, everything from people doing workshops on graywater and installing community gardens, to teaching their neighbors how to cook from scratch, or figuring out a neighborhood-scale emergency preparedness plan, or coming together to do a DIY home retrofits, to shifting culture in terms of how we think about money and wealth and what’s important, to working in local government.
There are Transition folks who are on city councils and planning commissions and mayors and are doing policy work. There’s an incredible diversity and depth of work happening all around the country.
Ken: So one more question which kind of comes out of that. Oftentimes you’ll hear the criticism, “Oh the challenges are so big. Graywater? Community gardens? Is that really the scale at which a response is going to have a meaningful impact?”
How do you respond to that?
Marissa: Yeah it’s another good point, and a tough question. [One response is] with that specific example…it’s something we can do regardless of political will at other scales. The more of us who do it, the greater the impact, and then the greater the awareness that we’re raising to (hopefully) have some sort of political change.
I think just getting people reconnected to Nature, and to understanding where their food and water and all of that come from, knowing how to provide for their basic needs…makes people a lot better-equipped and -informed to interact with the political system. [A] lot of folks don’t know how vulnerable all of these different systems are….  [I]n California, 80% of water is used by industrial agriculture, so when people are doing these graywater, rainwater projects, [when]we have buckets in our shower, people are trying to catch every drop, and it’s very disheartening to know that’s only a…
Ken: Drop in the bucket.
Marissa: Right. Literally. So this work needs to be happening at other scales.
But going back to the water in California example, 80% is being used by industrial agriculture. That means local food production is very, very important. So if we mobilize community gardens on every available acre or [square] inch, we wouldn’t need that much water for industrial agriculture. I definitely don’t think that’s an excuse for not doing anything. I think it’s a valid concern, [and] that means put in the graywater system, [and] go to your local government meetings and pay attention to what’s happening at the state and national level, and intervene wherever you can.
Ken: Well thanks, you’ve inspired me to get off my butt and get out there and help my friend who’s doing the guerrilla gardening in my neighborhood.
Marissa: It feels good to just live a life that’s aligned with my values and I feel like that’s the only certainty that I have right now looking at the future and what’s in store. I can’t predict anything in terms of whether I’ll have a retirement, whether I’ll be able to have a family, like all of these things, but I do know that I can live in alignment with my values and feel really good about the time that I have here.
Ken: Well thank you for doing that, and thanks for the conversation.
Marissa: My pleasure.

A Resilient Response to Our Planetary Crisis: From Ecological Collapse to Community Resilience

On March 27 I gave the closing keynote presentation (!) at the CSU-Chico “This Way to Sustainability” Conference, now in its 10th year. The conference theme was on “Building Resilient Communities,” and my talk shared a nature-based, people-powered response to the converging ecological and economic crises we face as humanity on this planet.

You can view the presentation or read my notes (almost a transcript, with links to additional resources) below.

You can view a recording of my talk at http://bit.ly/resilient_response

You can view a recording of my talk at http://bit.ly/resilient_response


Thank you! I’m honored to be here and grateful to the conference organizers for giving me the opportunity to be here today.

I’ve spent the last 10 years gathering the information and learning the lessons I’m going to share with you today, but I’m not an expert on any one of the topics I’m going to cover – I’m more of a systems thinker looking at how all of these issues intersect and what kind of opportunities exist for holistic solutions. I’m going to share with you what is essentially a crash course in building community resilience.

On Wednesday I was at the launch of the Oakland Resilient Cities Initiative, and a wise old man who gave the opening remarks said – “Resilience – is a polite word for “survival.”

And he’s right. The challenges we face are great. But before I get into those, I want to share with you briefly what motivates me to do this work.

I’m motivated by a deep sense of love. Love for my family and friends and for all of you, and for all of the beautiful humans around the world who I will never meet.

Love for nature and all the plants and animals and micro-organisms, and the air and water and soil.

I want all of us to be able to survive and thrive.

I also have a deep love for our children and grandchildren, and I want them to be able to live in a world that still has healthy food and drinkable water and clean air, and sea lions and whales and polar bears and elephants and monarch butterflies and the Pacific Islands.

