Transition Culture

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

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30 May 2011

Transition and activism: a response

This post is a response to Charlotte DuCann’s beautiful and heartfelt post over on the Transition Norwich blog arguing that Transition needs to more explicitly embrace activism.  It is wonderful to see, whether through that blog, through Transition Voice, or through the emerging social reporting project, new voices coming through in the Transition blogosphere.  Charlotte speaks powerfully to the split that some of those engaged in Transition feel, that they almost need to keep their activism ‘in the closet’ in order to remain engaged.  She states that she sees her post as a ‘working document’, and invites reflections, so here are a few of mine.

Personally speaking, while there is much in the post that I agree with, there is a fundamental point I profoundly disagree with.  Charlotte writes “to embrace activism as a dynamic force within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it”.  My very strong concern is that in fact it does just the opposite, and I will try here to explain why I think that.  Transition is often portrayed as somehow ignoring politics, as being about a retreat from politics.  As our Australian academic friend I wrote about last week wrote to me in another example of completely missing the point, “there are many good elements in the transitions movement, but it is in danger of becoming localised cultural relativism.  The lack of political voice lends itself to a bystander culture. If we truly want to empower people we need to put the politics back into discourse. Everyone has a right to fully understand the world they live in”.

I would argue very strongly that Transition’s non-embracing of activism has actually been one of its great strengths, and is in fact deeply political, but in a different way.  Charlotte quotes a member of the Rhizome Co-operative writing on the Transition Network Forum who wrote that “Climate Camp not only highlighted problems but modeled a sustainable eco-village of thousands with its own energy production, grey water, compost loos, vegan food, democratic decision making structures etc. Far more than just opposing stuff”.  Later in the piece Charlotte wrote:

“We have to see that without talking about our actions, without coming out about our radical nature, without sharing our private thoughts about the future, all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers, without connecting with all the land sovereignty movements that now exist around the world, Transition does not have the strength or wit or daring to challenge the dominant worldview”.

I think it is important here to take a step back here and take a closer look at that.  There is often a lament within Transition, although there is a great deal of great work going on to tackle it, that Transition is a white and middle class movement, that it is failing to gain traction beyond the ‘usual suspects’.  Danielle Cohen of Transition Stoke Newington recently published the research she did there about diversity, which included an interview with one young black woman who was one of the group’s founders.  She said:

“I didn’t feel there were that many people like me … I remember being in a meeting and there was someone just chatting complete s*** for 15 minutes… I often just found it really hard to talk”.

I think that Transition has been quite skilful over the last 5 years in  creating an approach and a vision that appeals beyond the usual suspects.  While “compost loos, vegan food and democratic decision making structures” may inspire those who go to Climate Camp, they may well have the opposite effect on those we are actively trying to engage.  We talk of people being ‘hard to reach’, but often the language activists use, the way they communicate, dress, speak, and present their arguments means, ironically, that they make themselves ‘hard to reach’ for most ordinary people.

Likewise, “sharing … all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers” is almost certain to relegate Transition to being seen as yet another deep green, left wing campaign group. If Transition groups are expected now to make space for the sharing of such insights, are we also prepared to create space for sharing for those who come from very different cultural backgrounds, as well as those who enjoy ‘Top Gear’, who work in industry, or who drive trucks for a living?  For me, a Transition group comes together to pursue an explicit mission, to make their community more resilient, more viable, more diverse, more entrepreneurial and happier.  That’s the focus, not explicitly on each person’s personal political influences.  If it were, we might just as likely have Transition groups that are only open to people who like particular genres of music or support particular football teams.  Charlotte argues that not incorporating an explicit role for activism in Transition “risks fragmenting” it, my very real fear would be that the opposite is far more likely.

Let me give you a couple of examples from Totnes, the Transition initiative I am most familiar with.  Ben Brangwyn, my colleague at Transition Network, has recently begun running ‘Dr. Bike‘ on Saturdays at Totnes market (see right).  The overt political statement goes no further than the tagline on his website “Keeping Totnes on two wheels rather than four”.  He offers free bike maintenance to anyone who turns up.  When, having had their bike fixed, they are told it is free or just for donations, some people have been known to well up with tears.  I don’t have any figures to back it up, but I would hazard that Dr Bike has probably done more to get people cycling again in the town than all manner of political lobbying or campaigning that has taken place in recent years.

Another example.  The secondary school in Totnes is proposing to turn itself into a co-operative Trust school, a really exciting development that offers many opportunities for the community to really get involved in the future of the school, as well as to take ownership of the site on which it stands.  A Trust needs partners, and the first organisation to be asked to be a partner was Transition Town Totnes (the other initial one was the Co-operative Society).  We think this is a hugely exciting opportunity to really explore with them what a ‘Transition School’ might look like in practice.  It hasn’t been a choice without controversy though.  A letter in this week’s Totnes Times argued “I am not sure I wish to have any pressure group directly involved and able to influence my children’s school”.  In response I wrote:

“TTT is not a campaigning organisation.  We do not have any party political allegiances and indeed have people engaged with us from all political perspectives.  We do not lobby or campaign.  Our focus is on making change happen on the ground, on helping the economy of this place to become more robust and reduce its impact.  Indeed in that way we are very similar to KEVICC’s other initial partner, the Co-operative, who were set up 150 years ago with similar aims of promoting bottom-up economic resilience”.

Last week's first meeting of the Economic Blueprint group in Totnes. Participants include Tony Whitty (former Mayor) and Richard Sheard (CEO South Hams District Council)...

My strong sense is that if we had spent the past four years campaigning against things in the town, very visibly aligning ourselves to particular causes or political perspectives, railing against things we felt ideologically opposed to, that opportunities such as being a partner with the local school simply wouldn’t arise.  Nor would the opportunity to work with our Town Council that is now keen to be a ‘Transition Town Council’.  Nor would the work we are now starting to develop an ‘Economic Blueprint’ for Totnes and district with the Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the District Council and other local organisations.  Nor would we have been asked to be on the steering group of Dartington Hall Trust’s Land Use Review, which is nearing completion (one of the largest landowners around the town) and which, in its current draft states “we believe that this will enable Dartington to model localisation as a vehicle for a new economics in transition, for rural regeneration, social entrepreneurship and job creation”.  Nor would the BBC programme ‘Towns’ which will be screened in September which we hope will present Transition thinking to a much wider audience.  I could go on…

What I am trying to say I guess comes back to that quote I keep using from Tove Jansson’s ‘Comet in Moominland’:

“It was a funny little path, winding here and there, dashing off in different directions, and sometimes even tying a knot in itself from sheer joy. (You don’t get tired of a path like that, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t get you home quicker in the end).”

What I take from the Moomin quote is that perhaps an approach which approaches change like innoculating a community with mycorrhizal fungus that runs and spreads and pops up in the most unexpected places but which operates below the radar will, in the long run, be more successful than traditional activism.  Joanna Macy, as Liz Day points out in the forum thread on this subject, argues the need for three strands to change:

1. Creating alternatives (local currencies, eco-housing, farm share schemes, etc etc)

2. Shift in consciousness – deepening insight about our planet and the place of human beings in the cosmos, and increased understanding of what needs to change, ie. the nature of the Industrial Growth System and what’s unsustainable about it.

3. Holding actions in defence of life – lobbying, campaigning, etc.

What I am arguing here, in essence, is that for the first and second of these to be most effective and to go a deep as possible, they will be far more effective if they stand on distinctly different ground from the third.  That is not to say that I don’t see many of those involved in more traditional activism and direct action as incredibly brave, ingenious, compassionate, creative and resourceful.  What Transition Heathrow have done has been extraordinary.  The stepping up of and its new focus on activism is very exciting to see.  But I also agree with Dirk Campbell who Charlotte quotes as saying “while these categories overlap and provide mutual positive reinforcement, they preserve functionality best by remaining distinct”.  Both things are more skilful and powerful through standing on their own distinct ground, in my opinion.

