'Any sound ecological perspective rests in great part on our social perspectives and interrelationships; hence to draw up an ecological agenda that has no room for social concerns is as obtuse as to draw up a social agenda that has no room for ecological concerns' -- Murray Bookchin
'We always knew that local government would play a crucial role in Transition Initiatives in the UK and Ireland. And over the recent months, we're seeing that role emerge from both the existing transitioning communities and from new communities in the earliest stages of contact with us.' -- Transition Towns primer
'Even as we place strict local environmental limits on noise and air pollution and ensure that aviation pays its carbon costs, we have to respond to a clear business imperative and increase capacity at our airports ... our prosperity depends on it. And this week we demonstrated our determination not to shirk the long-term decisions, but to press ahead with a third runway [at Heathrow].' -- Gordon Brown, speech to CBI, 2007
The first transition town was established in Kinsale, Ireland, when students working under permaculturist Rob Hopkins developed an energy reduction plan for the town, which was then officially adopted.
Totnes, in Devon, then followed the example of Kinsale. Totnes went a step further and introduced the Totnes pound to help circulate money within the local economy.
A group of Welsh towns plan to introduce there own local currency, Lewes in Sussex has already introduced the Lewes pound.
The introduction of the Lewes pound did not quite go to plan. Quickly snapped up by collectors, Lewes pounds were being offered on eBay for £40. It would appear currency speculators are not restricted to the City of London or Wall Street. The Lewes pound is also to be an accepted currency in national chains in Lewes, not just local shops, which somewhat misses the point of a local currency, but that is what happens when a movement allows itself to be co-opted by the local council.
Many other towns have since joined including Canterbury, Falmouth, Lostwithiel, Brighton, Chepstow.
Even the Archers, has introduced transitions towns as a story line, Transition Ambridge.
Reduction in energy use, localisation, local currencies, locally grown food, community gardens, cycling, reduction in waste. So far so good, surely an example of sustainable living, why therefore the criticism, the most recent from SchNEWS? [see Lost in Transition]
- highly prescriptive
- refusal to criticise existing power structures
- refusal to oppose social and environmental injustice
SchNEWS ably describe the process, then adds in a word of caution:
'To start the process of your whole town, or city, being designated a ‘TT’, all that is needed is a small group of well-meaning committed do-gooders, usually PR friendly middle-class types, to form a Transition Group. This group then works on publicising themselves, arranging film showings, printing leaflets and networking.'
'Once momentum has been sufficiently built, the group can then hold a great ‘public unleashing’ where the plan goes ‘live’. As well as a wave of talks, trades and skills workshops and green-inspired local projects such as tree planting and small permaculture schemes, the main plank of the plan involves gradually formulating a Local Energy Descent Plan’ (LEDP), to map out how the local community might one day become more self sufficient, less oil dependent and much greener. If enough local businesses, people and councillors go along with it, or palatable parts of it, the town can officially adopt the mantle of a ‘Transition Town’ and brand itself accordingly.'
'Measures suggested include the laudable aims of reducing the reliance on multinational corporations for food and goods production, improving energy use and efficiency, increasing recycling, reducing car dependency and a host of other lefty-green objectives. It’s a ‘big tent’ which allows it to scoop up the efforts of a range of social change groups under one large banner.'
'So what’s the problem? Whilst it’s hard to be too disparaging – these are all people with the best intentions, attempting to actually take some sort of action as opposed to sitting idly by and waiting for the big collapse - and some change for the good is obviously better than none, there are some flaws in the thinking.'
The process is highly prescriptive, to which you have to sign up to if you wish to be recognised as an 'official' transition town. Shades of SWP or the fundamentalist Christian Alpha Course. The propaganda and handbooks reads too much like that for Alpha. The close comparisons with Alpha continue, you are required to go on a transition town training course.
It is mandatory that not only you work with your local council, but that you have a positive relationship with them. Most people will shudder at the thought of embracing their corrupt council. On the other hand, if local councillors wish for a change to work with their local communities instead of getting into bed with big business and property speculators, then it would be a welcome and positive move.
A few examples will suffice to make the point.
At Upton Park, Queen's market, a century old market, one of the few remaining traditional East End markets. Various reports have highlighted its social, economic and environmental importance. Low cost entry for new businesses, recycling of money within the local economy. The availability and dietary importance of cheap produce within a deprived area can not be understated. If Queen's Market did not exist, there would be very good grounds for creating it. The local mayor wishes to see it destroyed and replaced by a superstore.
At Walthamstow, the local council is trying to push through a tower block with yuppie flats cum leisure cum retail, that will destroy the street scene of Victorian houses, destroy the local culture and destroy a thriving street market.
St Modwen, the company behind both these developments, has trashed Farnborough town centre and is wishing to destroy the seafront at Bognor Regis. In all cases backed by the local council.
