Shaun Chamberlin is an author and activist who describes his own perspective on the world as one of “dark optimism” — unashamedly positive about what kind of a world humanity could create and unashamedly realistic about how far we are from creating it today. He has written and edited diverse publications, including conceiving and creating the book Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival, and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy from the work of his late mentor David Fleming, and spoken at venues from Occupy camps to Parliaments.

In exploring the cultural narratives charting society’s course, he has had many roles: as Extinction Rebellion’s first arrestees, chair of the Ecological Land Co-operative, a director of the campaigning organisation Global Justice Now and (for his sins) an advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. Shaun also works with Sterling as a Consulting Scholar and the lead educator/convenor for our Surviving the Future courses and community. 

[05:13]-searching in life for answers; course at a Schumacher college, life after oil;  meeting Richard Heinberg, David Fleming, Rob Hopkins; beginnings of Transition Movement founded with David Fleming in mind at the community scale

[10:25]-One Fleming quote that changed his life, “large scale problems do not require large scale solutions, they require small scale solutions within large scale frameworks.” After Fleming’s death; edited Fleming’s life’s work and manuscript Lean Logic into Surviving The Future, Culture, Carnival and Capitol in the aftermath of the market economy

[17:32]-Evolution to surviving the future, conversations for our time into Sterling course

[19:58]-Dark Optimism the essence of Chamberlin’s work; facing the monsters and telling a story of our lives we are proud to tell 

[22:49]-Having brave conversations by stepping into the grief of what we know can be a healing process

[27:25]-Current adventures;Surviving the future course, Happy Pig; a non-monetary hostel; the informal and gift economy; relationship with re-wilding charity that’s bringing back the natural forest ecologies of Ireland 


Shaun Chamberlin Transcript


Welcome to Emergency to Emergence a podcast produced by Sterling college. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota La Croix. This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting, eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully engaging in ecological thinking and action while fostering active community engaged responses, that offer hope.


Joining us today from England is activist and author, Shaun Chamberlin. Shaun has been involved with the transition network from its inception. Co-founding transition town, Kingston and authoring the movement's second book, The Transition timeline. In exploring the cultural narratives, charting society's course, he has written and edited diverse publications, including drawing together, Surviving the Future from the work of his late mentor, David Fleming.

He was also one of Extinction Rebellion's first arrestees, chair of the Ecological land cooperative and executive producer of the film The Sequel, What will follow our troubled civilization.

Shaun, welcome. And thank you so much for taking time out of your day to engage in conversation with us.


Yeah, thank you, Shaun.


Ah, ,my pleasure guys. Great to be here.


And so to kick things off just a little bit, I wanted to know what shifts or moments in your life helped to redefine the path that brought you to where you are right now.

SHAUN CHAMBERLIN: [:is back in in about the year:DAKOTA LACROIX: [:

Oh, thanks dad, perfect.


That's comforting.


Yeah so I, um, at the time I thought, well, that can't be true, you know, if that was true, then you know, it'd be all over the news and stuff, but I thought, well, I'll look into it a bit just to put my dad's mind at rest, if nothing else. And you could say that kind of set me on a path ever since. And especially actually, because, ah I think it was later that same year we had this thing in England where ah bunch of truckers blockaded the port between the UK and mainland Europe and in particular stopped fuel deliveries, getting thru. So within, I think it was less than a week you couldn't buy any fuel in the petrol stations. Supermarkets started selling out of bread and milk and essentials like this, and I was living in York at the time in the north of England. And I remember there was an, A road very near my house like a big main road.

I remember walking down the middle of it because there were just no cars, you know, they'd just gotten in the space of a week. And that at the time really brought home to me in a, in a visceral way that the fragility of what we think of as normal you know, people driving around and being food in the supermarkets, et cetera.

And so I guess those, that sort of made me kind of come back to my dad's email and go, oh, okay maybe there is something going on here.


