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Transition and activism


There are some very interesting stories of Transition Initiatives finding themselves coming closer than expected to activist groups and activism in general.

Do you have any thoughts or experiences about it? We're looking into this as it's clearly quite controversial, and going to be increasingly important for Transition Initiatives in times to come.

Charlotte Du Cann, editor of Transition Norwich and the incoming 'Transition: Social Reporting' pilot has agreed to write a specific news item for next month looking into this, and we're hoping to run a workshop at the conference as well.

This is a very stimulating 'edge' for Transition as it evolves, especially as we expect big cuts to services (in the UK at least). While we're hearing about councils suggesting that TT groups run libraries, we're also hearing about Transitioners joining groups such as UK Uncut to try to resist the cuts, and lobbying their local councils to resist the changes in UK policy enabling the sale of allotments - this is activism in action already!

Please have a think or make a reply or pass this on. We really think this is going to be important. Here are a few examples just in the last month:

Transition Heathrow is an activist group which exists to build community in the face of Heathrow airport's expansion, and was raided by the police recently (nothing happened). Members from Transition Town Lewes were central figures in the recent Climate Camp in South East UK, resulting in a group taking over a derelict space. Central Bristol saw some unsettling riots right on Transition Montpelier's doorsteps, apparently around a new Tesco, which had been peacefully campaigned against for over a year, which the initiative had supported.


Rhizome Co-op's picture

A friend has just sent me the

A friend has just sent me the link to a great article about community activism in Detroit which I think those engaged in this dialogue might find interesting. There's fantastic work going on there, which would make transition folk envious, were we the kind to suffer from envy. Hopefully instead it'll just inspire us.

I note that the authors see (and label) the movement as a form of activism, and draws inspiration from activist movements and people's struggles across the globe (the Chipko women in India, the Zapatistas in Chiapas), but I hope that doesn't stop those for whom activism is an unhelpful label appreciating the work being done. They also describe a form of organising that doesn't fall back on the archetypes of just protest or just social enterprise.

Here's a taste:

We never intended for it to be a traditional left-wing organization agitating masses of youth to protest and demonstrate. Nor did we intend that it become a large nonprofit corporation of the sort that raises millions of dollars from government, corporations, and foundations to provide employment and services to large populations. Both of these forms of organizing can be readily found in Detroit and all major cities in the United States, but the system continues to function because neither carries the potential to transform society. By contrast, our hope was that Detroit Summer would bring about a new vision and model of community activism—one that was particularly responsive to the new challenges posed by the conditions of life and struggle in the postindustrial city.

What I hope is that everyone reading and commenting in this discussion will be able to identify with the work going on in Detroit, and be inspired by it, and see the connection to the work they do. And in doing so we can remember that we're all on the same side, we're part of the same community and all the work we do plays a role in making the change we want to see. Some of us use the word 'activism' to describe that work. Others have had bad experiences of that word and prefer to avoid it. Those that want to identify with the word because it has some positive meaning for them should be free to do so. Those that don't because it has negative connotations for them should be equally free to avoid it. But we shouldn't be telling each other that we can't use the word about ourselves or that we have to use the word about ourselves. We're in danger of spending energy that could be spent making change on identifying differences and polarising around them.

Graeme Stuart's picture

ABC radio in Australia

ABC radio in Australia recently had an interview with Rob Hopkins and a critic of Transition Initiatives. I think one of her main criticisms was that the transition movement was not radical enough. But, as Rob suggested in a post, she created a bit of a "straw man".

In our group (Newcastle, Australia) quite a few of our members are involved in direct action against coal mining (we are the largest coal port in the world) and other protests. We are, however, beginning to consciously position Transition Newcastle as having a focus on a positive vision rather than protesting. (I'm sure many of us will still be involved in protests but more as individuals. For example we are soon having the "pleasure" of a visit by Lord Monckton and a creative response is being planned. We aren't bailing out totally and are about to host a network meeting for people involved in addressing climate change, including fairly radical groups.)

