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Transitional demands

As a global deal on climate change recedes into the future, perhaps the local level is our only hope of preventing climate catastrophe. Sarah Irving investigates the Transition movement, which aims to move us 'from oil dependency to local resilience,' using the power of community

December 19, 2009
12 min read

From modest beginnings as a permaculture class project at a college in Kinsale, Ireland, the Transition movement has spread its message of community resilience and low-carbon living around the world. The first ‘transition town’ in Totnes, Devon, established by permaculture tutor Rob Hopkins in 2005, now has counterparts as far afield as New Zealand, Japan, Canada and Finland.

According to the ‘official’ Transition website ( ‘a transition initiative is a community working together to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye and address this big question: for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of peak oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of climate change)?’

Twelve steps (see box on next page) guide transition initiatives through a process designed to end in a clear vision, based on practical, demonstrable experiences, of how a community will implement an ‘energy descent plan’ to survive the threats of climate change and exist without the accustomed abundance of fossil fuels to heat our homes, move us around, light our streets and cook our food. As Ben Brangwyn, one of the Transition Network’s trustees, puts it, ‘If we wait for governments, it’ll be too late; if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little; but if we act as communities, maybe it’ll be enough.’

Urban challenges

Some of the early transition initiatives, such as Totnes, have provided inspiring examples of community action. Penny Skerrett of Transition Manchester’s core group was present at the launch of Transition Town Totnes. ‘It was an extraordinary night,’ she recalls. ‘Hundreds of people were in the town hall and it had a blitz spirit to it. People were standing up and talking about what they could do, what might be useful, just offering – “I can knit,” “I can make furniture.” I’d never seen or felt anything like that before.’

Four years later, Transition Town Totnes activities include nut tree planting for locally-produced protein, garden-sharing to grow food on underused land, and a business exchange which, says Ben Brangwyn, works on the basis that ‘one business’s waste is another’s raw materials.’ According to Brangwyn, around 5 per cent of Totnes’s 8,500 inhabitants are actively involved in the transition town and around 12-15 per cent are signed up to its mailing list.

Unusually for an environmental campaign, Transition Towns sees older people as vital to finding sustainable ways to live. It highlights the experience of those who’ve lived through wartime shortages and rationing. A participant at a transition cities discussion in Manchester in October 2009 flagged up invaluable skills – like preserving fruit and vegetables – found among people such as Women’s Institute members.

But even transition devotees admit that scaling up to city level presents new challenges. The early successes – such as Totnes and Lewes – were often fairly small, fairly affluent, very white market towns with existing interests in green issues and ‘alternative’ lifestyles.

One of the best-known critiques is the Rocky Road to a Real Transition pamphlet issued in April 2008 by the Trapese popular education collective. It asked whether Transition is ‘about political change’ and questioned the extent to which it engages with marginalised people and challenges established power structures. Other campaigners have highlighted the fact that middle-class consumption, such as multiple cars, overseas holidays and large houses, often has a much bigger carbon footprint than that of low-income families. The extent to which Transition could bring about real change, Trapese also suggested, was limited by vested political and corporate interests, which it seems to try to work around rather than confront.

In a July 2009 reprint of Rocky Road, Trapese acknowledged the value of the debates that the pamphlet had provoked. The collective noted that in Leeds and Glasgow, transition city plans emphasised the need for a ‘just transition’, recognising the specific dilemmas of post-industrial cities. Transition spokespeople stress that the movement is very much a ‘work in progress’, and the network’s website repeats that no one claims to know that Transition is the right way forward.

Transition in the City

Around Britain, transition initiatives – some of them signed up to the ‘official’ list and some still ‘thinking about it’ – exist in Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield, Cardiff, Nottingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and in areas of London including Brixton, Tooting and Finsbury Park.

As Ben Brangwyn stresses, climate change isn’t just an ‘environmental issue’ but will spark ‘a refugee crisis’ that will put pressure on our cities and their social fabric. Craig Barnett of Transition Sheffield has done groundbreaking work with the City of Sanctuary project, thinking about ways to integrate environmental asylum seekers into Britain’s urban life. And other Transition City initiatives, such as Montpelier in Bristol, have tried to tackle everyday ‘urban’ problems, debating drug use and removing phone boxes where they’ve become a focus for vandalism and drug deals.

But with its roots in white, middle-class environmentalism, Transition has its work cut out to be truly relevant in our inner cities. Ben Brangwyn insists that efforts have been made, with meetings held in mosques and community centres, but admits that the network has had trouble ‘getting to grips with this properly’ and that initiatives need to forge diverse partnerships to make a real impact. A core group member from one city also pointed out that if Transition doesn’t get beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of the environmental community, then it’s likely to be drawing on already over-committed people who either have very limited time to give, or who have to abandon other projects to take up Transition.

Penny Skerret of Transition City Manchester is similarly honest, admitting that ‘from my experience, Transition is still a white, middle-class movement.’ She acknowledges that, especially in cities, Transition groups can be dominated by well-meaning people from affluent, ‘alternative’ suburbs who talk about community, but have no understanding of the strength, cohesiveness and depth of knowledge that may exist in inner city ‘no-go’ areas close by.

‘I visited a school in Miles Platting, a very marginalised area of Manchester, where an artist is making a garden in the school playground,’ describes Skerrett. ‘One of the things that’s emerged there is that there are lots of people who are asylum seekers and refugees from parts of the world where climate change is happening now, who have experience of extreme weather and famine. Their stories create real meaning for the children in the school about what climate change is. That’s a really important way of making connections between Manchester and what’s happening on the news.’

