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The emergence of regional Transition? A fascinating day in Lille

The question of what a top-down response to peak oil, climate change and economic contraction, and the regional rolling out of resilience, might look like, has been often discussed since the early days of the Transition movement. There was the short-lived Somerset experiment, there’s been interesting work in Stroud, Bristol, Nottingham and various other places, but nothing yet that is especially coherent and integrated. So it was with that in mind that I was really fascinated to be asked to go to Lille to speak at a one-day conference called ‘Assises de la Transformation Ecologique et Sociale’ organised by the Conseil Regional Nord –Pas de Calais, the regional authority for the Nord- Pas de Calais region.

Here is a clip from the local French TV news about it:

What follows is my attempt to document what I observed at the day, and from conversations with various people, although I will state upfront that if I have totally missed the point in any places, it will be due to speaking barely any French and occasional interruptions to the translation at the event. So, some background. The Conseil is run by a socialist/Green coalition, and it has decided to make the energy transition and job creation the key focus of its plan for the area.

The region was a major mining area, most of which has now gone, so it has some areas of very high unemployment. Motivated by peak oil, by climate change, and by the need to refocus the economy of the area, they have drawn up 9 key areas of their regional transition. They are:

  • Food production
  • The forestry/timber industry
  • Water resources
  • Euralens (a project to regenerate a former mining area)
  • Dismantling nuclear power plants
  • Tackling diabetes
  • Retrofitting 100,000 houses
  • ‘A High School for the Third Millennium’
  • Renewable energy

The day brought together around 400 invited guests to share the Conseil’s initial thinking on this shift in focus. It was opened by Daniel Percheron, the President of the Conseil, an indication of the institutional buy-in that there is to the approach. One of the key catalysts of this initiative has been Jean-Francois Caron, a regional councillor and President of the Commission. Having been introduced by the day’s Chair as a ‘Prophet’, he described the approach as being about moving forward, but asked what exactly is an ecological and social transformation? “I’m not sure I understand it myself” he confessed.

He spoke of how we are at a moment of civilisational change, driven principally by the fact that the world doesn’t have infinite resources, climate change is causing major upheaval and the economy is in real trouble, and our current model has come to the end of its usefulness.

Jean-Francois Caron addresses the conference.

The question is whether we just tweak what we have or whether we try something new. He stated that they find themselves using the word “resilient” a lot, not a term often used in politics. The Transition, he stated, is the “destiny of our era”. To achieve it needs politics. The idea for this next evolution came in a dinner he had with Daniel Percheron, the Socialist President of the Conseil, where the two decided to be quite bold and to work on the emergence of a new model, one that rethought the way the Conseil works, rather than just being based on an ideology.

Part of the thinking is the need to create “common goods”, that is, environmental goods, social and human goods. Alongside that sit the need for autonomy, and to move away from the idea of the Conseil as just being a ‘piggy bank’ dishing out grants and subsidies, but to an organisation that works in a very different way. For example, in order to do something on the scale required about food it will need consumers, producers, farmers, processors, all working together. This will, he hoped, lead to a new model, like the Impressionists.

Emmanuel Cau and Gilles Pette debate with the event’s chairman (whose name I forgot to write down…)

There were then 4 speakers from outside the Conseil to offer their thoughts. I spoke about how we have conceived of Transition as something that works from the community scale upwards, with the role of local government as being to support, not drive, the Transition process. Although some local councils have gone some part of the way towards meeting Transition, none have yet done it in a holistic way. Given that the whole thing is an experiment, the work happening in Nord – Pas de Calais could be seen as part of that experiment. My talk was an overview of Transition, and a taste of what it is capable of initiating from the bottom up.

Then Dr. Adi Gross gave a sense of how in the Austrian city of Vorarlberg the local authority has driven a very pioneering approach to energy conservation and renewable energy. Alan Seatter, from the European Union spoke about how within the EU to suggest that economic activity might come from sustainability is almost heretical. “You might almost think”, he stated, “that it was green, sustainable development that got us into this mess in the first place!” He set out how environment-related activity already forms a significant part of the European economy, and how it could become much more so. He stated how for him this experiment is a very important one, and that although in an economic crisis politicians drop energy considerations first, polls show that ordinary people don’t.

