Saturday, December 15, 2018

Spengler at a Century

All good things, they say, must come to an end.  The history of our planet is about a lot of beginnings, endings and new beginnings.  Living things are mortal.  Are societies living things?  Must they too come to a natural end?  Human history has in fact been about a lot of beginnings, endings and new beginnings.  Civilizations came and went.  And now we are part of a civilization that encircles the world.  It’s by far the grandest thing human beings have created.  Will it last?

The great majority of people do not think this civilization will end in their lifetime but we are nonetheless concerned about a lot of issues that define life for a steadily growing number of people.  We invest a lot of time and money into mitigating risks.  The twenty-first century brought us a new department of government:  Homeland Security, or Emergency Management as it is often called at the state level.  It came out of global terrorism but also embraces natural disasters like extreme weather, floods, droughts and fires, earthquakes and such.  It includes global warming and sea-level rise.  It also embraces potential human-caused disasters such as nuclear power plants and chemical spills.  It acknowledges the increasing risk and instability of modern civilization.  It seeks to mitigate the effects if not identifying and fixing the root causes.

The US insurance industry is worth over a trillion dollars.  US health care spending is in the range of $3.5 trillion.  Do we need to think about an insurance policy on our children’s and our community’s future?

Spengler, 1918

Over the last century a lot of sages have tried to understand the future.  Some were science fiction writers, others university professors, some journalists.  Many, but by no means all, were optimistic.  At the root of doubtful writers you usually find Oswald Spengler. 

A century ago, Oswald Spengler painted a depressing vision of the future of western civilization.  His best seller, Decline of the West, came out at the end of World War I (1918).  That war certainly had an effect on Spengler’s popularity.  The then called Great War had been a horror.  Nearly 16 million had died, nearly half civilians.  It decimated the youth of Europe.  The war was driven by industry:  Battleships, airplanes, tanks, massive artillery, machine guns, poison gas.  This war made it clear that industry could produce horrific destructive power.  As the war came to an end, a flu epidemic took the lives of another 20 million people.

The massive slaughter of that conflict deeply affected a generation of writers and their readers.  A revised and expanded (two volumes) edition of Spengler’s book was published in English in 1926.  In 1929 came the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression.  Then came World War II – industrial war on steroids.  It produced jet airplanes, the atomic bomb and long-range rockets.  Following World War II, the Cold War cast a deep shadow of doubt about the future.  An abridged edition of Spengler’s book was published in 1959.  Spengler has been widely read and while often criticized remains a classic for those trying to understand our future prospects

A century has passed since Spengler first published his classic book and history continues to progress, indeed at a breathtaking rate.  I believe continued interest in Spengler is because there is more to his massive work than merely an apocalypse.  Spengler was more of a philosopher than historian.  He sought to understand essential patterns in history.  After Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), historians became acutely interested in the fact that civilizations rise and fall.  They began to speculate about the cause of the decline of great cultures.  A dark mood lay over Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century with the curious name “fin de siecle” – suggesting an ending:  A worldview of despair and exhaustion.  It was Spengler’s time.  It shaped the gloomy existentialist philosophy, developed largely in France, and the post-modernist view that continues to influence both Europe and America.  It’s a cynical, despairing and often a barbaric philosophy.  Its influence lingers.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were unprecedented in the course of history.  The rapid, accelerating and overwhelming changes in industry and technology created mounting anxiety.  Darwin, Marx and Freud did not paint encouraging pictures of human nature.  Neither did Nietzsche.  Novels took on a dark and troubling cast.  Modern art and music grated the senses.  The war merely confirmed that something was amiss with modern civilization.

The apocalyptic tone also appeals to the millennial Christian movements that sprung up during the mid-nineteenth century and that movement has a strong following today.  The Bible, The Revelation of St. John, predicts the inevitable end of times.

For all this gloom, Spengler’s classic has had an enduring influence in many different academic fields and among the lay public for a variety of reasons.  That the book, in one (abridged) or two volumes, continues to attract readers is in no small measure due to the depth of the anxiety that haunts the world in the twenty-first century.  The list of seemingly irresoluble problems just keeps growing.

Spengler Biography

Spengler was born in 1880 in northern Germany to a comfortable middle class family.  His father was a minor public official.  His mother inherited a considerable fortune.  Young Oswald was frail and withdrawn and given to daydreaming about German armies gaining victory throughout the world.  Germany’s empire was at its apex and its industry and science unexcelled.  German universities were a mecca to scholars, particularly American’s, who brought home the idea of the German research university.  Oswald did well in Latin and Greek and excelled in mathematics.  He loved poetry, music and drama.  He developed a great interest in Goethe and Nietzsche.  He developed a strong aversion to orthodox Christianity. 

At university, Spengler studied Greece, Rome, mathematics and the physical sciences and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher.  Heraclitus is famous for the line: “War is the creator of all things.”  Heraclitus developed a metaphysics based on the fundamental unity of all nature with fire as the primary substance, an idea that deeply influenced Spengler.

After receiving his degree, Spengler taught mathematics and physical sciences in high schools.  He added history and German literature to his teaching subjects.  He is reputed to have been a good teacher but was rather humorless.  His mother died in 1910 and left him moderately independent.  He decided to move to Munich the following year and pursue a career as a writer.  Drawn by the heightening tensions in Europe, he became immersed in the fields of politics and history.  By 1911 he was already convinced Europe was on the road to a global war.

Spengler was twice passed over for military service because of his health.  Despite considerable privation during the war he worked steadily on the first volume of The Decline.  Following publication he quickly gained fame.  Some 100,000 copies were sold before the release of the second volume.  While he received widespread public acclaim, he was rejected by academia.  Spengler was an independent scholar (albeit he lacked nothing in terms of scholarly credentials) and an amateur historian.  As such he was intensely criticized by university scholars but in final analysis his reputation and work far outlived most of his critics. 

Hit by disastrous inflation in 1923 the German people embraced Spengler’s prophecy of doom.  They found parallels between the disaster of the war for Germany and the thesis of the general decline of western civilization.  They took some satisfaction from the fact that in defeat they were really in no worse shape than much of humanity.  In 1927 Spengler suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered.  He continued to write and speak on political and historical issues.  He refused to join the Nazi Party and strongly criticized them.  They in turn forbid the mention of Spengler’s name in the public media.  Spengler died on May 14, 1936 of a heart attack.

The Rise of Civilizations

Human civilization emerged some 5,000 years ago in places like Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China.  It was an outgrowth of the development of agriculture.  Early farmers settled into villages and villages eventually became city-states.

The first civilizations are now dusty heaps of ruins.  Others followed, also now in ruins.  The two-dozen major cultures (and hundreds of lesser ones) came and went.  While some had disastrous endings, the others more or less followed Spengler’s pattern into inevitable decline. 