Do it yourself

Anyone can set up a transition initiative in their neighbourhood, town or city. In some cities, such as Manchester, a core group has formed and worked quietly on building itself up before interacting with other groups or holding public meetings. Other cities, like Liverpool, have tried to overcome their fear of being a ‘talking shop’ by adopting a more open approach, starting projects such as community allotments at an early stage.

Initiatives are asked to contact the central Transition Network Ltd (TNL) at the ‘mulling’ stage. TNL is itself a charity, set up to ‘inspire, encourage, network, support and train’. To call themselves an ‘official transition town’ as listed on the network website, initiatives must fulfill criteria ranging from demonstrating understanding of peak oil and climate change, to communicating with other transition bodies and local authorities and organisations, to training members of the core team.

Individual transition initiatives take various forms. In smaller towns, a single core group with themed sub-groups dealing with issues such as food, energy or transport can work. But transition cities have struggled with this model, finding the city too large a unit to maintain regular meetings or a sense of united community.

Transition Nottingham and Bristol have successfully used a central ‘hub’ to provide co-ordination, training and publicity and work on city-wide problems such as transport, while smaller groups in neighbourhoods such as Montpelier in Bristol or West Bridgford in Nottingham deal with local issues.

Another challenge of which participants at the Manchester event in October 2009 seemed aware was the danger of Transition being seen as a brand seeking to stamp itself on existing sustainability initiatives and trying to colonise other groups’ work.

As Manchester’s Penny Skerrett puts it, ‘I always go back to permaculture, in that biodiversity is the most important thing. In somewhere like Manchester the more groups there are across the city, the more healthy the city will be. So the idea of Transition coming in and trying to turn that into some kind of monoculture is just not going to work. There’s no reason for it and it will get people’s backs up.’

Supping with the devil?

One of Rob Hopkins’ ’12 steps to Transition’ is ‘building a bridge to local government’. Environmental initiatives across the UK have an uneven history of relationships with local and national government, peppered with betrayal and mistrust.

At Manchester’s Transition in the City discussion, attitudes varied between wary optimism from some Mancunians, given (Labour) Manchester City Council’s willingness to listen during the climate change action plan process (see box on opposite page), and the despair of Liverpool activists at their (Liberal Democrat) council’s announcement that it was spending £300,000 taking Liverpool to the Shanghai World Expo but sending no one to the climate summit in Copenhagen.

Transition towns vary in their relationship to the local state. One woman involved in a transition initiative in the north of England seethed as she described ‘wasting ten years of her life working with New Deal for Communities’.

But Caroline Downey, director of the Bridge 5 Mill environment and community centre in a marginalised area of Manchester, pointed out that much of the renovation done there in the late 1990s was carried out by New Deal trainees. While the founders had been sceptical about government unemployment schemes, New Deal had given the fledgling centre a paid workforce and provided the trainees with a more rewarding and varied training experience than they might have found at more conventional employers.

‘Sometimes it is possible, if you’re careful, to use government and local authority agendas to your advantage,’ says Downey.

The diversity of transition initiatives means that there is no hard and fast rule for relationships with local government. Some have good personal connections or positive local authorities. Others, such as Brighton and Bristol, towns with existing, highly-vocal campaigning communities, have a reputation for more oppositional relations. Yet even Bristol Transition neighbourhoods have helped to win public funding for specific projects, such as work on Montpelier Park.

‘The issue is how close your relationship is,’ said a transition activist from the south west of England. ‘It’s great to get one-off funding, but it gets dangerous if you have core funding from councils. That can taste too much like co-option or dependency.’

True transition?

There’s no doubt that the Transition model addresses some of the long-running criticisms of environmental movements, combining awareness about the wider fate of the planet with a focus on the human impacts of climate change and peak oil. This is not landscape conservation – it’s a basic survival agenda.

Despite its more holistic ideas, the question is whether the Transition movement has the ability to rise to the massive challenge it sets itself. And the jury must still be out on this. Transition’s rhetoric – of community, self-sufficiency, relevance to the elderly and to minorities as well as the white, middle-class ‘concerned’ – is spot on. But to be genuinely inclusive, many of the people who currently run transition initiatives need to take long, hard and possibly uncomfortable looks at how they work and how that might need changing. Transition’s decentralised model makes it open to any community, but it also means that anyone – however (un)qualified and (un)committed – can claim their local transition town title.

On a wider scale, Transition is also open to the criticisms levelled against ethical consumerism, green living and other ‘lifestyle’ movements. By concentrating on the level of individual change, they don’t necessarily address the bigger structural challenges of political expediency, corporate power and economic inequality, which may let small-scale agendas effect change so far, but no further.

In practice, most ‘transitioners’ are individually aware of the need to lobby, campaign or take direct action alongside their personal or community efforts, and they may promote these alongside transition activities. On the other hand, Transition’s relentless positivity, working with the things people have in common rather than on a more oppositional stage, may count it out of very necessary struggles.

At the moment, the Transition model holds immense promise for environmental and social change. But it remains to be seen whether its adherents have the strength to take it from a minority lifestyle choice to the much bigger force for democratic grassroots change that it could be.

This article is part of our series on emerging political movements, made possible with the help of the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust.


The 12 steps to transitionby Rob Hopkins

* 1 Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset

* 2 Raise awareness

* 3 Lay the foundations

* 4 Organise a Great Unleashing to ‘mark the arrival of the project, and celebrate the community’s desire to act

* 5 Form groups

* 6 Use open space

* 7 Develop visible, practical manifestations of the project

* 8 Facilitate the Great Reskilling

* 9 Build a bridge to local government

* 10 Honour the elders

* 11 Let it go where it wants to go

* 12 Create an energy descent action plan

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