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Lost in Transition

In the UK we consume our planet’s natural resources at a rate that would require 4.5 Earths to maintain. We cannot continue this way if we, never mind our children’s children, are to have a future on this beautiful planet. Transition Towns is a movement that responds to this challenge; an idea taken on enthusiastically by an extraordinary number of people within the mere six years since its inception. It is a movement that has spread around the world, with more than 1,033 Transition Groups globally.1 Transition is at its heart about you and your community: your home town, city, village, street or house. It’s about ordinary folk getting together to create and share local practical solutions to the challenges of our changing climate and the question of how we will live in our society when oil is unavailable or unaffordable. It’s about knuckling down to the solutions (and enjoying it) rather than protesting or moaning about the problems, or expecting that someone else will sort them out.

This is a story about Transition Bath, from the eyes of two Transitioners – Nathan and Iva – as they become lost in Transition: moved, inspired and empowered by the achievements and possibilities, but also confused and challenged by the complexities of working with voluntary projects taking on a huge and pressing task.

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The first Mend Your Clothes session from Transition Bath's
new Waste Group

When you experience the Transition notion of community sharing, learning and inspiration in full blossom it seems extraordinary; a different way of living in society. The task of living sustainably requires changes to perhaps every aspect of our lives: how we eat, shop, wash, travel, work and, therefore, think. People in a Transition initiative are striving to meet these challenges themselves, whilst working with others to effect a bigger transformation in their community. Transition Bath is a group of people working, voluntarily, to inspire their whole city to change.
 

So how do we get an entire city involved? Let’s start in a quiet suburb in a typical Georgian home, though this day it’s full of curious strangers. “It’s just a way of being public spirited,” comments an older lady modestly as she smiled quietly at the camera. Her husband is itching to get a word in: “And we’re proud of our house and showing it to people!” he beams. This is day two of a remarkable weekend, when a dozen families across Bath opened their houses to whoever wanted to see them. It’s called Bath Homes Fit For The Future; and all these proud home owners had refurbished their properties to make them super-energy-efficient. For the whole weekend you could tour around the city, see a 1980s semi-detached converted into a glamorous retro-look eco-paradise, view solar thermal water heating on a Grade II listed Georgian terrace (a trail-blazer in Bath), or marvel at the home automation system controlling everything from heat and ventilation to security in the palatial abode of an ex-builder designed like the set of a Bond film.

“We’re worried about what’s going to happen as oil runs out, and we want to help people make informed decisions,” explained one host. The beautiful thing about this weekend was that it was the perfect coming together of home owners – who had thought through the issues, made both good choices and mistakes, done all the research and found good contractors, products or technologies – and interested visitors poking around and asking questions. Because the hosts weren’t selling them anything the visitors could ask what they liked and trust the answers. It was genuinely moving to see community in action in this way; people were so inspired and grateful.

This project shows off the best of Transition Bath: it was all the great bits that community offers – welcoming locals sharing their passion and knowledge whole-heartedly – together with the respect, resources and practical help that came with working with Bath and North East Somerset Council and a long-established charity, Bath Preservation Trust, that made the project possible. Not to mention the incredible dedication and many hundreds of voluntary hours Transitioner Cathy put into making it happen.

With projects like this to talk about it would be easy to jump from one success story to another. When Nathan prepared a presentation for Transition Cardiff he was amazed as he realised what Transition Bath had created: the projects seemed big and impressive, and all achieved with volunteers:

  • a Big Event attended by over 200 people diligently organised by Jenny, Christine, Gen and himself;
  • a Community Supported Agriculture project, now a cooperative producing local veg boxes, initiated by Hugh and built by Jamie and the people of Bathampton;
  • a community-owned, renewable energy company with plans to provide 25% of Bath and North East Somerset’s total renewable energy, brought together by Peter, Andrew and Peter from a discussion in the Energy Group;
  • guerrilla gardens across Bath supported by Lyn, Iva, Sue and the Green Vision Youth Movement;
  • a community nuttery created with the National Trust and cared for by Virginia, Jim and the Food Group;
  • a Transition Talks series run and managed by Iva and Ailsa;
  • a local communities project looking at walking distances and local amenities run by Dick, Isobel and Peter;
  • a green schools project headed by Paula and Phil;
  • numerous responses to public consultations by Virginia, Hugh and Paul;
  • and now the organisation turning its efforts to fundraising with its newly-awarded charitable status.

But to focus on the achievements would be supporting the Transition myth that it’s all so simple – a local solution to global challenges – and glossing over the struggles and challenges of getting to these end results. It sometimes feels like a relentless uphill climb to keep things moving, with the frustration and disappointment that can come from working with volunteers, not to mention the challenges of confronting one’s own barriers to change. None of which are easy or simple. Then there’s the niggling doubt whether what we’re doing is effective: do all these projects actually make a difference or are we simply meeting our own needs for doing good in society?

