Transition Culture

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

Transition Culture has moved

I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

2 Apr 2014

On Transition’s impact and reimagining the road to Paris 2015


Monday’s IPCC’s report presented a stark and focused reminder that business as usual will lead to “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts”, and that the impacts of climate change are already “widespread and consequential”.  Our theme for April is “what is the impact of Transition, and how do we know?” In this piece, I want to explore three questions.  What is the impact we hoped Transition would have when we first came up with the idea, what impact are we actually having, and what could we be doing differently to increase that impact? Big questions, especially in the light of the IPCC’s report.  Although we’ll go into them in more depth as the month goes on, let’s make a first stab at them here. I also want to run an idea past you. 

What impact should we be seeking to have? 

The draft Strategy for Transition Network captures this quite nicely: 

When we use the term “Transition” we’re talking about the changes we need to make to get to a low-carbon, socially-just, healthier and happier future, which is more enriching and more gentle on the earth than the way most of us live today.

In our vision of the future, people work together to find ways to live with a lot less reliance on fossil fuels, much reduced carbon emissions, improved wellbeing for all and stronger local economies.  The Transition movement is a social experiment, in which communities learn from each other and are part of a global and historic push towards a better future for us and the planet.

The idea has always been to serve as a ‘detox’ for the West, as an approach that makes the process of reducing carbon emissions and oil dependency feel like a move towards something rather than a move away from something.  It has sought to be a depoliticised and viral approach.  A call to a mass rolling-up of sleeves and getting to work.  It has been an exploration of the extent to which it is possible to influence change from the bottom up in a constructive and solutions-focused manner.  The intention has been to be one of the ideas “lying around” in Milton Friedman’s famous quote: 

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

In The Transition Companion, Transition is framed as being a number of things simultaneously, an inner process, leading by practical example, an approach rooted in place and circumstance, a tool for turning problems into solutions, a cultural shift, an economic process and a storyteller.  Ambitious?  Yes.  These are times that demand ambitious responses.  As does the IPCC report.  But how are we doing? 

The Mayor of Bristol celebrating the fact Bristol Pounds can now be spent on the city's buses.

What impact are we actually having? 

This is a big question.  We shall be exploring it this month in some depth.  We’ll be talking to science historian and author of The Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes.  We’ll talk to Gill Seyfang, the academic who has probably done more Transition-related research than anyone else and to Jo Hamilton, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, who is currently developing ways to enable Transition groups to measure their impact.  We’ll ask Michael Shuman for his thoughts on how to evaluate the success or otherwise of any resilience-building/localisation process.  We’ll discuss resilience/happiness indicators with Nic Marks and Lorenzo Chelleri.  

We’ll ask Eamon O’Hara, author of the recent Local communities leading the way to a low-carbon society report from AIEDL for his sense of the impact Transition is having in the European context.  Various researchers who have done interesting research on Transition/community resilience will share their findings, with the only stipulation being that they do so in as plain English as possible.  

We will also be hearing from Transition initiatives around the world their answers to the question “tell us one way Transition has affected you or your community?”  We’ll also hear, as we do every month, from Sophy Banks on her thoughts on all this from an inner Transition perspective. And if there’s anyone else you think we should be talking to, please let us know. 

Let’s do a few quick answers to a few impact-related questions.  Firstly, is interest in implementing the Transition model gaining pace?  This graph from the AIEDL study of Transition in Europe suggests so: 


Do Transition initiatives consider that the work they are doing is going well?  According to a recent study from the Walker Institute at the University of Reading, 75.7% of Transition initiatives considered themselves very or fairly successful.   

Is their work leading to practical changes at the community level? The evidence of that can be seen in the regular Roundups that we do on this website, and from the stories we’ll be hearing this month.  Also, the benefits people experience from getting involved might not always be what you might expect.  Research done on the Transition Streets initiative in Totnes found that:

Every person experienced the ‘feeling of taking positive action about issues that concern me’, and all but three had ‘better relationships with my neighbours’ as a result”. 

How does Transition contribute to the wider discussions around how to enable behaviour change on the scale demanded by climate change?  The AIEDL study concludes: 

These initiatives have been shown to be effective in bringing about behavioural change and in helping to establish new norms in society.  The wider application of these approaches must, therefore, be seen as an essential element of any broader strategy on climate change.  

What are the principal challenges Transition initiatives face?  Research by Blake Poland (who we’ll hear from later this month) looking at Transition in Canada, identified the three biggest challenges groups are facing: 

‘People’ were the challenge most often reported, including leadership succession, recruiting and retaining volunteers, getting participants out to events and maintaining momentum. Another big challenge was raising awareness, including the ability to reach new audiences, community complacency, lack of perceived credibility, and building partnerships. The third biggest challenge was a lack of available resources such as funding.

Members of Transition Loughborough out picking up litter.

Can Transition’s approach of tackling big political issues in a non-adversarial way ever hope to work?  Research by Andrea Felicetti (who we’ll also hear from) at the University of Canberra suggests that Transition is: 

“…characterised by a markedly non-adversarial approach, and that, whilst pursuing radical objectives, refrains from using confrontational means … although Transition can be understood as a social movement, the above feature represents an interesting difference between Transition and other movements”.