He was onto something.


There might be something to this.




And Sean, would you tell us a little bit more about what you took, like what you did with that information. Play that out for us a little bit, if you would.


Yeah, I mean, I guess so after uni, I started work in a, in a learning center for marginalized groups. So working with, with drug misusers and people with mental health problems and young asylum seekers, and, and I really loved that work, but I guess in my spare time, I continued to do a lot of research around, particularly kind of energy, fuel issues and climate issues at the time. And it came to a point after a few years where I just thought, huh, you know, I'm here helping people reintegrate with society, really, but it seems like society itself is hurtling off a cliff.

And so suddenly it seemed to me that while this was, this was good work to be, to be helping these people in these various ways. It started to feel like maybe it wasn't my work anymore. And that I was kind of called to engage with these kind of I don't know, bigger questions I suppose, but I didn't have any idea how to do that.

I mean, but yeah. So after about a year of this, I heard about this course called life after oil at Schumacher College, which was just a two week course. But teaching on that course where people like Richard Heinberg and Rob Hopkins and David Fleming, and Ron Oxburgh, who was a chairman of Shell, who had just been sacked for being too honest about their reserves.

And Michael Meacher who was a former minister for the environment in the UK. And, uh, and that was an incredible experience for me because it was just like, in fact, someone who was there said I had the air about me, of a man who'd been wandering in a desert and had found an Oasis. It was like, wow, there are people who know what I'm talking about, and we would, I think there were about 25, 30 of us on the course, and we would sort of sit up in the common room chatting until sort of two or three in the morning, every night, and it was just so, it was so refreshing. I mean, I often say now the worst feeling in the world is being feeling like you're alone with the apocalypse and that's kind of where I'd been. And so to find a peer group, I would say still, five to 10 of those people are still friends now that I'm in regular contact with or collaborating with, and then out of that, you know, I started working with Rob on, so Rob was literally just on the cusp of launching the Transition Towns movement, which I got very involved with, and David Fleming, who I met there for the first time was at the time working on, mainly on this kind of carbon rationing idea text that he developed, and we together advise the government on, on a feasibility study that the government launched into that. And so then it was like, wow, you know, I've got a peer group.

I've found some ideas that I really believe in and they want to get behind. And that was kind of yeah, the launch pad for everything I'd be doing in the 15 years since.


And you also wrote the Transition Town timeline. Can you tell us what the backbone of the transition movement is and how it's evolved from when it started to what it is right now?


Yeah, I mean, I would say transition. There's a few ways of approaching it, but one little phrase that was bouncing around a lot at the time was if we wait for government to address these issues by which we kind of meant energy crisis, climate change and economic crisis. If we wait for government to address these things, then it's gonna be too late, and if we try and deal with it ourselves as individuals, it's not going to be enough, but if we come together as communities and respond to these issues, it might be just enough just in time. That was kind of one of the little phrases we had. And I suppose another one was what would it look like if responding to these issues, look more like a party than a protest march, and what would it look like to make this a really enjoyable, wonderful thing to be part of, to build culture and community, and.and it was very much grounded in the work of David Fleming unpublished at the time, but there was a huge inspiration for Rob in particular around just that, the fundamental crisis we're facing is not ecological or economic.

The fundamental crisis we're facing is cultural and that the others are, are products of that. And it's at that level that we need to address things, and I suppose the other thing I would say about the, the essence of Transition apart from the fact that it's very much at the community scale would be that it's kind of an antidote to the two things we're always told to do.

I mean the two things we're always told to do about our problems are, you know, petition the politicians. You know, write letters to your well here, a member of parliament or their, I guess your Congressman or whoever it might be. And the other thing is kind of personal lifestyle change, you know, drive less, fly, less, put solar panels on your roof, whatever.

And frankly, they're both really depressing because you know, you write to political representatives and they ignore you and you think, well, that was a waste of time. You transform your life, but the whole world just plows on, in the opposite direction, and you think, well, that didn't really get me anywhere.

