The Transition Movement: Questions of Diversity, Power, and Affluence – Part 1

August 18, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Ed. note: This article is excerpted from a paper which can be accessed on the Simplicity Institute website here. We are publishing it on in two parts. You can read Part 2 here.

1. Introduction
As the global economy continues to degrade planetary ecosystems (Rockstrom et al, 2009); as biodiversity continues to decline (United Nations, 2010); as climate scientists offer increasingly confident and dire warnings (IPCC, 2013); as peak oil arrives (Miller and Sorrell, 2014; Brecha, 2013); as fresh water and other key resources become scarcer (Brown, 2011) while population continues to grow (UNDSEA, 2012); and as financial systems continue to show signs of instability (Tverberg, 2012), the question of how nations around the world are going to ‘transition’ to a stable, just, and sustainable society is more pressing than ever. Things seem to be getting worse, not better, which calls for new thinking and new action, both at the personal and social levels, but also at the macro-economic and political levels. If early in the Environmental movement it was assumed that buying ‘green’ products, switching to energy efficient light bulbs, and taking shorter showers, were the ‘lifestyle’ solutions to environmental problems, more recent evidence firmly indicates that such measures are not working or are not going to be anywhere near sufficient, necessary though they may be. The extent of ecological overshoot is too great (Global Footprint Network, 2013). Furthermore, many promised efficiency gains that were supposed to flow from technological advances seem to be getting lost due to the Jevons Paradox and rebound effects (Herring and Sorrell, 2009; Polimeni et al, 2009), meaning that technology – the great hope of Ecological Modernisation – will not lead to environmental rejuvenation unless technological advances are governed by an ethics of sufficiency, not a growth imperative. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost (Alexander, 2014). But just as the planet seems to be reaching the ‘limits to growth’ that were anticipated long ago (Mill, 1848; Meadow et al, 1972; Meadow et al, 2004; Heinberg, 2011; Turner, 2012), governments and institutions around the world seem to be more focused than ever on ‘going for growth’ (OECD, 2013). This is the great contradiction underlying the attempt to achieve sustainable development by way of ‘greening’ capitalism: evidence is mounting that economies must give up the limitless pursuit of growth, but growth-based economies dare not consider this policy option, let alone implement it.
All this may tempt some to despair, but as Bertrand Russell (2009: 45) once stated: ‘gloom is a useless emotion’. This mood of defiant positivity is in fact a defining characteristic of the Transition Town movement (‘the Transition movement’), which is one of the more promising social movements to emerge during the last decade in response to the overlapping problems outlined above. Since its inception in 2005 (see Hopkins, 2008), the Transition movement has spread to many countries around the world (Bailey et al, 2010: 602-3), and is gaining increased attention from academics, politicians, and media. Defined further below, its fundamental aims are to respond to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change by decarbonising and relocalising the economy through a community-led model of change based on permaculture principles (Holmgren, 2002). In doing so, the movement runs counter to the dominant narrative of globalisation and economic growth, and instead offers a positive, highly localised vision of a low-carbon future, as well as an evolving roadmap for getting there through grassroots activism. While this young and promising movement is not without its critics (e.g. James, 2010) there are some, such as Ted Trainer (2009: 11), who argue that if civilisation is to make it into the next half of the century in any desirable form, ‘it will be via some kind of Transition Towns process’.
As promising as the Transition movement may be, there are crucial questions it needs to confront and reflect on if it wants to fully realise its potential for deep societal transformation. Firstly, critics argue that the movement suffers, just as the broader Environmental movement arguably suffers, from the inability to expand much beyond the usual middle-class, well-educated participants, who have the time and privilege to engage in social and environmental activism (see James 2009a; James 2009b; Connors and McDonald, 2010). While the Transition movement is ostensibly ‘inclusive’, in this article we examine this self-image in order to assess whether it is as inclusive and as diverse as it claims to be, and what this might mean for the movement’s prospects. Secondly, we consider the issue of whether a grassroots, community-led movement can change the macro-economic and political structures of global capitalism ‘from below’ through (re)localisation, or whether the movement may need to engage in more conventional ‘top down’ political activity if it is to have any chance of achieving its ambitious goals. Finally, we raise the question of whether the movement is sufficiently radical in its vision. Does it need to engage more critically with the broader paradigm of consumer capitalism, its growth imperative, and social norms and values? Is building local resilience within this paradigm an adequate strategy? And does the movement recognise that decarbonisation almost certainly means giving up many aspects of affluent, consumer lifestyles? We do not expect to be able to offer complete answers to these probing questions, but by engaging critically with these issues we hope to advance the debate around a movement that may indeed hold some of the keys to transitioning to a just and sustainable world.
