Transition Culture

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

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16 Dec 2009

A Personal Report from Ben Brangwyn at COP15

cop15This report comes from Ben Brangwyn of Transition Network, who is out in Copenhagen flying the Transition flag while avoiding getting teargassed.

I’m finding that Copenhagen has a very intense and charged atmosphere, and largely positively so. Transition Network and the transition ideas have a good visibility over here, with involvement in at least 7 workshops and a steady stream (and occasional tsunami) of people from all over the world to our stand in the Expo area, interviews with several of the excellent broadcasting outfits (PositiveTV and ClimateTV) and a screening of “In Transition 1.0” in the main hall at KlimaForum.

It may be worth giving a quick explanation of how the whole Copenhagen circus is organised, because it’s not always been that clear. The highest profile event is the official COP15 negotiations in the Bella Centre, a lifeless concrete block towards the outskirts of Copenhagen surrounded by security, housing both official delegations from all the countries that could afford to come, representatives of NGOs, pressure groups and lobbyists – this is where the legally binding agreement will be hammered out, or not. Parallel to this is the KlimaForum09, held principally in a huge sports and events centre in the middle of Copenhagen, with an overwhelmingly colourful programme of workshops, forums, screenings, meetings, exhibits and debates. It feels to me like a cauldron of creativity and hope, with an edge of despair and desperation.

The most bizarre and incongruent aspect of KlimaForum09 is apparent only when you travel from one side of the building to the other. The route takes you through a glass walkway where your gaze is drawn down towards the totally unexpected scene of palm trees, a labrynth of blue water pools, multi-coloured buoyancy aids and several hundred adults and kids happily splashing around in a high energy, high carbon, totally unsustainable microclimate, apparently blissfully unaware of what’s going on around them. It’s a paradox that must leave the people from the vulnerable countries reeling.

And “reeling” would be an apt description of how I felt after two of the most intense conversations I’ve had here. The first was with a Ghanian man at our Expo stand. He was hoarse from having regailed a hall of activists with accounts of what it’s like to be suffering at the front line of climate change. The overconsuming west has discovered and stolen their diamonds, gold, valuable metals and minerals and Ghana is still crushingly poor. To top that, he tells me that they’ve now discovered oil, and will be taxing its extraction by the oil companies at 10% (Norway taxes it at 70%). The facts themselves don’t bring the reality of the picture to life, but when he tells me how a mining outfit found gold in a nearby village and “had to” level the local school to make way for the extraction infrastructure and “repaid” the community by building a school for them 25 miles away, the picture starts getting a lot clearer. And if that wasn’t enough, now the west has effectively stolen their liveable climate. For me, witnessing this man and his non-accusing demeanour, as I quietly add up my lifetime’s contribution in flights, furniture, food, fuel and steel consumption that looks like it might just have sealed the fate of children who will die of hunger and inadequate sanitation, this is a crushingly shameful experience.

Having barely recovered from that, I’m then approached by two Nigerian men who, beneath their genuine demeanour of cooperation and friendliness, have an anger and frustration that’s barely hidden. As they explain how CO2 pollution is just another in a series of devastating acts of pollution that brought by the extreme consumptive patterns of “developed” countries, the list only comes to life when they give an account of the daily search for safe drinking water in the Delta region (an area highlighted in Age of Stupid). You can’t take it safely from the wells because of pollution and the drops in the water table. You can’t take it safely from the rivers because they’re polluted. You can’t take it from the sea because it’s saline and desalination is so energy intensive. And you can’t take it from the sky, because the gas flaring pollutes the skies.

I hope desperately that the depth of accountability that I personally feel for all of this, that the work I and my colleagues devote ourselves to, that the determination we bring to transitioning out of these ways of living that are crushing humans and biodiversity so comprehensively are somehow evident to them. I can’t tell though. I can’t see a damn thing through the tears of shame that are welling uncontrollably.