I’m also motivated by a sense of rage, because right now all of those things are threatened because of the way we are living as humanity on this planet.

We need to start doing things differently. Radically differently.

Let’s start by talking about what we’re up against.

Our lifetimes, and the lives of our children and grandchildren and so on, will be marked by the impacts of a set of converging crises.

Ecosystem Degradation: Ecosystems provide vital life-giving services like pollination, producing oxygen, cleaning water, and carbon sequestration.

As we weaken our ecosystems through practices like deforestation, depleting topsoil, pesticide use, and fossil fuel dependency, we undermine earth’s ability to provide these services that we depend on for survival.

Water Insecurity: Given that we humans are over 70% water, and we need water to survive, it should be treated as sacred.

Instead we’re polluting it with oil and chemical spills, agricultural runoff, and human waste.

Harmful industrial agriculture practices that strip topsoil and use water unsustainably have created desertification in many parts of the world.

How many of you saw the recent article about the NASA report that said CA has one year of water left?

About 80% of the water used in CA is for agriculture. And in the central valley, aquifers are being drained to the point that land is sinking. This is serious.

Food insecurity: already around the world more than 800 million people – over 10% of our global population, suffer from chronic undernourishment – in other words they don’t have enough food. How many of you have looked into the eyes of someone who is starving? I have.

For the most part, this isn’t because we aren’t capable of growing enough food, but rather because our food systems are inefficient, and what we do grow is inequitably distributed or wasted.

In addition, our centralized, monoculture food system is very vulnerable to the extreme weather that will accompany global climate change, which means crops will fail, food prices will increase, people will go hungry, and as history shows this leads to migration, political instability, and conflict.


In most developed countries and particularly in the US, we buy too many things we don’t need. We are buying too many things we don’t need.

We’re creating huge amounts of waste than ends up in landfills or in massive garbage islands in the ocean, and we’re depleting natural resources faster than earth can regenerate.

Extreme Inequality:

We had an excellent presentation on this yesterday, and I’m grateful the conference organizers started with that topic because it’s really important.

Take a look at how wealth is distributed in the US. I’m here in the negative financial wealth zone because of my student debt, and I bet some of you are too.

In many cases this wealth has been consolidated at the expense of human and environmental well-being. It’s not only unfair, but as we heard yesterday, it’s extremely problematic for building community resilience.

This level of inequality makes some segments of the population very vulnerable to environmental or economic shocks. We’ve seen this with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, as well as in Detroit last year where thousands of low income households who were late on their water bills had their water shut off.

Even this man, Nick Hanauer, a multi-millionaire who was one of the early investors in Amazon, is concerned about inequality, because as he wrote to his fellow zillionaires in Forbes magazine:

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”

Climate Change:

And finally we’re facing climate change. This changes everything.

We’re already on track for roughly a 2 degree C/3.5 degree F temp increase, and likely quite a bit more than that.

We know the impacts of climate change, right?

Increasing natural disasters and shifting temperatures that mean we’re going to see plants, animals, and people displaced from their homes, like these incredibly resilient people from the Pacific Island of Tokelau.

And climate change will interact with and accelerate some of the other crises we’ve touched on, but we don’t know exactly how or when.

The scale of transformation necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change –things you do not want your children or grandchildren to have to experience-is huge.

Not enough to change a light bulb, to ride your bike, to eat organic, to divest from fossil fuels, to install solar panels. We need to do all of that and more.

In the words of the author Naomi Klein, climate change “is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet.”

Let’s take a moment to sit with this all. It’s pretty scary stuff.

Fear can be paralyzing, but we don’t have time for inaction. So it’s important to be present with whatever emotional response you’re feeling right now. Notice how it feels in your body.

Raw emotion is creative energy that you can try to ignore and allow to fester in your mind and body as you go back to your normal routine, or you can channel it into something productive, which is what this rare planetary moment requires of us.

My friends who study non-violence tell me that wherever there is fear, there is power.

