The Transition Movement: Questions of Diversity, Power, and Affluence – Part 2

August 19, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Ed. note: The first part of this paper was published on here. This article is excerpted from a paper which can be accessed on the Simplicity Institute website here.

4. Transition, Politics, and Power: Angles of Political Critique
4.1 Reflecting on Transition Strategies for Change
As mentioned in the previous section, the Transition movement presents itself as very positive, fun, and non-confrontational. Indeed, in its rhetoric, the movement in general and Hopkins in particular, are, in many ways, non-political or a-political, in the sense that they generally pitch the movement against ‘protesting’, ‘campaigning’, ‘rocking the boat’, conventional political activism, parliamentarianism, etc. By aiming to be as accessible and inclusive as possible, some argue that the movement ‘does not support particular campaigns but rather develops a model that forms around what many different people have in common. It’s a model about positive responses and not something that takes positions against institutions or projects’ (Trapese Collective, 2008: 5-6; see also Bay 2013: 182-183 for a practical example of this). In the words of Richard Heinberg, the movement is ‘more like a party that a protest march’ (see foreword to Hopkins, 2008: 10). This makes sense in light of the ‘inclusive’ goal of the movement and the psychology of change it deploys. After all, talking openly about radical opposition to consumer capitalism, protesting, civil disobedience, and direct action may not appeal to a broad range of people and it may be that the more political and ‘radical’ issues are not explicitly discussed for strategic reasons (see Alexander, 2012a: 9-10).  Yet, as Cutler and Chatterton (2009) point out, the dichotomy between ‘positive alternative building activism’ and negative ‘radical left activism’ (as Hopkins calls it) is artificial because a lot of groups and individuals can and often do engage in both strategies. Stereotyping ‘good’ and ‘bad’ activists who are essentially motivated by very similar concerns for environmental and social justice may not be very constructive in the long-term either. At the same time, it is essential that the movement is self-reflective about its strategies for change, because it hardly has energy and resources to waste. This is particularly important because some argue that de-politicised or post-political discourse can serve conservative or neoliberal agendas by framing an issue as one that can be solved with ‘consensual’ knowledge or ‘neutral’ expertise, hence ‘diverting attention from [or even rendering invisible] questions of power, justice, or the types of (socio-natural) future that can be envisaged’ (Welsh, 2013: 7; see also James, 2009a: 19).
This raises the question: To what extent can the Transition movement avoid the pain, hardship, and conflict historically associated with significant social movements (e.g. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, etc.)? After all, vested interests in the status quo are almost certainly going to try to maintain the status quo, suggesting that the ambitious goals of the Transition movement (including decarbonisation, relocalisation and building a new economy) are probably going to confront, or are confronting, hard political opposition from enormously powerful political and economic forces. For this reason, we would argue that pain and conflict cannot be sidestepped on the path of ‘transition’, while at the same time acknowledging that activists and participants in the movement may well find the struggle meaningful and worthwhile, no matter how difficult the path may turn out to be. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche: they who have a why to live, can bear almost any how.
As well as the possibility of having to engage in old-fashioned political struggle, as opposed to building the alternative ‘beyond politics’, there are also questions about how the impacts of peak oil and climate change are going to play out, and the political implications of this (see Bettini and Karaliotas 2013 for a critical analysis of the peak oil discourse in the Transition movement and other red-green groups). It is almost certain that peak oil and climate change are going have varying impacts depending on space, time, and class, and this suggests that the ideal of relocalisation may not be directly or equally applicable to everyone (Bailey et al, 2010: 598; North, 2010).
According to some critics, the implicit assumption of the Transition movement is that ‘localisation will be capable of solving political as well as environmental problems. This suggests an inadequate consideration of the aspect of change that is about power rather than place’ (Cato, 2008: 96). Indeed, it is becoming increasingly evident that some places and people will be more affected than others and more or less capable of adapting (Paavola and Adger, 2006; Barnett and Campbell, 2010). In this sense, the transition away from cheap oil, for example, is likely to be ‘politically troublesome and highly divisive’ (Dennis and Urry 2009 in Barr and Wright, 2012: 530) because relocalisation is a highly ‘subversive project in relation to neoliberal globalisation’ (Cavanagh and Mander 2004 in North, 2010: 591). As Barr and Wright (2012: 531) put it, in 20 years time, ‘there is likely to be a diverse geography of resilience within and between communities that map onto existing social, economic and political systems and inequalities’. Therefore, the movement needs to address these more political and social justice questions or runs the risk to become another form of ‘gated community’ or ‘bunker’ sheltering the powerful, away from ‘environmental terror’ (Duffield 2011: 19; see also  James 2009a and 2009b on the survivalist drift within the movement)). Or, as Trainer (2009: 11) puts it, the movement may become ‘a Not-In-My-Backyard phenomenon, with towns trying to insulate themselves from the coming scarcities and troubles’.
