Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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14 Dec 2007

Ted Trainer’s Q&A Part Three.

qa**5. How conscious are people that what they are doing is extremely subversive…that to make a town sustainable and just is to more or less eliminate the normal economy, by taking control of their fate and preventing market forces and the corporations from determining it for you. Is there a sense that what they are about is taking collective control of their town?**

It is my sense that the “extremely subversive” nature of the Transition approach is implicit rather than explicit. Permaculture teacher Mike Feingold once described permaculture as “a revolution disguised as organic gardening”, and the Transition model is designed similarly to come in under the radar. It is my sense that the tools the environmental movement has had thus far (campaigning, lobbying, protesting)are insufficient for the job in hand, that of navigating a society through energy descent.

I think that some of the new tools we will be utilizing include a drawing together of a diversity of individuals and organizations that we have never seen before, akin to the much-used term “a wartime mobilization”. Part of achieving this, it seems to me, is to make the process as unthreatening as possible, and to skillfully seek to put in place more democratic, low energy and localized infrastructure in such a way that it is perceived as positive, fun and unthreatening. The traditional activist dynamic of seeking someone to blame is completely inappropriate in this context. That concept of “coming in under the radar” is central to this question.

8. Is there emphasis on voluntary community working bees…which can perform miracles quickly and I think must be central in building and running the new communities and economies.


9. **Are commons being developed, especially edible landscapes on public land…free fruit and nuts etc…built and maintained by the working bees. (The community gardens here are almost entirely private plots worked for hobby purposes only.)**

I often argue that the kind of purposefully useless landscapes that now dominate our urban landscapes (lawn, low maintenance ground cover shrubs, ornamental trees) are a strange luxury of a world with more oil than sense, and that rethinking our urban areas as productive spaces will be one of the key tasks of the coming years. In Totnes we have been approaching this question in various ways.

Firstly we have been involved in the campaigning for the local Council to provide more allotment space for gardeners. Secondly, the ‘Totnes, the Nut Tree Capital of Britain’ project has involved members of the community ‘mapping’ the town in terms of public spaces where fruit and nut trees could be planted and then seeking community financial input into buying and planting the trees. The most recent tree planting day attracted people from the community to spend the day planting trees, and was supported by the TTT Tree Guardian Training, which trains local people to look after the trees they have planted.

Alongside the development of commons as fruit and nut growing spaces, we are also looking to identify sites for urban market gardens, whether they are run as commercial interests or as community-owned CSA projects. We feel that, as in Cuba, intensive urban market gardens have an important role to play in the Transition process. We have also initiated the TTT Garden Share project, which is about connecting older people with gardens they are no longer able to manage and younger people who want to garden but who have no land. People often bemoan (usually justifiably) the lack of access to land, but there is a lot of land around us that is underutilised, and the Garden Share scheme is about addressing that.

We have also made the catalysing of a CSA project in the town one of our main objectives for 2008, and are starting the process by organising a trip to see one of the UK’s finest, the Stroud CSA, early next year.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


14 Dec 2:02pm

How conscious are people that what they are doing is extremely subversive?

Hugely, although I try not to frighten people as some of the things that I believe will be necessary seem “extreme” from the current perspective, although they are logically inevitable from where we will probably be on 10, 15, 20 years time.

We are working to completely invert the existing economic structure and this will challenge the existing political, social and legal frameworks in which we operate. If we can lead by offering alternative examples and keep a head of the game, hopefully the disruption can be minimised.

There will be some sticking points; access to land be a major one that I antipicate; but I do not see the changes as being any more difficult than during the last war. it is just that very few of us experienced it.

Interesting at least one of our senior local politicians (Con) thinks that the only way to achieve what is needed to tackle climate change and peak oil is going to be community mobilisation. He recognises that, try as they may, that it is not going to be possible for the politicians to lead that.

Jane Buttigieg
14 Dec 2:39pm

I agree that we are totally conscious of the necessarily subversive nature of what we are doing. It was only in February of this year that I first found out about Peak Oil, and I kept questioning it on the grounds that if it were true, that surely world governments would be ‘doing something’. It’s taken me some time to get my head around why they are not. The only ‘something’ that can be done is to halt economic growth and therefore end current power structures by relocalizing just about everything we do. When those in power reach that conclusion they stick their heads back in the sand and hope that someone will find a mystery formula to replace oil, not to save humanity, but to save the ‘business as usual’ that is so detrimental to us all. I am under no illusion as to the radical nature of the transition movement. However, I do not predict that this will be a problem, as although our vision of a post oil future may seem a bit extreme at the moment, as the consequences of Peak Oil become more obvious to everyone, they will look to this movement, be glad of the foundations we have laid and join us. I don’t think that the transition movement will be just a fringe movement for any more than five years.

14 Dec 7:33pm

Subversive? Please. Solar-powered capitalism is still capitalism.

adrienne campbell
14 Dec 11:01pm

People have joined Transition Town Lewes for many different reasons, the least of which is to be subversive. But as we go along I think the implications of what we are doing, as well as the potential power of powering down dawns on us and inspires us to be more creative.

We’re all on a steep learning curve and one conversation leads to another. Being subversive hadn’t really occurred to me before you mentioned it, but I do like and use the idea from Relocalisation Network that we are creating a parallel public infrastructure.

pete rout
15 Dec 12:40pm

I am glad that this question has come up. Most politicians will not like the outcome of the Transition movement as they will lose their powers and the govt will lose its tax revenues. Housing could become a problem as people lose their incomes and can’t afford the mortgage or rent. There are many more issues of social security and services that this movement will have look at and come up with answers.
I have talked with people who agree with the peak oil movement and see that the Transition movement will be the best way forward, but they haven’t realised the extent of the changes needed.
Alternative energy sources such as solar are great at the moment but how much is their manufacture dependent on oil?

