My Path To Transition Organizing
My becoming a local Transition organizer, on top of my work as a professor of Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability, was not at all a surprise to my family, my closest friends, or my colleagues in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England. They all saw my new volunteer work as consistent with my previous efforts over the years as both an activist and an activist educator. While the Transition movement often attracts people who have not been social movement activists before, some of us are fairly old hands. I am one of those old hands.
Organizing Activist Study Groups in The 1970s
Back in the mid-1970s, for example, when I was relatively new to grassroots activism, I helped organize a series of weekly study circles for environmental, peace, and social justice activists in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Our aim was to help each other see beyond the next demonstration, the next hot-button issue, or even the next volunteer shift at the food coop or community garden. Several of us sensed that we needed to go beyond our urgent, but largely unreflective activism. We wanted to create a more thoughtful politics than our heart-felt, but somewhat knee-jerk responses to date. The assembled participants in this series of study circles had decided to work together in order to construct a deeper, more mature analysis, vision, and strategy to guide our activist work in an emerging age of global ecological crisis.
I loved our living room gatherings in Twin Cities. Each week, after a potluck supper, we would settle-in for two and a half hours of reports and discussions based on our readings and our experiences. The learning process was participatory and lively--consciously rooted in the popular education theories of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Topics of the study circles included the environmental crisis, ecological limits to growth, North-South relations, US social justice issues, militarism, alternative social and economic visions, Gandhian nonviolence, and other organizing strategies. The curriculum for these "Macro-Analysis Seminars" was developed as a program of activist self-study designed by a Philadelphia group that was part of a national activist network called Movement for a New Society.
Rethinking Economic Growth
Looking back, I see now that we were working together to systematically construct and refine a collective action framework that was similar to the emerging "Transition Model" of today in many, many ways. I especially remember reading and discussing Bill Moyer's groundbreaking 1972 essay, "De-Developing the United States Through Nonviolence." Echoing central themes from Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook, Moyer explained how modern industrialized societies would at some point need to make a significant break from the dominant development model of ever-escalating economic growth and ever-expanding energy use and pollution. In light of emerging research, such as the Limits to Growth report put together by a team of MIT scientists, Moyer argued that there is increasing evidence that "there are not enough resources (including minerals, fossil fuels, water), and the environment's pollution-absorption capacity is not great enough" to sustain the dominant pattern of industrial development for too many more decades.
Anticipating the problems of peak oil, climate change, and the unsustainability and injustice of the global economy, which are all highlighted by the Transition movement today, Moyer argued that "complete world development" along the lines of the dominant industrial growth model is impossible. He then concluded that "over-developed" industrial nations like the United States will therefore have to choose between intensifying their war against the poor and the planet, while still risking future decline or collapse, or creatively "de-developing" themselves and finding ways to transition to a more just, resilient, and fulfilling way of life. As he noted in the piece, "In this long-range vision of a more egalitarian world in which the industrialized nations are de-developed, the standards of happiness would be based more on human relationships and individual actualization than quantities of material consumption."
This unconventional perspective challenged all of us active in those long ago study groups. Back then, almost all progressive activists still claimed that we should--and could--grow our way out of imperialism, poverty, and war by forever expanding the economic pie available to all people. Some of us, of course, also added that we should throw in some wealth redistribution policies in order to further enhance both social equality and democracy, but we were still firmly committed to unending economic growth. After exploring Moyer's ecological perspective, however, most of us in the study groups were able to begin moving beyond the dominant pro-growth consensus that held together most conservatives, liberals, and even self-styled radicals at the time.
Working in the "Anti-Nuclear" Movement
Several of us in the Twin Cities, and several others influenced by Moyer's thinking around the country, went on to assist the formation of a regionally-rooted, but nationally-networked alternative energy movement that waged numerous nonviolent direct action campaigns across the country. We set our immediate sights on blocking the construction of 1000 proposed new nuclear reactors in the United States, which we saw as a dangerous and very flawed attempt to maintain the dominant model of business as usual."
This particular "de-development" movement was ultimately successful at capping the number of US nuclear reactors at less than 200. This is a significant victory, even though we wished the final number had been zero. At that particular point in US history, however, and perhaps in part due to the limits of our oppositional organizing model, we were not able to build a strong enough movement to go farther and achieve our long-range vision of a transition to a decentralized, non-nuclear, post-oil economy built on a foundation of extensive energy conservation, an overall reduction in global energy demand, and switching to safe and renewable energy sources produced largely at the local and regional level.
By 1980, Moyer and co-author Pamela Haines wrote a new piece stressing that the "anti-nuke" movement would be wise to reframe itself as a more positive, safe energy movement and "actively advocate alternatives as well." As Moyer and Haines put it in this new piece, we need to be "calling for a shift from the traditional hard energy path of massive centralized generating plants using nonrenewable fuels to a new soft energy path of flexible decentralized generation based on a diversity of mostly renewable energy sources." Why? They argued:
It is not enough to add [the fossil fuels industry] to nuclear power as another system that must be fought. We need a vision of what we want America's energy future to look like, so that we can develop a strategy for the citizens' movement to get from here to there. Without a vision, we don't know where we are going, we get frustrated and stuck in protest, and don't have a basis for deciding what to do next. It is also important to have some ideas of what the transition period looks like so we can have benchmarks for recognizing our victories along the way.
Back to the Future With the Transition Movement
Now, close to 30 years later, this unfinished agenda has been strongly lifted up by the international Transition movement. We can see these visionary themes in the Transition movement's call for efforts to foster community resilience, promote energy descent planning, and move forward on the redevelopment of sound local economies that are just and sustainable. Such a constructive, community-driven program for a more relocalized and resilient world was certainly raised for our consideration in Moyer's writings, but he left it largely undeveloped in light of his more urgent priority of challenging nuclear power plant construction through local nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. With the Transition movement, this neglected element of Moyer's and Haines' thinking is now being put front and center again.
Not surprisingly, this new movement excites me. In all my work as an activist and activist educator since the 1980s, I have been puzzling over, and experimenting with, how to move toward the long-range, sustainability vision that was first brought to my attention by Bill Moyer and people like Pamela Haines. After all these years, one of my core conclusions is that it is no longer sufficient to put all our hopes into a mass revival of using the grassroots social action tools of electoral campaigning, voting responsibly, lobbying our elected officials, or even putting real "street heat" on corporate or government officials by participating in nonviolent protests and direct action campaigns.
Please do not get me wrong. I still believe that all of these forms of civic engagement are very important and still needed--and should be engaged in by active citizens everywhere. Yet, like most Transition organizers, I have also come to believe that something else--something very important--needs to be added into the mix of our activism and placed much closer to the center of our work. That something is a global movement of local grassroots organizing aimed at creating relocalized, resilient, and sustainable economies and communities through positive, practical, citizen-led projects and alternative institutions.
Today, between the cracks of my fulltime teaching gig, I'm trying to do my own small part of nurturing the growing transition movement right here in Keene, New Hampshire. It also makes for great service learning projects for my students.
For more information on our local community work, check out The Keene Transition Movement Community Website and Blog.