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1 Jun 2009

The Potential Role of Transition Explored in the Observer’s ‘New Politics’ series

buntingBeyond Westminster’s bankrupted practices, a new idealism is emerging: Progressive politics will take root from the rubble of a Labour defeat. The Transition movement is giving us a glimpse now. Madeleine Bunting. The Observer. Sunday 31 May 2009

Here is a fascinating piece from yesterday’s Observer, about Transition in the context of what is happening to politics in the UK.  Very interesting, and it is refreshing to read something by someone who has really done their homework about Transition.

“Something remarkable has happened. Politics has ­become entirely unpredictable. Suddenly all manner of political reform is back on the table, a new urgency has been infused into tired debates about political ­disengagement and apathy, and radical reforms are being proposed to reinvigorate the hollowing out of political institutions. While the detail is vague, the scale is sweeping: Cameron talks about a massive redistribution of power; a cabinet minister urges a referendum on electoral reform; even an architect of Blair’s third way, Anthony Giddens, calls for a political revolution, and talked last week of needing new utopias to inspire a new politics of climate change. In a ­recent ­article, Martin Jacques comments on how New Labour, which built its fortunes on “there being no alternative”, is now being forced into the humiliating circumstances of having to find one.

This last task is a tall order, but given the febrile nature of the times, let’s sketch out how that might develop, and offer Giddens a first draft of what a 21st-century utopian politics might look like.

The first step will be defeat. The only uncertainty about the European elections this week is whether people are so angry that they don’t bother to vote or so angry that they cast a protest vote. The most useful vote this week would be for the Greens – a protest vote that will help push the environment up the agenda. But this week is a mere sideshow compared with what Labour will receive at the general election next year – and for its brand of politics to be thoroughly discredited, it needs a drubbing.

Apart from a few diehards, it will be hard to mourn the defeat in 2010 of a political party that lost its moral bearings in its bid to woo middle England, slavishly reflecting back what it believed this narrow constituency wanted to hear. It won ballots by flattering and indulging a mythology of the good life as individualistic aspiration and material enrichment, and never challenged the multiple erroneous assumptions on which this was based. On the two vital progressive issues of its age – inequality and the environment – it wasted a crucial decade and squandered parliamentary majorities on contradictory and inadequate gestures.

What it palpably failed to grasp was how crucial political reform was to regenerate progressive politics. A party that had been professionalised and managerialised in the 80s, not surprisingly, did not understand how to respond to people’s appetite to participate, and author their own lives. It only knew how to manipulate and manage public engagement, and earned deep resentment for doing both. Only out of the rubble of defeat in 2010 will a new progressive politics begin painfully to emerge well beyond the bankrupted conventions of Westminster politics.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where that new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement. Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, was one of the first to spot its potential when he described this young and fast-growing movement as “absolutely essential”. Other politicians have been similarly intrigued, and last year The Transition Handbook came fifth in MPs’ list of summer reading. It isn’t hard to see why politicians are so interested. The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do. It generates emotions that have not been seen in political life for a long time: enthusiasm, idealism and passionate commitment.

Within three years it has gone from an idea to having 170 towns, villages and cities signed up as transition communities, working in 30 countries, and thousands more all over the world using the transition model. It is viral, catching on faster than its founder, Rob Hopkins, can track. Its message is that peak oil and climate change demand dramatic changes in the way people live, and, given that no one has the answer, communities themselves must start working out how that change might come about. It offers no answers, no solutions, only some tips in a handbook for how to get started. Transition lays the challenge squarely at the door of everyone. This is too big and difficult for government alone to tackle, too overwhelming and depressing for individuals to face alone.

Transition is rooted in a new politics of place: geography matters again as people look to the community immediately around them to devise the solutions for sustainability and resilience. At one level it works as a way of regenerating social capital, building up relationships with neighbours, working out how to collaborate again on common interests – community gardens, recycling, waste and strengthening the local economy. At another level it is about educating people about the challenges of peak oil and climate change, but the mobilisation and consciousness-raising is directed towards optimism and hope, not despair: how can this community use its skills and imagination to build its future?

