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Flying to the US: was it worth it?

April 20, 2016

In October 2013, Peter Lipman and I travelled to the US, initially to be part of the Environmental Grantmakers’ Association annual retreat, but also to visit a number of Transition groups.  I had, at the time, not flown for 7 years, having vowed not to fly again having seen ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ in 2006.  The “to fly or not to fly” issue is one we had debated previously too (the comment thread is especially good).  The decision to fly to the US was the result of a huge amount of soul-searching, captured in a blog at the time. In it I wrote:

“I have come to a place, also through discussions with other people here at Transition Network and in discussion with our friends at Transition US and Post Carbon Institute, of feeling that it is worth having a go and getting on a plane and making the journey, in the (possibly naive) hope that it might sow some seeds of a new direction in the minds of some of the US’s foremost funders, give Transition in the US a boost, raise its profile, do what I can to try and support what’s already happening there.  I would expect to return home wrung out like a sponge.  This doesn’t open the door to now flying here, there and everywhere.  This is a very particular invitation that has been looked at entirely on its own merits”.

There are many people who write articles about why they don’t fly.  There are also many articles by people about why they do.  What I haven’t yet seen is someone who did fly, writing with hindsight about whether the journey was worthwhile or not.  So that’s what I want to do here, a kind of cost-benefit analysis of the trip.

The first point I want to make is that for me, deciding to make this trip was a really big deal.  We can do all the things we like at home to reduce our carbon footprint, but one substantial flight throws that out of the window.  As Ed Gillespe writes in his recent book ‘Only Planet’, the record of his round-the-world trip without planes:

“Flying makes the world seem small.  But let’s face it, it’s not.  It’s a 25,000 mile journey around the equator.  That’s a bit more than a stroll in the park”.

He adds:

“Travel is a gifted privilege not a given right.  Think about this next time someone argues they ‘deserve’ a holiday”.

The US is a very, very long way from the UK.  We calculated the amount of carbon used to get there, for internal flights while there and the journey home again, for both Peter and myself.  We did this using three different carbon calculating websites, and took an average of their (surprisingly varied) results.  My total was 3.4 tonnes (14,804 miles), and Peter’s, who only came on the first part of the trip, was 2.08 (8,776 miles). For context, the average UK carbon footprint is 14 tonnes (when you include aviation).  To reach a point consistent with the challenge of climate change, our footprints should be falling to around 3 tonnes, so a trip like that is a big deal.

So, let’s round our combined impact up to 5.5 tonnes.  That’s the ‘cost’ part of our cost-benefit analysis.  Attempting such an analysis is tricky, as the costs are quantitative (CO2), while most of the benefits from the trip are largely qualitative, hard to measure, experiential, anecdotal.  But we’ll give it a go anyway.  I’ll use those intentions we set out before departure:

1. “Sow some seeds of a new direction in the minds of some of the US’s foremost funders”

PosterPeter and I set off for the US shortly after Peter Buffet published an article called The Charitable Industrial Complex, in which he accused fellow philanthropists and foundations of working with politicians and corporations to run a “perpetual poverty machine”, and of “searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left”. It felt like the way was open for the argument to be made, and to gain some traction, that funders need to support the emerging community-led development/New Economy field in new ways, to support the groups making it happen, and to move some core endowment into investments in such projects.  The time felt right to do that.

At the EGA event Peter Lipman and I talked to lots of people and gave a very well-attended presentation.  Our point was that Transition isn’t something where the more money you throw at it the more impactful it’d be (like 350.org for example).  What would make the difference was skilful funding at the right stages.  It did feel like we had some very lively conversations, and some moments of real connection with people.

For us, one of the things that is central to funding working well is that we model in those relationships complete transparency and a sense of joint enterprise and openness to change and learn, and building such a relationship does require some elements of face-to-face meeting.  But, bottom line, did it actually lead to any new funding?

