American Transition: Interview with Scott McKeown, Training Coordinator for Transition US & core team member of Transition Sebastopol by Willi Paul. Sponsored by Permaculture Exchange
American Transition: Interview with Scott McKeown, Training Coordinator for Transition US & core team member of Transition Sebastopol by Willi Paul. Sponsored by Permaculture Exchange


"We're building a lot of new stuff very fast right now. New politics, new media, new cities, a new economic paradigms, a new relationship with the planet - it's daunting. We need new answers much faster than we're able to generate them.

There are people in our midst who are really good at this stuff, and times like this tend to be good ones for them. In more stable times, these folks are often pushed to the side: they often look and talk goofy, they have weird ideas, they don't fit in, and nobody really gets what they're talking about a lot of the time. Also: trailing in their wake you'll find quite a few successes, along with a few stunning failures - the sure sign of somebody who's comfortable taking a lot of risks, and not afraid of bombing out.

Genius comes in all ages, genders and colors. It's the old Boomer codger who's got a thousand tricks up his sleeve, and forgotten more than you'll ever know. It's the young kid who's never been told it can't be done, so she just went ahead and figured out how to do it. I've seen world-changing political innovation come from farm worker organizers in Phoenix, women's activists in Atlanta and rural organizers from Montana and Oregon. There are often no markings on the package it comes in that give you a clue as to what's going on inside, so you have to drop your biases, and look closely.

We need to seek out these folks and put their amazing brains to work. To do their best work, they need time and space to think. The basic necessities of life. Really good and worthy problems to solve. Permission to let their minds wander, unfettered and free. Permission to fail spectacularly. And then fail again. And again, over and over, because really complicated problems usually require outrageous quantities of failure before success is achieved. The process takes time, patience, and faith; this is what innovation runs on.

And then we need to listen to them, which is often the hardest part of all."

Find and nurture innovators (#7) - New Rules for Radicals: 10 Ways To Spark Change in a Post-Occupy World By Sara Robinson

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Interview with Scott by Willi

Do we need new terms and symbols, new songs and myths to make the transition a reality? And examples so far?

This is a really good question and a really good concept. Language, symbols, songs, and myths all contribute to the creation of a new culture, which is what I suppose we are really trying to do in order to create sustainable human culture on planet Earth. New cultures are always emerging, and this is where the role of the artist can come in with Transition. Last fall one of our active senior Transition leaders, Alexandra Hart, created an event called "Transition Style" where she paired elders with High School age young adults to talk about fashion, and at the end of this program there was a fashion show featuring each pair -- the elder with the High School aged young adult -- walking down the runway showing off fashion that they created together from used clothing. Much of it was about vintage clothing but in some cases they made some of their clothes for the style fashion show. It was a fantastic event for several reasons:

1) the pairing of intergenerational people who often don't get to connect with each other;

2) the promotion of the use of used and vintage clothing so that more "stuff" doesn't have to always be made, but that rather things can be re-used; and

3) which, I believe, the most important thing about this event, which was that it was teaching how style can be created and that youth or anyone else for that matter don't need to be a slave to the hyper-consumption message of our culture of always needing to throw out what was "last year" in order to get this year's "fashion." The message for this Transition Style event was that together people can use what they have, even if it is passed down through multiple generations, and create their own "style" which is more cool than "fashion." I think this might be an example of the kind of cultural change that you are getting at in this question, and this is an area where the artists in our culture can really contribute to the great transition.

Is resilience defined and implemented in different ways in different parts of the planet?

Resilience is absolutely defined and implemented in different ways in different places. I would say even in different neighborhoods of the same city. As just one example, economic and environmental justice issues might be completely crucial issues for resilience in some communities but perhaps a little less so in others. I couldn't even begin to speak about what is essential for resilience in parts of the planet such as, say, Nigeria or Bolivia. It would be up to the people of those places to determine. I think people in every place need to define resilience for themselves and in a way that does not impinge on the resilience of other places.

What percentage of the City and region of Sebastopol takes part in of Transition Sebastopol currently? Are you serving minority and poor populations there?

Sebastopol is a fairly homogenous town, so there are not substantial minority or poor populations compared to many other places, even nearby Santa Rosa. We have leaders in our group who are people of color, such as the current co-leader of the group, but I'd say we are doing a better job of serving those who are poor than we are the small minority populations of our town. People are learning how to life as good as they can with less through programs such as the Garden Challenge and reskilling classes. I know that some Transition initiatives in other communities that are more diverse are doing more to serve minority populations.

Some critique Transition as heavy in planning and light on action. Your read?

I'm not sure I totally agree with that but there is some fair criticism there. Frankly, I don't think Transition is really going to achieve a critical mass of action needed until the conditions in the US become more intense. About half the country thinks climate change is a hoax and that there is plenty of oil if the environmentalist would just get out of the way. With that thinking so prevalent no wonder it's hard for communities to really be swinging into action. In the meantime, a worthy goal for the movement is to be responsible for starting a community conversation about resilience and localization. There is a lot of awareness raising and planning still needed to go before there is going to be the level of action that will ultimately be needed.

Do you bring together Occupy, Permaculture and Transition there? Examples?

In my town some of the people active in Transition have been involved in the Occupy activity, but to date there has not been any official connection. However, at a recent town hall meeting that was held by the county-wide Occupy movement there was a lot of interest expressed in finding ways for Occupy and Transition to work together somehow. We'll see what comes out of that. With regards to Permaculture there has been a lot of synergy here with Transition. Just one example is the "350 Home and Garden Challenge" which was a project last year that was spearheaded locally in my town by Transition Sebastopol participants. That project was created by Permaculture and Transition groups as well as others, and it ended up having many hundreds of gardens be created in our area alone. A lot of Permaculturists seem to be naturally drawn to get involved in the Transition movement, which some have describe as an example of "Social Permaculture".

