Transition Towns: A Response

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Feature by Rob Hopkins

It has been intriguing in recent weeks to follow the various, and largely more coherent, debates and discussions that have emerged in the wake of the Climate Camp, and also as the discussions about Transition that the Trapese Collective’s “Rocky Road” document stimulated have rumbled on. A recent piece from Peace News by Kelvin Mason entitled “When Climate Camp Comes Home”, drew on his reflections as an activist who attended previous Climate Camps and also as someone with an involvement in Transition Aberystwth, raising many of the issues that various other critiques have also explored.

Mason quotes me, from my review of what he calls Trapese’s “detailed critique” (although it is to be remembered that the document was written without either reading The Transition Handbook, or talking to anyone involved), as saying that Transition initiatives and the radical deep green left are “far stronger for standing on their own ground and by each doing what it does best.”

He interprets this as being me saying that “the approaches begin stronger for being isolated from each other”. This is a misinterpretation of what I said. I never spoke of isolation.

A way forward

Let’s start from the beginning. I don’t believe for a moment that we will navigate a way through peak oil, climate change and the end of economic growth unless we use the positive solutions and proactive responses which engage people in the possibilities inherent within creative responses that give them a sense that they are making history, and also do nonviolent direct action when it comes to stopping the more insane responses the situation generates from government, ie coal, nuclear and airport expansion. That much is clear.

I also don’t believe that government and other institutions will vanish overnight; we need proactive responses wherever we can get them from, from international agreements to national policy to a regeneration of regional politics and engaged and dynamic local communities. I don’t believe that any one of these things on their own will do it.

As Monbiot argues, there are elements of the process of radical decarbonisation that we simply can’t do at a community level, such as reforms of public transport infrastructure and stringent carbon emissions agreements.

At the same time, there is a great deal that can only be done at the local level in terms of the redesign of neighbourhoods, the creation of community gardens, the spectrum of activities we can already see Transition groups engaged in.

National and local change

Something like carbon rationing can only come from government, but Transition initiatives can develop a momentum for it locally, an identification of it as one of the key strategies required in order for their local transition to be possible.

That’s one of the reasons why Transition Network is increasingly finding itself invited to work with local authorities, large organisations and businesses, and why the fact that The Transition Handbook was the tenth most popular book MPs took on holiday with them this summer is so exciting.

Trapese pour scorn on this, arguing that such institutions will never change and are inherently flawed, but I would respond that such institutions will have to change, and at present they have no idea what to do.

This is why Somerset County Council’s recent decision to become a Transition Council is so interesting, as it recognises that it is the communities themselves that are doing this, and that their role as a council is to support that.

What I question strongly in Mason’s piece, and in the Trapese document, is the explicitly bringing together of the confrontational activism and the positive, solutions-focused approach emerging so vigorously through Transition initiatives.

Mason writes “surely a strong environmental movement requires solidarity not isolation?” Absolutely, but two friends can be close friends without sharing a flat or going everywhere together… and indeed they are stronger and more effective as people as a result.

Hence my writing in my review of “Rocky Road” that: “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”.

My point is that both approaches are more skilful for standing on their own distinctive ground, being skilful about what they make implicit and what they make explicit, as well as reaching out far, far beyond the usual suspects.

For me, alot of my disagreements Trapese and Mason’s arguments comes down to language and perception. I learnt a great deal about this the hard way, trying to develop an ecovillage project in deep rural West Cork.

I remember holding a public meeting to announce the project we were clearly very excited about, having put a great deal of time, organisation and research into it, telling sceptical locals that we were going to build low-energy ecological buildings and grow organic food, only to be met by folded arms, suspicious looks and “What’s wrong with my house? What’s wrong with my farm?” I had never encountered this before, and it took me very much by surprise. We were out of step, somewhat arrogant and completely oblivious to the fact.

However, I would argue that those of us who are happy at a Climate Camp (which I wholeheartedly support by the way), and who assume it offers a replicable model for the rest of society, are being very naive in assuming that this model, because it is “right”, will convince everyone else that there is a better way to do things.

Reaching the mainstream

In the protest movements, we take up a position outside of mainstream culture, use language, dress codes, behaviour and forms of protest which at best bewilder and at worst enrage mainstream society, yet we expect them to see the error of their ways and the validity of ours and embark on a radical decarbonisation.

What failed to come through in Mason’s piece, and in the Trapese piece, was any sense of humility, any sense that the answers might be found anywhere other than in their fondly-held beliefs.

On the other hand, I agree very much with Mason when he writes: “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….”

I would also add that it also requires compassion, humility and an absence of expectation that we are going to be welcomed as heroes, or even welcomed at all. We have to go to people where they are at, rather than expecting them to come to us just because we’ve been to Climate Camp.

If we are to be successful, we need people to be more than just informed and angry about the issues, we need people to be hungry for a low-carbon future they can see in their minds-eye, and which keeps them awake at night with the thrill of its possibilities.