The Strong Pull of Transition Disaster
Transition initiatives are started by groups of individuals who are committed, informed, high minded and aware of the needs of their own and wider communities. So why do they end in disaster, often after quite short lives and amidst such pain and acrimony that people are harmed and lost to Transition?
Chris Hart from Transition City Lancaster has spoken and written about what happened in Lancaster, notably in the film Transition 2.0. Below he weaves his first published statement in the Transition Companion with some new insights into the dynamics both of the disastrous collapse and the successful reforming of the initiative in Lancaster.
An initial attempt to set up a Transition City Lancaster (TCL) in 2006/7 failed because of very poor group dynamics and disagreement as to how the group should be run and about the degree of autonomy from the wider Transition movement.
For hundreds of years the old adversarial, fear based systems have shaped our inner and outer worlds. We all carry aspects of scarcity and insecurity within, some more than others but no one is exempt. We all carry a dream of how it could be. We can see the possibilities but also experience the fears of things staying the same and our part of the jig-saw being left out. We fear once again that the same eloquent, powerful people will stay in charge but not listen. It is uncharted territory and frankly it is as terrifying as it is exciting.
For any new group that picked up the baton of Transition in Lancaster it was clear that internal group relationships had to be at the centre of the Transition process – before even peak oil or climate change . . . In fact, this is what did happen, and most of the new steering group were members of a pre-existing deep ecology group. This was perhaps not surprising, because deep ecology recognises the crucial importance of seeing ourselves as part of a larger web of life and fosters the ability to critically observe ourselves and wider systems that is at the heart of all relationships.
The development of any group engaged in the transition process will inevitably face interpersonal challenges. The movement from a small group of founders who may know and respect each other to a wide mass participation movement always has to face this challenge. There are additional specific tensions that inevitably arise in transition/paradigm change organisations as we carry both parts of the old ways and new ways within us.
Each 'Transitioner' comes with their own particular passions and priority, fears and wounds. For those who have felt in minority groups for much of their lives they are often particularly sensitive to not being heard or valued. Often we are extremely reluctant to compromise on the bit we are most passionate about if others in a group are not so enthusiastic about our 'hot' issue. While all the various exciting potentials should give strength and breadth to our movements they equally often cause short term tensions and even disaster.
One friend of mine is an eloquent proponent of animal rights and thinks no-one should keep pets. For another social justice and class issues must be at the root of what we do and everything else is icing, for another protection of the soil in a specific permaculture or no dig model is the way, for others maybe equality or consensual decision making are 'the thing'. Whatever, our view, it can be taken as a threat by another, especially if it is pushed with great force. Whose or which ideas do we put forward as a signature or representation of our group?
Huge tension can emerge in the most basic ways like how a meeting runs. It certainly did in our first Transition group. Issues like consensus or majority voting, having or not having officers and trustees, who we should or shouldn't work with (political parties, council, businesses etc), should meetings run by hand signals or through chairs and facilitators, accessibility, inclusiveness and the cost of venues, style of language and discussion, is it too 'talkie' and in the head or to 'practical' and action based. The potentials for fall-outs is huge and often the need for action now seems far too intense to wait for all these other issues to be addressed. People fall by the way-side.
Unlike the first incarnation of TCL, the second attempt used a more centralised approach with a closed steering group that took primary responsibility for leadership and direction. This in itself was somewhat contentious, but it has been the way TCL has evolved, and, it must be said, evolved extremely successfully and dynamically, maintaining a mindfulness about ensuring space for new people to come in, and having regular public meetings.
I think what is remarkable about TCL is that it has been so dynamic, and a huge amount of this has to be down to the way the members of the steering group worked amongst themselves. We were all quite outspoken and we far from agreed on many issues. These included the group structure and constitution, the centralising or dispersement of powers and decision-making powers within TCL, the autonomy or otherwise of the special interest groups, and the priority of events – all items of considerable contention and not unanimously agreed on.
Instead, we tended to continue to thrash them out and evolve as time went on.
Most of us want the new paradigm to happen perfectly now; for our blazing insight to be understood and taken on by everyone. I know I do. We want our group to act as if it is a shining example of the world we want to see, a hard task when most of us struggle to model that in more than a corner of our own lives. I wish I had easy answers but I haven't. Our Transition group re-formed and moved on with new personnel and new ways of operating.
Right now in one of the transition groups I am involved in there is a tension between what is or is not considered an acceptable post on a facebook page. The differing views of the group means one person feels censored - there is no way everyone can feel met all the time in a group although we often expect that in this new society and new story we will. I fear someone will feel pushed out but experience says goodwill and good relationships will prevail - it will not be a disaster.
These sort of disputes proved impossible for our initial Transition group to overcome and far worse the existence of good-will did evaporate. Maybe we recognise now that we are all passionately filled with a hope for something better and at the very least we can agree that if nothing else, we are all trying in our stumbling ways to work towards a slightly better world.
Pictures: Transition City Lancaster logo, AGM discussion (CJ)
Chris Hart is founder member of Transition City Lancaster and was part of the Steering Group that set up the current initiative. He is a member of the Real Wealth and Livelihoods group. He is also an active trustee for the local Development Education Charity which he helped set up and part of the continuing Occupy group in Lancaster.