Friday, April 01, 2011

Is The Transition Movement A Yuppie Diversion?

I am feeling a little like "Dear Abi." Yesterday, I got an email addressed to me and several other Transition movement organizers around the country. It was in response to the Transition US March e-newsletter. I'm not sure which article upset this reader, but he wrote me and several others the following note:

IS TransitionUS JUST A SORT OF YUPPIE SUBSTITUTE FOR TAKING SERIOUS POLITICAL ACTION ON, SAY, THE YANKEE G.E. NUKE PLANT IN VERNON, VTAND THE 100+ such plants that are scattered across our country? In a few words, are you simply DIVERTING US, with cutsie-pie, from doing serious and adult things?

Below is a slightly revised version of my response:

Dear Friend,

I'm not really clear if you are just stating a conclusion, or if you are actually curious about the question you have raised. Anyway, I've tried to take your question seriously and answer it at some length below. I look forward to hearing back from you at your earliest convenience.

A Bit About Who I Am

Besides running an activist training program at Antioch University New England, and being a long time activist before that, I am a founding member of the Transition Keene Task Force--a group of eight friends and neighbors who got inspired by reading Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook together. We are the 56th Transition initiative in the US and the first in New Hampshire.

The Transition Movement's Analysis

Like many people, I was originally attracted to the Transition movement for a variety of interrelated reasons. One motivation for many Transition activists is the movement's unflinching analysis that our local communities, our nations, and the larger global community are increasingly facing a severe threat from the "perfect storm" of climate change, peak oil, and an increasingly dysfunctional global economy. Business as usual is just not working or creating a sustainable, just, or fulfilling world.

As Hopkins' notes, "It is no longer just a case of whether we should be questioning the forces of economic globalization because they are unjust, inequitable or a rapacious destroyer of environments and cultures." Added to these concerns, we now have to add the likelihood that the impacts of global climate change and the end of the Age of Cheap Oil will send serious shockwaves through our industrial civilization--shocks that will almost inevitably change the way we live, work, and play in the future. This troubling view of our future is becoming increasingly convincing to a growing number of people. As Paul Hawken notes in his book Blessed Unrest, "If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the correct data." My guess is that you likely agree pretty much with the Transition movement's analysis. If so, we already have a lot of common ground.

The Transition Movement's Vision

The greatest appeal of the Transition movement to me, however, is probably its palpable sense of historic opportunity and its vision of a more resilient, just, and fulfilling way of life at the end of the Age of Cheap Oil. A core tenet of the movement is that a "future with less oil could be better than the present," but only if we "engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination." The movement's visionary approach is based on finding creative and effective ways for communities to unleash positive, solutions-oriented, grassroots citizens' initiatives to (1) significantly lower community energy use; (2) convert to more local, safe, and renewable energy sources; (3) foster a more localized, green-collar economy that can meet the basic needs of all its citizens; and (4) strengthen the very heart and soul of local community life in ways that offer deeper connection and life satisfaction than mass consumer culture.

This vision appeals to many people when they hear about it. As Hopkins explains in his book, "I have delivered this message many times, in talks, courses and blog posts, and have yet to encounter anyone who thinks that stronger local economies, increased local democracy, strengthened local food culture and more local energy production are a bad idea." While Hopkins is likely exaggerating about the universally positive response he receives in order to make a point here, it is still a good point. The Transition movement's vision does seem to appeal to an increasing number of people in my town, including people in several different places across the conventional political spectrum.

While the Transition movement's politics of relocalization can be viewed as radical because it seeks to foster a transition towards sustainability, social justice, community well-being, and participatory democracy, such visions also matter to principled conservatives. Indeed, as Transition fellow-traveler Pat Murphy notes, modernist "values of novelty, comfort, convenience, ease, fashion, indulgence, luxury and competition along with other indolent values associated with declining empires must give way to different values such as cooperation, temperance, prudence, moderation, conviviality, and charity." Anyway, you might even be in rough agreement with the transition vision. If so, we have even more common ground between us.

The Transition Movement's Strategy

A third thing that draws in many of the movement's participants, including me, is that the Transition organizing model promotes an innovative and inspiring strategy for change--and at a local scale that many people see as the most workable for themselves. Most Transition movement leaders and many participants are wise enough to know that concerned citizens will ultimately need to encourage the development of creative international treaties, and more daring national, state, and local public policies that promote a large-scale transition towards economic relocalization and energy descent. Yet, the movement also believes that the levers for this kind of change are not immediately available to grassroots activists. As Richard Hienberg states in his foreword to Hopkins' book, "On the whole, national governments are slow to understand and act on this imperative, as there are too many interests vested in maintaining the status quo."

While not at all discounting the vital role of elections, lobbying, and the conventional issue campaigning--or even the nonviolent direct action approach of somewhat more militant groups--the strategic emphasis promoted by Transition movement leaders and participants is on organizing local, community-based, self-help projects and alternative institutions that are fun, energizing, relevant, and are likely to engage many new people as active citizens.

Adding The Transition Strategy To The Activist Mix

This strategic approach might be what you are most worried about--because you may see it as a distraction from the kind of issue campaigning and protest efforts you think are most needed now. Is that true? If so, I would ask you to remember one thing and to consider another.

First, please remember that many Transition activists do actively engage in elections, lobbying, issue campaigns, and some--like myself--even engage in and support nonviolent direct action. We are not diverted. We are just adding another tool to our activist tool box by doing Transition organizing.

Second, I encourage you to consider the Transition movement's main strategic orientation--which is essentially what Gandhi called the "constructive program"--as a supplement rather than a distraction or a diversion from other types of activism. I personally think that any successful movement for fundamental social change will require a local-level constructive program of education and action like that focused on by Transition initiatives, as well as elections, lobbying, issue campaigning, opposition to certain types of development and technologies, and nonviolent direct action. Different movements, organizations, and networks might focus on one or two of these types of tactics and not others for various reasons, but all of these approaches to change are likely needed. If we can agree on that, then we have tons of common ground--we are just focusing our primary strategic energies in different needed areas. Might you possibly agree with this?

Conclusion

Now the future may prove the Transition movement wrong about the wisdom of its strategic approach, but I think it is safe to say that we didn't arrive at this perspective from an immature, cutsie-pie, yuppie perspective. I would thus encourage you to see us as potential allies in the wider movement for positive social change, and perhaps even refrain from calling us names. Still, with that observation on the tone of your email aside, I do think your basic question is a good one and I've done my best to answer you fully and thoughtfully.

In closing, I just want to say thank you for all of your activist work and your efforts to contribute to the transition to safe and renewable energy sources and greater energy conservation. I certainly see you as an ally in this effort and hope you come to see me and my compatriots in the Transition movement as potential allies as well.

Best,
Steve

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