The Transition Initiative

Art: Nikki McClure

Changing the scale of change

– Jay Griffiths

A while ago, I heard an American scientist address an audience in Oxford, England, about his work on the climate crisis. He was precise, unemotional, rigorous, and impersonal: all strengths of a scientist.

The next day, talking informally to a small group, he pulled out of his wallet a much-loved photo of his thirteen-year-old son. He spoke as carefully as he had before, but this time his voice was sad, worried, and fatherly. His son, he said, had become so frightened about climate change that he was debilitated, depressed, and disturbed. Some might have suggested therapy, Prozac, or baseball for the child. But in this group one voice said gently, “What about the Transition Initiative?”

If the Transition Initiative were a person, you’d say he or she was charismatic, wise, practical, positive, resourceful, and very, very popular. Starting with the town of Totnes in Devon, England, in September 2006, the movement has spread like wildfire across the U.K. (delightfully wriggling its way into The Archers, Britain’s longest-running and most popular radio soap opera), and on to the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The core purpose of the Transition Initiative is to address, at the community level, the twin issues of climate change and peak oil—the declining availability of “ancient sunlight,” as fossil fuels have been called. The initiative is set up to enable towns or neighborhoods to plan for, and move toward, a post-oil and low-carbon future: what Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Initiative, has termed “the great transition of our time, away from fossil fuels.”

Part of the genius of the movement rests in its acute and kind psychology. It acknowledges the emotional effect of these issues, from that thirteen-year-old’s sense of fear and despair, to common feelings of anger, impotence, and denial, and it uses insights from the psychology of addiction to address some reasons why it is hard for people to detoxify themselves from an addiction to (or dependence on) oil. It acknowledges that healthy psychological functioning depends on a belief that one’s needs will be met in the future; for an entire generation, that belief is now corroded by anxiety over climate change.

Many people feel that individual action on climate change is too trivial to be effective but that they are unable to influence anything at a national, governmental level. They find themselves paralyzed between the apparent futility of the small-scale and impotence in the large-scale. The Transition Initiative works right in the middle, at the scale of the community, where actions are significant visible, and effective. “What it takes is a scale at which one can feel a degree of control over the processes of life, at which individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers. . . participants and protagonists instead of just voters and taxpayers. That scale is the human scale,” wrote author and secessionist Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1980 book, Human Scale.

How big am I? As an individual, five foot two and whistling. At a government level, I find I’ve shrunk, smaller than the X on my ballot paper. But at a community level, I can breathe in five river-sources and breathe out three miles of green valleys.

Scale matters.

We speak of economies of scale, and I would suggest that there are also moralities of scale. At the individual scale, morality is capricious: people can be heroes or mass murderers, but the individual is usually constrained by inner conscience and always constrained by size. While a nation-state can at best offer a meager welfare system, at worst—as the history of nations in the twentieth century showed so brutally—morality need not be constrained by any conscience, and through its enormity a state can engineer a genocide. At the community level, though, morality is complex: certainly communities can be jealous and spiteful and less given to heroism than an individual, yet a community’s power to harm is far less than that of a state, simply because of its size. Further, because there are more niche reasons for people to identify with their community, and simply because there is a greater per-capita responsibility, a community is more susceptible to a sense of shame. Community morality involves a sense of fellow-feeling, is attuned to the common good, far steadier than individual morality, far kinder than the State: its moral range reaches neither heaven nor hell but is grounded, well-rooted in the level of Earth.

Starting with a steering group of just a handful of people in one locality, the motivation to become a Transition community spreads, often through many months of preparation, information-giving, and awareness-raising of the issues of climate change and peak oil. In those months, there are talks and film screenings, and a deliberate attempt to encourage a sense of a community’s resilience in the face of stresses. When members of the steering group judge that there is enough support and momentum for the project, it is launched, or “unleashed.”

Keeping an eye on the prize (reducing carbon emissions and oil dependence), Transition communities have then looked at their own situation in various practical frames—for example, food production, energy use, building, waste, and transport—seeking to move toward a situation where a community could be self-reliant. At this stage, the steering group steps back, and various subgroups can form around specific aspects of transitioning. Strategies have included the promotion of local food production, planting fruit trees in public spaces, community gardening, and community composting. In terms of energy use, some communities have begun “oil vulnerability auditing” for local businesses, and some have sought to re-plan local transport for “life beyond the car.” In one Transition Town there are plans to make local, renewable energy a resource owned by the community, in another there are plans to bulk-buy solar panels as a cooperative and sell them locally without profit. There are projects of seed saving, seed swapping, and creating allotments—small parcels of land on which individuals can grow fruit and vegetables.

