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

Is Transition political?

Criticising Transition for being explicitly apolitical, and for not engaging in the political system in the conventional way feels, to me, like criticising a spoon for not being very good at cutting bread.  Transition is a tool designed for a specific purpose.  But with the rise of UKIP, the National Front, the Golden Dawn, and others in Europe and elsewhere, is the Transition approach still tenable?   Should we all actually be standing for election?  This feels like a good time to explore how Transition relates to politics, and whether its approach is still appropriate.  Welcome to our month on Transition and politics. 

Over this month we'll be exploring 4 key questions:

  • Is Transition political? 
  • What does it look like if you and some similarly-minded friends get together and run for your local council? 
  • How do those within the political system who question its fundamental assumptions find a voice?
  • What do the main political parties make of Transition? 


We'd love to hear your thoughts and contributions too.  We'll start today with this piece as the response to the first question, "Is Transition political?", and our interview with Peter Macfadyen for the second. First thing to say is that what follows are my thoughts, not any kind of official Transition Network position on politics.  For me, I imagine Transition as being like an app.  It is designed to do a particular thing, to bring people together to support and enable them to build resilience at the community level, but always in the context that, if done in a sufficient number of places, it will start to change politics on the larger scale and help to bring about a more healthy human culture. 

But it’s one of a number of apps you might have for different purposes.  It is different from the campaigning and protesting apps, it’s different from the political lobbying apps, and you’ll use different ones at different times.  As Jeremy Caradonna puts it in his forthcoming book Sustainability: a history, "the challenge is to have a politically active movement without coming politicised".  

But the question that arises is if Transition is but one part of the wider process of driving the shift towards a more resilient, just, low carbon and abundant society, what should its relationship be to the other pieces of the puzzle? How should it relate to the other ‘apps’ (i.e. other movements/campaigns/ideas for change), and to local and national government?

Transition as one of many apps for social change

Esther Aloun and Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute recently published a refreshingly well-researched and thoughtful paper called The Transition movement: questions of diversity, power and affluence. In it, they ask "can a social movement, such as the Transition movement, achieve fundamental change without engaging in 'top down' political action?"  

I would respond that that is the only way that Transition will work, by creating a space for innovation and experimentation at the local scale in such a way as to inspire change in other communities as well as higher up.  We are starting to see evidence of this working.  Aloun and Alexander's suggestion that Transition would be more effective by being better connected with more radical change movements feels to me to entirely miss the point.  It is effective precisely because isn't connected to radical change movements, in my opinion.  Let me unpack that a bit more. 

If I decided to run for election as a Transition Town candidate, alongside my great Transition-related policies, I would need to have policies on abortion, healthcare, education, defence, international trade, etc etc.  Every time I state a policy on one of those issues, I increasingly place myself somewhere on the left/right, pro/anti-growth, pro/anti-capitalism spectrum.  As soon as I do that, I lose all the people who don't also inhabit that place.  What works at the national political level becomes profoundly unskilful at the local level.

Working through a Transition initiative, that lack of an explicit political positioning is one of our key strengths.  It enables you to build the kind of diverse, cross-political groups that building more resilient communities requires.  It enables the creation of projects on a meaningful scale, but unfettered by party politics and wider issues.  It’s the ‘power to convene’ that Transition is so good at, which is virtually impossible to do in a truly inclusive way if you are seen as being politically aligned.

CoverI was intrigued recently to get a copy of a novel called The Second Life of Sally Mottram, just published by David Nobbs, author of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, among other things.  It tells the story, in the kind of novel many people will be taking to the beach this summer, of Sally who, according to the back cover "embarks on her ambition to bring her town back to life" by trying to start a Transition initiative.  It's "a hilarious, heartwarming tale about what keeps our community spirits alive".  How does he sum up Transition?  Here Sally is on the train reading, for the first time, about Transition:

"The books are full of small details of little things that have been done to change and improve many places, mostly quite small places, but their underlying subject matter is not small.  It is, simply, the saving of our planet.  Implicit in it and the actions is that big things come out of little things, that out of a thousand tiny acts, if they can be joined up, one mighty act may emerge.  

The idea that bottom up citizen-led approaches actually represent just the kind of political action that we need to see, is gaining momentum, galvanised in particular by the recent successes of the Right in the European elections.  The left wing think tank Compass recently wrote, in their reflections on the European election results:

A new economy is waiting to be fashioned via companies serious about climate change, through peer to peer lending schemes to really challenge the big banks, through crowd sourced investment like Kick-starter and sharing platforms in which we borrow and lend big ticket items we don’t often use. A myriad collaborative projects made possible by new technology, democratic initiatives like Abundance and big ideas like B Corps that change the very social nature of companies.