The issue or issues here can be put more directly: can a social movement, such as the Transition movement, achieve fundamental change without engaging in ‘top down’ political action? And is grassroots localism the best way, or even an effective way, to change ‘the system’? Traditional ‘leftists’ and eco-socialists answer these questions in the negative (e.g. Sarkar, 1999). A number of critiques have focused critical attention on the ‘small step’ bottom-up approach used by the Transition movement, as well as its emphasis on localisation. The central question is ‘whether small acts of resistance and micro-transformation can destabilise macro-systems and effect transformation of the system as a whole’ (Cato and Hillier, 2010: 880). More specifically, if the movement grows enough food itself and sets up farmers markets and community gardens, can it eventually undermine industrial agriculture? If the movement develops alternative currencies, can it undermine global finance? If it creates more cooperative business ventures, can it undermine corporate capitalism? If it creates more decentralised, small, local-scale renewable energy projects, can it make coal companies irrelevant and change energy planning and policy? Is localisation of production and consumption the best way to achieve a more sustainable and equitable future? Or, on the other hand, does the movement need to take state power, or more directly challenge state power, through civil disobedience, parliamentarian lobbying, progressive voting, or even violent revolution? These are very complex issues, and opinions differ vastly on the question. We do not pretend to have the ‘right’ answer, but these tensions in the Transition movement are worth examining further.
4.2 Problematising Relocalisation: Strengths and Weaknesses as a Political Strategy
People in Transition tend to argue that actions to build resilience and increase local provisioning from the bottom-up is the ‘right’ way to go about changing the system. Much can be said in support of this approach. In a neoliberal era, waiting for governments to do something may not be useful (perhaps even wasteful or harmful), so a case can be made that communities should do things themselves and lead by practical example using the resources they have at the local scale. Once a transition initiative is relatively well established, Hopkins (2008: 170) argues that transitioners should ‘build a bridge to Local Government’ and seek ‘alliances and coalitions of the willingly local’ (Barry, 2012: 108) for funding and other forms of support. Researchers and academics have even called for more external networking with governments at the local and national level (Bailey et al, 2010: 603; Seyfang et al, 2010: 12; Seyfang and Haxeltine, 2012: 391-394; Bay 2013: 182); for example, by providing evidence of the impacts of the transition activities through a managerial performance-based approach (using the ‘measurement’ language of corporate actors with proxies, quantitative aggregations, etc; see Merritt and Stubbs, 2012 proposal for a Local Sustainability Index). For many, this ‘politics of engagement’ therefore has the potential to develop into a ‘productive sub-politics’ to shake up local administrations (North and Longhurst, 2013: 1426). From a bottom-up localisation perspective, these series of small steps at the individual and community levels could have a cumulative effect and lead to bigger structural change (Alexander, 2013). This approach is similar to what Handmer and Dovers (1996) call ‘type 2 resilience’ or ‘change at the margins’, an approach which argues that ‘gradual nondisruptive change is the only realistic option’ (Handmer and Dovers, 1996: 500). However coherent this strategy may be, there are also potentially significant limitations with this as a theory of change.
To begin with, there is arguably no ‘causal relationship’ between ‘environmental improvements in a place and environmental improvements to a system’ (Trapese Collective, 2008: 33). Similarly, there is no guarantee that building resilience to shocks like climate change, peak oil and economic crisis at a small scale will create similar resilience at a bigger scale (James, 2009a: 18). In fact, looking at the literature on resilience, this assumption does not seem warranted, since complex adaptive systems like most socio-ecological landscapes tend to function in a non-linear and unpredictable fashion (see Holling et al, 1998; Folke, 2006; Walker and Salt, 2006; Miller et al, 2010).
