Transition Town Movement: A Critique

Ted Trainer writes in an essay about the Transition Town movement:

The only way the global sustainability and justice predicament can be solved is via something like the inspiring Transition Towns movement. However unless the movement radically alters its vision and goals I do not think it will make a significant contribution to solving our problems.

Trainer is right, the alterations must be radical otherwise the movement will produce nothing. The majority of participants–if that is the right term–in Transition are predisposed to the sorts of thing the movement espouses. They are not people that woke up one morning and decided to participate–though I am sure the movement boasts some recent converts. They are people that have an existing interest in the what the movement stands for and sets out to do. Alex Steffen writes:

All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse… and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap.

Sammi Glover at TreeHugger contends that Steffen believes the Transition union as looking at collapse in the directly in the eye; they have “gleeful anticipation for a collapse of the status quo”. Their market is in there being an imminent disaster. This argument is too submitted regularly in the climate change debate. Denialists argue that ‘warmists’–as they like to call them–have an inveterate agenda and its good business to beat up the ‘facts’ by way of scaremongering. I think this is unfair in both situations. I imagine those that have grouped with the Transition movement are well-meaning and sincere with their concerns. To be sure, what they are worried about–peak oil, climate change, economic catastrophe– are all on the cards. I think, though, like so many other similar movements they are forgetting a vital piece of the puzzle. The thing that will make what they do actually relevant. The thing that will give it a good chance of working or being at the very least an important part of a bigger solution. Others.

The others are the folk that have never heard of the Transition movement. The folk that are bringing us closer to collapse. The oil-burning, carbon-dioxide emitting, non-organic eating section of society that turns a blind eye to collective change as (a) it gets in the way of their plasma-buying, jet-setting, six-cylinder sedan-driving lifestyle; or (b) they don’t really understand there is a problem and if they do they feel powerless in addressing it. I wondered how prominent this group of “others” actually was. I took to Facebook and asked the question: Have you heard of the Transition Town movement? I got 18 responses, of those 1 ‘yes’. This is exactly what I expected.

The Transition Town movement, like so many like it, exists on the fringe. It is well-meaning, probably does a lot of good work–I am very sympathetic of its connections with permaculture–but it simply doesn’t have broad enough appeal to do much at all. For every community garden it builds, seed swap it arranges, working bee it conducts, car it takes off the road, the majority of people are consuming and ignoring their way in the opposite direction. This surely leads to resentment among those that have worked so hard not only participating on the ground but in trying, ever so gradually, to raise awareness of the movement.

My suggestion is this, and I have every intention to work at achieving it: The Transition Town movement and all the others like it need to break into the mainstream. It needs to happen quick before they dissolve into the abyss of past trends. It needs to start changing those that it is tidying up after. I know how hard this is. I was a radical vegan for a number of years and tried every tactic in the book to bring others around. Sometimes it worked–very rarely;–most of the time it turned people against me. The Transition Town movement’s founder, Rob Hopkin’s latest book is called “The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World”. I’ve not read it but if the title is to be taken as its central premise, I think it is hugely important to the movement’s success. The more stuff that is just done, the more people that see its benefits, the easier it will be to bring them around. It’s when people think something will be oppressive and a waste of time that they don’t see the point or bother participating. If they see it as something fun, interesting and productive in and of itself then they are move likely to engage in it. This is all very warm and cute, I know. But I think more of the awareness raising seems to take place in the comfort of familiar groups than out there amongst other people, the people right down the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps this is a mark of insecurity or a lack of self-confidence? Not willing to take on big enough challenges to achieve the goal. Perhaps its the goal that is confused–doing small, seemingly inconsequential tasks noticed only by a few rather than focusing on who sees them. I know that a project I was involved in some time ago, a guerrilla community garden, suffered from this. We didn’t want it to get out to too many people as we hadn’t sought approval. Rather than a political statement it became a something to be apologised for. In her TED Talk, Pam Warhurst–who founded Incredible Edible– speaks about ‘propaganda gardening’ and how it sets out to convert unused land, without council approval, into productive spaces. Rather than getting council to dictate what is good for the community, she and others proved to them what is good.

A final critique of the movement is the unnecessarily vague and jargon-laden language that is used. All this is going to do is divide people. Make it inclusive, open and specific–without being too prescriptive. Call a spade a spade and then hand a spade to your neighbour and start digging up the verge and planting herbs. To heck with what the council thinks.