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Transition Towns: Local networking for global sustainability?


Rob Hopkins originally recommended this paper on his blog, as a piece of "high quality research." I concur. The paper does an excellent job of characterizing Transition and putting it into context. In this post, I've selected some of the highlights of the paper. The original 54-page paper is online as a PDF.

-BA (Energy Bulletin co-editor)


Jonathan Balls
Undergraduate Dissertation, Lent 2010
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Preface

The Transition Model has advanced a pathway towards ‘local sustainability’ distinct from previous sustainability models in a clear and important way: it is a grassroots, non-governmental model and also a networking movement. Still in its infancy, and with little academic attention so far having specifically focused on it; there is a clear gap in understanding of the Transition Model’s role in relation to (local) sustainability, which this research has sought to bridge. ...

Transition Towns in Context

... While local sustainability has become a politically important discursive goal, in practice neither top-down governmental nor grassroots community models have gained widespread uptake or success: the former have failed to connect with or involve a grassroots public; the latter generally have few resources and limited capacity.

It is in this context that the Transition Model is interesting. A non-governmental community-led model: Transition advances an action-based approach, comparable to community sustainability models. Yet, with a fast growing network of Initiatives, Transition is much closer to the top-down governmental models. Transition combines the advantages of an organic support base, with the capacity and resources of a networking organisation.

The ‘Transition’ concept, co-founded by Rob Hopkins, who has a background in permaculture, builds upon a core thesis: that the modern industrial capitalist economic and social system, based upon cheap oil and resources, is unsustainable, making a major restructuring of economy and society imperative, and inevitable. Transition contends that citizens and communities need to act proactively and positively at the local scale, in a process of ‘Transition’ and ‘powerdown’ to build localised and resilient communities in terms of food, energy, work and waste (Hopkins, 2008). The goal is a societal paradigm in which de-carbonised local communities are resilient in their capacity to “hold together and maintain their ability to function in the face of change and shock from outside.” (Hopkins, 2008:8). Transition is modelled to be a self-organising community-led model, for people to ‘act now and act collectively’.

... Since the establishment of the Transition Network, the movement has mushroomed, with over two hundred participating Initiatives; now including Initiatives around the world (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives). Looking within the field of environmentalism, I found no precedence for a model of local sustainability that involved the networking of spatially dispersed, local self-organising groups within the framework of a single model. How the Transition Model has achieved this was a question that needed addressing. ...

Conceptual and Theoretical Review

Transition: the Concept:

... What I see as ‘push factors’ contend that materialistic and capitalist economic and social structures are unsustainable, with the following principle issues outlined: climate change; peak oil - see the World Energy Outlook (2008); environmental degradation; and discourses on the finite planet thesis.

Outlining these ‘push factors’, Heinberg’s (2004) Powerdown argues that: “we have already overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans – to such an extent that some form of societal collapse is now inevitable.” (Heinberg, 2004:10).

... On the ‘pull factor’ side, Transition theory celebrates the perceived benefits of a paradigm of re-localised and resilient communities. Arguments to this extent include Holmgren’s Permaculture (2002), calling for permaculture ecology principles to be applied to human settlement and agriculture. Similarly the Blueprint for Survival (1972) and Jackson’s more recent Prosperity without Growth (2009) outline re-localisation paradigms.

Social Movements and Networking:

Social movement theory helps explain how the Transition Model has built up grassroots support, bringing in new community-based Initiatives at an exponential rate across space and time.

... Pepper (1984) speaks of the period in the late-1970’s to early-1980’s when a series of ‘drop-out’ communities formed, seeking to re-establish close and fundamental ties with nature and ‘mother-earth’. Transition is in many respects ideologically and theoretically comparable to such models; however it differs in that it has spawned a network, becoming a ‘viral social movement’.

... Through this research, I have come to understand that the internet is crucial for networking. On this issue, the work of Gary Alexander (2000, 2004) was useful. He sees online tools facilitating a ‘sustainable collaborative economy’; where the internet is shifting the economy towards collaboration and community, based on trust and with respect for the environment, rather than competition and individualism. Central to this in his view, are “grassroots and civil society initiatives linking together.” (Alexander, 2004:2), which through the internet are “beginning to form a network of networks, a co-operative of co-operatives.” (Alexander, 2004:14). ...

Discussing Transition:

... Transition: Radical Theory and Mainstream Practice:

Looking specifically at the theory and ideology of the Transition Model, it lies at heart within the environmental field of political ecology or ‘ecologism’. The Transition Model proposes a radically reformist shift away from industrial society, which it sees as heading towards a ‘crunch’; where resource depletion, climate change and environmental degradation threaten some form of societal collapse. Critiquing materialistic and capitalistic modernity, Transition seeks a new paradigm involving re-localisation and ‘powerdown’.

