Fairness in Transition

September 4, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Goldfish image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

Today we launch our new theme of ‘Fairness’ with an editorial from Sophy Banks:

We picked a big topic for this month’s theme – to run alongside the build up and aftermath of the 2015 Transition Conference. Fairness. Exploring this leads pretty quickly to some other major themes – inclusion, justice, power to name a few. Here are some thoughts on how these show up – or don’t – in Transition. Do send us your comments and reflections.  What is Fairness? Could we agree on a definition? And is it something that’s learnt or instinctive?

I was fascinated to come across this experiment into fairness, originally carried out with monkeys but now replicated with other animals. Here’s the relevant section from Frans de Waal’s TED talk: 


The experiment suggests that fairness is very much wired into the mammalian mind. It makes sense to me that it would be an evolutionary advantage to treat all members of a tribe fairly, ensuring that as many as possible have the means to survive – at least when there’s enough.

Fairness hasn’t been very explicitly visible as a theme in Transition, yet for me it’s been running in the background like a heartbeat. It was an interesting step to move beyond “Peak oil and climate change” – the drivers for Transition originally framed by Rob and Ben, to include “Social injustice”. And it’s felt positive to me that we have continued to expand the reasons for Transition to include a much wider view of the problems caused by the globalised system of  continuing economic growth.

In some forums we’ve reflected on the demographic of the Transition movement – that in many places it’s mainly white, middle class and middle aged. Is that OK, and what can we do about it? In training groups I’ve worked with the question of how to be inclusive, how to offer the benefits of Transition to more of the community has been the most asked question, and I’ve seen people working passionately to make this happen. Some have said that Transition is all about energy descent, and it is precisely those with more affluent and energy intensive lifestyles that need it most. But it’s also clearly problematic for a small and un-representative group in the community to be thinking they have a mandate to vision and then build the future that they see. I’ve seen a few groups take a different approach to networking, focusing from the start on building connections to make the group more inclusive, and not starting any projects until these connections are made – and then ensuring that Transition supports the agenda and work of many community groups with different priorities and agendas beyond just that of Transition.

In the early days of Transition Training we talked about David Holmgren’s four stories of the future that felt current and meaningful.  It plots resource use and pollution, which have risen exponentially over millennia. Now we are at a moment of pause and significant questions. Where do we go from here?

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In one story the curve keeps on rising upwards – business as usual or endless growth. The second story is a plummet to collapse of all systems. The third, a flattening out of the growth curve, some kind of green version of what we have, perhaps with overall stagnation in economic activity. The fourth pathway of planned descent, to a liveable future for everyone was the Transition vision – imagining relocalised, low resource use systems that we and future generations will need, and building what we can of them, together, right now. In this we descend the curve gracefully, asking powerful questions about what makes human life truly worthwhile, satisfying and secure.

What we are seeing playing out in many countries is a combination of these stories – where Austerity for the many runs alongside continuing growth in wealth for the few. Austerity is not a planned energy descent with resources shared so that everyone has the basics for life – but a steady taking of assets from common ownership into private, from serving wellbeing to serving profit, and taking entitlements and services from those with less to continue to feed the wealth of the rich. Increasing evictions for non payment of rent, job losses, food poverty in the UK are all like miniature collapses – of the basic structures of living – for a person or family. In countries like Portugal and Greece the scale of collapse, and resulting hardship is more deeper and more widespread.

One of the key developments of Transition in recent years has been the focus on REconomy – on creating livelihoods, social enterprises or businesses. Without the possibility to earn a living doing Transition work it will continue to be a niche activity, possible only for a few, and having a smaller impact. I was interested to hear of a similar initiative in the USA that is bringing all kinds of alternative economic models from time banks to currencies, in order to bring new justice systems as well as regenerative enterprises into being.

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Another area of development has been inner Transition – focusing on the inner journey that Transition brings us. There are many aspects of this which touch on aspects of fairness. Back in 2007 I heard Marianne Williamson give a talk for Transition Town Totnes in which she spoke about the need for movements for change to go deep, as well as broad, to draw many people to the truth they hold. I was really struck by this – that the appeal of a movement will be limited by the depth of truth that its leaders are holding. She pointed out that major faiths – Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Quakerism and others were all originally movements for change which start with deep spiritual enquiry and values, and have drawn billions to their teachings, and lasted for centuries.

What does it mean for something like Transition to seek to go deeper? I think it means that as well as focusing on the positive, we are willing to ask questions about the destruction and pain of our system, and to reflect on how these show up not just out there in the system we seek to change, but also in ourselves and our projects. It asks us to hold deep values, which for me include the refusal to believe in good and bad people, to work with continuing compassion for ourselves and others, including those we disagree with, and to do what we can to build a system based on inclusion, fairness and well being in all its aspects.