And why would I want to control them? If we don’t let that shame well up, if we don’t acknowledge the message it tells us about being out if integrity with deeply held beliefs, if we don’t let it energise our actions and determination, if instead we just swallow it, then we’re doing ourselves, our sense of humanity and our fellow beings on this planet a deep disservice.

Transition’s objectives of having a positive impact on social justice is implicit, rather than explicit, and I understand why some people don’t see it straightaway – hell, sometimes it feels hidden even to me. It’s a familiar pattern – I witness and feel another being’s pain at our unthinkingly consumptive patterns of behaviour, I start to beat myself up about not doing more, and then eventually apply some intellectual recognition of the benefits an ubiquitous fabric of transitioned communities will bring to these all-too-familiar horror stories. And at that point am I heartened by the work we’re doing, filled with the faint hope that our heartfelt intentions will have the effect we transitioners dream of.

And it seems right now that here in Copenhagen, more than anywhere, one of the key assertions underpinning Transition is more appropriate and potent than ever.  If we wait for the politicians, it’ll be too little too late;  if we do it as individuals, it’ll be too little;  but if we do as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

Over, but not out.


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


16 Dec 1:19pm

Thanks for that Ben . . . thanks for being over there . . thanks for listening to these folks and thanks for telling us about it . . . the mindset that politicians are ‘in charge’ and this is the ‘last chance’ need seeing thru . . . we know that ordinary people can and do make change . . . small acts like the 100 shoppers and passers by who chose to light candles at our vigil here in Lancaster this week . . who connected with a more sane world . . .

Martin Doyle
16 Dec 1:21pm

Thank you Ben for writing this report. More than anything else I’ve read, this brings the message ‘home’. I have daily arguments with climate change deniers on the likes of Facebook etc, but as we sit here in our centrally heated houses with no water shortages etc, we should remember that places like Ghana are actually not that far away and these people continue to suffer from the excesses of ‘developed’ society.

Let the tears flow, for we in the west should be ashamed. Above all though, we should be doing something to turn it around.

Irma Lamers
16 Dec 2:09pm

Thank you Ben for your message from Copenhagen. I was happy to find your report: it helps to confirm my feeling: a lot of people DO know that it is time to change. Only the message is not a pleasant one and we are not used to act on it properly. So yes tears are allright.
Let’s acknowledge that we didn’t have (enough) solutions up till today.
Still we do have the possibility to answer. Let’s give more attention to what is needed. and let’s ask ourselves questions .. what can I do more than I do… what is my first step from now.

16 Dec 4:46pm

Oscar Wilde said: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”. That pretty much sums up the situation between poor and rich nations at Copenhagen as I see it. We in the rich nations have done a fine job of deluding ourselves that we can have it all, regardless of consequences, yet when it comes to enabling others to satisfy their very modest needs, we balk, bluster and equivocate. I can see why Lao Tzu disappeared on the back of a water buffalo, disillusioned with human affairs. As I don’t have a suitable water buffalo, yak or ox, I suppose I’ll just have to stay and continue the struggle. Perhaps it is not yet too late to address our dual tragedies, but how?

16 Dec 4:54pm

Meant to say thanks to Ben for writing the article and pointing out all the weird and paradoxical contradictions manifested at Copenhagen.

Steve Atkins
16 Dec 5:15pm

Hi Ben,

From watching various The Age of Stupid Show Copenhagen interviews & clips, it has amplified my senses to how important ‘bottom up’ is.

I have little faith in big business & politics to lead us to a safe future (but there’s always hope) ~ consumer behavior changes en masse could make a massive difference.

Had some good news today; working with our local council, Transition Town Dorchester has just been awarded funding to produce cycling & walking maps (inc environmental printing). Woohoo!!

‘Every Little Person Helps’

; )

adrienne campbell
16 Dec 11:27pm

Ben thank you for that moving account. I’m following the experiences of Sophia, 20, my daughter, who is there too. The stories from the future that we are hearing give our Transition projects even more urgency.