Transition’s radical agenda has been crucial in attracting people to the movement; especially those with past environmental activity, many of whom believe that radical change is essential. Around half the people I interviewed held strong ‘ecologist’ positions, critical of the status quo; Transition forums similarly reflecting this position. Eleven of my interviewees foresaw drastic scenarios resulting from climate change, peak oil, power and food shortages. The majority of interviewees believed it inevitable that societies and economies would need to re-localize. Crucial to this point, Transition was seen by all as a viable and workable model and pathway to sustainability.

While Transition theory proclaims a radical message, in practice Initiatives are developing ideas and projects that can be characterised as ‘mainstream’ environmental work, including: community gardens, pushing funding for renewable energy projects, encouraging recycling and raising awareness. Such projects hardly indicate the radical aspects of Transition theory.

Yet these kinds of projects, and the mainstream ‘image’ Transition has gained in the process of raising awareness and participation, attracts people with environmental and community concerns who do not want involvement with radical environmental groups. Importantly ‘respectable’ strategies and projects do not alienate communities either. The belief that the Transition Model was, and needed to be, respectable and mainstream emerged equally as often as radical views in interviews. Mark in High Wycombe said their Initiative was not an “irrational, woolly, thinking kind of initiative to perhaps go and hug a tree; no, this is cold, rational… this is science, this is the voice of business speaking.” Similarly, Richard in New Forest argued: “This is sensible, and it is not full of people who you’d want to cross the street to avoid.

Bringing together a grassroots base of support around the principles of Transition, into what I call a ‘Transition Coalition’ is crucial to the model. The Transition Model has to date successfully merged radical and mainstream views and practice, creating a ‘brand’ and image that attracts a wide base. This is a key primary element that allows Transition, a community-led and action-based model, to extend itself beyond any one place or core issue, while retaining grassroots support. In contrast, other grassroots community models, whether groups radically isolating themselves from mainstream society or communities seeking to ban plastic bags, struggle to gain participation beyond their issue base and their place of operation; while most governmental initiatives fail to connect to a grassroots base.

Having people with radical reformist agendas working alongside moderate environmentalists and people without past environmental organisation participation of course raises questions over how Transition is able to structurally incorporate this diversity, which I address later. However, the successful bringing together of a wide ‘Transition Coalition’ has been key to the ability of the Transition network to expand. Evidently Transition is doing something other sustainability models do not. ...

Transition: Democratic Success?

My research shows that the democratic and ‘umbrella’ organisational structure of the Transition Model is crucial to its success in bringing new Initiatives and people within a single organisational framework. Transition’s structure performs core functions, including:

  • Incorporating and supporting self-organising Initiatives
  • Establishing an identifiable ‘brand’, defining general principles and goals.
  • Providing a networking framework. (I address this last function separately).

... As a national ‘brand’ the model has been building momentum, capacity and visibility, which individual Initiatives can latch onto. For example, in Berkhamsted I was told that the Transition group was considered by the Council to be bigger and more influential than it perhaps was. Additionally, Transition’s brand is perceived to come without negative ‘baggage’ or stereotypes associated with many environmental organisations.

The Transition Model aims to have covered much of the groundwork in practical areas of sustainability, so that for Initiatives ‘the wheel is not continually re-invented’. To this extent a key function of the model is to provide resources, information, knowledge, training and support. Included in this is: material and information for recently established Initiatives; the twelve steps of Transition; and ideas, experience and information shared on Transition websites and forums. For example talks, films, discussion topics, and project ideas are shared, especially for awareness raising.

... Above these core functions is the principle of self-organisation. Beyond their approval by the trustees of the Transition Movement, Initiatives structure and organise their activities independently. The theory and practice is simple: any ideas, strategies or projects a group has, they can just get on with it. Responsibility is passed down, with the principles of Transition adapted to local conditions. This self-organising and fundamentally democratic structure is crucial to bringing in new Initiatives, people, ideas and projects.

... Indeed, most Initiatives follow locally adapted strategies, few follow the twelve steps of Transition closely, and almost none have considered an EDAP to date. Further, many Initiatives rarely used online materials or resources. A minority were applying these materials closely. Transition more than anything was seen to provide the vision, values and principles that Initiatives could independently work with.

