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

Sophy Banks on the risks of going for growth, and other ways to make an impact

Today we have a post from Sophy Banks, the first of what will become a monthly column.  

"I have to confess I had a bit of a reaction to this month’s theme “Scaling up”. I’ve been unpicking it in a number of conversations with others in Transition, and what follows is an attempt to convey some of this exploration. It includes ideas about the different directions which are needed for a movement like ours to grow, and a look at the dangers and risks of wanting to get bigger.

I’ll say first that there are lots of reasons why it’s great that Transition is successful and grows – obviously that’s why I’ve put my energy and time behind it from the early days. I remember hearing Rob talk about his vision for a community project creating local solutions and thinking “That might just work..” and something which had been kind of asleep in me woke up and did everything I could to help its success. We’ve seen in Totnes that if it’s possible to get to a certain size, for instance when we’ve brought in major pieces of funding, organisations and people who dismissed us before started to take Transition seriously. So as we’ve grown more and more possibilities came into view.

I often say on the Transition Launch training “Transition has a big vision – to create a localised way of living – and needs a lot of people”. In the pathway we’ve discovered in Totnes there are theme groups, projects, central supporting activities, a board of Trustees.. I guess between 100-200 people are actively holding responsibility, attending regular meetings or doing something in projects. It’s a hugely ambitious dream, to do this work with little funding, in the spare time of whoever feels called to take part.

So there are really good reasons for growing, and I’m all in favour of Transition having as much impact as possible. I’m also cautious about putting too much emphasis on scaling up. I think there are traps behind this way of thinking. Particularly if the impetus behind it has the quality of pushing ourselves, and if there is a feeling of anxiety, that if Transition can’t get big enough to impact the huge system we’re part of, things are looking pretty bad. None of these are necessarily there in the desire to grow, but I think it’s worth unpicking some of the unconscious assumptions that can underlie this desire or drive – especially as time passes and the continuation of business as usual means the future (and present) looks ever more challenging.

Tug of warThe first trap that we could fall into is to believe there is only one way to have an impact, and that’s to be the biggest, most active, thing around. Beneath this is an assumption around power – that size is what matters. To push the system to a new path we need to be big enough to affect it, to compete with its size and scale.

With this assumption, influencing the future is a competition where the biggest wins. I recently read a quote by Margaret Wheatley that said the drive to grow in the business world arises because of their fear of uncertainty and their desire to control the world around them. It’s different to the relational way of understanding power which Starhawk describes as “power-with” – power through cooperation, negotiation, committing to solutions that benefit everyone not just those who have most weight.

It feels important to keep remembering that the pathway of growth that was possible in Transition Town Totnes has not emerged in the majority of Transition projects. I’ve talked and worked with many initiatives where, despite following the usual Transition recipe, there has not been enough people involved to start theme groups and lots of separate activities. A common shape is that one dedicated and hardworking group alternate between awareness raising events, workshops, getting funding for new projects, running those projects, taking some time for renewal and reflection, gathering momentum again for more activities and so on. Burnout is a real issue for some people in this situation (as it is in Totnes). To create a push towards scaling up when most of our movement has found this to be impossible can be dangerous, creating a sense of demotivation and even failure among many of us.

There’s another story that can underlie the desire to push ourselves to get bigger -thinking is that Transition is the only game in town. It’s the narrative of the “heroic” journey – and most popular books and films – there is one hero, with one magical arrow or plan that kills the monster, and when the hero acquires that the happy ending is possible. This is a really powerful story that structures our thinking – and is often unconscious. I don’t think our situation is going to play out like that (or that most of us consciously do) – if the system changes it will be through a vast tapestry of actions, movements, individual choices, protests, new organisations, changing the old ones, disasters, wake ups, wrong pathways abandoned, emerging possibilities and other things we cannot even dream yet. It’s messy, fragmented, complex and unpredictable.

An image I have for the shape of this journey is that there’s something like a wave of change moving through time.. some are at the front of the wave, others are further behind. If a Transition project (or any other) tries to push too far ahead of where the groundswell of the people in its community are, it loses touch with them and will meet resistance and opposition. But it also needs to be encouraging, inspiring, challenging, the status quo to keep people moving forward on the wave and to keep the whole wave moving forward. Transition is just one of many, many groups keeping this wave moving – partly by pushing, and partly just being carried – because the truth of our situation is there for all to see, and people are waking up to it all the time. From time to time major incidents like Fukoshima inJapan, hurricanes, floods, or national collapsing, bring a whole new rush of energy forwards into the wave.

On such a journey we need to be really connected – not only to the leading edges of the wave of change in the form of other change agents, but also to other groups, people and issues in our communities. One of the vital ingredients we need to prioritise in these times is building networks and partnerships. I wonder if can be a result of the extraordinary success of Transition, and the relative absence of lots of other movements working at the community level of scale, that it’s possible to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s down to us to bring about the change.

