Transition Culture

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

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3 Dec 2009

Brian Davey Responds to Ted Trainer

trainerYou may remember recently Ted Trainer’s first draft of his paper “The Transition Towns Movement: its huge significance, and a friendly criticism”, and my subsequent response.  Ted subsequently sent some more detailed thoughts, and has since rewritten his piece, which you can download here.  Brian Davey of Transition Nottingham responded to Ted’s piece in a beautiful, heartfelt and fiery response, which he has kindly allowed me to share with you, as many of you might find that his key points resonate quite deeply.  My thanks to both.

Dear Ted,

Whatever the truth of your message, it will in many cases not be welcome, and will in many ways occasion irritation and rejection. There are specific reasons for this.  40 years ago I was a Trotskyite, and learned from that bizarre experience that the more comprehensively that you demand changes in society the fewer people that you are able to address – this is above all because a very comprehensive and very specific vision of a radical change in society is a much bigger job to achieve and, while a tiny number of people may be prepared to contemplate its alleged ideological necessity, most others, even those with a ideological pre-dispostion to look at it, would reject it out of hand as being such a big agenda, that they wouldn’t even know where to start.

After being a Trotskyite and many things going wrong in my life – some of which were because I bit off huge agendas that were far more than I could chew and drove myself to nervous breakdowns trying to achieve them – I became a development worker. As a development worker it was my job to start from scratch and set things started up at the community level which I did with an environmental project working for and with people with a mental health problems.

At that point I HAD TO GET REAL. Ted, it took me years with others to develop a successful community garden project. When I look at your description of all the things that you say that the Transition Movement must do I want to scream with frustration: are you joking? It is not an ideological objection – because I have a taste for consumer goods and big cars and want to defend consumer capitalism – it is a practical objection – because I and others are already struggling with insufficient time with the very small initiatives that we are making.

We are struggling already – the number of people with the organisational and social entrepreneurial skills to set things up is small. There are lots willing to follow but few willing, or able, to lead – or we have not yet found the way to encourage and help people learn to lead, to learn to organise and to become social/environmental entrepreneurs (not in the profit seeking sense). Probably, mainly, this is because most people are used to working in large organisations and they always assume that one has to start off too big and “build” things like architects and developers – assembling complex organisational structures – rather than develop through “planting things”, then tend them, letting them evolve and grow step by step. (It is also because people have this habit of assuming, if something needs doing, that they must “call on” politicians to do it… if….)

What I learned as a development worker was that you have to start small and build things up step by step – sure you may have a long term and comprehensive vision of the type that you put forward – but here and now the Transition Initiatives are conceived of as just that – “transitional” – starting with down on the ground practicalities like learning to garden and learning to mend socks.

I know its not all that you think is necessary to challenge consumer capitalism as a system both practically and ideologically but your vast agenda is way above anything most of us have time for and serves more to discourage than anything else because it tells us all the other things that we have to do and that what we are doing already, in many cases run ragged with voluntary overwork – is still not enough.

It is also, in its flavour one of those “building documents” – it reminds me of my Trotskyite days where a familiar phrase was “Comrades, what we have to understand is the need to…” which translated is “you lot who I have just commandeered into my audience, I understand somethings a lot better than you and these things are this……(lead into a lot of technical *highly meaningful* ideological jargon – the magical formula which the orator knows, just knows, will set the whole world alight….if only his audience will say “hurrah, you’re right, we are right behind you comrade…)

As a matter of fact several of the people who started off Transition Nottingham were anarchists and if you scratch the surface you will find it full of radicals with a starting point ideology not dissimilar to yours – but they are struggling to make the transition from being communicators of grand visions to being practical developers of organisations and practical activities – as I had to. It’s a big difference. They may still have a residual sympathy for that ideological background and I don’t know anyone who defends consumer capitalism – but I don’t know anyone who has time to develop a city wide development co-op either – but I do know some people who I rate very highly are looking to set up a wind turbine where the revenue from which will go to fund energy efficiency work in a poor neighbourhood where the people otherwise would not be able to afford energy efficiency work. I don’t need to tell any of these people about consumer capitalism and what we should be doing…

The main point I would make however is this. Given the lack of time that there is, given the sheer magnitude of the task – a huge work agenda of the “comrades, these are the institutions to replace consumer capitalism that you have to create type” is beside the point – none of us have the time to set about “building” these institutions – unless this happens within a framework where it would happen anyway because it is already built into the operating system of the movement and will evolve out of its later development anyway.

Now I happen to believe that WHEN we have evolved further and WHEN we can therefore set things up which are bigger than sock darning and tree pruning workshops – and when the community gardens become too big to be organised in the old way, there are indeed ways that we can evolve which encourage community level and a certain global solidarity if we try to build these things into the small things that we do now and then build the same principles recursively into the slightly larger things that we subsequently do and then huld the same principles into the larger organisations and networks as we evolve and spread these networks and activities what we are doing onto bigger scales.

