Transition Milwaukee

Rebuilding Community Resilience & Self-Reliance

This is a peak oil story.

Or maybe a story about what happens when peak oil activism collides with peak oil itself. It is a tale about that punch in the stomach announcement that reality has arrived.

One of the promising aspects of The Transition Movement is its sense of playful experimentation. More significant than the fun atmosphere that this encourages, is, in fact, the educational value of games and of play. My time in Transition has re-introduced into my 40-something life the opportunity to play, invent, and experiment in away that reminds me just a bit of forts once built and clubs formed during my grammar school days. In this light, consider our reskilling seminars, Transition Milwaukee’s Powerdown Week “staycation,” our experiments in urban agriculture and solar powered concerts, even the work building our Transition organization (with its slightly more serious than necessary focus on committees, bylaws, and mission statements): in some sense these games and adult-sized play-dates are all a dry run for “the big event.”

But also like children’s play, this work is dead serious in it its focused intensity; most children, boys especially, spend a lot of time breaking things because it is only in the breaking that we learn about certain sorts of mechanical limits or the quality of various fastening systems. A carpenter who is “a natural,” who just seems to grasp what will hold and what won’t, probably spent a lot time in this sort of play. All children seem to create various clubs and organizations, most of which never make it past the initial effort to define the club, but in so doing learn about hierarchy, consensus and division of responsibility; Transition has something of that feel to it at times, which is not to dismiss its importance, the necessity of this protected space for trial and error if we are to evolve and adapt to the end of the oil age.

But, like most children, at the end of the day--grubby and tired--we all go home to our safe and protected, well-stocked and fully heated homes; the practical consequences are slight. We are not yet playing with live ammunition. An outbreak of early blight at the community garden that many Transition Milwaukee people have been working on, for instance, had an immeasurable effect on our ability to feed ourselves, so steady and solid are the foundations we’ve laid in the world of the money economy. It is good that we’re having this dress-rehearsal for we have much to learn.

There has thus been a sense in which my Transition time has been like going to a land of make-believe. We use the phrase “after peak oil” in a way similar to the child’s “when I grow up." As I joined Transition, I poured over the Handbook like a preadolescent transfixed by gear catalogues or sports magazines, absorbing images of what Transition Milwaukee might feel like: the open-space events filled with cheerful and dedicated people, euphoric with a fresh sense of empowerment able to lift all obstacles to generosity and community cohesion; and the wonder, by God, the magic and wonder, the sheer unstoppable power, of the post-it note. Early Transition Milwaukee events (as well as those of The Victory Garden Initiative, another organization in Milwaukee with considerable overlap and a near simultaneous birth with Transition Milwaukee) have indeed lived up to the high expectations of glorious, earthy meaning and purpose that The Transition Movement promises: “the future with less oil *could* be better than the present.”

I do believe that the Transition Movement with all its hope and optimism is one of the best ways to prepare for the future. But excluded from this hopeful vision are some of the difficult and crushing emotional, financial, and political realities that we will confront along the way. Though paying lip service to the then abstract difficulties that lay scattered about the road ahead, I hadn’t yet began to prepare myself for them when they began burrowing out from beneath our protective fossil-fuel, economic growth bubble. I hadn’t yet gotten around to preparing myself for what it would be like when things began their centrifugal spiral, for the appearance of a widening gyre, when predicaments that used to be a minor challenge were starting to gain the upper hand. In the grey glum world of decreasing opportunity, everything has suddenly gained heft; old powers, whether of ingenuity, charm, or just plain hard work, don’t work as they once did.

These, at any rate, are the early conclusions from recent reflection on my new and bewildering situation. As we all know, conventional oil has likely peaked; the available net energy to society has, perhaps, begun its barely perceptible descent. The party may, in fact, be over, coming finally to its listless predawn sprawled out slumber.