The same trends towards collaboration, self-organisation and social networks will infuse our politics. From 38 Degrees to Frome’s Flatpack democracy, from the great success of Hope Not Hate in defeating the BNP to Transition Towns, we need a citizen led politics of everyday democracy not just a vote once every five years.

When we started Transition, people said "you'll never be able to influence policy-makers through community projects.  It's not going to happen".  Yet we can now start to get a sense of what that progression might look like.  Let's take Transition Town Brixton in London as an example:

  • A group of people come together and raise awareness locally, Open Space events, engage as many people as they can, and formally kick themselves off as a Transition initiative
  • This creates a supported space in which people have permission to start projects, enterprises, initiatives, but within a wider context of other people doing the same
  • BrixtonOne of those, Brixton Energy, emerges from the Energy Group, and soon becomes a successful community energy company, running three share offers
  • Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, chooses it as the place to launch his call for 'a community renewables revolution' (see right). 
  • When the government drafts its 'Community Energy Strategy', Brixton Energy are part of the drafting team (along with people from other Transition energy initiatives) and are mentioned as a case study.  

That feels to me to be as radical as any of the groups Aloun and Alexander feel Transition should be teaming up with, but couldn't have happened if they had.  The question that arises of course is whether engaging with something like the Community Energy Strategy was a good use of time, whether it looks likely to bring about the kind of truly transformational change we really need. 

The answer, thus far at least, is that it’s not enough, but it’s probably the best one could have hoped for under the current government.  And it has enabled the funding to enable things like the Community Energy Peer Mentoring Fund which has enabled the peer-to-peer work OVESCO is now doing, supporting 10 neighbouring communities to set up their own community energy companies, as well as other financial support.

There is always, of course, the danger of co-option, a danger raised by Aloun and Alexander:

"As with most reformist, non-confrontational approaches, by the time the movement creates enough change to become noticeable, the existing system may already have had time to adapt and simply adjust to that change".

That's a risk.  One could argue that, in the UK context, the Big Society was an attempt to try to bottle some of what Transition does so well.  As indeed were some elements of the Localism Bill.  But although getting support from local authorities and other bodies could be seen as co-option, it can actually be one of the best ways to protect against it.  For example, the degree of institutional support for the Bristol Pound from Bristol City Council is such that if the government or the Bank of England wants to close the scheme down for any reason, it's not just the Bristol Pound they need to pursue.  

Ultimately, you can get more done at the local level, you can make more change happen. Seeing that change happen rebuilds your belief that change is possible and that it’s worth making an effort, something far harder to sustain when trying to bring about change at the national level. I tend to go along with John Boik who recently wrote in the Guardian

"The national level is not the place to introduce bold change. Doing so would be too risky, too abrupt and too chaotic for a nation. Besides, it would be politically infeasible; the push-back from vested interests would be intense.

A far more practical strategy is to introduce new monetary, financial and corporate systems at the local level, on a volunteer basis and as a complement to current systems. Such an approach is already legal in the US and many other countries; no new laws would need to be passed. This strategy offers the greatest chance of success with the least amount of friction.

At the local scale you can create a new story, show it in practice, living and breathing, functioning pieces of the larger forthcoming resilient economy in practice.  And that matters.  As John Ehrenfeld put it in Sustainability by Design

"Sustainability can emerge only when modern humans adopt a new story that will change their behaviour such that flourishing rather than unsustainability shows up in action".  

What fascinates me is how this idea of being more effective by not being explicitly political is gaining momentum.  It's written through the story of Independents for Frome that we'll hear about next week.  It's in the invitation I had to speak in Salisbury a couple of weeks back from a mixture of councillors from across the spectrum and some local people wanting to get Transition started but realising that the Council couldn't do it. It's in the Totnes Economic Blueprint, created with a coalition of local stakeholders.  

So, to answer the question that kicks us off this month, "is Transition political?"  The answer is yes.  Deeply.  It has the power to transform communities, economies, shift power back to the local level, encourage communities to own their own assets and be more in control of their economic destiny.  To create new food systems, economic systems, education models, and so on and so on.  You know this stuff.  It's deeply, profoundly political.  But it isn't explicitly so. It comes in under the radar, and that really matters. 

But the question then arises as to whether, when the Queen’s Speech gives, among other things, fracking companies the powers to frack under your home without your permission, your best option is to get your neighbours together to reduce your energy use and start a community energy company (as recently happened in Balcome), or to lobby and protest?  And which, ultimately, is more ‘political’?  Enjoy the month. 


