Transition Culture

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16 Sep 2014

Responding to Ted Trainer: there’s a lot more to Transition than community gardens


Ted Trainer’s recent paper, Transition Townspeople, we need to think about Transition: just doing stuff is far from enough!, generated a certain amount of attention at the recent Degrowth conference in Leipzig.  Most of what I would say in response to it I have already said in previous exchanges with Trainer, and his arguments remain much the same.  But given that it’s always useful to reform and re-examine assumptions and beliefs, and that several people asked for my thoughts on it, here are some reflections. 

The core of Trainer’s argument in this paper is that:

“The path the Transition Towns and related movements are presently on will lead only to a grossly and increasingly unsustainable and unjust consumer society, containing lots of community gardens etc”. 

It’s a statement that offers a really useful opportunity to reflect on both Trainer’s arguments and how he presents them.  The crux of Trainer’s issue with Transition appears in the following paragraph, where he argues that greens and the left:

“…fail to recognise a) that rich countries have resource and ecological impact rates that are utterly unsustainable and cannot possibly be spread to all people b) if a sustainable and just world is to be achieved these rates must be cut by something like 90%, c) that cannot be done unless we scrap a growth economy, reduce GDP to a small fraction of present levels, stop market forces from determining our fate, radically restructure the geography of settlements, largely scrap the economy, switch almost entirely from representative democracy to participatory democracy, and, above all, abandon affluence”.

Ted TrainerMany of us read so much writing like this, that it’s really worth pausing and looking at this more closely.  It falls into exactly the trap that some on the green Left have fallen into for 40 years, which for me is one of the factors, alongside capitalism’s growth imperative, the normalising of hierarchical habits and ways of thinking, the promotion of extrinsic values and other factors, which combined mean that we are so catastrophically losing the struggle to save the climate. 

It is a mindset that seeks differences rather than common ground.  Talking to each other is more important that talking to everyone else.  There is little mindfulness about how the way in which we communicate our message comes across to people beyond the bubble.  George Lakoff puts it beautifully in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, which looks at how to build and message an effective progressive movement:

“There are six basic types of progressives, each with a distinct mode of thought. They share all the progressive values, but are distinguished by some differences. 

  1. Socioeconomic progressives think that everything is a matter of money and class and that all solutions are ultimately economic and social class solutions.
  2. Identity politics progressives say it is time for their oppressed group to get its share now.
  3. Environmentalists think in terms of sustainability of the earth, the sacredness of the earth, and the protection of native peoples.
  4. Civil liberties progressives want to maintain freedoms against threats to freedom.
  5. Spiritual progressives have a nurturant form of religion or spirituality, their spiritual experience has to do with their connection to other people and the world, and their spiritual practice has to do with service to other people and to their community.  Spiritual progressives span the full range from Catholics and Protestants to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Goddess worshippers, and pagan members of Wicca.
  6. Antiauthoritarians say there are all sorts of illegitimate forms of authority out there and we have to fight them, whether they are big corporations or anyone else. 

… The problem is that many of the people who have one of these modes of thought do not recognize that theirs is just one special case of something more general, and do not see the unity in all the types of progressives. They often think that theirs is the only way to be a true progressive. That is sad”. 

Yet if we are to have any chance of achieving Trainer’s ambitions, we need to not only successfully bring together the different strands of the progressive movements as set out by Lakoff, we must also engage beyond that, creating common platforms and engagement across political spectrums.  Trainer’s article is written in such a way that his arguments, many of them entirely reasonable, can be guaranteed to be largely ignored by everyone other than a small handful of people.  The words we use really matter.  Trainer argues that we need to bring about:

“extreme, rapid and unprecedented structural change, away from some of the most fundamental ideas, practices and values in Western culture, especially away from the commitment to economic growth, freedom for market forces, corporate control, competitive individualism and, most problematic of all, affluent lifestyles.  It is a far bigger task than just getting rid of capitalism”. 