I appreciate the danger that for those engaged in Transition it might lead to a sense of perhaps being slightly schizophrenic, of living an ‘activist life’ and a ‘Transition life’ and having to keep changing hats.  However, I think that there is much to be gained from seeing that as an opportunity rather than an inhibitor.  When involved in Transition we often hope that people with a background in commerce, creating enterprises, the legal aspects of Transition, local councillors and so on will get involved in the Transition process and bring those vital expertise … but are we as interested in hearing their stories, where they were for the weekend while we were off protesting in Scotland against imported woodchip biomass, or who their sources of inspiration are?

Charlotte writes that “2011 is not 2010. It is the year when politics came back into all our lives”.  This is undoubtedly true, as libraries are closed, public services are slashed and so on.  Yet for me, rather than thinking that therefore Transition needs to explicitly don an activism hat and “lock on” as Charlotte puts it, I feel that the opposite is true, that it is even more urgent that we are successful in arguing the case for economic localisation and resilience, and that we model it in practice, creating new viable businesses, influencing Council decisions, creating broad networks of organisations, working with local business, bringing investment and expertise in to support this.  The question, ultimately, is does creating a culture of explicit activism slow this work down or accelerate this?  My sense, very strongly, is that it hinders it, and risks pushing the initiative, and the very idea of Transition, into a siding from which it will struggle to re-emerge.

When I was 24 and living in Bristol, I got over, as often as I could, to Batheaston, for the protests against a new bypass which was carving a slice off the side of Solsbury Hill, clearing ancient woodland, trashing some of the most beautiful English countryside in order to save commuters 2 minutes journey time.  It was insanity, and it was heartbreaking.  I remember one Sunday arriving there in time for some big action where the contractors were trying to move a digger or something, and there was a big rush to try and get on it.  I found myself in a huge crush of people, nose to nose with one of the security guards, in his luminous jacket and hard hat.  The security had mostly been brought in from low-income estates in the North East, and I said to the guy, “why are you doing this?  Why are you giving your time and energy to protecting something like this?”  “For my family” he said.  “Well, that’s why I’m here too” I replied.

It struck me really hard that day that perhaps the route to real change, long-lasting and deep change, isn’t through deepening polarity, but through a re-weaving of what has been torn apart, a seeking of common ground, an appeal to universal values, creating a safe space where people can sit together and not feel judged, and through the creation of viable, nurturing and life-affirming alternatives that have a strong and broad sense of ownership.  For me, the idea that  “activism as a dynamic force within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it” is deeply flawed, and risks undoing much of the good work of the last 5 years.   Discuss!


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


Jo Homan
30 May 10:06pm

Woah, this is the most heartfelt thing I’ve read for a while. I see myself as a local activist. However, the more I come to understand economics and power the more I understand the size of the problem, the amount things are going to have to change. I can see the temptation for radical and confrontational activism. At the same time, I can see how manifesting good projects pushes us in the right direction, more than doing things that define us in a polemic, ‘us and them’ way. And let’s face it, there’s enough work to be done. Isn’t it Candide who concludes that all he can really do in life is cultivate the garden?

Tony Lane
30 May 11:06pm

There is so much to think about and do, carefully. i can’t add much of benefit to what has gone before. What i do believe that all of what is being done to reverse our folly, must be based on sound values, and there the devil is in the detail. thees values include, a love of truth, and the truth of love,A sense of justice for ALL, spirit of cooperation, a sense of personal responsibility and serving the common good. get this right , the rest will folow.

30 May 11:07pm

If it is truly representing transition culture, I am very disappointed by this post. If there is to remain even a tiny chance to change the direction of the head-on road to societal collapse, we need to do the work not by looking how we can best market our movements, but to do the work by relying on scientific truth-seeking and utmost personal integrity. Arguing for a split between ‘transition self’ and ‘activist self’ undermines this integrity and is much more likely to ‘undo much of the good work of the last 5 years’. Also, I think that it is underestimating people in the majority world to claim that they’ll be put off by activism – wherever we look, from the Middle East to India to Latin America to Africa to Scotland, mass movements are built from longings to gain more freedom, more equality, the satisfaction of basic needs and rights, and to cut through the hot air frequently coming from the top. I don’t know of a single example of successful movements where key people have touched the masses by hiding their true beliefs. I think the way to cut through polarisation is by seeking interpersonal authenticity and truth, not by hiding crucial deep and emotional aspects of our personalities.

David MacLeod
30 May 11:38pm

Good post! It is sometimes hard to think beyond the methods of trying to bring about change that many of us have been involved with in the past, and it is good to be reminded frequently that there are sound reasons for Transition’s alternative approach.

Change on the scale we need to see will have to come from a larger segment of the population than has ever been moved by confrontational activist acts. The confrontational approach may win some battles, but is not winning and most likely will not win the war.

Perhaps we need to let go of the war model and the “us vs. them” approach. We’re all in this together. At the very least, we need something else to work alongside that approach.

In the very early days of Transition Whatcom (at our first public meeting, actually), we were asked very directly by a member of a local deep green organization: “What is OK and what is not OK under the umbrella of Transition Whatcom? I really want to know if having people who are aligned with the resistance movement is going to help or hurt Transition Whatcom.”

Our response was to develop a guideline paper that answered this question and would also serve as a more general set of guidelines. The paper we wrote was built on an attempt to balance the Transition principles of Positive Visioning with the Principle of Inclusion and Openness.


“As an organization we look to the Principles and Guidelines of the Transition Network and base our work upon those ideals; however, in regards to any issue, personal philosophy, theology, political persuasion and moral conviction, Transition Whatcom is (and we hope will continue to be) made stronger and more effective by being comprised of individuals with a wide diversity of opinions and beliefs. If you are involved with Transition Whatcom, come prepared to work shoulder to shoulder with people who may be very different from you in some or even many ways.”

“…To protect the identity of Transition Whatcom and the Transition Network of which it is a part, individuals or groups should use strategies or tactics that are in line with the character which the Transition movement was founded upon. Members of Transition Whatcom agree to use the principles and guidelines that define Transition when engaging in Transition work under the umbrella of Transition Whatcom.”

“When this identity is respected then each of us can participate together in the projects of change we decide to undertake as Transition Whatcom, and yet have autonomy in our personal thinking and personal choices as we go. Whatever members do outside the scope of Transition Whatcom is their business and does not reflect Transition Whatcom as a whole, nor does it reflect on what other Transition Whatcom members believe or do.”

“…With an understanding that to be effective, change must involve as many residents as possible, and with an understanding that a focus on positive outcomes will engage the greatest possible participation, TW is committed to employing (with shameless abandon) the powerful tools of “anticipation, elation and a collective call to adventure” (as stated in the Transition Handbook).”

“NOTE: In terms of questions or concerns about confrontation in regards to Transition Whatcom, the Transition Network, and Transition Whatcom have made a conscious decision to avoid engaging as an organization in the more confrontational approaches to change. “Transition is something that sits alongside and complements the more oppositional protest culture, but is distinctly different from it. It is a different tool.” – Rob Hopkins, a review of “The Rocky Road To A Real Transition”

“…Transition Whatcom is open and inclusive to anyone, regardless of their beliefs and opinions. We recognize the need for an unprecedented coming together of the broad diversity of society. We dedicate ourselves to ensuring that our decision making processes and working groups embody principles of openness and inclusion. We endeavor to engage the diversity of individuals, community groups, the local business community, and local government officials. We believe that in the challenge of energy descent, it will take almost all of us working together to cope with the change required.”

“…We believe that each person has to follow their own heart and their clearest thinking to determine how and where they put their energies for the great changes we are undergoing. Since Transition Whatcom is open to anyone, we expect to have a wide spectrum of beliefs and strategies among our membership. There are many right answers, and it is not our job to judge others. We will focus on telling the closest version of the truth that we know, but our messages will strive to be non-directive, respecting each person’s ability to make a response that is appropriate to their situation.”