I mean, there's, there's a lot to be said for personal lifestyle change, because it's the way you want to live, and because it's what you believe in and what makes you happier, and I've done an awful lot of that, but I don't expect it to transform the world. And what's beautiful about transition again, is by the problem with personal lifestyle changes to small a scale.

The problem with lobbying the politicians it's too big a scale for your voice to have any real impact, and again, the beauty of operating at the communal scale, what people in fact called the human scale is that it's a small enough scale that you can have a meaningful impact in your, your voice and your actions make a real difference.

It's a large enough scale that you can see significant impacts in your life and your community that, that make a real difference to people's lives. And so in many ways, it's, that's the essence of transition for me is that, that sweet spot of scale.


That's, that's an incredibly interesting way of putting, you know, our relationship with our politicians and with ourselves and what our personal commitments are into scale, I suppose, but I had, I hadn't thought of it like that, you've know, giving me something to really ponder on.


Well, you know, my, my absolute, if I had to pick one of the many magical lines that the wonderful David Fleming wrote. The one that's really genuinely changed my life is "large-scale problems do not require large scale solutions, they require small-scale solutions within large scale frameworks."

And again, that's another way of looking at what Transition is, It's a way of linking together a diversity of small-scale solutions, like what this community needs to do or wants to do, or is equipped to do is going to be totally different from what that community wants to do. And that's appropriate, we need a diversity of small-scale solutions, but we also need networks and frameworks that tie them together into a kind of empowered wave of change, if they're gonna to address large scale solutions, and so ever since then, my work has been all about that. You know, I've been involved with Transition, project called the ecological land co-operative, Extinction Rebellion. All of these in different ways are about creating frameworks, that allow a diversity of small solutions to come together to address a large problem.


You know, in Lean Logic, a dictionary for the future and how to survive it, it's, it's like over 600 pages and it's this massive text and many dictionaries, as we know, it can feel dated and stuffy, and yet with Lean Logic, there's a real feeling of presence and an invitation there to kind of co-create make our own, which I hear in just the comments about politicians and not waiting.

And I wonder, you know, in what way is this body of work continuing to find new life? And if you could tell us a little bit about your role in that and bringing it to life.


Sure. So yeah, Lean Logic that you mentioned there, The dictionary for the future and how to survive it, was written by David Fleming, and he was then mainly talking about this carbon rationing system text that he developed. I basically said to him, you know, I think I could edit this, this booklet that you've produced and improve it, cause I think these, these answers need to be worked into it. I also don't think it's that well structured.

You know, what do you think? And he kind of looked me down and up. I mean, I remember this moment, very clearly this impertinent young man suggesting that he could, you know, improve his life's work. And to my eternal gratitude, he, he gave me a shot. And so we agreed to work together for a while on that, and that led to us working extremely closely together.

I mean, I I'd largely sort of lived out of his flat in Hampstead while we collaborated on all sorts of things over the next five years or so until he died very suddenly. But kind of in the background, as far as I was concerned, but absolutely in the foreground for him. He was working away on this dictionary for the future and how to survive it, Lean Logic which was very much his life's work. He'd been working on it for literally decades. But he wouldn't ever let me look at it. Cause he said we were too close and if I was critical of it, we'd fall out, and he didn't want us to fall out. And so, he, he didn't really have close friends or family, his partner died a few years previously.

And and so it fell to me to kind of go through his possessions and help his niece sell the house and stuff like this. And among those, I found the manuscript for Lean Logic and I figured, well, I'm probably allowed to read it now, you know, we're unlikely to fall out at this point. And, you know, David was, was my closest friend at the time, so, you know, it was very much grieving. And so reading, it was, was partly a process of, of kind of working through that grief and having another wonderful conversation with David, but also I could not help realizing this is an absolutely incredible piece of work. And and I think, you know, a friend of mine said to me that the best way you can honor someone you love after they die, is to keep alive what was best in them, in the world, through your own life.