I've recently been reflecting on four roles of social activism as identified by Bill Moyer: the Citizen, the Reformer, the Change Agent and the Rebel. Each of these roles are important and I suspect that Transition Newcastle best fits into the role of Citizen. As such we are might attract people who are worried by "activism" but still want to do something to create a more sustainable future.  We aren't going to change the world by ourselves and there is room for many different approaches.

Jeff Mowatt's picture

Yes, we're an activist

Yes, we're an activist business, I guess. The aim is to leverage sustainable localised economic development.

Long term activism is focussed on advocating an alternative to capitalism, creating a people-centered economically empowering environment within impoverished communities. A major influence is Carl R Rogers person centered therapy.

 At one level our activism focuses on sourcing and leveraging social change, as can be see in our microeconomic strategy paper for Ukraine, as a work in progress. There's activism through education in what we do with the Economics for Ecology conferences

The core activism is however, very much one of human rights and this is at the core of out efforts in Eastern Europe, in raising awareness of 'Death Camps, For Children'.    


Doly Garcia's picture

"I've had discussions with

"I've had discussions with many people who fear it could put off 'others' but not met any of the 'others'."

Really? What about the examples above of people who have said clearly we were put off by activists?

People tend to meet and talk with other people with similar opinions, and that way they often believe their own opinions are more common than they are. If you come across somebody who has very different opinions from you, do you start a heated argument or do you make some polite comments, and if the person insists, you politely decline to continue discussing the matter? If you do that to other people, is it too much of a stretch to believe other people do it to you? Maybe some of those that said "others" would be put off actually meant that *they* were put off.

Please, it's OK to have different opinions, but to pretend that the opposing position doesn't even exist is a bit too much!

Chris Bird's picture

 Doly - I'm not pretending

 Doly - I'm not pretending anything. I am simply saying what my experience is. I expect there are people who are put off by some brands of activism but in the course of my discussions with people about the relationship between Transition and Direct Action I haven't met them. I organised a well attended Fishbowl event with independent facilitation precisely so people could air those views and they didn't surface.

You could still be right but I personally don't see any evidence of some silent majority who retreat as soon as they encounter the people you disparagingly dismiss as lefties and the old guard.

On the other hand I know lots of people who are put off from contributing to forums because of hasty criticism from people who leap to the attack without bothering to read what has actually been written.

Doly Garcia's picture

"You could still be right but

"You could still be right but I personally don't see any evidence of some silent majority who retreat as soon as they encounter the people you disparagingly dismiss as lefties and the old guard."

If people retreat, you won't see them easily. In fact, many of that silent majority won't even retreat, they won't come to meetings and events if they think they are likely to encounter things they don't like. If you want evidence of that silent majority, look at how many funders refuse to fund political campaigning, and if you look at the small print, you will notice that some of them have quite broad definitions of "political campaigning", that includes campaigning outside of political parties. Do you think funders would put such restrictions if this wasn't an issue for many people?

And by the way, I don't think I "disparangingly dismiss" anyone. That's your reading, not my meaning.

"On the other hand I know lots of people who are put off from contributing to forums because of hasty criticism from people who leap to the attack without bothering to read what has actually been written."

Let me quote some of the things other people wrote above:

"I am interested in the overlap and disparity between the mindset of those who want to create a vision of the future and work towards it, and those who see what others are trying to do and work to prevent it. This is, I believe, the dichotomy we are debating, labels notwithstanding. How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?"

"I became dissillusioned with the activist world after attending a Stop the War demo in London - witnessing a good number of people venting their hatred and blame on politicians with a level of vitriol that I found deeply disturbing. It made me realise with clarity that that sort of anger and hate was not helping anything - but only adding to the problem."

And I've said above I'm put off myself. In case I wasn't clear enough, I'll say it in a way that isn't open to interpretation: One of the big reasons I joined Transition was precisely because of the non-campaigning angle. I never wanted to join any other green organization because I was put off by campaigns.

And I'd like to add something from Rob Hopkins in a recent blog post, that I presume you've met if you are in Transition Totnes:

"A letter in this week’s Totnes Times argued “I am not sure I wish to have any pressure group directly involved and able to influence my children’s school”."