Ted TrainerThat’s quite an ask (even “just getting rid of capitalism” is somewhat ambitious!).  Unless he is proposing some sort of coup, an armed uprising of organic growers and solar panel installer militias, storming the barricades in their fetching home-knitted balaclavas, he needs to get a whole lot more skilful, and fast. His call that Transition focus more on “taking collective control of our town”, while communicating in language guaranteed to exclude most of the community, is whatever the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy is.

Let’s look again at the paragraph I quoted earlier, only this time I’ll highlight the words, the language I would suggest is guaranteed to turn off 98% of the population. 

“…fail to recognise a) that rich countries have resource and ecological impact rates that are utterly unsustainable and cannot possibly be spread to all people b) if a sustainable and just world is to be achieved these rates must be cut by something like 90%, c) that cannot be done unless we scrap a growth economy, reduce GDP to a small fraction of present levels, stop market forces from determining our fate, radically restructure the geography of settlements, largely scrap the economy, switch almost entirely from representative democracy to participatory democracy, and, above all, abandon affluence

Lakoff refers to President Nixon, who in a national address during the Watergate affair, said:

“I am not a crook”. 


As Lakoff puts it, “And everybody thought about him as a crook”.  I’m also reminded of Gary Larson’s cartoon with the dog listening to his owner (see right)…

In the same way, trying to inspire and engage people to step across from feeling disempowered and that something needs to change to actually doing something about it requires a different language, certainly not the kind of disempowering language used here.  Compare Trainer’s writing with Transition Town Tooting’s invitation to take part in their Foodival this weekend:

“Now in its seventh year, we want you to help break the record set last year of feeding over 300 people in one day, using locally grown food, cooked by local people.  Foodival takes place 13th and 14th September. We’re aiming to explore and celebrate the range of food that can be grown in the city and the diverse cultures found in Tooting, giving local people a chance to meet, learn from each other and have some fun.

Last year’s Foodival was a huge success. We want to build on that, so we’re inviting everyone from Tooting and the surrounding area to get involved – be it growing, cooking or simply coming together on the day to celebrate tasty local dishes with very few food miles. We’re always amazed by the amount of produce that people are growing in even the smallest space. People have been adding some wonderful pictures to our map to show what’s growing in Tooting” says Dave Mauger, Foodival’s event director”.

What are the words that leap out at you here?  “Break the record; local people; explore and celebrate; diverse cultures; meet; learn from each other; have some fun; huge success; tasty”.  And so on. See where I’m going here?

As George Monbiot put it in Heat, “nobody ever rioted for austerity”.  However, if we can be sufficiently skilful and inclusive, they might “long for localisation” though, or “yearn for empathy”.  Trainer is right that the scale of what needs to change is huge, and his sense of frustration at the glacial rate of change is palpable and understandable.  But this is only going to work if we find the skilful means to take people along with us, indeed, the skilful means to enable people to long for the world we need to create, because the very possibilities it presents make their hearts sing. 

Transition has clearly not achieved all that it needs to, far from it.  But Trainer’s analysis of Transition in this piece is horribly out of date.  There’s much more to it than community gardens.  Much more. Where is the mention of the impact initiatives like the Bristol Pound are having in nudging their City Council and other organisations to reimagine their procurement policies in favour of more local procurement? The Transition groups who have shifted, as in Berlin, the city authorities to a policy of only planting edible and useful species in their landscaping? The role Transition has played in the explosion of community energy projects and the UK government now having, for the first time, a Community Energy Strategy?

Vin de LiegeWhat about successful crowdfunding campaigns that are seeing social enterprises such as Vin de Liege in Belgium raising nearly €2m in shares from local people? Initiatives like Atmos Totnes, modelling a new approach to community-led development which has the potential of undermining the current development model? Of the REconomy Project, working with communities in 10 countries to help them turn their ideas and projects into vibrant new social enterprises rooted in principles of resilience, low carbon, bringing assets into community ownership and rebuilding local economies? 