For the West, the foundation of our culture is ancient Greece and Rome.  Alexander created a vast Greek empire.  Rome swallowed Greece and dominated the Mediterranean world for a millennium.  With the fall of Rome came the so-called Dark Ages and then modern European civilization emerged.  Now it has become a global phenomenon.

        Society as an Organism

Spengler’s main thesis is that civilizations, like biological organisms, are born, grow, decay and die and that they do so within a fixed and predictable life cycle.  Spengler, in brief, pointed out that civilizations, like all living entities, must come to an end.  The decline of our present civilization is natural and inevitable.  Spengler wasn’t alone in his prediction.  Historian Arnold Toynbee in his A Study of History, while having his own theory about the rise and fall of civilizations, documented two-dozen now extinct civilizations.  He lamented the poor state of our current one.  Lewis Mumford wrote an extensive critique of modern urban society.  Ralph Borsodi wrote This Ugly Civilization (1929) and other books critical of urban-industrial society.  He promoted an alternate, more humane, culture.  Today bestselling writers such as Joseph Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988) and Jared Diamond (Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005) echo this pessimism.

Spengler’s historic social process involves two major phases.  First is Culture, the creative period during which “a great soul awakens.”  This is the creative, spiritual, phase of the society.  Eventual Culture declines into Civilization during which genuine creativity disappears and it subsides into “cold, abstract reason.”  He did not divide history into epochs, i.e. Ancient, Medieval and Modern, but rather into eight separate High Cultures:  Babylonian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian, Mayan-Aztec, Classical Greece and Rome and Classical and now Western European.

Spengler recognized that the modern European personality emerged during the Classical period.  With the Greeks, biography (ego) begins to appear for the first time and with it a sense of history.  The Hellenic dramatic hero struggled with alien forces, forces so great he is often defeated by them.  This is fate.  Ultimately, in Western Europe, the Faustian personality emerged where we find a soul possessed of a limitless will-to-power.  We begin to think that we can determine our own fate.

Where Classical civilization is static and bounded by a narrow horizon, modern society is dynamic, innovative and boundless.  It opened the world to exploration.  It produced the calculus, a mathematics of motion and of functions rather than concrete numbers.  It produced non-Euclidian geometry – culminating in multi-dimensional space and the theory of Relativity.  Its architecture was defined by the gothic, the great cathedrals, which viewed from within expressing a straining, a thrusting upward towards the light, given an ethereal, otherworldly quality by stained glass.  Its music is also uplifting, stirring and inspiring.  Faustian empires spread across the globe.

Faust and the West

The archetype character Spengler used to define Western civilization and the modern era was Goethe’s Faust.  Goethe’s story (as is Shakespeare’s Macbeth) is tragic.  Faustian (wo)man is lead to destruction not by fate, as with the classics, but by his/her own deeds, by the pursuit of the will-to-power.  Faustian Man emerges independent of the church, but in Goethe’s rendition, falls victim to Satan, or Mephistopheles (actually a German folk demon).  Faust made a deal with the Mephistopheles, sold his soul, to extend his knowledge and power.  

Our Faustian Culture emerged about 900 CE.  The monarchal nation states began to emerge then.  As Faustian Culture begins, two estates form, the nobility and the priesthood.  The former are doers and warriors acting from instinct.  The latter are rationalizers and systematizers.  These two estates continually struggled with each other.  At the base of society is the peasantry who lead a plant-like existence with close ties to the soil and cycles of the seasons, of birth and death. 

After a millennium, Faustian culture has run its course.  The priests created an intellectual culture, the height of which is Aquinas’ Summa Theologia (1485), a system of exacting rules for the salvation of the soul.  This rigid order was briefly broken by the Protestant Reformation, which seeks to return religion to its original roots.  The Protestants displayed a joyless and humorless “Hell on earth” attitude.  But they were earnest and sober and soon, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, produced science – a new dogma based upon the Laws of Nature.  As the scientists, the new fact men, replaced the priests, the nobles are replaced by the business entrepreneur and by professional military leaders.  The industrial revolution emerged in the late eighteenth century and with it the philosophy of Hume and Smith and the idea of the power of money.  At this stage, the end is coming.

According to Spengler, “Caesars” would emerge out of the era of contending states, reaching their Faustian apogee with the wars of the twentieth century.  Spengler was not, however, impressed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin.  The despots of the twentieth century didn’t make the grade Spengler defined as Caesars.  It is clear that Spengler, while impressed by the potential of America and Russia, had a limited understanding of the future of these two great powers, let alone the Cold War.   They created a dynamic during the twentieth century that shaped our history in ways Spengler perhaps did not anticipate.

In the later stages, Spengler wrote, great cities emerge that dominate society.  That has happened.  The inhabitant of the megalopolis is “rootless, atheistic, and thoroughly materialistic.”  They are busy but show relatively little in the way of original creativity.  The vigor of the people declines and stoicism sets in as the dominant philosophy.  The family declines.  A new, superficial, spirituality emerges.  History comes to an end.  The entire civilization collapses into the state of the “Fellaheen” mass of people “without vitality, direction or destiny.”

Much of Spengler is, without question, personal biases.  His influence is more in terms of his literary imagination than history but that does not diminish his importance.  It rather adds to it.  If he awakens something in our imagination he is speaking to that in us that is like the demon that haunted him.  As we journey through our own bewildering world we must become acutely sensitive to the signs it offers us – for we are part of it and it is part of us.  We have learned that there are patterns even in chaos and that our most disturbing dreams are redolent with unexpressed ideas and feelings.

A century has passed and we are still here.  The twentieth century was a profoundly historical period with unprecedented changes and attention grabbing events.  Since 1918 we have had a global economic collapse, an even more horrendous global war that spawned the atomic bomb, the cold war and arms race, and a globalized economy.  In the twenty-first century we have political and economic instability, global terrorism, continued rising population, accelerating resource depletion and climate change.  For all that, only about one in seven people believe the world will end in their lifetime.  (It’s closer to one in five for those below 35.)  It is still an age of optimism, albeit an anxious one.

The Spirit of Societies

More than the inevitable cycle of civilizations, what most attracted me to Spengler was his claim that each culture has its own “spirit,” its own way of engaging with its world.  That underlying essence defines art, architecture, literature and polity.  As Goethe suggested and Jung later described, there is always the dark side to the soul.  The West is bound to succumb to the dark side.  The Star Wars series seems to take us into this myth.

Spengler elaborated the Faustian model in some detail and used it to describe the emergence of western culture.  We are unique in the history of the world.  The spirit of our era is defined by the opening of the world, following Columbus and others, and the massive expansion of knowledge with printing and the emergence of science and technology and then the industrial revolution.  These events were an expression of the soul of this era – the energy and creativity of Culture.  The Columbian era was the peak.  We got greedy.  Spengler believed that we sold our collective soul for knowledge and dominance of nature, human society and an entire world to play with.  As with all civilization, we ran our course and are now in inevitable decline.  As noted, a pessimistic philosophy had in fact already taken root in Europe in the late nineteenth century.  Nietzsche was its iconic expression.  This trend continued into the twentieth century with existentialism and post-modernism.  We find it today in movies and the digital media.

