Transition Culture

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

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28 May 2008

John Papworth on Transition: From Fourth World Quarterly Review

4wdQuite 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.

John Papworth.

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


Darren Woodiwiss
28 May 9:24am

Excellent, I will stand as a member of the transition Party… should be able to Save £500 by 2009 for my deposit.

Anyone else :o)

Linda Hull
28 May 9:51am

Me too!

I can recommend standing for town or parish council. It’s a great way to find things out and change the conversation of those meetings all over the country. Bring on those by-elections and stand!

Right now I’m searching for examples of Transition responses to the Local Development Framework – can anyone help, fairly quickly? A once in 20 year opportunity to make a loud announcement about the need to embed Transition principles into every policy going forward. Is it happening in your neck of the woods?

Glastonbury Town Councillor

Noel Longhurst
28 May 10:08am


In Totnes a committed TTT sub-group put together a very thorough response to the LDF. Have a look here:



28 May 11:25am

You can download Transition Leicester’s response to the Local Development Framework consultation in our area on our website (in the Documents section).

Also worth looking at our response to our city council’s call for Big Ideas for the next 25 years – full of similar stuff (but with less of a focus on planning).

  • Reevesie

28 May 11:27am

Jo Whitmore
28 May 8:30pm

My “end of suburbia moment” came as I read Tim Flannery’s book The Weather Makers. Soon afterwards I went to hear Mark Lynas talking about global warming in Church Stretton. By that point I was suffering from the anxiety which Rob Hoskins describes as “post petroleum stress disorder”-clammy hands and palpitations. What a relief to discover I that other people are already addressing these issues and that there is real HOPE on the horizon. When I have finished reading the Transition Handbook (p.135 so far),St George’s Church Shrewsbury is going to hold an Awareness Raising Evening around the subject. I hope that we will become Transitional Zone SY3

Jo Whitmore
28 May 8:37pm

Sorry Rob misspelled Hopkins

29 May 9:37am

You wouldn’t be the first… (!)

Neil L
29 May 10:52am

Excellent article so the question is either…

When is our esteemed prime minister going to wake up and smell the roses and start planning strategically rather than the his actions of the last two days – firstly meetings with oil companies to get them to increase production in order to lower prices and secondly expansion of nuclear – what is going on!


When do we take back local control and democracy and have a say in what we want – off to my community council meeting on Monday to raise awareness of Transition and start the ball rolling in the Southside of Glasgow.

Off on a tangent – maybe the road hauliers could get a tax break if they could demonstrate that what they were hauling was of use rather than cheap, imported stuff!

29 May 3:35pm

Even better if hauliers could demonstrate that they were not:

picking up a load of onions in Spain to take to Wales,
then hopping over to Norwich to pick up a load of onions to take to the Netherlands,
where they pick up a load of onions to take to …. Spain

29 May 8:28pm


Transition Forest and in particular Sue Clarke (contact details on website) has done some ground breaking work engaging with the Local Strategic Partnership and LDP and got Transition written into key elements of it along with jointly heading up funding applications with LA through SWRDA. Forest of Dean District Council now have Transition Model as part of their LSP approach!


Linda Hull
4 Jun 9:20pm

Many thanks to Noel, Reevesie and Andrew – will check out your links…

[…] writing by John Papworth can be found here at Transition […]

Helen Dew
5 Jan 1:49am

John – I’ve only just discovered your excellent article, and the subsequent comments. I’m pleased to learn of the growing acceptance of the need to include the issue of democracy in the re-localisation agenda.

Incidentally, you didn’t include New Zealand in the list of countries that have adopted Transition Towns.
The list can be seen at . I think you’ll be impressed, given that we’re a small country. Maybe being comparitively small is one of the reasons that TT has been so eagerly take up here!

By the way – I’m delighted that the latest issue of FWR (147) – the first from the new editor Jon Hughes – includes articles on Transition Towns, Local Currencies, and, of course effective democracy, thereby promoting an understanding of the interconnectedness of these three issues.

Helen Dew
5 Jan 2:09am

PS to the above:
FWR is available online via the NZ Transition Towns site or contact editor Jon Hughes at 96 Gayton House
Knapp Rd. London E3 4BY I’m happy to post hard copies within New Zealand – email helend at