Being a part of a variety of networks as we ride this wave of change is about being connected, reaching out and moving with others. There's another direction that is often left out, that of deepening - which also has something useful to offer to the debate about scaling up.

My thought about deepening comes from Marianne Williams, who spoke in Totnes in 2008 in the early days of Transition. One of her ideas which has really stayed with me is that there are two dimensions to building a movement. The one which most people see is about expanding - growing in size, reaching more people, gaining momentum. It often has the quality of pushing – how can we reach beyond the usual suspects, how can we bring in the early majority? It’s essential and important work. 

The second dimension is vertical, and is about the nature of what the movement seeks to bring into the world. Movements which put out profound truths which speak to universal human issues have the potential to spread widely and last because what they talk about touches everyone. Those which touch the surface of problems, or address short term issues gain less traction and pass. So people like Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, who not only could understand profound issues about the human condition but also could articulate solutions which they embodied in the way they lived, created movements that appealed to millions, and have lasted for decades or centuries.

I’m not suggesting that Transition become a spiritual movement. But I think it’s worthwhile spending time exploring the deep truths that Transition can speak to. What is the most profound and way of speaking about the issues we are facing, and what kind of solutions does Transition propose. Are we about relocalising our economy? Are we about the move away from materialism to a focus on human well being? Are we about creating a sense of reconnection, to self, other, society and the natural world? Are we wanting to Transition from a culture of exploitation and competition to one of peace and unity? What are the deepest values that we want to see embedded in our communities?

I would like to encourage the hundreds of leaders, thinkers, do-ers and seekers in our movement to pause from time to time and reflect together on how we understand our true purpose and mission. What is the deepest expression of the Transition vision? How are we living that? What qualities do people see in us when we speak or act? I’m not suggesting that we use this as the basis for our public conversations, but I think it’s helpful to be clear within ourselves. Within any Transition group I doubt all would agree what the deepest vision is, but I hope we can at least have the conversation about what we truly long for.

Reflecting on all these ideas I can see the unifying theme is about how to be with what is – the challenges, frustrations, limitations – and still be as effective as possible. Scaling up our practical activities is one way to increase our effect – and it’s not the only way. Exploring these other dimensions of building a movement and having an impact has helped me to feel more spacious, curious and open to the many different ways we can create success, and to see that the variety of shapes and sizes that we have in Transition is welcome, resilient and powerful. 


Jonathan Crinion 1's picture

Scaling down

Good one Sophy.

I'm wondering if in fact Transition should be 'scaling down' and going back to what I believe was the original mandate. Remember Rob's first step: Set up a steering group and design its demise/transformation from the outset. I always felt this was an essential part of developing the social cohesion that allowed groups of people to come together, identify something that needed doing, do it and then disperse. And then with an 'Open Space' event, start the move to a new project involving a new idea with a new group of people. In this manner the projects are easy to committ to and stay small but are effective in creating social cohesion and getting an ever growing population involved in the process of making their community resilient.

So growth in this sense is not making projects bigger but growth of local involvement and participation in the development of localised social cohesion that is so needed, especially in large cities. I believe this is a very different way of thinking about Transition and to me the notion of scaling up feels like an imitation of the very process we hope to avoid with all its pitfalls. The biggest question humanity faces at the moment is, I believe, 'what is an alternative to the growth paradigm'!

Philip.Barnes's picture

Echoing Sophy's Comments

Thank you Sophy for writing this piece on the risks of scaling up.  I believe it is vitally important to ask the question: What is Transition scaling up toward?  Attempts at scaling up prior to having a serious and engaging debate about Transition's "true purpose and mission" and the "deepest expression of Transition's vision", as Sophy writes, is likely end in subpar outcomes.

Let's review for a minute at a number of widely held ideals that typically go unchallenged and unquestioned yet have no clearly articulated normative goal and therefore underpin the social and environmental challenges we face today.  Development: "Development toward what?"  Progress: "Progress toward what?"  Economic growth:  "Economic growth toward what?"  Before Transition scales up, I feel it must first answer the question: "Scaling up toward what?"  Sophy is right in that we need to discuss the "deepest expression of Transition's vision", and I would add that we should never lose sight of that vision, as has happened with the original visions of development, progress, and economic growth.

On a related note, for many types of social movements and organizations, there seems to be a close inverse relationship between quantity and quality.  Transition will therefore have to consider the potential loss in qualitative performance if it grows quantitatively.  I believe this is what Sophy is referring to when she writes about the horizontal and vertical dimensions of social movements.  Horizontal expansion - growth in scale - often comes at the expense of vertical "deepening" - or qualitative improvement.  Lewis Mumford, the great social commentator, made similar observations about the unsustainable nature of the modern world when he wrote that the necessary response to our collective predicament was to "sacrifice mere quantity to restore qualitative choice."  Now, the trade off between quantity and quality is not always an either/or, particularly when a movement is in the initial stages of growth as I believe Transition is, but is something to consider going forward, especially if significant momentum is gained and it becomes increasingly difficult to tap the quantitative brakes.