Yet, the uninitiated reading this piece would assume that all Transition is about is community gardens.  Trainer appears fixated on community gardens.  The photo that accompanies the piece is, we assume, of one.  He mentions them five times, usually in a disparaging “is that all you’ve got?” kind of a tone.  It is important, however, at this point to speak up for community gardens, as they, and ‘smaller’ projects like them, are far more important than Trainer gives them credit. 

You could think of them as a ‘gateway drug’, as a way in to help people think about what’s possible.  Not everyone has Trainer’s confidence, nor even a sense that change is even possible. For many people the idea that you can even influence the place you live feels remote and impossible.  The question I hear when I do work with communities isn’t “how do we “take collective control of our town?” (one of Trainer’s recommendations of what Transition initiatives need to be doing), but rather “where do we start, or how do I engage my neighbours in doing something?”

In The Power of Just Doing Stuff I tell the story of Portalegre em Transição in Portugal.  Sonia Tavares told me that when she first heard there was going to be a talk about Transition in her town she “went beserk”:

“I felt finally that in Portalegre, my town, the town where I was born and live, there were people that were in need of changing something, just like me. I thought that was amazing, and when I saw so many people going to this presentation, I thought “this is it, we can do something. We can actually change something”. 

The Portalegre garden. Credit: Luis Bello Moraes

The first thing the group did was to work with the community in Sonia’s apartment block to create a tiny community garden in front of the building.  Sonia told me: 

“I’ve been living in Portalegre for ever, 37 years, and I have felt my community and my city crumble, people turning backs to each other. This  community garden we created tells me it is possible to do things with other people. It is possible, we just need to wake up to each other again”. 

Community gardens can give people a sense of “can do” that no amount of reading articles advocating, as Trainer does, “radical politics, confronting capitalism, fundamental structural change and “revolution”” can.   We need a new language to communicate this stuff.  That’s what Transition does.  We need to speak to peoples’ values, of community, of family, of the things they love, of place, of possibility, of things their children love and value.  

Our values also play a key role in this.  Writing in the latest Transition Free Press, Tom Crompton of Common Cause distinguishes between intrinsic values (“values associated with greater concern about social and environmental problems. They include values of connection to family, friends and community; appreciation of beauty; broadmindedness; social justice; environmental protection; equality; helpfulness”) and extrinsic values (“money; social status; public image; authority”).  He writes: 

“If we are serious about building irresistible public demand for ambitious policy change, the implications seem clear: we should always prefer to communicate about issues in ways that communicate with intrinsic values; we should avoid communicating in ways that connect with extrinsic values”.  

Writing about Common Cause’s work, George Monbiot recently challenged the idea that the more information we give people, the better decisions they will make: 

“Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change”. 

Unfortunately that’s just what Trainer’s article does.  His writing could really benefit from studying the work of Crompton and his Common Cause organisation.  His article cries out for deep and urgent change, but in such a way that very few, other than those already on his wavelength, are ever likely to follow him.  He writes: 

“In my experience, people who are attracted to these movements (i.e. Transition) tend to be very nice, polite, sensitive, respectable citizens who find words like “radical”, “capitalism” and socialism”, let alone “revolution” quite off-putting and distasteful”. 

From this he assumes that movements like Transition aren’t thinking in terms of deep systems change, that they don’t see the revolutionary potential in what they do. That “nice” people can’t affect deep change.  My sense, and it’s a point I made in my last Trainer response, is that Transition tries to take a different route, albeit what I think of as a more skilful one.  Banging on at people about the need to “revolution” and peppering sentences with “radical” and so on have clearly failed to bring about the change needed.  It doesn’t work. It’s a busted flush. It has failed in nearly everything it has tried to achieve.  What we’re trying to do with Transition is to model this stuff in action and to be more skilful about how we communicate.  