The ‘local’ is also a problematic notion and needs to be qualified further. The local can often be reified and romanticised; it can be a way to construct places in an isolationist way, as if they could be cut off from the rest of the world. In this case, the local can become synonymous of autarky and protectionism leading to practices of exclusion (Mason and Whitehead, 2012). This conceptualisation of the local often goes hand in hand with the assumption that local communities are homogenous and free of conflict or inequalities which is problematic (Featherstone et al, 2012). Consequently, localisation can potentially turn into little more than ‘middle-class voluntarism’ (Featherstone et al, 2012: 178). Furthermore, critiques of localisation as a strategy, particularly from the political left, maintain that localisation is too often associated with ‘backwards, constraining, authoritarian and parochial’ ideas and practices (North, 2010: 592; see also, James, 2009b; Aiken, 2012). Others argue that localisation, rather than enhancing human welfare and wellbeing, leads to ‘retrograde balkanisation’ (North, 2010: 592).
However, we would argue that these features do not flow necessarily from localisation as a strategy for change. An ‘inclusive’ (Mason and Whitehead, 2012), ‘intentional’ (North, 2010) or ‘progressive form of localism’ (Mackinnon and Derickson, 2012: 266) is possible if the local is understood as ‘open and relational’ (Mackinnon and Derickson, 2012: 264) in terms of linking with other places, other groups and other movements grappling with the consequences of globalisation, climate change or resource scarcity. The local can become a powerful tool of mobilisation because it is where people live and experience the world, and therefore constitute ‘socio-ecological memory’ (Bathel et al, 2010: 255). In this sense, the local has been and can continue to be a ‘moral starting point and a locus of ecological concern’ (Tomaney, 2013: 1) where realising change is more likely to be within reach (Hopkins, 2013).
The Transition movement, however, still has some way to go to reach more progressive forms of localism. While the Transition Companion spells out that localisation is not self-sufficiency, insularity or dominance by local powerful actors (Hopkins, 2011:48), a concern (beyond lip service) for inequalities within and between communities and places remain largely absent from the strategies proposed by the movement. For example, Transition’s vision of a new localised resilient economy (Hopkins 2013: 27) does not seem to recognise the differential patterns of (socio-economic) vulnerability and capacities that exist within communities of places (i.e. the barriers that prevent people from engaging in Transition initiatives like lack of time, social or economic capital). It generally ignores conflict that inevitably arises between different interests within communities (e.g. capital and labour, environmentalists and sceptics, libertarian and egalitarian versions of democracy) and also presumes that everybody will benefit from increased resilience (Fainstein, 2013: 15).
Another key issue with localisation as a political strategy is that the local does not necessarily constitute the most effective scale to tackle climate change, peak oil or economic instability given how multi-scalar these phenomena are (North, 2010: 587) and how globalised and interconnected the current system is. The reality is that even the most successful relocalised communities in the Transition movement like Totnes are ‘still embedded within the global capitalist system through their dependencies on jobs, pensions […] and economic exchanges with often global customers’ (Wilson, 2012: 1229).
Lastly, from a left-leaning political economy perspective, issues of ‘social justice at a distance’ (Mason and Whitehead, 2012: 507) in terms of North/South development and relationships also need careful consideration. If bottom-up localisation means severing most trade relations with the developing South, it may result in leaving the poor fending for themselves ‘with nothing other than their own wiles and materials they can temporarily muster’ (Amin, 2012: 152); ultimately, of course, self-determination in the global South is to be desired, and the sooner the better, but given the current dependency of the South on the North (and vice versa), this aspect of transition also needs to be negotiated carefully. Admittedly, the movement is again showing some reflexivity around this issue. North and Scott-Cato (2012: 104), who are both engaged in Transition initiatives, note that ‘[i]t would be important from a progressive standpoint to maintain the benefits of fair trade and of international connection, if transport could be justified within ecological limits.’ Hopkins (2011:52) also talks about the need for ‘fair trade’. It would be fair to say, however, that this aspect of the movement is under-theorised.
