Making the transition

IssueSeptember 2008
Feature by Kelvin Mason

I’ve been to the last two camps for climate action, and both were transformative experiences. At Drax in North Yorkshire in 2006, the sense of building a politically, socially, technologically, environmentally and educationally viable community in and for a week shifted my whole gut-feeling about the difficulty of changing society: it can be done, it can be fun, and it’s immensely fulfilling to be part of. Instead of policing our society, we had the irresistible Tranquillity Team in pink cowboy hats; we held workshops on everything from building compost toilets through climate change to citizenship; we generated our own renewable energy, met our own needs…

Although we managed an even greater level of sufficiency, Heathrow in 2007 had a different feel: intense police and media scrutiny; a bigger camp and a more diverse community… For me, the revelation this time was how effectively participatory democracy could work. In the face of extreme external pressures and much internal debate, we made consensus decisions that we all felt part of and – as far as I know – no-one had to walk away from. We made decisions in the main camp with hundreds of people and we made them as small groups trapped in police “kettles” when we were on actions. On one occasion, a camp decision went against the view I supported. I left the meeting tent not feeling thwarted or angry, but euphoric: democracy was more than me; better than me.

Transition Towns

It was a tough decision not to go the climate camp at Kingsnorth. But, feeling burned-out and with home life suffering, Lotte and I made the decision to stay put and act locally this year. Particularly with Ffos-Y-Frân open-cast coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil being near enough to qualify as local, we haven’t been idle! Apart from blocking bulldozers, we’ve also put a lot of energy into the embryonic Aberystwyth Transition Town Initiative. As in many towns, some people in Aberystwyth are concerned enough about peak oil and climate change to want to do something about it themselves, as citizens, from the grassroots. This is a fair indication that we’re not happy with the response of government or business.

Working with Transition Aberystwyth is tough, tougher in a way than standing one’s ground against a giant oncoming member of the Caterpillar family or escaping a police kettle. Transition calls for a different set of virtues: patience, tolerance, perseverance… Above all perseverance. Transition isn’t glamorous or romantic, it’s a slog – more Sisyphus than Achilles: (re)forming community, building capacity to engage with lack of awareness, apathy, complacency, fear, hostility, bureaucracy, inertia…

Transition brings together not a dedicated cadre of activists with a mission that is well defined and limited in space and time. Rather Transition assembles a disparate collection of individuals, many of whom are desperately seeking direction; taking the first tentative steps on the un-signposted road less travelled to the indistinct and distant possibility of some greener future.

No politics?

In a recent booklet, The Rocky Road to a Real Transition, Paul Chatterton and Alice Cutler of the popular education collective, Trapese, criticised the Transition movement for its lack of politics, its failure to address the need for structural change in bringing about a greener future.

In brief, and inevitably doing an injustice to a detailed critique, Transition was not confronting capitalism and the state but seeking cultural and economic reform; the movement was leaving itself open to cooption and thus planting the seeds of its own demise: “How can we talk about climate change and peak oil and not deal with politics or side with communities struggling against the expansion of the fossil fuel infrastructure?”

The permaculturist founder of the Transition Movement, Rob Hopkins, responded by identifying Transition as a distinctly different – but complementary – approach to that of the ‘radical left’. Rob contested that these different approaches were “far stronger for standing on their own ground and by each doing what it does best.”

A new politics

In all modesty, I beg to differ with both Rob and, first, Trapese. As I know Paul and Alice know, rebuilding community is not, nor should it be, synonymous with ideological indoctrination. Indeed, Paul has written an article whose self-explanatory title – Give up Activism and Change the World in Unknown Ways: Or, Learning to Walk with Others on Uncommon Ground – challenges us to be open and responsive. Each Transition Initiative can, I believe, develop its own local politics out of the economic and cultural actions it takes and, most significantly perhaps, those it is somehow prevented from taking.

An inspiring outcome of the exchange between Trapese and Rob Hopkins was the blog response (…) on the Transition culture website from people refusing to be categorised as either apolitical or isolated from a wider environmental movement.

If the problems Transition sets out to address are peak oil and climate change, an emerging local politics will surely be imbued with a global sense of responsibility, a cosmopolitan environmental citizenship if you will. On a cautionary note, if the Transition movement concentrates on peak oil because it’s easier to frame in terms of people’s self-interest, then this global sense of responsibility may not manifest.

How many out there?

Turning to Rob Hopkins, I believe he’s wrong about the approaches being stronger for being isolated from each other. There’s the issue of scale, for a start. In April 2008 Trapese reported “there are currently 35 towns and cities who are officially part of the transition network, and more than 600 are considering joining in the UK alone.” But what does being a transition town mean; how many people are involved?

In Aberystwyth, we have signed up some 100 people to an email list and have a bare handful of proactive members. This from a town with around 25,000 residents. In Totnes, Rob Hopkins’ home, the UK’s first Transition Town and hub of the Transition movement, the official unleashing event for the initiative attracted 350 people from a population of some 8,500.

The simple point is that citing numerous towns as being in Transition can belie the modest number of people involved. Meanwhile, there were only around 500 people at the Drax climate camp and some 1,200 at Heathrow. Writing in the lead up to Kingsnorth, Joss Garman ponders why, from a Greenpeace membership of 175,000, an Ecologist readership of ‘tens of thousands’, and the 70,000 people in London who voted Green in the mayoral elections, climate camp 2008 will probably only attract some 1,500 people. So, surely a strong environmental movement requires solidarity not isolation?

Transition campers

Two examples make clear how the Transition movement could gain from constructive engagement with climate camp activists. First, there are people from Transition communities who have been to climate camp and who have the experience of organising and building a socially, technologically, environmentally, and educationally viable community from scratch. We need to share such skills.

Second, Transition Aberystwyth has already come up against obstacles, such as bureaucratic inertia, that current “transition culture” will be hard pressed to shift. Frustrated in our attempt to contribute to the Local Authority’s “Masterplan” implementation process for the town, one of our steering group wrote: “We are beginning to see where the nice transition process meets its concrete boundaries.”

Transition needs to harness the creativity of climate camps, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, the Great Rebel Raft Regatta and so on. Such actions are also expressions of the “collective genius” Transition seeks to unleash. Rob Hopkins believes we need new tools for a new environmental movement. Well, many of the people involved in climate camp have already moved beyond old tools such as campaigning, protesting and lobbying. Their actions are likely to be performances, celebrations and invitations, tactics that could shift or circumvent local obstacles without creating enmity or division.

So, when you “political” activists come home from this year’s climate camp, please seek out local Transition initiatives and bring to them your inspiration and experience. What’s in it for you? Here’s your chance to construct climate camp every day, to make it the carbon neutral, consensual and creative community in which you live your life! Here are the people who will help you and be helped by you, and together you are stronger.

At the same time, let Transition initiatives seek out and welcome home the climate campers. All societies have their warriors, farmers, artisans, artists and groups of every sort. Being open to and welcoming diversity is what makes a society responsive and resilient. Similarly, the environmental movement needs us all working together. As seasoned environmentalist Starhawk said of the two approaches at a recent Transition town meeting in Wales: “If people see them as linked then we have great ways in which to act!”