Not greed and oil. Interview with Transition Albany (CA) Leader Catherine Sutton by Willi Paul. Sponsored by Permaculture Exchange


Not greed and oil. Interview with Transition Albany (CA) Leader Catherine Sutton by Willi Paul. Sponsored by Permaculture Exchange

Part of the 99 (edited)

I used to be one of the 1 percent
I worked all the time
Never saw my family
Couldn’t make life rhyme
Then the bubble burst
It really, really hurt
I lost my money
Lost my pride
Lost my home
Now I’m part of the 99

Some people have it all
But they still don’t think they have enough
They want more money
A faster ride
They’re not content
Never satisfied
Yes — they’re the 1 percent

I used to be sad, now I’m satisfied
’Cause I really have enough
Though I lost my yacht and plane
Didn’t need that extra stuff
Could have been much worse
You don’t need to be first
’Cause I’ve got my friends
Here by my side
Don’t need it all
I’m so happy to be part of the 99

* * * * * * *

Interview with Catherine by Willi

What are your principles? Are there times ahead when you might be better in the streets – as a pressure group?

Each Transition initiative is rooted firmly on the piece of Earth where it finds itself. Transition is based on the principle of localization: bringing back home essential goods and services that have become more commonly sourced from thousands of miles away, and producing them so that ecological balance is preserved. In this way we insure that everyone can still get what they need, even if the price of oil or some weather-related disaster shuts down the long and fragile supply lines on which most people currently depend.

The most important thing we need to re-member as a culture is that we are not separate from the planet but as much a part of it as any other creature. It’s when we learn to live within the limitations of and respecting the gifts of our local environment that real change will come.

Each Transition initiative is different, so I can only speak for myself, but it seems that the central focus of Transition in general is on envisioning and creating a resilient and viable future on the local scale. Putting pressure on local government to change outdated ordinances is part of our work, as is asking them to create infrastructure that will support what we envision, but always with a strong sense of what we’re moving towards, rather than what we’re fighting against. Taking direct action against egregious behavior by the 1% and their minions might be very much a part of the lives of the same people or groups that are involved with their local transition initiative, but is that part of the Transition movement? Does it even matter what we call it? To my mind, there is an unstoppable surge of energy growing every day that will inevitably bring major changes to every part of our lives. It encompasses all kinds of actions under all kinds of names, but the important thing is that it’s happening.

Transition Albany’s current goal is to have several local working groups, or spokes, representing the many areas we need to address (including health, food, water, energy, mobility, housing, and inner transition) and convene a regular core group or “spokes council” to coordinate and support activities with a representatives from each “spoke.” At present our core group is small and far from comprehensive, but we are lucky that there are established groups already working in some of these areas: Albany Strollers and Rollers are advocates for human-scale transport, Carbon Neutral Albany has the specific focus of supporting Albany’s Climate Action Plan and City staff are proactive in introducing ideas which increase resilience.

Does TA synch-up with permaculture and occupy?

Transition initiatives grew out of a Permaculture course taught by Rob Hopkins at a forward-thinking community college in Ireland. He gave his students the task of working out how their local community, Kinsale, could become resilient in the face of the kinds of challenges we’ve been talking about and they produced the first Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP). To see how this would work when the local community engaged in writing and implementing its own EDAP, he took the concept to Totnes in Devon, England, and every other Transition initiative was spawned from that. The principles and the ethics of Permaculture inform Transition, which is about designing communities that work for the earth and for the people and that distribute what there is fairly.

I would love to see greater connection with the East Bay permaculture community, who represent practical warriors for the Transition cause! How about a program of Permablitzes? When I took my PDC course with Robyn Frances of Australia and Penny Livingston Stark, it was clear that in Australia Transition and Permaculture are inextricably linked. (Australia may take peak oil and climate change more seriously than people do here.) Specifically, in Albany we need an army of permaculture people to form a pressure group to win the use of the Gill Tract from UC Berkeley for an urban farm! There are 10 acres of Class One agricultural land sitting empty and fenced off, currently used only by geese, turkeys, crows and other wild birds, on the corner of Marin and San Pablo. UC Berkeley has not revealed its plans, if any, for the site.

The Occupy movement has taken everyone by surprise and delight. I think there is much TA can learn about group process from Occupy, and the huge number of people of all kinds that are moved to support Occupations all over the world is inspirational. I don’t define Occupy as political, but as an angry cry from a much abused people for long-overdue change, and we absolutely need that energy to make the transition happen. I can see a place for local Transition initiatives to get involved with the General Assemblies and perhaps offer to teach the young people who are thirsting for a new world some of the skills we will need in a society that is not run on greed and oil.

How is TA working with the poor and minority populations?

I would like to begin by explaining what a Transition initiative is not. It is not a discrete “group” with an agenda. Someone gets inspired (in this case me), and gathers whoever is interested to start raising awareness of the causes and effects of peak oil, climate change and economic instability (to name only three of the challenges we are faced with), and to tease out a shared vision of how the community could effectively meet these challenges while making life better for everyone in it.

