The Transition Movement (Adrian Atkinson)

Nigel Harris earlier on this website analysed what he saw – and many others also have provided analyses (notably Negri and Hardt’s notion of ‘Empire’) – of the ‘transition’ of the global economy (and maybe of life generally) over the past few decades from a series of national and regional economies to a global economic machine that States (or anyone else) have the power or the political will to control and that seems to have a momentum and direction all of its own. All national governments and, indeed, the global population, have been captured in the flow of globalization that we might say is both economic and more broadly (problematically) a way of understanding what life should be all about, as a result of the opinions and more deeply the lifestyle visions forged and disseminated by the modern media (Atkinson, 2014).

Perhaps with the exception of radical Islam, coherent critical voices and opinion are few and far between – generally no more than posing for effect, rather than seriously critical (neo-neo-Marxism?) – and, by being ignored rather than censured or debated, find little place in either the media or the consciousness of everyday life. What is essentially a common idea of what life is and should be about, is moved forward by aspirations and activities around mass consumption as promoted by the capitalist machine, that by now extends into the furthest corners of the globe, capturing the minds even of the poorest of humanity and undermining any residual anger or offence at the relative indignity of their lot. World poverty has, according to official statistics, been miraculously reduced – even while income differentials have reached staggering levels involving a tiny super-rich elite over against the rest of humanity.

Whilst global conflicts and demonstrations regularly hit the headlines, the only strand that seriously indicates possible termination – the ‘unsustainability’ - of this state of being that finds a significant place in the global media chatter is the annual ritual of the ‘Conference of the Parties’ of the ‘UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’. It seems there might be problems ahead, of climate change consequent on the unfolding of the current global lifestyle. There is, indeed, almost entirely unmentioned in this media chatter, a whole series of indicators that might be seen as red flashing warning lights in the cockpit of the global airplane as it continues to accelerate into the unknown and uncared (Vairley, 2013, Ch. 2).

Unbeknown to the vast majority of the global population, there are, however, subsurface movements where a small minority of people and groups are attempting to formulate what might be done when and as the plane falls apart – assuming that it will by then not be too late to salvage the ecosphere and a reasonable way of life. The most coherent of these movements also goes under the title of Transition – but this time a different transition than that of globalization, being, rather, a transition into a (re?)fragmentation, or re-localisation, of life that addresses the global problems we face and both suggesting and attempting to implement a viable path into a genuinely ‘sustainable’ future.

Here we will start by looking at what at this juncture is the most coherent of these movements and then take a wider look at indications of a possible positive future. This transition involves a movement that started in 2006, details of which can be found in the internet under Transition Network.

The chief concerns that initiated the movement were twofold. On the one hand, there is a strong statistical probability that within the coming decades, the availability of petroleum and thence other fossil fuels will diminish as a consequence not so much of exhaustion but of increasing energy costs of extraction (known as the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI)). 80% of global economic activity is fuelled by fossil sources. However, there is only so much in the ground and as this is exploited, inexorably what is left becomes ever more difficult to access. Estimates are that this will result in a peak of supply followed by a decline along a similar curve to the increase experienced across the 20th century – essentially a classic bell-shaped curve. And with this decline we may expect to see an accelerating global economic decline, eventually back to pre-industrial times.

Exactly when this ‘peak oil’ (or more generally peak energy) might occur cannot be determined with any accuracy – and this allows people (the vast majority of those who bother to think about it at all) who don’t like the idea to put off thinking about it and thus of course any meaningful contemplation of the consequences. Without going into any detailed argument concerning ‘alternatives to fossil fuel’ and the forlorn hope of being able to continue our high and increasingly energy-dependent lifestyle into the distant future, we state here simply that the Transition Movement is growing upon a belief that ‘we can’t go on like this’.

A second, and closely related, vision that informed the founding of the Transition Movement was a reaction to the energy and chemical intensive global food production system and its ecologically destructive practices. This picked up on two related activities: on the one hand the desire to curtail the global supply of food to towns and cities by producing and supplying more locally via so-called ‘Community Supported Agriculture’ (CSA) and on the other promoting and practicing a farming methodology known as Permaculture (Permanent Agriculture) that respects – and even attempts to rebuild – local ecological diversity whilst producing the food needed to feed local populations.

CSA first appeared in Japanese cities in the 1960s, under the title of Teikei, where housewives had become worried about the safety and health consequences of foods sold in supermarkets, spreading to Europe and North America from the 1980s and now very widespread. ‘Permaculture’ is a farming method that was developed in the 1970s by two scientists employed by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and now has a significant following, with, in some countries, national Permaculture Associations to promote this farming methodology.