As a teenager, I started a roofing company. Working as a self-employed production roofer offers many life-lessons about responsibility and risk, about enduring a type of daily self-imposed hardship. But it also enforces some other lessons can lure one with a seductively false promise: that physical effort translates directly into the value according to a strict calorie to dollar calculus.

Because this, indeed, is how roofing often works; the only problem is that the whole world is not a roof. Laying asphalt shingles is not technically very complicated. It is highly repetitive with little need for problem solving or careful deliberateness. A good shingler with a pneumatic nail gun will seem to skim the gun across the roof, touching down with a crack which becomes repeated in sets of four or five at machine gun rates. With practice this movements can become increasingly automatic; all it then takes to become truly fast is will and effort, a focus on moving just a bit faster and never pausing.

Being self-employed, I quickly learned that I could double my daily take simply by treating the day as a race. I timed myself; how fast could I put down a bundle? How could I beat that time? I began my roofing career just as roofing nailers were becoming suitably dependable, though the pricing scheme for roofs was still set by the time requirement needed for the far slower hand-nailing of the shingles. With my new nail gun, I quickly realized I could double, and then quadruple my previous rate of hammer and nail. I recognize now that this is the intoxicating sense of power and possibility that societies may feel as they hit the inflection point of exponential growth. I also didn’t pause to consider the simple fact that this upward trajectory was being powered by the cheap electricity upon which my air compressor ran. Electricity costs were negligible; not a part of any roofing budget.

Unfortunately--unfortunate because like our civilization today, I could consume as fast as I could produce and thus this money is certainly not here to day—I made more money than any 17 year old ever should and on some level believed that life would continue to bow to my will and endurance just like a unshingled roof and a palette of shingles. While the lessons that many young entrepreneurs seem to learn have to do with how to be cunning, how to work the system, sell an idea, make astute strategic decisions (these lessons are also partially misleading) my lesson was that anything could be overcome by just putting more effort into it. In some ways this illusion corresponds to that of the oil age, in which anything seemed possible if we increased and refined our inexhaustible source of power.

This is not to say that the lessons of production roofing haven’t also served me well. Were it not for those lessons, I would not have entered the Transition Movement, at least not in the way I did. In the fall of 2007, with the help of a co-investor, I bought a 5000 sq. ft. commercial building to house what had, through college and then graduate school, evolved from a roofing operation into a full-fledged remodeling company. Around the time of that purchase, I was beginning to think more about the environment and global warming and the building trade’s contribution to all that, and had come into contact with Will Allen’s Growing Power. But it was only after being introduced to locavorism and to the oil-intensity of industrialized food through Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that the solar panels I had dreamed of putting on the building’s large and sun-drenched flat roof were pushed aside by the determination to install a roof-top farm from which my wife and I would begin our locavore adventure.

Before the snow melted the following spring (2008), I started my frenzied construction of 18 oversized of raised beds, and then hauled up to the roof 20 yards of pure Growing Power compost. Thus began my upward trajectory towards peak community activism. By virtue of the building’s location and some well-timed self-promotion, and a chance encounter with The Outpost Natural Food’s produce manager and a small video camera, the rooftop farm gained some quick publicity and some members of the 3 month old Transition Milwaukee sought me out. They reasoned, I imagine now, that I must be suitably nutty to be of some use to the movement.

At that point I had never heard the term “peak oil. Besides my desire to create a new business niche and to get some “green” credibility for my company, Community Building and Restoration, my ecological motivations were limited to climate change; prior to reading the Transition Handbook, I was stuck at that early moment of awakening where I imagined all our problems could be solved with something as simple as a roof-top gardening craze, perhaps accompanied by a transition to bio-diesel.

Reading the Transition Handbook, however, was a momentous occasion for me and launched me onto the steep upward section of the Hubbert’s curve of my Transition involvement. The fledgling Transition Milwaukee opened up new worlds of friendship and camaraderie. The roof top garden was sort of adopted as one of the visible manifestations of the group. In the meantime the roof-top farm was gaining increasing attention with multiple newspaper articles, TV and radio appearances, and a community award. Transition Milwaukee was at the same time growing exponentially, with multiple successes and accomplishments and the development of a solid and cohesive community.