I’ve had to tap into that power to be here with you today, and I’m tapping into it right now, because speaking in front of so many people who really care and have the ability to make a difference, and trying to figure out exactly what to say to you all to convey the gravity of the planetary crisis we’re inheriting while still inspiring and motivating you enough to embrace the challenge and possibility of the extraordinary moment we live in, is fucking scary!

I’ve also heard that when Gandhi was young, he was a scaredy-cat, he lived in fear. And the moment he learned how to overcome his fear, he changed not only his own destiny, but that of the Indian people.

So let us use all the knowledge we have about the state of the world, and all the power we hold as young people inheriting an uncertain future, to make decisions that align our actions with our hearts.

Because we can’t predict how or when these converging crises will interact, or what exactly the impacts will be, we should be looking for solutions that will enhance our personal, community, and planetary resilience, or our ability to bounce back from challenges.

Fortunately, many of the solutions that help us build resilience also help us get off of fossil fuels while healing our planet and our culture, and they’re already being implemented all over the world.

This is a map of the international Transition or Transition Towns Movement, a grassroots response to ecological and economic instability.

Transition is a positive vision for a world without fossil fuels,

a world where people live simply and abundantly,

where they know their neighbors and where their food comes from,

where the economy exists to serve local communities rather than to generate profit,

and where people and the vital systems they depend on are prepared to respond to and bounce back from whatever challenges or shocks might impact their communities.

The word “Transition” refers to the changes our communities must make in order to survive and thrive in these uncertain times.

It’s a model that started in the UK in 2005 and went viral, spreading to more than 1200 communities in 44 countries and 17 languages around the world.

These are some of Transition’s core values:

we believe that local action can change the world,

we believe in the power of having a positive vision of the future and unleashing collective creativity to realize that vision,

we believe that re-building a sense of community is vital to local resilience,

and we organize in a way that is grassroots, decentralized, and bottom-up.

This allows work to happen quickly without the sort of bureaucracy that has stalled national and UN processes from taking action on climate change.

We like to say that “If we act alone, it will be too little. If we wait for government to act, it will be too little, too late. But if we come together to act as a community, it could be just enough, just in time.”

We also believe that “if properly planned for and designed, our communities can be more abundant and fulfilling while using fewer resources than we currently consume.”

The main design tool we use for this ambitious goal is permaculture.

How many of you have heard of permaculture before?

And how many of you have studied or are practicing permaculture? Great! I like to think of us as emergency planetary technicians.

Permaculture is an ecological design approach based on the way natural ecosystems work, which enables us to work with and learn from nature, rather than working against it.

For example, in permaculture, instead of planting monocultures or using pesticides and herbicides, we strive to create diverse ecosystems that are a haven for pollinators.

We compost organic waste into nutritious soil. How many of you compost the majority of your food waste? If you only take one thing away from this talk – start composting. Food waste that goes into landfills produces methane gas – a GHG that is 21 times stronger than carbon – and is a significant contributor to climate change.

In permaculture we also use fossil fuel free technologies like this chicken tractor to fertilize and till the soil for us.

So Transition started as the final project for a two-year permaculture program at a community college in Ireland in 2005. A group of students and their professor, Rob Hopkins, who is known as the founder of the Transition movement, used permaculture design principles at the community scale to come up with a plan to get their entire community off fossil fuels.

Permaculture is based on three main ethics: earth care, people care, and fair share, or return of the surplus.

Just let that sink in for a moment – what if every decision we made was based on those three ideas: how well does it care for the earth, how well does it care for people, and does it share resources equitably?

In addition, we have 12 design principles – a few of my favorites are use small and slow solutions, use and value renewable resources and services, produce no waste, use and value diversity, creatively use and respond to change, and design from patterns to details.

Nature creates using patterns. In permaculture we look for patterns, and then use those patterns to inform the projects we want to design.

Today, since we are trying to build community resilience, we look for what resilient communities have in common. Here’s a list I came up with based on my own experience doing this work:

Resilient communities have healthy ecosystems,

They have food, energy, and economic systems that are as locally-oriented as possible,

Community stewardship of common resources like land and water,

Neighborhoods that are designed for people, not cars;

People share a sense of community and connection to their place,

There is an openness to new thinking and ideas, and diversity is valued,

And the community is governed by a participatory democracy – by that I mean citizens are actively engaged in the decisions and processes of their local government officials, and that government officials and staff are responsive to community needs.

