Transition Culture

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

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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.

Monthly archive for June 2014

Showing results 6 - 10 of 15 for the month of June, 2014.

23 Jun 2014

Interview: Green Party leader Natalie Bennett


Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.  Her first degree was in Agricultural Science, which, combined with her Australian heritage, means, as she put it, that she’s “the only British political leader who knows how to shear a sheep”.  We caught up with her on Skype, and started by asking her what she would see as the key defining characteristics of Green Party politics…

“To summarise in one sentence, the kind of world we’re trying to achieve is that we need a society in which everybody as access to a decent quality of resources, but we have to do that within the limits of our one planet. I’m sure that no-one who’s listening to this needs to be told that currently in Britain we’re all collectively using the resources of three planets. So that means we really have to fundamentally transform our society, our politics, our economics, have real change to the point where we get that adequate resources for everybody within the limits of the planet.

How would you summarise the current state of British politics? What does the rise of UKIP tell us about that?

We have a failed political model. You can point to the technical aspects if you like, that we have an unelected House of Lords in the 21st century. You can point to the fact that we have an extremely low turnout in elections and widespread public dissatisfaction. But I suppose the positive side of this is that this is clearly, as indeed with our economics and the state of our society, an unstable situation and it can’t continue.

UKIP is one example of this situation. The rise of UKIP is a symbol of dissatisfaction particularly on the Right, and things are going to change. One of the interesting possibilities coming up is that the Scots could vote for independence in September.  Someone in a public meeting once asked me “but this would mean constitutional chaos, there are so many questions that haven’t been answered”, and I said “great … some creative chaos is exactly what we need!”

If, for example, the Scots did vote for independence then we’d almost have to create a written constitution for England and Wales and the remainder of the United Kingdom and that would create all sorts of possibilities to really reshape the whole form of our political system. More broadly we should change the content very greatly.

The Greens are the only party that takes a stance against fracking. Why do you think that nobody else will?

It’s really quite surprising that the Lib Dems in particular haven’t taken that stance. In the Coalition the Lib Dems have gone along with a lot of things, but he has come out twice and said “I love shale gas” in case anyone missed it the first time. It’s really quite astonishing.


As to why, I think it’s partly a function of the fact that the oil and gas companies have a great deal of lobbying influence both in Westminster and indeed in Brussels. I think it’s partly a function of the fact that there’s a lot of people in government who really can’t imagine the world changing. They just think the future looks much like the past.

It really is quite astonishing because there really is a total fantasy around fracking. David Cameron came out and said “we’re going to be fracking by the end of the year”, and all the fracking companies went “what? No we’re not!” Lord Brown of Quadrilla says that in five years’ time we’ll know if there’s frackable gas in Britain. Yet everyone’s running around as if this is an established industry that’s already pumping gas out. It does show a really quite disturbing detachment from reality in the whole way that fracking is talked about.

There was a piece in The New Statesman recently about the debates that will accompany the next election and arguing that the Tories are very keen to see the Greens as part of that because they hope that it would split the Labour vote. I wondered what your thoughts were on that.

That’s the reason given. I think it might have something more to do with me being a barrier to Mr Farrage for Mr Cameron actually. But I said to the BBC debates – any time, anywhere, any place. I mean that almost literally. We have a very strong case to present, very strong policies. We would like to be given the chance to present it to the wider public.

And we actually know that in places where we have strong local parties, we’re able to put boots on the ground and people really get to understand what the Green party stands for, we win strong support. So I would be delighted to take part in a debate, and as I keep telling the broadcasters, it’s the only way they’re going to get any gender balance!

Does the Green Party really believe that economic growth and tackling climate change on the scale it requires are compatible? And might the Greens be the first political party to explicitly question economic growth?

I think we already have, although I think it’s very easy to get bogged down into growth/degrowth arguments.  I’m not going to say we should stop metering GDP but we should stop thinking about it. What we should be thinking about is doing all the kinds of things that we need to do, which is improving public transport, improving walking and cycling facilities, insulating homes, building renewable energy, all that sort of thing, and stop doing lots of the things that we know we can’t continue environmentally to do and which actually make no economic sense at all like expanding and building new airports and all those sorts of things.

I’m very taken with the idea that’s been suggested of the traffic lights system, where you have maybe five or six meters that meter social wellbeing, that meter environmental wellbeing, and you say we’re going to keep those meters above the minimum level and we’ll make sure each one of those doesn’t get below that minimum level. One of those is the foundation of environmental standards and you often hear Caroline and me say we have to remember that the economy is a complete subset of the environment. They’re not two separate things.

Is an industrial society possible without growth?

What we’re heading towards, what we have to head towards, is a very different shape of society. Globalisation has very clearly hit the buffers and if we think of a very extreme example, that giant ship that arrives bringing loads of plastic tat from China, most of which will be in landfill three months later, what we need to do is relocalise our economy, bring manufacturing and food production back to Britain, to rebuild small-scale manufacturing, building things that last.


One of the things at the moment which at the point we are now looks hard to imagine, I go back to the fact that my grandparents, when they got married, they bought a suite of furniture, very good furniture and probably very expensive by the standards of the time and they’ve celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with the same furniture and fully expected to pass it on to their son as the really good furniture, and that’s the kind of direction we need to go in, rather than the kind of stuff you buy from a certain Swedish store that I won’t mention that falls apart after a year or two and you go and buy another set.