The last speaker, Eloi Laurent, gave a more academic perspective which went rather over my head, I have to confess. There was then a workshop which I missed as I was chatting to various people who wanted to speak after my talk. After lunch was a very interesting session, although somewhat hampered by the translation (over headphones) which kept cutting in and out for long sections. Anyway, the general gist was that three academics, who had been there all day, gave their thoughts as independent people from outside, which I thought worked really well as an approach.

Dominique Meda, a professor of sociology from Paris, stated that she found the process of rethinking public policies in this way fascinating, as was the reconciling of social issues and the environment. She liked the fact that the language of common goods is central and the role of stakeholders and of the public, rather than economic language. Her main criticism though was that the process is not upfront enough in speaking of its inherent contradictions.

It presents itself as something that will move along too smoothly. Where might the conflicts arise? Where will the money come from? It was stated that retrofitting 100,000 homes will cost €3 billion, where will that come from? Also, it is stated that more jobs will be created from renewable energy than will be lost from dismantling the nuclear power plant, but is this so? Also the contradiction between increased self-sufficiency and global trade is not really addressed.

Next, Laurent Mermet, a Professor at Agro Paris Tech, said that he loved the deliberate, technical approach, and the stressing that we need to change. Conceptually it is thought through. There is a sense that it needs political will at all levels. The problem he identified with it was that it lacks a critique of power. If you are truly to build a local economy, you have to have the power to take away the lobbies, to confront the powers that challenge that, but this is not stated. He also highlighted the need for genuine participatory processes to be central to this, and he stated that for him the inherent contradiction in the process is the idea that for the regional authority to organise stakeholders isn’t top down is somewhat delusional.

The last person to offer reflections was Corrine Larue from the University of Tours. She said that she really liked the 3 key elements of the process. She however stated that she felt that this isn’t a process that will be revolutionary, rather “lukewarm”. It isn’t really breaking away from convention, but is actually staying quite mainstream. Although it is presented as an experiment, it is not made clear how the process will respond to feedback, and how the process and the organisation will adapt to that feedback.

Her closing questions were how it would be possible to coach the other partnering organisations in the thinking that underpins the process, how to put resilience and the ability to withstand shocks, central to the process, and how, given that resilience can mean that things won’t be so good in the short term, the Conseil will be able to ‘sell’ that message.

The day closed with the return of Jean-Francois Caron, who stated that the process is not yet at the stage of throwing it open to real debate, and that there is no stakeholder forum is yet, but that that is coming next. We must, he stated, invent a new model that will replace capitalism, communism and libertarianism. We need to modify a system that at the moment is unsustainable. At the moment we have a Frankenstein economy which is out of control and has no idea where it is going.

It will require everyone to change their behaviour. We need to all pitch in. At the moment the different stakeholders don’t speak the same language, and we need to change that. He acknowledged the tension, as on the one hand he wants to say “let’s go”, but on the other hand it is a large bureaucratic organisation that is slow to change. Then that was that, and it was off to the Eurostar and the long trip home.

So, some reflections. Is this what it looks like when a regional authority really ‘gets’ Transition? Time will tell. One aspect of it that is very interesting is the degree to which their approach explicitly questions economic growth. There is no overt element of degrowth, or the need to envisage a post growth economy, in the plan, which is to be expected, given the need to carry a political consensus with an initiative on this scale. However, speaking to some of those behind the plan, there is a clear understanding that economic growth as we have previously experienced it, is most likely a thing of the past. Much of what is proposed in this initiative focuses on the stimulation of employment at the local level without commenting on the larger picture.

When I attended the Degrowth conference in Venice recently, one of the questions people wanted to ask me most often was “what is the relationship between Degrowth and Transition?” I usually responded that although at the national/international level there are interesting overlaps, at the local level, to make an explicit connection to degrowth would be suicide. Transition, at that scale, is about engaging as many people as possible, from the Women’s Institute, to church groups, the Chamber of Commerce and the local Council. To have a Degrowth badge on it would immediately lead to lots of people making their excuses and heading elsewhere.