In 2006 a retired executive of the Shell Corporation, Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), resident at the time in Cork, Ireland, and Rob Hopkins, a lecturer in Permaculture at a college in Kinsale, not far from Cork, met and formulated the idea of a movement designed to address what might be expected to be a collapse or decline in the global system as a consequence of declining oil resources. One of the first ideas was to formulate, with the Kinsale local authority an ‘Energy Descent Plan’ (Hopkins, 2005) that would indicate over the coming years how people living and working in the area could reduce the amount of energy they use to live their lives.

Upon finishing his contract, Rob moved to Totnes in Devon and with local colleagues started the first ‘Transition Town’ where a local group formed to develop initiatives deemed to be relevant to changing lifestyles – attitudes and the local economy and food supply system – aiming over time to achieve a more sustainable – ‘future realistic’ – way of life at least within Totnes and the surrounding area. There arose an immediate interest of groups in other parts of the UK to start similar initiatives and the group in Totnes undertook to assist with written guidelines and training initiatives . In practice different groups picked up different kinds of initiative and whist many have been quite imaginative, inventive and effective, others have run into problems of internal conflict or are little more than one or two people contacting the Totnes group but not actually undertaking much by way of tangible and effective initiatives.

The reputation of the movement soon crossed national boundaries and spread like wildfire first in North America and Australasia and then more slowly crossing language frontiers right across Europe, in recent years taking off also in Latin America with a few initiatives in Asia and Africa. By 2010, national centres – known as ‘hubs’ - were developing to promote the spread of transition initiative and at the time of writing there are some 50 hubs – that meet once a year – and some 500 more or less effective groups with well over 1,000 initiatives that have in some way taken initiative.

There is, set out in the general principles of Transition, a ‘classic’ progression in 12 stages. This sees in the first place an ad hoc group forming to develop the initiative – that will in the longer term dissolve itself but is necessary to get things moving. The next stage is to research and connect with existing relevant local initiatives and, together organize a ‘Great Unleashing’ as a kind of local fair to spread the message and encourage involvement. Various planning and decision-making methodologies have been developed to ensure involvement of all such that there is no ‘leadership’ as was common in such initiatives in the past. Theme groups and a process of ‘reskilling’ resulting in activities to rebuild the local economy (‘Reconomy’) are organized and in the process – and particularly in the context of the already-mentioned ‘Energy Descent Plan’ - increasingly drawing in and on local government.

Very few initiatives are going in any way systematically through this procedure - though the methodology is spreading and beneath the methodology a process of training in thinking in new ways about what life is – or, post globalisation may be expected to be - about, known as ‘inner transition’. On the practical level, the most common initiative in cities – by no means even often connected to Transition but clearly inspired by the same concerns of ‘relocalisation’, is the formation of CSA initiatives to contract suburban and urban farmers to provide organic fruit and vegetables. But many other small initiatives based on the formation of neighbourhood groups that might themselves become involved in food or other small-scale re-localising production initiatives.

Transition initiatives – unlike an earlier movement of ‘Local Agenda 21’ that emanated from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 where some national and many local governments took up the initiative to develop activities that might be deemed to be sustainable in the longer term - the Transition Movement starts almost everywhere as civil society initiative. More recently, whilst there seems as yet to be no recognition by any national government of the movement, many local authorities are adopting Transition initiatives and collaborating with local civil society groups to achieve effective activities.

A shining example of this is the case of Bristol that started soon after the movement began where the mayor and council have adopted a particular version of Transition and put resources both into the issues of future energy and future food for the city. Meanwhile the civil society side of the initiative has worked in different neighbourhoods to generate interest and activity in line with a transition outlook.

No Transition initiative strives to have the kind of self-reliance and community cohesion that will need to be developed once the downward passage of energy and the falling-apart of the global system and mentality begin to set in. Pragmatism prevails and initiatives come alive and then many wither away in terms of enthusiasm and effective action. Everywhere these are tiny proportions of active local populations – even where they have managed to raise awareness amongst a broader population. Even where many people are more or less convinced that ‘things can’t continue this way’, somehow there are too many urgent things in life to be able to give time or even thought to changing outlooks and lifestyles. When local authorities play too large a role, initiatives tend to become more conventionally local government, under their existing remit, and community enthusiasm easily ebbs away.

What seems evident at this point is that the growth of the movement appears to be slowing down, that there have been many starts and initiatives that failed to develop beyond the initial enthusiasm and where initiative seems to end in regular meetings of the initiators and maybe an ongoing CSA or ‘training’ but few attempts at ‘reskilling’ in the sense of starting new productive or social activities that genuinely claw back production from what these days almost all flows from the superstores and other local outlets from the global economy. In short, the initial frisson around the issue of Peak Oil has diminished as the actual flow of oil continues at, for the present, ever lower prices . Few thinking people believe this can continue for too much longer but somehow are trapped in the ‘path dependence’ of modern life that might be seen as a kind of schizophrenia – seeing disaster ahead but doing nothing.

