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Transition and its edge with "activism"

Exploring the edge where "activism" and Transition meet

What follows is an exchange I had with a prominent transitioner from a UK city initiative. His initial concerns revolved around how Transition's carefully trodden "non-political" path could be jeopardised by being associated more closely with the demonised (and vague) term "activism". His fear was that this potential problem was being exacerbated by, for example, Transition Heathrow's "activism", particularly their squatting of derelict ground.

This is a bit of a hot issue, starting with Transition Norwich's Charlotte du Cann post on activism and then Rob Hopkins' response.

Police enjoying an impromptu permaculture training course at Transition Heathrow

Before getting to the email exchange, two quick points. First, a brief explanation of the work "edge". It's a specific term within Permaculture, and refers to the observation that where there is "edge" (eg coastline, banks of a pond, forest/field edge), that's where you get the greatest biodiversity. In human terms, where you find edge, you find the greatest levels of innovation, creativity and experimentation.

Second, for a quick bit of background on the Transition Heathrow initiative, here's a beautifully shot 10 minute movie of what they've been up to (nice work Felix). 

The emails below are in date sequence, starting with the first. Everyone involved has agreed for this exchange to go into the public domain to help us figure out the benefits and/or threats that all edges present.

The first email in June-2011 


I'm coordinator of the Transition Town XXXX group and I would like some clarification on where the network stands on the subject of breaking the law, i.e. activism. For everything I have read and understood, the Transition initiative is about seeking to work with the community and local authorities to further the cause of raising awareness about peak oil, reducing fossil fuel dependency and helping achieve a resilient local community. Transition Heathrow seems to be the exact opposite where authority is concerned. I have great sympathy with what they have done and great admiration for what they have achieved, but ultimately they are breaking the law.

I'd just like to be clear what responsibilities I may need to be expected to take as the coordinator of my group and whether the network condones and supports what Transition Heathrow is doing by taking the matter to court and fighting what is ultimately a battle they are bound to loose.

May I suggest you read their entry on your site:

I'm particularly concerned by phrases such as "Transition Heathrow hopes to bring together the democratic innovation of the Transition Town network within the workplace militancy of the labour movement and the self-defence of environmental direct activism."

Many thanks,


My reply:

Thanks for the email. It raises some interesting and charged issues.

This response of mine is a personal view, because there's no such thing as Transition Network "having a position". We are a collection of individuals who spend most our time, energy and creativity in pursuit of Transition Network's mission - ie "to support community-led responses to climate change and diminishing supplies to cheap energy, building resilience and happiness". We have divergent views on some things and convergent views on others. In general, we're sufficiently aligned to make working together a rewarding experience and where we find conflict between eachother, we manage it well.

There are a couple of elements in your email that I want to deal with first before getting onto your main question.

  • You equate "activism" with "breaking the law". I think that's a very misleading association. The Cambridge dictionary's definition is "the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one". So based on that definition, in general I personally would support activism that aligns with my political and social views.
  • You suggest that Transition Heathrow is not working with "authority". That's such a generalisation it's impossible to comment on. What I can bring to your attention is that their efforts to secure that piece of land for productive use is supported by 700 local residents, the local MP and the local police officer who says that car crimes in the area have gone down 25% since they started remediating that land and establishing it as a community resource.

You claim that they're breaking the law, but squatting is not an illegal act - in fact it's is a civil matter to be resolved in the civil courts between the squatters and the owners. And since that case hasn't come to court yet, you're assessment of the outcome is a little premature.

In response to your other points/questions:

  • "I'd just like to be clear what responsibilities I may need to be expected to take as the coordinator of my group"
    • that's for you and the group to decide. Transition is a self-organising field where a common purpose binds people despite all their divergences on matters both trivial and serious

  • "I'd just like to be clear... whether the network condones and supports what Transition Heathrow is doing by taking the matter to court and fighting what is ultimately a battle they are bound to lose."
    • I personally feel very supportive of what Transition Heathrow is doing. They're hosting a London transition get-together this weekend and I'll be there doing some facilitation and generally learning more about their efforts to build community in a place that's had the stuffing kicked out of it for years.
  • Do I condone them going to court? It's a procedural matter that I have no judgement on.

  • Do I consider it a battle they are bound to lose? We're operating in a complex system and predictions of any type are risky. The corollary of your question would be "Would I encourage them to walk away from what they've done, even when much of the local community, the local MP and the local police support them?", the answer to which should be obvious

I hear that you're concerned particularly when you read that "Transition Heathrow hopes to bring together the democratic innovation of the Transition Town network within the workplace militancy of the labour movement and the self-defence of environmental direct activism." I'd try to put your mind at rest by citing some of the achievements of the labour movement - limits on the length of the work day, a living wage, the elimination of child labour, the rights of labour to organize, the duty of the state to regulate labour conditions, two day weekend - to name but a few. Similarly, with environmental direct activism (based on the dictionary definition above) it's worth asking where we'd be without its efforts over the last 200 years.

Environmental activism and labour activism has been demonized for years by parts of the press system that represent centralised (typically corporate) interests. No wonder any mention of either of them can result in preconceptions and concerns. I certainly struggle with similar prejudices within me all the time.

