1 Jun 2011
Lock on – notes towards an article on activism and transition
Charlotte Du Cann’s piece on Transition and activism has generated much debate and discussion. A few people have mentioned that they were concerned that people were commenting on my response without having read her original piece. So here it is… reposted with thanks.
“To take in what is happening an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect ‘the fields’ that are institutionally kept separate”.
John Berger, Hold Everything Dear
“No is one of the most honourable words in the English language,” said Deepak. “It needs to be reclaimed.” Deepak Rughani is a campaigner and co-director of Biofuelwatch and he’s talking about the defence of natural ecosystems, an area he feels the Transition movement ignores. Without action to prevent the exploitation of the wild lands reduction of carbon emissions becomes meaningless. Without stringent protection of the pristine grasslands and rainforest in the Amazon basin the world’s rainfall patterns are dramatically disturbed and thus our ability to feed ourselves.
I’m researching a piece for the Transition newsletter about the relationship between activism and Transition and finding it’s a giant subject. Too large really for one voice and one blog. And when we say activism what exactly do we mean? Does this include campaigning and grassroots community activism, as well as direct action and civil disobedience?
I had met Deepak at our meeting to discuss Nicole Foss’s talk on financial deflation and our economic future where he had given an introductory overview. That’s when I noticed a shift that was happening in Transition. We had been working diligently on our community projects, building culture and infrastructure, when BAM! the world stormed right back into the room. Although we were talking about local solutions we were also debating the big global issues: civil liberties, civil disobedience. There was a buzz in the air I hadn’t felt in a long while. It brought a reality and an urgency into play that had been missing.
2011 is not 2010. It is the year when politics came back into all our lives, as we found ourselves marching against the Government’s public spending cuts, watching the uprisings in the Middle East with fast-beating hearts – a time when we are being challenged to take a stand in a way that was no longer just about saying Yes.
It’s frustrating that (activism) is usually framed as “negative” campaigning, as it’s all about making a more positive world and those positive messages are usually there but just not heard as loudly. For example the campaign “against” GM crops also pushed the alternatives of organic very heavily, campaigners “against” nuclear power sing the praises of renewables, and “anti”-incineration campaigners promote reduction of waste, effective recycling etc. Climate Camp not only highlighted problems but modeled a sustainable eco-village of thousands with its own energy production, grey water, compost loos, vegan food, democratic decision making structures etc. Far more than just opposing stuff. As I said before – holistic. (Rhizome Co-op from the Transition Network Forum on Activism and Transition
The fact is many people in Transition are also activists and campaigners and as I began speaking with some of them I realised that we don’t talk about it much. We live our lives in separate stories. In our meetings we are Transitioners and in the “outside world” we are someone else. It’s a phenomenon of our culture that Paul Kingsnorth writes about in the second issue of Dark Mountain. In Transition Norwich there are people who are activists for Greenpeace, for CND, who go on climate actions and marches, who sign petitions, who fight for the NHS, for the forests, for the libraries, who protest against Tescos, against the Northern Distributor road, who lobby politicians and councillors, who are those councillors, who are the people who speak with everyone and do not close down.
Some of us find that saying yes inevitably means saying no. Chris Hull, a founder of TN and also an active anti-Tesco campaigner (see right as Darth Vadar!) observes that being involved in local business and local food production means you will be against supermarkets by default and no matter how far you go to speak with those in power and civic office, “you get to a point where you are pulling in different directions in subtle and sometimes in subliminal ways, where the business-as-usual model is directly conflicting with Transition.”
Christine Way has just returned from successfully blockading a port in Scotland to bring attention to the containers of “green” bio-mass woodchips from Brazil for electricity. A fellow founder of TN she has always maintained that both forces for change need to work together. And that just as Transition needs to keep the bigger picture in mind in all it does – those drivers of climate change, peak oil and economics – so activism needs to include the positive moves that Transition works hard to provide, and not become snared up in battling against the Establishment.
What alternatives are you providing?
One of Transition’s strengths is its fluidity and I’m becoming aware of this fluidity the more I speak with everyoone. It’s not stuck in ideology or dogma and deliberately doesn’t fight the enemy. It works by including many kinds of people and a diversity of approach. In this it has a unique ability to connect and work alongside the many forces for change that already exist. The empire divides and conquers. To embrace activism as a dynamic force within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it. We need to include those dramatic actions that highlight our planetary dilemmas because our consciousness is shifting towards what Rifkind calls the dramaturgical and the bio-spheric. Acting within the collective consciousness of the earth. And that means making moves in real life, not just in our heads. Because This Is It is not longer a slogan.