All of these pressures and pitfalls can easily result in burnout. Even when things are going well, people plough their all into making something happen and then feel they need a cruise to recover. As Cathy commented once, “I think in Transition we’re in danger of exhausting ourselves with enthusiasm.” When progress is slow and there are setbacks the feeling is even more comprehensive: a deep tiredness; an empty sensation of being drained of all positive energy; disappointment or hopelessness. You wonder whether it has all been worth it. Like the last mile of a marathon, keeping going seems incredibly hard even though the end and cause is still relevant. This can lead to destructive anger and resentment of others perceived as not pulling their weight.

With “sustainability” the purpose of all we are working for, it seems ironic that sustaining our own energy is so problematic. The hardest part of burnout is recognising it is happening. It is so easy to overlook the key question of our own “inner sustainability”: the ability to maintain our own positive attitude and energy for action. Inner sustainability comes from an inward-looking perspective more focussed in being than doing. It couples a personal resilience that encompasses the heart and soul and enables us to persist in the face of criticism. It gives us the humility to speak gently with someone who approaches a project with anger or derision. It is a perspective that enables us to inquire into our own understandings and prejudices of an issue that may be contributing to barriers, and, most importantly, know when to ask for help.

As Transition Bath celebrates its fifth anniversary it’s curious that we’re speaking of inner sustainability in an organisation focussed on practical action. Yet even after five years, for someone new to the group it can seem a bit of a mystery how anything works or how tasks get done. In truth, what it boils down to is this: do you join in when someone says, “I have an idea. Let’s start a…”, or do you become the person who stands up and says it?

If only someone told you that to start with, getting involved would be easier. Iva remembers when she plucked up the courage to turn up for her first meeting: a review of the year’s activities in the local pub. She knew Transition was about local, practical, grass-roots changes, but had no idea how those tenets actually manifested into action. Who decides what happens? Do people ask you to do things? She remembers the awkwardness of entering the room on her own, feeling shy and not sure of how to find her place, and clutching home-made cheese straws – quickly feeling guilty they weren’t gluten-free. If only someone could have been welcoming and explained how everything worked.

Nathan remembers how encountering the organisation for the first time challenged his ideas about how things happen or even why they happen. At his first steering meeting he didn’t know much about Transition Bath or the people involved. Turning up full of professional confidence and energy to a dark and dingy meeting room in the basement of an office block, he met a roomful of mainly older people and mostly male. He felt as if he was sitting in a parish committee meeting scene from the Vicar of Dibley and he was unsure what it was all about. Though the image remains strong, reflecting on it the next day he was startled how quickly his preconceived ideas had skewed his perception of what he was seeing. Returning for the next meeting he realised this wasn’t a committee existing for its own existence and policy-making needs, but was alive with amazing and inspiring people who had done and were doing remarkable work within Bath. Going for a drink with them after the meeting he felt privileged to be among them.

No doubt, despite our best efforts to avoid it, this experience is sometimes shared by others who encounter Transition Bath. Now, as Chair of Trustees, to Nathan there seems to be conflict between the formal procedures common in organisations and the necessarily informal methods of voluntary projects. “Where’s your marketing plan and organisational chart?” one new member to the group asked at a meeting. “We don’t have one and why do you think we need one?” Nathan responded. “You should have plans!” the member replied. Plans are great to have but are only implemented when the right person comes along with the energy, skills and time to fulfil them.

On the other hand, as a charity we are obliged to have trustees and formal structures of management. With trustees come an inevitable expectation of reports, risk registers and other regulatory items we can’t avoid. Meeting these needs without the assistance of employees is arduous and can result in a few people spending their spare time on tasks very far from the hands-on community projects they had expected. “Can we have a report monthly on all our projects?” one trustee asked in a meeting. “That would be great,” another responded, before realising, “Oh, but who would provide the information?”

It is really important to stay where the energy is, to build and support each individual’s drive to make change. So when an opportunity arises and people have energy to seize it, we go with it – whether or not it’s in any plan. Creating a community vegetable garden is an example. Bath is big on flowerbeds: after London it is the most visited city by tourists, and the municipal displays of perfectly ordered blooms are impressive, if occasionally rather bland. For a Transitioner they’re also a bit too inedible.