Transition Albany is at the stage where we are actively looking for people to step up and address various aspects of the transition to a better world. We would love to work alongside poor and minority populations (we have a lot of minority business owners in Albany, for example) but we have been hampered by our small numbers as well as by being largely white middle class with white middle class connections.

There are some ways we are reaching out that might be effective: one of the goals of our Edible Initiatives group (AEI) is to connect apartment dwellers who want to grow food with willing homeowners whose yards are not being used. Inspired by Laurence of Berkeley, AEI also helps folks to set up productive food gardens in their front and back yards. AEI is on Facebook.

Albany is well-suited for a local currency that will help local merchants and everyone else by keeping money within the community; all we need is a team of people who are willing and able to follow through with establishing such a system. We have been offered help in this by communities that have already done this, such as Bernal Heights in San Francisco.

In January we are offering an introduction to Resilience Circles, a format that offers an opportunity to get together in small groups over a period of a few weeks to learn about why the economy is failing, share our own stories of how it’s affecting us, and discover ways to live better with less money. These circles, sometimes called Common Security Clubs, began on the East Coast and follow a seven-week curriculum which often results in groups of neighbors who continue to meet over time and become a close-knit group that looks out for one another, practicing mutual aid and direct action. We are approaching churches and schools to invite interested people to come to an introductory meeting at the Albany Library on Sunday January 29 (2 pm). There is no cost for any of it. Hopefully Resilience Circles will bring Transition ideas to to people who are struggling to keep going and maybe don’t have time for the rather impersonal film screenings we’ve done so much of.

Another of our projects is a local branch of the SF Time Bank (the Berkeley-Richmond Corridor Group ( This gives people a chance to earn credit on an hour for hour basis for services, including those that traditionally don’t command a good salary. The credit can be used with any of the other Timebank members. The original Time Bank, set up by Edward Cahn, was designed to bring under-served populations back into the mainstream.

What are your ideas for transitionary local job programs?

I would like to see the City – or perhaps a group like the Rotary Club – offer training in running one’s own business, since this is likely to offer a more tenable future than “getting a job”. If we can persuade local landlords to offer affordable live-work spaces, we can have local people employed in meeting the essential needs of the local population.

There are no vocational classes in the high schools and we would love to see these offered again (as they were decades ago – the local “shop” teacher is still fondly remembered.) Re-skilling is an important aspect of the transition, in the sense that we need to train people of all ages in basic but now forgotten skills such as shoe-making, weaving, making clothes, intensive food production, animal husbandry, simple furniture making … I would love to see these kinds of businesses on Solano Avenue in place of gift shops.

Are there green jobs in Albany?

There are many businesses with a sign outside that say they’re “green.” I’m still finding out which businesses are putting people to work in areas I would consider in line with a transition to an economy that treats everyone equally and in line with reducing our carbon footprint 90%.

In the long term, in a world where we have made the transition to a future that works for everyone and the planet, I envision that people will be closely linked with their neighbors in a largely gift economy (c.f. Charles Eisenstein) and will have less need for full-time jobs working for someone else. In the short term, it would be great to have people getting paid for making a difference. Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito and Richmond are all larger communities with more opportunities for those kinds of jobs. A place like Albany, with a population of 17,000, many of them linked to UC Berkeley or here temporarily for the schools, doesn’t have a lot of industry. I would love to hear of any green jobs being offered within Albany.

What programs are especially for kids? Homeless? Seniors?

We are very fortunate to have Susan Silber of Transition Berkeley working with us; as people know from your interview with her, she is totally committed to working with children and has a lot of excellent ideas and energy. A Transition initiative is only as strong as the people who are working with it. Children have enjoyed our urban homestead bicycle tours with their parents. The City puts on regular family-friendly bike rides in the summer, Albany Strollers and Rollers lead bicycle rodeos to teach young people road skills, every school has a community garden and many of them are instituting walking school buses.

That said, one of the hallmarks of the original Transition Town in Totnes was a school program where classes invented future scenarios that included Transition features and videotaped mock newscasts. They called it Transition Tales, and envisioning a future that is working is a very important element of the Transition movement. When someone steps forward who has the skill and the time to do something like this in our schools we will welcome them with open arms! It is sad that, in this economic climate, many parents are so stressed with getting through the day that they don’t have much time to respond to the serious predicament we are in and help create another kind of world for their children to live in.

We don’t yet have any programs specifically for the homeless. Unfortunately many of us are on the edge and could swell the ranks of the homeless at any time. It is imperative that we build new economic and housing structures that support people’s right to shelter and good food. But dreams need people to build them.

The Albany Senior Center does a wonderful job providing for the seniors in our community. The older members of our community related their experience of life in the 1940’s and 50’s at a storytelling picnic we held in conjunction with the Albany Historical Society. It was fascinating to hear about ubiquitous vegetable gardens, the wide network of public transportation, the practical skills that were taught in schools, a fire service that required its members to live in Albany and enjoyed terrific camaraderie, the strong community bonds. We have lost a lot in the last 60 years in the name of “progress,” and I am thankful that we are beginning at last to come to our senses!

Does TA work with other Bay Area transition or national groups? Challenges?