Toynbee and prominent Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (below) concurred with this decline motif, albeit both believed a new civilization would form.  Throughout history there has always been another people waiting in the wings – waiting for their chance.  Now we are a single, all-encompassing, global civilization.  We have also consumed the lion’s share of the more readily available nonrenewable resources.  Should our current economic system breakdown; it would be incredibly difficult to build another industrial society.  There are those who consider industrial history an anomaly, that perhaps agrarian society is our natural form.  Followers of Jefferson and Emerson might find that a good idea.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalization of the economy dramatically restructured the way we live.  And then came the Internet.  Material progress has been astonishing over the last decades.  It brought emerging economies into the western cultural arena. 

This unrelenting massive change has been a great strain on our collective nervous system.  The twenty-first century witnesses a growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, the decay of institutions, confidence in governments and a deepening social malaise.  We are increasingly bound by rules and regulations, in effect a hardening of the arteries.  It brought what many see as a decline in moral fiber.  These are characteristics predicted by cyclical historians that mark the end times. 

Did Spengler anticipate the twenty-first century?  Metaphorically, I believe he did.  While he would not have imagined our digital world, he did anticipate a decline in social vitality, creative energy, the rise of vast cities, the centralization of authority (both political and economic), the depletion of non-renewable resources and human impact on the health of the natural world upon which we depend.  That this is a transitional stage of history cannot be doubted.  The great majority hopes for continued progress – a Star Trek future – an unending frontier.  This is an echo of the Faustian spirit.  Nonetheless, it should be noted that we also seem to have lost that compelling vision of an infinite, pioneering, future.  We no longer have a collective sense of destiny.  For Spengler, “civilization” was but a ghost of the spirit that created the society.

        Toynbee and Sorokin

Spengler might have faded from history had it not been for the works of two other cyclical historians who, starting in the 1930s, attracted wide public, and academic, recognition.  The first was the renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee who published A Study of History in ten volumes (1934 - 61), along with a host of other books.  A two-volume condensed edition was published in 1946.  Toynbee was a professional historian and added considerably to the number of civilizations, tripling the number Spengler defined, and developing a much more elaborate theory of historical development. 

Somewhat more radical was the four volume Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937 -41) by Russian expatriate, Harvard founding sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin.  Sorokin examined the culture and values of civilizations in thin slices of time since the first.  He defined two stages of a civilization:  1) Ideational, or the rise, and 2) Sensate, or the decline.  An ideational society is vigorous, moral and creative.  Sensate is materialist, hedonistic, alienated and unfocused.  History is an oscillation between the two states.  While this differs somewhat from Spengler’s Culture and Civilization phases, the outcome is much the same.  Sensate marks the decline of a once great society.

Both remarked on Spengler, both reject much of his romantic drama, but they also suggested scenarios in which western civilization declines and falls, albeit not with the finality of Spengler’s prophecy.  Toynbee and Sorokin had a more optimistic sense of the qualities of our human species.  A new civilization has always emerged.  It is the product of a creative minority and a powerful new idea – a potent new expression of spirit.  Can we find evidence of that new spirit in the world today?

The future isn’t what it used to be 

It was, not so long ago, popular to predict the future.  Science fiction writers, going back to Verne and Wells, had been doing it long before Spengler’s book and a horde of popular writers stayed busy at it during the twentieth century.  Futurist brought in statistics to try to make a science of it.  It didn’t work.  Many things predicted didn’t happen.  Many things that happened were totally unpredicted.

A lot of people think that trying to influence the future is futile.  Nonetheless we have hopes, dreams, fears and worries.  There are certain new trends that are of concern, albeit not universally, like climate change, running out of oil, economic instability.  But there is always hope.

I believe that history can be affected by individual or group behavior.  Gandhi, Churchill, King, the American Founders, and many others, had an impact on history.  We can tell such stories about business from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Jobs and Musk.  They were visionary leaders and had creative associates.  They all achieved certain goals.  They also made compromises.  They experienced setbacks and failures.  Every business and nonprofit, many groups and associations, are started with the intent of making a dent in the world.  Some do that.

There are a lot of factions, beliefs and biases involved in daily life and politics.  We have to learn to realistically understand the dynamics of our stage of history.  We need to question our pet assumptions, dogmas and ideology.  As Mark Twain once remarked, it isn’t so much what we don’t know that causes our problems, as it is all the things we are certain about that just aren’t true. 

        Spengler 2018

Broadly speaking there are three possible future scenarios:

1.     A Star Trek future of unlimited progress and potential.
2.     A collapse of global civilization and a Spenglerian future.
3.     Something in between.

The reality of life on Earth today is that it is highly stressed.  Global society is vast and economically interdependent.  It is unimaginably complex.  The rate of change, already stunning, accelerates.  The term “disequilibrium” is used.  Call that “chaotic” if you will.

A lot has happened in living memory, since World War II.  There was the Great Society period; Civil Rights, student protest on campus, civil unrest and riots in major cities, the war in Vietnam, the Counterculture and Human Potential Movement, continued escalation of the Cold War, the hydrogen bomb and ICBM, landing on the moon.  The digital era brought the personal computer, the Internet, cable TV, the cell phone and mobile devices.  It brought Google, Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia and a host of cyber services.  Things have changed – for the better or worse.  For all its benefits, digital technology has increased the level of complexity by a quantum leap at least.

As the twenty-first century begins to unfold, it has become increasingly clear that we, and this includes our leaders and their institutions, have neither a clear vision nor a plan for the future.  Optimists can happily stand on unfounded assumptions.  For the gloomy fatalist, there is no future at all worth having. 

There is no doubt we are in a high-risk environment.  We all feel it.  That feeling, Spengler might say, is a loss of spirit, a loss of confidence.  It dulls our perception.  Anticipation is an important part of our thinking process.  We need to look ahead.  We need to think about the consequences of our acts.  We need a plan. 

We know that to achieve a goal we have to constantly adapt to the unexpected.  Most of all, we need to have the attitude that we can handle it.  Nature, after all, designed the human brain to solve problems.  It is more a matter of spirit, of self-confidence, of clarity and certainty that allows us to choose to create a good future.  The future is not ten years from now.  It is what unfolds in the next minute, hour or day.

Do we have the right to suggest that we might create a new and compelling vision and that the visionaries might work for an alternative future, at least on a limited scale?  If all goes well, nothing is lost.  If the world goes to hell there might just be islands of hope to guide the next stage of human history.  Such islands will be the product of a vision, a spirit, and the will to determine our own destiny.