Complete text of the Transition Whatcom Guidelines Paper:

Jay D
30 May 11:44pm

My immediate gut response to this discussion would be that it depends on what your post transition vision is and that if,
“I feel that the opposite is true, that it is even more urgent that we are successful in arguing the case for economic localisation and resilience, and that we model it in practice, creating new viable businesses, influencing Council decisions, creating broad networks of organisations, working with local business, bringing investment and expertise in to support this.”
(my what a lot of business),is the immediate concern then the activists path is not the way to go.A different vision however might follow a different path.
My own feeling is that the scale of the approaching economic/political tsunami is such that tinkering at the edges of a thoroughly corrupt business/economic model is akin to pissing in the wind and that garden really needs cultivating!
@Jo……on the ‘us and them’ point,when you stop to think of how few of them there really are then pointing it out to people shouldn’t be so divisive.WE really are going to be “in it together”!
Hopefully this debate will be appearing in a square near you soon.

Peter Brandis
31 May 1:10am

Rob – do you ever broker criticism of Transition? Are you really listening to the critical voices? Really? Are you really so certain?

Julie Barker
31 May 1:42am

Thank you for the words in this post that I find inspiring & useful.

They bring to mind a quote from Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

I see leadership potential in Transition Town for creating new models. Debate, actions, many paths needed to set humans in a direction that will lead towards a better future for this wonderful world. Potential for taking us beyond hope?

Joanne Poyourow
31 May 3:28am

I agree that Transition needs to remain quite separate from political activism. But for very different reasons than Rob gives.

In the T. Handbook, there is a quote from David Ehrenfeld: “Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.”

There are plenty of organizations out there that are doing the political activism thing. There *aren’t* very many organizations that are working to put in place a vast, networked, comprehensive “shadow structure” for a post-petroleum society. That is what is completely unique about Transition.

Through the Transition movement we are putting in place the foundations of a future that is radically different from the underlying paradigm of the current political system. Not just a slight bit different, but way different. To imagine we can turn the Titanic that much by using the current political system, is fantasy. (this is the abbreviated form – I wrote about this it in detail over at Transition US )

For example, do we imagine that we will reform chemical- and fossil fuel-dependent agribusiness by using political action and lobbying? No, we’re not that foolish. Big agribusiness just doesn’t “get it” what’s wrong with their paradigm, and there’s insufficient time. Instead, we’re out digging community gardens and learning organic urban agriculture and creating neighborhood harvest exchanges and setting up CSA networks so that we have a “shadow structure” in place for when the existing system fails.

It is reflected in economics too. James Gustave Speth’s book is all about pondering how we might change using the current system, but again and again he admits the political blockade that will prevent real, fundamental, root-level change from happening. (I wrote about that one in detail in “Economic Resilience” )

Bart Anderson
31 May 3:36am

It is important to figure out how Transition and activism can work with one another.

There are plenty of activist groups already, so there’s no need to re-invent them through Transition.

Transition has a different approach from conventional activist and political groups. In this period, I think this approach resonates with more people.

As someone with a political orientation, I think the best way to work with Transition is to
1) Learn from the group and networking processes that Transition is so good at.
2) Be a friendly ally with Transition where it makes sense.

Energy Bulletin
Transition Palo Alto

Bill Campbell
31 May 3:49am

Undoubtedly things are different in depending on local conditions, but in my section of the world the net effect of a decade plus of “activism” on my part was roughly zero. On the other hand, in the three months that our start up Transition group has been functioning, we’ve got a community garden, a food co-op, Farmers market opening next month, and a community web-site under construction. We’re building connections faster than I ever imagined possible and have been able to reach out to folks with common interests that would have certainly been alienated by the “activist” approach. We haven’t saved the world but we’re doing something…..which feels way better than beating your head against the wall.
Don’t get me wrong, I still support the same causes as before, but I’ve gotten much better at finding common ground in what I used to think of as unlikely places. A useful skill when you’re the fringe minority in a conservative town. If you want people in the street the activist approach is fine. If you want to get things done in your community, then you best speak their language. Two very different approaches that should be kept separate in my opinion.

Nick Towle
31 May 4:30am

A observant global roundup tells us that the horses have already bolted. The principle of ‘letting it go where it needs to’ means that a number of Transition initiatives already have a strong element of political engagement and overt activism. Experience suggests that part of this is entirely pragmatic. The smaller the community, the smaller the number of individuals to draw upon to establish an initiating group. So should such communities relinquish the opportunity? as ‘non-embracing’ of activists for them means no Transition or a heartbreaking sense of responsibility resting on too few shoulders. My feeling is that a much more productive conversation would be on ‘how do we support (within transition) those who find meaning in voicing the need for change?’.

One of the issues raised by this post is the particular framing around what it means to be an ‘activist’. I know activists as being caring, family oriented people, who hold and speak a positive vision for how things could be, courageous individuals who are willing to risk financial and physical security in order to protect their communities from those who would injure them for short term gain.

I don’t believe that alienating such individuals by using commercial jargon such as “deep green”, ‘radical’, “left wing” ‘protestors’ is particularly aligned with the principles we have learned through Transition training events, though it does create a perfect wedge for vested interests to divide an increasingly powerful movement for change.

For many of us we actually stand on the shoulders of activists in order to promote the merits of Transition. An observation made locally is that interest in Transition has diminished over the past three years as movies such as ‘An inconvenient truth’ have faded from public consciousness. So we revert to the awareness raising strategy of Transition and ask our activist friends to raid their cupboards for material that will inspire the next wave of interest. One tool of activism is already explicitly written in to the Transition Handbook.

This could be a very circular debate and I think for Rob or anyone else to ‘win’ others over to their point of view we really need to see more runs on the board. As friends recently visiting Totnes commented ‘we got the sense that more people were informed about the challenge of climate change and the like, but it didn’t seem they were any more engaged in taking action than people in other towns we visited’. A set of more robust ‘resilience’ indicators are urgently needed if we are to show that any particular approach is generating successful changes.

Yours in transition,

Nick T

Victoria Austin
31 May 4:56am

We live in the heart of Pennsylvania German culture – where you are counted as new in town if your grandparents were not born here, and where people look askance at you if you trim your trees differently than the last four generations who lived in your house did it – thinking that maybe you are not capable of managing that task.

There are great strengths in the culture of our town. Fast food and Wal-Mart are NOT a daily part of our way of life, or for those around us, as it’s a minimum of 15 minutes drive away, and most of what people need is available at our country store, or the butcher’s shop, or the vegetable stands set up by our neighbors.

But people are not quick to accept new ideas. For us to begin by announcing our left wing activist beliefs, would most certainly alienate all but perhaps one of the total 72 families who live in our town. For us at least, it is essential that we begin by hearing people where they are, and not pushing where we are on them too quickly. By being listeners first, we can find common ground, common concerns, and common needs, as well as discovering what gifts each community member has to offer, and how to honor those gifts in a way that will encourage them to keep giving it, and to also focus on the common ground with us, even though we’re new and weird and different. To do otherwise due to a sense that urgency is more important than connection, would be to loose everything that the transition movement is about.

Paul Bristow
31 May 8:48am

I try to address it thus: if you’re for something, it can be a Transition-style thing. If you’re against something, by all means go and protest (and I might even support it, personally) but being against something isn’t supporting the positive vision that I feel strongly is one of the main benefits of Transition.

31 May 9:31am

Simply pushing back in anger can make those we oppose push back harder too … and actually make the problems bigger.

My view of ‘activism’ is that it’s a broad umbrella term for all the ways we bring our hands and voices to the issues we feel strongly about.

I think that the most subtle forms of activism can be the most effective – building what we wish to see, whilst quietly standing firm in our beliefs.

31 May 10:55am

Hm. My concern is that Charlotte was aiming at the boarder mass of people, people who have never heard of transition or of why it’s needed.

Be clear: Most (95%?) people live in the consumer “Happy Motoring” daze and mostly think that’s fine. And they don’t want to hear of any more trouble; they have enough right now, thank you. So they’ll keep on motoring till the day the last drop is gone.

Then they’ll wake up. But not till then.

Q: How to encourage them to be interested, before that point???

// another point which I expect to come out, but which I never hear of. The profits on the downhill 1/2 half of the oil supply diagram will be massive. But, for that to happen, the captive buyers MUST be kept locked in a-buying oil, paying whatever $$$$$ demanded. So, there will be a significant push by the oil companies to make this so / shut up the transitionists. They do not want transition; it’s against Oil Co. commercial interests. Yet I see no big push back; the present push-back is all vs. Climate Change. Perhaps they’d come out and play, if the TT movement looked like dominating?