The analysis begins with a brief literature review, through which we offer a more extensive definition and history of the movement. After outlining some the movement’s defining activities and most attractive features, we offer a sympathetic critique of the movement along the lines outlined above, raising questions about the movement’s diversity, its relationship to power structures, and the nature of its underlying vision. Our analysis draws from the academic and generalist literature, but it is also shaped inevitably by our involvement in and connection with Transition Coburg, a ‘transition initiative’ based in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia. All researchers have potential biases that may result from studying a subject from a particular viewpoint, but we feel that one means of being reflexive and transparent in this regard is for us to state our relationship with the movement from the outset. That is to say, we are sympathetic critics looking at things ‘from the inside’.   
2. Overview of the Transition Movement
The concept of a ‘transition town’ originated in Kinsale, Ireland, in 2005, where Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the movement and a permaculture teacher at the time, developed an ‘Energy Descent Action Plan’ with his former students from the Kinsale Further Education College (Hopkins, 2011: 20). The plan outlined strategies to respond and adapt to peak oil and resource scarcity in various sectors, such as food and agriculture, technology, energy production, transport, economics, and livelihoods. The idea of planning for energy descent at the community level was explored and developed further in the market town of Totnes (Devon, UK) and soon after in Lewes (East Sussex, UK), where Hopkins, in collaboration with Naresh Giangrande, fleshed out the Transition model and implemented it on the ground. The model spread to other parts of the United Kingdom and the world, and the notion of a ‘transition town’ was soon renamed a ‘transition initiative’ to reflect the diversity of places involved in the movement – not just ‘towns’ but also cities, neighbourhoods, suburbs, villages, schools, etc. (Hopkins, 2008: 136).
The Transition Network was founded in 2006 to ‘inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities’ on their ‘transition’ (see Transition Network, 2013a). It reinforces the idea of self-organisation (Hopkins and Lipman, 2009), as its objective is not to centralise decision-making but to connect diverse initiatives in order to share experiences, knowledge, skills, and ideas on best practice. As of September 2013, the network comprises 462 official initiatives, 654 non-official initiatives (‘mullers’) in over 43 countries (Transition Network, 2013b). According to its co-founder, Rob Hopkins, the Transition movement is based on four key assumptions (Hopkins, 2008: 134):
(1)                 That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise; [1]
(2)                 That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the sever energy [and economic] shocks that will accompany peak oil [and climate change];
(3)                 That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now;
(4)                 That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching, and that recognise the biological limits of our planet.
One of the primary goals of the Transition movement, therefore, is to catalyse localised, grassroots responses to peak oil (or the end of cheap oil) and climate change. More recently, the theme of economic instability is being introduced more prominently into the debate (Hopkins, 2011), adding to the original concerns about peak oil and climate change. The rationale for grassroots activity is that ‘if we wait for governments, it’ll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time’ (Hopkins, 2013: 45). According to some commentators (Barry and Quilley, 2008: 2), this approach represents a ‘pragmatic turn’ insofar as it focuses on doing sustainability here and now. In other words, it is a form of ‘DIY politics’ (Barry and Quilley, 2009: 3), one that does not involve waiting for governments to provide solutions (Seyfang et al, 2010), but rather depends upon an actively engaged citizenry.
