Searching for alternatives 4: Transition
“Governments tend to be reactive rather than pro-active; most change comes because people just go on with it and start to live their lives as it had already happened ”. Originating in the little town of Totnes in South West England, the Transition movement has spread to many countries. There are now some 1,300 official Transition initiatives, but that is only the tip of the iceberg says Rob Hopkins when we talk in February 2014. Transition stands for an effort to build communities that can reduce their use of fossil fuel and their carbon footprint and at the same time be able to cope with the challenges of climate change and diminishing energy supply.
Transition Town Totnes, which was initiated by Rob, was the first initiative and strives to build resilience through a process of “re-localizing, where feasible, all aspects of life”. By using much less energy and resources than currently consumed communities can be more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than today. The initiatives take a starting point in positive visioning and emphasize things that can be done here and now. Food is one of their main entry points and many actions are very hands-on, e.g. in Totnes there is a community supported brewery. In Slaithwaite the Green Valley Grocer is a community-owned co-operative and there is the community supported bakery. “Our vegetables are grown a few miles out of the city, picked in the morning and delivered by bicycle in the afternoon. What could be better?” asks the group in Norwich that started a community supported farm with delivery by bicycle.
Transition Town Totnes wants that food is sourced where “possible and appropriate” within 30 miles of Totnes and that enterprises and resources are owned by members of the community so that the elements of the localized food system create an interdependent web. It deepens the “buy local” argument by also including from whom they should buy locally. In the report Economic Blueprint for T&D: Our local food economy they conclude that it is better for the local economy to buy from independent shops than from supermarkets. They claim, based on research from the New Economic Foundation, that buying from independent shops will generate 2.5 times as much local income compared to buying from supermarkets. This is because local shops tend to buy local services, “if our aim is to strengthen our local economy, it’s just as important to look at where the money is spent, as well as how much” .
“Does this also hold for farms?”, I wonder. After all, many farms are more like assembly points, e.g. a chicken producer buys the chicks, buy all feed, buys industrial equipment, vaccines, professional consultancy etc, most of it from national or global organizations (there are three broiler chicken breeders totally dominating the market), and they do all they can to reduce need for labor, or use migrant laborers. This means that even if the farm happens to be in the vicinity, it is not particularly embedded in the local community or environment. Rob acknowledges this and says that those kinds of farms would typically not engage in the local business in any case.
Some buy local campaigns don’t take into account the financial realities of many people these days Rob notes, “if you are on a low to medium income, buying all of your food locally just financially isn’t an option”. By putting the ambition lower, say at ten percent, it doesn’t exclude people, “if this town [Totnes] could manage a shift of ten percent of the food to local that would be £2 million in the local economy every year ”. With aims at this level, it is also easy to build coalitions with other institutions, such as the local town council. “Ten percent feels achievable, totally re-localizing the entire food economy feels a bit abstract to me ” Rob concludes.
Transition is rather quiet in big political discussions; there is no critique of “the system” or “the economy” . Rob Hopkins thinks that the initiatives still have a big impact on policies. Instead of arguing against growth they argue that building community resilience is a form of economic development. He thinks the Transition movement deals with many of the pressing issues by positive action, rather than systems critiques or through political action. Community ownership and cooperatives rather than private companies are the natural models for collective actions in transition initiatives. “Transition is a social technology designed to work on a local scale and in order to do this you have to try to stay below a lot of those discussions and focus on doing stuff. ” While it is important that there are also people that argue about the bigger policy issues, the role of Transition is another. Rob concludes, “you need the examples, and you need the stories, and you need the stuff that is already happening and the stuff that just started without waiting for permission ”.
“We didn’t want to stop selling locally but the market dwindled. We used to sell vegetables to local grocers but they all slowly closed. The small shops have been slowly shutting down and they used to be our main market. There used to be 4 shops in Dartmouth alone that we supplied and now there’s only one left.” says one farmer in Devon, England. A report by Holly Tiffens for Transition Totnes concludes that there has been grown a wide range of fruit, vegetables and cereals in the Totnes area in the past, but that the interviewed producers identified labor issues and low economic margins as key disincentives to production today. Other impediment were supermarket competition, limited consumer demand, inadequate processing infrastructure and inefficient distribution methods. The report recommends: “co-operative working as a potential solution to address crop production issues and identified the need for improvements in supply chain infrastructure, enhanced distribution efficiency, and investment in consumer education to strengthen local markets and enhance demand for locally grown products.“
A transition of the food system will not be easy. I do agree with Rob and the Transition Movement that it is important to change things here and now. But it is equally important to try to change to macroeconomic structures which nudge both producers and consumers into the logic of the competitive market. It is not a question of either or, but both. They also have to be combined with a change in values and paradigm and aim at an economy where man's wealth does not result in nature's poverty and the poverty of other people. As Peter Volz, the researcher from an organization called Agronauten that follows me around to the various business which are part of the RWAG says “the moment of social transformation is when people look each other in the eyes”. When people act based on their place in an abstract system instead of being humans, we get problems.
The post is part of the process of writing my upcoming book Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food. I am looking at different models to change our food system, in terms of production and consumption, but in particular in creating new relationships in the food system, preferably relationships that transcend the consumer-producer dichotomy.
Listen to a conversation (in two parts) between me, Claudia French and Irina Almgren about the challenges and opportunities of today, the Transition Movement, my book Garden Earth etc.
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