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Is Transition Still “Going Viral”?

Recent blog interactions with Rob Hopkins of Transition Culture U.K. and U.S. commentators show some serious disagreements both within the movement and with other activists in the Peak Oil and Climate Change world. Three key articles were recently written that illustrate this. The first was a November paper The Evolution of Transition in the U.S. by Michael Brownlee.[1] This was followed in December with A Critical Response to Michael Brownlee’s call for ‘Deep Transition’ written by Rob.[2] A few days later Carolyn Baker responded to Hopkins paper with one entitled Transition: The Sacred, the Sacred, and the Scarred.[3] (More recent articles continue the discussion but are not referenced here.)

Such interactions between Rob and U.S. writers have occurred before. In October 2010 differences arose between Rob Hopkins and John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age and The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. The disagreement came when John published a blog entry on August 25, 2010 entitled The Care and Feeding of Time Machines. [4] On August 31, 2010, Rob Hopkins responded to this with a blog entry entitled Why ‘Green Wizards’ Get Us Nowhere New… [5] In this post he reviewed other differences he had had with Greer in the past and challenged the efficacy of some of Greer’s ideas. Greer responded a few days later with a blog commentary Green Wizardry: A Response to Rob Hopkins [6]

This began two years ago, in November 2008, when Greer wrote a blog entry entitled Premature Triumphalism in which he referred to Michael Brownlee’s presentation at the annual Community Solutions’ conference as “a slick sales pitch that started by proclaiming its subject ‘the most inspiring movement in the world’ and went on from there.”[7] Rob responded a day later with an entry entitled Responding to Greer’s Thoughts on ‘Premature Triumphalism’. [8]

In Brownlee’s November 2010 post, he noted that the rate of formation of Transition Initiatives in the U.S. was slowing. U.S. Transition history is worth reviewing at this time. The Post Carbon Institute board in late 2008 committed to Transition Initiatives marking the end of its formal Relocalization Network program established by Julian Darley (the founder of Post Carbon). Post Carbon notes that the Relocalization Network had grown to about 200 locations in the world and these locations would be folded into Transition Initiatives. (Relocalization had been on-going from 2003-2009).[9] Both Relocalization and Transition had a similar focus on Peak Oil and Climate Change with a similar approach to organizing communities in a specific manner – although differing in their approaches.

“Viral” has been a watchword of Transition Initiatives (TI) from its inception. In a presentation given in May 2007 [10] Rob Hopkins noted that TI had “gone viral”, listing as evidence 14 Transition Initiatives and another 14 towns in the U.K. considering it. In June of the same year he noted that Transition Towns were now “Going Virally Viral.”[11] Viral appears to be a key positioning element of TI marketing.

Reviewing the numbers on the Transition U.S. and U.K. sites is a useful indicator about its future growth and just how “viral” it is. Brownlee’s comment led me to peruse these sites. They show an initial increasing rate of growth and then a decelerating rate of growth. On a quarter to quarter basis the U.S. numbers are:

Date New Initiatives Cumulative Initiatives
Pre March 2009 21 21
Q2 2009 13 34
Q3 2009 9 43
Q4 2009 10 53
Q1 2010 9 62
Q2 2010 11 73
Q3 2010 3 76
Q4 2010 (prelmn. ) 6 82

By comparison the last nine calendar months of 2009 show 32 new Transition Initiatives (TIs) while the first 9 months of 2010 show 23 new TIs. Considering that there are16,000 Post Offices in the U.S. (which is a close representation of the number of communities), 82 is not large. Nor do 30 new initiatives per year give a sense of exploding growth.

Worldwide growth rates are worth analysis. The following table estimates the changes on a year to year basis:[12]

Date TIs Begun   TIs Per Month Year Yearly (Estimate)
July 2005 1     2006 1
May 2007 14   13/9=1.5 2007 20
Sep 2008 100   86/16=5.4 2008 120
Mar 2009 145   45/7=6.4 2009 100
Sep 2009 234   89/6=14.8 2010 100
Dec 2010 340   106/15=7.0    

Rapid growth occurred from 2006 to 2007 and from 2007 to 2008. The period from 2008 to 2009 and from 2009 to 2010 show a decelerating growth rate. The last three years appear to have been mostly flat running about 100 per year, although the available data points which I used to estimate are far apart in time.

There are supposedly many “Mullers” – a unique TI term for prospects and interested people. Rob has repeatedly said that there are 1,000s of Mullers [13] and Jennifer Grey (co founder of Transition U.S.) in her January 2009 interview with Janaia Donaldson of Peak Moment entitled The Transition Movement Comes to America suggest there might be hundreds of thousands.[14] The TI Website currently shows that the number of Mullers is about equal to the number of initiatives (338 official initiatives and 317 Muller initiatives as of December 9, 2010) which is approximately the same one to one ratio given in Rob’s July 2005 presentation (14 official initiatives and 14 prospects). Thus one might conclude that the number of prospects (or Mullers) is about the same as the number of initiatives. This is the type of statistic commonly used in market forecasting for any product.

