Transition Culture

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

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30 Jun 2014

Sara Ayech: "Why Transition is all about politics"


The Transition movement sometimes claims to be apolitical, but I think that politics can be defined as any issue in which there is a conflict of resources, and a decision to be made on how to allocate them. Although Transition isn’t party political, it’s a global social movement that seeks to create massive social and economic change. We’re positioning ourselves as an alternative to a failing political, social and economic system and rejecting the ability of those currently holding power (the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events) to do what is necessary to save our planet. If that isn’t political, I don’t know what is! 

I don’t feel that steering clear of alignment with political parties and election makes Transition non-political. It feels similar to me to autonomous or community anarchism, which propose to build an old world in the shell of the new. Generally this refers to the process of creating alternative and autonomous structures of direct democracy, ready to step in when the old world of capitalism and the structures of the state crumble.

Transition’s central aims are environmental ones, but they also rely on a ‘crisis’ to interrupt the old economic structures and make a change to the new world – in this case created by Transition – inevitable. Of course we hope that the process of change will be a positive one, and that we move into a hopeful new future with ‘resilient’ local structures in place to ensure we still have food, energy and everything else we truly need. 

But there is a gap here. Economic crises, as we have seen in the last few years, do not necessarily bring the current system crashing down. Economic systems frequently reinvent themselves, becoming harsher, even less equal as those who control fiscal and monetary policy and banking find new ways to deal with capitalism’s regular crises. Although many of us assume that the multiple crises brought about by climate change will result in a substantially different economy in the long term, this may not be the case. 

PCTransition is not simply an environmental organisation that aims to enable communities to treat our planet more gently, but a multi-faceted movement underpinned by the principles of permaculture – ‘Earth care, people care and fair shares’ – principles that encompass our economic and educational systems, how we live and our social relationships.

In several cities in the UK, Transition initiatives have set up currencies, in others co-housing projects, and in many, social enterprises and community-owned businesses. This is a real life movement, already creating alternative structures that co-exist alongside mainstream economic and social ways of doing things. 

In the political sphere, the Transition Network lobbies national governments to change and enable environmentally progressive projects. And, quite sensibly, many local Transition initiatives have a relationship with councils and other local government institutions that can be a helpful enabling force in realizing and event funding our projects. In recent years some Transitioners have sought election to local government in order to enact greener policies.

So is the right thing to do, to continue this, perhaps even to align with the political party that most shares our values – the Greens? Personally, I don’t think so – a strength of Transition is that it is non-party political, with the possibility of engaging those from a variety of political backgrounds, and those who distrust mainstream politics (I don’t necessarily think we are succeeding at doing this already, but the potential is there). 

But we do, I believe, need a clear discussion about what the Transition project seeks to achieve. Are we content with the status quo, just more ecologically sustainable? Recent history has demonstrated that power does not disappear or dissolve, and those who hold it do not easily let go. Our structures of governance tend to resist becoming more directly democratic – they only do so when fought for.

Our current economic model is based on the concept of infinite growth, absorbing and co-opting anything that challenges it.  Businesses and governments are perhaps able to adopt the models of sustainability (renewable energy, local and organic agriculture, different models of transport etc.) that Transition develops, but not the whole picture we hope to achieve. It is difficult for example, to see how the ‘Gift Economy’ can become central and permanent (and not just a temporary reaction to economic downturn, or a pleasant sideline to the ‘real’ economy), without a challenge to existing power structures. 

Some of what Transition is suggesting and the models we are building can be absorbed into the current economic and social way of doing things. The parts that cannot are most likely the ‘people care’ and ‘fair shares’ parts of the permaculture model. In order to combat this, I believe that Transition requires an analysis of power, and an honest discussion about what we can and hope to achieve.

Sara Ayech is the co-ordinator of Transition Dartmouth Park in London, and is a Social Reporter (among other things!).