The paradigm shift of Transition is articulated around notions of ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘relocalisation’ of production and consumption. What this means in practice will be unpacked further below, but the basic dynamic is that decarbonisation is necessary and desirable for reasons of peak oil and climate change, and given how carbon-intensive global trade is, decarbonisation implies relocalising economic processes. As well as this, a central goal of the movement is to build community ‘resilience’, a term which can be broadly defined as the capacity to withstand shocks and the ability to adapt after disturbances (Hopkins, 2008: Ch. 3; Barry, 2012). Notably, crisis in the current system is presented not as a cause for despair but as a transformational opportunity, a change for the better that should be embraced rather than feared (Hopkins, 2011: 45). Consequently, the vision presented by the Transition movement is very positive, one that is ‘full of hope’ (Bunting, 2009: np) for a more ‘nourishing and abundant future’ (Hopkins, 2008: 5). Hopkins, who is by far the most prominent spokesperson for the movement, plays a crucial role in promoting such an optimistic message, while at the same time acknowledging the extent of the global problems and asserting there is no guarantee of success (Hopkins, 2011: 17). By doing so, Hopkins skilfully walks a delicate line: he openly acknowledges the magnitude of the global predicament, but quickly proceeds to focus on positive, local responses and action. Whether his positivity is justifiable is an open question – some argue that it is not (Smith and Positano, 2010) – but it is nevertheless proving to be a means of inspiring and mobilising communities in ways that ‘doomsayers’ are unlikely to ever realise. 
Many issues are included under the banners of relocalisation, decarbonisation, and resilience, which helps broaden the movement’s appeal (Bailey et al, 2010: 602). Indeed, ‘the Transition Network has sought to fashion energy scarcity into a general metaphor for ruptures between the spatially-joined but issue-disconnected world of globalisation’ (Bailey et al, 2010: 3). This turns energy descent into a springboard for the broader critique of globalisation and economic growth, both of which are arguably unsustainable in their current form and which oil scarcity may make ‘irrelevant’ (Bailey et al, 2010: 598; Hopkins, 2011: 33-34; Heinberg, 2011; Rubin, 2012). Through the lens of energy – which remains its focus – the Transition model nevertheless attempts to engage broader issues of power imbalances ‘associated with corporate globalism’ (Mason and Whitehead, 2012: 496), as well as issues such as individualism, atomisation of social relationships, social justice concerns about poverty and inequality, boom-and-bust economic cycles, financial crises leading to economic instability, and increased living costs and unemployment. Beyond climate change and peak oil, therefore, these issues are being used ‘as a way to open up discussion over scarcity and community economic resilience’ (Barr and Wright, 2012: 530), and positions the Transition movement as not merely an ‘environmental’ movement, but a movement that encompasses broader societal concerns. How successfully the movement takes on these broader issues is a question to be considered in more detail below.
When it comes to applying these broad ideas and concerns in practice, Hopkins (2008) outlines a 12-step roadmap that is intended to help communities start, grow, and run a localised ‘transition initiative’. These steps involve setting up a steering group, raising awareness about critical issues, developing visible practical projects, organising activities to ‘re-skill’ the community, and formulating an Energy Descent Action Plan. These steps, it should be noted, are fairly generic and demonstrate that the Transition movement does not propose ‘prescriptive solutions’ (Hopkins, 2008: 137) or a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, but rather constitutes an ‘open-ended experiment’ (Barry, 2012: 114) and a broad rethinking of ‘how local economies feed, house, and power themselves’ (Hopkins, 2012: 74-75). Hopkins’ Transition Handbook, published in 2008 (with a second Australian and New Zealand edition in 2009), was a milestone for the movement and provides some strategies on how to operationalise the Transition model. This text is supplemented in helpful ways by his Transition Companion (Hopkins, 2011) and the newly released The Power of Just Doing Stuff (Hopkins, 2013), both of which offer deeper insight into the achievements and challenges of the movement during its relatively short lifetime. While the apparently non-prescriptive nature of these texts can be considered one of their more attractive features, it could be argued that prescription certainly exists in these texts, only in implicit ways. Others (Trainer, 2009) argue that transition initiatives need to be provided with more guidance on the best strategies to adopt, not less, and that the questionable attempt to avoid prescription is actually harming the movement. Debates such as these are to be expected in any new social movement, and indeed we would suggest that such debates are both healthy and vital.   