Russ grayson
31 May 12:45pm

I like the ideas expressed in the last paragraph of the piece. Yet, reading it brought to me a sense of deja vu. Handn’t I visited this territory sometime in the past?

Yes I had. This is an argument quite similar to that between environmental activists and the Permaculture movement in Australia and we had it back In the nineties.

Then, Permaculture presented itself as actively developing alternatives rather than merely opposing and campaigning. Permafolk would point out that many – certainly far from all – activists would campaign then go home to rejoin the society that had thrown up whatever it was they had campaingned against. This was, and is, a distinct demarcation between the two movements although many Permaculture people are active in campagns around climate change.

In Australia, Permaculture is the stronger movement in comparison to transition and there appears to be substantial overlap between the two. I find that people are sometimes confused about the difference and which they should be active with. Sometimes, often, people are active in both.

The environment movement has been quite successful and politically influential in this country. Transition/Permaculture is less so to a substantial degree. Yet it has gained a grassroots support and participation. One reason for this is that activist organisatiins have become professiionalised and offer only participation in rallies, making donations and signing petitions to members. Permaculture and transition offer hands-on, creative activity that is accessible and that captures the imagination.

31 May 1:19pm

If I’d wanted to be a part of an activist environmental group, there are hundreds in the U.S. to choose from — Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, N.R.D.C., Defenders of the Wildlife and so on.

I co-founded a Transition initiative in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the very conservative Great Plains region of the U.S. to bring people together for the purpose of building community resilience and sustainability. To inject our personal political views into the mix would do just as Rob has so eloquently noted — it would send a divisive, polarizing message, and immediately marginalize Transition — just as injecting Transition with our personal spiritual viewpoints does the same.

There are plenty of organizations for environmental activists as well as religious and spiritual organizations. Trying to make Transition into yet another activist or spiritual organizations duplicates efforts, undermines its big tent approach and since we will be judged as a movement by the actions of one — will marginalize the movement as a whole to a left-wing, and in our part of the world “extremist” group.

To presume that all Transitioners are Marxists, or in agreement with Naomi Klein or any other author or environmental celebrity feels presumptive and exclusive, especially since many of us are not Marxists and may or may not agree with with Klein and others.

No one is asking anyone to give up their personal beliefs to be a part of Transition. You do not have to become a liberal, conservative, Buddhist or Catholic to be a part of the Transition movement. You can go to church or a political party meeting of any stripe, or be a member of an environmental activist group or even be a climate change denier who is deeply concerned about peak oil or an atheist — and still be involved with Transition. And that fellow Transitioners is the beauty of Transition. But since those other groups already exist and fulfill those needs in other realms, why oh why would we duplicate those efforts by allowing Transition to be hijacked for any one person’s personal beliefs or agenda and make it into yet another spiritual or activist group? How would we feel if the Tea Party in the U.S. for instance declared their principles and beliefs were best suited to represent Transition in the U.S.?

I applaud Rob for standing firm in the nonpartisan principle of Transition. It exemplifies the essential ingredient of community building — inclusiveness — transcends divisive barriers and keeps the dialogue, conversation and much-needed work open to all, regardless of political, spiritual or religious beliefs.

Luke Devlin
31 May 3:42pm


Point one: What Rob is arguing for here is a very political act. He’s calling for what’s called ‘triangulation’- presenting oneself as above left and right, to appeal to those not already in one’s constituency (in Rob’s case, the activists whose appearance and speech he seems to find so distasteful!).

The problem with triangulation, as the Lib Dems found out at the recent Scottish Parliament and English council elections, is that if you take your ‘base’ for granted, you’ll get wiped out: and your ‘new’ partners you’ve so carefully cultivated hold you in contempt as useful idiots.

This idea of having a full wardrobe of “hats” to switch between is political cant of the highest order, straight from the Mandelson playbook. The problem with always wearing an extensive hat collection is that you begin to forget which hat you originally wore in the first place.

Never think that concealing your true beliefs for political expediency is a wise move: it’s inauthentic and duplicitous- and everyone can see right through it immediately (as the wise Totnes Times letter writer did).

Point two: Although the Diverse Roots to Belonging conference had much useful exchange of ideas, it’s clear from the tone of Rob’s post that the Transition movement isn’t seriously looking at social class and inequality yet. This isn’t just because of Rob’s political triangulation (“don’t mention the poor- it might upset Totnes Chamber of Commerce!”): it’s because of a massive blind spot in which Rob’s elusive “ordinary people” (working class people, indigenous people, ethnic minorities) are seen as the ‘constitutive other’- the exotic great unwashed species, seldom seen in the wild in Totnes and certainly not the safe Transition in-crowd elites. With such othering taking place, is it any wonder that “ordinary people” usually steer well clear, when it’s obvious Transition is not for them, or by them?

Believe me, people who “dress and speak” in ways that would be beyond the pale in the genteel streets of Totnes are listened to and respected in Glasgow in a way that a suited-and-booted spinmeister with a mouth full of doublespeak and a lovely collection of different hats for every occasion never would be. It’s about authenticity.

It’s not enough just to link to Danielle’s research- it’s necessary to also understand the sort of thing she’s pointing out. The language and political naïveté displayed here suggests there’s a long way to go- if you’re not careful Rob, you could end up being the Nick Clegg of energy descent! C’mon, you can do better.

David Price
31 May 3:53pm

I think this is a very valuable discussion, but it does remind me of one of my favourite quotes (if only I could remember who said it!): “There are two sorts of people in the world; those that split people into two sorts, and those that don’t!”

In Rob’s blog about the straw man last week he emphasised how he doesn’t envisage a Transition that sets out to do everything, and I agree that indeed it can’t. I’ve met Charlotte many times and always enjoy our chats; she has a warm and generous world view, and I share her desperation for change, and sometimes I want to SHOUT for that change.

However I keep coming back to the idea that people will listen more if I shout less, and ‘do’ more. I also think that this is something about my character. Individually we all make contributions to the collective effort in the ways that employ our skills most ably, and give us each the greatest rewards.
This also applies to place as well as individuals. Local campaigns for local resources that are integral to the local economy seem to me to be at the heart of what Transition is all about.

I think perhaps one of the best and worst features of Transition is that it speaks as a chorus not with a single voice. On balance I think it is far more preferable to have a mass of unique voices that harmonise to create a rich and beautiful vision for a future. To adopt an activist stance could result in a stronger more powerful single voice, but it would not reflect the complexity of either the choices that we have to make, or the future that we face.

Trish Knox
31 May 5:55pm

Sacred Activism is the Heart and Soul aspect of Transition. This goes beyond mental concepts that are entangled in ego and opinion that divides. Sacred Activism is heart to heart connection with all parts of one’s ecosystm. It’s a positive and creative orientation.

In my personal experience Transition Woodinville has created a community of like minded and like hearted people. It is very meaningful as we learn to co-operate, organize, and reach out.

The most critical part of being in Transition is to have fun and be light hearted. Yes, even as our systems are crumbling. The mental mind is so very serious. Lighten up! Find agreement instead of diviseness. Focus on what is working instead of what is not. Get beyond politics as usual.

Community is the core outcome of Transition activity and movement. There is no community without communion of Heart and Soul. This carries new energy/vibrationl.

Thank you Rob. Keep up the good work of building Transition communities locally and globally. The planet welcomes new systems that are heart and soul centered.

josiah Meldrum
31 May 7:41pm

It’s pretty clear to me that a lot of the people commenting here have not actually read Charlotte’s blog post!

Please do:

When you do you’ll find that, ironically, Rob has set Charlotte up as a straw man in just the way he was bemoaning happens to Transition a few posts ago on this blog.

Rob, you appear to have (intentionally or otherwise) misrepresented Charlotte’s arguments with selective quotes in order to deflect rather than encourage discussion about the key issues she raises (and which others have already talked about in this thread – Nick and Luke especially)

I think, given that Charlotte is doing this work for Transition, that you should reproduce her post in full here so it can be easily read alongside your response.