Right now there are very important conversations and decisions being made about sustainability within our local governments. How many of you go to city council or planning commission meetings to weigh in on what’s being discussed?

Need to see more of you – especially young people participating in local government – even though it can be boring, because its important.

Sometimes I go to meetings just to remind my elected officials of how much is at stake and that they hold power to make changes that will make a difference, just to let them know I’m paying attention.

Ok, so now that we have a sense of the patterns that are found in resilient communities, we can apply those patterns to our most vital systems to see what types of projects and practices help build resilience.

I’m just going to give you a small taste of all of the amazing work that’s happening across the country. There’s also lots of great work happening around the world that I’m not going to get into today.

Many of these projects are organized by local Transition groups, and many are not but still share the same values and patterns.

Let’s start with our food system. We want to create local and regional food systems with ecologically regenerative practices that reconnect humans to nature, improve public health, and alleviate the disastrous impacts of industrial agriculture. Here are a few examples of what this looks like in practice.

On top we have a nine month intensive training program for aspiring permaculture farmers and landscapers at a place called the Permaculture Skills Center, which right down the street from my house.

Below that we have a community seed garden also in Sebastopol, where we grow, save, and share local, organic, heirloom seeds that are adapted to thrive in our microclimate. Taking back community control of seeds is critically important to our ability to have resilient local food systems.

In the middle we have Egleston Community Orchard, in Boston, where neighbors decided to plant a community garden and fruit trees on a vacant lot where there had recently been a shooting, to turn it into a place of community healing.

Below that is my friend Don Hall who started Transition Sarasota, Florida. He organizes a gleaning project, where volunteers harvest leftover produce from organic farms, and over the last few years they’ve been able to donate more than 100,000 pounds of fresh healthy food to local food banks.

On the bottom is my sister and a good friend of mine who first introduced me to permaculture, who are using fossil fuel-free technology to prepare beds for planting on a small permaculture farm in Ukiah.

On top we have Growing Power, an amazing urban aquaponics farm in a low income neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aquaponics grow both fish and produce together as part of the same system, in a way that’s very efficient and very beneficial for both.

Below that is a work party in Sonoma County, where community members came out to help plant a community garden.


When we’re looking at how to improve our water management, we should be thinking about community stewardship of water as a precious life-giving force, using creative, low-tech solutions to conserve, capture, clean, and store it.

For example, rebuilding topsoil and working with the natural contours of a place to improve infiltration. This system is at the Permaculture Skills Center and has an intricate system of waterways that catch runoff from the highway, clean it, water their food forest, and replenish groundwater beneath the properties’ 5 acres and surrounding wetland.

Rainwater and greywater collection systems are also important technologies. Here’s a rainwater harvesting barrel. Graywater systems recycle and redirect household water from laundry, sinks and showers into gardens and into the soil, rather than going down the sewer.

And finally, we should be using composting toilets, which are currently illegal in many places. 27% of household water use is from toilets, and we are pooping and peeing in clean, drinkable water for no good reason.

The great thing about composting toilets is that not only do they conserve water, they also turn poop into soil.

At my house we harvest urine because it has a lot of nitrogen and is great fertilizer for fruit trees. And if these things seem too offensive, at the very least, if it’s yellow, let it mellow. Does everyone know what I mean by that?


For our energy system, we should be thinking about ways to cut our energy use as much as possible and then switch to small-scale, decentralized renewables for what we really do need.

This picture is from a workshop on how to build passive solar cookers that was hosted by Transition Charlottesville, Virginia.

The image in the middle is from power-down week, a weeklong festival organized by Transition Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to encourage people to practice living and having fun without using electricity – for example with candle-light dinners.

The image of the windmills is from a new project called Transition Streets that we’re currently testing in 14 communities in the US. It provides neighbors with a guide to come together and make DIY home retrofits that reduce energy and water use and save money.

