The Rocky Road to a Real Transition: the transition towns movement and what it means for social change. Paul Chatterton & Alice Cutler. The Trapese Collective. A free download available here (warning: it is a huge file): 2008. 41pp.
The Rocky Road to a Real Transition
It is flattering that so early in a movement such as the Transition movement, people take the time to sit down and write such a detailed critique of it. Trapese Popular Education Collective were previously behind the excellent ‘Do It Yourself Manual’. As the first published external examination of the Transition model it is to be welcomed, and the authors raise a number of important questions. From my perspective, “The Rocky Road…” does a very good job of identifying many of the key areas where Transition is distinctly different from other approaches to social activism.
Two Distinct Yet Complementary Approaches
The authors write from a perspective strongly rooted in their work as left wing activists and educators, with a strong anti-corporate, anti-globalisation stance. One of the aspects of their critique of Transition is that it shies away from directly confronting what they see as being the enemy. Their starting point can be summed up in the sentence “it is fundamentally important to identify and name the enemies in the battle to make a real Transition”. From my perspective Transition is a fundamentally different approach, and in offering a review of this booklet, it feels important at the outset to address the distinctly different starting positions here.
I have always been inspired and motivated by Vandana Shiva’s assertion that “these systems function because we give them our support, but if we withdraw our support, these systems will not be able to run”. I argue in the Transition Handbook (which unfortunately the authors neglected to read before writing ‘The Rocky Road’, nor did they speak with or interview anyone directly involved) that we need to move beyond the approach of making our starting point trying to work out who is to blame for the predicament we are in.
Yes there are tremendously powerful global forces at work, doing appalling things with increasing boldness, but they function as such because, in many cases, we have given them, consciously or unconsciously, the power to do so. The individuals involved in those global forces are locked into them just like everyone else and there is nothing to be gained by demonising them. There is also always the danger that by adopting demonising, depersonalising approaches means that there is a risk that we do whatever it takes to bring about the change we want, rather than modelling, through our daily lives, the kind of change we want to see.
There are precedents. The Zapatistas, mentioned in this document as being examples of good political action, are in many ways similar to Transition. They set off on a journey of change with no idea where it would lead, asking for nothing more than to be given the space to do what they want and to be left alone to live the way they want to. They argue that change starts with them, and what is important is to be the change, as Gandhi put it, that you want to see in the world.
Transition is determinedly inclusive and non-blaming, arguing that a successful transition through peak oil and climate change will by necessity be about a bringing together of individuals and organisations, rather than a continued fracturing and antagonising. It seeks common ground rather than difference and realises that people who run businesses and people who make decisions are all similarly bewildered and forced to rethink many basic assumptions by these new and challenging times we are beginning to enter. I make no apologies for the Transition approach being designed to appeal as much to the Rotary Club and the Women’s Institute as to the authors of this report.
Time and again the authors of this booklet re-state their belief in a them-and-us perspective. They talk of “taking on power and those who hold wealth and influence”, of there being “powerful forces to confront” and that Transition is “only realistic if people are also prepared to take on the vested interests in the media, government and business”. Yet these extraordinary times into which we are moving extraordinarily fast demand new tools, both practical and thinking tools. It has always struck me that as we stand on the verge of the monumental changes that peak oil and climate change will impose, to have confrontational activism as the principal tool in our toolbox is profoundly unskilful.
Diverging Opinions of How Change Happens
One of the reasons behind this is that little account is taken of the psychology underpinning how people change. The approach is usually one of information dumping, giving people a large amount of distressing information and expecting them to change. What we try and do in the Transition movement is to design in an acceptance of the fact that information about peak oil and climate change can be very distressing, and that it can lead to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. An approach based on information exchange, allowing people to discuss with others how peak oil and climate change ‘feel’, and to enable them to feel part of a wider community of people exploring this, is very empowering and much more healthy.
One fundamental misunderstanding in this document is the belief that change is something that we have to fight for, that those in positions of power will cling to business as usual for as long as possible, that globalisation will only wobble if we shake it hard enough. This is not my experience though, nor, from the anecdotal evidence I hear from Transition Initiatives on the ground, is it what is happening around the country. Here is a quote from the Guardian in an article announcing the arrival of $122 a barrel oil.
“The Ernst and Young Item Club said the modest upswing in economic growth it was predicting for 2009 and 2010 was predicated on the price of oil remaining below $100. But it warned that if the cost of oil increased to $120, or $150, in the long-term, it would have serious implications for the strength of the wider economy”.
The following day Goldman Sachs announced that its forecast was for $200 a barrel oil sooner rather than later. Yesterday’s London Evening Standard reported that the housing crash has now officially begun. The end of the Age of Cheap Oil is arriving very fast, regardless of whether we decide to campaign for it or not. It is my experience that most of the people I meet who are local politicians, business people, whoever, haven’t even started to think about this. I spoke last week at an event in Gloucestershire which ended with my sitting on a panel with a number of people working for the South West Regional Development Agency. A question came from the audience to the effect of “do SWRDA take peak oil into account in their regional development strategies?”. It was clear it was something they hadn’t even begun to think about.