From a Green perspective, is the challenge of staying below 2° best served by being in or out of Europe?

In Europe very much. One of the vital things that Europe does is make a foundation of environmental standards. That’s obviously important to Europe in terms of the fact that all states in Europe are inter-dependent of each other. If someone dumps a whole load of pollutants into one river it’s going to affect other states as well.

But in terms of the broader climate change aspect, Europe has been an insufficient but somewhat effective force in starting to get people to think about these issues, and it’s really important if we set the foundations of standards in Europe and Europe is then a force in international negotiations. That’s much greater than we would be if we were on our own.

At the local scale, in some communities such as Frome, groups of Transition-minded people have successfully run for the town council and made big changes but as independents rather than as Greens. What’s your sense of the appropriateness or not of party politics at the local scale? Can it be self-defeating?

I think it’s very useful, because having a Green Party ‘label’ explains to people where you’re coming from. If you just look at a label that says Independent, that means a wide range of things ranging from people who think that UKIP are a bit soft and wussy to people who are basically indistinguishable from Greens. I’ve got no problem with people doing that, and there are many parts of the country where Green would be seen as too radical and people stand as independents who are very Green-minded and get elected on that basis.

What having people standing for the Green Party does is that we have a whole suite of policies democratically chosen by members of the party. There’s a whole background and framework of support there. Obviously someone who’s an Independent can form views very much on local issues and have their own views on national issues, but they are just their own views. If you have a whole party where we have democratically-formed policy with lots of people and experts putting into it, that really is an important and useful support structure.

What’s your sense of what a Green government could do at a national level that could best support the work that Transition groups are doing at a local scale?

We’re going to transform our economy. I was at the Bristol People’s Assembly last weekend and had a really interesting discussion there about how do we make transformation happen. One of the things is at the moment big multinational companies just ride utterly rough shod over the rights of their workers, they ride rough shod over the environment.  They ride rough shod over local communities.

In Camden where I live in central London, we had a Green Party pop-up shop that was opposite one of the main chains’ mini stores. It was doing things like coning off the road for an HGV-sized space 24 hours a day and 4 or 5 times a day the HGV would draw up and park illegally, and they weren’t entitled to cut off the road either.

They were basically seizing public space. What we really have to do is force big companies to behave like decent corporate citizens, not allow them to trample all over the law and their workers’ rights. By doing that what we then do is allow co-operatives, small local businesses, local economies a chance to compete against them. At the moment it’s just a hopelessly un-level playing field.

Green politics and I suppose the environmental movement and Transition as well to some extent have generally failed to engage beyond what people call the ‘post-materialist’ or I suppose middle class constituencies. What’s your sense of how best to widen the appeal further?

We’ve really got to talk about the transformation and how it works for people, not just how it works for the physical environment. One of the Green Party policies which is getting real traction and starting to excite lots of people is the idea of citizens’ income or basic income, which is the idea that basically there’s a safety net. Everyone gets a payment every week which means you have your subsistence guaranteed and you don’t have to worry. Trying to take away people’s worry and fear at the moment is really critically important because with all the holes that are being rent in the welfare net, people are really living in fear.

 Again, at the Bristol Assembly, one of the speakers was talking about someone affected by the bedroom tax who now feels they don’t have the right to have a home any more. We have to restore people’s sense of security and give them a sense that a Green society is one where they will feel secure and safe. We’re not taking things away from them, we’re guaranteeing them the basics.

If in 20 years’ time we’ve done everything that’s necessary and we’ve successfully managed to stay below 2°, what would that world look like?

First of all we’ll have homes that are warm and comfortable. We’re not going to get them all to Passivhaus standard, but heading in that direction as fast as possible. We’ll have vastly more locally grown food, so each town or city will have a ring of market gardens around it and a large amount of the food on your plate has come less than 10 miles. Not everything, I’m not talking about everything.  I personally like my coffee and spices, but the bulk of the food on your plate comes from there.

You’re wearing clothes that you will expect to last for a long period of time. If you go back historically, people once a year, summer and winter, went shopping and bought one or two new items of clothing. That’s the kind of situation we’re in, but it’s a situation where hopefully we have to offer people a better life so there’s less stuff in it. People have more time and more sense of security. So we’re looking at dropping working hours down. In some of that working hours’ time you might be growing some of your own food rather than buying it. You’re not worrying where your next meal’s coming from and we have no more food banks.

The above is lightly edited from a longer interview which you can hear below. In the interest of balance, we did also ask representatives of Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP for interviews, but we are still waiting to hear from them.  

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Categories: Originally posted on Transition Network

23 Jun 2014

Three inspirational days in Liege


One of the most delightful things about Transition is time spent with those who are making it happen in such a wide diversity of communities.  The top up of inspiration and new ideas as to what’s possible that I get from such visits is vital stuff.  I was recently in Liege in Belgium for a couple of days, and it proved no exception.  Apart from a football result.  But more of that later.

Liege is a city in the Wallonia region of Belgium with a population of almost 200,000.  It is in the French-speaking part of Belgium, and is the city where the European industrial revolution started.  It sits at the crossroads of central Europe, as a place where many transport links meet.  Much of that industry has now gone, but Liege remains a principal economic and cultural centre of the region.  Liege en Transition has been in existence since late 2011.

