5 Sep 2008
Responding to Various Critiques of Transition
Critiques of Transition come in all shapes and sizes, and are often fascinating. In the US, Robin Mills recently described it as “mistaken, appalling and dangerous” (one of my favourites) and Jim O’Neill, Chief Economist at Goldman Sachs, recently said on the Business Daily Show on BBC World Service that he had just read a book by a Californian with no geological or economic background (that’s me apparently…) calling for Transition economies, and stated that he had never read such rubbish! 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. I want to explore some of the key themes these various pieces raise in their critiques of Transition. I will also make reference to Sophy Andrews’ review of Transition Handbook that appeared in the latest Land magazine.
Mason quotes me, from my review of what he calls Trapese’s ‘detailed critique’ (although it is to be remembered that it was written by neither reading the Transition Handbook, nor 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. Also interesting is what Mason says about the Climate Camp, which echoes Ewa Jasiewicz’s piece about George Monbiot, writing that those who attended the Camp have
“experience of organising and building a socially, technologically, environmentally, and educationally viable community from scratch … 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…”.
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 without both 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 without non-violent direct action when it comes to stopping the more insane responses it generates from government, i.e. 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. 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 10th most popular book MPs took on holiday with them this summer is so fascinating. 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. We have so much to do, and so very little time, that to me it feels more skilful to engage at all levels, to look at what the twin aims of radical cuts in carbon consumption and the rebuilding of resilience will look like at each level.
This is why Somerset County Council’s recent decision to become a Transition Council is so fascinating, as it recognises that it is the communities themselves that are doing this, and that their role as a Council is to support that. Part of the resolution commits the Council “to providing support and assistance to all towns in Somerset that wish to join this initiative to help them achieve the goals they set for themselves as local communities”.
What I question strongly in Mason’s piece, and in the Trapese document, is the skilfulness of bringing the confrontational activism and the positive, solutions-focused (or what Sophie Andrews dismissively terms ‘fluffy’, stating that many of the tools used “do my head in”) approach emerging so vigorously through Transition initiatives together explicitly. 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.
Mason assumes that solidarity is needed between the 2 approaches he approves of – Climate Camp and Transition – but my sense is that what we want to see is solidarity between not only these 2 but lots of other approaches too. 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.
As Monbiot stated in his response to Jasiewicz, Climate Camp is Climate Camp, and the world outside it is the world outside it. Just because a mode of organisation, and the wonderful demonstration of consensus decision making and respectful organisation works in that context, doesn’t mean it is automatically transferrable to people who aren’t already interested or involved in the discourse.
For me, a lot of what I disagree with that Trapese and Mason argue for 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. Like my former neighbours in Ireland, most people see a bunch of activist troublemaker hippies, whose arguments have little or no relevance to their everyday lives. As we enter deeper and deeper into the post-credit crunch, zero growth world, and people’s priorities shift increasingly to keeping the roof over their heads, this will only increase.
What Transition tries to do, is to realise that our only hope of getting through the next 20 years lies, as I have written elsewhere, in a wartime mobilisation scale of response, one which draws together business, community groups, educational establishments, local authorities, church groups, pensioners and so on. And I’m sorry, but “Tranquility Teams in pink cowboy hats”, delightful though they may be, are really best left at Climate Camp if we want this to happen.
We have to be so aware of how what we say and how we say it come across. In ‘The Transition Handbook’ I quoted Eric Stewart;
“It seems to me that permaculture houses two virtually polar impulses: one involves removal from larger society; the other involves working for the transformation of society. While the case can be made that removal from the larger society represents action that is transformative of society, I believe that there is an imbalance within the cultural manifestation of permaculture that has favoured isolation over interaction. The cultural shift we need depends on increasing interaction to increase the availability of the resources permaculture offers.”
I think the same can be said for much of the alternative/protest movement. 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. It is the difference, as identified in Motivational Interviewing, between Information Dumping and Information Exchange. We don’t have all the answers, we never have and we never will.
Another strand that Monbiot challenged which I agree with is the argument, put forward in Sophie Andrews’ review, that Transition is doomed to failure because it fails to state that the root cause of climate change is capitalism, and without getting rid of capitalism any actions we take would be a waste of time. I feel strongly that this is an absurd statement. We are where we are, we are surrounded by the world we are surrounded by, and our neighbours are our neighbours. They don’t walk around in pink cowboy hats, and they don’t want to remove capitalism from their lives thank you, although there are many issues they are concerned about which may be quite different from those that concern us.
