The Transition Town Movement’s Initial Genius
By Craig Comstock
30 November, 2010
Can we get beyond denial about peak oil, climate change, and economic troubles as long as we don’t find forms of action open to us?
The genius of the “transition town” movement is that it starts with a positive vision, focuses on local scenes, teaches skills, invites people to develop plans, gives them other obviously useful things to do together, and thus provides the added-value of intensifying community. You can find this in its handbook, of which the second edition will soon be published.
Despite the joys of social networking, community happens when we see people who are not on a flatscreen, and gather with them; work, share, argue, and celebrate with them. This can happen anywhere, but is perhaps easiest in a small town.
The transition movement has limitations; everything does. It does not directly challenge the corporate and political elites whose actions or inactions determine the context within which localities exist. But the movement does offer a way forward. As one of my English friends said when I was grumbling, “let’s get on with it, now, shall we?”
Rob Hopkins, who with his colleagues started the transition movement, settled in Totnes, a small market town near the south coast of England, but the movement now has affiliates not only in towns but also in the neighborhoods of big cities and in rural areas — affiliates that are still “mulling” over the prospects and at least one that has already produced its “energy descent action plan.”
The movement does not hide the severity of the challenge from peak oil and from climate change. What it offers is a way to absorb dire projections because responses to them suddenly seem possible. These responses have included increases in local food supply, “reskilling,” the circulation of local currency, bulk buying of solar panels, building with local materials, teaching about resilience, and the development of energy descent plans (Totnes “launched” its plan in May).
As we have to live with less energy, says the movement, we will have to lead more lives more locally, the opposite of globalization. Unable to rely so heavily on imports supplied by faraway factories, mines, and wells, and by industrial agriculture, we will have to use more technology that is appropriate to local food growing and local crafts or manufacturing.
Though the movement differs in many ways from earlier initiatives, ideas from the 1970s remain in the mix, along with more recent concepts. Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered was published in 1973. Whatever may be its relations with the Schumacher Society of today, the transition movement shares some of Schumacher’s main concerns. And Hopkins is now reconceptualizing the transition movement in terms of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, published in 1977. Likewise, Hopkins originally taught permaculture, an approach to the natural world described in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.
However, the transition movement strives not to “go back to the land,” but to increase the resilience of communities. If there is a guiding romance in the movement, it would be less the self-sufficient rural life, than the engaged town or neighborhood, rich in human contacts and cooperation.
It’s easy, gazing at the upward slope of gross domestic product, to assume that our society is the best one possible, except what “growth” will, most people hope, make possible soon. Part of the appeal of the transition movement is its quiet doubt about this assumption. Perhaps we can find an even better way of living, even under conditions of “energy descent.”
Among various innovations, Hopkins and his colleagues have rediscovered the attractions of face-to-face democracy. The movement may be local, but as the U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once said, “all politics is local.” Clearly, if even a small percentage of many towns might mobilize, the central government begins to take notice: the movement has already attracted a national British official as “keynote listener” at one of its conferences.
Judging from afar by watching videos on line and by reading reports and comments of participants, the transition movement in Totnes has attracted at least 5% of the population, the number who attended a one-day celebration of the work or an energy fair. (75% of people in the Totnes area have at least heard of the movement.)
Once people see that it’s possible to prepare, at least to some extent, and feel they are not alone, they have a better chance of getting through the stages of adaptation to reality that Carolyn Baker discusses in Sacred Demise The nightmare of those who expect hard times is a lack of preparation–psychological as well as physical. If the global peak of oil production drives prices up, affecting economies, and if climate change brings more misallocations of water (drought here, floods there), the shock will be intense for those expecting a return to “growth.”
The transition model of engagement is most effective when people can imagine both severe challenges and also a better way of life that doesn’t depend on growth. The British isles are perhaps especially blessed in these ways. When it comes to harsh challenges, Dunkirk, the blitz, and then the end of empire have not disappeared from memory. Likewise, the English have long had traditions other than only consumerism and suburban cocooning. And it was England that produced the Stern report on why, in response to climate change, it would cost less to act now than to wait.
It’s possible that the U.S., despite already being peppered with transition projects, nonetheless presents a harder case. It’s true that in Vietnam, as Leonard Cohen sang with bitter irony, “the good guys lost,” and true that the U.S. had a wake-up call on 9/11/01, but our very being as a nation was not threatened by military invasion or by loss of an entire empire. And we have a tradition more of “self-reliance” than of community engagement. Moreover, a plan to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases is forestalled here by suspicion of “big government,” egged on by big economic interests that don’t want to be regulated.
In the face of the challenges it has taken aboard, the transition movement will succeed at the very least in raising consciousness, in part because it suggests tangible constructive action. With each row of vegetables planted and each solar panel installed, it wins the right to say, “oh, this is necessary, but it’s also enlivening to do, isn’t it?”
What about observers who envision an economic collapse worse than we already have? Thinking the unthinkable, they see people who are shocked at being impoverished, surrounded by machines that don’t work and fuel too expensive to use, who, in many cases, have skills only for life when the machines did work and who are angry, depressed, even despairing.
One approach is to try to scare people into action, by highlighting evidence for impending energy deprivation, climate change, and economic hard times. But this often leads to more despair or, to avoid it, a stronger case of denial.
Michael Brownlee, one of the transition pioneers in the U.S., in an essay just published on Carolyn Baker’s lively website, says that in some U.S. communities, “the effort for relocalization has already essentially stalled.” Inspired by the “universe story” told by a Christian writer, and after work at a farm and workshop center run by a woman religious, and based on a talk given at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Brownlee’s answer is to conclude that the transition movement is “all about the Sacred,” a point not totally unrelated to Al Gore’s framing of climate change as a moral issue.
Perhaps the most effective approach in the U.S. has not yet been developed and, as Brownlee says, the willingness of the transition movement to experiment and reinvent itself may lead it to a wider success. One job is to help people hear about the challenges soon to be upon us. Another is to find forms of action.
Looking at how Americans feel entitled to a lot of stuff, Brownlee concludes “there may be no other nation on the planet where greed and denial are more deeply rooted.” While it’s understandable that he is driven to denounce the very people he wants to persuade, Brownlee poses the challenge with clarity.
Repeating the observation of a leading environmentalist, Brownlee says that Martin Luther King did not tell the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a nightmare.” King did not need to describe the nightmare because his people were living it. They needed a dream. “But we, I fear, are living a dream,” Brownlee continues. “We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead… We will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.”
Here we are back at the basic challenge of the transition movement: in England at least, its genius has been to give people something to do together, in the belief that they’d then be more ready to understand the terms of the predicament. Whether more things have to be added to the mix will become clear as the movement evolves.