That is to say – instead of specifying the institutions that every non consumer capitalist town must have – we specify the principles that every initiative small and large should try to embody in itself at each scale. In this regard I think you’ll find that most Transition Iniatives are supposed to be informed by Permaculture ethics and principles which include care of the earth, care of people, co-operation not competition, distribution of surplus. If you successfully build those into the Transition Movement then as it evolves it should evolve in the direction that you want anyway….

Well maybe, there is more that can be said here so that these principles can be given an organisational expression when applied at larger scales. The best option for this that I know of, which is not currently or explicitly a set of principles adopted by the Transition Movement, is to use the ideas of viable systems modelling developed by Stafford Beer. These were being successfully applied in Chile before the Chicago boys moved in after Pinochet and they are essentially the same principles employed at the Mondragon co-ops.

Check them out…it may not be the whole answer – but of one thing I am sure, prescriptively trying to design a simple society in advance will not work. Suggesting principles which can be used in each and every initiative during the transition process might work and thus serve to guide the way that the movement evolves might.

With best wishes


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


3 Dec 7:36pm

Brilliant, cogent, inspiring – Thank you Brian. (and many belated congratulations, Rob)

Nick Towle
4 Dec 5:50am

Interesting timing for this post. Just yesterday myself and a few others active in Transition initiatives in Tasmania (Australia) were reflecting on what I can best describe as ‘lost in translation’.
I wholly support the idea that Brian presents “that most Transition Iniatives are supposed to be informed by Permaculture ethics and principles”, though the endeavour to implement Transition initiatives here is not reflecting this in a particularly strong way. In many parts we’re seeing a hybrid between a desire to reconnect at a local community level and firm engagement in consumer culture. This will be an ongoing reflection for us.

Similarly Ted Trainer has written of transformational ideas for decades and I have met many individuals inspired by the ideas, but struggling to apply them. The dissonance between action and ideal is usually rationalised by a story along the lines of ‘slow and gentle transition’. Could you imagine the frustration that Ted Trainer might be feeling after decades of hearing such stories? In reading his critique of Transition I acknowledge his hope for it to be a more robust and enduring movement for change.

My sense is that now is a really important time for us to really get behind Rob, Ted and other thought and action leaders to send a strong message that their ideas are valuable and necessary for transforming our society toward a socially just and ecologically sustainable presence on the planet.

In this respect the Green Community Hero award deserves great celebration.

Steve Atkins
4 Dec 8:10am

Re: We are struggling already

I recently attended a ‘Chalk & Cheese’ discussion in Dorset; (Chalk & Cheese have £3.1million to improve the economic wellbeing of the West Dorset rural area with funding available until the end of 2013). It’s been over a year since this money has been available for local projects, but so far only 3 or 4 projects have been voted through & met the Chalk & Cheese criteria.

Someone said they had tried to go for the funding (a rural project), unfortunately their project flopped on the ‘engaging the community’ aspect.

This really helped me think about ‘What are people engaging with?’
I wonder how many people would respond to these two separate scenarios, and be less likely to burnout:

1. Volunteer their time to a local project, engage the community, apply for funding.
2. Apply for a job advertised in the local paper to do the above (a paid position).

Of course, it would take some bottle to advertise project jobs before funding has been awarded, but I do wonder “Is there a way for transition areas to bridge this gap?”

Steve Atkins
4 Dec 8:22am

A good example of bottle would be Tim Smit ‘The Eden Project’

The concept of Future Truth… if you can get enough people to believe in your concept it will gather a momentum of its own and happen.

4 Dec 9:00am

Thanks for the post, sums up some of the pushing and pulling in my head between THINK BIG AND BOLD and CURRENT REALITY – IT IS WHAT IT IS and will take time to change. The cognitive dissonance is like a constant itch turning into full inflammation at some moments.

On the case of big scale community engagement
Using Appreciative Inquiry to fire up a community. Maybe Imagine Southend soon…

andrew ramponi
4 Dec 12:40pm

I’m reminded of a line in Walden (H D Thoreau). “…you have built castles in the air, and that is where they should be. Now set to work putting in the foundations”.

Matt Heins
5 Dec 5:32am

I think Steve Atkins hits the nail right on the head:

Underneath the “anarchist” (really extreemly de-centralized and institution-fluid democracy) concepts, Ted Trainer’s Development Co-Op is merely one attempt to allow Transition (and other community projects) to provide a real living for those who work for it.