Not for Transition Network, although for Transition US it did lead to around $38,000 of funding.  Transition US recently reported on how they spent $25,000 of that funding, so what did they do with it?  $11,000 went to Transition US, and the other $14,000 enabled TUS to work with the Mid Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) who ran the Resilient NYC Project.  Outcomes included:

  • 9 teleseminars on replicable resilience-building projects, the recordings of which have been viewed 6,845 times
  • 3 Transition Neighbourhood trainings to 120 people
  • Over 280 NYC residents attended Resilience Stories seminars
  • Transition US were able to support 5 new NYC Transition groups
  • Transition US were able to develop a US version of Transition Streets, run a pilot with 62 households, set up the Transition Streets US website, and start the national roll out now being piloted in 12 communities (quantifiable outcomes discussed below).

Did it shift attitudes in the funding community?  According to anecdotal reports from within the funding world, it seems like our input added momentum to the push towards mission-related investments, and was perhaps a factor in some of these foundations pledging to divest from fossil fuels.  We heard of one anonymous programme officer who attended our talk, who said that it “encouraged funders to break out of their silos and think systemically about building resilient communities”.

Peter and I presenting in Jamaica Plain, Boston.

Peter and I presenting in Jamaica Plain, Boston.

We did actually meet Peter Buffet, back stage at an event at the Omega Institute at which I was speaking and he was also to perform, but other than introducing myself, there wasn’t time for much conversation.  It is disappointing that, to the best of my knowledge, the wider radical shift Buffet was calling for has failed, thus far, to manifest (at least, so far as I’ve heard).

‘Worth it’ rating: 4/5: The $38,000 that otherwise wouldn’t have gone to Transition has enabled all manner of things (see above).  It is very hard to put a carbon figure to all of that, or to exactly attribute where the funding went.  But one of the things that the trip inspired in several places was interest in the Transition Streets programme, which Transition US subsequently launched.  To date, from current participating groups, it is calculated that the scheme has saved 202,800 tonnes of CO2.  While that looks like a very high figure, it is cumulative for the time since the scheme started.  In terms of the impacts on the wider funding community, there are indications that there was in impact.

2. “Give Transition in the US a boost and raise its profile”

MilwaukeeThis intention was much more successfully met.  I asked Carolyne Stayton and Marissa Mommaerts of Transition US, who did an amazing job of co-ordinating the complex itinerary for the trip, for their sense of the impact it had on Transition across the country.  “It really energised the movement”, they told me.  “It got people on the same page and represented a “phase shift”, enabling a previously disparate network to feel much more connected and like they were pulling together on the same thing”. Susan Silber of the NorCal Community Resilience Network wrote “your visit was a transformational experience”.  As Mark Juedeman, then of Transition Houston put it, “your visit confirmed my connection to a global movement”.

The trip generated a fair bit of media coverage, both for local initiatives and for Transition US. I wrote to various people who organised events during the trip for their thoughts.  This sense of the visit giving Transition a boost was described by Therese Brummel at Transition Pasadena:

“As a group we learned that we could hold a huge event.  We sized-up the church venue and decided we wanted 300 people.  The group held that vision and intention and it came to be!  That empowered us!  It built our capacity and our street cred.  It gave us a name in the city”.

Sarah Byrnes from New England wrote:

“I can say without question that your trip had a massive impact on the regional Transition hub we have been supporting here. Your talk in Portland, Maine, turned out to be our biggest regional gathering by far. And the momentum from that event really carried us forward – we had a strong core of volunteers who produced a Concept Paper on Region-Wide Resilience in the months after the gathering, and eventually we formalized the network to become the New England Resilience & Transition Network. Today, we’re going strong, planning another Regional Convergence!”

While in Houston, I spoke at Rice University in an event with Jason Roberts.  Mark Juedeman reflects on the impact that event had:

“The evening event raised the profile and awareness of Transition within the Rice community (mainly faculty but also some students).  It raised the profile and awareness of Transition within the larger Houston community.  Connections were made between attendees at the evening event which have continued, and strengthened Transition and others’ efforts to make Houston better.  We had a large number of signups for our Transition Houston newsletter, as well as signups for the Transition US newsletter”.