This solar panel is at the Permaculture Skills Center, and what is important about this picture is that it’s not a huge solar farm that is owned by a multi-national corporation and built on a clear-cut forest, but it is part of a distributed local energy system. This panel also provides shade to ducks, chickens, and children on the farm.

A clean, decentralized, renewable energy system really would be a great gift to humanity.

This was my favorite sign at the anti-fracking rally in Sacramento a year ago – last March. How many of you were there?


In my community 57% of carbon emissions come from personal transportation vehicles. And overall, long-distance flights are more carbon intensive than almost anything else we do.

On top of the environmental impact, car travel is also a form of social isolation. Isolation is an epidemic in our society that contributes to loneliness, depression, and other mental and physical health issues.

We drive around in our own little boxes and fly across the world to go on vacation somewhere far away, without being connected to the people and place where we live.

So we need to be getting out of our cars and planes and into our communities.

In many cases communities need to be redesigned into beautiful, walkable, bikable neighborhoods that are places where we want to explore, relax, and meet each other.

This is a workshop we hosted last fall as part of a ten-day festival called the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence. The workshop is on intersection repair, or how to redesign intersections to reduce car traffic, improve pedestrian and bike access, and serve as community gathering spaces.

The bottom photo is a bike parade organized by Transition Culver City, in SoCal.


Our economy is at the root of this mess we’re in, but there are also many hopeful signs of economic transformation.

There’s an important role for locally-owned businesses that use resources responsibly and help build community wealth through good paying jobs.

The example on the top is Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, which operates 3 large worker-owned cooperatives that provide sustainable, good-paying jobs in solar installation and energy efficiency, local food production in a hydroponic greenhouse, as well as a green industrial laundry service that has university and hospital contracts.

There is also a role for projects like this community currency in Brixton, UK. Community or alternative currencies are used alongside or in place of the national currency and help keep wealth in the local economy. I bet someday soon you’ll have Butte Bucks!

And equally, if not more important, we need a cultural shift in what we value, away from material wealth toward connection to each other and to nature.

We can realize this through projects like this tool library started by a Transition group in Seattle, this repair café hosted by Transition Pasadena in SoCal – where people can bring things that are broken and have them fixed, rather than needing to by something new.

And we also need to be having different types of conversations about our economy.

If you’re interested in learning more you can check out this report by the Post Carbon Institute that I co-authored called Weaving the Community Resilience and New Economy movement, which has a lot more information and examples of the incredible work happening around the country to transform our economy.


We also do a lot of work around reskilling, homesteading, and do-it-yourself projects, to re-learn the skills we need to become resilient – things like building and canning and growing our own food.

In my house we make almost all of our own cleaning supplies and toiletries because it’s fun, it’s cheaper, and that way we know we aren’t putting toxic chemicals into our bodies or our environment.

A great place to get started homesteading is reading this book – the Good Life Lab, Radical Experiments in Hands-on Living, about a couple who left their jobs on Wall St to become homesteaders in the desert in New Mexico, and are almost completely self-sufficient.

There are many other things that are part of this great Transition that I don’t have time to go into today, but include things like housing and land access, healthcare, re-integrating the wisdom of elders into our society, and collaborating with local government.

On top is a picture of my friend Obi who is helping with a natural building workshop.

Here are a couple examples of participatory democracy – we organized a community conversation on how to become more resilient, and then used the recommendations from that discussion to write a policy memo to inform our city’s 10 year general plan update.

And here is the mayor helping to install a public food forest at our city hall.

All of these changes we’ve talked about rely on having relationships with each other and a sense of community.

We need to find ways to build community, to share with, learn from and support each other, to heal, and to build political and economic power at the grassroots level.

In my community we do this through potlucks, working together and getting our hands dirty, and a lot of dance parties. We all work really hard, but it’s important to remember to celebrate.

Building resilient communities is necessary, possible, and fun.

And as a fellow young leader in this work, I invite you to step into your power and take action.

Are you ready?