By the end of the evening, the Area Head of SWRDA promised to the audience that he would get his economic team looking at this, analysing how their regional development strategy holds together (or doesn’t) in the light of various forecasts of future oil prices. I find the same in a series of other prominent organisations, they haven’t thought it through at all, and they have absolutely no idea what to do, yet become enthused to begin to explore it when approached in a constructive manner. These are, in the huge majority, not wicked people, rather they are as lost and emeshed in the way the world works at the moment as the rest of us are, they have families they return to at night. We are all in this together. W.H. Auden put it nicely;
“There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die”.*
In my opinion, the shift in focus from the global to the local will not be a choice, nor is it something we have to campaign and protest for, it is utterly inevitable. Without cheap oil it becomes unfeasible, and we are already starting to see this. What the Transition model attempts to do is to try and design a process for rebuilding resilience and cutting carbon which Richard Heinberg describes as being “more like a party than a protest march”, something which is inclusive and feels positive and historic.
Does Transition Shy Away from Confronting Politics?
Transition’s refusal to engage in confrontational approaches to change (a direct experience of which appears to have been the authors’ trigger for writing this critique) has been a conscious decision from the outset, although clearly not one that the authors support. For me, Transition is something that sits alongside and complements the more oppositional protest culture, but is distinctly different from it. It is a different tool. It is designed in such a way as to come in under the radar.
The authors are highly doubtful of the ability of politics to initiate the kind of change we need. They write “a politician cannot win an election by saying they will make the country poorer by reducing export earnings”. I think that they haven’t quite grasped the scale of the change that peak oil and climate change will initiate.
We will need politicians who are able to run on a platform of being honest about energy descent, of the need to move to other measures of economic success than growth in GDP, who drive for the rebuilding of local resilience. I think there are people who could do that, and in the changing world we are seeing the beginnings of, may well be successful. Indeed, it is hard to see how, in 10 years, people will be able to run on any other platform.
We surrender our power to governments at our peril. In her forthcoming book “Depletion and Abundance”, Sharon Astyk puts it thus;
“The sad truth is that governments mostly don’t lead – they follow. And who do they follow? One way or another, most governments follow the will and anger of their people. That is, they are waiting for us to lead them, to tell them what we really care about. It is time — and past time — that we do”.
I think that one of the reasons why Transition is growing so fast, and why it is attracting a lot of people who have not usually been involved in environmental campaigning, is precisely because it is addressing and responding to the very real concerns people feel about rising fuel costs and the changing climate without polarising people. It is positive and solutions focused, it is undogmatic, and it allows space for people to explore how change on this scale will affect them personally. The authors write;
“while local sustainability is important, so are high impact actions that shake people to question the habits of high consumer lifestyles, cheap flights and unnecessary car journeys and the political systems that facilitate them”.
I don’t think that assuming that we can “shake people to question” their lifestyles is ever going to affect more than a handful of people, and will in fact alienate and entrench a lot more. It is the underlying approach that environmentalists have taken for years and in the main it has failed. In Totnes recently, the local Transition group held an evening about flying, called “To Fly or Not to Fly”, but rather than it being a polarising polemic about why we ought not fly, trying to shake those their out of their flying apathy, we used the Fishbowl approach, and created a space in which people could hear each other respectfully discussing their relationships with flying, how giving up would affect them, what they would miss and so on. Hopefully at this point in this review you are starting to be able to identify the differences in these two approaches.
Asking Important Questions of Transition
‘The Rocky Road to Transition’ does, however, ask some important questions of the Transition Movement. “We need to question models that look to a few experts for the answers, especially when these people are mostly well-educated, white males”. Absolutely, and this is an active ongoing debate within Transition. The authors assume that Transition is a top-down model, although the principle has always been to devolve as much decision making as possible to as local a scale as possible.
Thus we are seeing national Transition hubs emerging in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and other places beyond, as well as regional hubs such as in Cornwall and the South East, and urban hubs such as in Bristol and Brighton. We are running ‘Training the Trainer’ sessions so that the delivery of Transition Training can be devolved to more local levels. We will be rolling out Transition Talk Training around the UK so that there is an army of people around the country who can give talks on the subject. Following the recent Transition Strategy Day in Bristol we are looking at a diversity of models that could be adopted for this, so that the Network itself becomes much more self-organising and owned and driven by the projects themselves. This process is underway and dynamic.
The recent Transition Strategy day was far from exclusive, indeed we invited over 1000 people from the Transition Network’s database from active projects around the UK, and in the event a couple of people turned up who were actually quite hostile towards Transition, and aren’t even active within a Transition group. Hardly the approach of an exclusive top-down organisation. Transition has grown so rapidly that it has been a huge challenge to design a suitable structure for it while retaining the integrity of what it actually means, and this is an evolving process, but it is driven by the principle of maximising devolution where possible.