Do we know yet what are the characteristics of a successful Transition initiative?  According to the Reading study, they are:

A large number of founders, a good representation of diversity in the broader community, the presence and size of a steering group, the organization in thematic subgroups, the official TN recognition, the acquisition of a legal statutory form, specific training in transition and permaculture practice, resources (time and external funds), location (rural, rather than urban), a favourable context (i.e. perception of the TI by other actors), and cooperation with other actors (e.g. local authorities, business, media, other TIs).

Can Transition work in the developing world? A study looking at Transition in the context of South African townships concluded that “there are also lessons to be learned from the Transition town movement in so-called developed societies”.

Does having Transition, or Transition-like initiatives increase the resilience of a community hit by a natural disaster?  Some research focusing on Lyttleton in New Zealand concluded:

There is significant evidence in this research that grassroots action can provide a unique perspective on the needs and requirements of the local communities they are based in. If community support networks such as Project Lyttelton were extended throughout other communities the resilience of wider urban areas and countries may be significantly improved.

A panel of speakers at the launch of Transition Kitchiner/Waterloo Climate Adaptation Toolkit.

Can the kind of bottom-up response Transition, focusing on getting people together to do stuff together, actually be a key tool in engaging communities in responding to climate change?  A recent study by Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that: 

“Improvements in community social capital, while being one of the hardest outcomes to achieve, may ultimately provide the greatest benefit and lead to local championing of pro-environmental change”.

That’s just a taster.  I plan to gather more from the growing evidence base during this month to reflect upon once we’ve heard from all our contributors, and they will no doubt throw more light on this question as the month goes by. So let’s move on to our last, and possibly most important question. 

What could we be doing differently to increase that impact? And an idea. 


So here’s where I want to try something out on you.  I have written previously here about some of the ways I think Transition could increase it’s impact, suggesting that key to that are creating a learning network, supporting and resourcing core groups, bringing forward investment for Transition enterprises, becoming better storytellers and building an evidence base (which is kind of what we’re doing this month). So what else might we do?

In Paris, in December 2015, world leaders will meet for COP21, the latest round in the UN’s pursuit of an international agreement on climate change.  In the interview with Sir David King which we’ll be publishing later this week he makes it very clear that there is a huge amount of diplomacy going on behind the scenes, and that he is hopeful that this time, finally, a sufficiently ambitious agreement is within reach.  I’d like to run past you an idea, still evolving, about what the Transition movement might be able to do to help this push. 

Every time these things have happened before, we have seen the standard campaigning response.  International campaigns to put pressure on delegates and politicians to “do the right thing”.  People in polar bear suits marching with banners.  Yet none of those approaches, at least so far as I can tell, have made any difference.  I am reminded of what Andy Lipkis said when we spoke to him last month

The Bush administration was ready for all Americans to be protesting to try to stop the Iraq war. They expected that, they built that into their design. I was so amazed that they could say they didn’t care what the people said, that I had to think through why they did not care about that. How did they make it resilient?  Because all they cared about was as long as people kept consuming, especially petroleum, their objective was being met. They were counting on no-one changing lifestyles. 

The most radical thing sometimes that you can do is actually vote with your feet and vote with your dollars. I was going – “wow, yeah, they’re counting on people complaining”. Protesting and not changing. I started thinking that even the Obama administration is still using the same metrics as the Bush administration was, saying people won’t change on energy. “It’s going to take 35 years to reduce our energy use by 30%”. Well that’s BS, because we can choose to do that in a week. 

So how would it be if we, as an international movement, ran an international campaign in the run up to COP21 which, rather than the kind of “you should be doing this” type campaign that never seems to get anywhere, was instead a “look what we’re already doing” campaign.  It could be called something like “Come on in, the water’s lovely” (although with an awareness that with climate change the water is actually becoming more acidic and less lovely, so we couldn’t call it that), showing that people around the world are already choosing a 2 degree approach and thriving as a result.
Transition Loughborough putting up a new fruit cage in their community garden.
It would be a positive narrative about how people are rising to the challenge and loving what they’ve learned about themselves, their community, about what’s possible.  We could:
  • Create a series of short viral videos showing people around the world living in a way consistent to 2 degrees and having a great time as a result
  • Create a short manifesto around it, and get a wide range of organisations signed up to it
  • We could have one day where every Transition group invites their political representative to “come on in”, and spend a day with them, so that one Monday (say) all the representatives go back into Parliament having spent the previous day with their local group. 
  • An online campaign which gathers all of this together
  • All manner of other inspired stuff 
Copenhagen (‘Hopenhagen’) left everyone so flat when nothing happened that it took the movement for action on climate change years to recover.  Part of the reason for that was that all the power, all the permission, was given to the people inside the venue drafting the agreement.  How about we flip it around, and take the power back to outside the venue, and start living as though we had already created a world consistent with staying below 2 degrees, and celebrate that?  
In doing so we perhaps do what has never been possible in previous negotiations like COP, we take the fear out of the necessary changes, we show that we aren’t waiting for their permission, and that communities are thriving, rediscovering each other again, creating new economies and feeling inspired and driven in a way they never have before.  Doing so successfully would require engaging the international network of people, initiatives and hubs that have come together around the Transition approach over the last 8 or 9 years. 
What do you think?