"For me, the idea that  “activism as a dynamic force within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it” is deeply flawed, and risks undoing much of the good work of the last 5 years."

I interpret this as Rob Hopkins being put off himself!

So, you still don't know anyone who is actually put off? I think you're just denying the evidence.


Chris Bird's picture

  Doly   I'm really trying




I'm really trying hard to see why you don't seem to understand what I am saying and why I'm increasingly confused by what you are saying!
I'm not denying that some people on this forum, including yourself, have expressed frustration with their experience of activism and a desire to work in a different way. I am simply telling you about my experience in Totnes where, although I do meet people who think Transition and Direct Action should be kept separate, they do not condemn that form of activity and often engage in it themselves.
Transition Culture can be a bit like the Bible - you can always find something to support your own views. Take a look at the post on Transition Heathrow, "a beautiful film about what happens when Transition meets activism, brought a tear to my eye."

To be consistent surely Rob should be condemning this fusion as harmful to the prospects of Transition?
...and if TTT "doesn't lobby or campaign" then Rob and I must have very different understandings of those words. Even a cursory glance through our website reveals support for the campaign for a cycle path that started with lobbying our MP and Devon County Council, full backing for demonstrating for more allotments, opposition to an unsustainable development proposals including a demonstration outside the district council offices, support for a campaign against an incinerator and lots more.
Of course, all this is alongside and has a lower profile then the important work of actually building the future but that doesn't mean it can be ignored or should just be left to others.
...and what about speakers? Vandana Shiva, tree-hugging direct action campaigner, is a regular. Naomi Klein was our biggest event so far this year. Bill Mckibben of is a likely speaker for this Autumn. Nobody bats an eyelid that these people speak at Transition events.



Doly Garcia's picture

I don't think the situation

I don't think the situation is confusing at all, I think it's very clear. You are saying that you haven't met people within Transition Town Totnes (the organization) that aren't willing to combine activism and Transition in some way. I am saying that I'm sure you have met people within Totnes (the town) that would be willing to join Transition but would be put off by activism. And that this is a very common position.

I've seen this attitude again and again in groups: People care a lot about what others within the group think, but don't care much about what the rest of their environment thinks. If you aren't looking around at what your environment thinks, the group is just going to be a clique playing its own game, not the start of a social movement.


Chris Bird's picture

 Doly You have every right to


You have every right to disagree with my opinions or to tell me that my experiences are not, in your opinion, typical. What you have no right to do is tell me what my experiences are. This conversation is finished.

Alex Loh's picture

I take a pragmatic view with

I take a pragmatic view with regard to activism. I am not against it but feel it needs to be proportionate and mindful of the realities of often how little resources and real power the campaign groups often have in comparison to the views of the genuine consensus (the silent majority Doly refers to, and they aren't all rightwingers or read Daily Mail!)

On a personal level, this is one of the only online places I use my real name other than the professional workplace - because Transition is by and large positive, engages with wider communities and involvement at present won't get me too much grief off the Old Bill!

I'll be blunt about what would happen if this changed, I'd withdraw support from Transition as my "business as usual" career which depends on me having a fairly respectable image these days is more valuable - especially as its also very supportive of my current low impact lifestyle and eco-friendly views, whilst paying a fair salary.

I have had a fair few run ins with authority in the past, I'm 39 and I grew up in hedonistic days of raves, britpop and the "fashionable dissent" of squatting and road protests - which, fun as it was, in reallity often equated to just using someone elses private property and resources as a playground - also the drugs and hedonism this era thrived on were often a distraction against more productive action.

All the road protestors and their eco-campaigns (which I was encountering every other day) wholly failed to encourage me to ride a bike, for many years I still wanted a car as it would increase my scope for partying and maybe meeting girls -  until as late as 2001 when some squatters built me one in return for using my tech skills wiring up an electric cooker in their squat - and this was in return for the fun I had at a rave there! but in reality this happened by "market" transactions rather than campaigning, albeit alternative market based on barter, not because the protestors messages (valid as they were) got through to me - but it worked, I still don't drive even though I'm now 150 miles away in a much larger area and have a 7-8 mile commute.