Rupert Read
16 Dec 5:57pm

Pete and others here are mistaken in thinking that Transition Towns alone can do the trick. There is I am afraid one critically important respect in which this bold hope could not possibly come true. It is this:
The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us, because, within the existing economic system, some communities reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by everyone else as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels. I.e. For every litre of petrol that (say) Totnes does not use, everyone else in Britain is very slightly incentivised to use more petrol, by the price not going up as much as it otherwise would.
Transition Towns alone can only function as demonstration projects. They show what is possible. That is a very important role. But in order for them to be part of a movement of movements that actually reduces overall use of fossil fuels, legislation is needed. Legislation that enforces lower overall use of fossil fuels (e.g. through carbon rationing), and/or that forces everyone to try to become a transition town.
That is why I strongly believe that both local action and political commitment are required. Unless we force political change, then Rob Hopkins’s vision of how why might make a transition to a saner future will remain a fantasy or a myth, rather than the reality we absolutely desperately need it to become.
In other words: something like the Green Party’s political programme needs to be brought in, complementarily to Transition Towns, in order for the eco-revolution that we all seek to take place.

Robert Morgan
17 Dec 9:18am

In reply to Rupert (and others):

I agree that Transition initiatives are, in the end, subversive. I also think that this does not really occur to most people who join them! Like most cultural changes, major political parties and decision makers will only take notice of them when a significant proportion (say 1-2%) of the population are actively involved at some level. Even at the current rate of growth, that is still a few years off.

Rupert is to a degree correct about fuel prices – every person who reduces use voluntarily reduces total demand for oil products, so slightly reduces the world price. Realistically, even if 1 million people in Britain eliminated their oil use entirely, the reduction in world oil prices (which depend on total WORLD demand), would be immeasurably small and make no difference to the oil use of others. The difference to UK demand would only show up as a slight reduction in balance of payments deficit – i.e. might make public spending cuts a bit less severe.

As for legislation, the sort Rupert proposes I think could only be brought in by a Green Party government, or if there were a severe crisis (e.g. Greenland ice breaking up, precipitous fall in oil production – these might happen by 2020). In the mid-1980’s I was briefly in the Green Party, which had just changed its name from the Ecology Party. That was the last time there was surge in environmental concern amongst the general public and basically they blew the chance to have real influence. I can’t see it being different now. In fact we’re now in the bizarre situation where the Conservatives are seen to be the greenest party!

So I conclude that the changes needed will only come from the bottom up through Transition and similar initiatives. Progress in many cities and deprived urban areas will be a struggle, but after a number of years of oil production decline more reluctant communities will be almost forced to adopt transition-like strategies in order to survive as our current lifestyle arrangements crumble.

Mark Donaldson
17 Dec 2:00pm

I think the transition towns movement needs to be as flexible as possible, and not to define itself as something that has to be subversive because the national or local government do not share or implement their low-carbon views. The political scene is changing very fast, and local government is also accelerating its role as a sustainable advisor and implementer for their communities. Different local authorities are at different stages and we should not wait for them to get to where they need to go, but we should recognise, support and coordinate with them where views and/or purpose is in common.

I think transition towns is creating something which we seem to have lost in our society, and that is a well coordinated third sector. If we are to create a sustainable society it will rely on the public, private and voluntary sectors realising each others strengths and weaknesses and the need to work together. Transition Towns should not seek to start running the entire social service system or providing all communal heat and power requirements or even all transportation systems. Transition Towns is about enabling a transition through “unlocking the collective genius of the community”, something which our bureaucratic public bodies and self-interested private bodies have forgotten.

Lucy Skywalker
18 Dec 2:15am

I’m certain that politics will come to Transition Towns just as Peak Oil is coming to all of us, and the question is, can TT “morph” to continue “under the radar” as Rob Hopkins puts it? Things are going to trigger political events, bit by bit, as prices start to rise and the weakest areas start to show up. We have already seen bare shelves abroad. Who is keeping the best imaginative finger on this pulse?

Not many people realize the point at which the present system of democratic government really bit in, through the reign of Queen Anne. Surviving a century of infighting, she sat extremely long hours with the newly formed “Cabinet” in order to play both extremes against the middle, to ensure a future “progress” through having two distinct but balanced “legs” with which to walk forward. Before her, there was nothing but the idiosyncracies of monarchs; after her, there was nothing but Parliament. For that time, this solution was perfect.

Of course, one can go further back. The origins of our “progress” thinking are ancient.

It’s good to understand where we are, how we got here, in order to envision and inspire where we want to go. No accident that Churchill also wrote the classic “History of the English-Speaking Peoples” – nor that the visionary pioneer Sir George Trevelyan was closely related to G M Trevelyan the great historian.

Just some early thoughts…

pete rout
18 Dec 9:18am

the point of the transition movement is not to save fossil fuels but to provide community support and a way of life for when fossil fuels, first oil which is our most important at the moment, becomes uneconomic to sustain and runs out.

Patrick Cleary
18 Dec 2:40pm

Britain is the only major EU country without Green Party representation in parliament and I suspect this is relevant as to why the transition movement has originated in the UK. Greens here have been essentially marginalised by a political system that is fundamentally corrupt and concentrates power at a very high level.

To say the Green Party “blew it” is way over the top given the forces that conspire against smaller parties in the UK.