I live in a small mountain town. A town which has spent much of the last 50 years since the coal mines closed and much of the last 25 years since logging shifted elswhere in an economic Depression. A mini construction boom connected to a now struggling vacation-home and tourist industry kept folks at work over the last several years. Other than that, all that we have going is Interstate 90 and the annual camping and snow-mobiling season.

Unemployment is easily double the national average. But practical skill-sets such as carpentry, gardening, forestry, and machine operation amognst us are easily triple what you’d find in a urban neighborhood or a suburban community.

Folks here are near the end of their financial ropes. They need jobs just to keep their heads above water TODAY, then maybe they’ll have some time see to the future.

If we could find a way to pay them for Transition work, we’d have a flood of them join us. Even if we can’t give them real pay, if we could provide them with the real, immediate material benefits of food and goods (such as Trainer’s Co-Op intends to) in exchange for their labor, then maybe their Unemployment Insurance and State Assistance checks would actually be enough to keep them -and their kids- afloat for a little while.

I’m sorry if this post is excessively impassioned, and I apologize for any offense, but I was never privledged enough to be a Trotskyite, and I’ve just been laid-off from the last job I could find -washing dishes- so I get a little irked when I hear that Transition folks can’t “find the time” for meeting the needs of the working poor in the hear and now.

Especially when they seem to have plenty of time for skewing a proposal for how to do so (Trainer’s Development Co-Op) into some sort of “you lot aren’t radical enough for me” attack in order to shoot it down (or burn it as a Strawman) and thereby excuse themselves for choosing a path that fails to meet such needs.

Or maybe I’m not sorry. Maybe I agree with one of my neighbors who I spent weeks trying to convince to help me form a Transition group here in Roslyn. Maybe I agree with this good man, this ecological scientist, this community pillar, this strong and helpful friend. Maybe I agree with these words:

“Forget Transition Town. That’s just a Green Hobby for guilty yuppies. It’s maybe a step above a Prius. We can do better than Transition here. In fact we’ve GOT to!” *



Steve Atkins
5 Dec 12:15pm

Hi Matt

I used to think unemployment would not be quite as bad as described; but then the practical reality hit me – by lack of cashflow, all the money had gone, not a penny. I found myself living alone, scratching around in empty cupboards for the remaining pasta shells and out of date tins. Not a great experience. Thankfully a cheque cleared the following month. Big lesson! Naturally, for the jobless folk that you describe, food & water/ warmth & shelter is an immediate priority.

Transition related jobs; the Tim Smit ‘The Concept of Future Truth’ quote I mentioned highlights a catch22 situation where there are opportunities, but they are not immediately accessible via a simple job advert. A lot of ‘Low Carbon Economy’/ Green job opportunities currently need investment of unpaid time to set up projects. It’s early days for the shift in economy and things aren’t likely to change as quick as some would like.

I can’t be sure where it’s all heading, but in my humble opinion it seems that Transition Towns, Villages, Hamlets and people are a really great way forwards.

“Green Hobby for guilty yuppies, Prius”…eh, what’s that all about??!!…. seems to have shoved Transition into a pigeon hole! It’d be great to see Roslyn do something “better than Transition”, surely to be celebrated, perhaps…

Roslyn Transition+

Best wishes

Mike Grenville
5 Dec 4:00pm

In the final analysis it is all about building community so that, as Joanna Macey says, “when trouble comes we turn TO each other and not ON each other.”

Building those links in a community takes time, it takes time for people to begin to rely on each other and that for me is what Transition is enabling.

As Brian said above, “you have to start small and build things up step by step”. Having the principles that are flexible enough to be adapted by communities of different sizes, cultural and economic mixes, without being prescriptive and run by a top down organisation is one the other really valuable gems that we have with the Transition model.

6 Dec 11:29pm

I just want to re-iterate what Brain said…

Check out the Viable Systems Model Guide


7 Dec 1:46am

We will see more changes in people’s behaviours when the need arises. At the moment we have to keep one foot in the consumer world and one in the post carbon world – to connect with people and not ‘lose’ them – we can’t be making feel bad about their decisions and choices, we must lead by example, work with those who get it and build the systems around the people.

It dawned on me when I was listening to David Holmgren recently talk about the future scenarios – I’ve heard people lament that we are in the ‘green /techno’ fantasy mode and this is what I’ve found too – many people think that it is like the Y2K bug – we’ll just wake up one morning and the clockradios will be flashing and we’ll all have shifted over to wind or solar energy and life will continue pretty much as per normal with minimal changes, just more ‘eco-friendly’ products in the house and an electric car in the driveway.

The reason we are in the green tech scenario is because we are in the green tech scenario – people are buying up PV panels and hot water systems, buying green houses, green this, green that – with no real changes to reducing consumption, oil dependency or moving toward resilient living.