Barricades from below

I arrived courtesy of Eurostar on Wednesday afternoon, and went to Barricade, a centre for activists and Transition in the city (whose bookshop has sold more copies of the French version of Transition Handbook (Manuel de Transition) than any other single outlet, and who produce some great French language reports and pamphlets about Transition, as well as other subjects.  Many of the core team and others had come together for the evening to share a meal, to meet with me and to bring me up to speed on what they’ve been up to. 

The first person to speak gave an overview of the group’s history so far.  In 2009, about 10 people got together to discuss founding Liege en Transition, but decided the time wasn’t right.  In December 2011, Barricade published Introduction to Ecological and Economic Transition, the first of a series of papers on Transition and Transition-related topics.   

On 9th November 2011, 70 people met at Barricade and decided to form Liege en Transition.  Two weeks later, 420 people came to a screening of Voices of Transition.  In March 2012, 25 associations, NGOs and trades unions organised the Week of International solidarity in Liege, which focused on the theme of Transition. 

The meeting in November 2011 at which Liege en Transition was founded.

In April 2012 the idea of the Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liegéoise (CALT) was born (more of that later), and June 2012 saw the first ‘Transition Day’; which attracted around 50 people.  Around that time, an article in the paper about CALT led to funding of €66,000 from the regional government. 

2013’s ‘Transition Day’ attracted over 500 people, and focused on a debate around the future of local agriculture.  November 2013 saw the official launch of CALT, attended by over 50 organisations in a large venue, followed up the next day by a workshop attended by 350 people, an event which designed the organisation.  The event made regional television

Amazing 'lampshade' made from food crates, at the launch of CATL.

This month has seen the launch of the ‘Valeureux”, a local currency for Liege, which made national TV here and here.  The launch was part of this year’s Transition Day, attended by over 1,000 people.  Here’s a video about the day:

There is a sense that Transition is beginning to gain some traction, with some meaningful and substantial projects underway, some of which we then heard about. 

The Valeureux, Liege's new local currency.

Here’s a short video of some members of a youth group from one of the national political parties having a ‘Transition Tour’ of some of the projects described above:


LogoThe second talk was about Vin de Liege (‘Liege Wine’). The idea was to create a wine business which is based on social and civic values of being local and environmentally friendly, while also generating a social output and community involvement.  It now has 1,200 members and has planted 1.3 hectares of vines.  This will produce 101,000 bottles of wine, all of which are already spoken for.  People were invited to buy shares at €500 each, and they raised €1,850,000.  Investors came from across Belgium. “People want to invest in Liege”, he concluded. 

Then we heard about CATL, which is trying to look at the land around the city in a different way, reconnecting the city to its peri-urban land.  They started by mapping what people eat in Liege, and what proportion of that could be grown locally.  It’s a fascinating approach, one that reminded me of the debates around Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain Feed Itself?, and the issues it raised about whether we should be striving to design for a more local, seasonal diet, or to replace the one we already have. A diagram showing their model can be seen below and a detailed proposal (in French) about the project can be found here.  


CATL have created a model by which they think they could shift their food system to supply the city, in such a way that it could generate €3.9 billion by feeding 3.5 million people on one third of the area’s agricultural land.  This would, they estimate, create 44,000 jobs.  The project is currently underway with its first site (see below). 

The last speaker was Sybille Mertens from the Centre for the Social Economy at the local university.  She talked about the need to get Transition into business schools, something she is doing in her university, which has over 2,000 students.  They run a course called “If not for profit, for what?  And how?” 

For her, social enterprise is the model that can liberate much of what we want to see, because it avoids the pressure to be attaining a return on investment.  Her course is evolving now to include modules on Transition and Social Enterprise, and is also looking to weave some of her modules into other courses.  She closed by saying that at the moment, half of the theses being written by her students are looking at different aspects of Transition. 


We then had a fantastic supper (see above, everyone heading in), using lots of local food, some fantastic bread, wine and great conversation.  One of my favourite things anyone said, so good I had to write it down, came out of a conversation with an academic, who was telling me about the freedom he has in Transition that he doesn’t find in his day job.  “Transition is a space in which I can breathe different air”, he told me. 

That evening I also saw this great article online in one of the regional papers about the visit, which included the following accompanying photo: 

Can you spot the mistake?

Next morning began with the CATL conference which was held in a redeveloped old swimming pool complex.  About 150 people came, and the day started a framing which set out how the project aims to have social, environmental and economic benefits.  The aim is to deeply change the food system in Liege over the next 20-30 years. 

Fiona Ward of the REconomy Project kicked off the event giving a talk about REconomy, and about the tools and approaches being developed to support communities in developing new, more localised, economies. 

Fiona Ward gets the Ceinture Aliment-Terre conference underway.

Then there were several different presentations, one in more depth about CATL, announcing the launch of their first production site, Le Compagnons de la Terre.  There was a presentation about Vin du Liege, and one about AgriBio, a network of organic farmers in the area.  After that, I said a few words, and then after lunch, the afternoon was a series of World Cafe-style theme group discussions. 

World Cafe discussions at the Ceinture Aliment-Terre conference.

I sat in on one discussion about local currencies, and a second about what a local food restaurant might look like.  Then Fiona and I went off for a walk around town, which included some time in a fine second hand record shop called ‘Carnaby Records’, where I could happily have spent many hours. 