The viral theme continues to be used. In the recently released “Post Carbon Reader” (2010) [15] Hopkins defines viral as “It spreads rapidly and shows up in the most unexpected places.” He further notes: “The term ‘viral’ is not used lightly. Transition has grown exponentially, from just a handful of initiatives in 2007 to more than 300 official groups in 2010. There are national Transition organizations in Sweden, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Japan and the United States, and individual efforts (including “Mullers” considering becoming official) number in the thousands.”

Although Transition is worldwide, most of the initiatives are in English speaking countries including 182 in the U.K., 74 in the U.S., 35 in Australia, 18 in Canada and 8 in New Zealand for a total of 312. About 20 or so are distributed across Continental Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Rapid growth seems to have been limited to the former English speaking colonies of the British Empire.

The use of the term viral is unimportant in one sense – it is a common marketing term. In another sense it tells us how the Transition movement positions itself, which may have led to Greer’s concern about Premature Triumphalism.

Regardless of the past (or current) representations of Transition, the movement growth appears to be slowing. It has not slowed simply because Transition is overly optimistic about itself. An important question is if TI is on target with its goals and objectives and strategy or does it need to redirect. Recall that Transition’s “Cheerful Disclaimer” says “We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.”[16]

The information presented here is intended to provide a context for a more detailed evaluation of Transition. Transition is an important movement and should be analyzed from various perspectives. My next post on the subject will be a commentary on the Totnes EDAP.


[1] The Evolution of Transition by Michael Brownlee in the U.S., November 26, 2010

http://transition-times.com/blog/2010/11/26/the-evolution-of-transition-in-the-u-s/

[2] A Critical Response to Michael Brownlee’s call for ‘Deep Transition’ by Rob Hopkins, December 6 2010

http://transitionculture.org/2010/12/06/a-critical-response-to-michael-brownlees-call-for-deep-transition/

[3] Transition: The Sacred, the Sacred, and the Scarred by Carolyn Baker, December 8 2010

http://transition-times.com/blog/2010/12/08/transition-the-sacred-the-scared-and-the-scarred/

[4] The Care and Feeding of Time Machines by John Micheal Greer August 25, 2010. http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/08/care-and-feeding-of-time-machines.html

[5] Why ‘Green Wizards’ Get Us Nowhere New… by Rob Hopkins, August 31, 2010

http://transitionculture.org/2010/08/31/why-green-wizards-get-us-nowhere-new/

[6] Green Wizardry: A Response to Rob Hopkins

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/09/since-green-wizards-project-got-under.html

[7] Premature Triumphalism by John Michael Greer, Nov 19 2008 http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2008/11/premature-triumphalism.html

[8] Responding to Greer’s Thoughts on ‘Premature Triumphalism’ by Rob Hopkins, Nov 20, 2008

http://transitionculture.org/2008/11/20/responding-to-greers-thoughts-on-premature-triumphalism/

[9] Post Carbon Institute discussion on relocalization http://www.postcarbon.org/relocalize

[10] “Peak Oil and Transition Towns, Falmouth May 11 2007 by Rob Hopkins

[11] Transition Towns Going Virally Viral http://transitionculture.org/2007/06/26/transition-towns-going-virally-viral/

[12] Data is from multiple sources. Column 1 and column 2 are dates and numbers obtained from sources on those dates. Columns 3-5 are derived estimates. First estimate of 1 TI’s from Kinsale EDAP Plan. Estimate of 14 from Rob Hopkns May 2007 Falmouth presentation. Estimate of 100 from Hopkins Sept 2008 blog post “Celebrating the 100th Transition Initiative. Estimate of 145 from The Transition Handbook pages 134-137, Estimate of 234 from Transition US October 2009 Newsletter. Estimate of 340 from Transition Initiatives Web site accessed December 18, 2010. http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives

[13] Rob Hopkins at TED Global 2009 http://blog.ted.com/2009/07/23/rob_hopkins_at/

[14] January 2009 Interview of Jennifer Gray 139 The Transition Movement Comes to America

[15] Post Carbon Reader by Richard Heinburg and Daniel Learch p446-448

[16] The Transition Cheerful disclaimer!

Pat Murphy is Research Director of Community Solutions. Community Solutions is Community Solutions is a 70-year-old non-profit organization based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA which promotes energy reduction strategies in the household sector as solutions for Peak Oil and Climate Change. Community Solutions organizes conferences, produces reports and booklets from its original research… “

 

 



 


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