One of my favourite talks that I gave on the tour was in Hopland, California, at the Building Resilient Communities festival (see below), the first attempt at a coming together of the Transition and permaculture movements.  One of the organisers and member of Transition Humboldt, Larry Goldberg, told me “you helped mobilize our event attendees (the 2013 BRC convergence) to commit to a wide range of personal actions”.

He added his reflections on the impacts that the talk had.  “I can only speak for myself, of course”, he begins, “so I would initially say that your words inspired me to do the following”:

  • Recommit myself to building sustainable communities and dedicate myself to resiliency-building efforts I had begun several years earlier.
  • Helped focus my personal thoughts on getting our Transition initiative to become self-supporting and income-generating (which is just getting started now).
  • Helped us move forward on our Transition Streets program which we began in earnest a year ago.
  • Helped instil a global perspective to our Transition work by giving us insights into what was going on around the planet based on the efforts you started in Totnes over a decade ago.  To date, our Transition initiative is still rather parochial in our outlook (focusing on local solutions rather than as a region or state) but we are reaching out to other areas to help spread the Transition message.
  • A new Transition initiative was started in 2014 in Del Norte county, a very rural and isolated California county (the most northerly county in Northwestern California, right on the Oregon border), which has grown into a full-fledged Transition movement that is now meeting monthly and conducting numerous community resilience building initiatives.  This is in a town whose largest employer (and major contributor to the local economy) is a notorious maximum security prison called Pelican Bay.
  • A regional effort has begun to develop a NorCal Community Resilience Network that is just launching this year.  Again, although this is not a direct result of your talk, you did inspire us to think bigger and more outside the “Transition” box to invite and include other groups involved in community sustainability and resilience building efforts.  We are now meeting regularly, have formed a working steering committee and are organizing several events to help build our community resilience efforts.

Another boost that was reported from Pasadena was the new networking opportunities that came out of it.  Therese Brummel wrote:

“Because of your visit, we began making a network of green groups. A current project we are tackling is banning styrofoam in our city. 95 cities in California have banned it but our City Council has been thinking about it for 18 months and cannot decide!! We have returned to our connections and to other local sustainability groups and have made a campaign called Good To-Go.  18 orgs have signed on.  We are planning to solidify this green coalition with breakfast meetings with the goal of having a greater impact in our city”.

Transition Milwaukee’s experience was that the high profile event they designed around the visit (see flyer above) was almost too impactful.  Jessica Cohodes told me:

“Your visit catapulted Transition in Milwaukee from a group of ‘doers’ in the eyes of the City into a meaningful force for gathering citizen action. From the standpoint of both strength in numbers and a force that couldn’t be stopped. After your visit, the expectation of output for the organization was great, and also unmanageable given our 100% volunteer status and absence of staff to create continuity in momentum. We didn’t have a go-forward plan in place to catapult the trajectory”.

This resulted in a few projects that weren’t able to be completed in the way the group would have liked, due to group capacity issues. The visit also had unexpected impacts for Jessica:

“Your visit propelled me into the spotlight, and I was offered a Masters Fellowship in Sustainability Leadership – where I built a strategic plan for Transition Milwaukee to ensure that the organization could not just provide accountable day-time support to these initiatives, but also to be self-funding so that we would be able to thrive without having to compete for traditional non-profit funding, and more so, uphold the collective impact of our other local organizations driving localized abundance – to scale in Milwaukee”.

Although illness has delayed her completing this, she reflects that the pause “has provided me with the hindsight to ensure that both the grassroots engagement and resources match to realistically drive these initiatives forward. We’re just getting started”.

‘Worth it’ rating5/5: It definitely felt like the talks I gave were a great platform for local groups to put on really big events and to build bridges to their local Mayor and others.  Groups put on really creative, playful events, and lots of people came.  It did feel like we definitely raised the profile, although we didn’t get any major TV coverage or anything, we did get into a lot of the regional/local press.  It was amazing to meet so many amazing people. There is also something very powerful for people to show the person they associate with their getting started doing something what they have done with that inspiration, and the practical things it has led to.