Reflecting on this conference also takes us into the territory of how a local authority wishing to stimulate bottom-up Transition might do so in communities where Transition is yet to be emerging of its own volition? This is something we haven’t really got a handle on yet in Transition, although there is some great work happening in different places, such as Brazil, Scotland the the US. My suggestion would be that the Conseil funds some Transition trainers to work with different community organisations, and offer some form of support (not necessarily financial) to them once they establish.

I would also suggest that they set up some kind of revolving loan fund for initiatives once they get to the stage of having projects up and running that need some investment, a fund that also takes into account the need for risk capital to set things up. They should also look into ensuring that any renewable energy they install is in the ownership of community energy companies (if French legislation allows such a thing), so that communities also have the option to invest in, and benefit from them.

As Laurent Mermet suggested, a regional government-led initiative such as this has to take some kind of position on the question of whether, in the pursuit of resilience, there is to be some form of support for local communities and for local economies that want protection from the predations of corporations and chain businesses. This question of the pursuit of economic growth and its relationship to the creation and protection of community resilience is something that will need to be addressed in some form. Truly addressing diabetes and the increasing resilience of the food system will inevitably mean some sort of confrontation with the huge interests that thrive on undermining local food economies with cheap and health-damaging foods.

I think it would also be good for the Conseil to support communities in developing Economic Blueprints, like the one currently being completed for Totnes, which would map local economies in a number of key communities in the region, and allow them to identify the opportunities for new enterprises and strategies for enabling more money to cycle locally than does at present. This would also identify skilful ways in which the Conseil could intervene with strategically useful support.

In terms of ways that the Conseil might evaluate how well it is doing, several people spoke on the day about the need for resilience indicators, something I explored in my PhD and which is being further developed elsewhere. They would also do well to explore the concept, raised in an excellent recent piece by David Hampton called ‘In a climate-crazed world, how can we plan for the future?’, of ‘robustness’ being a key aspect of planning. He argues that one of the key aspects of the climate crisis is its sheer unpredictability, and so rather than just planning for optimal decisions, (i.e. those that come out of a cost-benefit analysis with the highest marks), the focus shifts to robust decisions. He writes:

The optimal decision is the one that achieves the best cost-benefit ratio in a given set of conditions. A robust decision can be expected to hold up, and perform reasonably well, under a wide variety of possible conditions. To make the optimal decision, you must be able to quantify risks. When there is uncertainty rather than risk — “multiple possible future worlds without known relative probabilities” — one is better off with robust decisions.

The optimal decision aims for efficiency; the robust decision aims for resilience. A resilient solution may not be — probably won’t be — the one best suited for whatever circumstances do end up coming to pass. But it is, from the present-day perspective, the one most broadly suited to the widest array of possible futures.

An optimal solution is cost-effective, if you get it right (obviously). But strategies aiming for optimality are brittle. If you optimize for one thing and run into another, you risk degradation or collapse (or … just wasting a buttload of money). Robust decisions and investments often cost more in the short- to mid-term; the extra money is effectively spent as insurance against unforeseen outcomes. A robust solution retains its integrity in a wide array of circumstances.

Of course the proof of the Nord – Pas de Calais experiment/pudding will be in the eating. To what extent will it involve true public participation, create space for bottom-up action, devolve new institutions to the community scale, design for resilience and robustness, embed participatory budgeting, develop ways of measuring the impacts of its actions, harness the power of its own organisation procurement decisions, equip local economies with the ability to resist the predations of multinationals should they choose to and alter the way in which the Conseil itself invests its own finances and functions? We shall see. All I know is that as a start it felt very positive, very focused and very determined. There is a commitment to do something different, something that is appropriate to the scale of the challenge, and something that runs through all aspects of the Conseil’s work.

What was especially fascinating was that many of those I spoke to from the Conseil had read The Transition Handbook in French (‘Manuel de Transition’) and certainly felt that they were trying to bring those values to the process. At least one person I spoke to was active in their local initiative too. I’ll keep you posted on any developments I hear about it, but for now I’d like to thank Bruno, Jean-Francois, the excellent translator, and everyone in the team for being such wonderful hosts, and wish them all best of luck with their next steps.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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