Getting back to the present day and local Transition groups, I noticed some of the folk from my local groups or linked to them did indeed go on marches against public sector cuts, particularly those targeted at libraries. They did so as citizen taxpayers rightly asking for VFM from their taxes paid, they didn't occupy anywhere other than the agreed march route, when they'd made their point they went home, - the end result - the Council made a U turn and the libraries are to stay open! However this was proportionate action.

What works to some extent in London or SE England might not work as well in the East. Particularly occupation of others' private property, even seemingly abandoned. Whereas in London and SE such property is very often owned by a faceless property management company, maybe even based overseas, in areas like Suffolk it is often owned by a local business which has plans for it and its unlawful occupation costs real local people real money, people who can't afford it (if they had spare cash they'd be using the building/land for more!)

A lot of people here in Suffolk actually are small business owners or depend on these businesses for employment, many would baulk at supporting any movement which does not completely respect the right to ownership of private property.

However these same business owners might yet be willing to allow a social enterprise to rent the same property if approached in the right way, and that it wouldn't adversely affect the image of their business. If a Transition group can do that and revitalise an otherwise derelict property, with the social enterprise standing on its own two feet in the local marketplace (and indeed some projects have) to me that is real positive activism!

Leo Murray's picture

First, I think, as others on

First, I think, as others on this thread have pointed out, that this is a bit of a false dichotomy. Some of the disagreements here seem to stem from semantic confusion over definitions of terms.

Where there appears to be genuine disagreement is ultimately around the sufficiency of the transition towns model to actually achieve transition. Nobody ( or nobody commenting here anyway) engaged in other forms of activism is saying that tt is not worthwhile; rather there appears to be a sonewhat dogmatic rejection of other forms by evangelical transitioners.

I am from the school of thought that says we obviously need both, and that they are not mutuallyexclusive - quite the reverse. They are co-dependent. There are some worryingly naive comments on this thread about creating alternatives that are more appealing than the status quo being all that is required to achieve transition. The arrival of a tescos is a disaster for a community, with myriad associated impacts. It has the malevolent effect of stamping out alternatives. Fighting a tescos invasion is about defending the space in your community for alternatives to thrive. If councils renege on allotment commitments just makes the work of transition more difficult.

Without a recognition of this mutual relationship between transition towns and other forms of activism, transitioners risk asking for a two steps forward, three steps backward scenario. It would be like spending all day planting potatos but doing nothing to challenge the chap who is following behind digging them all up again (and selling them on for a profit).

Everybody should be free to choose what form of activism they prioritise, and how best they feel their energies should be spent. But this should be in the context of a mutually supportive acknowlegement of te importance of one another's roles, and most importantly, some humility with regards to our own preferences about which form of activism is 'best'.

Chris Bird's picture

I'm coming into this debate a

I'm coming into this debate a bit late so I hope someone is still listening!

We discussed these issues in Transition Town Totnes Core Group and a Fishbowl event a couple of years ago. This followed some disagreements about how Transition should relate to Climate Camp in particular and direct action in general. We didn't reach any firm conclusions and certainly don't have a set of guidelines so the comments here are mine and not those of any consensus.

First I want to challenge the notion that protestors are just against things while worthy Transitioners are doing the real work of creating the alternative. While researching 'Local Sustainable Homes', the Transition book on sustainable housing, I kept coming across examples of how groups that had started as a campaign against something then created positive alternatives. Coin Street Builders started as a protest against office developers on the South Bank, The Yards self build project in Bristol grew out of a community protest against a bog-standard housing development that would have done nothing to address sustainability of affordability. The refurbishment of a historic mill in Stroud as housing started as a protest against it's demolition.

The recurring theme is that people are drawn into action by something they don't want and, by succeeding, gain the confidence to fight for something they do want. The key here is success. How many people are put off activism because of campaigns that failed we'll never know but the solution is not to avoid campaigns but to make sure we win more of them!