For a long time we have been able to be the audience to history, to live our lives theoretically. We can watch everything on our screens, at arm’s length. But now history is coming into our streets and into our lives and we need to know how to act, or support those who act on our behalf. If we cheer for those bold protesters in Tahrir Square, in Wisconsin, for the thousands of campaign groups that Paul Hawken wrote about in Blessed Unrest, we need also to cheer for those who occupy Fortnum and Masons and the Royal Bank of Scotland, who protest against the corporations who threaten those fragile eco-systems on which we depend. The people who climb nuclear power stations and coal smokestacks and oil rigs to bring attention to the crucial debate about energy and the citizen journalists that write and blog about them.
In the current forum on the Transition Network you can find the famous quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world used to enforce the positive nature of Transition. Many people have fled environmentalism and activism and joined initiatives because they felt to say only NO was an exhausting and often deeply negative experience.
However in this desire to get away from the bad stuff we forget that Ghandi was an activist par excellence and encouraged people to put their bodies before the brute force of Empire. And went to prison for it more than once. We forget that The Guardian newspaper came about when the media of the day failed to report the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in which 60,000 peaceful protesters were attacked by the army. We live in a society that is the end result of thousands of civil uprisings and direct actions: thousands of people whose names we do not know who have put themselves on the line. Understandably we would rather be working steadily on our energy descent action plans over the next 2o years and shifting happily towards a low carbon way of life.
The recent riots in Bristol were right in the middle of Transition Montpelier’s neighbourhood. They focused around the new Tesco, although there was a lot more to it. A local campaigning group (No Tesco in Stokes Croft) had been peacefully protesting against the supermarket for well over a year.
The riots weren’t really about the Tesco, but it became ‘the story’ that the media hung their hats on. They began when the police raided a squat across the road on an unfounded suspicion at rush hour on Maundy Thursday. They then stayed there for hours, winding everyone up, and everyone got very over-excited and it ended up in a big punch up. Tesco was only involved when the police mysteriously retreated, and left an unlocked police car outside the un-loved store at 1 am, after hours of street punch ups. Unsurprisingly, the crowd, left to their own aggravated devices, smashed up the car and then laid into the store. Then the police came back and the fighting continued.
The campaigning group had nothing to do with the riots, and everyone was saddened by the riots.The campaigning group became involved in the media storm that followed the riots; they were bombarded with calls and emails from journalists, and tried to present a balanced response under a huge amount of pressure.Some of the stories painted un-favourable pictures about the campaigning group, as you might imagine! A few local papers used the story as a
way to stir controversy.
Transition Montpelier had supported the peaceful protest from the beginning, as we weren’t that keen on Tesco, and the campaigning group had always been suggesting positive alternatives to it.They still are – food hubs are underway, local cafes and more. And they are our friends and neighbours. We did have discussions about whether we should support the campaign as we’re not a ‘campaigning organisation’, and agreed to share news and so forth about the campaign.
The riots, unsurprisingly, scared a lot of residents. The stories in the media, particularly the negative ones about the campaign, made a few of the residents feel that the campaign was negative and causally related to the riots. Transition Montpelier’s support of the campaign was therefore seen in not agreat light by these folks. Naturally, we don’t know how many people it is, but didn’t feel great about it all. It’s all very complicated! We continue to support the campaign group and local food groups. (Ed Mitchell, Transition Montpelier)
Before the Transition Heathrow project had even begun, one of our initial key aims was to combine climate activism with local community initiatives by adding a more radical edge to the Transition Towns movement. The co-founders of Transition Heathrow all had a background of taking direct action with anti airport expansion group Plane Stupid and so we had experienced the massive success and impact that direct action had on framing the debate around aviation in the UK. It was off the back of Plane Stupid’s successful work around the third runway at Heathrow that Transition Heathrow was born. Although everyone in the movement against the 3rd runway was extremely proud that the runway was cancelled, as individuals we wanted to go beyond putting our bodies on the line for a day, to a way of creating change that lasts way longer than front page headlines in newspapers the day after an action. This is where the transition movement comes in and has a big part to play.