St Modwen is also behind one of the planned eco-towns. Eco-towns will lead to more car use, destruction of green fields and pristine countryside. Sustainable development they are not. It takes a quarter of the carbon, or less, to renovate existing properties and keep communities together, than it does for new build. [see Sustainable living]
Local Agenda 21, launched over two decades ago, was supposed to bring about sustainable development at the local level. What has actually happened? If were are lucky, a well-meaning person absorbed into the local government structure, sidelined and afraid to say a word, in the meantime business as usual, town centres trashed, communities destroyed and developers laughing all the way to the bank. Maybe the budget stretches to organising a green event, with carefully selected groups invited to attend, no one too radical mind. Chat with McD to sponsor the event! Does LA21 stretch to being the measure of any local development for sustainability, of course not. Or in other words, LA21 has been neutered into little more than an exercise in greenwash.
The quickest, simplest, most cost effective way to neutralise your critics is to get them to come and work for you.
If we are to deal with climate change, as transition towns say they wish, then they have to recognise that carbon deposits have only one place, that is in the ground, and if they are to remain in the ground, then transition towns have to be prepared to tackle head on the corporate and political structures that are determined to wrench them out of the ground. To do anything less, is not merely sitting on the fence, it is pissing in the wind.
If we wish to make carbon history, we have to be willing to challenge today's power structures, not allow ourselves to be co-opted by them.
If we are to move forward, we have to have genuine participatory democracy, where local communities determine there own future.
Those who are best placed to determine what happens in their locality, their community, are those who live there, which is why they are excluded from the decision making process.
The government intends to streamline the planning system, ie make it easier to railroad through major projects, eg coal-fired power stations, next generation of nuclear power stations, airport expansion.
TAG Aviation, having been given the green light earlier this year to double weekend and bank holiday flights, are now gung-ho about massive airport expansion at Farnborough Airport.
This morning, the government gave the go-ahead for a massive expansion in passenger numbers at Stansted, up by a whopping ten million, from 25 million to 35 million. Good for business was the view of the government. CO2 emissions? This will be solved by carbon trading. Conveniently ignoring that aviation is not included in carbon trading, and even if it was it does not work.
Carbon trading was introduced not even as greenwash, but to give yet another market for City of London traders and commodity speculators. And if the market fails, no worries as the government can be relied on to ride to the rescue with a multi-billion pound bailout package.
Transition towns are not sustainable development, but they are one small step in the right direction.
There are also dissenting voices, which are not adhering to the prescriptive path emanating from Totnes. One such dissenting transition town is Canterbury. They are questioning how we move forward.
See for example the reflections of Steph on political policing following the visit to the Climate Change Camp on her doorstep at Kingsnorth. A well reasoned reflection on the use of police to safeguard the status quo. It always comes as a shock to encounter this for the first time, seeing as they say is believing.
Gaviotas in Colombia was established as an experiment in sustainable living by a group of visionaries. They were the first to recognise that sustainable development also involves people, without addressing both social and environmental injustice, there is no sustainable development. They also recognised that what was needed was a Gaian approach, that what works at Gaviotas may not work elsewhere, that it is for each community to develop its own path of sustainable development.
The bastards aren't in power because we put them there, the bastards are in power because good people choose to do nothing.
If transition towns raise awareness and radicalise local communities, then it is worthwhile. If not, then it is fiddling whilst the planet burns.
If the average temperature increases by two degrees, that is in itself bad enough, but there is a very real possibility of thermal runaway, where positive feedback loops click in, and the system flips to another stable state at much higher temperature. As the ice caps melt, heat is absorbed not reflected, as the tundra melts, methane is released, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, as the seas warm, they release carbon not absorb carbon, as the seas warm and become more acidic, coral dies and we no longer have carbon locked down into limestone reefs, as the sea becomes more acidic, the coral begins to dissolve. We have maybe a hundred months.
When transistors were first developed, they were of germanium, then silicon. Germanium transistors suffered from thermal runaway. If the temperature increased, the gain increased, if the gain increased, the current increased, if the current increased, the device got hotter. Within a fraction of a section the device would melt.
Precipitation falls at high altitude as snow. The snow compresses into ice, glaciers form and slowly move down the mountainside. In the spring, the glaciers start to melt, life giving melt water flows in mountain streams to settlements below. As the climate warms, the precipitation falls as rain. Floods sweep soil, rocks, boulders, crops, settlements down the mountainside.
As the climate warms, the earth will flip to another stable state which may be hundreds of degrees above present temperature levels. We only have to look to nearby planets. The moon has no feedback mechanisms, the dark side is subzero, the light side extremely hot. The only temperate zone is the twilight zone. We can observe that the earth's Gaian mechanisms are at their extreme limits from the wild swings in weather patterns.