I recently saw an interview with the comedian and activist Robert Newman, for whom I have the deepest admiration, who stated that we cannot address climate change without radical social change. In that case, we have had it. We’re toast if that is a pre-requisitive for us getting going on solutions to this vast problem. Ewa Jasiewicz makes much the same point as Newman;
“Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the “solution”, we need a revolution”.
If we hamstring ourselves to the extent that we don’t believe we can do anything effective until capitalism has met its demise first at the hand of a revolution, then we give away such a great deal of power that we become, in effect, marginalised and useless. Three years ago, that point of view may well have argued that we need to direct our collective energies to campaigning against the airline industry, against the economic growth model, against increases in road transportation, against the construction industry, and indeed many people did. Now all of the above are in freefall, kicked sideways by a recession which is the first recession in history underpinned by an energy peak, one whose effects we are only starting to feel. Radical social change is here and it is happening, and society is like a rabbit in the headlights, being told by economists and politicians that it is a temporary blip, that it will all turn around, and that we just need to grin and bear it for a couple of years and all will be well, but increasingly questioning whether it might actually be best to leap out of the glare of the headlights altogether.
Andrews is critical that the Transition Handbook contains no references to the word ‘capitalism’… I don’t explore that in the book because I don’t think it would have added a great deal. What I would have included more about, had I managed to do sufficient background reading in advance, would have been to explore the area of Affluenza, the myth of economic growth, and the psychology of that. Indeed, perhaps Transition needs to make more of that, as it is a fascinating analysis that is increasingly resonant with people. Actually, to argue that Transition is not a radical idea is a misinterpretation, I feel. I would argue that it is more radical to set up a complementary currency scheme which involves local businesses and growers as it is to critique the evil stranglehold of the supermarkets.
Andrews also criticises Transition for being excessively middle class, and asks “where are the black people in Transition?” This is not an issue exclusive to Transition. Where are the black people at Climate Camp, in the Trapese Collective, among the readership of ‘The Land’, in the Green movement as a whole? Transition is still very young, but the issues Transition encounters around language, and how we communicate these issues in such a way as to be inclusive and appealing to the diversity of society, are universal challenges, not exclusive to Transition. Time will tell, and I often state that in essence, Transition is a simple idea and a simple set of tools, which is being tried and tested in a huge diversity of settings, geographic, cultural and economic, and we try and draw from that experience and see what works. It is by no means fully formed. We are very aware of this, and are actively working at it, we’ll see what emerges.
Mason makes a few points which are just a misreading of what Transition is about. He writes “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”. This is why Transition initiatives focus on both peak oil and climate change, as well as increasingly on the credit crunch and the zero growth economy. It is likewise a nonsense to state that “Transition needs to harness the creativity of climate camps”… that somehow all the creative engagement tools are being developed outside Transition. I think he needs to get out and visit other Transition initiatives a bit more.
A look at the current TTT programme shows Transition Tales storytelling workshops with local standup comedians and poets, films made by local schoolchildren about Totnes in 2030, storytelling events, drama, innovative ways of debating issues that avoid polarisation, Open Space days among others. We are about to embark on an international collaborative film, inviting people to document a period in the life of their Transition initiative for inclusion in a film. These all strive for maximum engagement from across the community, finding ways in for people with a variety of interests.
For me, an important issue is about what is implicit within Transition and what is explicit, as well as what we gently nudge people towards working out for themselves, rather than being told this is how it is. That’s why Transition, to me at least, appears to work, because it strives to be powerful and inclusive at the same time – we’re very clear that we need to set out on the journey to a truly sustainable world beyond oil (as well as articulating why we need to) but we don’t say “this is where we’ll end up” – we invite everyone to join us in navigating. One of the principles of Transition as set out in the Transition Network Structure Document is “Help People Access Information and Trust Them to Make Good Decisions”. When your home is threatened with repossession due to the credit crisis, the last thing you want to hear is someone telling you that it is due to the failings of Western Industrial Capitalism.
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 what 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 use just because we’ve been to Climate Camp. To restate, I think it is entirely sensible that Transition initiatives focus on the positive, in a sea of doom and gloom that is one of the key things that seems to attract people. There are, of course, many overlaps between the two. Many people from Transition projects attended Climate Camp, and many of them are also involved in various campaigns. Mason’s piece shows the perspective of someone whose life is committed to both methods of action. In many individuals’ lives, these two perspectives complement each other, but we need also to be mindful of those for whom the explicit association of the two things is a distinct turn-off. 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.