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Is Transition political?

Criticising Transition for being explicitly apolitical, and for not engaging in the political system in the conventional way feels, to me, like criticising a spoon for not being very good at cutting bread.  Transition is a tool designed for a specific purpose.  But with the rise of UKIP, the National Front, the Golden Dawn, and others in Europe and elsewhere, is the Transition approach still tenable?   Should we all actually be standing for election?  This feels like a good time to explore how Transition relates to politics, and whether its approach is still appropriate.  Welcome to our month on Transition and politics. 

Over this month we'll be exploring 4 key questions:

  • Is Transition political? 
  • What does it look like if you and some similarly-minded friends get together and run for your local council? 
  • How do those within the political system who question its fundamental assumptions find a voice?
  • What do the main political parties make of Transition? 

politics

We'd love to hear your thoughts and contributions too.  We'll start today with this piece as the response to the first question, "Is Transition political?", and our interview with Peter Macfadyen for the second. First thing to say is that what follows are my thoughts, not any kind of official Transition Network position on politics.  For me, I imagine Transition as being like an app.  It is designed to do a particular thing, to bring people together to support and enable them to build resilience at the community level, but always in the context that, if done in a sufficient number of places, it will start to change politics on the larger scale and help to bring about a more healthy human culture. 

But it’s one of a number of apps you might have for different purposes.  It is different from the campaigning and protesting apps, it’s different from the political lobbying apps, and you’ll use different ones at different times.  As Jeremy Caradonna puts it in his forthcoming book Sustainability: a history, "the challenge is to have a politically active movement without coming politicised".  

But the question that arises is if Transition is but one part of the wider process of driving the shift towards a more resilient, just, low carbon and abundant society, what should its relationship be to the other pieces of the puzzle? How should it relate to the other ‘apps’ (i.e. other movements/campaigns/ideas for change), and to local and national government?

Transition as one of many apps for social change

Esther Aloun and Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute recently published a refreshingly well-researched and thoughtful paper called The Transition movement: questions of diversity, power and affluence. In it, they ask "can a social movement, such as the Transition movement, achieve fundamental change without engaging in 'top down' political action?"  

I would respond that that is the only way that Transition will work, by creating a space for innovation and experimentation at the local scale in such a way as to inspire change in other communities as well as higher up.  We are starting to see evidence of this working.  Aloun and Alexander's suggestion that Transition would be more effective by being better connected with more radical change movements feels to me to entirely miss the point.  It is effective precisely because isn't connected to radical change movements, in my opinion.  Let me unpack that a bit more. 

If I decided to run for election as a Transition Town candidate, alongside my great Transition-related policies, I would need to have policies on abortion, healthcare, education, defence, international trade, etc etc.  Every time I state a policy on one of those issues, I increasingly place myself somewhere on the left/right, pro/anti-growth, pro/anti-capitalism spectrum.  As soon as I do that, I lose all the people who don't also inhabit that place.  What works at the national political level becomes profoundly unskilful at the local level.

Working through a Transition initiative, that lack of an explicit political positioning is one of our key strengths.  It enables you to build the kind of diverse, cross-political groups that building more resilient communities requires.  It enables the creation of projects on a meaningful scale, but unfettered by party politics and wider issues.  It’s the ‘power to convene’ that Transition is so good at, which is virtually impossible to do in a truly inclusive way if you are seen as being politically aligned.

CoverI was intrigued recently to get a copy of a novel called The Second Life of Sally Mottram, just published by David Nobbs, author of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, among other things.  It tells the story, in the kind of novel many people will be taking to the beach this summer, of Sally who, according to the back cover "embarks on her ambition to bring her town back to life" by trying to start a Transition initiative.  It's "a hilarious, heartwarming tale about what keeps our community spirits alive".  How does he sum up Transition?  Here Sally is on the train reading, for the first time, about Transition:

"The books are full of small details of little things that have been done to change and improve many places, mostly quite small places, but their underlying subject matter is not small.  It is, simply, the saving of our planet.  Implicit in it and the actions is that big things come out of little things, that out of a thousand tiny acts, if they can be joined up, one mighty act may emerge.  

The idea that bottom up citizen-led approaches actually represent just the kind of political action that we need to see, is gaining momentum, galvanised in particular by the recent successes of the Right in the European elections.  The left wing think tank Compass recently wrote, in their reflections on the European election results:

A new economy is waiting to be fashioned via companies serious about climate change, through peer to peer lending schemes to really challenge the big banks, through crowd sourced investment like Kick-starter and sharing platforms in which we borrow and lend big ticket items we don’t often use. A myriad collaborative projects made possible by new technology, democratic initiatives like Abundance and big ideas like B Corps that change the very social nature of companies.