But when we have economic contractions – and peak oil will cause more of these in the future – many people immediately flick to the land stewardship / lifeboat building scenario – they want to grow their own vegies, they cut back on car use, they stay home not go out shopping so much.

I found this with the organic gardening and permaculture courses I run – there was a spike in interest when the purse string went tight.

Each community is also unique and we have to let them all grow as they need to. I’m a supporter of social entrepreunerism and I think that is a big part of TTs.

It’s slow, frustratingly so, but we are making inroads and I haven’t heard anyone yet put forward a convincing argument as to why TT won’t work – and we must keep our vision clear and consider the thoughtful and knowledgable comments of people like Ted Trainer.

TTs may not be perfect, but they do seem to be the best idea out there.


Andrew MacDonald
7 Dec 6:10am

Interesting that TT is Transition Town AND Ted Trainer. Love this discussion.

I’m going to playfully and seriously suggest that we need both TTs. Ted’s radical vision and Transition’s practicality.

They seem opposed because that is our world right now, split between impossible necessities. The transition we need is quite impossible and we get to make it anyway.

Or it could be that we get both at different times: Transition first as we look from afar, and Trainer second, as we get closer. The honeymoon and the marriage.

Kevin Carson
8 Dec 8:30am

The saving grace of the present crisis is that the new society will emerge from it largely as the result of spontaneous individual action, rather than a large-scale activist movement.

Things like the economic crisis of overaccumulation and surplus capacity, Peak Oil, the fiscal crisis of the state and its inability to keep subsidizing inputs, the unenforceability of “intellectual property,” etc., together constitute a “perfect storm” of crises that will destroy corporate capitalism.

In this environment, people will move toward relocalized economies and informal/household production as a common sense response to the situations facing them individually. As fuel rises to $15/gallon, airlines are grounded, container ships rot in the docks, and semi trucks are abandoned on the shoulder, food production will shift to local market gardeners and intensive home garden out of pure necessity. Industrial supply chains will shorten and networked local micromanufacturers will thrive out of necessity. Unemployed and underemployed people, out of necessity, will turn to low-overhead microenterprises using ordinary household capital goods (e.g. microbakeries using kitchen ovens to produce for barter networks at the neighborhood level) as a way of turning their skills to a source of subsistence when wage labor is insufficient.

No programmatic ideology required.

Andrew MacDonald
8 Dec 4:02pm

“No programmatic ideology required.”

And yet without thinking about it, as Kevin is doing and others here, we’ll be caught in reaction to the disappearance of the old system. Angry and immobilized for a while at least. Planning is psychological, and logistical preparedness now, and has survival value on several fronts.

Kevin Carson
20 Dec 8:35pm

Andrew: But the thing is, it’s not like the transition is inevitably going to be like flicking an “off” switch, where one minute we’re in consumer capitalism and the next we’re suddenly in a crisis where the trucks don’t roll and nobody can afford any gas at all. We’re likely to experience several years of steeply rising energy prices.

And in the meantime, the components of a successor society are being built severally, though the same kinds of stigmergic effort that Eric Raymond described as the basis for the open-source software community and Wikipedia in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”

The technical prerequisites for decentralized micromanufacturing are developing according to something like Moore’s Law, in all sorts of independent efforts like the Open Source Ecology/Factor e Farm package of replicable village technologies, the 100kGarages project, etc. And as shipping prices go up, and corporate distribution chains become more and more undependable, the economic incentives will exist to buy an increasing share of industrial output from local micromanufacturers.

The one way to guarantee that things will NOT get done is the kind of “rational planning” Ted advocates. The transition is already underway thanks to all sorts of independent, stigmergic efforts in which self-organized individuals themselves coordinate their efforts with the larger movement as they understand it. The important thing is that the building blocks of decentralized manufacturing technology, permaculture and intensive horticulture, etc., be developed by the people who are interested in them as rapidly as possible, and that the market incentives of rising energy prices and growing underemployment make these building blocks necessary and attractive. If this is done, the organization and planning will follow on their own.

Andrew MacDonald
21 Dec 3:10am

I notice I have two probability tracks running much of the time: the unfolding of a healthier by natural process that I see Kevin speaking clearly to, and two, the addictive nature of our denial process (my denial process?) that invests me in the old way, denies the new necessities, and gets caught up in the old familiarities that feel right.

Reminds me of Tom Atlee’s dictum: Things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster.

Andrew MacDonald
21 Dec 3:11am

And speaking of transition culture . . . Happy Solstice to you!!

Stephen Bach
18 Feb 3:39pm

I must say I find Brian Davey’s remarks quite persuasive. I think that building up from the small, utilizing Permaculture principles as much as possible, is the better way to go, and will be the more successful in bringing more people sooner into the effort.