Transition Initiative: Feeding Ourselves Tomorrow

groceriesThe Transition Initiative, fundamentally, is all about food.  It’s also about more than that, but food quickly excites people when it’s withdrawn.  Cheap energy has allowed our society to cut a lot of corners in the farm-to-market business, and now we’ve come to expect cheap and abundant food as an entitlement.

So the question has to be asked: will groceries remain plentiful on store shelves in coming years, and if yes at what cost?

This is not a far-fetched speculation.  There have been numerous food-shortage riots around the world recently in places with previously ample foodstuffs.  And if it can happen there, the possibility exists that it could happen here too.

Oil is fundamental to our times.  Like any commodity if it’s in short supply its price will increase.  And high-priced oil means food will also get more expensive since petroleum is used to A) plant and grow food, and B) transport food to market (over possibly thousands of miles).  This is where Peak Oil and Climate Change, combined, force us to re-examine our modern world.

The Peak Oil premise recognizes that we are not close to running out of oil.  However, we are close to running out of easy-to-get, cheap oil. Very close. It might have happened last year or it might be 5-6 years away, but it will arrive. It means we have already used up half of our planet’s petroleum inheritance.  From now on new discoveries will not compensate for declining production along with increasing demand.  Earth is about to enter Petroleum Descent – the era when, year after year, oil availability decreases. Mind you, other energy sources still exist (e.g. coal, natural gas) but either they lack the convenience and flexibility of oil, or they are difficult to transport internationally (and their peaks are only about a decade behind oil).

Climate change is fact.  It will bring us great misery if fossil fuel use continues unabated. Perhaps a better name for the phenomena unfolding around us is climate chaos, because “a climate” (as we define it) will no longer exist.

The Transition Initiative is a proactive, forward thinking response to these realities.  It is a set of steps that individuals, groups, towns, cities can take in preparation for the double-barrelled impact of Peak Oil and Climate Change. At its heart it is a process of re-localizing all the essential inputs that a community needs in order to function.  For example, growing food locally because long-distance transportation costs will become prohibitive. As well, growers will need to adopt alternative farming methods because intensive, petroleum-based methods will be too expensive.

A precedent for this kind of transition exists:  Cuba.  After the Soviet Union fell in 1989 Cuba’s oil imports fell dramatically.  Since the American embargo remained in place, Cuba had no choice but to rely on local solutions in order to survive.  Its government recognized that industrial agriculture was no longer viable with severely limited fossil fuels, so their food production system was re-designed along organic lines, using permaculture techniques.

Farmer’s salaries were increased to match that of engineers.  Urban farms and gardens were encouraged.  Many other innovations occurred.  But the bottom line is that no one starved and after 10 years Cuba was mostly self-sufficient in food.  80% of the food grown on the island came from farms that happened to be organic (because that was the cheapest way).  Its people were healthy.

The Cuba example is but one case study of re-localization.  The point of the example is to illustrate the Transition goal of increasing resilience, so society can accommodate and adapt to the changes ahead, while preserving a livable environment.  Yet how to achieve this resilience?  The list below represents some candidate ideas for resilience-building.  They probably won’t all happen in every community, but certainly some should happen everywhere.

  • Electricity from renewable energies (and maybe from nuclear during early years)
  • Significant power-down (energy conservation)
  • Highly energy-efficient housing
  • Local, sustainable agriculture (“permaculture”)
  • Urban community gardens and backyard gardens
  • Community/group problem-solving (learn to help each other for times of need)
  • Well-integrated public transportation
  • Efficient personal and/or goods transport (bikes, small electric vehicles)
  • Use of local materials
  • Local manufacturing for many (but probably not all) goods
  • Maybe even local currencies (for preserving some capital within the community)

Of course we could just try to maintain our society as we’ve come to know it, in spite of the accumulating harm.  One way is to keep doing what we’re doing now (“business as usual”), which will burn through every last ounce of fossil fuel we can extract from the ground, and leading to a thoroughly wretched, despoiled planet and quite probably the loss of our global civilization.  Another approach could be a high-tech solution providing abundant clean energy (eg orbiting solar power satellites).  That may be feasible given a half-century or more of lead-time (and plenty of capital), but it won’t arrive soon enough to solve our immediate problems.

