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Transition Culture - an evolving exploration into the head, heart and hands of energy descent

Community resilience, Transition, and why government thinking needs both

After my talk in Norwich last week, I met a local authority emergency planner, who said that he had found the talk, and the Transition take on resilience, very illuminating.  He pointed me in the direction of the latest ‘Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience’, the latest “national statement for how individual and community resilience can work”, published by the Cabinet Office in March of this year.  It is a fascinating document, and is indeed the first official government document on community resilience that refers explicitly to the Transition movement, and as such deserves a post reflecting on it.  It also offers a tantalising glimpse into what a government response to peak oil, climate change and economic contraction might look like if anyone had the imagination to create one.

‘Resilient to what?’

The first point of call in any discussion about resilience is ‘resilient to what?’  Fascinatingly, this document states that, when it comes to community resilience, “community resilience work should prepare for all relevant hazards and threats, prioritised as the community considers appropriate”.  So, rather than being determined from above, their suggestion is that it is for communities themselves to determine what they see as the greatest risks.  However, they do also point to the National Risk Register for civil emergencies, which illustrates what it regards as being the key threats communities need to build resilience to in the following graphic:

However, in terms of a recognition of the risks that are most pressing and likely, this chart clearly contrasts with that produced earlier this year by the World Economic Forum, which puts all of the above as way below what it regards as the 4 greatest risks, in terms of likelihood of occurring within the next 10 years and in terms of perceived economic impact: climate change, ‘energy price volatility’, fiscal crises and economic disparity.  None of these even make it into the National Risk Register’s table.  A friend of mine recently attended an event about emergency preparedness in Brussels which explored possible scenarios that could emerge from a collapse of the European economy.  The scenarios presented left him quite traumatised, yet in comparison, the Framework’s scenarios seem pretty tame, and somewhat more ephemeral in comparison!

Yet the Strategic Framework document, if read with the thought in mind that it is referring to resilience to peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction, actually reads in places like something Transition Network might have produced (as we will see).  That certainly took me by surprise.

Defining resilience

Throughout the document, resilience is defined as:

“The capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure, and identity”

…and community resilience as:

“Communities and individuals harnessing local resources and expertise to help themselves in an emergency, in a way that complements the response of the emergency services.”

It states that its role is to “invite individuals and communities to prepare themselves in the event of an emergency”, but also makes it very clear that, amazingly, “there is no dedicated funding for the programme”.  It restates the commitment, central to the Big Society concept, “to reduce the barriers which prevent people from being able to help themselves and to become less resilient to shocks”.  Like the Big Society, it assumes that communities can self-organise around community resilience with no resource for any of their work.  They do acknowledge Transition as one of the few community-led initiatives actually looking at resilience, and which is actually manage to inspire people to action around the theme of resilience:

“Resilience is also a key part of other kinds of community activity, for example the Transition Towns movement and the Greening Campaign where resilience is a longer term ambition for communities looking to adapt to climate change”

However, this does rather miss the point, suggesting that they are addressing “longer term” issues like climate change.  It is true that many of the impacts of climate change, and peak oil, and economic contraction, are longer term, but many are not, and indeed the window of time within which to profoundly modify our ways of doing things certainly is not.  And as the World Economic Forum argues, they look likely to be the most significant over the next 10 years.  That looks pretty short term to me.

The aims it sets out rather fascinatingly read like the aims of Transition Network!

  • increase individual, family and community resilience against all threats and hazards;
  • support and enable existing community resilience, and expand and grow these successful models of community resilience in other areas;
  • remove the barriers which inhibit or prevent participation in community resilience at a local level;
  • support effective dialogue between the community and the practitioners supporting them;
  • raise awareness and understanding of risk and the local emergency response capability in order to motivate and sustain self resilience;
  • provide tools to allow communities and individuals to articulate the benefits of emergency preparedness to the wider community;
  • and provide a shared framework to support cross-sector activity at all levels in a way that ensures sufficient flexibility to make community

With such a clear recognition in a government publication that these ought to be key aims in terms of resilience, one would imagine that the work the Transition movement has been doing over the past 5 years, and the practical initiatives it has led to the ground, would have deserved more than one sentence in this publication.