The result is a proliferation of experiments, all of which are charted on their wiki websites: the collaboration is both local and global. Communities in Somerset can swap ideas and get inspiration from Brazil, Australia or the US. It’s a world away from the smooth presentation of party politics, and transitioners are quick to point to the disclaimer on their site – they have no idea if the movement will work. They’re organising local food festivals now, but tomorrow it could be community renewable energy. The emphasis is always on conviviality and enjoyment; on learning skills that have been lost over the last few decades – how to cook, grow food, repair and make things. Scotland has funded several transition organisers to work across the country. This is an unusual thing: local grassroots environmentalism that is full of hope for the future.

Their meetings don’t have agendas or presentations – Miliband came to their annual conference ­recently as a keynote ­listener. They use what’s called open space technology, in which everyone brings their ideas and everyone participates. Humble, self-organising, the movement owes much to the idealistic thinking of the early 70s. This is a time for revisiting those alternatives, which have been so contemptuously dismissed for a quarter of a century.

Part of its growing success is how it meets several needs simultaneously. It tackles social recession – the sense of disconnection and fragmentation of community – at the same time as it ­collaborates on the huge behavioural change that will be required for a low-carbon society. The latter is far more likely to come about in the context of personal relationships than as a result of discredited politicians dictating change. It is fulfilling an unexpected appetite for political engagement at a time of widespread disillusionment with the conventional political processes.

Hopkins is emphatic that transition groups refuse all political affiliation; they must build alliances to work across all parts of their community. But it is intriguing to see how the movement is experimenting with the sorts of ideas those in conventional politics are talking about – localism, decentralisation of power to communities, an environmental politics that is utopian and hopeful rather than gloomy. Of course detractors can point out its wholemeal worthiness, but it is stubbornly swimming against the tide of pervasive political pessimism, and given the unpredictability of the times, who knows where it will end up?

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

19 Comments

Shane Hughes
1 Jun 12:38pm

Hi there, got a feeling this was published in the Guardian not Observr. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/31/reform-transition-a-new-politics

If you’re interested to see how close Transition ideals are to going mainstream, take a look at the articles comments on the link above. Some are really funny.
Shane

Rob
1 Jun 12:58pm

Hi Shane… yes, I thought that too.. it says the Guardian, but then it gives the date as Sunday… there is no Guardian on Sundays, the Observer takes its place. So I am puzzled. I can only think that it is a series that is running in the Guardian and occasionally pours over into the Observer? Puzzled. As for the comments, I once asked George Monbiot if he ever reads all the usually vile comments that follow his pieces, he said he generally avoids them. It is terrible how the cloak of anonymity emboldens people to be so snidey and unpleasant! Good to see some good ones in there too…. there were also lots of good comments in response to Leo Hickman’s piece, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/ethicallivingblog/2009/may/28/what-next-transition-towns…. much fewer comments, but more positive and thoughtful.

James
1 Jun 1:42pm

Interesting article but Transition is more of a ‘suck it and see’ set of social experiments that seem to be working – rather than a political movement – hence the cynical commentary on the Guardian website. Perhaps if the article had been about how peak oil and climate change need to be tackled by politicians as well as communities then the commentary would have been more thoughtful.

Stephen Watson
1 Jun 2:09pm

“The most useful vote this week would be for the Greens – a protest vote that will help push the environment up the agenda.”

and

“[Transition] generates emotions that have not been seen in political life for a long time: enthusiasm, idealism and passionate commitment.”

Her own assumptions here illustrate clearly why the lack of political alternatives she bemoans are so necessary! I vote Green for loads of reasons and if it’s a protest then it’s a protest at the madness we’re wreaking to our home planet in the name of ‘progress’. However, the assumption here is that such a vote has value only inasmuch as it’s a protest against the Red, Blue and Orange parties rather than having any intrinsic value as a positive statement of intent in its own right. Also, if she had spoken to Green Party members around the country and/or been to conference she may have realised that there is, and has been for decades, more to political life than the ‘main three parties’. The trouble is that the mainstream media for which she writes, continually frames discussion of all other political activity as a fringe around the altar of ‘the big three’ which unsurprisingly perpetuates the situation which she sees as so in need of change.

The piece about Transition here is intelligent and aware but some of what’s required in addition to what Transition Initiatives are capable of will have to be government led, so we certainly need Transition Politics too, and soon!

Shane Hughes
1 Jun 4:24pm

James said;
“Interesting article but Transition is more of a ’suck it and see’ set of social experiments that seem to be working – rather than a political movement -”

I’ve always been quite interested by this distinction. Is working in your community being political? I’ve never voted and you often hear not voting linked with apathy, yet i spend nearly all my working hours unpaid in my community. The distinction that interests me is, is there a time when we start to become a form of do-it-ourself or do-as-we-will politics?