We are very fortunate to have a lot of support from Transition US – regular phone roundtables, webinars, and phone conferences. We were one of the first Transition initiatives in the East Bay (with the Richmond Rivets) and we are sometimes asked to go and talk to groups who are thinking about starting.

Each of our communities has different challenges, but we learn a lot from each other and there is plenty of mutual support. We hold a Potluck with Purpose (named after the Transition Whidbey Island potluck started by Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life) every month on the first Tuesday of the month (6:30 in winter at the St Albans parish hall on Washington and Curtis on the Albany-Berkeley border) to give people from all the neighboring Transition communities a chance to meet each other, exchange ideas and inspiration, and move forward together.

There is an East Bay Inner Transition group that meets monthly to learn and practice techniques that we can bring to our local communities for helping people who are facing “the facts” for the first time, or feeling despair about our situation. There is also a Bay Area-wide “Heart & Soul” group, to use Transition-speak, that meets four times a year

The local Transition groups are planning a bi-monthly get together to synchronize our efforts and I’ve heard there is a California-wide meeting of transition groups planned for 2012.

Please define how sustainability fits into your tool kit.

When Chevron talks about sustainable growth, I stop using the word sustainability. We are about creating a world that supports and respects every element within it, from the microbes in the soil to the largest ecosystems.

What is new about Resilience Circles?

The only thing new about Resilience Circles is that we need them in this day and age. Too many people have become wedded to their TV screens and their soap operas, drive off to work “for the man” in the morning and have no idea who their neighbors are. It is taboo to talk about money and very hard to get good information about what is really going on. Resilience Circles aim to address this lack.

What does “vital” mean?

As in the “inviting all of Albany to create … vital and engaged community” of our logo? Vitality to me is when you see vigorous signs of life. A vital community is one which you only have to walk into to see that people are engaged and active in creating resilience: front lawns growing food, shared yards without fences, housing coops, locally-owned stores offering basic services and accepting local currency, people sharing cars/tools/large appliances, “Street Repair” as in Portland with many vibrant community gathering places, food growing in public places (our City arborist, Tony Wolcott, has begun that project), free health clinics, farm animals at work in the community …

How many ways does TA define” yield” ?

Yield in this case could be defined as –

• inner and outer personal resilience – taking change in stride and being creative with fewer resources
• individual skill at tasks for which we have become used to relying on machines or other people
• local autonomy in respect to daily basics of food, energy, water, housing, health etc.
• a society of equals living with respect for the natural world around them
• community cohesion – leading in turn to better disaster preparedness
• general happiness and contentment
• community security through the above

Yield could be measured by –

• number of 16-year-olds who know how to grow 10 varieties of vegetables
• percentage of food consumed locally that was produced within a given radius
• ratio of car parking to productive land use
• degree of engagement in practical re-localization work by the local community
• amount of motorized and non-motorized traffic on local roads
• proportion of the community employed locally
• percentage of essential goods manufactured within a given radius
• percentage of local building materials used in new housing and retrofits
• percentage of medicines prescribed locally that have been produced within a given radius
• percentage of time spent in natural surroundings by the local community
• percentage of people expressing deep satisfaction with their life
• percentage of conflicts resolved through mediation as opposed to litigation
• ability of a community to bounce back from disaster

What is more important to you in the near-term? Expand a timebank to a new community? Installing a grey water system at a elementary school or planting a community garden?

They are all important. The timebank and plans for more community gardens (on the Ohlione Greenway once BART is done with its retrofit) are both already in motion. To get an elementary school to install a greywater system would indicate a level of relationship and commitment that would be very exciting. Thanks for the inspiration!

* * * * * * *

Catherine’s Bio:

Of working class academic stock, Catherine decided early on that a career was not in her future. Most of her early adulthood was spent as a volunteer in various capacities in exchange for room and board. She receives her inner nourishment from a practice she started in 1971. She has consistently taught dances from the countries of Old Europe since encountering them in Bulgaria as part of her Russian degree course. When she discovered the prehistoric roots of that culture through the work of archeomythologist Maria Gimbutas, she realized why the music and dances held such an appeal for her; she had always firmly believed we are part of the Earth and found these early communities that persisted in harmony with their natural environment to be living proof of a time when this was common knowledge. She relocated from Britain to the US in 1988 and began earning a living of sorts through direct sales, but her heart was nurtured by catalyzing personal growth through teaching conscious connected breathing, NLP and timeline therapy, and participating in playing music, traditional dance, gardening and spending time in the wilderness. She was surprised to be invited to join Susan Ireland’s Resume Service in 2003, and spent seven years writing resumes for all kinds of people, from bakers to bankers. When it became distasteful to continue with the bankers, she began to formulate a dream of founding a community resource that would teach people how to survive imminent and inevitable change. A fortuitous 2009 Training for Transition in Oakland galvanized her into action and her marriage to a hardworking software enthusiast made it possible for her to get Transition Albany started. She has two Permaculture Design Certificates, a food garden replete with chickens and a cob chicken house, and is training to teach Hypnobirthing. She belongs to the SF TimeBank and has helped organize her block for disaster preparedness.

Connections –

Catherine Sutton
Catherine at

About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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