PosterThe evening’s event took place the Complexe Opera, in the centre of town, for the evening’s talk.  In a huge theatre, a former cinema, now owned by the University, over 500 people had come to hear my talk!  The event was co-presented with a range of organisations, including Job’in Design, the local design school. 

talkThe talk went down very well, a very engaged audience, some good questions, and a great buzz in the place (see left).  Lots of people wanted to ask questions afterwards, and then there was a party at a nearby bar, with food, drinks and a DJ. 

I stayed for a little while and then sloped down the road to watch the second half of the England/Uruguay World Cup match.  As is so often the case, watching England was infuriating, stressful, and ultimately, disappointing.  A fair few people joined us to watch the game, and a few beers eased the pain slightly. 

Next morning we travelled out to a place called Ecotopia, a 5 hectare former tree nursery on the edge of Liege, being developed as a Community Supported Agriculture site.  I did a long interview with a journalist from one of the national papers, and then had a look round the site>

I met a woman who I had last met 9 years ago when she and her boyfriend volunteered at The Hollies, the sustainability centre I co-founded in Ireland!  Fiona and I also paid our respects at the grave commemorating the demise of the oil age.  


I also planted an aubergine plant in the still-being-erected polytunnel at Ecotopia, at Compagnons de la Terre, the first CATL site.  I’m sure it will be the first of many.  


And then it was off back to the train station for the long journey home.  My deep thanks to everyone who made it happen and who pulled it all together.  I’m very grateful.  

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Categories: Originally posted on Transition Network

23 Jun 2014

Alan Simpson: "Transition has enormous strength at the moment"

Alan Simpson

Alan Simpson describes himself as a “recovering politician”.  He was Labour MP for Nottingham South for 18 years until he stood down because, as he puts it, “I was becoming obsessed with small-picture politics and I thought maybe I just needed to get out and try to influence it from outside”.  He is also, to my knowledge, the only member of Parliament who has ever explicitly questioned economic growth while still an MP.  What is it like, being driven by the urgency of climate change, not believing in economic growth and being in Parliament?  We asked him.

“Very few people grasped it. I was given messages about the unacceptability of this way of seeing things at a fairly early stage. Tony Blair told the press lobby that if I was “the last surviving member of the parliamentary Labour party” he wouldn’t have me in his Cabinet, which I took as something of an accolade.

Nick Cohen in Fools Britannia quotes someone from Downing Street saying that if people listened to me I “could ruin everything”.  It was quite clear to me that all of the political parties were strapped to a mindset about growth which was as self-deluding as it was going to be self-defeating, and it was only ever going to end in tears.  The difficulty is that it’s locked into the mindset of the Treasury.

I had several unhelpful encounters with the Treasury during the time, trying to argue for a different approach to economics. The funny thing for me is that more often than not when I would go into the Treasury, you’d find yourself besieged by young kids running what I think of as naïve economic theories that we used to laugh at when I was an economics undergraduate.

They were seen as pretty daft ideas at the time, but the passage of time has almost made them market orthodoxies. They bore no relationship to the finite limits of the planet or the notion that at some point an economics of repair would have to overtake an economics of exploitation. It’s only the transformation movements (such as Transition) that really seem to grasp this.

Where do you come from on energy and climate change and the role of top-down, bottom-up action on those issues?

The big achievement for me in the parliamentary sense was that I organised the parliamentary ganging up that pushed the feed-in tariffs into the 2008 Energy Act. That for me was a really profound change that meant that at a community level people could start to get into the renewable energy game and to be drivers for transformation.

EnergiewendeParliament needed to provide the open door and the Transition movement needed to run like the clappers through it.  That was what looked to be a real possibility post-2008, up until some time in 2010 when George Osborne turned what had been an open-ended commitment to the financing of that transition on the same lines as what Germany had done, into a fixed budget within government accounts. That seemed to a allow a fundamental change in thinking, in which all the shifts into renewable energy now have been constrained by the levy control framework and dominated by a government obsession not to do anything on any great scale and at any great rush.

We’re at a really critical stage of energy transformation, or not. What I’m hoping is that the transformation movement can save government from locking the UK into a mindset of the past but with huge financial millstones that would sink it in the future.

You wrote recently “obsessed with empowering the individual, parliament has lost sight of the collective.” Is reforming parliament possible, and if so, what would it look like?

What I like to try to remind people of is that if you look at the UK’s energy systems, you have to turn the clock back over 200 years to when they first emerged at a municipal level. From 1817 to the 1880s, you had this fantastic movement of municipal gas, water and electricity companies, all of which were formed by localities. Parliament didn’t catch up with this until the 1850s.

Where we are now, I think there is a similar revolution that is taking place (around renewable energy). Technology is driving this. The possibility of developing energy systems that are lighter, brighter, quicker, more nimble at self-balancing and self-regulating, all of these will deliver a quite different energy system within a decade. Old energy just struggles to grasp this.

Unfortunately they seem to have an absolute arm lock on the mindset of parliament, just bang this drum that “if you don’t throw us more money the lights will go out”. We have a politics of fear, of the Bogeyman. But if you step back from that, all of those who have any grasp of climate science and the turbulence of what’s going on understand that those big centralised energy systems aren’t going to work, and nor will individual energy solutions.

It’s really nice for me to live in a house where I produce more electricity than I consume. But is that going to make any difference to the shape of society in the decades ahead? No. It will only make a difference if that forms part of something larger and more inter-dependent. The era that is emerging that is going to offer any sanctuary is going to be one where we discover real strength and security through our inter-dependencies. In the UK this is difficult for people to grasp because we don’t think we have a starting point. We’ve forgotten the socialisation of our original energy systems.