Shifting the thinking slightly: a Transition take on resilience

The perspective on resilience that the Transition approach brings to this discussion would be useful to explore in more detail here. Rather than making do with the definition set out in this report, (“the capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure, and identity”), Transition adds another layer onto that, of arguing that community resilience, if done properly, could be about much more than just being able to ‘sustain an acceptable level of function, structure and identity’.  Rather, it argues, it offers the potential for stimulating the kind of economic revival at the local level that is so keenly sought at the moment.  A more resilient economy could be a more viable, entrepreneurial, biodiverse, flourishing economy.  As I argue in ‘The Transition Companion’:

“making a community more resilient, if viewed as the opportunity for an economic and social renaissance, for a new culture of enterprise and reskilling, should lead to a healthier and happier community while reducing its vulnerability to risk and uncertainty …. resilience is reframed as a historic opportunity for a far-reaching rethink”.


The new market in Portobello.

For example, setting up a food hub to create viable links between local producers and consumers, adding infrastructure for local food processing (such as Transition Norwich’s new community mill, or Portobello Transition Town’s new organic market, see right), creating urban food production and identifying new sites for that, mapping local foodsheds and supporting small farmers, setting up Community Supported Agriculture systems, all build food resilience and a community’s ability to respond in an emergency (much more than food stockpiles), but also have very beneficial impacts on the local economy too.  These kinds of things would have helped greatly in building resilience to, for example, the lorry drivers’ dispute of 2000 when food supplies in shops became dangerously low.

Likewise, setting up community energy systems that are in community ownership can also put in place infrastructure that would also be beneficial in terms of an acute emergency, while also boosting local economies.  It is for this reason that Transition Network and others are arguing for a Community Tariff to emerge from the Feed-in-Tariff review.  With Greg Barker, Energy and Climate Change Minister, recently tweeting that “Under Labours #FiTs, there is no way 2 differentiate btwn community projects + a hedgefund. We will change + create a new community tariff”, things look hopeful.  This could have a huge impact.

The document clearly states the principle that “the Government role is to support, empower and facilitate; ownership should always be retained by communities who have chosen to get involved in this work”.  This feels like an acknowledgement of Transition’s role of not waiting for permission but getting started building community resilience from the bottom up.  That’s not to say that a bit of more formal support wouldn’t be a good thing from time to time to actually accelerate the creativity that the Transition process can unleash!

Likewise, the building of social capital, creating a stronger sense of community and sense of optimism about that community’s ability to respond, as was observed through Transition Town Totnes’ ‘Transition Streets’ programme, is a key aspect of emergency preparedness.  Local currencies, such as the Brixton Pound (see left) and the forthcoming Bristol Pound, can be a powerful catalyst for rebuilding the connections between local businesses that a resilient community will need, and can focus thought on how local traders can best support and trade between each other.  Whether an emergency happens in 6 months or in 6 years, the additional resilience they will have created will still have a valuable impact.

Given the current government focus on localism, enterprise, decentralisation and resilience, I would argue that reframing community resilience as being about much more than how it is presented in this document would have huge benefits across the board.  It would focus the mind on what kind of new infrastructure would be needed, what new business opportunities emerge, and add an additional layer to the current obsession with recreating growth at all costs.  Does new housing which is not both built to very high standards of energy efficiency and built using local materials represent a huge missed opportunity, and actually reduce community resilience?  Is the continued undermining of local food economies through the enforced imposition of supermarkets ultimately self-defeating from a resilience perspective (as New Economics Foundation’s ‘Plugging the Leaks’ work suggests)?  Let’s have a bit of ‘joined-up thinking’ here please.

Certainly the Transition take on resilience is at odds with the one set out in this Framework, and to that set out in most academic literature on resilience, but as a paper by Alex Haxeltine and Gill Seyfang of UEA argued:

“Transition has been framed in terms of building (or rebuilding) resilience in local communities.  So far, the movement seems to have successfully used resilience as a motivating framing concept.  The lack of specificity used in the framing of resilience has probably contributed to resilience being perceived as an appealing goal by the wide range of citizens who have become involved with the movement”

In other words, it’s not resilience explained in the conventionally accepted way, but something about this expanded definition seems to be working, so maybe we’ll let them get on with it…

Features of community resilience

The Framework also identifies what it sees, from looking at a number of communities, as the key features of community resilience.  Viewed with the slight shift in thinking that allows us to imagine it is referring to communities responding to resilience in the way set out above, it makes fascinating reading:

