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Transition in an Age of Austerity

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What is the potential for the Transition Towns movement in the current political climate? Is 'Lambeth the Co-operative Council' a legitimate solution for south Londoners? Just how dangerous is it to mix up contructed scarcities with geophysical scarcities when talking about how to build resilience into local communities?

These were the quesitons in my mind when I listened to John Thackara, Director of Doors of Perception, at the launch of the RSA Student Design Awards last week. Thackara gave an overview of environmental challenges in design education and as usual he did a good job talking about sustainable design. His is a voice of reason in an industry that often neglects to addresses the consequences of its own activities. Nevertheless, Thackara’s support for Transition Towns and Lambeth as the UK’s first co-operative council deserves some attention.

As someone with first hand experience of Transition organizing in Lambeth, I need to stress that the movement is far from a panacea for this community's problems. When I tried to highlight this issue from the floor as a question, I was cut off and the moderator reframed my question into an issue about labour rights. This might be a good question (but it was one that Thackara misunderstood and not the question I had in mind). This blog will examine how transition movements relate to the political realities in an age of austerity – and the serious dangers associated with using the notion of scarcities to justify austerity. 

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Thackara has been singing praises for the Transition Town movement for several years at design industry and design education events. Mostly this is a good thing as it brings attention to climate change and peak oil into design discourses. Where I believe Thackara loses the plot a bit is his uncritical stance on the potential for Transition to support large-scale social change within the context of the neo-liberal consensus on austerity. After facilitating an unprecedented transfer of public wealth to the financial sector, the state is currently starting to impose harsh austerity measures. Without a thorough analysis of the politics of austerity, transition movements will have even more limited capacity to address environmental problems locally than we do today.

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As co-founder of Transition Town Brixton (TTB) (2006-2009), I have intimate knowledge of the potential for transition town (TT) projects in urban areas. Someday I might blog about the specific problems of urban TT groups but for now I just want to comment on the political potential of TT groups in an age of austerity. Thackara is especially enthusiastic about TTB and Lambeth as the first ‘co-operative council’. As a Lambeth resident and a community organizer in this borough, I would like to take a moment to shed some light on exactly what a ‘co-operative council’ in Lambeth actually means. 

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I support co-operative principles as ways of organizing social movements, businesses and potentially even governance systems. This commitment to co-operative movements is the basis for the following critique. The word ‘co-operative’ is misused by Lambeth. The word is being used to put a friendly face on policies which are decidedly NOT co-operative. Instead, the basic right to be paid for the work we do is under threat. We will all be asked to work for free – or if we have jobs, there will be little job security. The public sector will now somehow be run by those of us who care enough about our community to work without being paid.

Some of us (the ones with compassion for others and/or concern for the environment) might not mind helping our community without being paid if we could afford to - and if this work was shared fairly between everyone. The thing about ‘co-operative’ is that it is a concept wherein the people involved decide on the terms under which we will agree to ‘co-operate’. What we have instead in Lambeth is a state imposing supposed ‘co-operation’ on us. This ‘co-operation’ actually means we will be expected to work for much less (or for free), we can expect few public services and we must compliantly accept austerity without questioning its premises. This is the actions of an authoritarian state imposing ‘co-operation’ on its people.

Austerity is presented as being the only alternative because the government owes such a massive debt after by bailing out the banks. After relatively unregulated financial markets caused the financial crisis leaving the economy at the edge of collapse, we have witnessed a massive transfer of public wealth to the financial sector. Meanwhile the rest of us will continue to have to pay for this banking bailout for the rest of our lives. The rich will continue to get richer as the public sector relinquishes its role in providing public services and austerity become normalized.

The government saved the financial sector with a huge transfer of public wealth to the banks. Now the state imposes austerity on the rest of us for the mistakes and irresponsible practices of the financial class. We should have shut down the risky activities in The City and punished banks for bringing the entire global economic system close to collapse. Instead they were rewarded with the bailouts and we are punishing everyone else.

Meanwhile, property in London is extortionately high due to the speculative bubble caused by excess capital created in the City of London. It does not help that elites from other parts of the world are buying property here at inflated rates. Big Society and 'Lambeth the co-operative council' expect us to provide public services without public funding. Very simply, we cannot work for free – housing is too expensive to make this possible for most people. 

This is the political context of the ‘co-operative council’. It is impossible to understand what is going on in Lambeth without taking this context into account. Promoting the co-operative council without taking on board the reasons why the council must ask for librarians, community workers, etc. to work for free only supports the neo-liberal consensus on the legitimacy of austerity. 

This new mode of co-operative councils is a desperate measure by Lambeth council to provide services in the face of dramatically shrinking budgets. When Thackara praises 'Lambeth The Co-operative Council' he accepts the austerity programme at face value. The austerity discourse tells us that people of Lambeth had better get used to it - there is no alternative to austerity. This is a failure of imagination only serves the interests of political and financial elites. It is wrong to mistake geophysical scarcities (brought on by peak oil, climate change and other threats) with constructed scarcities (brought on the the abuse of power). 

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The best thing about organizing with Transition Towns is that in the process of organizing to try and make your community more resilient to climate change and peak oil you come to realize that there are structural problems that prevent sustainability from becoming possible in the current political context. In theory, Transition Towns is a good way to respond to current problems without getting demoralized about the political system. In practice, once we start organizing it becomes apparent that the people who care about the environment could work ourselves to death attempting to help but in the present political system, the priorities of the capitalist order will always trump any ecological or social efforts. Transition Towns are a step in the right direction, but if this movement is used to legitimize austerity and the neo-liberal assault on the public sector this is also an assault on our capacity to organise to protect the natural world and respond to climate change. 

Editorial Notes: About the author: I am interested in the gaps between rhetoric and action. I work to protect and expand the commons through design, activism and other interventions. I aim to nurture cultures of solidarity that are necessary to make social change possible. This blog is a place for personal responses to current events and debates. Officially, I am Dr. Joanna Boehnert, founding director of EcoLabs, environmental communication designer, researcher and educator. Unofficially, people call me 'Jody'. I live in London, UK. Ed. note: Please see John's responses to Jody's piece in the comments on her blog. -KS

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