David Lyons's picture

Politics and Transition

A great posting Rob - I am looking forward to more on this theme.

I have been losely connected to politcal parties over the years.  After being involved in starting Haddenham in Transition I realised that we needed more support from our (non political) parish council...and they needed more support...including councillors!  After doing this for a while I realised that we needed to change our district and county councillors and revived the local branch of the political party of which I am a member.  I am staunchly in favour of keeping party politics out of transition - I value the non-partisan approach we have in we do on the parish council.

It is the non political approach that makes the local things that people notice and help them see change as possible which makes transition so effective.

With my political hat on I do feel very polarised about the lip service that many (most?) political parties give to community resilience (or non at all for some parties), but I am happy to work along side those who may well vote for them to improve community resilience.  If transition minded people could influence the direction of those parties towards community resilience in the transition pattern, we would all benefit.


Cristiano Bottone's picture

That's why we do it

What you describe is what we see happening in the real world, Transition is political but simply works "with" and not "aginst" and this is the only way a can imagine to open the doors of a new paradigm for "all".

And...Transition looks to me more like a new operating system that an app ;-)

Peter Willcox's picture

Transition and Politics

As ever, Rob, you sum up and crystalise my thoughts so well.



Lucie Evers's picture

Definitions are important!

Transition communities and initiatives are political, in the sense that they contribute in shaping and changing the 'polis', the community as it were. But Transition doesn't provide an ideological and ethical framework to its members or to a broader audience. Therefore it is not a fork but a spoon, not a sword but rather a rasping instrument. 
But many people want just that: something to believe in, including some moral and practical guidelines to 'the good life'. And Transition is still often percieved as being able to deliver just that.
But I percieve Transition to be a method along the lines of 'empowerment', without really knowing what that empowerment leads to. So the actual results of the proces can be quite diverse.  
On the other hand, it is clear that the analysis from which the method was derived, entails certain philosofical, ethical, yes even moral choices. And striving for consencus is not alway effective or all that constructive for that matter.
I see Transition Towns to be a method of enhancing individual and group participation to community processes, so plebians would turn citizen again (or for the first time). Many individuals are disconnected with themselves, and therefore can't connect to the community they live in. Democraty is just as strong as its weakest link: those individuals that are no longer connected to their surrounding realities: socially, economically and -yes- also politically. To me Transition Towns  is an exercise in transition on the 'anecdotic' level, where as politics - as in the three stages as we know them: election, ideology (political thinking) and policy making (management and participation in powerstructures) is ment to be the level on which you can work on transition on a 'regime' level. That is : mobility (infrastructure, behaviour), housing, labor market, etc. A systemic level of transition would need a structural reform on an institutional level. And of the economic realm. In today's world, change is organised in the direction of where capital decides it will go and make itself available. 

A powerfull tool to demonstrate the possibilities for transition, is 'local economic resilience'. Because mobilising capital within the community can very well lead to inspiring entrepeneurs and VC's to 'go for it'. 

It's an and/and story. TT is deeply political in the 'primary function' of the term, but has no power or leverage to go beyond that, without being 'incaptured' by the powers that be. I think that TT needs to do what it does best, and that is to empower people and small communities. 

An important challenge in doing that, especially in cities, is making connecting to segments of the population outside the 'middle classes'. The method in itself asks of individuals a number of life skills that are far from 'self evident' to a large section of the population. So how can TT be more 'outreaching'? And therefore more socially sustainable, and less about a building a community around the idea of 'saving ourselves' from the systemic crises, which of course are unavoidable. 

I don't want to be pessimistic. But to keep the quality of the process, you should not tilt it into a realm it couldn't survive to begin with...

Lucie Evers

Gent , Belgium

Finn Jensen's picture

Political but not party political

With TT wanting to create a low carbon economy due to the risks of climate change TT has made some political/ethical choices - like it is best to limit the use of fossil fuels as much as possible. Not all political parties agree with this view - UKIP being one of them. So TT is political but should not be party political. If a UKIP member/voter wants to be part of TT s/he should not be excluded but will hopefully become more aware of climate change.

It starts getting more grey if TT has a view on whether nuclear energy should be part of the solution for a low carbon economy or only advocate renewable energy.

Trish Knox's picture

Free Flowing Transition

I have been circulating Transition Free Press newspapers to my regional Transition Towns here in Salish Sea/Pacific Northwest/US. Each TT has a unique shape through their action projects and the platforms on which those actions stand. Does not every project have a political platform, a purpose?