These were euphoric days for me. The roof-top growing thrived; the raised beds overflowed with tomatoes, Kale, squash, peppers, even sweet corn--to the point where I began selling my produce at The Outpost during my first growing season. For my second season I ran an 8 family CSA off the roof and for the third it was part of a collective community farming project. At home we had never eaten so well and were each day enjoying the thrill of discovery: kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, and fresh beets. Each week the roof-top farm seemed to open up a new door or provide a new opportunity. The wells or promise were overflowing and launching me towards new heights.

The gambit had paid off. When I first hatched the idea of the rooftop farm, both my wife and mother urged caution. “Why not just start with one raised bed,” they suggested. But as they both reluctantly admitted to themselves, that wasn’t my typical, roofer-trained, approach to things. I wasn’t going to ease into this. If less is more, think how much more, more is! Instead I settled on 18 14’x4’ raised beds and jumped head-first into a pretty large operation for one person with almost no experience. In this confidence that I could make this work, one could find more than a few traces of my roofing days and the lesson it had taught. I would make this work and make it work big, simply by dedicating inhuman hours to that and my remodeling business. Faster and harder; more soil, more plants, more varieties, longer season, more food, more publicity, more Transition.

With this momentum, not to mention a Transition community that is inevitably graced with at least a little mania of its own, I increasingly expected that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish and likewise nothing Transition Milwaukee and The Victory Garden Initiative couldn’t accomplish. It seemed that the world was flocking around us, growing our ranks and then encouraging more growth--with more events, more presentations, more activities. So excitedly distracted was I as I readied myself for one Transition event that I accidentally brushed my teeth with anti-fungal cream. The force of enthusiasm, or so it seemed, was unstoppable. True, the rumblings, and then the actual pinch, of the recession were duly noted; but our power to power-down was far stronger.

At the time I never thought to compare this trajectory of perpetual growth and excitement to the earlier days of the fossil fuel age. Hubbert’s peak can look deceptively flat and level when you’re on its upward slope. The power and confidence brought by oil--the preposterous belief, for instance, that we could put a man on the moon--merely set its gaze on the horizon of endless possibilities and no unconquerable distances. As Thomas Friedman infamously and incorrectly put it, “the world is flat,” or so it seemed.

Certainly, to a significant degree the lesson I had taken from production roofing--that pure effort, the dedication of a faster output of calories to the project at hand was necessary and sufficient for nearly any challenge--is attributable to the life into which I was born. Often referred to as American Optimism, this sense of limitlessness could only reach its current scale amidst the rapacious gluttony of the contemporary American extraction machine. “Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.”

It would be a mistake to characterize the overall ethos of Transition as a maniacal, euphoria-driven combustion of delusional confidence. It is not. It is also peaceful, inclusive, gentle, compassionate, touching. But beneath all this the unrelenting oil economy hums and purs. The sacred, playful joyfulness of my Transition experience has survived only in a bubble that fossil fuels can maintain. I hate to pick on Totnes. It has provided an example for the world. But I have always imagined that it enjoys a considerable influx of London, and thus global, money and privilege. Like most members in Transition Milwaukee, it enjoys, and is kept aloft by the gush of oil. A life preserver makes buoyancy a snap.

So what will become of all this when we start seeing and hearing live ammunition? I believe I am currently hearing some unsettling cracks and pops in the distance. And I sense that the ground beneath my feet is suddenly unsteady, the air heavier, the weight of everything increased. My recent experiences (as well as those of countless Americans who have already lost their homes, jobs, and healthcare) might be a harbinger of what will soon be coming with fuller force: the real and deadening thud of limits making their appearance. The surprise that peak oil activism has been run-over by peak oil itself. It is not like falling off an energy cliff; that would provide at least a few moments of lightness and speed. No, it is more like running into that granite wall from below.