... This democratic pattern stretches again to the level of individuals involved in Transition. Whether someone is interested in the funding of renewables or the psychology of change, they can establish or join a sub-group with like-minded people and seek to foster projects. Ben Brangwyn argues this is crucial, as it allow Transition to be a holistic model in which people concentrate where they are interested and skilled, leaving other areas to other people; whilst all coming under the Transition umbrella. ...

Transition: People and Place

... Initiatives that are thriving are those with motivated, energetic and skilled individuals in the core team, driving strategy and projects. Indeed, in several cases, where members of the core group had left, the Initiatives struggled to continue. Further, personal networks were crucial to people becoming involved with Transition and for new Initiatives being formed. People I interviewed had been members of environmental organisations from the Green Party through to Climate Camp, as well as coming from academic, community, social justice and peace group backgrounds. Networks and contacts within these organisations play a central role in bringing new people into the ‘Transition Coalition’.

... However, in the longer-term place does matter, with certain communities appearing to be better suited to Transition. Communities with past social activity provide a good base, such as Ottery St. Mary, famous for the protests of ‘Swampy’ against road-building: “Ottery is a funny little place in that its got a good community but it has also got a history of green social enterprise... it acted as a sort of base for an anti-road protest.” (Clive, Ottery). Similarly, pioneering Initiatives such as Totnes, Stroud, Lewes and Glastonbury are all communities with histories of ‘alternative’ action. It further seems likely that in smaller market towns and to an extent in the city neighbourhoods: community size and cohesion offers the greatest potential for Initiative’s to embed locally. This is crucial for longer-term grassroots community participation, momentum and energy.

Transition: A Networking Social Movement:

A bottom-up, grassroots movement with collective goals and principles: Transition can be characterised as a social movement. I have conceptualised Transition as a discourse coalition, enabled by a democratic and self-organising structure. Crucial to Transition being good at building a ‘Transition Coalition’ is the movement’s ability to tap into a latent demand, and in many cases a sense of urgency for reformist action. The idea is that “something needs to change, something needs to happen” (Gill, Bruton). Transition’s promotion of a paradigm of localised sustainability taps into a groundswell of opinion, mobilising a grassroots base much as a social movement.

It “was the frustration that at that point nothing was happening at the governmental level that was addressing issues of climate change or peak oil” (Mark, Bath).

We’re here really because there was a need to… a small group of us really wanted to do something else following on from the inspiration of... Rob Hopkins. ” (Steve, Llandeilo).

You know for me it is the bigger picture, I see this as part of a grassroots movement; eventually to grow big enough so that politicians sit up and take notice. ” (Willi, Marlow).

We… bill ourselves as a cultural organisation. We are wanting to change perceptions, educate people ” (Mark, High Wycombe).

Indeed, Ben Brangwyn sees Transition as “creating an environment where currently unelectable policies become electable. ” ...

However, while Transition is attracting people with environmental and community concerns to join and establish Initiatives, this does not mean that whole communities are participating. My research shows that participation of communities is in every case a minority, usually five to ten percent of a population on mailing lists. Whether this is a weakness in the Transition Model is unclear; especially as gaining majority participation for any ‘cause’ within communities is rare.

... Personal contacts, including links through third party organisations facilitate networking. Yet it is the internet that is crucial in growing the Transition Network. The internet allows people to network cheaply; sharing information, expertise and best practice as well as building the capacity of Transition as an organisation. From Initiatives networking to understand the funding options for installing solar panels, to city initiatives sharing their experiences of raising awareness, the Internet provides an indispensible tool. My research showed that the internet is arguably being underutilized, with some Initiatives not using the internet to network.

Transition: Localism and Community:

The ideology and theory of localism lies at the heart of the Transition model, with my research showing it was, and is, a key condition to a majority of people’s initial and continued participation. There is a clear ideological support for decentralized, strong, empowered and resilient communities. ...

Transition: Utopia for Local Sustainability?

... Being a self-organising model at the local scale, whilst having the coherence of an umbrella ‘brand’ and organisational structure: the Transition Model is primarily a discourse coalition, rather than a prescriptive model. The diversity of people and places involved in Transition could not otherwise be held together within one model. The Transition Model’s primary role is that of facilitator, acting as a central focal point that unifies the multiple individual Initiatives, people and projects who otherwise have no connection. ...

Editorial Notes: A PDF of the complete dissertation is online (54 pages,633 KB). Author Jonathan Balls writes:
My dissertation was written as part of my final year undergraduate course. I therefore don't really have a long biography to attach to the work, except that I have just graduated this year in Geography from the University of Cambridge and that I will hopefully be moving on to further phd work around sustainability in the next year.
-BA

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