So the only way through this maze of seemingly endless, imminent crises seems to be to quickly transition society away from its high-power, high-consumption lifestyle toward a lower-powered, localized future.  A future with less oil and less energy can be as satisfying as what we have now – IF we consciously design it to be that way.

To wrap up, here is a brief summary of Transition philosophy:

  • Life with less access to cheap energy is probably inevitable, and it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
  • Climate change is real, it’s dangerous, and it’s accelerating.
  • Most of the modern world has lost the flexibility to cope with “shocks”.  Our communities need more resilience – lifestyles that can adjust and adapt to rapid change without “snapping”.
  • Communities must look out for themselves because no one else cares, and they have to act now.
  • As an individual, try to purchase fewer goods, but when you must: buy local.  Learn to grow some of your own food. Accustom yourself to a lower-energy lifestyle.  Generate some of your own energy.  And respect the web of planetary interdependencies of which we are all a part.

Robert Haw

Robert Haw is an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  He is deeply concerned with the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and is active in bringing this awareness to the public.


  1. Robert A. Letcher says

    Back in the mid-1970s, Amory Lovins wrote a paper, “Soft Energy Paths”, which he later expanded to a book by the same name. Lovins focused on “paths” practical ways, hows… for getting to an alternative to the hard energy future that simply took for granted that past practices can simply be continued on forever. Lovins used the term, “soft energy” to characterize and refer to that future. [Sorry, it’s been so long that i can’t recall who actually came up with the term.]

    I agree with Lovins still, only more so now: we need to think in terms of paths–indeed, more than one, so we can build redundancy into our own effort reflecting the more recent thinking of Richard Norgaard, in his book, DEVELOPMENT BETRAYED.

    We’ll never get anywhere at all if we don’t learn how to learn to hear different voices, including especially quieter voices that for structural reasons experience our efforts as entailing their doing all the work. ‘for example, coal is dirty–true… for those of us concerned about climate change. But for miners, it’s a way they have learned to feed their families. And they will pick feeding their family over stopping climate change every time. I would. We need to figure out new ways to do things, and probably new accounting methods that will compensate them for their extra contributions, or they will never listen to us, and we will never get to–to twist a phrase–take back our planet.

  2. says

    Dear Friends,

    Most of the people I know, eat food. This is why I think that the greatest threat to humanity is hunger. Climate change, economic collapse, species extinction and peak oil all threaten to exacerbate this threat. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a cheap and easy way for each individual to reduce their contribution to climate change, world hunger, economic collapse, species extinction and peak oil?

    I am particularly fond of methods that do not require corporate or government approval. For example, minerals that anyone can concentrate from sea salt or sea water can cheaply double local and backyard garden food production (and carbon sequestration) in a couple years. I think that getting as many people as possible acquainted with this information is the best thing we can do to help people survive the changes that are coming. A simple open-source method for concentrating these minerals is described at:

    It appears that these essential plant and animal nutrients that were previously unknown to science. When added to the soil, they double plant growth over a few years time, while increasing drought & freeze tolerance. They also improve the taste and nutrition of the plants. See the link above for examples.

    When fed to animals, they increase the early growth and health of chickens and have allowed a cat to regrow a lost tail. See:

    These minerals have been concentrated from sea water, fresh water, rocks and even from the air using cheap, open-source methods described at:

    Hunger is a threat because global warming will force us to significantly change our food growing areas, economic collapse will prevent more people from being able to afford good food, peak oil will force us to grow more food locally or starve and species extinction will create holes in the web of life that feeds us. Growing inches of new topsoil and doubling plant production in a couple years will help all species that eat food. It will also sequester more carbon.

    Anyone with access to fire and sea water can concentrate these minerals from the sea. If you have access to magnets and plumbing parts you can concentrate them from the air or fresh water using open-source methods.

    With kindest regards,
    Barry Carter
    bcarter at

  3. says

    The Transition philosophy makes good and abiding sense even if future changes (in climate and oil prices) turn out to be less extreme than Hawes and other Transitioners predict: with ups and downs rather than huge once-for-all-time shocking changes. Especially so, if we factor in the extra challenges posed by population increase and the business-as-usual-or-even-more determination of existing governments and economic powers.

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