Cove Institute 

During the period following World War II a new and transformational vision of human destiny emerged.  It was called the Human Potential Movement.  Among its leaders was a sense that we had reached the threshold of a new, more enlightened civilization.  That didn’t happen but a lot of new ideas were introduced into the general culture about personal wellbeing.  That, however, is a mixed blessing.  In an important sense, the twenty-first century represents a ripening of Sorokin’s sensate culture.  The focus is on the Facebook self.  We live in the present moment, eyes fixed to a tiny screen, an attention span of mere seconds.  We crave personal affirmation.  This is a long way down from the Faustian sense of limitless space, of power.

The Cove Institute[1] was formed (informally) just a few months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  The Cove vision, however, had been slowly forming for nearly two decades.  It began as the transformational vision of the Human Potential Movement faded.  Five leaders in the Human Potential Movement, including the man who named it, mentored this process.  They brought nearly 200 years of experience to the table.  We did an after-action exercise:  What happened?  What have we learned?  What went wrong?  What did we gain from the experience?

The cornerstone of the Cove Institute framework is the question:  Can we control our own destiny?  By virtue of reason and/or faith we have to decide that we will.  Our core principle is that we were formed by nature to solve problems, to adapt, and indeed to improve our lot.  We must exercise our natural talents to create a broader understanding of the conditions of the world, to define the root problems that must be addressed in order to change the course of events, and to devise solutions to achieve desired objectives.

In effect this is how we form a business or nonprofit organization:  Vision, plan, action.  In reality it requires a deep understanding of the world we live in, an ability to grasp complexity, to see the whole picture, to perceive patterns of interaction.  And it requires the skill to intervene, to make adjustments, to adapt.  These tools are available but rarely part of a university curriculum.  We need a new school that teaches the knowledge and skills needed to master our time.

This approach does not propose to save the world.  The dynamics, the energy, of the global political and economic system are inconceivable in power and scope.  This old order can’t be reformed.  History suggests that the old must die so the new can be born.  Rebirth is a powerful metaphor.  New beginnings often suggest an alternative approach to life.  This process is not causal, not passive, but active.  It a real sense it requires a reboot of the Faustian vision but we must become aware of where we have been and what needs to be changed.  The Faustian spirit has run its course.  We must understand what is emerging now and nurture a new spirit.

We must ask at what scale can we affect positive change?  The Cove Institute vision started with the idea of resilient learning communities – small communities dedicated to the mission of learning how adapt to what we believe are inevitable challenges.  It has been said that we cannot predict the future, but we can create it.  From Toynbee to Mead we are told that small groups can change the world.  Yes, that takes hard work and a bit of luck but we have the tools to do the job.  We know how.  We need to will.

We have learned a great deal about how nature works – a great deal about ecosystems.  We understand that a community is an ecosystem just as a forest or lake is an ecosystem.  Yet our economy does not function as an ecosystem.  We have learned a great deal about complex and high-energy systems.  Increasing complexity requires increasing energy to maintain order.  It’s an uphill struggle.  Spengler perhaps knew about entropy – the lost of order in increasingly complex systems.  The more energy you pump into a system the more unstable it becomes.  The more unstable it becomes, the more energy we pump into it to try to keep it going.  The smaller the scale of the system and the better you understand its ecosystem, the better chance you have of managing it.  Or more importantly, the better chance you have of forming it into a more resilient organism that can withstand extreme stresses.

Where do we start?  A cornerstone of the Cove Institute framework for achieving an alternative future is in my book Self-Reliance:  Achieving Personal Resiliency and Independence (Link).  We must developing and mobilizing leadership potential.  This book is a major step in that process.  

Leadership is the foundation of community.  Self-Reliance proposes that healthy people are required to form healthy communities.  We need people who can comprehend the vast complexity of life.  That capacity defines this new leadership.  We need people who are attuned to nature and to human nature.  In short, we need a new idea of what leadership means.  That idea is an expression of the spirit that could define the next phase of our history.

It should be clear that I do not embrace Spengler’s endless dark age.  But I do find merit in his speculations about the inevitable and tragic end to modern society.  We don’t know if, when or how such an end might come.  Whatever happens, we need to work on the problems this era of history mandates us to solve.  That could mitigate the impact, turn the course, or give us workable options to adapt to what is going to be the consequences of a rising scale of change.  And it could lay the foundation for a new, more humane society.

Bill Sharp
Transition Centre/Cove Institute

[1] CI was named for a cove on the Pacific coast where several meetings were held. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Building A Resilient Community

Bill Sharp © October 29, 2018[1]

What is the most pressing problem we face today?  I believe it is the need to rebuild communities to have the resiliency to withstand the inevitable challenges of this century.   We want communities that are safe, secure and stable.

Transition Centre (TC) Resilient Communities is a model for achieving the capacity to adapt to inevitable challenges be they economic, environmental or social.  Resilient Communities is not about recovering from weather or other events but about developing the capacity of local communities to achieve greater self-sufficiency and self-determination.

There are communities in the US that are thriving and many that are not.  Even the strongest communities constantly strive to keep ahead of the game.  In a sense TC Resilient Communities is an insurance policy but in intent it is a model for building communities that are sounder, more robust and innovative. 

The Mission of Transition Centre:  Promote and develop an integral design for strong, local, human-scaled, self-sufficient and sustainable economies and communities that have the resilience to overcome the inevitable challenges arising from economic uncertainty, climate instability and resource depletion.

The Vision of Transition Centre:  Adaptable and innovative communities with the capacity to meet the challenges of the day building on local resources, innovation and regenerative economic development.

Transition Center Tag Line:  Prosperity and Quality of Life.

Organizing Your Community

Transition Centre was modeled on Transition Towns.  Transition Towns was founded by Rob Hopkins in the UK in 2006 and the US national office opened late in 2008.  In 2008 Hopkins published The Transition Handbook.  It was based on experiences establishing the first Transition Towns at his hometown in Totnes and other communities in the UK that adopted the model.  The Handbook provided a rationale and a blueprint for developing more self-sufficient communities.  The Transition Towns movement went viral with 1,200 initiatives formally established in 50 countries, including 164 in the US. 

Grassroots Organization

There are a number of noteworthy features to the Transition Towns program.  The first and foremost was that it is grassroots.  It starts with a small initiating group of people who take on the job of defining the issues the community needs to resolve and mobilizing people and resources to address them.  The Handbook includes ideas and tools for organizing a community association and provides a step-by-step program, twelve steps in fact, as a guide for creating a comprehensive plan for its future.

Grassroots means citizen-driven.  Such programs require no application, no approval – just a small group of people with an idea.  As Margaret Mead famously said, a small group of people can change the world (but this takes hard work).  Mead’s group forms around a person with an idea, a vision, perhaps a solution to a pressing problem, around who gather an initial group of supporters.  The Mead Minimum, as I have called it, is five people. 

