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The big picture, and a Transition response

This is the second guest editorial for the Transition Network's Social Reporting project. This week's is from Transition Network chairman, Pete Lipman.

This is my personal truncated version of “the” big picture, which I’ve taken to be the context in which the transition movement is experimenting, responding to the challenges we face, while we live through the unfolding of an extraordinary story.

As the scale of our impact on the world becomes clearer, we’re starting to understand just what power we have, crossing planetary boundaries which ensure a stable environment.

In fact it appears that we’re already moved into the danger area for 3 of the 7 boundaries we can estimate safe limits for - climate change, the nitrogen cycle and loss of biodiversity. Each of these means enormous, fundamental changes are needed, and at the same time we also have to deal with resource scarcities such as peak oil. We’re moving from a time when the supply of oil could be expanded to match demand into unknown territory for modern industrialised economies. The scale of our addiction to oil is shown by the lengths to which we’ll go to maintain our supplies although oil isn’t the only fossil fuel we’ll do pretty much anything to get.

Just to add to having crossed the danger line for core planetary boundaries such as climate change and the additional complication of growing resource scarcities such as peak oil, we also face growing financial volatility and inequality. Given how our economies function, that seems inevitable to me in view of the linkage between economic growth and net surplus energy; as a recent definition of peak oil put it:

“Peak Oil is, in fact, a complex but largely an economically driven phenomenon that is caused because the point is reached when: The cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth at a given point in time.” (ODAC, September 2011)

How our economies function also is a fundamental driver of the infrastructures and behaviours which lead to the impacts of how we use resources, such as climate change, and of how those resources become scarcer. On top of that, the current financial volatility has immense and direct impact on people all over the world, all of which is why I’d like to see us, in Transition, becoming as fluent in discussing it as we are when we’re talking about climate change and peak oil.

So if the big picture we’re working inside means that we need to understand the ways in which economies function, do we also need to understand the overt and implicit power structures which operate to maintain the status quo?

This question is implicit in recent discussions on the relationship between Transition and activism more generally.

Thinking about this led Charlotte (Du Cann, who is editing this series) to conclude that:

“We have to see that without talking about our actions, without coming out about our radical nature … all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers, without connecting with all the land sovereignty movements that now exist around the world, Transition does not have the strength or wit or daring to challenge the dominant worldview.”

...To which Rob (Hopkins) responded:

“Likewise, “sharing … all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers” is almost certain to relegate Transition to being seen as yet another deep green, left wing campaign group. … are we also prepared to create space for sharing for those who come from very different cultural backgrounds, as well as those who enjoy ‘Top Gear’, who work in industry, or who drive trucks for a living?"

Another part of the big picture which we’ve been thinking about at Transition Network is whether we should include explicit reference to inequality in our purpose statement.

I think that the answer should be yes, as community based responses to resource issues are at Transition’s core. After all, the way in which resources are viewed, as abundant or as scarce, as available to all or as rationed (usually by price), is culturally determined, as is who gets to access those resources.

Is the cultural story we’re seeking to embody one which doesn’t explore whether people can only meet their needs if they have sufficient access (to money, to land, to power …)?

What does all of this mean for Transition? How much time do we have to build the projects we’d love to see?

I don’t know – but what I do know is that I get enormous joy from being part of this movement, facing up to such enormous seeming issues with a strength rooted in local action.

I also take great heart from a rapidly growing general awareness of many of the issues which we’re grappling with – such as recent popular responses to our financial systems in Greece, Spain and the US.

I believe that Transition can play a part in building alternatives to the system we have at the moment, and projects like REconomy may spark wonderful examples of how to build a resilient, localized economy.

In Transition we’re taking part in something which could lead to enormous change by relying on everyone’s inherent creativity, commitment and generosity. After the recent Transition conference in Liverpool, Rob quoted Milton Friedman:

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived––produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. . . That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”.

Whether or not Friedman is right that only a crisis can produce real change, there’s no doubt that we’re facing one now. Transition is responding to that crisis and showing the power and potential of seeding and growing alternative ways of being.

 Photos: still from the documentary Crude about Cheveron's exploitation of the Ecuadorian rainforest; ZAD (Zone a Defendre) demonstration in France, Community Orchard Chalfont with kids from local youth centre (credit Erica Neustadt, Change4Chalfont)

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