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Transition: time to emerge from under the radar?

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I was recently sent a really interesting paper by Philip Barnes of the University of Delaware called The political economy of localization in the Transition movement.  I was keen to publish it here, but it's in moderation to be published, so I couldn't.  Instead, I wrote to Philip and asked if he might be able to summarise its findings for the non-academic reader. In response to our month's question of 'Is Transition political?', he writes "Transition is not only political in theory, it is increasingly political in practice given the heightened level of policy making activity exhibited by some initiatives".  Here is his article: 

Is Transition political?  That is the question posed this month on Transition Culture.  One place to look for an answer is in the undeniably political arena of government.  The relationship between Transition initiatives and their local government is an interesting one.  On the one hand, initiatives must be mindful not to get co-opted by governments because that would diminish the amount of energy and resources available to get on with the necessary job of localisation and resilience building. 

Sometimes it seems that governments and bureaucracies move at a snail’s pace (no disrespect to snails), so perhaps it is best for an initiative to keep moving forward themselves instead of waiting around, hoping that the local government will take action on important issues.  On the other hand, initiatives must work within the confines of local laws, plans, regulations, ordinances, and so forth.  Initiatives can seek assistance from local government, to be sure, but the role of local government is to “support, not drive” a Transition group.  Initiatives therefore strike a balance between retaining the ability to independently engage in do-it-ourselves action, and spending time, effort, and energy to “build a bridge” to local government.

Transition Town High Wycombe launches its Energy Saving Kits for Loan in partnership with Wycombe District Council, August 2010.

Each initiative must find that point where local governments are supporting, not driving their group.  Luckily, there are guidelines (or perhaps suggestions?) on how initiatives might walk this fine line, key among them is the recommendation to remain explicitly non-political and to come in “under the radar.”  From the very beginning of the movement, a conscious decision was taken to promote this non-political strategy.  The common refrain is that if a Transition initiative becomes openly political, it runs the serious risk of entering divisive “us versus them” conflicts and hence alienating potential supporters and collaborators, both in local government and in the wider community. 

After all, as the argument goes, we are all in this together because peak oil and climate change will impact everyone so it is best to be inclusive and non-confrontational.  One sure-fire way to become embroiled in conflict is to enter contentious political debates so it is simply advisable to avoid them altogether.  Join the party, not the protest march, as Richard Heinberg might say.

It sounds fairly straightforward, but theory does not always match reality.  What is actually happening on the ground?  How are initiatives walking that fine line between independence and institutionalisation?  I was curious.  For my thesis in the School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, I am exploring this interesting relationship between Transition initiatives and their local governments. 

The investigation began by looking for clues in the previous research on Transition as well as in the Transition-published literature such as the Handbook, the Companion, this blog, and individual initiatives’ websites.  I then interviewed Transition members in a number of towns and cities across the United States.  And I participated in – and still participate in – the Media, Pennsylvania initiative

Media logo

While the initial goal was to discover where and how initiatives balance independence and institutionalisation, I came to an unexpected finding.  I found that some groups are beginning to steadily integrate with their local governments and blur that line between independence and institutionalisation.  If anything, the balance is tipping toward institutionalisation and it is doing so in a way that transcends the “building bridges” metaphor. 

For example, one interviewee is a highly influential member of the local government’s food and agriculture task force.  In another town, the initiative mobilized their participants’ votes and successfully propelled a sympathetic ally into a position on the local governing council.  And I interviewed a Transitioner who ran for and won a seat in their local council election.  Stories like these are not unique to the United States.  Rob just posted an interview with Peter MacFayden, Sustainable Frome member and now mayor of Frome.  Alexis Rowell’s book Communities, Councils, and Low-Carbon Future contains a “Getting Elected” chapter which offers advice for participants who have such ambitions. 

These are role reversal cases where initiatives are beginning to drive local governments.  The old approach to build a bridge to local government so they can support, not drive an initiative is being shed in these instances.  I am undertaking a comprehensive survey of initiatives in the United States (that stage of the research is currently underway), but my suspicion is that the institutionalisation of Transition groups is much more widespread than we would expect for an explicitly non-political movement. 

All of this leads directly to the question of politics.  How can an initiative come in under the political radar if it is driving local government?  The simple answer is that it can’t, and here’s why.  Local governments are policy making bodies.  Public policies go through a process whereby they are proposed, developed, written, enacted, implemented, analysed, and revised on the back of human values.  A few examples of human values that are frequently brought to bear on policy are justice, freedom, security, resilience, equality, sustainability, and efficiency. 

The tale of the Independents for Frome has been told here this month.

When representatives in local governments go through the policy process, they must make decisions by prioritizing certain values above others.  For any given situation and context, it is improbable that a group of people – such as a local governing council and by extension the community they represent – will rank their values in the same way.  Given that reality, policy decisions are almost always contested and the stage upon which the contest plays out is that sometimes dirty and scary word, “politics.”  Policy decisions are inherently political.  Policy decisions are fundamentally political. 

The point is that when initiatives drive local governments and start to pull policy levers, as they are now doing to greater effect, they cannot hope to remain under the radar.  On the contrary.  Initiatives that have direct access to policy power are going to show up as a blinking red dot on the political radar.  It is inevitable and there is no way around it.  Nor should there be.  Policy decisions are essentially political.

To see why this is the case, let’s take a closer look at Dryden, New York which in 2011 revised their city’s zoning ordinance to prohibit the practice of natural gas hydraulic fracking in the community.  There is not a Transition initiative in Dryden, but for this example image there is and also imagine that participants of this hypothetical group are on the local governing council.  Let’s further assume that the initiative was directly responsible for creating and enacting the policy to prohibit fracking because they prioritized the values of resilience and sustainability. 

Now, the ordinance must apply to everyone in the community, including economically depressed land owners who might be anxious to sign a drilling lease so they can raise money and send their children to college.  Those landowners prioritize the value of freedom to develop their property; hence they would disagree with the policy decision.  By gaining the power and authority to put fracking ban in place, our hypothetical initiative in Dryden just entered political stage left.

It is clear that due to the political nature of policy making, initiatives that drive their local government will struggle mightily to retain the traditional Transition ideals of openness, inclusivity, and the avoidance of conflict.  That is the trade-off that some initiatives are making.  Institutionalising and getting directly involved in policy decision making means that initiatives can (though not necessarily will) make a much greater impact on the community than would be the case with independent, conflict-free action. 

Being involved in local government means having access to the public purse and a larger voice in how those resources are spent on localisation and resilience building.  Again, all this comes at the cost of angering some folks whose values do not parallel the initiative’s.  Even within an initiative there is bound to be a mismatch of values among participants.  But is it really desirable to avoid contentious debates altogether?  Perhaps a certain healthy level of political wrangling is a necessary and good thing.  Albert Otto Hirschman made a convincing case that being able to successfully navigate through disputes and political conflict represents an indispensable pillar of democratic societies and strong, resilient communities. 

This month’s Transition Culture theme is trying to get at the question, “Is Transition political?”  Yes, obviously.  Transition is absolutely political.  But I would extend the answer further by pointing out that Transition is not only political in theory, it is increasingly political in practice given the heightened level of policy making activity exhibited by some initiatives.  How this all plays out, and whether or not the wider movement can continue to fly under the political radar remains to be seen.  What is certain is that Transition politics, at least for some initiatives, is itself transitioning.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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