What is reskilling? Is this activity reactive or proactive at base? Can you give us some reskilling that you have enjoyed recently?

Reskilling is a term within the Transition movement that seems to be catching on that describes learning the skills of life that used to be essential and were used by everyone up until the last couple of generations. For instance, my Grandmother did a lot of her own clothes making and she used to do a lot of canning and growing of food herself. They lived in the suburbs and had only a 1/2 acre of land but they did a lot on that land to be self-sufficient. It was just what everyone did back then. For a lot of us it makes sense to some of those basic skills so that we can be more resilient no matter what sort of things might be happening. I would say it's more proactive at this point as we are not quite in such a desperate economic situation where it is really needed to do those things.

Of course, it is the case in some parts of our society but we're not quite at a Great Depression level of widespread hardship. At the last Transition Sebastopol Reskilling Fairs some of the workshops included how to raise backyard chickens, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, simple greywater, first aid, and about ten or so other topics. Right now I'm learning how to plant and grow potatoes and have been learning about the different kinds of potatoes I can grow and which ones would be best for my soil and weather conditions. I found out if you build a mound of dirt up around the stalks as they grow up they produce many more potatoes.

What economic impact has Transition Sebastopol had? Any jobs created? Or any alternative economic strategies?

I don't think there has been much significant job creation yet here because of Transition activities, but I do occasionally hear about people starting up various green-oriented businesses and I wonder if Transition could have had an influence. But generally I don't think Transition is really that far along yet to have that sort of affect yet. I do believe that's where we need to start heading, however. Building an alternative economy is really what we are talking about in the long run and it's the big looming issue I see all of us are heading for. Right now Transition has just been nipping around at the edges, but to be effective on that level there needs to be a whole lot more work done. In my view Transition has just barely started, and it's going to be a while before it makes a very big dent. I think it has been very effective in getting the community conversation going, but really a fundamental re-thinking of our entire economic system needs to occur. I'm not talking about getting rid of capitalism or the free market or anything, but rather a fundamental shift to a more localized and a less globally-dependent economic system that would be much more stable and resilient in the face of major global changes.

How do you make a living with transition values?

All my email messages I send using my Transition Sebastopol email address have a "personal disclaimer" at the bottom that says:

Scott is still coming to terms with his own eco-hypocrisy given the relatively high-consumption lifestyle he continues to maintain, even though he knows better. Although he is making overall progress toward lowering his ecological footprint, Scott is often embarrassed by his own apparent lack of personal discipline required to fully live or "walk the talk" of many of the "sustainability" issues he writes and talks about.

I decided to just out myself as an eco-hypocrite to get it out of the way and so I don't have to defend myself anymore. I certainly don't claim to be an example of how to live an "eco" correct lifestyle. But I guess one example of how I might be making a living with Transition values is that as the Training Coordinator working for Transition US I work out of my home and I don't commute, but using my phone and Internet connection massively.

Sometimes it makes me feel a bit isolated working at home, but least I'm not driving 40 miles in traffic or whatever back and forth every day. But Transition is also not about cross-examining ourselves or others to see if we are doing it "right" or not. I see cutting down our fossil fuel use as a personal choice and we are all on some point of our growth toward living in more balance with nature. I like to just applaud everyone for making whatever progress they are making, including my own, and even if it is small. In my view a lot of the "eco-correctness" has really backfired and has caused a lot of people to just get irritated. That approach can easily end up being self-defeating.

Please give us the core values in localization? Is this "re-programming" easy to instill in the rich or in your seniors?

I'll go with one of Michael Shuman's description of localization which is:

"Nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming more self sufficient, and less dependent on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations and back to the community where it belongs".

I think the easiest way of communicating what this is about, especially to seniors, is to say how this was just how the way things were up until about 60 or so years ago. Even I remember how it used to be difficult to buy fruit that was out of season, and I'm a California native.
What are your goals for the upcoming Northern California Regional Conference of Transition Initiatives?

The Transition movement was launched in the US about four years ago, and the focus has pretty much been during the last four years to build individual local community Transition "initiatives". But these initiatives have developed in somewhat of a vacuum separated from each other, for the most part. Now as these initiatives have developed and matured there seems to be an organic, natural inclination emerging from these groups to start connecting with one another on a regional level.

So far the Transition movement has not been very good at connecting the various Transition initiatives with one another. It just seems that the time is right to develop this connectivity now. The interest is bubbling up. Initiatives can better learn from each other from networking and also it opens up the possibility for there to be a more regional approach with projects. It was important, I think, that the emphasis needed to start locally. After all, localization is largely what the Transition movement is all about. But now that local efforts are well underway there are now new possibilities by linking up with one another.

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Scott McKeown's Bio -

Scott McKeown is the founder and a long-time core team member of Transition Sebastopol which in 2008 became the 9th official Transition initiative in the US and which continues to grow with ten active working groups. Scott has been a professional trainer and instructional designer for over fourteen years in both corporate high-tech environments and also with non-profit organizations. Scott has been a certified Training for Transition instructor since 2008 and has co-taught the "T4T" course in many California communities. Scott is currently working as the Training Coordinator for Transition US, the national hub organization of the Transition movement in the US.

Connections -

Scott McKeown
Training Coordinator, Transition US
scott at
scott at