We have to reach out beyond our own shores and see what’s happening in Denmark, in Germany, in parts of the USA, where people are beginning to see that if they re-socialise today’s grids, they can generate more of their own energy from clean, renewable sources, and they can generate today’s and tomorrow’s jobs in the process of doing that.

They can reduce energy consumption by selling less energy needs rather than more. And they can sell or construct themselves elaborate networks for balancing and storage that deliver that collective security. All this is constructed around an economics that treads more lightly on the present and the future.

You’ve written “tomorrow’s security and sustainability will be built from the strength of our inter-dependency.” What does it look like when politics actually supports that?

ASWe could do far worse than just asking our own kids about the starting point. My guess is that older people may have no difficulty in owning up that at one stage they owned a Commodore 64 and that was where they started with the communications revolution. But if you came up to them now and said “I’ve got this fantastic plan to do a huge investment upgrade in the Commodore 64, we should put go faster stripes on it. We can have Commodore 64s in every school in the country and every house in the land”, it would be our kids who’d turn round and say “sod off, I’ll have an iPad, thank you very much”. The game has changed. What was a legitimate starting point yesterday is not even a credible one today, and it will just be open to ridicule for tomorrow.

When I’ve taken people around Germany, they’ve consistently asked me questions about the UK. I suppose the most consistent one is “why do your political parties all begin from an assumption that you have to work out your future security in partnership with the energy companies? Because in Germany we just see them as people who are intellectually locked into the idea of selling more consumption.”

If you want tomorrow’s partners, they are much more enthusiastically and constructively to be found in the telecommunications sector, where that notion of moving from smart phones to smart homes, and smart homes to smart towns, and smart towns to smart cities, all of which have much more localised senses of how we balance and how we build, how we retain and how we restore. And they join systems up in a way that our system doesn’t currently respond to.

We are where we are. The Treasury is like the land of the undead, which fails to hear messages about the unaffordability or unsustainability of today’s energy sources as the basis of today’s energy thinking. But outside there are people who are unafraid to run with this. Once politicians start to go in pursuit of votes, I think if we decide that we’re running off and not waiting, the parliamentary system will come chasing after us in exactly the same ways that it went chasing after the municipal gas water and electricity companies in the 19th century. I think they’ll catch up in less than the 50 years that it took then. My guess is that they’ll catch up, because they have to catch up, within a decade.

There might be people who are involved in Transition or things like that who are so moved by the scale of climate change and the urgency to do stuff that they might think “maybe I should run for parliament and try and get in there”. What’s your sense of that balance between whether we should be investing our time and energy at the local scale or whether we should be running for parliament?  How much impact can you actually have at that scale?

I’m not sure that I see that as an either/or choice. I usually say to people don’t write parliament off, because parliament has an important role and it needs to be rescued by braver people coming in than we have there at the moment. Infiltrate every political party that you can and try to get yourselves selected as candidates. Don’t just think that you can, on a whim, put your name forward as a candidate and the system as is will whisk you up and hail your arrival. It doesn’t work like that.

You have to be realistic about how the current voting system works, and seek to try to engage with that constructively. That’s an invitation for brave people to become candidates for parties that are in with a serious chance of winning seats.

As part of a movement, Transition needs to recognise that it has enormous strength at the moment. All of the parties are living in absolute fear that the public will turn round at some point before the next election and say out loud “there is nothing here to vote for. None of you offer a vision that is worth taking our slippers off, putting our shoes back on and going out to the polling stations”.

That fear of being seen as standing for nothing has suddenly been hyped up by the arrival of UKIP on the right as challenging this notion that on the Conservative side of things, basically we just have to keep with UKIP on immigration to get ourselves in, and Labour on the left saying we can ignore all the votes to the left, we just have to be marginally better than the Conservatives.

The movement has to challenge the mainstream parties to stand for a positive alternative, a visionary alternative to the narrow, introspective divisiveness that is UKIP.  To begin by saying, openly, to the mainstream political parties, “there is nothing here, no visionary agenda on sustainability that is worth voting for”. That will send a frisson of fear through the system now.

Why?  Because there’s one year before the general election takes place.   The Transition movement really has to enhance that feeling of insecurity of parliament. Because that is what drives them, drags them out of their little mouse holes to be bolder than they are.

We have to become much more assertive in running with an agenda of demands that says to all the political parties: “unless you can sign up to standing for a, b, and c, and fighting with us to get these commitments into your manifestos now, do not expect us to vote for you. Do not expect us to campaign for you. Do not expect us to say that you are worth anyone voting for”.

And if there’s a moment in which politicians are more vulnerable to that notion that they might just not be worth voting for, they’ll move heaven and earth to try and convince us that they are.

What’s your sense of what those lines in the sand, those “do these things or you don’t get our support” should be? Two or three of those things that would for you be the absolute?

I’d say absolutely they have to commit to demanding of their party that they reject and actively oppose the proposals from the EU Competition Directorate to make feed-in tariffs illegal and to replace them with auctions. Equally, we should be demanding that the levy control framework is scrapped and that feed-in tariffs are put within either the capacity payments mechanism or they’re dealt with in the way that the Germans do of self-financing parts of the energy sector accounts. But the levy control framework is going to bust apart in the next parliament anyway. At the moment, it’s just being used as a mechanism to constrain the potential of the Transition Towns movement rather than to support it, so make that as a demand.