Winters for a remodeling contractor are almost always challenging. For some reason people also plan their indoor projects for less frigid months. In the winter of 2008, despite the plummeting Dow, enough people had already committed to the usual smattering of kitchens and bathrooms, built-in bookshelves and door tuning to keep things going more or less as normal. But the winter of 2009 (and again in 2010 and now in 2011) was an entirely new experience for me. Though barely touched by the foreclosure crisis, here, potential clients seemed to be ducking for cover. In the past, a slow patch could be overcome with a day or two of leaflet distribution; a little effort was all it took. Things were now immovably frozen. For the first time I had to adjust to weeks without pay. I say this not to complain, for my privilege was still intact; to borrow a phrase from Iris Murdoch, I am not living “under the net.” I say this instead because of the whole existential novelty of it all, the new loss of “my powers” with which effort could usually produce at least some money. I am now trying to run under water. (I realize that most of the world has been forced to run under water long before this affront to my middle-class expectations).

By the winter of 2010 with almost zero revenue at that time, I had fallen behind on my city property taxes. I had managed to stay solvent and keep my very special group of thoughtful and dedicated employees busy enough; but when everything necessary to keep us going for another day had been paid, there was no money left for the taxes. The specific reason why the late taxes are likely to force me, now, to relinquish the building and the farm are not relevant to this story. But the unthinkable is happening and apparently I am powerless to make it stop.

I had imagined the rooftop farm thriving far into the future. Here, my children would some day learn the wonders of the ecological cycle of soil, to seed, to plate, and then (with the composting) back to soil again. We would be increasingly able to feed ourselves and our community from it. It would be a buffer in an age of decline, a model for bewildered neighbors as they experience the first spasms of contraction. It never occurred to me that the farm itself might be a victim of this decline. This was to be a Milwaukee landmark, I perhaps presumptuously assumed, an enduring symbol of Transition Milwaukee’s earliest days

The investment I would need to keep the building is remarkably small. But try as I have, I am finding only closed doors and dried-up wells. An obstacle such as this, I have been trained to believe, would be but a simple matter. I have breezed by larger ones in the past. Ingenuity, creativity, “thinking outside the box,” not to mention a burst of effort, would certainly shake loose a solution. Maybe it still will. But in the meantime, as the farm slips further from my grasp, I am flabbergasted and astounded, unused to this new loss of control.

The realization has slowly dawned on me the past few days: so this is what life after the peak is like. This is life with limits. Both the symbol of and material source of my family’s personal transition will be gone, taken away by the events we thought we were preparing for. What, I wonder, will The Transition Movement be like as the limits of peak oil and other resource depletion begin to descend more fully upon us, difficult enough to accept and anticipate, impossible, perhaps, to truly imagine in all their dumb blunt force.

For this we should also prepare.

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Comment by Bradford Bender on March 13, 2011 at 2:52pm


We just met briefly this weekend at the energy fair, but I am impressed at your industry and comprehensive view of the world. My father almost lost the ranch he had built up with his father and brother when prices beyond his control crashed in the early 70's, and he found comfort in his realization than his health, family, and friends were intact. There is opportunity among crisis for people who can work hard and smart, and collaborate with people. In this day and age good solutions can go viral too. I think the castle mentality of the self-reliance movement of the 70's and 80's has a much better spirit of community this time around. It is much easier to find good people doing good things and get their story out. Keep up the good work. We are all in this together, and help will come.

Comment by Sarah Moore on March 3, 2011 at 10:57pm

Thanks Erik.  I know you don't like singing but this is why we need to remember to know songs that we can sing.

  When you can't change anything, when control is gone, there is only spirit and art to help you hold on.  I may not KNOW this yet but I understand it.

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