4.3 The Problem of Power, Politics and Structure
As the previous section suggests, localisation has many positive features but it is not without its challenges and limitations, and alone it is unlikely to bring about the changes required. It would be naive to think that existing structures, organisations and powerful (public and private) players will just crumble away and be made irrelevant by climate change and the end of cheap oil (Connors and MacDonald 2010, 560; Seyfang and Haxeltine, 2012: 394). As some Marxist critics maintain, ‘uneven access to material resources and the levers of social change must be redressed’ as well (MacKinnon and Derickson, 2012: 255). This would involve re-centring the political and questioning what sorts of community and socio-ecological relations we want to see in the future. From the perspective of the orthodox political left, finding ways to change individual behaviour and reduce personal consumption is not enough, and real transition means ‘taking on power and those who hold wealth and influence’ and who continue to push ‘business-as-usual scenarios’  (Trapese Collective, 2008: 7). In other words, some argue that more direct, anti-systemic challenge is needed; in particular, some political theorists hold that nothing less than taking control of the state for structural transformation and fundamentally changing the rules of the game will get us there in the time frame available. Eco-socialist approaches, such as those defended by Sarkar (1999), advocate this. Clearly there are clear risks in adopting a reformist approach that is mostly apolitical and brushes aside or gives insufficient attention to sensitive questions of power, state, and structure.
Indeed, 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, or at least give the appearance that it has by adopting particular rhetoric or discourses. This has little impact on actual policy and leaves underlying structure, unequal social relations, and hierarchies intact (Handmer and Dovers, 1996: 501; Smith, 2011: 102). In other words, reformist movements are easily co-opted into the political mainstream and the Transition movement is no exception, especially because it seems to neglect or underestimate the adaptive capacities of the current system (Trapese Collective, 2008: 27-32; Trainer, 2009). Politically charged projects or those disturbing economic activity can be hindered (or blocked) by technical and administrative strategies and inertia from governments. Overall,the often subtle and insidious resistance from governments reflects the broader legal, economic, social and structural constraints that potentially ‘lock in’ people in unsustainable behaviours and high-consumption lifestyles. These lifestyle and political decisions are not made in a vacuum; rather, they are influenced by laws and policies and not addressing those top-down state structures may ensure that the Transition movement remains incidental, marginal, and dependent on the very systems it ostensibly opposes.
This leads us to think that the Transition movement needs a stronger political dimension in addition to generating knowledge and practices about how to deal with climate change and peak oil at the community level. While the project of formulating a coherent and detailed ‘politics of transition’ lies well beyond the scope of this paper, the movement may eventually need to engage more directly with political and structural issues. This may take the form of more participants in the movement standing for local government or actively lobbying councillors and parliamentarians; or it may require formulating a strategy that falls within the eco-socialist tradition that works on replacing capitalism with something ‘wholly other’.
Ted Trainer (2010a), on the other hand, envisions a political solution to our current dilemma through anarchism or, using a less loaded term, through grassroots self-organisation and radical, participative democracy. Trainer places no hope in the existing political system because he argues that the state will never voluntarily dissolve the structures of growth that drive ecological degradation, therefore individual citizens and communities need to build cultural, social and economic alternatives themselves underneath the current model. For Trainer, capitalism cannot be reformed, it has to be replaced, but not with a centralised eco-socialism, but with self-governing communities who essentially set out to ignore capitalism to death by building the new economy within the shell of the old (see also, Holmgren, 2013).
Overall, there are no silver bullets or miracle recipes to tackle climate change and peak oil but there are synergies between the different approaches, which should be recognised and fostered further. The strength of the Transition movement lies with its ability to generate a change of mentalities, and to start to put into practice other ways of living, working, producing and consuming in a post-oil community (rather than in ‘its ability to make the necessary changes alone’ North and Scott Cato, 2012: 99). The grassroots relocalisation of Transition can be ‘extended as part of alternative political projects’, whether it is anarchist, eco-socialist or some expression of radical democracy (Featherstone et al, 2012: 180) to tackle systemic issues such as exclusion, inequalities in resources and power and the economic and political factors that keep supporting business-as-usual. Obstacles (structural or otherwise) that still prevent parts of the community from participating in and benefiting from Transition initiatives also need to be spelt out and tackled. As mentioned earlier, a starting point could be bridging with other places and groups to feed into broader socio/ecological/political movement, standing in solidarity with nearby communities and groups in resistance, getting involved in non-violent direct action, divestment campaigns etc. There is no doubt that individual Transition members are already doing some of this (see North, 2011; North and Scott Cato, 2012, for experiences in Liverpool and Stroud) and they should be encouraged to do so.