[…] Source: Transition Culture Share/Save […]

Nicholas Roberts
17 Dec 11:46am

hi Ben

I know this worldview transition is troublesome, and its my hope is that the UK centered Transition Movement gets beyond the festish of a porochial localism and embraces a global democracy with a world social economy program.

the real Transition Movement is the Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth alliance.. that alliance has over a hundred million members

the real Transition Movement *based in the Global South* have a political program, its explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist.. they resist through real struggle the neo-liberal program so that they can create resilience

they dont leave politicians alone, they directly confront them

my focus on Permaculture TV has been to focus on the real Transition Movement, and pioneers of permaculture in the global south..

although affluent middle class Northeners flocked to the Transition Towns session, I didnt see many from the global south

if Transition Towns Totnes can evolve to function in the real, majority world such as Africa or the South Bronx, then it has the right to call itself the Transition Movement


steph bradley
17 Dec 12:37pm

Thank You so much for this report Ben.
It is the stories of each human being’s personal struggle that will eventually tip the scales in the right direction – for when we have really heard someone’s pain, it releases our own, and then we can act in the right way.
It is really moving to receive stories of real people’s experiences rather than tales of politicians not getting it right.

chris white
17 Dec 7:18pm

Hi Ben,

That gave a great insight into Copenhagen and has brought a few tears to my eyes! Following on from Steph’s post, perhaps it is time to tell it like it is, a new title in the transition series, of personal accounts of how cc is affecting peoples lives. I know the whole marketing side of tt is to give people inspiring ideas and hope, but its only when i read real stories like those above that i can properly appreciate the luxury i live in, and the expense to other communities caused by my lifestyle.

thanks again for being there and telling me about it

chris (formerly transition town exmouth)

Victoria Briggs
18 Dec 12:52am

Thanks there Ben for an insightful look into the talks at Copenhagen…. glad that transition is getting voice there. Lots of talk about whether the transition movement is truly global or just purely localist…. Transition is just a grassroots movement and the key ideas are to build LOCAL resilience….. this is not the antithesis of acting globally. By acting locally we can facilitate change nationally and globally. As Ben says the influence is implicit.

We do need as many reasons as possible why we want transition and having global stories of how climate change is hitting countries in the frontline is useful. Now I don’t mean this in some hard hearted and rationalist way (these stories make me deeply shameful of our wasteful society)but it is we in the west that must change and any convincing argument in favour of this must be pounced upon.

Katy Duke
18 Dec 11:10am

Inspiration and humility from COP15

Yesterday I and two colleagues (from OneWorld UK) were excluded from the Bella Centre as the NGO numbers there were slashed, so we made our way to the KlimaForum to continue our ‘broadcast from a suitcase’. If only I’d had time to find you Ben, we could have beamed your thoughts around the world live. We witnesses the most moving moments of the fortnight at the Candlelit Vigil in the adjacent ØKSNEHALLEN where Bill McKibben, reps from the gloriously energetic Youth Climate Movement and one of the Climate fasters spoke movingly and we all sang in unison (footage to follow). The contrast with the Bella Centre was deep, but there were moments at the heart of the talks where civil society made its voice heard loud and clear to the mass of well-heeled delegates, notably the sit-in in the foyer by Friends of the Earth when they were unexpectedly excluded on Wednesday, the walk-out by Indigenous Rights Group on the same day and the sit-in by the Youth Climate Movement We interviewed Andy Atkins about the exclusion in the foyer & he reflected some of the anger surrounding the heavy handed approach of the Danish police, as did Naomi Klein in her Guardian piece ‘Copenhagen’s policing by design’ and Temujen Gunawardena on the Reclaim Power party at Christiania

