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Transition Matters

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The Transition Movement: Questions

The Transition Movement: Questions of Diversity, Power, and Affluence


A mood of defiant positivity is 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 we face today.

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 full paper is available here:

Best wishes

Simon Ussher and Samuel Alexander
Directors of the Simplicity Institute