Secondly, it is innovative, not tied down by existing ideas and practices, rules, regulations and red tape.  It does not exclude the involvement of local political authorities, institutions, business or nonprofits but they join as participants and partners.  Such associations represent an additional, citizen-driven, dimension of community self-determination.  It can provide the sense of common purpose for all parties essential for purposeful and transformative change.


At what level do we act:  global, national, state?  Do we try to change the world or seek a more workable scale of action?  A basic philosophy of Transition Towns is localization.  One’s community, or neighborhood, is something that can be better understood.  A community has a sense of place, of people; it evokes emotions.   Each community is unique in character.   Each needs its own vision, strategy and organization. 

Comprehensive Community Plan

The Handbook also provides a step-by-step program, twelve steps in fact, as a guide for creating a comprehensive plan for its future, an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP).  Totnes published its own exemplary EDAP, Transition in Action, in 2010.  In that book, Totnes established a series of goals for 2030 in each of a number of topic areas such as food, energy, water, health and wellbeing, etc.  Each topic contains a sequence of objectives for reaching its goal.  Transition Centre developed its own innovative plan (see below).

School of Living 

The School of Living, founded by Ralph Borsodi during the Great Depression of the 1930s, is based on three core principles:
  1. Personal independence through homesteading.
  2. Lifelong learning that provides a holistic understanding of life and the ability to clarify and effectively solve the problems of living.
  3. Collaborative community that provides greater security.

Personal independence and homesteading

Ralph Borsodi, a successful New York City consulting economist, seeking an alternative to the economic uncertainty of the city, moved his family to a small farm in Rockland County, New York, in 1920.  In 1929 he publish This Ugly Civilization in which he wrote a critique of industrial society and made a business case for his model homestead.  In 1933, at the depth of the Great Depression, he published a handbook on homesteading, Flight From the City.

Learning and the Problems of Living

In This Ugly Civilization Borsodi first proposed his lifelong learning program, a liberal educational program to develop what he quality the “Quality Mind.”  In 1934 he founded the School of Living near his homestead at Suffern, NY, to help homesteaders achieve the self-determination and self-confidence to pursue the homesteading lifestyle.  In 1948, his Education and Living elaborated his educational model and introduced the universal problems of living framework.  He continued to develop and refine this model over the next 30 years.

Collaborative Community

While Borsodi’s guiding principle was personal independence and self-reliance, he understood the need for community based on voluntary collaboration.  The School was intended to be at the center of these communities.  In Education and Living, he describe how such communities could be organized.  He also elaborated the values system he called “Normal Living.”  Normal living is not living at the average or mean but rather at the optimal level of human achievement.  Normal living is the objective of life in a School-centered homesteading community.

Joining two ways

Transition Centre was formed during meetings at a School of Living homestead (Ahimsa Village).  Introduced to Borsodi’s system, I found it compelling.  It became apparent that these two programs shared the same basic values.  From the beginning, Transition Centre was founded on the core principles of both schools of thought. 

Borsodi’s model preceded Transition Towns (TT) by 70 years.  It anticipated much of what we think of as sustainability.  TT considerably updated the model to present conditions.  It is more community oriented.  Both have a strong emphasis on local economies, organic food and appropriate technology.  Borsodi was an innovative pioneer of ideas such as community land trust, local currency and appropriate technology.  His model had a much stronger emphasis on personal development and integral learning (which I have updated, simplified and made more down-to-earth).  TT emphasized comprehensive community planning and development.

Over the past decade, the Transition Centre model has been steadily developed into the current updated Resilient Communities program.  Transition Centre is an independent, registered, non-profit organization (

What is Sustainability?

What are we trying to achieve?  Many find the term “sustainability” hard to define.  It is.  The sustainability movement, it could be argued, started with the idea of moderating consumption to leave enough for future generations as proposed by the UN Brundtland Commission in 1987. 

The classical diagram that illustrates sustainability is a set of three overlapping circles representing:  Environment, Society and Economy.  Sustainability is defined as where the three circles overlap and are in harmony.  We will come back to this.

Sustainability is but the latest phase in the conservation and environmental movement that goes back to at at least Henry David Thoreau.  It had early champions such as John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt and a host of other conservationist.  The Sierra Club was founded in 1892.  Patrick Geddes (Scotland) established the regional/town planning movement related to things like garden cities.  During the Great Depression funding was poured into the Civilian Conservation Corp, up to 300,000 at a time employed mostly in public parks and related work.  As a response to the Great Recession of 2008, a great deal of money was put into sustainability projects by the US Government, many related to energy savings for public buildings.

Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970.  That year, the US Environmental Protection Agency was formed.  The Oil/Energy Crisis in the 1970s raised a red flag and the U. S. Department of Energy was formed in 1977.  The Noble winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988.  The global Earth Summit (Rio) was held in 1992.  More recently, the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2016.

There are a number of incentives for working for a more sustainable future.  For not a few it is a moral mandate to “Save the Earth,” which includes the environment, species and people.  There are those who have adopted a sustainable lifestyle, some intensely committed to the ideals of simple, low-impact living.  This is particularly attractive where there is a local culture of sustainability that provides a sense of community for participants.  There are those who participate in protest and advocacy and attempt to influence public opinion and elected officials.

Money is an important factor in pursuing sustainability.  Projects get completed because of a grant or from donations.  Tax incentives are a good motivation.  Cost savings is a powerful incentive, particularly energy.  It can also be just good business.  Major corporations must comply with environmental regulations and many add compliance to their branding.  Most people will buy “green” products.  More and more major corporations are finding that sustainable practices save cost and boost the value of their products.

Are we achieving a sustainable future?

After three decades we should ask if a sustainable future, as defined by the Brundtland Commission, is achievable?  The UN is, paradoxically, pursuing “sustainable development” and it is a growth model.  

Sustainable development seeks to provide these increasing numbers with adequate food, shelter and basic services.  Even to meet a minimum of subsistence will soon exhaust the Earth’s resources.  In natural ecosystems, such growth inevitable results in collapse.  This problem points to the need for achieving greater local community resiliency.  We will come back to this.

Transition Centre

Transition Centre was formed in 2009, but the catalyst that sparked its formation came earlier with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.  Katrina wrecked oil platforms and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico and shut down refiners along the coast.  The cost of gasoline and other petroleum products rose dramatically.  Political unrest in the following years drove prices even higher and with the Great Recession of 2008 the price of oil reached a record level, indeed, off this chart at $140 US per barrel of oil.  This was our red flag.

Research suggested then, as it does increasingly today, that the ideal setting for developing a more sustainable community is the community – be it town or neighborhood.  We began to develop our first local plan in April 2008 that came out as Central Pennsylvania Local Economy in December 2008.  At that point we begin to explore the Transition Towns model as found in The Transition Handbook, published in 2008.