31 May 8:26pm

Hi Josiah, that’s a very good suggestion. I’ll post Charlotte’s post here tomorrow morning. I’m sorry if you feel I have set up a straw man in my reflections on Charlotte’s article. I hope not, I felt that I read it through several times and felt I was responding to the spirit of the overall piece, which I thought was a really good article.

If you want to point out particular things you feel I misrepresented I’d be happy to respond to that. I had written assuming people would read Charlotte’s piece first, but as you say, that would appear not to have happened in some cases, so I’ll post Charlotte’s article in the morning.

With very best wishes….

josiah Meldrum
1 Jun 12:28am

Thanks Rob,

I have a particular problem with the way you have used the first block quote, to set the tone and to frame ‘activism’ in a particular light which by implication (though not, I think, explicitly), you then attach unfairly to Charlotte’s piece

Later you re-quote this section:

“sharing … all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers”

You seem to use it here to suggest that Charlotte is implying we are, as Transitioners, all Marxists, or Deep Green or lefties, you then appear to be saying that, because all activists are Marxists, Deep Green or lefties this is potentially a problem for Transition.

But just because we’ve (and obviously I include you) have taken an interest in those writers, thinkers and movements means nothing of the sort: even agreeing with a lot of what they say doesn’t – heck, Klein is all over this blog, the diggers and levellers were a fascinating bunch with a lot of interesting lessons for us and Marxist theory shaped much of 20th century historiography and politics so we need to understand it.

You go on to say:

“For me, a Transition group comes together to pursue an explicit mission, to make their community more resilient, more viable, more diverse, more entrepreneurial and happier.”

Well exactly! And that means the collection and sharing of knowledge and insight, which is what Charlotte is talking about – that she does this through the prism of her own reading and her own experience is no crime; in fact it’s the one of the strengths of transition – I’m reading about Catholic distributism at the moment to better understand Schumacher’s later years, the Mondragon Co-op and the Big Society as imagined by Philip Blond and perhaps many other Conservatives… But I’m not a Catholic, or a conservative – or even Spanish for that matter!

So it’s what you’ve done with that quote and the context you’ve used it in (I think out of context but you may disagree) that I think does most harm to Charlotte’s piece and which has attracted the majority of comments from those who I suspect haven’t read her article… all of which might have put people off reading an admittedly long, but also reflective and I think very useful piece.

If this come over as rather short or in anyway rude please do kill it in moderation – it wasn’t my intention, but it’s late and I’m making the mistake of typing straight into the comment box.

Best wishes – sounds like exciting things are happening in Totnes!


(And, yes, I do count myself as an activist – not least because I’m involved in my local Transition Initiative)

josiah Meldrum
1 Jun 12:31am

Yes it is late… I see my grammar has gone all Norfolk in a few places!


David MacLeod
1 Jun 12:58am

Luke wrote: “This idea of having a full wardrobe of “hats” to switch between is political cant of the highest order, straight from the Mandelson playbook.” And “Never think that concealing your true beliefs for political expediency is a wise move: it’s inauthentic and duplicitous…”

Luke, that’s quite a cynical interpretation of what Rob and some of the rest of us are saying. I don’t think anyone here is suggesting people conceal their true beliefs, and political expediency is not what this is about.

What it’s about, in my view, is honestly respecting and inviting people with different viewpoints into the Transition movement. Do we really expect that all Transitioners are going to have the same opinions on Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein?

For myself, I considered it a step of personal development when I shifted from thinking I had all the right answers to feeling a greater level of appreciation and respect for people who think differently than me – respecting different value structures, and respecting different perspectives.

In addition, I also think this is a more effective strategy (political cant?). As Ken Wilber has said, “Ego-centric environmentalists cannot recognize values other than their own, and because of that they put a strangle hold on those behaviors that would help Gaia. Eco-centric thinking is ego-centric thinking.”

I see Transition as a somewhat brilliant process that helps us side step the some of the ways environmentalists of the past have unknowingly hampered their own efforts, and it lines up for me with some of the insights of Wilber’s Integral model, and the Spiral Dynamics model of Clare Graves and Don Beck.

For our Transition Whatcom Guidelines (discussed in my previous reply above), we attempted to stress and make clear that individuals are encouraged to engage as individuals in whatever they feel called to do and express their viewpoints freely. But as a whole, our Transition Initiatve would only engage in activities that are in line with the principles of Transition (as we understand and interpret them).

1 Jun 8:08am

Thanks Josiah… I have posted Charlotte’s piece as suggested. You write that “you seem to use it here to suggest that Charlotte is implying we are, as Transitioners, all Marxists, or Deep Green or lefties, you then appear to be saying that, because all activists are Marxists, Deep Green or lefties this is potentially a problem for Transition”.

What I was trying to say was that I think it implies that we assume that is common ground we all share, and that our passion for those things are automatically shared by others coming into Transition. My concern is that putting those things upfront can be exclusive rather than inclusive, and I think we need to be more mindful of where that positions us. It is precisely because I know that not all Transitioners are Naomi Klein fans, Marxists or deep green lefties that I point it out.

The core of my argument was that I don’t think an overt focus on activism in the traditional sense benefits Transition and helps to deepen its appeal. Charlotte’s piece (unless I have misunderstood it horribly) argues the opposite, and that was what I tried to pick up on.

This thread has been a very interesting discussion I think. I don’t agree with Luke’s argument that ‘wearing different hats’ is naivete… my experience so far is that it is a very useful way of doing things… although as I have stressed, no-one is arguing here that it is the ONLY approach. I accept his point though about the dangers of being all things to all people and ending up like Nick Clegg… definitely one to be avoided!
Thanks all

Luke Devlin
1 Jun 9:30am

Hi all. Will try to be less snarky this time! 🙂

David: like any political group, Transition has diversity of values and beliefs. But Transition is almost entirely ‘green meme’ in Spiral Dynamics language although Spiral Dynamics is worthless in my opinion- even Wilber doesn’t use it any more- but you get what I mean (btw check out Esbjorn-Hargen and Zimmerman’s Integral Ecology if you haven’t yet- the only integral theory worth reading since SES- and Wilber himself is not useful on ecology.)

I agree of course on valuing different perspectives, and speaking to different people, but my point is that in my experience, this is helped not hindered by being frank about our own beliefs. ‘This is my truth, tell me yours’. Being slippery or vague about this is not helpful- and yes, that is what we’re talking about in my opinion.

This notion that Transition is non-partisan, bilateral, and non-political is a misleading idea propogated by Hopkins and others- for understandable reasons. Transition is a radical, bottom-up political program for transforming energy, infrastructure and food production, in oppositional relation to the status quo- with a political strategy of triangulation to make it more likely to succeed. This is entirely understandable and reasonable, but let’s call it what it is. Any openness to other points of view seems strategic- real openness means willingness to change ideas and that does not seem to happen easily with Transition! Both a strength and a weakness of the movement, although I accept of course as Rob says that there is diversity of views within Transition- as there is in any activist group, political party or campaigning organisation.

Anyway, if hat-swapping does prove to be an effective long-term strategy to further Transition’s aims then more power to you, although appropriate behaviour and communication for different audiences is just common sense- as long as the core message is communicated with integrity. Maybe it’s just not for me, but let a thousand flowers bloom.

1 Jun 4:03pm

Hi all – thanks for the original piece Rob . . . i found it really helpful clarifying where I am on this issue. For me it generally comes back to joanna macy’s three things -which i remember very roughly as create alternatives; change hearts and minds – I see transition doing these two very effectively and then the third is just STOP – which is when something very wicked just needs to be stopped – and thats where the direct action comes in and is essential. For myself i can applaud transition and put time and energy into it – and i can show up at climate camp and thats all fine seems to me. I don’t have any hats at all – i just use my energy differently at different times.

Thanks again Rob

1 Jun 4:49pm

A slightly different comment – I think it is important to not extrapolate too much from the experience in Totnes. The attention TT has focused on Totnes is obviously going to open up possibilities in terms of engagement with the local council and business, and perhaps the local population, that may not exist elsewhere. There will be advantages that come from being the ‘first’ and most well-known Transition Town, so the various developments that Rob lists must be understood in that light. Not to discredit them at all, but just to point out that the conditions (and strategies) for engagement and change in each place may be different.