3. “Do what I can to try and support what’s already happening there”

POJDSOne of the key intentions of the trip was to bring REconomy and Inner Transition to the discussions about Transition, to update thinking about what Transition is, to share the insights gleaned from the Transition movement in many other parts of the world.  One of the key things it felt like we brought was a challenge to the “tyranny of volunteerism”, that idea that everyone working as volunteers is the ‘purest’ way to do Transition.  The idea that we need to create livelihoods here was one that it felt really important to be bringing.

As Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth in Richmond, CA, told me when we both spoke together at the Building Resilience Convergence, “if this is a revolution that depends on being volunteers, I can’t be part of it, and nor can most people where I live”.  Mark Juedeman, who was then co-ordinating Transition Houston, wrote:

“In the afternoon we had a reception for you at our home with members of the Transition Houston core team, as well as a couple of folks from other towns considering Transition that we invited.  That meant a lot to us all.  Your words of encouragement made us realize that we had already accomplished much, and helped to give us a boost to accomplish more.  Also, your recognition that our core team was grounded in common affection for each other put into words something that was never fully articulated in my mind, and made me see our relationships on the core team in a different way”.

Another element that was very interesting was a couple of events designed to make more explicit connection between Transition and communities of colour.  An event at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland with Gopal Dayenani of Movement Generation and Pandora Thomas of the Black Permaculture Network.

I asked Pandora if she detected, with hindsight, any ongoing impacts from that event.  She replied:

“I have to say that I think that event was great, I’ve met people that were there everywhere but not sure it actually changed deep ingrained social patterns. I know the Transition US staff are all committed to building relationships and are actively gaining tools for that to happen. I think whether it was worth it is so hard to answer, I think so because it feels like you continued expanding the questions around relevance and the reach of the Transition movement and were quite vocal about your learning curve around these issues”.

Reflecting on the impact of that event, Marissa Mommaerts from Transition US told me:

“The events where you spoke with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation and Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth laid the foundation for us to continue building relationships and learning about the connection between Transition and social justice, and how to honor and support aligned movements being led by communities of color. This is happening within our national hub, as well as several regional hubs and local Transition Initiatives. Recently Transition US hosted teleseminars with Mateo Nube of Movement Generation and Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth, deepening and building upon the initial conversations we had during your visit. It’s deep inner work that will take time to fully realize, but we have certainly made progress since your visit.”

Larry Goldberg told me:

“One year ago our Transition group reached out to the Native American community to partner on a first-ever Northcoast Intercultural Skill Share Gathering that we conducted in October, 2015.  Our previous  Permaculture skill share events impressed a Native American woman that I know who is active in her tribal government and, as a result of this contact, we are now partnering to build Inter-cultural relationships by sharing our Permaculture knowledge with tribal members who are sharing their traditional ancient knowledge. In this event we brought together the Permaculture, homesteading and tribal communities to share knowledge and practical living skills over a two-day event.  While this effort is not a DIRECT result of your visit, you did inspire us to reach out to various cultures that are not, to date, involved in Transition activities.  We hope this effort yields positive results over the next five years”.

‘Worth it’ rating4/5: It felt to me like this worked really well, and deepest thanks to Transition US for organising the whole thing.  Feedback suggests that people and groups felt a lot of support from the trip.  The work around diversity and inclusion has started to gain some traction, but it is slow to build trust, but it does seem to be happening, albeit slowly.  The profile the trip was able to bring to those conversations appears to have been useful.  One manifestation of that is the Just Resilience Collaborative, in which Transition US is a partner, which bridges social justice and environmental efforts by supporting and implementing real projects on the ground.

Weighing it all up 

So, 13 out of 15 is pretty good going.  And for me – what did I get out of it personally?  An incredible immersion in many amazing projects, meeting many amazing people, often people deeply moved and touched by Transition.  I saw loads of great projects that were deeply inspirational, and got a sense of how this stuff affects people. I drank craft beer in Boston, visited City Limits Bookstore, nibbled kale growing in Times Square, and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge.