Ok, great! To help you succeed, I want to share a few tips I’ve picked up through my own experience:

Pay attention. We have got to pay attention to what we eat, what we buy, what we support, and the impact our decisions and actions have on our planet. There are a lot of distractions that make it hard to do that. Try to get rid of the distractions. I don’t watch television, or pay attention to mainstream media, or celebrity gossip, because I don’t think it’s a good use of my time, energy, or intelligence given the state of our planet.

Become eco-literate – learn how ecosystems work, and how human activities impact ecosystems. There are many ways to do this, but one of them is to study permaculture!

Learn about privilege – “the invisible backpack.” The invisible backpack is a set of privileges each of us carry with us that are not based on merit but rather on our race, class, gender and sexual orientation, and so on. It’s important to understand privilege simply in order to be a good human, but especially if you want to try doing community organizing or movement building. It’s a lot to go into right now but you can start by just searching “invisible backpack.”

It’s ok to cry. When you start to really understand and feel into what has happened and what is happening on our planet, you will probably feel a lot of sadness and grief, and it’s important not to bottle it up. I cry a lot – you can ask my boyfriend.

Align your actions & values: learn how to live simply. Like I mentioned, many of the changes we need to make require us to consume less and to shift our values away from material wealth. This means we need to learn how to live more simply. It’s a practice that takes time and is not only good for our planet, but is also very fun and liberating.

Skill up in collaboration, listening, & communication. We are shifting away from the age of hierarchy into the age of cooperation, which means we need to improve our ability to communicate and work with each other so we can be effective organizers.

Don’t act from a place of fear or anger. Instead, act from love. Acting from a place of anger or fear is really re-acting, and it impairs our ability to make good decisions and is very unpleasant for the people we are trying to collaborate with. You can be motivated by fear and anger, but be sure your actions come from a place of love.

Reach out to your elders. One of the most important things I learned in my early twenties was that I don’t know everything which was very exciting news to my parents. Our elders have so much to teach us, and so much wisdom to share. Currently much of that is lost because we tend to institutionalize elders instead of honoring and integrating them into an important role in society.

Don’t give up! You will encounter plenty of resistance, closed-mindedness, and apathy – you probably already have. Don’t let it deter you – use it to gain perspective and to motivate you. As a species, we can’t afford to give up, and your spark, your energy, and your brilliance is what we need to succeed.

To learn more:

  • Transition:
    • org & transitionnetwork.org
    • newsletter & facebook
  • My blog: madmillennials.wordpress.com
    • transcript, slides, & resources from this presentation

If you’re ready to take action, there are lots of ways to get involved.

Join the Community Resilience Challenge the weekend of May 16-17, where people around the country all take action to build resilience in their own communities – it can be anything from starting a compost pile to putting in a garden or organizing a community event about clean energy. Last year we registered almost 17,000 actions across the country. The person who founded the Community Resilience Challenge, a friend of mine named Trathen Heckman, is actually an alum of CSU-Chico and asked that I send his regards and get you all to participate in the Challenge.

Another thing you can do is start a Transition Initiative on your campus or in your community. I suggest you start by reading up on Transition and community resilience, and if you have questions or would like to host a more in-depth Transition training, you can email me.

Transition US has a crowdfunding campaign for the Transition Streets project coming up in May, and if any of you are in a position to contribute financially we could really use the support. Right now there are just two of us supporting all 150 Transition Initiatives in the US. We’re also looking for volunteers and interns, and particularly for a summer website revamp.

If you want to get involved, feel free to email me at marissa@transitionus.org or info@transitionus.org. I get a lot of emails but will get back to you as soon as I can!

In closing, I just want to offer my deep gratitude to you all for everything you’re already doing to make the world a better place, and for coming out today and to listening to my talk, and to all the conference organizers for making this possible.

Thank you!


For anyone curious about day-to-day life at the Big Red Barn, where I live with a handful of fellow homesteader/healer/revolutionaries, check out this 35 min movie from indie film producer Greenneck Living.

It is both a post-apocalyptic comedy and a documentary about our lives: an eclectic combination of people and the strategies we use to try our best to live in harmony with nature and prepare for life after “the fall.”