Our most visible project sought to correct this in a garden in Hedgemead Park, lovingly named “Vegmead”. People turn up weekly to work on it, share tea and biscuits and harvest the produce. There’s more than enough, so locals (often strangers) stop by to harvest some runner beans for dinner, and when curious wanderers in the park come over to see what you’re doing you can usually ask them how much spinach they’d like. In a neat example of the circle of giving, Iva stopped into a local upmarket stone flooring company the summer it was created with a plea for slate to make signs. The guy on the desk squinted at her and said, “Didn’t you give me some beans last week?” She had – coincidentally – and we got the slate.

Vegmead has also become a sort of covert outreach project. Iva headed over there one evening, passing a group of teenagers sharing a crate of Red Bull on the bench over-looking the garden. She hopped over the little willow fence to harvest. “Oi!” A yell from one of the lads. “Oi – Get Out!” He’d got up and come down the slope now – his name tattooed on his neck – and repeated his order.”No!” Iva retorted, a bit confused. “It’s MY project!!”

“What? You created this?”

“Well,” she added, “me and lots of other people.”

“Oh wow,” he replied, “it’s brilliant,” and spontaneously hugged her. “I saw some kids running around on the paths in here the other day and I told them to get out! I don’t want them damaging it.”

Food-growing projects are a great tool for focussing Transition issues into something everyone understands: we all want food, we all want it affordable, and we all want it not covered in stuff that makes us ill. And most of us appreciate it when people voluntarily make shared spaces a bit nicer.

Becoming known for a project such as this one creates its own problems: people associate the charity with gardening, and unless you understand the logic behind transitioning to a city independent from oil – that it takes an all-out change in many different aspect of our lives and society – the fact that we also “do” home energy, or support Bath’s local currency, seems odd. You could call it a branding problem.

It may seem trivial in the face of climate change but image is, unfortunately, important. We continually find how people’s image of Transition Bath can be easily swayed by chance encounters with a single person. “Oh yes, Transition Bath,” a lady responded at a launch event for a joint project, “I went to the Big Event and there was this guy who had such unrealistic ideas about energy – he thought it could all be created from our houses.” On closer questioning she confessed that this person wasn’t even a trustee, or one of the sub-group leaders – but simply an attendee like herself. And yet this had coloured her feeling about the whole movement. We’ve heard this kind of story several times, and though perhaps this works equally strongly in the positive direction (we hope so), it’s hard to accept the conclusion that everyone involved is “carrying the flame” for the whole endeavour.

Transition Bath is seen as the environmental group in Bath and North East Somerset by many local people. To those looking in we are also often assumed to be a large organisation with paid employees. In truth we are still and likely to remain an organisation run and managed by volunteers. But expectations are high, both those we set ourselves and those of the public we wish to influence. We have all become accustomed to glossy banners and the all-round professionalism from charity stalls or public presentations. Is it realistic to expect this from an organisation entirely held together by volunteers? Or should we accept that this is what’s required these days and do all we can to live up to these standards?

A tension between image, resources and expectations could be described as the “Quality versus Freedom” dilemma. For example, in a community group where events are planned continuously, advertising is produced by different people. Inevitably, what one thinks of as a good poster may be seen by another as too amateurish or as giving the wrong image of Transition. This prompts a management group to advise that all posters are to be done by this Poster Person, putting “quality” (of posters) above the freedom of the original poster-producers. Control has tightened its grip: we may get better posters next time, but people feel a bit aggrieved and some enthusiasm is lost by stifling the independence and pride in their own project. Leadership in voluntary groups has to be different from that of paid employment: if people don’t feel respected, valued, mutually supported, they will opt-out as there is no salary to keep them on the task. And it is a continual challenge to find a way of leading that responds to individual enthusiasm while also meeting the needs of the whole organisation.

Most volunteers are supported by paid professionals who work for a charity. In Transition Bath we have volunteers managing volunteers, and it can start to look like a matchstick structure without any glue. It would be nice to think that there needn’t be anything as stuffy as “management” involved here but the truth is that people come along with all different levels of knowledge and capability, many unsure of what they can contribute. “Would you like to help decide what we plant?” Iva asked the group of regular volunteers assembled at Vegmead one week. “No – just tell us what to do,” they replied.

This fact that people get involved at different stages of their personal journeys toward a sustainable lifestyle brings more challenges. Communicating with a student who has come to the Farmers’ Market for the first time is very different from talking to the chap who is using the old solar panel he bought twenty years ago to sun-dry his home-grown tomatoes. As an organisation should we focus on engaging people new to these ideas, with “soft” projects that emphasise the social and beautifying aspects of sustainability? This will irritate the hardline eco-warriors who will think we’re wasting our time, whilst focussing on the initiatives they think worthy of effort would make newbies feel intimidated. We currently try to solve this conundrum with a little of everything.