Gaian feedback loops control the planet within very narrow tolerances. These conditions are just right for life on earth. It is life on earth that provides the control mechanisms.
The danger transition towns pose is that they allow local councils to wrap themselves in a green cloak of respectability and continue business as usual. Even if those involved with transition towns see through this fraud, that they have been duped, their signed up to agenda bars them from having anything other than a positive relationship with their local council.
reference and further reading
Stephen Bates, Rebellious town of Tom Paine and bonfire revels prints own banknotes, The Guardian, 10 September 2008
John Bingham, Town launches its own currency as rival to the pound, Telegraph, 9 September 2008
Ben Brangwyn and Rob Hopkins, Transition Initiatives Primer, undated
Lester R Brown, Plan B 2.0, Norton, 2006
Paul Chatterton and Alice Cutler, Rocky Road, Trapese Collective, April 2008
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, 2005
Kate Evans, Funny Weather, Myriad Editions, 2006
Internet buyers snap up currency, BBC news on-line, 15 September 2008
Felicity Lawrence, Pioneering Welsh town begins the transition to a life without oil, The Guardian, 7 April 2007
Lost in Transition, SchNEWS, 26 September 2008
Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996
Susan Meeker-Lowry, Community Money [in Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996]
Helena Norberg-Hodge, Shifting Direction: From Global Dependence to Local Interdepedence [in Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996]
Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: The social, ecological and economic benefits of local food, International Society for Ecology and Culture, October 2000
Keith Parkins, Natural Capitalism, October 2000
Keith Parkins, Localisation: A Move Away From Globalisation, November 2000
Keith Parkins, Soft energy paths, May 2001
Keith Parkins, Brittle power, October 2003
Keith Parkins, A sense of the masses - a manifesto for the new revolution, October 2003
Keith Parkins, Curitiba – Designing a sustainable city, April 2006
Keith Parkins, Do we need industrial agriculture?, Indymedia UK, 19 February 2007
Keith Parkins, Waste, recycling and packaging, Indymedia UK, 8 September 2008
Keith Parkins, Fuel poverty, Indymedia UK, 15 September 2008
Keith Parkins, Energy gap, Indymedia UK, 17 September 2008
Keith Parkins, Beyond sustainability, to be published
Keith Parkins, Gaviotas, to be published
Keith Parkins, Sustainable living, to be published
Kirkpatrick Sale, The Principles of Bioregionalism [in Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996]
Rob Sharp, They don't just shop local in Totnes - they have their very own currency, The Independent, 1 May 2008
Michael H Shuman, Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age, The Free Press, 1990
Towns banking their own currency, BBC news on-line, 2 April 2008
UK needs ‘Green New Deal’ to tackle ‘triple crunch’ of credit, oil price and climate crises, New Economics Foundation, 21 July 2008
Alan Weisman, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, Chelsea Green, 1998
LOST IN TRANSITION
SCHNEWS FAILS TO UNDERSTAND THE LANGUAGE OF CLIMATE GROUP
As global capitalism and its failing markets threaten to fall around our ears, it must be worth imagining what a different way of doing things might look like. And working towards it.
That’s what the Transition Towns (TT) supporters want to do. TT's are a 'think global act local' strategy for fighting climate change first put forward by an permaculture academic, Rob Hopkins, in 2005/6 in Kinsale, Ireland. It was first exported to the UK in Totnes, Devon - and converts have been eagerly promoting the idea ever since.
And the message seems to be getting through. In the past couple of years the concept (and the leafleting) has been spreading around the country, nay, the world, with over a 100 communities signed up from all over the UK as well as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, the US and most recently, Japan.
The movement has also been hitting the headlines here in the UK recently, with just the other week a small town a few miles down the road from SchNEWS towers, Lewes, proudly launching it’s own currency to much media fanfare.
With such an emergent new force for social change, you’d think we might have mentioned it in SchNEWS before – it’s obviously long overdue for us to put the boot in, er we mean, provide an unbiased and dispassionate rational analysis of the whole shebang.
So what’s the big idea? Transition Towns (TT) make a good case for the need to change. They recognise the pressing threats of climate change and peak oil (OK, well, the end of super-abundant cheap oil we can agree on, at least - see SchNEWS 644). This means that the globalised, air-mile, oil-driven nonsense needs to stop and more locally based, lower carbon living solutions are needed. The question is, how are we going to get there? But they are not calling for major reform or revolution – the clue is in the name, folks! - they are looking for an ordered gradual switch over – a transition. The way they propose this should come about is a somewhat tortuous affair, with the resultant danger that the eco-system or global economic system (or both) may collapse in the meantime.
To start the process of your whole town, or city, being designated a ‘TT’, all that is needed is a small group of well-meaning committed do-gooders, usually PR friendly middle-class types, to form a Transition Group. This group then works on publicising themselves, arranging film showings, printing leaflets and networking.