“The people who see the value of changing the system are ordinary people, doing it for their children,” says Naresh Giangrande, who was involved in setting up the first Transition Town. “The political process is corrupted by money, power, and vested interests. I’m not writing off large corporations and government, but because they have such an investment in this system, they haven’t got an incentive to change. I can only see us getting sustainable societies from the grassroots, bottom-up, and only that way can we get governments to change.” In the States, the “350” project (the international effort to underscore the need to decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million) is similarly asking ordinary people to signal to those in power. If change doesn’t come from above, it must come from below, and politicians would be unwise to ignore the concern about peak oil and climate change coming from the grassroots.

The grassroots. Both metaphorically and literally. Transition Initiative founder Rob Hopkins used to be a permaculture teacher, and permaculture’s influence is wide and deep. As permaculture works with, rather than against, nature, so the Transition Initiative works with, rather than against, human nature; it is as collaborative and cooperative in social tone as permaculture is in its attitude toward plants and, like permaculture, is prepared to observe and think, slowly.

One of the subgroups that Transition communities typically use is called “Heart and Soul,” which focuses on the psychological and emotional aspects of climate crisis, of change, of community. Importantly, people are encouraged to be participants in the conversation, not just passive spectators: it is a nurturant process, involving anyone who wants to be a part. Good conversation involves quality listening, for an open-minded, attentive listener can elicit the best thoughts of a speaker. Giangrande says that the Transition Initiative—which has used keynote speakers—is also exploring the idea of keynote listeners as “a collaborative way of learning how to use knowledge.” When I asked exactly what that would involve, he couldn’t be specific, because it was still only an idea, which is revealing of the Transition process, very much a work-in-progress. The fact that they were trying out an idea without being able to predict the results has a vitality to it, an intellectually energetic quality, a profound liveliness.

The Transition Initiative describes itself as a catalyst, with no fixed answers, unlike traditional environmentalism, which is more prescriptive, advocating certain responses. Again unlike conventional environmentalism, it emphasizes the role of hope and proactiveness, rather than guilt and fear as motivators. Whether intentionally or not, environmentalism can seem exclusive, and the Transition Initiative is whole-heartedly inclusive.

While in many ways the Transition Initiative is new, it often finds its roots in the past, in a practical make-do-and-mend attitude. There is an interesting emphasis on “re-skilling” communities in traditional building and organic gardening, for example: crafts that were taken for granted two generations ago but are now often forgotten. Mandy Dean, who helped set up a Transition Initiative in her community in Wales, describes how her group bought root stocks of fruit trees and then organized grafting workshops; it was practical, but also “it was about weaving some ideas back into culture.”

In the British context, the memory of World War II is crucial, for during the war people experienced long fuel shortages and needed to increase local food production—digging for victory. In both the U.K. and the U.S., the shadow of the Depression years now looms uncomfortably close, encouraging an attitude of mending rather than buying new; tending one’s own garden; restoring the old.

Photograph: Ananth Somaiah

To mend, to tend, and to restore all expand beautifully from textiles, vegetables, and furniture into those most quiet of qualities; to restore is restorative, to tend involves tenderness, to mend hints at amends. There is restitution here of community itself.

For all of human history, people have engaged with the world through some form of community, and this is part of our social evolution. Somewhere deep inside us all is an archived treasure, the knowledge of what it is to be part of a community via extended families, locality, village, a shared fidelity to common land, unions, faith communities, language communities, co-operatives, gay communities, even virtual communities, which, for all their unreality, still reflect a yearning for a wider home for the collective soul. The nineteenth-century artist William Morris spoke of the gentle social-ism that he called fellowship: “Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death.”

People never need communities more than when there are threats to security, food, and lives. The Transition Initiative recognizes how much we need this scale now, because of peak oil and climate change. But beyond this concrete need, the lack of a sense of community has negative psychological impacts on individuals across the “developed” world, as people report persistent and widespread feelings of loneliness, isolation, dispossession, alienation, and depression. Beyond a certain threshold, increased income does not create increased happiness, and the false promise of consumerism (buy this: be happy) sets the individual on a quest for a constantly receding goal of their own private fulfillment, while sober evidence repeatedly suggests that happiness is more surely found in contributing toward a community endeavor. (The Buddha smiles a tired, patient smile: “I’ve been telling you that for years.”) Community endeavor increases “social capital,” that captivating idea expressing the value of local relationships, networks, help, and friendships. A rise in social capital could be the positive concomitant of a fall in financial capital that a low-carbon future may entail.

This is Part 1 of the article, originally published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion magazine.

Jay Griffiths


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