However, taking a longer and wider perspective into social movements of the Transition kind, we might think that the Transition Movement is just a new manifestation of something much older, that has also gained a new impetus in the face of the ‘end of modernity’ which we are facing. These broader and older movements evolved over recent decades in terms of the title under which they have emerged. Communities that separated themselves off from the mainstream society, out of a sense of the need for a tighter form of social unity and a set of life principles separate from the mainstream have a long history in Europe – and including minority movements amongst the colonisers of the Americas.

Looked at in the light of Transition, these communities and movements might be seen as the foundation of what could be the ‘positive’ end result of the break-up of the global system in the sense of Joseph Tainter’s (1988) classic study of the collapse of complex societies in the past – or indeed Alisdair MacIntyre’s (1981) notion of moral communities that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Most people who allow themselves to glimpse at the possible consequences of ‘the end of oil’ can see nothing but conflict and chaos. These movements, however, demonstrate possibilities of the reconstruction of ‘community’ in a positive light.

In the past these usually included a particular religious affiliation and whilst this is true of some of the wave of community-formation that started following the ‘failed revolution of 1968’, the majority today are more likely to be secular or pursuant of vision, goals and principles devised by those who started the communities. In the 1960s and 1970s these were known as communes (of course in other European languages this title is little more than the name for local authorities); then more recently re-named ‘Intentional Communities’ – having specific lifestyle intentions – and recently an accelerating formation under the title of Ecovillages of which there may be as many as two thousand concentrated in Europe and North America but also to be found on all other continents and with memberships mainly below 50, sometimes adults only, but others with over a hundred and even several hundred members of all ages .

Few of these communities take Peak Oil or even combating climate change as a framework for their activities. Almost all, however, see the need to respect the ecology of the places they occupy – many of those in the countryside practicing Permaculture or at a minimum some other form of organic agriculture. Social relations are mostly egalitarian, with various levels of voluntary sharing of resources and responsibilities in maintaining the fabric of the community is also usually without the intervention of money. Often some members of communities work outside the community and most welcome guests, undertake training exercises and besides growing some of their own food, produce some of the goods they consume, or sell their produce outside the community. What unites them above all is attempts to reform human relations from education through decision-making to visioning and participating in exercises aimed at exploring ‘other ways of living’ that includes the arts.

To end this brief essay, I write not about what might happen in the coming years but rather to note the central point of both the Transition Movement and the broader Ecovillage/Intentional Communities Movements. As long as there remain possibilities for putting off the realisation that Modernity and Globalisation are reaching their limit, ‘the system’ not only perpetuates itself in the minds of the vast majority of humanity but even continues to accelerate along lines that will make it ever more difficult to make a meaningful transition to a low-energy future.

It is, however, considerably easier to remove oneself into an ‘alternative community’ and in this context change one’s lifestyle and the people surrounding oneself who have also drawn the conclusion that radical changes in lifestyle are coming anyway, than it is to attempt, as the Transition Movement is trying to do, to draw one’s neighbours, as yet knowing nothing and with few or no inclinations to see the obvious out of the context in which they find themselves. As many people who might briefly encounter the movement glibly say: nothing much will happen until the evidence of ‘collapse’ becomes overwhelming. Well, this seems to be the truth and we will just have to wait and see what happens and provide the tools to assist the movements to adjust to reality as and when the necessity reveals itself – and hope there is still room for meaningful change in a situation that does not degenerate into some kind of Hobbesian warre.

By Adrian Atkinson

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1 See the Transition Network web site given above but also particularly Hopkins (2008) and Chamberlain (2009)
2 See Bristol’s Transition web site and a number of related sites of various Bristol initiatives. For publications see Carey (2011) and documentation of the city energy plan in the internet. Under the heading of transition (name of city or urban neighbourhood) there are very many web sites generated by transition initiatives particularly in Europe and North America.
3 At the time of writing the price of diesel oil is considerably less than that of mineral water in the supermarkets.
4 A biennial directory of communities in the UK is published by Diggers and Dreamers; A Directory of Intentional Communities and Ecovillages in Europe is produced by one of the German communities and a US directory is published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. A large number of the communities have formed themselves into the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).

Atkinson, A. (2014) Urbanisation: A brief episode in History. City Vol.18. No.6, pp.609-632.
Carey, J (2011) Who feeds Bristol? Towards a Resilient Food Plan. Bristol City Council and National Health Service, Bristol.
Chamberlain, S. (2009) The transition timeline for a local, resilient future. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont.
Hopkins, R. (Ed) (2005) Kinsale 2021: An Energy descent Action Plan. Kinsale Further Education College, Kinsale, Ireland.
Hopkins, R. (2008) The transition handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont.
MacIntyre, A. (1981) After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.
Tainter, JA. (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Vairley, F. (2013) Reflections on the Fall of Modern Civilisation. New Generation Publishing, London.

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