Transition is an experiment, where people are trying all sorts of new approaches, mixing and matching ways of designing our future that means we'll be able to weather the difficulties that decarbonising all our key systems will bring. Some of these experiments will fail, some will succeed in some places and fail in others. As long as we share our outcomes and our assessments of why some things work or not, we can mutually build an experience base that'll help everyone. Transition Heathrow are experimenting with a particular edge of Transition, and their ethos of building, connecting, creating and sharing for the benefit of the local community seems so far to be aligned to the spirit of transition as it's manifesting in most places.

Like I said, these are personal opinions and I'm looking forward to visiting Transition Heathrow this weekend. It's reasonably accessible from where you are and you may find a trip there (this weekend or another time) might bring you some unforeseen insights.

I hope that's been useful for you. I've certainly found it helpful to articulate some of my feelings about this charged issue.


My correspondent's reply


Hi Ben,

thanks for the detailed, mindful and informed response.  It is good to see that this is something that you have taken time to think about and is a topic that is current and lively.  We have had quite a lively debate on our local forum about this too, with similarly varying and interesting viewpoints.

I think perhaps my concerns are getting a little lost in the minutia of sociology and semantics.

I have no objection to activism when it's for the greater good and have indeed participated in a few actions myself with other groups where this is part of their ethos and I fully understand what I'm getting into.  I repeatedly see from many transition groups how they are working with local councils to achieving great things, my main concern is what effect these transition edge groups will have on future attempts to work with these councils.

In "Communities, Councils & a Low-Carbon Future" Rob Hopkins is quoted "You will not progress very far unless you have cultivated a positive and productive relationship with your local authority".

And to my mind this is one of the things that really makes Transition stand out as a different way forward.  Up to now I have no qualms about walking up to any councillor from any party background and trying to explain what Transition is and why it's a good thing.  But I wouldn't be happy trying to do that and being countered by a councillor with "Oh yes, I've heard about you lot at Heathrow".  Bang goes any attempt at getting them on board.  This is a purely hypothetical scenario and one I hope I will not have to encounter, but if more Transition groups become "edge" groups and start to affect the reputation of the transition network or politicise it in any way then I can see this becoming a real life scenario and a problem for the network as a whole.

I am in no doubt that what the group at Heathrow has achieved is hugely popular and beneficial to the community, what I am in doubt about is how they have achieved this and ultimately what their aims and objectives are.

From their website: "To engage the wider transition movement beyond sustainability into the more contentious politics of ‘transition justice."

I'm sorry but, what exactly is "Transition Justice"?  This doesn't sound like a small local intent either.

Also on their about us page: "Transition Heathrow hopes to bring together the democratic innovation of the Transition Town network and environmental direct activism."

Would this be the same sort of democracy as that shown in China when land was needed for the building of certain Olympic buildings (for the greater good) and was simply taken?  Where does it end?  I can see numerous pieces of land that could be put to better use than it is now in the name of the Transition movement, should I go and stake my claim now?

I may be reading between lines, but sometimes you have to.  Perhaps their aims are innocuous, but their rhetoric stems from old labour and socialist propaganda which I personally find rather distressing and is obviously aimed at a particular type of supporter.  To my mind they are trying to politicise the transition movement and that is a very, very bad and worrying thing.

By all means feel free to post my edited question and your response as a blog post - please make it clear that I am not speaking on behalf of a group, as these are my personal concerns.  I think it may stir up quite a few hornets nests if our local group is anything to go by!

Thanks once more for your honest and open opinion, it is very much appreciated.  I look forward to further debate on the blog post.


What happens next...

We meet up at Transition Heathrow's London Gathering - here's my report on the event.


And in conclusion...

Seems to me that we all carry preconceptions and prejudices within us, and the only way I can break through them is engaging face-to-face with the people in order to get a visceral appreciation of them and of what they're doing. Attending the Gathering certainly gave me a more nuanced view of what "activism" and "action" mean and it's edge with Transition. 

From my correspondent's email after the event, I'm guessing his understanding developed as well - he writes:

"It was great to meet you and chat with you on Saturday.  Thank you for the excellent summary you sent round and your thoughts on activism and transition.  I now see many news reports that use the word "activism" in a different light, it's interesting to see how they apply that word and the resulting connotations."

My personal view is that while I'm sure there are potentially some very contentious "activism" / Transition edges, this isn't one of them. I feel relentlessly positive about Transition Heathrow's efforts and the way they've been building community locally. In fact, in a place like Sipson that's had the stuffing kicked out of it over the years under Heathrow's heavy shadow, this kind of intervention might be one of the only ways of getting a transition initiative underway. And there are a LOT of Sipsons out there...

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My journey towards and within transition involves me a) asking myself what I have done, unwittingly or otherwise, to contribute to the global crises of climate change, oil addiction and inequality; b) really acknowledging my “contributions” c) trying hard to understand the consequences and impacts within our complex ecological, social and economic systems d) working at both the personal level and also alongside my fellow citizens to come up with ways of making sure my/our contributions switch from exacerbating these situations to ameliorating them, and/or making sure they stop; e) trying as much as possible to work at root cause level.

Transition, with its creative, positive and “can-do, will-do” approach is, for me, the most appropriate mechanism for doing this work.