Making a Choice

Transition Towns was but one option for sustainable community development.  Our initiating team, in public meetings, explored a number of potential models before choosing the Transition approach.  Many models required money and upfront organization.  They are top-down models and less flexible and innovative.  Consensus was that the Transition grassroots approach was most promising.

Transition Centre was founded by Bill Sharp and Bob Flatley in early 2009 and incorporated as a Pennsylvania nonprofit (not a 501 c 3).  Transition Centre was formed as an unofficial Transition Hub with the mission of promoting the model in the region.  Two local Transition Towns were formally established.  Transition Centre presented the model and supported groups and initiatives in Pennsylvania.  We partnered with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light (Bill Sharp a founding board member of PAIPL).  We also had a board-level partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub working with groups and initiatives in neighboring states (Bill Sharp a founding board member of MATH).  Our model included Borsodi’s key principles and we worked over the years to develop and elaborate his system.

Quality of Life

Transition Centre defines sustainability in terms of community quality of life. When it was formed, TC made two key decisions.  The first was to focus on the economy.  In the diagram above, we established that the weak link in the sustainability formula was that between economy and environment.  Environmental issues are an effect of economic development.  We asked if our sustainable future could actually be secured through economic redevelopment (REconomy)?  We need new models for an economy based on natural principles.  We defined a community as an ecosystem (below).

The Transition Towns model addressed the issue of oil depletion and the rising cost of energy.  Our research disclosed a much broader problem of natural resource depletion.  We found a survey of major corporations that listed resources they consider “at risk.”  These are not necessarily environmental issues for them but rather a matter of supply chain – the resources they need to continue to put products on store shelves at a reasonable price.  Water is at the top of the list, followed by energy, other mineral resources and agricultural products (land plus water plus energy).  What multi-national corporations consider risk may tell us something about their potential impact on our local communities.  We need backup plans for our communities.

End Game:  Creating a Community Action Plan

The second decision was to follow The Transition Handbook twelve-part process to develop a comprehensive community action plan.  We followed the program adapting it to local conditions.  We formed a core group, held public meetings and events and widening our engagement with the community.  We found that while there were a lot of sustainability groups and organizations, they didn’t really know each other.  We focused on connecting them.  We published a newsletter and developed a website and a blog site.

Developing our comprehensive plan involved some 200 people over the course of two years.  We are a major university town:  there were many probing questions about what such a plan should do and how it would be organized.  A lot of research was done along this line and the results incorporated in the Centre Sustainability Master Plan, a link to which can be found on the Transition Centre home page.  That plan is scheduled for a five-year update in 2019.

We are one of only a small handful of Transition affiliates to complete this plan.  For many, comprehensive planning is about as attractive as a root canal.  We are all, however, natural planners.  We start planning things the minute we awaken in the morning.  Formal plans are not popular or easy for grassroots groups, but they are done.  The lack of the effort imperils the future of any form of organization.  Let’s ask why do we need a plan, what good does it do for us?  Here are some of the advantages:

       Collect and Organize Facts
       We’ve got a lot of facts:  What’s the Problem?  How can we solve it?
       Create a vision
       Define a mission
       Achieve consensus
       Establish standards and guidelines
       Organize Stakeholders
       Inform the public about what you are doing
       Set goals and objectives
       Decide how to achieve them
       Manage and monitor the process

The real question is commitment.  Changing the destiny of your community is a complex, demanding job.  There must be a compelling vision.  This is especially so for a grassroots initiative.  But the process is no different than forming a business or nonprofit organization.

At the time we were working on our plan a great deal of research was coming out about sustainability planning – what works and what doesn’t.  Some of our findings included:

       Only one in six are “comprehensive”
       Most are municipal based
       Few have staffing or line-item budgets
       Half are climate action/greenhouse gas reduction
       Many are single issues – often one time efforts
       Many are “policy” statements – shoulds and oughts.
       They require public funding
       They are compromises
       They are pursed within a set of established rules

The most evident conclusion of research is that there is a considerable disconnect between vision, plan and effective action.  The vision must be real and achievable.  The reason most organizations and projects fail is for the lack of a good plan.  The widest gap is between the plan and effective action.

A plan is more than a lot of facts, goals and objectives, and organizational details.  Plans must be understood to be contingent:  everything changes as you put them into affect.  They include strategies, guiding principles, and clearly stated values.  Plan is a verb.  Planning is, indeed, something inherent in the nature of being human.  But like any art, we need to practice it, develop our capacity, and nurture our confidence.

Shrinking Cities

We also explored two groups of communities.  The first is a list of some three-dozen recognized as leaders in sustainability.  What is it that makes them so recognized?  It became clear that the difference was the emergence of a sustainability culture.  That is something that takes time.  Most of these communities started in the 1970s.  Many had a major issue that mobilized the community to action.  Bit by bit things were done to change the tone of the community.  In time, people no longer had a sense of starting the effort but of joining it.  These communities have a solid business and government foundation that supports a green lifestyle.  Most have one or more local organization that champion the vision and provide resources to achieve the goals and objectives of the plan.

At the other end of the spectrum are communities that are variously labeled as forgotten, distress, shrinking, or as one national publication suggested, miserable cities.  They also represent a cultural type and it is not a pretty picture.  A close collaborator and community leader in Pennsylvania’s fastest shrinking city found a 2007 Harvard study that listed a large number of “forgotten,” economically decaying, post-industrial communities, most in Pennsylvania and New York.  These rustbelt communities are the consequences of global economic change.  With the Great Recession, more cities joined the list of distressed communities.  Most mid-sized communities and many larger cities are on these lists.  They are examples of the dynamics of uncontrollable change – change that continues to affect all of us.

My sensitivity to this issue is largely due to my hometown having the distinction of being the fastest shrinking city in the US.  When I graduated from high school it was a vibrant community with a solid agricultural and manufacturing base.  After completing military service and university, the “Land of Opportunity” had become a fading dream.  Like most of us who went to college, I “abandoned ship.”  As I became involved in community and economic development this image has haunted me.  One of the attractions of Transition Town is that it proposes remediation of social and economic distress.

Our group explored working with distressed communities.  They are promising but admittedly difficult prospects.  Most continue to pursue standard models such as trying to attract new businesses and industries.  They need outside resources.  The great majority of them continue to decline.  The updated Transition Centre Resilient Communities is an alternative model that builds on the resources – people and natural resources – found in those communities.  This can be started through grassroots organization.