In the last section, we turn to the question of whether Transition is radical enough. We articulate our critique around two key aspects: the resilience discourse used by the movement and the often timid engagement with consumerism and the macro-economics of growth.
5. Challenging consumption, capitalism and growth
5.1 Is Resilience Enough?
The Transition movement’s discourse and vision is underpinned by resilience thinking, arguably the new ‘pervasive idiom of global governance’ (Walker and Cooper, 2011: 144). Indeed, if sustainability and sustainable development were the buzzwords of the 20th century, resilience has imposed itself as the dominant discourse when it comes to risk management and change management in the 21st century (Walker and Cooper, 2011; Zolli and Healy, 2013). There is a very large number of definitions and conceptualisations of resilience in the academic literature (Walker et al, 2004; Brand and Jax, 2007; Miller et al, 2010; Davoudi, 2012). Nevertheless, the central feature of resilience relates to adapting to change and disturbances while maintaining a system’s integrity and basic functions, and factors that generate this sort of resilience include, diversity, modularity (system elements are distributed and loosely connected, independent but overlapping in some ways) and tight feedback loops (consequences of actions are felt quickly in social and ecological systems allowing people to recognise thresholds and tipping points)(Hopkins, 2013 and Miller and Hopkins, 2013 define resilience in a similar way). Just like sustainability, resilience is a ‘boundary object used as a communication tool’ across different communities of knowledge and practice (Brand and Jax, 2007: np). In other words, the concept is vague and stretchable enough that it can attract a very large and diverse audience of people with different aims and interests (the survey conducted by Seyfang (2009: 5) confirmed that ‘building self-reliance’, a concept often associated with resilience, is the main priority for participants in Transition initiatives). The purposeful vagueness embedded in resilience constitutes the ‘primary appeal of the movement and its central weakness’ (Cato, 2008: 96) because it ‘hides conflicts and power relations’ (Brand and Jax, 2007: np) and also avoids or conceals the more normative questions of ‘whose resilience we are concerned with and to what end’ (Cote and Nightingale, 2012: 482); put differently, transition to what or where, by whom and for whom? There is no a-political consensus on these questions and the distributional and asymmetrical consequences of these decisions (particularly across places like developed and developing countries) need to be considered (Hornborg, 2009; Beymer-Farris et al, 2012). This is a common theme found in the literature on Transition in terms of what a resilient community might look like, how is power distributed politically and/or otherwise, who is included, etc (see e.g. Smith 2011; Barr and Wright, 2012: 530). Resilience theory does not provide a clear answer to this.
Another issue with resilience discourse is exemplified by the New York Times article ‘Forget sustainability, it’s about resilience’ (Zolli, 2012). The piece’s sub heading is ‘Learning to bounce back’ and this is precisely the sort of message that is associated with resilience in mainstream culture – bouncing back to where you were before the shock, the resistance and robustness of your system (i.e. engineering resilience, see Davoudi, 2012). Mainstream resilience discourses use the same ‘feel-good rhetoric characteristic of discussions of sustainability’ (Fainstein, 2013: 15) and remain within stability framings (i.e. the status quo); this is why resilience (not revolution) has become the ‘rallying-cry of the early 21st century’ (Hornborg, 2009: 252). Within this particular framing, resilience does not necessarily encourage the sort of regime shift, transformation and social learning required to transition to the low-carbon economy Transition envisions(Welsh, 2013: 8); nor, some argue, does it ‘provide the basis for the mobilisation that can ultimately change the boundaries of the politically possible’ (Fainstein, 2013: 15).