One of OVESCO's solar installations.

And the right to be the first users of our own energy is really critical. Part of the reason for that is that at the moment the bulk of the community energy movement is really a movement of investors in community energy. We’ve been very poor at including those who are too poor to buy their way in as beneficiaries. But if you can sell energy or electricity back at something much closer to wholesale price, effectively cutting people’s electricity charges in half, all of a sudden the huge value of that, staying within the local 11Kw distribution network, all of that makes everyone in the locality a direct beneficiary. What Germany found is that as soon as you had a mass movement in the society that are beneficiaries of a radical change, then you have an unstoppable movement.

I think the final part of that is the notion that if you localise our thinking about distribution grids, we can really begin to sell non-consumption, energy saving, energy efficiency, in ways that are 10 times more exciting and coherent than anything you would ever find in Green Deal or anything like it. It turns communities, not just from being consumers to pro-sumers, but it turns people into the drivers of solutions. I think that’s something which is hard for me to quantify, but when I’ve gone round everywhere in Germany, that’s the thing that strikes me. At virtually every level at which there’s discussion about energy, communities see themselves as being in the driving seat and not the passenger seat of sustainable change. 

[The above is abridged from our full interview, which you can listen to below]

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16 Jun 2014

Transition: time to emerge from under the radar?


I was recently sent a really interesting paper by Philip Barnes of the University of Delaware called The political economy of localization in the Transition movement.  I was keen to publish it here, but it’s in moderation to be published, so I couldn’t.  Instead, I wrote to Philip and asked if he might be able to summarise its findings for the non-academic reader. In response to our month’s question of ‘Is Transition political?’, he writes “Transition is not only political in theory, it is increasingly political in practice given the heightened level of policy making activity exhibited by some initiatives”.  Here is his article: 

Is Transition political?  That is the question posed this month on Transition Culture.  One place to look for an answer is in the undeniably political arena of government.  The relationship between Transition initiatives and their local government is an interesting one.  On the one hand, initiatives must be mindful not to get co-opted by governments because that would diminish the amount of energy and resources available to get on with the necessary job of localisation and resilience building. 

Sometimes it seems that governments and bureaucracies move at a snail’s pace (no disrespect to snails), so perhaps it is best for an initiative to keep moving forward themselves instead of waiting around, hoping that the local government will take action on important issues.  On the other hand, initiatives must work within the confines of local laws, plans, regulations, ordinances, and so forth.  Initiatives can seek assistance from local government, to be sure, but the role of local government is to “support, not drive” a Transition group.  Initiatives therefore strike a balance between retaining the ability to independently engage in do-it-ourselves action, and spending time, effort, and energy to “build a bridge” to local government.

Transition Town High Wycombe launches its Energy Saving Kits for Loan in partnership with Wycombe District Council, August 2010.

Each initiative must find that point where local governments are supporting, not driving their group.  Luckily, there are guidelines (or perhaps suggestions?) on how initiatives might walk this fine line, key among them is the recommendation to remain explicitly non-political and to come in “under the radar.”  From the very beginning of the movement, a conscious decision was taken to promote this non-political strategy.  The common refrain is that if a Transition initiative becomes openly political, it runs the serious risk of entering divisive “us versus them” conflicts and hence alienating potential supporters and collaborators, both in local government and in the wider community. 

After all, as the argument goes, we are all in this together because peak oil and climate change will impact everyone so it is best to be inclusive and non-confrontational.  One sure-fire way to become embroiled in conflict is to enter contentious political debates so it is simply advisable to avoid them altogether.  Join the party, not the protest march, as Richard Heinberg might say.

It sounds fairly straightforward, but theory does not always match reality.  What is actually happening on the ground?  How are initiatives walking that fine line between independence and institutionalisation?  I was curious.  For my thesis in the School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, I am exploring this interesting relationship between Transition initiatives and their local governments. 

The investigation began by looking for clues in the previous research on Transition as well as in the Transition-published literature such as the Handbook, the Companion, this blog, and individual initiatives’ websites.  I then interviewed Transition members in a number of towns and cities across the United States.  And I participated in – and still participate in – the Media, Pennsylvania initiative

Media logo

While the initial goal was to discover where and how initiatives balance independence and institutionalisation, I came to an unexpected finding.  I found that some groups are beginning to steadily integrate with their local governments and blur that line between independence and institutionalisation.  If anything, the balance is tipping toward institutionalisation and it is doing so in a way that transcends the “building bridges” metaphor. 

For example, one interviewee is a highly influential member of the local government’s food and agriculture task force.  In another town, the initiative mobilized their participants’ votes and successfully propelled a sympathetic ally into a position on the local governing council.  And I interviewed a Transitioner who ran for and won a seat in their local council election.  Stories like these are not unique to the United States.  Rob just posted an interview with Peter MacFayden, Sustainable Frome member and now mayor of Frome.  Alexis Rowell’s book Communities, Councils, and Low-Carbon Future contains a “Getting Elected” chapter which offers advice for participants who have such ambitions. 

These are role reversal cases where initiatives are beginning to drive local governments.  The old approach to build a bridge to local government so they can support, not drive an initiative is being shed in these instances.  I am undertaking a comprehensive survey of initiatives in the United States (that stage of the research is currently underway), but my suspicion is that the institutionalisation of Transition groups is much more widespread than we would expect for an explicitly non-political movement. 