  • “People in resilient communities use their existing skills, knowledge and resources to prepare for, and deal with, the consequences of emergencies or major incidents.
  • They adapt their everyday skills and use them in extraordinary circumstances.
  • People in resilient communities are aware of the risks that may affect them. They understand the links between risks assessed at a national level and those that exist in their local area, and how this might make them vulnerable. This helps them to take action to prepare for the consequences of emergencies.
  • The resilient community has a champion, someone who communicates the benefits of community resilience to the wider community. Community resilience champions use their skills and enthusiasm to motivate and encourage others to get involved and stay involved and are recognised as trusted figures by the community.
  • Resilient communities work in partnership with the emergency services, their local authority and other relevant organisations before,  during and after an emergency. These relationships ensure that community resilience activities complement the work of the emergency services and can be undertaken safely.
  • Resilient communities consist of resilient individuals who have taken steps to make their homes and families more resilient. Resilient individuals are aware of their skills, experience and resources and how to deploy these to best effect during an emergency.
  • Members of resilient communities are actively involved in influencing and making decisions affecting them. They take an interest in their  environment and act in the interest of the community to protect assets and facilities.

Implications and reflections

So, having read the Framework, here are some of the standout thoughts for me:

  • Community resilience, they seem to be arguing, is really important, it needs to be led by communities, but there’s no money to help them with that
  • The best people to organise and enable community resilience are those communities themselves
  • No thought appears to be being given to how the need for enhanced community resilience, the engagement of people in this work, sits alongside the localism agenda and the Plan for Growth, and the inherent conflicts that emerge between the two
  • You need to figure out yourselves what it is that you want to build resilience to

But the question for government is whether the urgent dash for growth at all costs (which they are taking to calling ‘positive growth’), could actively undermine the ability of communities to respond in the way argued for in the Framework.  I was recently sent a very attractive hardback book (see right) called ‘Working together. Delivering growth though localism‘ produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It contains a section where the term ‘sustainable development’ is redefined thus:

“‘Sustainable’ means ensuring better lives for ourselves, but does not mean worse lives for future generations, and

‘Development’ means growth.  Accommodating new ways by which we earn our living in a competitive world, housing a rising population, and responding to changes new technologies offer”.

In other words, sustainable development is now any development which sustains growth.  So here we have two agendas, one that is about stimulating economic growth at all costs, downplaying climate change and peak oil and removing all obstacles to large businesses doing what they like, and another which is about enabling communities to self-organise and actively respond to those things that they think reduce their resilience.  Both are central to the UK government’s agenda, yet they run in complete parallel to each other, seen as entirely distinct and separate.  However, if they were seen as being part of the same thing, as the Transition movement has argued, and has modelled in practice for 5 years, the benefits could be enormous.  It would take only a fairly subtle shift in thinking, but it may turn out to be the thing that actually stimulates the economic activity, skills, training and investment they are presently so desperately scrabbling for.

Often flooding, and the other risks in the National Risk Register, are challenges that people don’t feel drawn do much about because they feel they are beyond their being able to usefully have an impact and they tend to be seen as issues emergency services deal with.  What the Transition movement has done over the past 5 years is to bring the subject of resilience to life for people, to make it relevant, exciting even.  People can sense new possibilities in the concept of resilience that weren’t there 5 years ago.  It would be great if the next time this Framework is published, rather than just citing Transition initiatives as some kind of brief case study, it was able to argue that, as well as the sandbags and other elements of community emergency preparedness, an accelerated programme of economic localisation must also be a key component of any realistic programme of community resilience.  Perhaps as well as the bodybags and the sandbags we also need foodhubs and SPIN farming?

The spirit of the Framework is that the onus is on communities to organise around resilience.  If nothing else, the fact that Transition is now mentioned specifically creates a very useful basis for discussions with your local emergency response team, local NHS, or your local police.  There is now a more common language, it’s over to us to demonstrate that the work of Transition initiatives is not peripheral, but has the potential to be central to any effective programme of community resilience.  This Framework is a very useful tool for initiating those discussions that matter.  As Robert Jensen argues in a piece in the latest Yes! magazine, “no political project based on denying reality can be viable for the long term”.