In addition, resilience has become instrumental to the neoliberal agenda of many Western governments (certainly in the UK, US and Australia) and has been ‘mobilised to facilitate archetypal governmental technologies of neoliberalism; government at a distance, technologies of responsibilisation’ (Welsh, 2013: 2). Amin (2013) among others (Fainstein, 2013; Welsh, 2013) sees the widespread use of resilience discourses as a neoliberal push to move away from ‘an all-protections and state-dependant culture of risk management on ideological grounds’ (Amin, 2013: 140). The new UK Conservative’s ‘Big Society’ policy, which is accompanied by drastic cuts to the public service, exemplifies this ‘latest mutation of neoliberalism’ (Featherstone et al, 2012: 178). In this sense, resilience discourse fits the bill quite well: it shifts the responsibility for action in the face of crisis (climate change or peak oil) from the state to local communities and individuals (without providing funding or support) who need to become active/autonomous subjects and vigilant citizens, responsible for their own protection in a context of increased uncertainty. Resilience discourses also act as means of systematically lowering public expectations by putting a lot of emphasis on ‘adversity as only partially preventable’ and almost necessary (Amin, 2013: 150), thereby sending the message that we cannot expect to be protected against everything and that we certainly cannot rely on the state for it.  By presenting crisis as opportunity, resilience thinking is also self-referential and makes itself immune to critique (Walker and Cooper, 2011). Resilience becomes the measure, not of one’s fitness to live, but of one’s ‘fitness to survive’ (Welsh, 2013: 4) in an evolutionary and deterministic sense. Put differently, when used in a particular way (especially by government and the private sector), resilience is not about altruistic, ecocentric concern for ‘global environmental change’ but rather it focuses on ‘the pragmatism of greater self-interest and survivability’ (Barr and Wright, 2012: 525). Resilience rhetoric therefore potentially undermines ‘a regime of worth with universalist protections’ and the ‘cross-societal commitment’ to protect those without means (Amin, 2013: 142). By using resilience thinking and principles, the Transition movement may become an inadvertent ally of this sort of politics and again only engage those who can afford it.  
Overall, resilience does not tend to address normative questions of power, inequalities, distribution of resources and culture, or big picture issues associated with risk and socio-ecological change. It can therefore be argued that it implicitly maintains the ‘social-ecological relations of capitalist resource extraction’ (Nadasdy 2007: 217–18, quoted in Hornborg, 2009: 255). Because of its affinity with neoliberal economics and governance, the risk of co-option is high and to an extent already on the way. While some acknowledge the limits of resilience and argue that it’s the best we can aim for at the moment (Alexander, 2012b), others warn that the type of resilience embedded in Transition (change at the margin) will lead us on the same road to nowhere as did sustainability and sustainable development (Handmer and Dovers, 1996: 501).
5.2 Challenging Consumer Capitalism and Growth
Mackinnon and Derickson (2012) argue convincingly that ‘the processes which shape resilience operate primarily at the scale of capitalist social relations’ (255), so capitalism and the growth paradigm are unavoidable questions for a social movement like Transition. Consumer capitalism is one of the root causes of our current predicament and often, it is also the big elephant in the room. Trainer (2009, 2010) and others (Alexander, 2012a; Latouche 2010) have championed this type of critique and it is worth reiterating and developing. Currently, the Transition movement is not ‘motivated by the clear and explicit goal of replacing the core institutions of consumer-capitalist society’ (Trainer, 2010b: np). Rather, its ‘targets’ are more ‘abstract’ and ‘diffuse’ like climate change vulnerability and socio-economic instability (Barry and Quilley, 2009: 11), and the movement prefers a consensual positive approach as highlighted earlier. Yet, it is arguably impossible to ‘decouple economic growth from carbon emissions’ (Trapese Collective, 2008: 11) and it is partly the ‘exploitative dynamic of capitalism’ (Hornborg, 2009: 255) that got us in trouble in the first place. The current rate of resource consumption and GHG emissions is driven by the obsession for economic growth and it cannot be ignored (Latouche, 2010). To put it directly, the low-carbon society envisioned by many in the Transition movement arguably cannot be a capitalist society or a growth-based society, because that may just produce more of the same, i.e. environmental destruction and blatant social inequalities. It cannot be a society that measures social wellbeing and human happiness with GDP (see Jackson, 2009).
Interestingly, recently there have been some developments on this front in the ‘official’ transition literature. In the Transition Companion, economic growth starts to be addressed through the central theme of energy (that is cheap energy is one of the foundations of economic growth, Hopkins, 2011: 33) and economic instability (Hopkins, 2011: 34-35). In the Power of Just Doing Stuff, Hopkins (2013: 13) asserts that ‘relentless growth in GDP is no longer an appropriate or desirable idea’ and should be replaced ‘with a goal of well-being, of happiness, of community, and connectedness’ (Hopkins, 2013: 31). He challenges the mainstream ‘growth-at-all-costs agenda’ (Hopkins, 2013: 27) and starts to explicitly talk about the fact ‘we need to live within certain constraints’ and to build a ‘post-growth economy’ (Hopkins, 2013:30; see also, Miller and Hopkins, 2013). These are positive steps but it still shies away from specifically addressing ‘capitalism’ and from spelling out what the consequences of degrowth may be (Trainer, 2012). Obviously, Hopkins may find it difficult to talk openly about radical change because of the movement’s demographics and there is evidence that this type of message does not sit easily with people’s lifestyles and everyday realities even in Transition communities (Bailey et al, 2010; Wilson 2012). The current economic context, particularly in Europe, also makes it hard to talk about degrowth and capitalism since economic growth is heralded as the solution to our problems, i.e. what will bring back prosperity and jobs.