If Trainer is looking for a thorough and complete Theory of Change, we don’t have it yet, although at Transition Network we are working on it.  I was struck by the recent film Disruption, designed to inspire engagement in the Peoples’ Climate March next weekend (I’ll be going to the London march – see you there?). 

Its opening quotes Frederick Douglas: 

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will”.  

Well, yes … but.  The film uses “demand” in its banging-the-fist-on-the-table, “I’ve got half a million people outside who don’t agree with you” kind of a way, and of course, that is an important way in which change can be triggered.  But I would argue that we could reinterpret that quote using “demand” as in “supply and demand”.  Power never concedes anything unless we withdraw our support for it, and give our support to something that better meets our needs, better resonates with our values.  As Andy Lipkis put it in our interview with him last year: 

“The Bush administration was ready for all Americans to be protesting to try to stop the Iraq war. Why did they not care about that? How did they make it resilient? They expected that, they built that into their design. 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 you can do is actually vote with your feet and vote with your dollars. They were counting on people complaining: protesting and not changing”.

I struggle when I read sentences like this from Trainer’s piece: 

“The key to cutting present rates (of consumption) is not primarily to reduce personal consumption.  It lies in designing local settlements to provide for us without needing much non-renewable resource consumption”.  

“Designing local settlements” will only happen if it is a part of a democratic process that provides livelihoods, which feels like progress and which better meets our needs than the current approach and which speaks to a majority of people.  Of course community groups can tinker at the edges and do something things, but at the moment our settlements are mostly designed by big developers and powerful organisations.  

If we want to “design local settlements”, we need to mobilise people and demand change, yes, but also create demand for a better approach by getting real and scaling up our ambition and becoming developers ourselves, but a different kind of developer, as we’re soon to start modelling with the Atmos Totnes initiative here in Totnes. 

Trainer states “of course the economy has to be scrapped eventually” adding that to do so “will require a huge amount of effort consciously and deliberately devoted to the task”.  But there is no way that will happen unless we have the different models in place which are able to provide the things we need: schools, jobs, homes and so on.  The ambition of Transition, in stark contradiction to the impression Trainer paints of it, goes far beyond community gardens, into reimagining local economies, shifting their focus, modelling how it can meet public health ambitions better than the current approach, how it can create better and more meaningful livelihoods, create healthier communities, create safer investments offering a social return. We’re not there yet, but it’s where we’re headed. 

It may be that the future will reveal Transition to have been “a reformist project posing no threat to consumer-capitalist society”.  We’ll see.  Whether it ends up being called ‘Transition’ is of little matter.  But what I do know is that whatever gets us to where we need to go will need to think bigger, reimagine the language it uses, and seek to build common ground rather than talking itself into a corner while everyone else is looking in a different direction. 

Trainer’s is a bewildering perspective. On the one hand he argues that “sudden or noisy calls for more radical goals would harm these movements” and on the other he argues that the path Transition is on “will lead only to a grossly and increasingly unsustainable and unjust consumer society, containing a lot of community gardens etc”.  

I would suggest that the goals of Transition Network’s REconomy Project, to create an economy based on the principles of appropriate localisation; resilience; being low carbon; recognising that we live in a world of limits; not purely being for profit but serving a wider social purpose and, where possible, bringing assets into community ownership, are already deeply ambitious.  And Transition is just one “app” in the change activist’s toolkit, designed to enable the push towards more resilient communities.  It’s not intended to do everything.  But it is capable of doing a whole lot more than Trainer’s rather out-of-touch critique gives it credit for.  It’s evolving.  It remains open to new ideas and to processes that work with people to ask questions and shape then where the process goes, what was termed “let it go where it wants to go” in The Transition Handbook. 

Time will tell, but of course time is one of our most limited resources.  Which makes it even more imperative that we learn the art of communicating this stuff in a way that actually has any chance of leading to the change we all want to see.