Centre Sustainability Master Plan

The Transition Centre comprehensive community plan was completed in September 2014.  It took a unique form based on the extensive research that went into it and the partnership of strong community organizations, including Penn State.  We constructed it not as a final plan but as a template.  It has three components:

  •      Assessment:  We started with estimates of what was actually being consumed by the community.  This is necessary to understand what could be produced locally.  We assessed local potential to produce raw materials, goods and services – an off-the-grid economy.  The vision is an increasing level independence and self-determination.
  •       Basic Needs:  We developed a list, from research, of the basic needs of a self-sufficient community.  We identified 22 and used them for the body of the plan. 
  •       Implementation:  The most difficult step is moving from idea to reality.  We approached this through out Vision 10 – 10.

Vision 10 – 10

One innovation of the plan was Vision 10 – 10, or how to achieve a goal of ten percent in any category in ten years.  This breaks the problem into manageable chunks.  It implies developing the capacity, the infrastructure, the resources and organization needed to meet each need locally.  Once done the foundation is in place to go beyond ten percent.  Some of the initial objectives can be achieved in less than ten years.

Our demonstration of the concept is Ten Percent Local Food.  We conducted an assessment of quantifies of agriculture products consumed in this country.  We assessed the agricultural capacity of the region.  We estimate we could grow 95% of our needs.  The potential economic impact of ten percent local food is $80,000,000 in revenue per year and this money would stay in the local economy.  There is significant movement in this direction now in our region.  If we achieve it, we will be on the leading edge of the idea resilient communities. 

There was also a project related to local renewable energy – community solar projects.  Recently a 2.5 megawatt array was installed by a local utility, another of similar size planned by the university, solar ordinances being adopted by municipalities, and a growing list of community and private projects.  Now that solar and wind is competitive with fossil fuels, we expect accelerating progress.

We are also working within our watershed to develop a comprehensive plan for management of all water resources – an integrated plan to maintain both quality and quantity for the foreseeable future.  This plan is intended to provide a comprehensive vision of the development of our community to the year 2050.

There is significant progress in many of the 22 identified areas.

Five Questions

To bring focus to the plan we asked a series of tough questions:

1.     Do we want to develop a resilient community?
2.     Do we want to be an exemplary model?
3.     Is a local action plan an option or a mandate?
4.     Who will form the Team?
5.     How will we organize the effort?

Community as Ecosystem

Transition Centre adopted the idea that a community is an ecosystem just as a lake or forest is an ecosystem.  It is a complex, interdependent, essentially spontaneous organization that involves an exchange of matter, energy and information.  We developed a model[1] for understanding our community ecosystem.  I should point out that Transition Towns drew on the principles of permaculture, which is a holistic approach to agriculture with implications for society.  It is a design strategy.  We considerably extended this idea. 

As we begin our program, we observed that local entities were largely unaware of each other.  Some were siloed of course, others simply uninformed of each other.  Working in collaboration with a close partner organization, we developed and then extended an inventory of significant local organizations, projects, businesses, and groups in our community.  The list is over 600 and can be found linked to our website.  A design has been proposed for an interactive online application to help make connections.

Sustainable Culture

What do you do when you have finished a comprehensive sustainability plan?  What is the 13th step?  As mentioned, from our study of leading sustainable communities, we saw the emergence of a culture of sustainability.  Given the nature of our community we believe that such a culture is developing, indeed accelerating.  A funded organization could accelerate the process but given time it will emerge spontaneously.  Which begs the question of how much time we have?  We will return to this below.  We are also reassessing our master plan.

Myths and Untested Assumptions

As we did our research, it became apparent that there were a number of ideals and beliefs about sustainability that need further examination.  We identified these as potential barriers to achieving a sustainable future.  We came up with the idea of the myth of sustainability. 

A myth can be a good thing.  It can also contain untested assumptions.  The ideal of restraining consumption for the benefit of future generations has not stood the test of time.  The ideal of controlling climate change is not getting positive reviews.  In our research we saw a lot of approaches to sustainability and gave thought to both what works and what seems not to.  What works requires discipline effort.

Research suggests that the number of people living a green lifestyle in the US is on the order of one in eight – a thin green wedge.  About twice as many are climate deniers.  About half the population is in between.  It is a difficult political problem.  We need an alternative.

The sustainability movement has been said to be the largest in the history of the world.  There are millions of people participating with hundreds of thousands of organizations and groups doing an incredible array of work from advocacy and protest to education and recreation to eco-entrepreneurship to large public and private capital projects.  It remains a giant, unassembled, jigsaw puzzle.

There are a variety of approaches to “saving the Earth.”  They include:

       Casual Participant such as educational and recreational opportunities
       Community Projects, including such as community gardens
       Outdoor sports
       Protest and Advocacy
       Lifestyle Engagement
       Transition/Sustainable Towns
       Resilient Community

We need to make effective choices.

Many believe that we should reform the government.  I think this begs the question of the function of government.  Yes there is burdensome red tape and political corruption.  But we need to understand that at root, environmental legislation is not about the environment per se.  Government is rather about human health, safety and welfare.  Governments focus on what and how, not why. 

Governments typically have a very poor understanding of environmental problems related to population and development.  Science (research related to issues) and politics seem to be distinct domains.  Most governmental entities are pro-growth – they need the taxes and fees to maintain public services.  Regulations are imposed for people, not the environment.  Such regulation tends to be “one-size fits all.” And, calling the regulatory system extremely complex is an understatement.  Again, we need an alternative approach.

Local governments are restrained from innovation by lack of money and staffing.  The cost of basic governmental services is steadily rising and revenues declining.  The tax burden is shifting to local communities.  TC Resilient Communities is designed to pay for itself.

I think it is little known that local governments are served by a variety of authorities, boards and commissions.  These are staffed by volunteers, generally unpaid, who are appointed by local governments.  There is thus already an infrastructure of citizens dedicated to and knowledgeable about the affairs of the community.  This is an important bridge between grassroots organizations and local governments.

The Paris Climate Agreement set a goal to avoid a level of temperature change that could set off runaway climate change.  Little real planning has been accomplished.  Recent reports from scientists suggest we are beyond the tipping point.  Admittedly there are incredible political and economic challenges to such a plan.  It requires a level of understand that is beyond human ken, trillions of dollars (USD equivalent), and massive organization rarely found except during war.  Our alternative is to localize the effort by redesigning our economies at that level.

The core problem is continued population growth.  Like the climate change graph, population represents a “hockey-stick” curve.  It is geometric and it is a runaway trend.  Since 1987 two and one-half billion people have been added to the Earth’s population.  At the current rate, estimates are approaching 10 billion people by 2050.  Many are in developing countries.  Rising global population and developing countries are increasingly stressing the Earth’s resources, particularly land and water.  This should give us pause for thought.  The problem has been known for decades without resolution.  We need a framework for dealing with the effects of this trend.  Again, that is putting our local house into order.