2.1. Head, Heart, and Hands: Three Dimensions of the Transition Model
As Hopkins (2011: 72-76) emphasises, ‘transitioning’ is both an inner and out process. Change is needed not only in the external physical structures, institutions, and organisations upon which societies rest, but also in our worldviews, norms, attitudes, and values. In recognition of this, the Transition model of change attempts to weave together the power of imagination, visioning, and storytelling, with the practical manifestation of these alternative narratives, through the engagement of the head, the heart, and the hands (Hopkins, 2008). Below we explore these dimensions in more detail, as they are central to understanding to the movement.
First, the psychology of change underpinning the movement is worth highlighting, as well as the way the movement conceptualises and articulates inner change as an enabler for long-term outer change (Hopkins, 2011: 75). Transition recognises that the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and the shocks they are likely to bring, can seem confronting and even overwhelming. However, in contrast to some prominent approaches in the traditional Environmental movement, Hopkins contends that negative feelings like anger and guilt, or focusing on ‘doom and gloom’, do not foster change (Hopkins, 2011: 78; Hopkins, 2013: 41). Rather, the Transition movement draws on psychotherapy and psychology (including eco-psychology) to describe, understand, and support incremental inner change in people and communities, with the intention of leading to enduring behaviour change. For example, different communication strategies and activities are used at different stages, from raising awareness to taking action (Hopkins, 2011: 124). The movement also uses insights from Eastern religions and traditions around mindfulness, meditation, and the ‘transformation of consciousness’ (Prentice in Hopkins, 2011: 141) to learn how to deal with change in a positive way. These ‘inner’ efforts are part of the development of ‘different self-understandings’ and ‘new subjectivities’ that are required for the transition to a radically different society based on low-carbon living (Seyfang et al, 2010: 14-15; Barry, 2012: 99; Bay 2013: 180-190).
Second, Transition relies on ‘unleashing’ powerful ‘expression[s] of imagination’ (Sharp, 2009: 35) through positive visioning and storytelling. This is one of the defining approaches of the movement. As Chamberlin (2009) outlines, collective or cultural narratives shape our understanding of the world and our place in it, and in order to transition to a post-petroleum, localised society where ‘small is beautiful’, we need very different narratives and imaginaries than the one(s) we have now (see also, Barry, 2012: 99). Furthermore, as Pelling and Navarrete (2011) note, there are many elements in the current system that inhibit the process of ‘conscientization’ and reinforce the ‘institutionalised status quo’ by ‘closing down imagination and discussion of alternative values and organisation’ (2011: np)….. In this context, different collective narratives can play a role in ‘questioning the inevitability of the neoliberal model’ (Amin, 2013: 142) and opening up space for alternatives. This is what Transition does, or aims to do, by opening up new possibilities and story-lines in various ways, including sharing stories and experiences; developing ‘Transition Tales’ (a program based in Totnes for secondary students, Hopkins, 2011: 229-230); drafting articles, ads and cartoons for the newspapers of the future (see Hopkins, 2008; 2011), and visioning exercises such as ‘what will the town/neighbourhood look like in 2030?’ (Hopkins, 2011: 114-116). This promotes a holistic and ‘whole of system’ approach to the issues, while always focusing on local action, responses, and solutions. These initiatives tell the story of a future that will be highly local and situated, and speaks to ‘a desire to reconnect with a lost sense of the importance of the place itself’ (Cato, 2008: 92). But these stories are also about people and an ‘untheorised sense of the goodness of humanity’ (Sharp, 2009: 35), a sense of community, and social solidarity. In these ways, Transition is attempting to shift the current social framework, cultivating different cultural values and identities, and creating microcosms of hope and sustainability (Greene, 2010). Storytelling in transition is therefore about the ‘possibility of change’ (Cato and Hillier, 2010: 877) and transforming the story communities tell themselves about where they are and where they want to go.