And I just, when I heard that, I thought, okay, like obviously the way to do that in this case is to get his book published. And so as you know, I kind of edited out from it, the paperback or Surviving the Future, Culture, Carnival and Capital in the aftermath of the market economy. And then as you were asking Dakota about the sort of presence that comes through in, in David's writing and the the drive, the encouragement to action, I actually think that the, the unconventional structure of Lean Logic, which for those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's kind of like Wikipedia. You know, you'll have an entry on something and then within the entry there'll be links to lots of other entries, and so you can kind of follow, choose your own adventure through the book.


Yeah. It is so fun.


It is so fun, and and David's a very fun writer. Someone, someone described to me, it's like reading a book where the author is winking at you constantly. Part of the challenge of kind of straight jacketing Lean Logic into a linear narrative, in a sense it's a big part of the beauty of Lean Logic is it's holistic structure.

It's the fact that everything connects to everything else and that there isn't one pathway to follow, because that's


Yeah, right.


Because that's both how David thought, but also how the world works. I mean, you know, Muir said famously, "every time I try and pull out something to look at it, I find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

And that's real, you know, and that's kind of why Lean Logic is written that way, but the other thing to come right back to what you were saying about presence is that I think David himself is so committed to everyday people taking power and control in their own lives, like unleashing the collective genius of communities, as he would say, it was so committed to that, that I think he was actually a bit uncomfortable with the role of author, because the role of author, if you think about it, by its very nature is basically a bit like standing on a soapbox and just saying a bunch of stuff and people just pick it up and listen, right? It's not really a very interactive process, the author reader relationship.

And I, I think actually the, the, the very, the very inherent structure of Lean Logic was David's rebellion against that sort of top-down author reader relationship, and he was saying, well know, I'm going to force you to be an active participant in reading this book, you know, you're going to have to choose your path through it and follow your path of interest.

Don't, don't make me some expo is going to tell you what to do. And I only realized that after sort of living and working with the book for quite a long time, but the very structure of it, I think reflects the message. And so I do think that Lean Logic is, is the masterpiece.


And so from lean logic, the 600 page dictionary to surviving the future culture, carnival, capital in the aftermath of the market economy, to surviving the future conversations of our time, to surviving the future conversations for our time, the deeper dive. How did that evolution from dictionary to smarter book to full fledged course happen Shaun?

SHAUN CHAMBERLIN: [:the Future, in, at the end of:

And so then, you know, a lot of people were contacting me and, you know, saying, you know, wanting me to talk about the books or to engage about the books or just to talk with me about that. And so we thought it would make a lot of sense to have some kind of course that people could come engage with.

And for me, again, very much inspired by David, for it not to be, you know, for people to come and listen to me lecturing about things, but for it to be a venue for the conversations that our time calls for. Another little Flemingism is, "do nothing that matters without consulting a conversation." And I think that's profoundly important. And so that's really, again, coming back to what I said earlier about the being no worse feeling than being alone with the apocalypse. I wanted to kind of create a space where people, especially people who are completely overwhelmed by, by the times we're in and, and, and it, it's not a happy place to be. It's not an enjoyable place to be, and, and this is the kind of the essence of this concept of dark optimism that, that my work goes under is that we really need to face the real darkness that there is in these times, you know, this is not a time at which we're looking at a bright, shiny green future.

This is a time where more and more things are falling apart and, and that dark, and that has to be faced if in my opinion, you're, you're honestly looking at what's unfolding in the world today. That said, if we can face that, if we can be brave enough to look that in the eye, then we discover as, as, as with every horror movie, you know, the Monster's never as terrifying once you actually look at square in the face, right?