The Dangers of Being Co-opted
The booklet questions the wisdom of having contacts with local government as the dangers of being co-opted and becoming greenwash are too high, as (the authors argue although some may disagree) was the fate suffered by previous initiatives such as Local Agenda 21. What I think the authors miss is the fact that we are living in very different times now. The experience of Transition Forest of Dean is fascinating here. Their Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) failed to take peak oil and climate change into account, and, they felt, hadn’t consulted the community sufficiently, so they put in a separate expression of interest. The South West Regional Development Agency came back and said they would only consider one application from the area, so the two groups would need to work together.
This is now happening, with the head of the Council stating recently that Transition needs to be better reflected in the LSP. The fact that the thinking and the solutions that Transition initiatives are coming up with to problems that local authorities are only just starting to become aware of means that there is the potential for far more dynamic and productive relationships than previously, a realisation of much more engaged democracy.
The authors’ assertion that “focusing on individual actions negates the importance of structural change and working on the way we do things collectively” isjust not borne out by the reality of Transition projects on the ground. Transition does not just focus on individual actions, rather it creates a new and vigorous dynamic through which people can re-engage meaningfully in politics.
The Totnes Pound for example, is based on a deep understanding of and critique of globalisation, growth-based economics, the debt-based money system, but rather than theorising and criticising, it is an initiative which is about starting to put in place community-scale initiatives and responses. We feel that at this moment, practical, tangible and replicable projects that put in place resilient, post-oil infrastructure, are more important. Just because one’s responses to global problems are focused on the local scale, doesn’t mean they are not based on an understanding of the need for global change, rather they are based on a belief that that is one of the levels that we need to be working at.
I see that the danger for Transition Network, rather than its being co-opted, is the danger of its failing to demonstrate meaningful change, meaningful in terms of its influence on the political system, reduced carbon and increased resillence. These are the criteria against which, in the longer term, Transition should be judged.
Missing the Point.
One of the things the Transition approach does is to catalyse people around the things that they are already passionate about. The authors fail to appreciate the power that this can have. I have seen time and time again in school halls and meeting rooms up and down the country the amazing dynamic that a positive vision of life after oil can unleash.
The degree to which the authors miss the point about what Transition actually is is summed up in their closing section;
“A sure fire way of creating a movement with little impact or potential to be co-opted is to ignore the bigger challenges, what we are trying to transition away from, and to think that it will all be easy and can be left to others to do it for us. This just gets people’s hopes up, and blinds us to the tasks at hand”.
I wonder if anyone reading this who is actively involved in a Transition initiative can identify with this? It certainly doesn’t resonate with me. Just because one isn’t directly confronting the forces of capitalism and corporate power doesn’t mean that one is ignoring the bigger challenges and debates or is being any less effective for it. I don’t know anyone in this movement who “think(s) that it will all be easy and can be left to others to do it for us”. To repeat, Transition is, in essence, a different approach, and may turn out to be the more effective one, only time will tell. It is complementary to more activist approaches, but its rapid spread and the viral nature of the growth in interest in it is due, in part, to its more accessible and engaging approach.
In conclusion, “Rocky Road” is to be welcomed as a coherent and well-meaning critique of the Transition movement. It offers a detailed insight to how the radical left view the movement. However, ultimately its main success is in helping to highlight how, in spite of being motivated by many of the same concerns, the Transition movement and the activist protest movement are, ultimately, distinctly different approaches. In essence the report is the radical activist Left criticising Transition for not being sufficiently like the radical activist Left. I would argue that as distinctly different approaches they are both far stronger for standing on their own ground and by each doing what it does best.
*With thanks to Sharon Astyk for this quote…
I think that Paul and Alice haven't appreciated the scale of the climate and peak oil crisis we are facing, for example they cite the IPPC but this has been shown to be a conservative assessment of the situation -- things are far worse than this, take some time to listen to the interviews with the Climate Code Red authors and read their book:
Climate Code Red: the Case for a Sustainability Emergency
However I also agree with much of what Paul and Alice have written and it's not a dual crisis of climate change and fossil fuel depletion we are facing and it's not even a triple crisis of "Climate Change, Peak Oil, Global Resource Depletion & Extinction" -- there is some great audio and video on the "Triple Crisis" from last December here:
IFG Teach-In: Confronting the Global "Triple Crisis" "Climate Change, Peak Oil, Global Resource Depletion & Extinction"
(Held September 14-16, 2007, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.)
In fact I think Nafeez Ahmed's assessment is more accurate -- it's a "Civilizational Crisis" -- there is also the global economic collapse and the imperial genocide -- the "War on Terror" and the slaughter of over a million in Iraq -- see his Hidden Holocaust lecture and articles:
Nafeez Ahmed: The Hidden Holocaust - Our Civilizational Crisis
However I think that the Transition Towns initiative is clearly part of the solution and not part of the problem and should be encouraged...
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