What was most appealing about the transition model for us is that it is about the direct action of everyday life. We all know that governments and corporations are failing us when it comes to environmental issues and so clearly we need to take matters into our own hands. This is why transitioners “just do it themselves.” So when we wanted to plant stuff – we did some guerrilla gardening. And when we wanted a site we squatted some abandoned land and brought it back into use. When we wanted to support the BA cabin crew strikes we took part in a solidarity bike ride through terminal 5. (Joe Ryle, Transition Heathrow).
It takes a lot of courage to take direct action, to cross the line, to look the public and the policeman in the eye as you challenge the status quo. Even in small ways. The first time I took part in an action was a simple thing: we were a group defending a patch of green land in Oxford against developers and rode in a barge up the canal to paint the builder’s hoardings with our loud protest. But my hands were shaking as I wrote Blake’s lines on the wall:
Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire.
That day something changed utterly within me. I had taken a step that a whole lifetime of well-behaved conditioning had tried to prevent. We all have those preventions in place inside. Our cultural conditioning keeps our minds compartmentalised, our emotions trained to seek stabilisation at all costs, to appear to be moral and upstanding citizens at all times. We have to see that without talking about our actions, without coming out about our radical nature, without sharing our private thoughts about the future, all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers, without connecting with all the land sovereignty movements that now exist around the world, Transition does not have the strength or wit or daring to challenge the dominant worldview. It runs the risk of becoming hidebound by convention and fragmenting, as indeed some initiatives have done in different places.
Without an ability to embrace different aspects and incentives for change, the Yes in the No and the No in the Yes, we run the danger of living in a never-never land of allotments and spiritual cliches. Being the change we want to see as a result, rather than the being change that is the (often messy) process.
Not all activists who are also Transitioners agree with the two things working together. In Lewes currently there are two interesting things happening: the construction of the UK’s first community-owned 98kW solar power station, and the occupation of three acres of green land near the centre of town. The first is seen as a Transition project and the second is not. Superficially unrelated but in fact close in aim (localisation of production), the two activities have many people involved in common including councillors, Transition members and residents:
This is quite hard for most people to grasp in my experience. Long- term strategic planning and R&D are understood in terms of industry but not in terms of cultural and social change which mostly comes about through single-issue campaigns resulting in pieces of legislation which can also unfortunately be reversed. Transition is a design framework for cultural change which does not require changes in the law.Which is not to say that designers can’t also be campaigners and vice versa. Many initiatives have convergent aims but differ in methodology. These range across political, philosophical, economic, social and psychospiritual pursuits. So for example someone who protests in London against tax evasion can also be setting up a local food group in her home town and developing personal effectiveness and empowerment. She’s engaging in activism, transition and transformation! While these categories overlap and provide mutual positive reinforcement, they preserve functionality best by remaining distinct.(Dirk Campbell, Transition Lewes)
This is a working document. It’s an ongoing conversation that’s happening in Transition at the moment, one that has only really just begun. So I’ll leave off now with a review of a documentary about activism that brings home the kind of courage and energy and risks many people take on our behalf. It’s a grassroots film that like Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change is a story told from the people who take part. It’s not Hollywood, it’s not the BBC but it is what is happening right now in a town near you. Lock on.
Just Do It reviewed by Adrienne Campbell (Transition Lewes)
Watching the various actions, I started to feel involved and even concerned for some of the young people as they put their bodies in the way for the sake of what they believed in. Although I’m a dyed in the wool transitoner, I’ve done a little playful, lawful activism on the side, and was inspired and emboldened.
I recommend this film to transition groups who might want to attract a younger audience and who also might wish to explore the wide, largely unexplored zone of playful activism, which sits beween normal behaviour and unlawful behaviour. Of course, Transition isn’t about campaigning or activism but there is significant overlap and perhaps attitudes and skills to be learned.
The world launch of the film, which was funded through crowdsourcing, at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in June will be followed by showings at local cinemas. If your transition group would like to encourage your local cinema to show it, please contact the film makers from the informative website here
Holding the banner at The Wave, 2009 (Mark Watson); protest banner, Greenpeace USA; Writing on the Wall in Bristol (Ed Mitchell); Poster from Grow Heathrow; ZAD (Zone a Defendre) demonstration, France; South East climate camp, St Anne’s School, Lewes.