It's terrifying when it's looking in the shadows and you don't really know what's there, but when we actually look it in the face, then we realize, well, okay, you know, that's, that's really hard in some ways, but I'm still here and I still got choices to make and I can still make the world a better place than it would otherwise be, and I can still act with love and heart and genuineness, and I can still tell a story with my life that I'm proud to tell. And there is nothing about the context of our times that makes any of that impossible. And so really, yeah, that's what that's, how it came about is let's create a space where the conversations that emerge from the understandings in the books can be had, and we can really sit down together and go, okay, yeah, we got a lot of problems and some of them aren't even problems anymore, they're predicaments. Some of them aren't for solving they're for coming to terms with, but nonetheless, we're here and what are we going to do about it? And actually, if we are, if we




...look at those questions together, rather than as individuals, which is what our culture tends to tell us to do. It Can be really joyous and it can be less about what we stand to lose, and more about the sense of community and conviviality and carnival and joy that we've lost already and how we go about regaining that. I'm wholeheartedly convinced that, that path towards more convivial, joyous communal lives is also the only path towards a sustainable future.


And I know you, you made mention already of, you know, this darkness and your work centering a wrong dark optimism, and that is a term that I hadn't really considered. A phrase that I hadn't considered because how could those two things come together like darkness and optimism, but here you are doing that work and encouraging through your work, encouraging people to do the same, and it seems, it seems to be working and it seems to be what exactly what is needed.

So, and so I wanted to ask more about what are exactly as the conversations that we need to be having right now that are so dark. We can bring up optimism to them?


I think for me, the fundamental conversation that we need to have was revealed to me out of a deep frustration, actually, as I was reading about these issues and listening to the debates that were happening around them, there's one thing I hear over and over again, like pretty much any time people with environmental awareness debate each other, it always comes down to the same argument.

On the one hand, you'll have someone saying we just need revolutionary change because if we don't have revolutionary change, then we're, we're not addressing the fundamental underlying causes. We're just dealing with symptoms and the fundamental problem isn't gonna go away. And I'd listened to that. And I think, yeah, yeah, I guess I agree with that.

And then you'd have someone on the other side saying we don't have time for revolutionary change. Like everything's incredibly urgent. Like, do you not realize how urgent everything is? Like we have to act within the frameworks we've got now we can't wait for some revolution and I'd listened to that and think, yeah, yeah, that seems true as well.

And these, they argue back and forth against each other for endlessly, for careers. And I think, well, hang on, just hang on. What if you're both right? Like what if we absolutely need fundamental, radical change and the absolutely isn't time for fundamental radical change, because it seems to me that both of those, these things are true.

Where does that leave us? And that I think is a much more brave conversation I have. And I think we actually hide from that conversation by grabbing hold of one end or the other of that debate. And when we go to that darker place and where, where does that leave us ? Despair, like overwhelm? What use that, but actually stepping into the, the grief of admitting what we actually know or believe to be the case is a healing process.

But what I've found personally is that when I step into that grief of admitting what I really believe, which is that we're not going to have some magical, great awakening to cultural sanity, and we're not going to have some magical technology that's going to save us all, and that actually the consequences of our actions are real and they're coming, that's incredibly painful, but sitting with the pain of that doesn't end me. And there comes a space on the far side of that pain. What my friend, Michael Dowd calls, the post doom space, becomes a space beyond that pain where you can actually look and stare at the world honestly, and go, okay. Wow, you know maybe I even live in a dying world. Oh my God.

But I'm still here and I've still got to decide what to do with my days in that context. And then the only basis to make that decision is not the sense of desperate urgency that there's no time to even think about it. We just go to act. No, it's what story do I want to tell with my days in this context that I was born into?

And the thing about that is that when you're living from that energy, that post doom energy, the motivation is so much more beautiful and powerful and resilient. Because then all you're doing is you're waking up everyday and say, what story do I want to tell with my days and you're telling it. And that I think is, is the conversation, and that's the conversation that I hope we're making space for in the Surviving the future classes.