Once momentum has been sufficiently built, the group can then hold a great ‘public unleashing’ where the plan goes ‘live’. As well as a wave of talks, trades and skills workshops and green-inspired local projects such as tree planting and small permaculture schemes, the main plank of the plan involves gradually formulating a Local Energy Descent Plan’ (LEDP), to map out how the local community might one day become more self sufficient, less oil dependant and much greener. If enough local businesses, people and councillors go along with it, or palatable parts of it, the town can officially adopt the mantle of a ‘Transition Town’ and brand itself accordingly.
Measures suggested include the laudable aims of reducing the reliance on multinational corporations for food and goods production, improving energy use and efficiency, increasing recycling, reducing car dependency and a host of other lefty-green objectives. It’s a ‘big tent’ which allows it to scoop up the efforts of a range of social change groups under one large banner.
So what’s the problem? Whilst it’s hard to be too disparaging – these are all people with the best intentions, attempting to actually take some sort of action as opposed to sitting idly by and waiting for the big collapse - and some change for the good is obviously better than none, there are some flaws in the thinking.
Firstly, TT acknowledge that they have no desire to do away with all the trappings of capitalist society – merely reduce local dependence on it, gradually. They avoid taking on the political roots of all the problems and concentrate on symptoms. A key aim is to get the local council on board. Which many have been surprisingly willing to do...up to a point. Local government itself is charged by central government with working out how to roll out various greenish initiatives, such as to minimise energy needs and increase recycling levels for example, and the LEDP overlaps to some degree with many of their own blueprints for the future – as long as it’s controlled and the results leave the status quo as little changed as possible, with power flowing upwards, private money still in charge of all those recycling facilities and a capitalistic model still underpinning the local economy.
So the council can now use the TT brand wagon to increase uptake of these plans on a wave of public enthusiasm, whilst simultaneously seeming uber green and championing the local over the national. Put this way, its easy to see why many a town hall bigwig are talking up the scheme.
Which explains why Lewes council are so behind the latest big venture in the TT vision of the future – launching local currencies. As people previously used to get hanged for such impertinence as starting yer own money, there must be a catch. And there is.
The Lewes Pound (LP) was unveiled last week with a windfall of media coverage. As global financial markets have been taking a beating, perhaps this was a model for the brave new world? Er, not really. Because it isn’t actually a currency at all. It’s actually an ingenious scheme using existing book token legislation. It involves effectively buying a certain amount of sterling (in Lewes’ case, £10,000) and then issuing vouchers to the equivalent value, accepted in local shops signing up the scheme.
Which many local shops in Lewes were of course only too happy to do – a welcome free boost to trade as consumers voluntarily pledge to spend their cash with them. Who wouldn’t?
The idea is that the LP will increase interest in spending more cash locally, which in theory keeps more of the profit generated circulating locally, as opposed to being syphoned out of the community and into the pockets of global institutions (like Tesco, for example) and their shareholders.
Which is great, surely. Well yes, except that the vouchers are redeemable back into cash any time you, or a business-owner wishes - presumably for going shopping at Tesco or making more import deals with third-world tat suppliers.
And one of the stated aims of the year long test project is to get national chains accepting them – which seems a rather strange measure of success and contradicts the whole stated purpose.
Money already spent in local shops will continue circulating with little effect on the outside world. While OK for PR and raising public awareness of the explotation by global corporations, it's not achieving more than affecting a few better-off people’s spending habits.
In any event, in Lewes, the big launch has not really gone as planned. Whilst there was massive interest and local flag-waving parochial support for the LP, the well-meaning urging of the TT organisers to keep circulating the vouchers and not change them back into cash has not exactly been heeded.
All the LP notes ‘sold out’ in hours... only to be hoarded and swiftly offered on Ebay for up to £40 for one Lewes Pound as the local populace immediately capitalised on the opportunity to indulge in some rampant currency speculation!
They reasoned that as there is a limited supply of individually numbered LP’s, they will in the future be highly collectable - and there have been no shortage of over-the-odds buyers, leaving the whole scheme looking somewhat farcical.
The TT group – having considered but eventually rejected the idea of selling LPs itself for £10 each in order to lesson the black marketeering, have now pledged to print up some more stock - although whether they’ll ever be able to afford to devalue the LP enough to out-bankroll the speculators remains to be seen!
As does the overall effect of the Transition Towns movement itself. Whilst we broadly support many of its stated objectives, we cannot see how failing to plan for the much more radical reform of society needs will really work. Attempting to push the existing power structures into implementing some of the required measures will only ever lead to partial change and speaks mainly to people who want things more or less as they are, only slightly greener.
...But we could be wrong! To judge for yourself (and don’t let us put you off working for more localisation and all things green!)
* The Trapese collective’s in depth critique of the Transition Movement is available at www.sparror.cubecinema.com/stuffit/trapese