The same trends towards collaboration, self-organisation and social networks will infuse our politics. From 38 Degrees to Frome’s Flatpack democracy, from the great success of Hope Not Hate in defeating the BNP to Transition Towns, we need a citizen led politics of everyday democracy not just a vote once every five years.

When we started Transition, people said "you'll never be able to influence policy-makers through community projects.  It's not going to happen".  Yet we can now start to get a sense of what that progression might look like.  Let's take Transition Town Brixton in London as an example:

Brixton

  • A group of people come together and raise awareness locally, Open Space events, engage as many people as they can, and formally kick themselves off as a Transition initiative
  • This creates a supported space in which people have permission to start projects, enterprises, initiatives, but within a wider context of other people doing the same
  • One of those, Brixton Energy, emerges from the Energy Group, and soon becomes a successful community energy company, running three share offers
  • Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, chooses it as the place to launch his call for 'a community renewables revolution' (see right). 
  • When the government drafts its 'Community Energy Strategy', Brixton Energy are part of the drafting team (along with people from other Transition energy initiatives) and are mentioned as a case study.  

That feels to me to be as radical as any of the groups Aloun and Alexander feel Transition should be teaming up with, but couldn't have happened if they had.  The question that arises of course is whether engaging with something like the Community Energy Strategy was a good use of time, whether it looks likely to bring about the kind of truly transformational change we really need. 

The answer, thus far at least, is that it’s not enough, but it’s probably the best one could have hoped for under the current government.  And it has enabled the funding to enable things like the Community Energy Peer Mentoring Fund which has enabled the peer-to-peer work OVESCO is now doing, supporting 10 neighbouring communities to set up their own community energy companies, as well as other financial support.

There is always, of course, the danger of co-option, a danger raised by Aloun and Alexander:

"As with most reformist, non-confrontational approaches, by the time the movement creates enough change to become noticeable, the existing system may already have had time to adapt and simply adjust to that change".

That's a risk.  One could argue that, in the UK context, the Big Society was an attempt to try to bottle some of what Transition does so well.  As indeed were some elements of the Localism Bill.  But although getting support from local authorities and other bodies could be seen as co-option, it can actually be one of the best ways to protect against it.  For example, the degree of institutional support for the Bristol Pound from Bristol City Council is such that if the government or the Bank of England wants to close the scheme down for any reason, it's not just the Bristol Pound they need to pursue.  

Ultimately, you can get more done at the local level, you can make more change happen. Seeing that change happen rebuilds your belief that change is possible and that it’s worth making an effort, something far harder to sustain when trying to bring about change at the national level. I tend to go along with John Boik who recently wrote in the Guardian

"The national level is not the place to introduce bold change. Doing so would be too risky, too abrupt and too chaotic for a nation. Besides, it would be politically infeasible; the push-back from vested interests would be intense.

A far more practical strategy is to introduce new monetary, financial and corporate systems at the local level, on a volunteer basis and as a complement to current systems. Such an approach is already legal in the US and many other countries; no new laws would need to be passed. This strategy offers the greatest chance of success with the least amount of friction.

At the local scale you can create a new story, show it in practice, living and breathing, functioning pieces of the larger forthcoming resilient economy in practice.  And that matters.  As John Ehrenfeld put it in Sustainability by Design

"Sustainability can emerge only when modern humans adopt a new story that will change their behaviour such that flourishing rather than unsustainability shows up in action".  

What fascinates me is how this idea of being more effective by not being explicitly political is gaining momentum.  It's written through the story of Independents for Frome that we'll hear about next week.  It's in the invitation I had to speak in Salisbury a couple of weeks back from a mixture of councillors from across the spectrum and some local people wanting to get Transition started but realising that the Council couldn't do it. It's in the Totnes Economic Blueprint, created with a coalition of local stakeholders.  

So, to answer the question that kicks us off this month, "is Transition political?"  The answer is yes.  Deeply.  It has the power to transform communities, economies, shift power back to the local level, encourage communities to own their own assets and be more in control of their economic destiny.  To create new food systems, economic systems, education models, and so on and so on.  You know this stuff.  It's deeply, profoundly political.  But it isn't explicitly so. It comes in under the radar, and that really matters. 

But the question then arises as to whether, when the Queen’s Speech gives, among other things, fracking companies the powers to frack under your home without your permission, your best option is to get your neighbours together to reduce your energy use and start a community energy company (as recently happened in Balcome), or to lobby and protest?  And which, ultimately, is more ‘political’?  Enjoy the month. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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