Consumption is another thorny issue because to challenge those pro-growth structures, we need ‘a radical change in cultural attitudes towards consumption’ (Alexander, 2012a: 7) and this represents one of the biggest challenges for the movement at the moment. The lack of clear communication on this topic may partially explain why Transition initiatives have been portrayed as bourgeois and middle-class since they implicitly convey the idea that you can transition to something better – environmentally and ethically – without having to downsize your material standard of living and consumption levels. In practice, despite the discourse around resilience, connection to nature and inner transformation in the Transition movement, for the majority of people this ‘plays second fiddle to the everyday acts of consumption that define us as practicing, mainstream members of a high-consumption society’ (Barr and Wright, 2012: 530).[1] Obviously this is a difficult issue, not the least because historically ‘no one has ever rioted for austerity, people have taken to the streets in the past because they want to consume more of things, not because they want to consume less’ (Monbiot 2005, in Barry and Quilley, 2009: 7). In addition, consumption touches on lifestyle choices and individual liberty as well as deeply engrained norms and values. So getting the message across that a life based on ‘far simpler material living standards’ and ‘frugal self-sufficient collectivism’ would be a good life is not an easy task. Yet, transitioning to low-consumption lifestyle is indispensable for both pragmatic and symbolic reasons within the Transition movement. First, consumption is part of what drives the growth engine (and the widespread ecological degradation that goes with it) so it needs to be addressed if we want a fighting chance to curb/slow the effect of climate change and biodiversity loss. Second, if the Transition movement is ever to grow to a significant size, people will need to be able to dedicate more time to building the movement and a new society, instead of being locked into long working hours just to provide for high-consumption lifestyles.  Lastly and more symbolically, if the frame of reference and measure of success remains individual income and ever-expanding material possession and consumption, and Transition does not challenge it, the movement will not be able to influence social practices around consumption because they are shaped by individual decisions but also by the broader context, narrative and ‘lifeworld’ people are in (see Spaargaren, 2003).Transition ‘from the grassroots up’ (Alexander, 2013) needs to involve a move away from growth-orientated capitalism – or perhaps capitalism altogether – which itself implies overcoming the cultures of competition and overconsumption that are so deeply entrenched in modern life.
The Transition movement is a nascent movement that aims to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our times. It makes the case that the transition to a localised economy and a low-carbon lifestyle can be fun, and that the transition will benefit the community and the environment. It argues that an incremental approach to building community resilience ‘can add up to something big and extraordinary’ (Hopkins, 2013: 132). The movement aims to create a different vision for where we want to go and provides ideas and techniques to get us there collectively. Questions remain around how inclusive the movement really is and whether local initiatives can have enough influence and/or build enough momentum to lead to a transformation of the current growth-based consumerist capitalist system. Transition will most likely not be able to achieve this alone and it could benefit from collaborating with dissident and defiant groups that challenge consumerism, capitalism and the actors that support/generate our ‘unsustainable, ecocidal economic system’ (North and Scott Cato, 2012: 110). On a global scale, the movement is still small, but so were the Civil Rights, the Women’s rights, sexual liberation, LGBTI movements once; they looked too small to effect change. But tipping points arrive, often unexpectedly, when suddenly things change. It could be that we are at the pre-tipping point stage with Transition and the potential is definitely there. But it needs a spark of some sort for that potential to be unleashed.
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[1] Although there has not been specific study on consumption levels in Transition, Pir’s (2009) study on resilient food systems in one of the historical and most established initiatives in Totnes shows that despite people being aware of the problems associated with large scale industrial food production, they still shop primarily at the supermarket (because of cost and convenience, choice and variety offered by big retailers, and lack of social cohesion). 

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: capitalism, Consumerism, Politics, resilience, Social justice, social movements, Transition movement