This is not politics as usual. This is a system of flow where "bottom up" meets "top down." Duality stops here. (We might need a new word to replace old "politics" if we can't see it in a new light.)

It is empowering and encouraging when a Transition member is on City Council and part of that mainstream system. We feel proud. Go team!

Transition is a "party", a network, a global community in action of flow. We follow our hearts and let that spirit guide us whether that is organizing a county coal/oil train watch, a Tool Library, a climate change event or a food hub.

It's all Transition in flow.


Peter Macfadyen's picture

Transition Towns and Local politics





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Thanks.  Very stimulating.  But should Transition run parallel with local politics or morph into it?  Your comment on needing policy on “...abortion, healthcare, education, defence, international trade, etc ....” if you ran as a TT candidate is only true at higher levels of government.  At a local level you need to express a stated view on none of these if you run as an independent.  Candidates who run as political party candidates have these views thrust upon them whether they want them or not (because they adhere to a party manifesto/ideology).  In Frome, three of the successful independent candidates were central to the TT group.  They are now in a position to work with the others to help create an environment in which initiatives flourish.  I see the new role of local government as midwifeing community based initiatives – with TT at the forefront of these.

Jeff Mowatt's picture

Bottom up local development


It could be reasonably argued that Transition Towns has been political in its stance on Peak Oil and Climatr Change, since to call for change is lobbying for political action. 

I see the creation of bottom up local economies as being political because that's how we've approached it. For example, our 'Marshall Plan' strategy for Ukraine was a document intended to influence govermeent policy. That's how we began and were able to apply this in Russia, to source a community development initiative, which inverted preceding top doen approaches, by making resources available to those needing them most.

As we argued in the 2006 paper for Ukraine:

'This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for "people-centered" economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority – as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether. This is in keeping with the fundamental objectives of Marshall Plan: policy aimed at hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. This is a bottom-up approach, starting with Ukraine's poorest and most desperate citizens, rather than a "top-down" approach that might not ever benefit them. They cannot wait, particularly children. Impedance by anyone or any group of people constitutes precisely what the original Marshall Plan was dedicated to opposing. Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first -- not secondarily, along the way or by the way. ':

Similarly we took a political stance at the Economics for Ecology conferences at Sumy in 2009/10 with a criticism of QE:

"Thus the issue of ecology economics is not only 'the third bottom line', it might be more aptly renamed the economics of survival of the human species.  That includes everyone, regardless of one or another economic hypothesis or theory they might prefer.  We can endlessly debate and discuss von Mises/von Hayek free market economics/capitalism which proved successful except for the times it failed, and then study why it failed – repeatedly, the most recent failure in September 2008.  We can endlessly debate and discuss opposing Keynesian government interventionist economics/capitalism,  which proved successful except for the times it failed.  That has been an alternating pattern for the past eighty years in Western capitalism.  We can discuss the successes and failures of various flavors of communism and fascism.  At this point, the simple fact is that regarding economic theory, no one knows what to do next.  Possibly this has escaped immediate attention in Ukraine, but, economists in the US as of the end of 2008 openly confessed that they do not know what to do.  So, we invented three trillion dollars, lent it to ourselves, and are trying to salvage a broken system so far by reestablishing the broken system with imaginary money.

Now there are, honestly, no answers.  It is all just guesswork, and not more than that.  What is not guesswork is that the broken – again – capitalist system, be it traditional economics theories in the West or hybrid communism/capitalism in China, is sitting in a world where the existence of human beings is at grave risk, and it's no longer alarmist to say so.

The question at hand is what to do next, and how to do it.  We all get to invent whatever new economics system that comes next, because we must."

Strangely these ideas have been more papatable to the mainstream business community where I've published articles like The New Bottom Line.

This activism for localised bottom up development began with an opportunty to pitch it at the top, i.e the US President warning him of the consequences of a debt driven economy creating civic uprisings.

Not political in the party sense, but certainly aimed at political leadership. 






Duncan Crowley's picture

A political Irish lad transition-ing Dublin > Barcelona > Brazil

Hi all,

Great to see this discussion happening, as it has been a BIG topic in many activist circles for a long time. Back at the liverpool conference a few years back, myself and Juan let people know about the things going on then with the occupations of the squares and all the rest of the #SpanishRevolution... For me, all is political, but thats not party political, its the politics of normal people taking action locally to effect change.