Glenn S
1 Jun 5:06pm

“I try to address it thus: if you’re for something, it can be a Transition-style thing. If you’re against something, by all means go and protest (and I might even support it, personally) but being against something isn’t supporting the positive vision that I feel strongly is one of the main benefits of Transition.”


I can’t help, when reading this phrase, to think of the now-hackneyed analogy of bailing the titanic with one hand while pouring water into the ship with the other.

One need only keep up with current events to see how not only business as usual, but a marginally livable planet is receding into mathematical impossibility. Passively waiting for peak oil and climate impacts to compel the masses to shed their lifestyle for the new clothing of powerdown and localism will indeed mean the frog boiling in the pot and passing through a really narrow bottleneck. If that’s what it takes, then it’s pretty tragic indeed. So much so that I’d find it hard to put it all aside and enjoy those pot lucks and tree planting ceremonies.

I think Bill McKibben realizes this, which is why he only gives a qualified endorsement of Transition while following a more traditional (albeit unsuccessful) confrontational and top-down activist strategy of pressuring government.

While Transition is seeking to avoid judgmentalism and build bridges, at least in the US, public sentiment is steadily moving in the wrong direction, spurred onward by a public that is all-consumed with the economy and the need for quick relief for gas prices, who have lofted a new batch of Republicans who place climate denial as an ideological litmus test.

Meanwhile, organizations like the hitherto denialist-tilting IEA is starting to sound like Lovelock:

Maybe I’m putting too much of a burden on Transition to be some sort of panacea, but at the same time, Transition seems to oversell the actual real-world value of community as a mitigator of future suffering. Our collective consumptive habits–today–are what will determine what’s left of the planet tomorrow.

This is an individual responsibility few of us are aware of. And to my mind, challenging people to look in the mirror by showing them “The Story Of Stuff” and things of that nature are a critical part of what Transition should do, even though it makes people feel put-upon and some of them push-back to defend their carefully constructed world-view.

I don’t have the answers, but what I do know is that there is an ideological war going on now between the dying paradigm and a bunch of competing new ones, many even worse, vying for mind-share. Whether Transition wants to officially fight that battle or not, at the individual level people are going to have to get off the fence and speak up, whether they do so while waving the Transition umbrella or not.

And to be perfectly honest, I say that as someone who has done very little of that, because I hate conflict. But I do recognize the need.

Mike Grenville
2 Jun 12:43pm

A lot of the discussion here is around tactics without an agreement about what the strategy is. Or to put it another way, what is the story we tell ourselves as to how change comes about in society and what do we see as our role in this.

If you believe for instance that in order for energy descent, climate care, response to economic melt down etc etc to happen that we must persuade more and more people to change their ways then one could feel increasingly desperate if that change is not apparent to you. It would favour the need for increasingly audacious direct action in an attempt to provoke a change behaviour.

Another story would be that actually the industrial growth society is such a huge super tanker that cannot be turned around in time (and anyway is not a model that we want preserved) and has the seeds of its own destruction inherent in it. With that model helping communities prepare for short term collapse of long food distribution and manufacturing would be one to focus on.

There are other stories of how things will play out of course and none of us know exactly, but I believe that this debate about Transition and Activism is actually a debate about the different stories of the future we carry and it is these that need to be explored more fully.

Lundy Bancroft
2 Jun 3:17pm

Hi all,

I’m hoping we can move toward a practical solution to this thorny problem. I’ll start with a word about my personal experience. I was the main founder of our local Transition initiative and was really pumped up. The initiative continues, but I’m barely involved in it anymore. My energy was gradually sapped by my longing for more involvement in radical discussion and a shared activist mindset. I felt under steady pressure from within the Transition movement to soften my language, to avoid making references to certain issues, to be careful not to create the wrong impression. That approach is not for me. Nearby Brattleboro, Vermont, which has a movement called Post Oil Solutions, provided a model that I have come to feel more enthused by and that speaks more to my style.
A short way to sum up my persepctive is that systems of oppression and exploitation are what created both the desire and the means to destroy the planet, so I feel it is crucial to keep those dynamics at the center of our discussions as we attempt to stave off that destruction. I have more enthusiasm, therefore, to be part of a movement that is explicitly feminist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist, and that confronts the entire mentality of conquest of nature.
But I spoke of wanting to find a practical solution. Two possibilities occur to me. One is to create greater flexibility for local initiatives to choose their tone. Where I live in Northampton, Massachusetts, I believe a more explicity progressive or radical language would actually have made our Transition initiative grow much faster; we had about 80 people come through our first three meetings, and only about eight of those people stayed involved. Several of the people we lost stated clearly that they were impatient with our lack of clear action and bothered by our lack of attention to class issues. So I disagree with the assumption that the less socially critical, less politically left-wing approach works best everywhere; I believe that some places that will be the more successful strategy, and in other locations it will set us back, depending on many factors.
Another possibility would be to split Transition into two (friendly, mutually supportive) organizations, one of which is defining itself explicity as part of the progressive and feminist left, and the other of which does not. My gut feeling is that this approach is actually the one that would most benefit the overall movement toward relocalization and planetary survivial, a movement which faces greater urgency each day.

Best to all,

Lundy Bancroft

2 Jun 7:56pm

Maybe Charlotte could start a “Transaction” group — which would use the ideas she likes from Transition — and also include lobbying and protesting as a tactic.

That would make the distinction between the two models clear and those of us who are not interested in protesting and lobbying under the banner of Transition can continue using the Transition ingredients as they are now.

Glenn S
2 Jun 9:13pm

‘Maybe Charlotte could start a “Transaction” group — which would use the ideas she likes from Transition — and also include lobbying and protesting as a tactic.’

Isn’t that the problem we had a while ago with the battle with Mike Brownlee’s Deep Transition? He’s doing his own thing, is he not? But what is that leading to? A power-struggle over the ideological definition of Transition. Transition may be local, but there are still some overarching themes (or memes) or tactics (think the Transition Handbook) that define it globally, and it’s those things that are in dispute in forums like this where people converge from all over the globe in a big hive-mind.

If there’s no hierarchy, how do you resolve that? With perpetual argumentation? Ever heard of “a house divided on itself can not stand”? “Divide and conquer”? There’s far more of a united front on the Roger Ailes and Koch-brothers contingent, and I’m afraid that while we dodder around they may already have won in getting us to hit the accelerator pedal to make us hit the wall at maximum speed.

2 Jun 10:38pm

Glenn —

While I understand what you write, and I think where Transition is now as a conundrum, the aspect of Transition that inspires myself and others here in Oklahoma is the focus on practical projects and manifestations — doing things to prepare together and individually — rather than arguing about political ideology or lobbying or protesting — all of which take time and energy away from preparing for the barrage of challenges unfolding as we speak/write. It’s starting with what we have control over today at the most local level and seeing our own hands make the changes in our own yards or parks or neighbor’s yard. This work means living and working with people and organizations with a range of different viewpoints, listening and being willing to agree to disagree, to “practice humility … be as rugged and common as a stone,” is how the Tao puts it. The Tao also says “Seeing into darkness is clarity. Knowing how to yield is strength.” That may not be a good fit for some people and that’s okay too.

If another group or organization or several rise out of Transition and become “Transactioners” or some other variation — perhaps that is what is supposed to happen.

One might be tempted to say that indeed that is how Transition as a catalyst is meant to work.

3 Jun 10:21am

Rob, for a while I’ve been thinking that in many (maybe most) Transition initiatives, people have taken your concept of Transition, and ran away with it. And initially you probably thought that was good, “let it go where it wants to go” and all that, but it looks like you’re having second thoughts about it.

My take on this matter: you are right. The kernel of the Transition idea, as I always saw it, was local practical activities to deal with climate change and peak oil, and having an overall plan to deal with it, without getting involved in the usual activism and politics, and without turning it into some kind of hippy spiritual thing or talk-shop either. And it’s a fundamentally good, sound idea. And it deserves a place. Transition shouldn’t let itself be invaded by people who want to do other things and use the Transition banner because they think it will attract new blood to what they want to do.