Finally, I should point out that having this debate about the risks of scaling up is a large part of the reason why I am so optimistic about the long term potential of the Transition Movement.  Transition embraces dialogue and critique in an effort to make well-reasoned, thoughtful, and truly democratic decisions.  

Katrien Vander Straeten's picture

scaling up

When I heard Rob speak in Boston last year, I was ready to do it, but I knew my group, my town wasn't. I had some painful moments trying to push it anyway (it got hairy, but it ended well). I was pushing this wave, swimming with it, but everyone else stayed behind, confused. After some months of fantastic conversations about this, I think we have come to the conclusion that at our stage of development we need to continue what we already have going, and on top of that, very gently steer some of the focus on deepening our vision and resolve. To that effect we are starting an Inner Work group - the first, after almost three years. I am optimistic that if we do our inner work together, we will not have a wave, but a groundswell, a landslide. That landslide might be coming anyway, whether we want it or not, but at least on our newly-laid deeper foundation, all of us will know how to stay on top of it while it takes us where it will.


Tony Buck's picture


If you try to push an elephant using a car, the elephant will turn on you and roll your car off the road. Some Mahouts who ride elephants, carry a slender pointed piece of bamboo with them, they apply the point to a place just near the ear of the elephant with a very gentle effort, and the elephant goes wherever they want it to. 

Shai Gilad's picture

Building bridges

Hey Sophy, 

Thanks for great lines.

I was wondering if when you're writing that "One of the vital ingredients we need to prioritise in these times is building networks and partnerships"; do you mean building networks and partnerships between Transition groups? between transtion groups and generally other institutions, transition groups and other initiatives working on the different layers of change we all want to see? maybe all of the above...

We're looking into the most effective ways of making those bridges and networks.. I'd love to hear your insight about the topic.

Sophy Banks's picture

building networks

thanks for your response Shai. I think you're right - that all those levels of interconnectedness will strengthen us individually and as projects.

They also have a big overhead of time. I learnt a lot about networking from listening to Fred Brown and Tina Clarke in the USA talking about being really strategic first about how to come into relationship with others that are supportive, indifferent, too busy or oppositional. And also about the detailed practice of creating partnerships - often with a written memorandum of understanding to help clarity about who brings what. 

I'm not an expert at all - and I hope you'll share your successes and learnings with others for example through the Projects database on

It's a rich topic!

Jay Tompt's picture

nice reality check

Great piece with many very good points.  I especially appreciated what you say about connecting and networking.  I think building links and working in solidarity is really, really important.  This means with other groups in your community, Transition groups in your region, as well as those other groups and other movements in the wider world.  Not easy to do, I know.  While many Transition initiatives organise themselves around theme groups like food, energy, REconomy, etc., perhaps it's time to have 'networking and connecting' theme groups, too. 

Trish Knox's picture

Whole System Expression

Hi Sophy, I value your input and look forward to your monthly column.

Transition IS a spiritual network and is why I am involved. "Head, Heart and Hands" encompasses the spirituality/energetics of our thinking, feeling and acting.  This, to me, is Whole System Expression rather than Whole System Thinking which can get rather dry to someone, like myself, who is right-brain oriented.

In my Transition Initiative one project leader was disapointed when 16 people engaged. This was more successful than any other project. And people in the core group were unhappy when more people were not attending meetings. This is "politics, economics as usual" is it not? In my experience it's the mental mind and ego identity that makes judgments based on externals. When we see with heart, and have an attitude of gratitude, we change the landscape.

The body is an excellent example of a diverse support system. Some networks are visible and "upscale", others are more subtle and less visible. All are necessary; not all need to be the biggest and loudest. In fact, the more subtle systems are the engines behind the scenes, such as the endocrine system, and if you really want to get subtle, the chakra system.

Transition expresses positive energy and that is spritual energy. We do that through inclusion, solution orientation and broadcasting good news. Numbers and recognition are secondary. It's our energy that will attract the right people, at the right time; open doors at the right time. Like trees and plants that exhibit Whole System Expression: we yield to the winds that blow.





Roxanne's picture

I, too, was most interested

I, too, was most interested in your comment on networking and partnership. I think it's vital that transition is made more accessible and relevant to many more people. It shouldn't be only an option for people with a lot of extra time on their hands (students, nonprofit staff, retirees, etc.). If transition values and goals are necessary, or at least important, to creating sustainable socieities, then we should embrace opportunities to expand and scale up where possible. It's fine if some groups want to keep their initiatives and projects small and personal, but I think "exclusivity" is a greater danger to the movement than efforts at scaling up. Many people, myself included, are frightened by feelings of loss of control, but I don't believe catering to those fears is the best we can do.  It is a good idea, though, to keep asking ourselves what is is we are really trying to achieve. As long as we are pulling in the same general direction, it's all good...