Here are some reasons you might want to watch this wacky, homegrown flick:

In the first scene, I give a compelling, eerie speech about the future of civilization, reminiscent of the tattoo on my hip.

Future of Civilization

You will also get to experience Jeremiah’s sexy, radical permaculture lesson,

sexy permaculture lesson

A heart-wrenching, cinematographically-pleasing break-up scene (in our kitchen),

BoomBang_Huskeybreak-up scene 2

Grandma Natalie’s homesteading tips and herbal medicine making,

Grandma NatalieGrandma Natalie makin medicine

Jonathan’s golden gardening secret,

liquid gold

And more!

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage: Living Abundantly on 10%

Originally posted on www.transitionus.org.

In 1996, attracted to the low cost of land and the lenient zoning restrictions, a group of young Stanford graduates raised money from friends and family and headed to northeastern Missouri to set up what is now known as Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, a successful intentional community and 270-acre community land trust. Their idea was to “move beyond protesting ecological destruction towards finding a positive alternative for ecological living.” Sound familiar?

Almost 20 years later, Dancing Rabbit (DR) is a fully functioning ecovillage with around 60 full-time members who live happily on just 10% of the resources the average American consumes.

Earlier this month, Transition US and Share Exchange had the opportunity to co-host DR’s Executive Director Ma’ikwe Ludwig for the inaugural event in her national speaking tour. We were connected to Ma’ikwe through Chong Kee Tan, a fellow Transitioner and alternative currency expert (co-founder of Bay Bucks) who’s been helping DR refine their community currency.

Below are a few highlights from Ma’ikwe’s inspiring talk about DR’s model for living abundantly with a fraction of the ecological footprint of mainstream society, as well as her one-day workshop on starting a successful ecovillage. Many of these lessons can be applied to Transition, too!

Ecological Covenants

DR’s impressively low resource use can be attributed to a set of ecological covenants that guide the community’s development, including no personal vehicles (commuting is discouraged, but members can participate in a car cooperative),  electricity used on site is from renewable sources (or off-set by renewable energy produced on-site), and all construction is from local or sustainably sourced lumber or reclaimed materials.

While some intentional communities have even more stringent ecological guidelines (for example, members of the Possibility Alliance, also in Missouri, don’t use any cars or electricity), Ma’ikwe believes Dancing Rabbit holds a unique balance of ecological commitment and social connection.

Building Resilience through Resource Sharing, Living Simply, and Local Economy

Dancing Rabbit is not an income-sharing community, but members share the costs of food, transportation, common spaces, and more. By living simply, DR’s members are able to live comfortably with an average income of $8,500 per year – less than half of the average income for their region. Many members are employed by the community – in its non-profit, bed and breakfast, bar and restaurant, farm, or building homes for new members. The community currency (Exchange Local Money, or ELM system) is a vital piece of DR’s vibrant local economy, and is used by 3 neighboring communities and several local businesses.

Creating Cooperative Culture: It’s All About Healthy Group Dynamics

No surprise here, but Ma’ikwe attributes the success of any highly functioning ecovillage to healthy group dynamics. Both founders and members should be well-trained in conflict resolution and in whichever decision-making model you choose, be willing to identify and address power dynamics, and have a good handle on essential social skills: accurately hearing (yourself and others), honesty and transparency, owning your experience, compassion and empathy, apology, self-care balanced with group care, naming group dynamics, and bridging divergent perspectives.

If your project/ecovillage is focused on culture change (like Transition), you should try to find collaborators who are committed to personal growth.

For further learning on creating healthy community social dynamics, Ma’ikwe recommends the blog Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus or this webinar series.

You Don’t Have to Start Your Own!

The first section of Ma’ikwe’s workshop was dedicated to convincing us not to try starting an ecovillage. Why? Because it’s not easy. Founders can expect to make a greater contribution in terms of energy (and probably financial resources) than future members, it’s not something you can do on the side while working full time, and it can take up to ten years or longer for the community to be stable enough “that you don’t have to worry about everything falling apart tomorrow.” In addition, there are lots of existing intentional communities (Dancing Rabbit included) that welcome and would benefit from additional members. You can visit The Fellowship for Intentional Community to search their directory for communities that are open to new members.