It’s what happened in Transition Brighton & Hove, by the way, in a big way. Several people decided that Transition meant what they wanted it to mean, and then started fighting each other for power over the initiative. And from what I have heard, it’s happened in many other places as well. But you know what I hear most often from people that came for a few meetings of TB&H and then stopped coming? They were disappointed because they expected it to be practical, or having an overall plan, or be uninvolved in politics, or be more than a talk-shop… and they left. The average person, the one that doesn’t normally get involved in volunteering, briefly considered joining but they’re not getting involved because what they want to join is the original Transition idea, not the bastardized version.

The Transition concept expanded because many people liked the original idea. But it’s been taken over in many places by people who just don’t want to do something different from what they are doing. Let’s take Transition back.

Or, if that’s not possible, if there are too many people out there calling “Transition” something that is too far from the original concept to make any sense, let’s start something else.

Linda Hull
3 Jun 11:13am

I’d just like to take this opportunity to convey something that has happened in real life to me in case it can help to shed any light on this conundrum.

I co-founded Transition Glastonbury and soon after doing that got elected as an Independent on my town council. My feeling is that I was perceived by fellow councillors as a greenie regardless of my Independent label.

Last August, 8 months before this last election in May, I joined the Green Party and came out as the greenie i no doubt am. My overriding reason was because it was so bloody lonely being an Independent lacking support from people who had any understanding, or interest for that matter, in the political process – I myself had to learn on the job…

A month ago the Greens stood 11 candidates for town council and 4 got elected – we took 25% of the council from pretty much a standing start and polled more votes in the whole town than any other grouping. One of those elected has been very openly involved in Transition Glastonbury since the beginning.

Many people in town are absolutley delighted that people who are concerned with resilience and local food and energy production etc are now representing them at the Town Council.

Some of the new Green councillors have been told by existing long serving councillors that “they are pushing on an open door” – partly because some of the old blockers and deniers have been replaced.

So here it might turn out that getting involved in local politics leads to more practical manifestations because the town Council, despite having few real concrete statutory powers, is seen as an influential organ in the town. Certainly many people think the town council can fix everything!

i suppose what i am trying to say is that thinking that building a shadow economy is an apolitical endeavour is somehow bizarre to my mind and i personally feel it would behove all of us to be honest with ourselves and others about this.

Also, as we live just down the road from the planned new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point and we are potentially going to get 400 trucks a day through the town taking the aggregate to build it and we live on an island in a drained wetland next to the second highest tidal range in the world, if at some point we don’t take direct actions of sorts, we could be in very big trouble…

Anyways, don;t have more time to expand now but wanted to contribute another perspective to the debate. For sure, it will be interesting to see if and how anyhting is different in our town as a result of a very changed town council….


josiah Meldrum
3 Jun 2:35pm

Linda is so right. And so is Nick commenting on Charlotte’s article elsewhere on this blog.

Here’s another example.

For over a year we’ve been meeting in and making good use of the local library: we have a Transition shelf, with books and resources, we use the upstairs space as a meeting room and we held our permaculture course there. The group that attended that course decided to work together to create new garden for the library – and it’s fantastic.

Then this winter Suffolk County Council threatened to close the library unless a community group came forward to fund and run it.

We met to discuss it.

We’re not a campaign group we affirmed – so we can’t get involved (and there’s really no way we could fund and run the library). However, we did issue a press statement to reflect our unhappiness about the situation:

And then the phone started to ring.

Other library users wanted to know what we were going to do, the press wanted to know why we weren’t taking on the library or campaigning to save it. And so we began to co-ordinate a response, put on events, produce a scrapbook, use our local network, connect with other communities in Suffolk, talk to the County Council…

And the District elections came up, and two of use decided (at the last minute) to stand as Greens, and we pushed the Conservatives (who are making these changes) right to the wire:

The ‘noise’ from Suffolk Library (and other services threatened with cuts) campaigners, got louder, we collected around 25,000 signatures and kept the pressure up. Suffolk County Council got rid of their leader, replaced him with someone who immediately announced a partial U-turn, suspended the Council CEO and began talks with all groups involved.

Bungay Library is still under threat – but it is slightly safer now, we’ve lost no face in the town (and won a lot of new friends and supporters).

And throughout all this we’ve continued to have excellent relationships with our Conservative County Councillor and MP (we’ve helping the latter lobby for a more effective Energy Bill) and have had meetings with the new leader of Suffolk County Council to discuss what kinds of simple policies he might implement – from planning to transport to housing and many of our supporters are still Conservative voters; but they still turn up at events and meetings and haven’t walked away from the projects they’re involved in.

Obviously the Save Bungay Library campaign isn’t quite the same as an anti-nuclear demo or a protest about a new Tesco because it is unifying, and I think, as a Transition initiative there are plenty of things we couldn’t and wouldn’t campaign on, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space for more traditional activism or that Transition groups shouldn’t step up if they are best placed to carry something forward.

We’re a small town, we’re not by any stretch of he imagination Totnes. Things are different here, and we need to act appropriately.

Kenrick Chin
3 Jun 5:08pm

Good original post from Charlotte DuCann, your rebuttal, and the discussion here. Rob, I think you are being a bit overly harsh on Charlotte. You started out by saying “the Transition Norwich blog arguing that Transition needs to more explicitly embrace activism” when I think she is not saying this at all in her excellent article. I agree with what others have already said above, (Dan MacLeod, Julie Barker, Joanne Poyourow, Bill Campbell, Shauna and so many others). For me, a very interesting part of this post was seeing Ben “Dr. Bike” Brangwyn performing gratis bike maintenance. This makes two poignant statements of covert activism, pressing the need to make the paradigm shift to a “gift economy” and secondly, just doing it.

Sometimes covert activism can be more effective that overt activism. I cannot help but repeat the quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Barry Woods
4 Jun 3:32pm

I recycle, reuse, have loft insulation, low energy bulbs, a new boiler, cavity wall insulation, all before it was fashionable, haven’t been on a plane in 10 years and I even freecycle (which is excellent for decluttering house and mind)

Yet, the world is not the UK or even the US anymore, It is the developing nations, China, India, etc. France, Japan, Canada are pulling out of the Kyoto protocol (USA China will never agree)

In the last few months there has been a great deal of news about the shale gas revolution, and the prospects of centuries worth of coal and other fossil fuels opening up with new technology, fracking methyl hydarates, etc.
With these vast deposits coming to light around the world, China, Poland, India, USA, Canada, etc, the peak oil situation seems to hvae been put back a century or 2, this also has the promise of energy security

How will transitions come to terms with this. To quote from the Times yesterday.

“We might blame the way that Copenhagen achieved virtually nothing, largely because the big developing coountries, led by China decided that a future with growth and climate change was more attractive than a future with neither”

“Angela Merkel claims that axing nuclear power will lead to a more wholehearted programme of investment in reneawable sources, but this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. Nuclear power might not be the only answer to reducing C02 emissions, but anybody who tells you that it’s not likely to be the main one is kidding themselves.”

Has the Transitions movement had any thoughts about this, will it feature in Transitions 2 video. There would appear now to be no imminnent threat of collapse due to peak oil, as alternative fossil fuels are now abundantly, cheaply and lower co2 available.

The title of the Times article was:

We Care About the Climate: Just not enough.

John Mason
4 Jun 11:25pm

Barry, if all that you list is correct, we are however still back around to the same question in due course.

As in Spike Milligans’s legendary show:

What do we do now?
What do we do now?
What do we do now?
What do we do now?

Cheers – John

5 Jun 12:08pm

There is a forum discussion on Transition and activism here:

I think the last post proves my point that lots of people are taking Transition to mean whatever they want it to mean. Quoting from there:

“At one level our activism focuses on sourcing and leveraging social change, as can be see in our microeconomic strategy paper for Ukraine, as a work in progress. There’s activism through education in what we do with the Economics for Ecology conferences

The core activism is however, very much one of human rights and this is at the core of out efforts in Eastern Europe, in raising awareness of ‘Death Camps, For Children’.”

I’m not against anyone doing work in microeconomic strategy for Ukraine or raising awareness of poor conditions for children in Eastern Europe, but is that about climate change or peak oil? Is that local? Transition cannot be all things for all people. It needs to be clearly defined. What is it?