Graham Burnett
1 Jun 4:45pm

> Rob said “As for the comments, I once asked George Monbiot if he ever reads all the usually vile comments that follow his pieces, he said he generally avoids them. It is terrible how the cloak of anonymity emboldens people to be so snidey and unpleasant!”

Its more than the emboldening cloak of anonymity, Rob, one look at the predictable comments that follow any article by George Monbiot and its obvious that these are orchestrated by the organised Climate Change Denial lobby, eg, the likes of Spiked Online, etc. I guess they are successful in their aims of stifling debate as I for one usually can’t be bothered to read beyond the first few posts vilifying ‘MMCCers’ (Man Made Climate Changers), so predictable, boring and personalised are the level of postings…

Marcin Gerwin
1 Jun 5:44pm

Shane, I think that both things are important: being directly involved in the community life and voting. Sometimes voting may be very hard, especially if you don’t have the perfect candidate. It may feel like choosing between malaria and typhoid. However, as long as you don’t have participatory democracy, voting in the elections is crucial. And it does make a difference, no matter how small.

I live in Poland where we had recently a prime minister who had inclinations for building a police state. He was voted out of the office. If it wasn’t for the people who casted their votes, he could have been a prime minister for many long, long years.

20 years ago we had the first free elections in Poland since the end of the Second World War. People casted their votes and the communism in Poland was over. It may seem now that voting is insignificant. However, if it really was insignificant than there would be free elections in China…

Rob Beardwell
1 Jun 7:00pm

Hi All,

This appears in *todays* (Mondays) Guardian if you want to get a copy.

Cheers

Rob

Shane Mulligan
2 Jun 3:14am

I was rather inspired by this piece, and Miliband’s visit, and the quite impressive growth of the TT initiative. I’m not sure that Bunting gets the whole significance, however. Looking over the “conversation” last winter between Rob and Richard Heinberg, the potential for a more “anarchic” (i.e. local) form of governance – along with identity, loyalty and allegiance, and ultimately arms – is part of what the coming transition would seem to portend. Indeed, politicians or communities…

Let me clarify: if communities cannot depend on politicians to defend their “security” (life chances, comforts, safety), then the community owes nothing to the state. Recall Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the basis of the state’s claims to your quiescence: the sovereign lets you live as you do; so you owe the sovereign all but your life. If the sovereign fails to protect you (in Totnes or wherever) then the sovereign becomes irrelevant – and acting locally *is* your political activity. This seems to me the fundamental point she makes: politics is returning to its geography, its locale. The party system is tied to the macro of the state, and as Madeline notes, the L party is hardly holding to its premises. “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.” How dull.

So if transition entails the localization of political identity and allegiance… and perhaps the decline of faith in fiat currency… the revolution may precede collapse after all… I see Totnes as nothing less than the lifeboat. I’m not sure, Stephen, that the political transition you seek (at the state level) is even in the cards. More likely, London will slowly lose track of England.

Stephen Watson
2 Jun 12:10pm

I agree Shane – there’s little time, current ‘progress’ is glacial and sadly, as our government is apparently so worried about saying anything other than “it’s all going to be alright and of course there will be more of the same forever” in case they lose votes, I really wonder for the future of politics as it’s currently constructed. Time will tell…

Jason
2 Jun 12:39pm

I agree strongly with Shane Mulligan. There’s a sense of thinking maybe Westminster is good for something but I don’t and won’t believe that, they aren’t catching up in time to do anything particularly useful.

Articles like this are really irrelevant IMO, except that a few might hear of something they hadn’t heard of.

[…] just checked and he’s posted it on his blog – int intnet […]

James
3 Jun 8:17am

I have been regularly posting on the Guardian website in response to some of the banal and reactionary comments. However, for me much of the outpouring of mistrust highlights an issue for Transition.

When I first found out about the Transition movement I would have agreed with many of the comments on the Guardian website – “great unleashing – says it all really”, “this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” etcetcetc. I’m sorry now to admit this but I did think the whole thing was rather New Age – based on fairies rather than facts. Even when I attended the training weekend I recoiled at many of the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff. I did it, but it terrified me.

