‘The Impact of Transition. In numbers’ – a note of caution

May 6, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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A response to a recent post by Rob Hopkins ‘The impact of Transition. In numbers.‘.

Transition is a wonderful melange of conversations, projects, interactions, inspirations, hard work, failures, successes and entirely unexpected events which we are altogether unsure what to make of!  Transition initiatives themselves are as unique as the people who make them up.  Initially termed ‘Transition Towns’, they have twisted and squirmed out from under that label like squealing children from under a favourite uncle, becoming Transition Islands, Sustainable Villages, Cities in Transition and all the rest.

To use Rob’s favourite quote from Moominland: 

"It was a funny little path, winding here and there, dashing off in different directions, and sometimes even tying a knot in itself from sheer joy. (You don’t get tired of a path like that, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t get you home quicker in the end).” 

Yes, Transition: fun, exciting, inspirational, powerful, even maybe uncharacterisable!

But, remember, it is just one thing, this Transition.


Deadening isn’t it, this counting?  

What does it even mean anyway: "one thing"?  Surely Transition is a mess of thousands of different people, communities, activities, passions..?  At best it’s one category.  And who wants to be categorised?  

And what’s a category anyway? 

There is always a difference between any one thing and any other, so to say that there are two of something (let alone two hundred) is always an imperfect statement, in the same way that an analogy between two things is always imperfect.  Analogies may highlight important similarities between two things, but they gloss over important differences too, which is why they can be dangerously misleading when applied too widely.  Numbers too are imperfect analogies for reality, and are dangerous in just the same way.

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George Monbiot wrote an excellent piece last month on the very real dangers of quantifying nature by in which he pointed out that pricing is only one of the ways in which numbering can be problematic. "For every tree we cut down, we’ll plant two new ones!"  Which sounds great until you realise that in reality one tree is not the same as one tree (perhaps one is a thousand year old cornerstone of its local ecosystem, and the other is a sapling planted where it will never thrive).

Numbers separate us from that which is described, sucking it out of all context or relationship.  As Charles Eisenstein put it, "I don’t think the cruelty of today’s world could exist without the distancing effects of language and measure. Few people can bring themselves to harm a baby, but, distanced by the statistics and data of national policy-making, our leaders do just that, on a mass scale, with hardly a thought."

But for all this, there is undoubtedly something tempting about growing numbers, whether we are numbering event attendees, Twitter followers, or pounds sterling.  In a world where it is so hard to know whether we are doing the right thing, making a difference, making a positive difference, it is so tempting to have a concrete number to grow.  A way to keep score!  Finally!!

And of course many funders tend to encourage it.  They want to see the impact their £s are having, and they want it quantified.  There’s no money in poetry. 

But then, as Robert Graves reminded us, there’s no poetry in money either.  For the sake of the soul of transition, let us be wary of converting quality into quantity.  Let us welcome unique people, not uniform numbers, into our embrace: 

51 people attended. 

Fifty people were there to listen to Bill McKibben.  

Fifty people were there, and Jane from the bakery on Rose Street arrived late.  

Well, there was Jane, from the bakery on Rose Street, Josh, of course, me and my family, Roger, Jamal, Biggles and Margaret, Jenny and the twins… 

Which of these more accurately reflects the reality of the event?  And which audiences are more likely to be given which report? 

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Of course we are all excited when two hundred people come along to help with a Transition project when we were only expecting thirty (but maybe we’re more excited that Pritesh and Sarah came, of all people!).  And of course we want to tell people about this, in a brief and comprehensible way.  I’m only highlighting that numbers can be pernicious, and we should be a little wary of their habit of seductively coming to dominate everything that we do.  While numbers may be the easiest way of explaining our impact, and even the expected way, they may not always be the best. 

Numbers are only an abbreviation of what we’re up to.  The reality of Transition lies in the inspiration of stories, in losing track of time while tending a garden, in passions that might never add up to anything much, in countless cups of tea, in unmeasurable love – in all those things that the cold abstraction of numbers will never touch. 

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I have long found it fascinating that there are cultures do not have words for numbers other than "one", "two" and "many".  I fondly imagine that if Transition had its own language it might add one more: “one”, “two”, “many” and “enough”.  The dominant culture has enough numbers.  But perhaps we can help it remember another way to count?

Shaun Chamberlin is author of The Transition Timeline and blogs at DarkOptimism.org

Shaun Chamberlin

In 2005 I quit my job to devote myself full-time to exploring the dominant cultural stories and ‘myths’ that chart the course for our society and, in particular, how we might change direction before we end up where we are headed. My various efforts since have been covered across the UK press, including by the BBCGuardianSunday TimesIndependent and Daily Express, as well as internationally by Time magazineBloomberg News and the Financial Times. Perhaps my proudest achievement is having shepherded the late David Fleming‘s extraordinary, award-winning Lean Logic and Surviving the Future to posthumous publication. In light of their ever-growing popularity, I taught the ‘Community, Place and Play: A Post-Market Economics‘ course at Schumacher College, was executive producer of 2020 film The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?, and now partner with Vermont’s Sterling College, both as consulting scholar on their EcoGather project and leading the groundbreaking online programme ‘Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time’. Meanwhile, putting the theory into practice, I am one of the six custodians of legendary free pub ‘The Happy Pig‘, and was involved with the Transition Network since its inception, leading to my co-founding Transition Town Kingston and authoring the movement’s second book, The Transition Timeline, back in 2009. I was one of the earliest Extinction Rebellion arrestees, and have previously served as chair of the Ecological Land Co-operative, a director of the campaigning organisation Global Justice NowChelsea Green Publishing‘s commissioning editor for the UK/Europe and an advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, as well as co-authoring the All Party Parliamentary report into carbon rationing. My writing roams across social, political and spiritual themes, including popular explorations of collapse, energy and ecological issues, and has found homes from online platforms openDemocracyThe Oil Drum and The Huffington Post to print magazines such as TikkunSTIRThe EcologistThe LandKosmos and Resurgence, along with academic publications such as the Solutions and Carbon Management peer-reviewed journals (including the most-read paper in the history of the latter). Over the course of my work I have delivered presentations at venues ranging from community groupsRebellionsClimate Camps and Occupations to the London School of Economics, the UK and Scottish Parliaments and the European Commission, and been shortlisted for the Sheila McKechnie Foundation Environmental Campaigner Award as well as, locally, being named Kingston’s ‘Green Champion’ by the council and Kingston Guardian newspaper. I have also edited or contributed chapters to a diverse collection of books, from Grow Small, Think Beautiful (Floris Books), The Future We Deserve (PediaPress) and Low Impact Living Communities (Diggers & Dreamers) to What We Are Fighting For (Pluto Press), The Moneyless Manifesto (Permanent Publications) and two of the Dark Mountain books.

Tags: impact, quantification, Transition movement