We have a dream, don't we?
Back in May, I heard a radio documentary about the pioneering civil rights radio series, Destination Freedom, which broadcast from Chicago in the late 1940s, seven years before Rosa Parks made her stand. Which got me thinking, why do some issues grab the wider public's attention while other, equally worthy causes, do not?
It can be argued that Transition has spread as it has, and been able to produce, for example, Economic Blueprints and local currencies, because it isn't politically positioned. Would the civil rights movement have achieved what it did had it avoided a political position? One of my favourite quotes is by Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Hélder Câmara (1909 – 1999): "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Câmara was known for his clear position on the side of the urban poor and the reference to being a 'communist' reflects the times - anyone with subversive tendencies was called a communist. But this ethos persists - there are certain things we should not question if we want to be taken seriously by 'the mainstream'.
Câmara looked at how violence manifests itself and made an "appeal to youth", saying that wars happen because of the egotism of adults, and he urged the youth to, "provoke discussions [and] force people to think and take up a position: let it be uncomfortable, like truth; demanding, like justice." What's this got to do with Transition? The ecological and economic crises we face today have also been caused by 'the egotism of adults' and the Transition movement could be seen as 'the youth', asking seemingly naïve yet challenging questions about how society functions, working on a range of projects with much gusto, 'knowing' we can make a difference. But we lack that awkward streak - we don't want to rock the boat for fear of being dismissed. Perhaps we need to.
Optimism's not enough
In June, I heard Rob Hopkins speak to transitioners in Edinburgh. He told of a meeting with local authority chief executive officers. These relatively influential people were in a place where they could speak freely - no party politics or watching of words - and they spoke of their fears for the future. They would never say such a vote-losing, ridicule-invoking thing on a public platform but in that place they felt safe to discuss their deeper feelings. How many people, in all walks of life, are suppressing such feelings about the future? Maybe they believe the problems which Transition is trying to address are unaddressable. Surely civil rights campaigners felt similar doubts?
Now, I am a bit of a doomer, I'll confess, but I'm not the only one and sometimes it feels that optimism is not always a legitimate response to the problems we face. I'm not saying that we don't need enthusiasm, optimism and hope - we do, along with a new positive narrative for the future. But we also need to define the problem at every opportunity. Sure, you can't inspire people to act with 'facts' they don't believe - or don't want to believe. Many ignore what they cannot bear - whether it's the loss of childhood playgrounds or warning letters about failing endowment mortgages - I touched on 'climate ignorers' in my last blog. There were civil rights ignorers too - those who saw people take to the streets, risking arrest and making a scene, expecting the impossible. But something did happen - a fundamental change took place because the 'truth' of the civil rights movement could no longer be ignored. What has to happen for the truth of the environmental and social justice movements to be heard?
Counter the myth
I like to use the word 'normal' to refer to those outside of whatever radical idea I'm engaged in, to remind academics and the like that they often experience a very different world from the majority. Maybe 'ordinary' would go down better but I'll stick with 'normal' for now, to remind us greens that we are a bit weird, after all. I've asked George Monbiot how to rewild 'normal' people and I've asked Rob Hopkins how to engage 'normal' people with Transition. Both answers were surprisingly similar, along the lines of 'engage by example'. Yes, but there's more to it than that. Environmentalists have been trying to engage by example for decades, and that's good but we also need to counter the myth of economic growth at every opportunity.
We need to repeat the unspeakable truth that "the productivity gains driving industrial growth were enabled by the abundance of cheap fossil fuels and other resources", as Nafeez Ahmed* said in the Guardian in July. Or, put more simply, the party's over. But our dream is about what comes next and in some respects, it's remarkably like Martin Luther King's famous speech in 1963. We have a dream that our children will be able to breathe clean air; that social and environmental injustice will be transformed, along with the banking sector; that we will value intact ecosystems over cash crop monoculture, a sustainable future over the short-term profiteering of today.
At the edge
We are stuck in a nightmarish, economic growth hokey-cokey - you put the forecast up, the forecast down - if it wasn't so scary, these 'make it up as you go along' strategies would be laughable. Transition offers alternatives - plural. It doesn't have a coherent explanation of the alternative, because there are so many possibilities. Transition has strong roots in the permaculture movement and those within Transition understand that solutions will be locally relevant, they will be dynamic and they will evolve. But this won't engage 'normal' people. Our culture has programmed us to 'trust' that someone else is in control. But it's obvious to many that no one is in control - this train's hurtling down a very dodgy track.
The Transition movement, like Destination Freedom, is at the edge, where creativity often emerges and where change happens. We should put ourselves in the context of an active struggle which hasn't had its breakthrough yet. Nor will it unless we speak more forcefully and passionately against the status quo. This has to be part of our positive message, part of the new narrative. We need to remember that all unexpected breakthroughs are just that - unexpected. Yes, be optimistic for the future but don't let that optimism become the new denial. Wouldn't it be great to find a way to reach people who know that something really has to change but who would not be caught dead sticking post-its on the wall or 'visioning' a better future with cardboard boxes? Getting 'normal' people to understand our vision and get involved in our dream - that would be the greatest unleashing yet.
Mandy Meikle lives 25 miles south-west of Edinburgh and has been speaking on peak oil issues since 2004. She edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is Chairperson of local Community Trust, WAT IF?