I feel this resonating sense of pain, but also there's truth in that, you know, it's, it's, it's not stopping with that. You're really. Inviting us to grow in a much more of a relationship rich culture, rather than a resource rich one. What current adventures are you choosing that bring you hope and give you an and keep you moving through that this, this place of dark optimism, if you'd share some of your current projects and, and, and current adventures.


Sure, I mean, I think hope is a, is a dangerous and multifaceted word.


I agree.


It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But yeah, moving from that space of dark optimism that I've, I've just kind of explained what I mean by it. The stories I'm choosing to tell with my life, I mean, at the moment, the thing that's been, well, I guess two things.

One is running the surviving, the future courses, which feel very clearly to me to be, to be part of my work in this time and the feedback from the participants has been just astonishing, frankly, and incredibly affirming. You know, people saying things like, you know, now I feel I have purpose in my life and you know, I know what I, what I have to do with my days.

I mean, you know, this is not typical feedback you get on a, on a course. It's just, it's really, it's really.


It's not a typical course.


No. And it really confirms to me, I guess what I just said that this is a conversation for our time. You know, it's a conversation that a lot of people desperately need a space to have.

And like, I don't think that feedback comes from me saying some magical answers to people. It's much more of just people having a space to engage with what they're worried about together. And then the other thing that I've been really focusing on is a project called the happy pig which is in Ireland.

And this is a, I guess, a, a kind of a bastion for the renascence of the non-monetary economy. Because if I could, if I could boil down the essence of all of my work in terms of what it makes sense to do in these times it would be two things and, you know, it would be. Preserving and regenerating the natural world, the ecology and preserving and regenerating the gift economy, the informal economy, community conviviality, because those are the two things that always sustained life in the absence of this short-lived growth based monetary economy that most people think is supporting everything today. And so, yeah, the Happy Pig is really a place for, for, for that work. It's a place. It's a, it's a free pub. It's a place where people can come and drink for free and stay for free. And nobody who is based there is paid money is not involved at all.

, with his then girlfriend in:

And a bunch of amazing natural builders came and hosted volunteer workshops and people did the work of actually of actually building it. And it's a beautiful space. And and yeah, it's just a real, it's a real hub for now for, for remembering what the point of life is, which is to have great time with your friends and also to regenerate the natural economy around them.

And we have a strong relationship with a re-wilding charity called Home Tree, which is doing a lot of work now around bringing natural ecology of Ireland back to something with a bit more of a future than the kind of plantation forestry that currently dominates most of Ireland. I should mention actually. I mean, it's, it's called The Happy Pig. Partly because obviously it used to be a pigsty, and so we hope it's a happier place now than it was before we built this on the foundation, but also because Socrates once said, it's better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a pig, satisfied by which he meant, you know, humans are capable of such higher pleasures and such intellectual feats that were just fundamentally superior.

And Mark and I disagree with that sentiment. so profoundly that we decided to call the place the happy pig in honor of happy pigs everywhere, because we would much rather be happy pigs than on having human beings.


I am truly, truly happy that we've had this chance to have this conversation with you, Sean.


I agree. It's been so heart-centered and we have some things to kind of take back with us and re-examine, which to me is really valuable. You know, again, it kind of puts it back on us to come to the dance and, and bring our own story. So thank you so much, Sean, for that. I appreciate it.


Oh, it's been a joy. I've really, really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you both.


If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them. So you can root further, draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities. And before we come to a close Sterling acknowledges that the Land on which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky are the traditional and unceded territories of several indigenous peoples. The Abenaki in the North and the Shawnee Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage people to the South. We also learn in, and from a range of landscapes that belong to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin. As we seek deep reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention, are just a first step. We must match them with acts of respect and repair.

Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to Emergency, to Emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information on how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action. Visit If listening is prompted something new to emerge in you we invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to [email protected]

Until next time, this is Emergency to Emergence.

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