Third, in addition to providing a space for reworking, negotiating, and assembling stories, identities and values, the Transition movement aspires to lead by ‘practical example’ (Hopkins, 2011: 73) and puts into action some of the stories and ideas coming out of the community. Hopkins (2011: 146) emphasises that the Transition movement should not be ‘just a talking shop’ and that ‘practical manifestations’ of relocalisation are essential to create momentum. As he notes, ‘a transition initiative with dirt under its fingernails will gain credibility’ and thereby attract new people (Hopkins, 2011: 146). These projects also offer an opportunity for experiential and social learning, connecting or reconnecting with nature, as well as acquiring new skills. This ‘Great reskilling,’ as Hopkins (2011: 152-154) calls it, is an essential aspect of resilience building and developing local adaptive capacities. As a practical matter, food usually appears as an early focal point of transition initiatives, and many initiatives offer training in permaculture and organic gardening, cooking and preserving food (Hopkins et al, 2009; Pinkerton and Hopkins, 2009; Bay, 2013). Collective initiatives are also put together to encourage local food provisioning, with the aim of ‘delinking food and fossil fuels’ (Heinberg and Bomford, in Hopkins, 2011: 56) and promoting bioregionalism. For example, many transition initiatives try to set up a community garden/allotment or a veggie box scheme, organise an urban farmers’ market, as well as fruit tree and nut tree planting days, seed banks, and seed swap days. These are merely illustrations of the broader attempt to build resilience and decarbonise the economy, and ultimately to fundamentally restructure the economy to support relocalisation and better promote social and ecological justice. Other transition activities include: establishing local currencies (Longhurst, 2012) and community owned renewable energy companies; organising carpooling schemes, car-free days, educational films nights, bicycle or sewing workshops and cooperatives, and workshops on energy efficiency in the home and workplace (Hopkins, 2011; 2013). According to the transition literature, these projects and the process involved should be fun, enjoyable, convivial, ‘playful and unthreatening’ (Hopkins, 2011: 149). This relentlessly positive discourse may be problematic given the extent of change needed and the likely resistance of existing organisations and powers in place, but as a definitional matter, positivity in the face of challenges is a central characteristic of the movement.
Overall, the Transition movement aims to catalyse deep societal change through envisioning a different, post-carbon collective story for a community and taking steps towards realising it. To the extent that the movement attempts to create new meanings, identities and subjectivities beyond the dominant socio-cultural paradigm, it fits within the conceptualisation of new social movements (Barry and Quilley, 2008: 21-24; Seyfang et al, 2010: 14-15) and given that it is a prominent and promising social movement in response to peak oil and climate change, it deserves critical attention. As noted in the introduction, there are obstacles and limitations to the Transition model and they should not be underestimated. The movement is still relatively small and young and, according to some commentators, transition initiatives mainly attract the usual suspects (see an example of this in Smith, 2011) who have ‘the resources and leisure to be open to radical thinking’ (Cato, 2008: 95). Furthermore, ‘doing’ Transition often turns out to be more difficult than expected for various reasons, including lack of funding (hence the reliance on volunteers), difficulty mobilising people and building momentum for action (Seyfang, 2009; Seyfang and Haxeltine 2012), and adapting the model to larger scales and urban settings (see Taylor, 2012; North and Longhurst, 2013 and Hopkins, 2013: 74-75 addressing the issue of scale). In the remainder of this article we explore some of these issues from a more critical perspective.
3. Diversity and Inclusion: Transition for whom? By whom?
The Transition movement explicitly advocates collective, community-based action and an inclusive approach to building resilience. Inclusion is the second ‘principle’ of Transition (see Hopkins, 2009: 144). Diversity is one of the key characteristics of resilience (Walker and Salt 2006) and permaculture (‘use and value diversity’ Hopkins, 2009: 142), both of which are major underpinnings of the movement. The rhetoric of community in social movements is not new, but there have long been criticisms that the Environmental movement, in particular, has not lived up to that rhetoric and that it has instead been somewhat insular and ‘middle-class’. The suggestion is that caring for the environment is a privilege that generally only arises once the struggle for basic necessities has been won. Whether that is a valid characterisation of the broader Environmental movement is a question we leave to one side (Martinez-Alier, 1995), but we do wish to explore the question of whether the Transition movement is just another ‘pleasurable, leisure based community movement’ (James, 2009a: 19) and an expression of ‘bourgeois community resilience’ (James, 2009b: 15), as some of its critics, often from the political left, assert (see Trapese Collective, 2008). We contend that the reality of what Mason and Whitehead (2012: 511) call ‘inclusive localism’ is more complex than that, although the danger is real that the Transition movement may end up as little more than an exclusive middle-class club for nice, comfortable people who already have the resources and options to adapt. Empirically, little research has been conducted on the demographics of the Transition movement, with some notable exceptions. For example, the surveys of Transition coordinators and participants conducted by Seyfang (2009) and Seyfang and Haxeltine (2012: 388) confirm the stereotypes of primarily white, highly educated, ‘postmaterialists’ who already are environmentally conscious. If this is so, what are the implications of this? And what, if anything, can the movement do about expanding its demographic reach?