In conclusion, I’m deeply inspired by DR’s work and am committed to improving my own skills in group decision-making and conflict resolution, which seem as useful and necessary for Transition as they are for creating intentional communities. I’m also hoping to visit DR someday to be able to witness some of their systems in action (food co-ops, Village Council, and more). If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the DR website and Ma’ikwe’s TEDx talk, or check out the many opportunities to visit Dancing Rabbit.

Happy community-building to all!

Photos courtesy of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

A Very Sweet Day

As an adult, I’ve given myself permission to forgo celebrating most of the holidays of my childhood, which seem to have lost their magic and become overly-stressful or tied to buying things we don’t need. I prefer the liberation and fulfillment of celebrating on my own terms—through a small but intentional Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas hike through the Redwoods, or just skipping the celebrating all together and being grateful for the peaceful spaciousness it creates in my life. I try to connect with those I love in other ways – being fully present when we we’re together on an ordinary day, sending a thoughtful gift or letter when they don’t expect it, and always being kind.

In my admittedly radical mind, Valentine’s Day is essentially a marketing ploy to profit off of love, and in the past the pressure to have a perfect romantic evening has often left me feeling less-than-fulfilled. I now have a wonderful partner and soulmate, Jeremiah, and as Valentine’s Day approached (with our one-year anniversary soon to follow) I wondered how we could celebrate in a way that would do justice to the depth of our love and all that we’ve learned from each other. Rather than plan something extravagant, we decided to simply spend the day together, doing things we love to do together and appreciating each other.

Between delicious, healthy, home-cooked meals with Kathryn, our dear friend and roommate, Jeremiah and I spent the day with our hands in the dirt (my fingernails are still dirty as I type this), in service to the soil and water and plants and animals that give us life, and in service to all future generations—including, we hope, our own children—who will inhabit this planet someday.

We started the day planting willows as part of a riparian restoration project to help secure and enhance a dynamic floodplain along the Macama Creek, a tributary of the Russian River and an area with an usually high density of macroinvertebrates, the tiny creatures many fish and birds depend on for food. I’m not much of a science nerd, but the significance of caring for our watershed in an era of drought, climate change, and heavy pollution is not lost on me.

In fact, it was our shared concern for the state of the world we’re inheriting—and our determination to DO SOMETHING about it—that brought Jeremiah and I together. In each other we have found deep compassion and understanding to lean into when the pain of the world and our own life experiences is acute enough to rain tears from our eyes and our hearts. And through each other we are consistently challenged and inspired: to open our minds and hearts, to embody the change we seek, to develop and step into our strengths, to feel our feelings, to focus on what is truly important, to create and embrace a new path that is so different from the one Society has laid in front of us.

We spent the afternoon and early evening with Kathryn, tending to the sweet garden that surrounds our home (the Big Red Barn). Here we are collaborating with the curves of the land to allow more precious water to infiltrate; building up rich topsoil on what was recently barren ground; and growing diverse perennial plants that are resilient enough to produce food, medicine, and habitat regardless of whether future tenants have a green thumb. The alchemy that results when our own unique contributions to the garden interact with each other and with the patterns of nature brings me great pleasure and a sense of wonder at the power of Creation.

There is something deeply fulfilling and healing about pouring sweat and love, patience and tenderness into these pieces of earth, these islands of a future we know is possible. It’s an exercise in active hope, presence, and non-attachment: all important lessons for relationships, too.

As the sun set above us, a striking ribbon of bright, velvety red cut across the sky, fading to gorgeous hues of soft pink. As we paused in delight, a winged messenger swooped above us and perched in a nearby tree, coaxing out a simple but powerful prayer that was forming in my heart:

“May our love be a vessel for healing ourselves and our world.”

Clary Sage

Seedlings of Clary Sage, a medicinal plant (and aphrodisiac). We potted them yesterday and Kathryn created a new free plant zone on our front porch. Stop by and take one home!

Thank you Jeremiah, Kathryn, and all the beautiful beings who made this day so sweet.