The organisation of the conference has in many ways been poor, with people who travelled from around the world suddenly excluded – yesterday the thriving NGO hall from where we broadcast was like a ghost village and the queues have at times been ludicrous Keeping us in good spirits were the Avaaz team (mostly excluded on Wednesday also!) with their ‘Fossil of the Day’ awards, which we film & show each day. We are gradually uploading all the key interviews on the OneWorld TV slot of YouTube – where you can find fantastic interviews with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives – (what an incredible speaker!), Andy Atkins, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Taukiei Kitala from Official Tuvulu Delegation –, Christina Ora, a youth delegate from the Solomon Islands – & even our very own ‘Lord Tosser’ – ….., plus snippets such as Sarkozy and Merkel arriving –, an exclusive chat with Yvo yesterday and John Prescott’s views (I chatted with him about our shared hometown of Rotherham before his appearance on the Stupid Show) here –

We have been broadcasting daily since the start of the talks, from 2pm – 7.30pm each day, then facilitating the Stupid Show from 8pm til 9pm, and consequently are all pretty exhausted, plus infected by the ‘Cop Cough’ but it has been exhilerating and fascinating too. The two-suitcase broadcast from a reclaimed trolley camping just inside the entrance can be seen here – (my ‘station’ on the right) & here –, more pics on & We are still broadcasting live on, so catch the final throes as optimism swings to pessimism & back again…….

Stephen Watson
18 Dec 11:38am

Thank you Ben

Jennifer Hartley
19 Dec 10:23pm

Thank you for this report, Ben. From here in western Massachusetts, I share your tears of shame and your drive to create profound change. Transition Northampton (Mass., USA) is just starting to get going and I hope our efforts will converge with all of the others worldwide.

John Mason
21 Dec 1:16pm

Likewise from here in mid-Wales, Jennifer!

Thanks Ben!

I had a go at summarising COP15 that turned into a rant about the infinite-growth-on-a-finite-planet paradigm – it’s at:

Until we collectively accept the finite nature of natural resources we are going to struggle with such conferences.

Cheers – John

[…] North and South is a vital and visceral reminder of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, as Ben Brangwyn’s recent post set out, creating powerful and vital networks.  But might we not be more creative and playful […]

Responses to Copenhagen
22 Dec 12:15pm

[…] Brangwyn (of Transition Network and Transition Totness) response from earlier in […]

danielle grunberg
27 Dec 10:28pm


A belated very great thank you for your personal stories from my ” old” town of Copenhagen.
It’s all been said before me,the personal stories are he most powerful.
I have two, almost full, buckets by my side.
Still…here’s to the future.
A Transition future…with joy guides by our side

nancy bragard
3 Jan 10:33am

Thanks, Ben, for your moving account of these powerful testimonies in Copenhagen, made known to me through a friend. She adds to your link “Not to fall prey to despair and powerlessness, but as Joanna Macy says, to move into even greater creativity and experiments.” I want to believe at the dawn of the new year that such mushrooming of consciousness over the planet can bring us to act before it’s too late… Thank you for your passion and responsibility. And the tears are all part of the package …

Kenneth Nana Amoateng
3 Feb 2:14pm

I was the first Ghanian man who to see you at the Expo stand in the KlimaForum09

“when the voice of the people become so loud the government has no alternative but to listen” Martin Luther King Jnr.

John F. Kennedy once observed that “our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.”

Kenneth Nana Amoateng
AYICC West African Coordinator
Abibimman Foundation
Ghana National Youth Coalition on Climate Change (GNYCCC)
Energy crossroads-Ghana
P.O.BOX BT 1 Tema
Flat 1/A 74 Site 3
(OPP T.DC),Commmunit 1
Tel# 233-22-213918
Mob# 2332-244023651
I’m on assignment to my generation.

Abayateye Philemon
9 Apr 9:30pm

Little efforts backed by that genuine spirit needed for action will take us there. The cases you presented are apt, especially as i can talk on the one proffered by the Ghanaian. The fears for the future are fair as we have discovered oil because this will go more to worsen the case. But, with effective advocacy on what we can do as individual citizens towards halting the negatives of climate change will surely help. We individually have something to do that does not require the intervention of sovereign authorities. It’s all about being responsible to the feelings of the climate( if it were human) coupled with advocacy from the enlightened. We can’t disappoint the world and future generations this way.
Thanks so much, Ben, and keep the struggle towards positive geo-action