Sustaining momentum is tricky when people’s energy naturally comes and goes. A peak of effort is followed by a lull as those driving the initiative rest, whilst the people who’ve just come onboard are eagerly awaiting the next thing they can put their enthusiasms into. The Big Event – an actionpacked sell-out day of talks, workshops and dancing – did just this. The energy and effort going into it was immense with last-minute planning going on to the eleventh hour by Christine, Gen, Jenny and Nathan. When everyone turned up the night before to set up the rooms, the workshop spaces and event became alive. There was a real buzz in the air and on the day it felt like there was a new energy around.

Our pledge wall quickly morphed from a blank canvas to a colourful array of pledges of action from individuals to take forward their own personal transitions; from “not flying in 2010”, “insulate my home”, “use grey water” and “get a water butt” to “getting the Corsham Energy Saving project off the ground”, “writing a letter to my friend who is a climate change denier”, “get involved in Transition and make a difference”.

Everyone seemed so inspired to take forward what they had learnt and dedicated to do something with it. Yet the weeks and months after the event seemed to dwindle into quietness. So much effort placed into one event left no one else to pick up the next wave and keep the momentum moving. For those involved in the organisation we were still recovering for a good three months afterwards. For those who attended it seemed they were left with an appetite for more, but found there was none.

In 2010 we were lucky to receive a Big Lotto grant to run a series of talks and workshops – from sustainable business to zero-waste cities and revolutionary guerrilla gardening – half of which were tailored to the students at Bath’s two universities. Sam, a third year creative-writing student, attended the first event and during the discussion session made a sceptical point: “Why would anyone want to do guerrilla gardening?” A few months later he was leading a community vegetable growing project in his neighbourhood. This was new territory for him, and, being a student, reading books was an obvious source of information. After a few weeks we found Sam looking a little deflated: “I’ve just read The Moneyless Man2 and I’m so depressed!” he confided, “I thought that being vegetarian would be enough.”

At the most personal level Transition is a community of like-minded people. This is often what draws someone in. When, like Sam, you realise that being vegetarian, or recycling, isn’t enough, and strive increasingly to live a low-impact life, it can be a lonely journey. Not everyone empathises with a lifestyle where everyday choices can make life more hard work, or time-consuming. So perhaps Transitioners cluster together for mutual support; you can talk about washing with soap nuts, not wanting to use aeroplanes or which uncertified organic local vegetable grower really is producing food without liberal application of poisons, without feeling weird.

Sometimes just the simple idea of avoiding consumption can be enough for people to start living differently. At the start of Nathan’s involvement he was enthused with the idea of reducing waste and re-thinking his impact on the environment. He had a leak in his bathroom and so thought he needed to replace his whole suite. He recalls walking around bathroom showrooms looking at what he could have. In the end he didn’t: he had a perfectly good bathroom suite and just needed the leak fixing. He had the lot taken out, the leaks repaired and Nathan and his partner scrubbed the old suite clean in the garden using eco-products. Often when people come round they comment on how great it all looks and ask if it’s new. There is no doubt in his mind that if it was not for Transition he would have thrown the lot away and bought a new bathroom.

As we’ve described, being involved in a Transition initiative is a homemade rollercoaster with as many heart-warming highs as there are energy-sapping lows. While we may be frustrated by the hours spent in meetings, we enjoy enthusing people to make their homes more energy efficient, supporting local shops or cycling to work. But there is always the creeping anxiety that even all this is not enough. Whilst we can say we’re moving towards more sustainable lifestyles, no-one can claim to have achieved that 100%. A sobering moment during one of our talks saw Mark Boyle (of The Moneyless Man) read us the riot act: “Do you think growing tomatoes in your back garden is going to save the world? It won’t. Transition Towns needs to think bigger and more urgent.” Like a bad taste that lingers in the mouth this is a reality we must use to question our actions on a daily basis.

Joanna Macy speaks of action from “the hands, head and heart”. Transition groups lead with the hands – it’s about taking positive action, and that’s as it should be. But with all the problems that come with this action we can become “head” heavy – over-thought, over-meeting-ed. Without the balancing, rejuvenating effect of our hearts – the reminder to stay with our passions, with people and activities that bring us joy – we become wasted and tired with the effort of struggling against the current. Our prayer for Transition is to let us move forward with pace and a balance of hands, head and heart in all that we do, so that we stay connected to ourselves and others as well as the planet we live on. And always bring tea and cake.

www.transitionbath.org

Footnotes

1 Much has been written about Transition Towns by its founders, Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande, and we encourage you to check out their books and the Transition Towns Network website.

2 Boyle, M. 2010. The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living. London: One World Publications

Lost in Transition is taken from the book 'Stories of the Great Turning', Editors: Peter Reason & Melanie Newman, with an introduction by Joanna Macy. Published by Vala Publishing. It is reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

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