So, to some numbers.  As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, all the talks I gave were attended by around 4,000 people.  In purely carbon impact terms, if each of those people left the talk and went on to cut their carbon by 0.0013 tonnes, or 1.3kg, then the trip was a net positive.  A quick look at this list by Chris Goodall which shows that pretty much any actions undertaken, whether changing light bulbs, buying more local food, insulation, eating less meat, riding a bicycle, have a carbon impact that far outstrips our 1.3kg minimum. And then if you look at it that the trip and its 5.5 tonnes impact helped build interest for Transition Streets in the US, which in turn led to carbon savings of hundreds of thousands of tonnes, then in purely carbon terms, it starts to look like a no-brainer.

So, on balance, was it worth it?  I think yes.  You never know where the tipping points are, who hears you speak where, and what they do with it.  This stuff can change peoples’ lives.  My favourite impacts are the small stories you hear of what can come out of giving a talk somewhere.  Here are a few snapshots, mostly from Transition Pasadena:

  • January, in Pasadena, said “your visit gave me a new perspective on what is possible in my life.  I was in a toxic corporate job at Disney which I left after your visit.  I am now happily establishing myself in the permaculture garden design business now juggling 8 garden projects!”
  • Sylvia founded a Placemaking project at the only Food Co-op in Pasadena.  It is a “Free Food Garden” with sitting area, little free library, and has significantly increased the activity on that corner causing neighbors to interact.
  • Ginko found transformational leadership in our Just Doing Stuff event planning and began a large event of artists studio tours.
  • Inspired by Transition Pasadena’s Repair Cafe, and by attending my talk in Pasadena,  the Transition group in Culver City began their own Repair Cafe.
  • Throop Church in Pasadena hosted the event there, and has had a deep connection to Transition since it first reached Pasadena.  The Transition group started an amazing edible landscape around the church, and as well as seeing its congregation double, the garden has , according to Therese Brummel, “reframed for the congregation their place in the community.  It is a gathering place revitalized! The garden is thriving, the programs are more engaging”.
  • Perhaps one of the key impacts of the trip was that whilst being my chaperone on part of the trip, Marissa from Transition US met the person who is now her partner!  So as far as they are concerned at least it was a worthwhile trip…

I wonder if there might be any way for any future trips to more consciously gather these impacts so as to be able to more easily evaluate them?  For example, surveying people after talks, following up with some kind of surveys?  It would be interesting to look at how one might do that.  The reality is that Transition is an international movement, and that holding conferences as we do inevitably means that people have to make their own decisions about whether to fly or not, and there are other members of the Transition team who have flown to give trainings and to support the emergence of Transition in different places.

It is an ongoing tension, an ‘edge’ if you like.  Ultimately, one trip by Peter and I rather pales in comparison to the amount of flying generated more widely, so I hope that this piece will stimulate discussion and debate about flying within the movement, when its benefits outweigh its impacts, and when they don’t.  I am left thinking that I will continue to not fly for holidays or to speak at conferences, but if a trip can be designed as well as this and can have these kinds of impacts, then it does make sense to make such a trip. As Jessica Cohodes from Milwaukee writes, in reflection to this suggestion, “I would say…show up with advance notice. Ask groups to have a momentum plan after your visit…well in advance of your arrival”.  With some thinking in advance, we can do that.

And yes, I did come home wrung out like a sponge.  But in a good way. We’d love to hear your thoughts.  Are we mad to even obsess about it to this level of detail?  Has our approach changed how you think about flying?

My deepest thanks for everyone involved in the trip, particularly the Transition US team, and to everyone whose thoughts contributed to this piece.  And to all my colleagues at Transition Network for their thoughts on this blog. 

Jet plane teaser image via shutterstock.
  • Ken White

    Thanks, Rob, for holding yourself and others accountable in such a transparent way.

  • Harry van der Velde

    Yes, the devil is in the details. So this is very valuable and inspiring feedback. Value is defined through careful evaluation. And that is what you delivered, Care Fully.