To give a personal example, I’ve been running the Eco Energy Fair in Brighton for the last two years. And invariably, people would come round trying to convince me to include all sorts of things. Why not organic food? Why not music and artists? Why not business-to-business? And my answer was always the same: I’ve seen too many green events that try to be everything at the same time, and disappoint everyone as a result. I want to give visitors a very clear idea of what to expect, and that way they won’t be disappointed. And it works.

Transition, trying to be all things to all people, has the same problem. If you try to please at the same time the activists, the spiritual types, the ones that want to broaden things to international issues, the ones that want to broaden beyond climate change and peak oil to other environmental and social issues, etc., etc., you’ll end up with something entirely shapeless that doesn’t satisfy anyone in the end. And what’s worse, you’ll find that each Transition initiative is an entirely different thing, with no sense of a common approach at all.

Barry Woods
5 Jun 2:26pm

Hi John, the point is, in due course would appear to have been postponed a few hundred years!

This surely must impact on Transitions, peak oil/energy now, in ten years, or so, is a very different message than in a few centuries.

I think the peak oil/energy message of transition does need to be revisted..

Unfortuanately many environmentalists/greens don’t read much beyond the Guardian Environment section..

From the Guardian BUSINESS section, a reliable source I think. or google for yourselfs ‘shale gas’ and/or ‘revolution’.

“The oil industry had found a new green message, and one more palatable to its thirst for drilling and exploration: gas. The development of new techniques for fracturing shale rocks to release their load of natural gas has revolutionised the energy industry in the past three years.

Suddenly, vast deposits of previously inaccessible gas have become available for exploitation.

The prospect of a global gas glut has sent prices plummeting, breaking the longstanding link between gas and oil prices, and has led to a bonanza among gas companies that, if fully realised, will dwarf the North Sea oil industry and lead to decades of cheap energy.

As a bonus, that energy comes with about half of the carbon dioxide emissions from coal, enabling the fossil fuel to be labelled as “greener” than the alternatives.

Smith is fully aware of the potential. “Shell will be more of a gas company than an oil company within two years,” he predicts, a huge change for a company with 50% more petrol stations than McDonald’s has burger joints (“my proudest boast at Shell”, he chuckles). It is hard to describe how big a change this represents to the energy industry; an abundance of cheap gas will transform its fortunes.

“If you can do carbon capture and storage with gas, then it can be a long term affordable source of green electricity,” says Smith. “It gives the world a breathing space.” What’s more, the sources of shale gas are widely distributed around the world.

“There might be 200 years of shale gas supply available,” he notes.

So much for peak oil.”

Wall Street journal, points out China has vast reserves on their doorstep
WSJ: How Shale Gas is going to Rock the World

Guardian agan:

“Shale gas hasn’t increased the gas resources of the earth by 10%, it has increased it by an order of magnitude,” he said last week”

Perhaps Transitions need to do a little thinking/research about this apparent game changing technology that has opend up hundreds of years of fossil fuels. Which apparently also offers lower emissions than coal and would help governments meet their emissions targets. It will be expolited even against some environmental concerns.(particulary in China)

I do think Transitions is a good idea, maybe reframed in the inevitable downturn of Western economies and standards of living, in the face of the economic growth of China/India and the other non-Western nations.

Glenn S
5 Jun 2:56pm

Barry, even if what you say about shale gas is true, nobody’s proven to be able to do CCS. Considering that we are now seeing the negative impacts of climate change, I don’t think having MORE fossil fuels to work with is any sort of good news in the long-run. The only way it would be good news is if it were used as a bridge-fuel to renewables. Instead what we’ll do is balloon the global population to 10+ billion, push almost everything else to extinction, and then fall into a malthusian die-off ourselves as the planet warms to 4+ degrees. Time to hit the snooze bar, right?

13 Jun 4:31pm

Rob, I think you will spend a lifetime warding off the activist faction. You are doing it ably, and I hope you stick to your guns. 🙂

[…] Rob Hopkins writes in his recent rebuttal to those who would push resistance activism into the Transition movement: What I am trying to say I guess comes back to that quote I keep using from Tove Jansson’s ‘Comet in Moominland’: […]

Ann Owen
30 Jun 2:20pm

This comment arrives a bit late in the day for this discussion, but it was inspired by Ben Branwen’s latest posting on his blog, which might just renew interest.

I think Transition Heathrow shows us how it is possible for activism and transition ethos and methodology to sit comfortably side by side. One project, several approaches. That’s the beauty of transition projects: no two are the same. What works in Heathrow’s case might not work elsewhere, but it certainly is one to watch with interest. I find myself disagreeing with Rob here; in some cases it will not only be appropriate to embrace the direct action energy, but even logical and practical. I would not like to see it stated categorically that direct action has no place within transition. Who knows what the future will throw at us? I’m not going to remove a potentially very useful tool from my toolkit, just because it’s a little scruffy and has a uncomfortable reputation. Balance and clear judgement is what is needed, always. Sometimes we’ll get it right and sometimes we won’t, but I would hope that most transition initiatives find a way to support their activists and honour their efforts and work.

All the best

Linda Hull
30 Jun 5:02pm

Hear hear Ann!

Mike Stickley
1 Jul 9:41pm

I make these observation speaking as someone who has fairly recently come across transition in the last few months whilst researching economic, social and green issues for my own curiosity…this from being a semi-climate change denier and strongly market-led capitalist, who is now disillusioned in so so many ways…

1) The idea of transition being a more neutral “just do it” practical philosophy rather than a single “shouty” cause appeals to me.

2) Some direct action causes do appeal to me (and indeed I may hope to become involved in some myself), however some causes do not – I would personally find it off-putting if a transition movement that I became involved with took up a cause that I felt less than happy about – this would possibly put me off participating if such were the case. I think the very diversity and learning to live with differing views approach may well be the defining sucess of the transition approach.

3) I believe that as Rob says it is possible to seperate out the causes you are passionate and active about from the general (as I would see it) necessity of transition as a means of developing post-peak lifestyles and economics – sort of like the difference between a passionate hobby and the day job.

4) It’s always been my thought that direct action often has the effect of polarising opinion rather than building and persuading a consensus – surely this is not the aim of transition (I hope not anyway!)

@Barry Woods – I seem to recall reading some research/commentry somewhere (big place the net… can anyone remind me where I found it?) that shale gas was maybe not what it was cracked up to be – in any event I would be somewhat cautious of claims made by big oil companies…and in any event as others have commented even if it’s all peachy it merely defers the problem and doesn’t address other problems in our society / economic models that transition to my mind seeks to address.

@josiah – I’m not so sure that what you did there (laudable by the way!) would be what I would class as direct action as such – more a response to a local need that was not being met by anyone else, sort of giving you mandate by default and to my mind falling within the remit of the general philosophy of transition (at least as I understand it! other people’s mileage may vary)

Anyway, my 2 penneth’s worth as a transition “maybe” convert 🙂

Good evening all!

PS disclaimer : I haven’t (yet) read the original article that Rob is responding to and am going off the comments I have read here – off to do so now…

Carol Guilen
15 Jul 9:10pm

I totally agree with Rob.

I think a core issue is to distinguish between politics as exerting citizenship (expressing opinions and engaging for the well-being of your community) x politics as parties (pre-made ideology and old model campaigning).

True that some activists scare the general public, creating more barriers than bridges. I think it’s not productive at all.

Most of all, as I see it, Transition is not a fabricated strategy, but a sincere, honest way of doing simple politics: if you want something, go get it, don’t just stand complaining. I think the strength of Transition is to get the hands on to build a better future right now. Virtually everyone could be willing to do it, no matter what the background people come from. In this sense, everyone who shares this goal is invited, and that’s why the space must remain an open and welcoming space for all people.

As I said before, for me Transition is the new form of activism, a more legitimate one and adequate for the new times we’re facing. I do value traditional activism (in some ways I can be considered an activist) but I think it’s time for its retirement in favor of Transition more practical approach.

A heartfelt note: reading this post, I deeply sense I finally found my place in the world.