28 May 2008
John Papworth on Transition: From Fourth World Quarterly Review
Quite suddenly and almost by accident, a wholly new political movement has exploded upon the scene. It erupted in Totnes, an ancient town on Devon’s River Dart of only 7,500 inhabitants. Scarcely two years ago, a small group of its citizens took note of the announcement that the global supply of oil had ‘peaked’, (meaning that against a rapidly expanding demand for a resource which has been the basis of industrial development and economic expansion for at least 150 years, the supply would sooner or not much later run out or become unaffordable). So did a lot of other people of course, but the Totnes group were unique in deciding to do something about it. They realised that what was at stake was an urgent need to change an entire lifestyle, currently based on the availability of oil, to one based on local resources.
There have been many revolutions in history, but has there ever been one of such sweeping practical implication as what this tiny group proceeded to affirm? They were promoting it in just one small town in a remote corner of England and any conventional wiseacre might have felt justified in judging them to be a group of impractical dreamers and visionaries. In this he could not have been more mistaken; for what had stirred this group to act immediately flashed a responsive echo in other towns.
Totnes soon became only one ‘In Transition’ among ten others, then it became 20, then 50; then others started in the United States, Australia, Japan, Germany and Sweden. Before the Totnes group realised what they had sparked off, they found they
had initiated a global revolution to resolve what is, after all, a global crisis. It is a revolution that recognises that the giant, centralised structure of so much modern life, of modern administration and of modern organisation has only been made possible by the relatively cheap availability of oil, oil which is no longer going to be either cheap or available.
The newly formed Transition Network promoted a gathering in Cirencester to resolve some of the problems arising from the sheer success of their initiative. This “Annual Conference and Shindig” to “Tackle Peak Oil and Climate Change Together” brought together over 200 people. They were literate, articulate and exceedingly disparate, with a marginal preponderance in numbers of women, and the nature of the admirably organised proceedings tended to emphasise the problems confronting any revolutionaries.
What in fact the Transition movement has stumbled upon is the argument first put forward by Professor Leopold Kohr over half a century ago in his epochal Breakdown of Nations, later popularised in Fritz Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. They were simply arguing that the origins of the modern crisis lay in the fact that governments and institutions (including industries), had become so large as to be uncontrollable under any political label, and that the genuine democratic target lay in making them smaller so people could control them.
Nobody listened, of course. The fruits of oil-based economic expansion were so obviously going to be with us for evermore there was no need to listen. But now, suddenly, dramatically, people are realising they must listen if they or their children are to survive. Oil or some other energy source is the oxygen of our industrial system, without which it cannot breathe, and when it goes the ensuing void invalidates most of the major inarticulate assumptions upon which current political practice is based.
Chief of these is that a central government should be responsible for the conduct of emphatically local affairs such as schools, hospitals, welfare, planning and police, in defiance of any coherent democratic theory or practice. The absurdity that assumes that because millions vote to elect leaders, who then find their ministries for local affairs are in the hands of a horde of anonymous, powerful and well-paid bureaucrats, becomes glaringly obvious when it is recognised that the relatively cheap oil which makes it all possible will no longer be available to sustain it.
The Transition Network has grasped that the localisation of control and of decision-making is going to be the key to survival once oil becomes either unaffordable or unavailable. Hence the programmes of the original Totnes group for local food production, local industry, local money (the “Totnes Pound”) and much else. All of this opens up of course a wholly new political perspective, one not concerned with mass party rivalries, class antagonisms, or national campaigns for this and that, but concerned to establish some elements of control on local basis over forces currently running amok on a national or global scale.
On its current early showing, the new movement shows every sign of proceeding to push aside the artificial, confrontational style of conventional politics; it is already asserting, if only by implication, that the political battle is not between ‘left’ and ‘right’, nor between capitalism and socialism, nor indeed between any other mass party. It is a battle between David and Goliath, one where for far too long Goliath has held all the cards and made all the running. Now, at long last, David has arisen to challenge this dangerous domination and to assert his own democratic rights to determine his own destiny.
At long last, a group of educated, articulate, responsible and purposeful citizens has grasped the essential problem of modern statecraft – that it centres not on what governments do but on what they are. They are far too big to enable any realistic degree of democracy to operate; they are out of control and because of this they are staggering from one crisis to another crises of war, economic instability, social and community disintegration and environmental bankruptcy which cancel out any positive achievements they may claim.
It is in this light that it is possible to envisage the breaking of the log jam of conventional politics which has impeded political advance for at least two generations. As giant mass membership parties are compelled by global boardroom pressures to edge ever more closely to each other, frustrated electorates have increasingly responded by voting with their feet.