Anyway, since then, I have moved to Brazil and as you all know the world cup kicks off today. I am based in the very intersesting city of Curitiba, "worlds greenest city" according to the ecologist mag. I am involved with an excellent campaign here: #Cheerforpeace and have just finished an  article in which I refer to urban resilience and local economy, among loads of other things. Appreciate if you could have a look, help spread word and support us if you can...

For a greener and socially fair World Cup – #CheerForPeace working with all of Brazil

The eyes of the world focus on Brazil

Tomorrow the 2014 FIFA World Cup will begin in Brazil, who knows how it will go. Will it be a success, or not? Will they have the stadiums finished in time, or not? Will it be interrupted by violent protests, or not? Will it be a positive thing for the country, or not?

The campaign has been developed by Brazilian students and it has an open co-creative philosophy, thereby trying to evolve as different people get involved with the project. It attempts to create a dialogue about the real impact of the world cup and to try to make steps toward the whole World Cup process being more ecologically and socially just. A fundraising campaign has been set up and the money will be used to assist in 3 areas, each relating to one of the core principles:

  • Trees planted by SOS Mata Atlantica, an NGO that plants them in the devastated Atlantic Rainforest, they are monitored for 5 years and certified for optimal survival rates.
  • Meals donated to Brazilian communities in need
  • Jerseys & football kits provided for underprivileged Brazilian youth

The 3 pillars of the campaign do not stand alone. Each one supports and reinforces the other two, all are mutually interdependent. The true richness and power of things resulting from the interaction and overlapping of each.

We always try to demonstrate best practice, to highlight sustainable practices and groups in the city. So rather than simply go for a cheaper option; lowest quality food from giant supermarket chain, we have approached Curitiba’s wonderful Municipal Market. Some of their Organics sector kindly donated food for next Sundays event. Again the mutual support, the mixing of the pillars. This also tries to promote stronger local economies and might lead to better opportunities for employment for people in the future as well as a more resilient city.

mary coll's picture

Chambers of Commons

Have been thinking lots about transition and politics lately as well, and i see a perfect fit for transition with local municipal level community politics.  Just like a Chamber of Commerce is a collaborative association of business interests in a communtiy to develop the health and wellbeing of commerce in their town, so too is Transition poised perfectly to be such a Chamber, but one of more expansive scope, a Chamber of the Commons...stewarding the physical, financial, social, organisational assets in the local foodshed, watershed, energyshed, ecosystem, and network of human relationships...for the health and wellbeing of that Commons as a whole and of all individuals within it and dependent upon it. 

Trish Knox's picture

Heart to Heart, Mary

Hi Mary,

I love your vision and language for Chambers of Commons!  I am going to post it on our Transition Woodinville website for others to digest. Our Transitions visions do come to fruition nurturing body, mind, emotion and spirit.  I think of Heart Chambers!!


David Ernest's picture

Why we choose to run for election

In Chaville, near Paris, we decided to reinforce our movement by sending a representative to the city council.  Below is a short text we posted on our blog to explain why.

Why Chaville en Transition engaged in local election in 2014?
The Transition Towns movement has emerged especially after the finding that one must not expect much of the "rulers" to implement the ecological transition. It is based on the direct handling by citizens at the local level of all the necessary actions for this transition. We call these actions "practical ecology".
But why engage in the local campaign which aims precisely to access local "government"?
Firstly, the presence of representatives of Chaville en Transition in the local executive will not stop any direct local action (Composting Awareness, implementation of shared gardens, etc..) whatever the local majority. We believe, however, that council may SUPPORT transition initiatives and facilitate their implementation. It should not take part in the DIRECTION that must remain at citizens level.

Chaville en Transition participated in a local list that supported its approachh with no official endorsement from political parties, even if we are also members of the French Green Party.

Example of practical application: shared gardens.
An independent body, such as the Carmel Saint Joseph in Chaville, took the initiative to set up and open to the public shared gardens on their private premises. No authorization from the Mayor was required. The Mayor could simply support the initiative eg with communication in the local magazine published by the city council.
However, if a group of citizens "without land" wants to access public or private property in order to do some gardening or maintain an abandoned orchard, the contribution of the Municipality will be decisive. And the presence of a representative of Chaville en Transition in the council willing to support the project is essential.
Above all, a citizen group will develop together or join an existing association.
Two cases may arise:
• The land belongs to the city : the Mayor can implement an agreement between the city and the association. This agreement outlines the rights and duty of everyone. It also specifies the possible support provided by the city. One can imagine a temporary occupation of an area waiting for construction.
• The land is private (social landlord, French railways, private person): City Hall will have an important role to negotiate with the owner to get a profitable occupation agreement with all parties to make the project possible

member of the city council