All of this leads directly to the question of politics.  How can an initiative come in under the political radar if it is driving local government?  The simple answer is that it can’t, and here’s why.  Local governments are policy making bodies.  Public policies go through a process whereby they are proposed, developed, written, enacted, implemented, analysed, and revised on the back of human values.  A few examples of human values that are frequently brought to bear on policy are justice, freedom, security, resilience, equality, sustainability, and efficiency. 

The tale of the Independents for Frome has been told here this month.

When representatives in local governments go through the policy process, they must make decisions by prioritizing certain values above others.  For any given situation and context, it is improbable that a group of people – such as a local governing council and by extension the community they represent – will rank their values in the same way.  Given that reality, policy decisions are almost always contested and the stage upon which the contest plays out is that sometimes dirty and scary word, “politics.”  Policy decisions are inherently political.  Policy decisions are fundamentally political. 

The point is that when initiatives drive local governments and start to pull policy levers, as they are now doing to greater effect, they cannot hope to remain under the radar.  On the contrary.  Initiatives that have direct access to policy power are going to show up as a blinking red dot on the political radar.  It is inevitable and there is no way around it.  Nor should there be.  Policy decisions are essentially political.

To see why this is the case, let’s take a closer look at Dryden, New York which in 2011 revised their city’s zoning ordinance to prohibit the practice of natural gas hydraulic fracking in the community.  There is not a Transition initiative in Dryden, but for this example image there is and also imagine that participants of this hypothetical group are on the local governing council.  Let’s further assume that the initiative was directly responsible for creating and enacting the policy to prohibit fracking because they prioritized the values of resilience and sustainability. 

Now, the ordinance must apply to everyone in the community, including economically depressed land owners who might be anxious to sign a drilling lease so they can raise money and send their children to college.  Those landowners prioritize the value of freedom to develop their property; hence they would disagree with the policy decision.  By gaining the power and authority to put fracking ban in place, our hypothetical initiative in Dryden just entered political stage left.

It is clear that due to the political nature of policy making, initiatives that drive their local government will struggle mightily to retain the traditional Transition ideals of openness, inclusivity, and the avoidance of conflict.  That is the trade-off that some initiatives are making.  Institutionalising and getting directly involved in policy decision making means that initiatives can (though not necessarily will) make a much greater impact on the community than would be the case with independent, conflict-free action. 

Being involved in local government means having access to the public purse and a larger voice in how those resources are spent on localisation and resilience building.  Again, all this comes at the cost of angering some folks whose values do not parallel the initiative’s.  Even within an initiative there is bound to be a mismatch of values among participants.  But is it really desirable to avoid contentious debates altogether?  Perhaps a certain healthy level of political wrangling is a necessary and good thing.  Albert Otto Hirschman made a convincing case that being able to successfully navigate through disputes and political conflict represents an indispensable pillar of democratic societies and strong, resilient communities. 

This month’s Transition Culture theme is trying to get at the question, “Is Transition political?”  Yes, obviously.  Transition is absolutely political.  But I would extend the answer further by pointing out that Transition is not only political in theory, it is increasingly political in practice given the heightened level of policy making activity exhibited by some initiatives.  How this all plays out, and whether or not the wider movement can continue to fly under the political radar remains to be seen.  What is certain is that Transition politics, at least for some initiatives, is itself transitioning.

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Categories: Originally posted on Transition Network

11 Jun 2014

Another great Transition Conspiracy Theory


So, picture the scene.  There I was, standing on a Totnes street corner with a film crew from Germany with whom I had been spending the afternoon filming a piece about the new Totnes Pound and local food strategies.  We were taking a break from filming when a woman came up and asked them what they were filming.  “We’re filming a piece about Transition Town”, they said.  “Huh”, she said. “Let me tell you about Transition”.  “Uh oh”, I thought, “here we go”. 

“Have you heard of the Merchant Venturers in Bristol?”, she asked.  Blank looks from my German friends. “Well you need to look into that, in order to see who’s really behind Transition Town”, she continued, getting into her stride.  “You need to look into the organisations behind it all.  It’s vast.  You see that land over there?” she said, pointing down South Street behind her to the extensive rolling green hills beyond.  “Transition are going to build all over that.  Cover it in concrete.  That’s what they’re all about – construction”.  Having imparted her revelation, she departed, leaving us all to take in this new, and clearly impeccably researched, conspiracy theory about Transition. 

It joins a long queue of similarly groundless and ridiculous conspiracy theories on the subject.  Here’s just a few of my favourites that have emerged from the conspiracy blogosphere over the years.  Foster Gamble, maker of the dire conspiracy film ‘Thrive’ wrote

“A key to understanding Transition Towns is recognizing that the organization was founded and operated out of the United Kingdom as a creation of the British Fabian Socialist Society. Transition Initiatives require local communities to conform to “Energy Descent Action Plans”. The same people who are imposing this Plan are the ones suppressing “new energy technologies” — technologies that obsolete the notions that energy is scarce and that using it has to be intrinsically polluting”.

To give him his due, when challenged on this he did apologise on the “British Fabian Socialist Society” point, albeit with the caveat “If in fact I am wrong about your Transition Towns endeavor involving coercive socialism, I will be thrilled and more than happy to apologize for the misrepresentation and correct it here”.  Unfortunately in millionaire Gamble’s case, one man’s “coercive socialism”, is another man’s “economy in which people pay taxes”. 