After studying the facts – the science of peak-oil and climate change and observing the clear-thinking that developed this movement I concluded that transition is the right way forward.

But I’m constantly wondering how and if Transition will work in the rough West Midland manufacturing town where I grew up. Even in the beautiful ‘middle class’ tourist centre where I now live there is much more cynicism than in Totnes or in Stroud where progressive attitudes are positively encouraged. Our solution is to be pragmatic – we tend not to use unfamiliar terms such as ‘powerdown’ and ‘visioning’. Our meetings are exciting and enthusiastic but the exercises we use to encourage talk and participation are at the non-scary end of the scale.

Yes, I do know that this is the ‘let it go where it wants to’ principle in action, but I do think that it is worth considering how to reach out to people like me – before I did my homework.

Fourcultures
3 Jun 2:42pm

Comments from Stephen and from Marcin are spot on. It’s easy when politicians are corrupt to forget the generations of struggle it took to get any kind of accountability at all. We’ve come a long way and there’s still a lot to defend (or lose). Cynical resignation about the electoral system: no thanks. Sceptical activism, yes please.
I’d like to suggest that the mocking comments on the Guardian web site are actually on to something. These people can easily caricature the Transition movement as ‘hippy Aquarian basketweaving hobbits’ because it is at heart an Egalitarian endeavour. Now some of my best friends are hippy Aquarian basketweaving hobbits, but to become more than this there is a great need to translate transition practices into alternative languages and alternative aspirations. Can there be an Individualist transition, a Fatalist transition, an Individualist transition, besides the Egalitarian version where it seems natural?

I’m aware that I’m asking a lot, since to most Egalitarians, Fatalism, Individualism and Hierarchy can be lumped together as the Enemy. But there are instances of this kind of translation going on. To cite one example, I thought Amory Lovins’ Winning the Oil End Game was a great example of an Individualist take on Peak Oil. It’s full of a language – wealth, choice, security, ‘led by business for profit’ – which wouldn’t sit very easily with Egalitarian institutions or particularly with Hierarchical ones – but the policy prescriptions are very sensible. When we can see beyond our cultural biases and hammer out policies and practices that appeal to more than one cultural solidarity, that’s when we’re creating a progressive politics, even if we can’t ever satisfy the web comment snipers.
See the , Fourcultures website for more commentary, and the work of Michael Thompson, Marco Verweij and others on ‘clumsy solutions’.

julian duggan
3 Jun 7:51pm

Can anyone see any legs in a ‘none of the above’party re. forthcoming general election to promote serious discussion around a broad transition inspired agenda whereby if elected, candidate immediately stands down until somebody thrashes out something worth electing.Could possibly turn existing disillusion,cynicism into something more positive would also obviously be a huge undertaking!

Amanda Baker
4 Jun 8:37pm

Great discussion – I just wanted to vote for the formation of a None of the Above Party, although I think we would need compulsory voting along with it.

Nick
4 Jun 8:44pm

James – I can see what you mean in concern that Transition might struggle to get off the ground except where “hippie” tendencies can still be found (Noel Longhurst’s forthcoming PhD thesis will tell us what it is about Totnes that makes it so naturally embracing of this culture). But I think the model is great; simple yet powerful and inspiring. Time will come when things start to get a bit more sticky and Transition Towns are moving forwards, setting their own agendas, and the rest will follow.

James
5 Jun 8:39am

Nick. I agree that Transition is a (very) good model but I also feel that a pragmatic approach in some communities is likely to be more productive. It’s certainly bearing fruit in Stratford and may in other communities. I’m not the only one to think that there may be an issue with how transition is perceived. See:

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/06/transition-towns-where-next.php?dcitc=daily_nl

Jason Wingate
5 Jun 9:33am

Must agree with James. Catton’s ‘Overshoot’ reminds us how Churchill sold the war effort to Great Britain — as a dirty, grimy, bloody slog in which we simply would not be allowed to give up before the correct result was achieved. As a nation we do rise to that kind of challenge when it is placed before us. We do know how to get serious.

A great problem with Westminster is that they have to lie in order to get elected — they have to promise growth and jobs, lying to themselves as well in the process that they know how to achieve this. The British spirit actually achieves great things by gritting its teeth into a foul wind, and if that spirit (rather than ‘it will be ok’) could be wakened, it might actually be an easier sell.