The field of Ecopsychology has looked at parallels between systems of exploitation and domination among humans – racism, sexism, colonialism for example – and our exploitation and domination of nature. In all there are beliefs about the less powerful “other” framed by the dominant discourse that justify its treatment.

I heard Brian Stevenson on the radio a while ago. He is a black lawyer who works with people on Death Row, as well as defending those including children of 13 and 14 who can be sentenced too, and was inspired to find his TED talk about justice and injustice in the USA. In it he talks about the truth that if we’re not willing to look at poverty, injustice, at the places in our society where pain is felt, we’re somehow not fully human, we’re disconnected – however much we’re tuned into creativity, possibility and hope.

For me this is a powerful truth, and links to one of the ways I talk about Inner Transition, to make spaces for what is happening in our system to be heard, including symptoms of pain or dysfunction. In a culture which pushes pain away at all levels of scale – from medicating, numbing, distracting or soothing our personal pain with pills, alcohol, entertainment, business or chocolate, to media which reports endless disasters, death and violence elsewhere, but rarely talks about the everyday pain of poverty, injustice, sexual or racial violence, and so on, it can be revolutionary to make a space to hear how the system inflicts pain in everyday ways.

This was one of the driving forces of the women’s movement in the 1970s – that women coming together and simply talking about their experience led them to being able to name, feel and respond to their frustrations, unhappiness, and anger. Building trusting relationships in largely self facilitated groups some went on to change laws, create new institutions like rape crisis centres and women’s refuges from domestic violence. Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects and other processes commonly used by inner Transition groups invite us to make spaces for our pain for the world – understanding that precisely because we are deeply connected to the wider field of life, when others are assaulted, destroyed, killed or polluted the pain we may feel is real, valid and needs expression.

Brian Stevenson talks about the danger of this – reporting from a lecture he gave there that a German said it would be unimaginable for Germany to have the death penalty because it could not think of having a State sanctioned system for killing people. In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation process enabled some kind of healing of the wounds of Apartheid. Yet in the USA, where there has never been a healing of the wounds of racism, the system prevails which incarcerates massively more black men than white, denies them the vote in many states, and continues to kill some – even though 1 in 10 convicted and on death row have been found to be innocent.

What would this mean for our times, if we are to truly create something beyond the system of global industrial growth? What might we as humans need to do to name and honour the destruction, the suffering caused to human and non-human lives as well as including the benefits, the creativity, the connections it has brought about?  Could this be part of what a Transition group does?

At the conference I’m planning a process to explore this – a Requiem for the Global Industrial Growth System – where we imagine ourselves witnessing its passing, and take time to remember different aspects of its long existence. As with many of our big processes at the conference it will be an experiment – and one of the questions I’m with is “what happens in me when I imagine the system in its present form falling away  – what fears as well as hopes arise?” And if we imagine that some of the main structures or industries of that system reach their end, what is the essence, the true purpose they set out to serve, that we will want to keep, to sustain us into the future?

I find it interesting how this topic of fairness quickly takes me into territory that feels difficult – as if by invoking the positive quality of fairness we bring its shadow into view. As part of my journey in Inner Transition I’ve been reflecting on our ability as humans to create cultures which are destructive, unequal, unsustainable, and those which are the opposite – or a mix of both. Within Transition groups I’ve seen a lot of wonderful, consciously created ways of working, as well as common tensions around inclusion, power sharing or leadership, creating a sustainable culture, or burnout.

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It’s a fascinating enquiry, and at our September International Transition Conference there will be workshops exploring some of the technologies and practices that can help us, our groups and our projects to work well. These include a whole Skills Day on Personal Resilience on Friday 20th, and shorter workshops within the conference one on the long tried and tested social technologies of indigenous societies, to the very modern Sociocracy 3.0. There will be a workshop on working with values from Common Cause, and Caring Town Totnes will be explaining how they’re working to build community led care services that look after everyone. Of course there’s lots more – so take a look (and book your ticket soon, they’re selling fast!)

Later in this series on fairness we’ll be exploring how issues of rank and power affect groups, and looking at how we can work with them in good ways – by making them more visible so we can change things that are excluding or unfair. We’ll also have an interview with Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of The Spirit Level – a book whose extensive research showed that inequality is bad for everyone – including the rich.

And of course we’d love to hear your thoughts about fairness, in Transition and elsewhere – if you have a story, a question or something else you’d like to share do get in touch.

Tags: Social justice, Transition movement