Resilient Communities

Following completion of our comprehensive plan, Transition Centre continued to develop its model, explore assumptions, and address problems that arose.  Our focus shifted from sustainabiity to resiliency.  Resiliency represents a quantum leap up from sustainability.  Sustainability is about management and conservation.  Resiliency is about creating the capacity to adapt to serious change as it occurs.  It is in a sense a community self-insurance policy but it is more.  It is about achieving greater self-determination.  That requires foresight and hard work.  It requires a “pioneering” spirit.

Why should we think about making such an effort?  To start, because we are in a high-risk economic, environmental and political global situation.  We’ve already seen what can happen with post-industrial communities as a result of globalization of economics.  In part it is because hurricanes, tornados, heavy winter storms, hundred year floods, fires and droughts have become frequent stories.  The business cycle, from boom to bust, is virtually a law of nature and a recession is due. 

People question the idea of sustainability in no small part because they see it so difficult to achieve.  But if we don’t achieve the stability it implies, then what?  It’s not something we call in outside experts to achieve.  It needs to be something that can be achieved at the community, level.  It needs to be driven by the people living in these communities.  It will take a lot of resilient communities around the world to turn the tide.

Cove Institute

In the Fall of 2017 Transition Centre introduced “The Road to a Sustainable Future.”  We were accessing the progress of the vision of our comprehensive plan.  We were also seeing that a number of old allies were struggling to stay afloat and that many new initiatives are struggling to get off the ground.  In essence, we did a reboot.  We asked two tough questions:

1.     Do we know what actually must be done to achieve a sustainable future?
2.     Do we have the capacity to achieve it?

We might have asked a third:  If not, then what?

In addition to community, economy and environment, Transition Centre is keenly interested in leadership.  In the Fall of 2018 we resumed the Cove Institute program that had been on the back burner since we started Transition Centre.  The project was informally organized in 2002, named for a place at a beautiful cove on the Pacific coast where several meetings had been held leading to this project.  It addressed the question of human transformative capacity, leadership and community development.  Five great mentors, representing some 200 years of personal experience, nurtured this project. 

The mission of the Cove Institute (CI), and a page can be found on the Transition Centre website, addresses personal capacity expressed as follows:

·      How do you prepare individuals, organizations and communities to achieve self-determination? 
·      How do you achieve adaptive resilience in the face of massive change? 
·      How do you undertake purposeful transformative change?

Self-Reliance:  Achieving Personal Resiliency and Independence (William Sharp, Amazon Kindle book) includes a number of key ideas developed over the years to address these questions.  While the books incudes exercises and a chapter on personal development, it is not a self-help book.  It’s about increasing personal capacity to lead.  The book includes key principles and practices leading to effective action.

It should be noted there is a leadership style for each stage of the evolution of human society from ancient to agricultural to industrial to digital.  We have made limited progress in developing that leadership model appropriate for this dynamic century.  What are the qualities, the knowledge and skills, that state of mind, of a person capable of dealing with the incredible complexity of modern life and the inevitable challenges to come?   

In this short book we explore the nature of being human.  We are nature – a product of billions of years of evolution.  What did Nature achieve with us?  We have, in fact, awesome potential if we can learn to realize it.  The book explores general systems (holistic) perception.  It is about understand the big picture.  It has three sets of tools related to achieving clarity and certainty, for accurately defining problems and for organizing effective resolution.  Self-Reliance also includes the first phase of a series called the Well-Formed PersonalityTM.  It is about working for a more integral sense of self.  This is the foundation of community.  The objective is summarized as: 

"We have the option to passively accept what life gives us or to actively engage in it -- to seek self-reliance and self-determination.  I believe we must pursue that option. Society is the product of its members. The more humane its members, or at least its leaders, the more humane the society."

Transition Centre Vision and Mission

Transition Centre is apolitical and non-sectarian.  It doesn’t care what you believe as long as dialog is respectful.  It takes no part in divisive debate.  All communities have common needs.  

Our website has pages for three strategies: 

       Localization:  Building a more human-scaled community
       REconomy (Regenerative, Restorative, Resilient) + Economy
       Leadership (which also includes a page for the CI project)

The Mission and Vision of Transition Centre were stated at the beginning of this article.  Our tagline is “Prosperity and Quality of Life.”  Here is and outline of our services:

The Objectives of Transition Centre:
  • Transition Centre promotes the best practice model of an effective grassroots program for rebuilding local community economic sustainability and a growing level of self-reliance.
  • Integral ecosystem architecture of the self-sufficient community and local economy.
  • A comprehensive learning institute to prepare youth and adults for the challenges of a society in a state of increasing disequilibrium.
  • Innovative leadership capable of guiding the transformation of communities, from villages to urban neighborhoods, to achieve sustainability.
  • Provides materials and resources to assist communities to achieve sustainability.
What we do:
·       Transition Centre provides consultation, coaching, planning and workshops about building your community’s sustainable future.  We offer:
  • Transitional Awareness:  Building awareness of why your community needs to create a resilient, sustainable economy to secure its future.
  • Sustainability Master Design:  A workable and doable framework for organizing all sectors of your community to secure a high quality future.
  • Community Ecosystem Mapping:  Identifying, connecting and mobilizing the resources of your community into a self-defining, self-sustaining network of collaborative action.
  • Sustainable Economy:  Leadership, enterprise and economic redevelopment to reinvigorate your local economy, that adapts to the rapid and erratic changes of the global economic system and that will secure a stable and viable future for your community.
Transition Centre is a service organization.  We have the capacity to assess the needs and capabilities of communities and neighborhoods.  Our objective is to inspire and support local initiative.  We serve as a catalyst.  Go to 


As a final note, there are a lot of ideas from Eastern thought that enlighten our understanding of the Earth, the biosphere, and the nature of human nature.  Kaizen is a Japanese terms that means taking small steps.  The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.  Vision 10 – 10 was inspired by this concept.  Taking the first, small step, and you take the next and the next and the next.

We need, however, to understand the context of our action.  As noted, many sustainability efforts are single issues.  A community may have a lot of groups and organizations with a mission.  All are important.  But how are they connected?  What end to they collectively achieve?  What we must understand is that each of these is a part of a complex ecosystem.  They are all interdependent.  Unless and until we understand how each action fits into the broader framework, until we understand the nature of that broader framework, both locally and globally, we are not working in a deliberate and purposeful manner to solve the problems we think are important.

Our frame of action is the local community.  That works because a community is essentially a bounded system, albeit a part of other, larger, systems.  Moving our perspective to this next level is a “small” step.  Putting that first step on the Moon was an unparalleled achievement of human vision, will and determination to express who and what we are as a species.  Taking our community to that level of achievement, to make it resilient – safe, secure and stable – is just going to take a lot work.

Bill Sharp
Founder/Director Transition Centre/Cove Institute

[1] This document is based on a presentation made in Titusville, Pennsylvania on October 8th, 2018.  I was invited to speak about Transition Towns as founder and director of Transition Centre located at State College, Pennsylvania (