It is worth noting that the movement is demonstrating a level of transparency and reflexivity around this issue, and its ‘leaders’ have acknowledged the challenge of ‘extending the transition movement’s outreach beyond the demographic silo of middle-class pro-environmentalists’ (Bailey, Hopkins and Wilson, 2010: 601). They have started addressing it through the appointment of a ‘diversity coordinator’ in 2010 and the launch of a ‘diversity plan’ and a ‘diversity and social justice newsletter’, and while this initiative ended in 2011 because of a lack of funding (Transition Network, 2011), these themes remain present. Additionally, there has been some discussion around what the right means of communication and marketing should be in order to target as many people as possible. This is reflected in the shift of rhetoric in the Transition Companion (Hopkins, 2011) and the Power of Just Doing Stuff (Hopkins, 2013) that both emphasise economic instability and crisis a lot more than the original Handbook (Hopkins, 2008). The intended message is sufficiently clear: getting involved in transition is fun, and should lessen impact on the environment, but it will also save you money (through growing more food, recycling and re-using, DIY skills such as sewing, preserving, brewing beer, etc.). Some academics close to the movement have similarly argued that ‘the doing of community-based activities which offer immediate benefits (cost savings, pleasure, sociability, sense of achievement, community self-expression)’ (Seyfang and Haxeltine, 2012: 394-395) should take precedence over the more abstract/intellectual awareness raising and education focused activities (which constitute the first steps prescribed by the Transition Handbook’s roadmap).
Rather than condemning the movement for its perceived lack of openness or elitism, it may be more constructive to investigate the barriers that prevent the Transition movement from ‘responding to a diversity of needs using a diversity of strengths’ (Pickering, diversity coordinator in Transition Network 2011). After all, the authenticity of the movement’s desire for inclusivity is not in doubt; we only seek to inquire into the realisation of that desire. In her thesis, Danielle Cohen (2010) explores the issue of diversity in an inner-city London area and notes that Transition is not ‘explicitly concerned with social justice’ (Cohen 2010, 3). That may have been true at the time, or in that particular initiative, but the transition discourse seems to have shifted in the last couple of years and now explicitly engages with issues of social justice, albeit usually only in passing still (Hopkins, 2013: 67).
Nevertheless, Cohen fairly points out that the Transition model is generally based on specific participative methods such as Open Space technology (or world cafe), ‘a method of creating participant-led events [which] exemplifies self-organisation, stressing individual responsibility for learning and contribution’ (Cohen, 2010: 44; see also Aiken, 2012: 95). So while valuing inclusion, Transition’s focus on ‘catalysing people to generate their own solutions’ to promote ‘empowered individualism’ [as the basis for community building] in itself influences who shows up (Cohen, 2010: 44). Some people might not feel conformable or ‘expert enough’ to turn up and the focus on individualism ‘is associated with a middle-class way of life, where the inner self is often highlighted’ (Cohen, 2010: 10) The fact that a pass to the yearly Transition Network Conference in the UK costs 100 pounds with few concession tickets available does not help diversity either (see Cutler and Chatterton, 2009).