A website called ‘Common Purpose Exposed’ states that Julia Middleton, from an organisation called ‘Common Purpose’:

“Addressed the first TT conference on the subject of eugenics although you will find no evidence of this on their current website”.

I was there, and I can tell you there was no workshop on Eugenics (defined by the World English Dictionary as “the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp. by selective breeding”).  Can any readers who have been to a Transition Network conference imagine that?  “Hmm, Workshop session two, let’s see … Inner Transition, Community energy companies, local food systems, eugenics…”  I mean, come on. And note how the fact that there is no reference on our website to something that didn’t happen is presented as evidence that it therefore must have done.  Welcome to conspiracy logic world. 

A fantastically badly researched article by Susanne Posel set out the “dangers that Transition Towns impose on our sovereignty and individuality” as:

• They refocus town planning and infrastructure on implementation of Agenda 21
• They appear to be grassroots operations
• They promote the Peak Oil mythology as an energy scare-tactic
• They support SmarthGrowth which is code for Agenda 21
• They aspire to control framing (by which I assume she means farming?), disburse ability to farm, and pressure governmental policies on farming that reflect Agenda 21
• Use the hoax of man-made climate change as the purpose for imposing policy control by building cities that are designed to reduce carbon emissions
• Securitize local food stores, businesses, healthcare and fuel
• Ensure SmarthGrowth controls all citizens ability to acquire any needs for human survival
• Create internal advocacies that band together to purvey Transition Town propaganda to elected officials and local governments

By working on the ground level, Transition Towns can over take states and nations quicker than funneling through the bureaucracy of national governments.

She also writes:

“Through manipulative training courses and propaganda films, Transition Towns are beginning to take root as a fake grassroots effort that poses great danger to our individuality and personal sovereignty”. 

In the hands of those inclined towards conspiracy theories, the internet is a dangerous tool.  Posel’s article has been reposted as gospel in many places, including, perhaps not surprisingly, David Icke’s site.  No additional evidence or research is required.  It’s what people like Posel and other conspiracy theorists proudly refer to as “research”, but which really seems to consist of Googling other conspiracy theory websites to find things that back up your theory.  

A guy called Dean Philpot posted a video on YouTube, now sadly taken down, which argued that Transition is a scam designed to “take our land away”.  He also posted this fascinating flow diagram showing how Transition is in fact part of a system that can be traced to the CIA and the Trilateral Commission among others (unfortunately this is the only version I can find online and it’s very low resolution, the original in the video was brilliant).  


So what is a conspiracy theory?  According to Daniel Pipes, a conspiracy theory is simply a conspiracy that never happened, that it is “the nonexistent version of a conspiracy”.  Richard Hofstadter writes that the problem with them “is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force of historical events”.  

In other words, if Transition gains any sort of traction or success, it must be because powerful forces have allowed it to, indeed have decided that that must be the case, or indeed have actually most likely designed, created and resourced it in the first place.  Conspiracy theorist Ian R Crane used to enjoy, without providing any supporting evidence, referring to “Rob Hopkins and his paymasters”.  The very existence of Transition can be seen as confirmation of dark actors behind the scenes, with everyone’s motives open to question.

VoodooDavid Aaronovitch, in Voodoo Histories. The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history, defines conspiracy theories as:

“The attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.  And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add: the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another”.  

That hits the nail on the head for me.  “The attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another”.  Although it is far more likely that Transition is actually what it presents itself as, i.e. a group of well-motivated people in a community trying to change it for the better, the far more covert and complicated argument is presented as being more logical.  The conflating of two facts: that the town has a successful Transition initiative, and that the land around the town is under pressure from developers, is again seeking a far more complex explanation where the simpler one would make far more sense.

As Aaronovitch adds:

“Conspiracists are always winners.  Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself”.  

So for example, when I challenged, in a comment thread, the assertion that Transition Network hosted workshops on eugenics, the fact that I had bothered to try and correct it was seen as evidence that we must have “something to hide”. 

For me, conspiracy theories often represent what happens when people feel so disempowered, disinterested or bewildered by politics that it becomes easier to make up their own. It’s a world where things don’t just happen, they are all part of a carefully planned and meticulously rolled-out masterplan.  Yet any time spent with anyone actually involved in politics will tell you that much of it is chaos, generally responsive rather than proactive. 

Do bad things happen because neoliberal capitalism is doomed to eat itself to death and corrupt most of what it touches, and is fighting for the dwindling resources on a finite planet, or, perhaps, because the Moon is an artificial space station built by an ancient alien race which controls our thought patterns and keeps us enslaved (David Icke’s latest theory)? Tough call.

Our friend in Totnes (whose community contains a fair few people who share such views) has managed to turn her sense of bewilderment as to how the world works, how decisions that affect her are made, into a theory for which no evidence whatsoever is required, yet which feels entirely watertight and compelling.  Any attempts to challenge it would, most likely, be taken as confirmation that her understanding is the correct one. 

Yet holding such a world view is awesomely disempowering.  No point doing anything.  No point trying to make change happen. No point trying to get involved in local politics, or working for local charities.  No need to do anything. And that, in itself, combined with a worldview with its own internal logic, provides a comfort blanket in confusing times.  It just happens to be a rather dangerous and toxic one.

I’ll leave the last word to Aaronovitch, who puts it beautifully:

“Conspiracy theories are theories that, among other things, offend my understanding of how things happen by positing as a norm how they do not happen”.  


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Categories: Originally posted on Transition Network