Cohen (2010) and others (e.g. Trapese Collective, 2008: 34, James, 2009a) also highlight that Transition seems to be insufficiently attentive of the power differential and dynamics within communities and the way ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background play a role in shaping community relationships. In this context, inclusion arguably means ‘assimilating others to our way’ of thinking about the world (Cohen, 2010: 45). The challenge, therefore, is to find a way of being open and encouraging diversity without ‘othering’, ‘perpetuating social stratification, denying inequality or claiming superiority’ (Cohen, 2010: 51). This challenge is not unique to the Transition movement but one of the ways to overcome it may be to embrace the particular context and cultures of individual transition initiatives instead of strictly following the 12 steps and the movement’s ‘Bible,’ that is, the Transition Handbook and its grand narrative which some argue can lead to ‘cultural blindness’ (Connors and MacDonald, 2010: 570). The top-down ‘steering’ of the Transition Network and ‘brand management’ (Seyfang and Haxeltine, 2012: 391) by the founders in England (e.g. through the accreditation process to become an ‘official’ transition town) has been perceived as running counter to the bottom-up grassroots ‘creativity [and diversity] the movement seeks to embody’ (Smith, 2011: 102, see also Trapese Collective, 2008: 26; Cato and Hillier, 2010: 877; Connors and MacDonald, 2010: 569). This may involve re-thinking the way the movement is organised (to push for more non-hierarchical structures – see an example in Australia in Bay 2013) or doing away with the prescriptive 12-steps and the ‘managerialist approach’ (Smith, 2011: 102). On the other hand, perhaps some level of ‘brand management’ is useful or important to preserve the cohesion or coherence of the movement and possibly contribute to making transition initiatives more recognisable by mainstream organisations like local governments and funding bodies (Smith, 2011: 102). Again, this is unlikely to be an issue that will reach a consensus anytime soon, but arguably the movement will be stronger for continuing to debate it.
Looking at the issue from a different perspective, by pushing a very inclusive agenda, the movement is arguably ‘bound to disappoint its adherents’ (Connors and McDonald, 2010: 561) because it cannot possibly satisfy everybody. The inclusivity and diversity within the movement creates ‘latent tensions in relation to the geographical form and ideals of the movement’ (Mason and Whitehead, 2012: 497) potentially resulting in significant delays, conflict, division, and ‘lack of focus’ (Smith, 2011: 102). For example, food can be a thorny issue: since meat is a high-impact food, should Transition (more clearly) advocate a low or no-meat diet through its literature and activities, or would that alienate too many people? A similar issue arises in terms of consumption: should the movement highlight the significant lifestyle implications of post-carbon living, or would that also alienate too many people? Overall, if inclusion means going for the lowest common denominator, it may lead to ‘little meaningful change’ (Connors and McDonald, 2010: 560) or worse ‘a bland local consensus of inaction’ (Mason and Whitehead, 2012: 511).
The movement has also been criticised for its ‘political naivety and absence of an analysis of power’ (Cato and Hillier, 2010: 871; see also, Cato 2008 and North 2010) and we now turn to this question.
The second half of the paper will be published on 19th August.

[1] Within the Transition movement the inevitability of ‘energy descent’ is based on the general acceptance that fossil fuels will eventually peak and decline; that climate change requires giving up fossil fuels; and that renewable energy systems, while necessary, are unlikely to be able to replace fully the net energy production of the current fossil fuel industry. There also seems to be deep scepticism with respect to nuclear energy, or at least a pragmatic realisation that, especially since Fukushima, nuclear is likely to contribute a smaller, not a larger, part of global energy supply in the future. For these reasons combined, Transition envisions and plans for a world with less energy production and consumption, not more, which is another one of its defining characteristics (see generally, Hopkins, 2011; Heinberg, 2011; Trainer, 2013a; Trainer, 2013b). 

Samuel Alexander

Over the last ten years Dr Samuel Alexander has been a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment. He has also been a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and is currently co-Director of the Simplicity Institute. Alexander’s interdisciplinary research focuses on degrowth, permaculture, voluntary simplicity, ‘grassroots’ theories of transition, and the relationship between culture and political economy. His current research is exploring the aesthetics of degrowth and energy descent futures. His books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019, co-authored with Brendan Gleeson); Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future (2018, co-authored with Josh Floyd); Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth (2017); Just Enough is Plenty: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics (2016); Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes (2016); Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits (2015); Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever (2015); and Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation (2013); he is also editor of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) and co-editor of Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future (2014). In 2016 he also released a documentary called A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity, co-produced with Jordan Osmond of Happen Films. Alexander blogs at

Tags: decarbonisation, inclusivity, limits to growth, social movements, social transformation, Transition movement