So should Transitioners be involved in that with Transition hats on? Should Transition Initiatives formally support campaigns against Tescos, coal fired power stations, incinerators etc.? That's for groups to decide for themselves but personally I'm uncomfortable wearing too many different hats. It starts to feel deceitful.

Would a Transition movement that explicitly supported direct actions and protest campaigns really alienate potential supporters? I've had discussions with many people who fear it could put off 'others' but not met any of the 'others'. On the other hand I've met plenty of people not attracted to Transition precisely because, as an organisation, we seem to wash our hands of people who take Joanna Macy's Step 3 (Stop harm to the planet) seriously.

Rob Hopkins asks if Transition Town Totnes would have been asked to partner our local school if we had been involved in direct action campaigns. Would our Town Council have become a Transition Council if our methods weren't always so polite? These are valid questions but we also have to ask about the doors that close when these ones open. What compromises will we have to make in the future to remain acceptable in the mainstream? - and bear in mind that it's the mainstream that is the problem.

So I have more questions than answers and some of the people I know who think that separate hats are a good thing are much more involved in direct actions than I am so there are no clear lines of divide here. But this is an inevitable, unavoidable and - so far -healthy debate so keep it going!


transitionheathrow's picture

We were asked to write

We were asked to write something for the article mentioned above so here is transition heathrow's views on this very important and interesting debate.

I guess the key point is that the two (activism&transition) can go together and don't have to be two seperate acts.

'Transition Heathrow: the direct action of everyday life'

Before the Transition Heathrow project had even begun, one of our initial key aims was to combine climate activism with local community initiatives by adding a more radical edge to the Transition Towns movement. The co-founders of Transition Heathrow all had a background of taking direct action with anti airport expansion group Plane Stupid and so we had experienced the massive success and impact that direct action had on framing the debate around aviation in the UK. It was off the back of Plane Stupid's successful work around the third runway at Heathrow that Transition Heathrow was born.

Although everyone in the movement against the 3rd runway was extremely proud that the runway was cancelled, as individuals we wanted to go beyond putting our bodies on the line for a day, to a way of creating change that lasts way longer than front page headlines in newspapers the day after an action. This is where the transition movement comes in and has a big part to play. What was most appealing about the transition model for us is that it is about the direct action of everyday life. We all know that governments and corporations are failing us when it comes to environmental issues and so clearly we need to take matters into our own hands. This is why transitioners “just do it themselves”. So when we wanted to plant stuff - we did some guerilla gardening. And when we wanted a site we squatted some abandoned land and brought it back into use. When we wanted to support the BA cabin crew strikes we took part in a solidarity bike ride through terminal 5.

Whatever we're doing it seems to be working. What was encouraging about the shocking police raid of our community market garden Grow Heathrow was the recognition that we are clearly getting to those who hold the power. A revolution disguised by gardening perhaps. Bring it on!

Doly Garcia's picture

In relation to this, I'd like

In relation to this, I'd like to add that this debate is anything but new. Shortly after Transition Brighton & Hove became an official initiative, a pamphlet called "The Rocky Road to Transition" written by some left-wing activists started to circulate around Brighton, basically saying that Transition wasn't enough like the usual green/leftie activism. There was a review published at the time in the Transition Culture website (I think it's Rob Hopkins reviewing it, but I'm not sure). You can read both the pamphlet and the review here:

At the time, I thought that left it quite clear that Transition was meant to be something quite different from the usual activism, but it appears that Transition initiatives keep getting dominated by the old guard greenies with their usual ideas, while not attracting many new people that don't find those ideas particularly attractive. I'm pretty sure this wasn't the original idea.


transitionheathrow's picture

While I agree that this

While I agree that this debate is nothing new (a lot of us had read "a rocky road to transition" before the transition heathrow project begun) I feel a lot of the points made in "the rocky road to transition" are still valid and we can't write them off.

I guess in a way Transition Heathrow is trying to be an example of what the trapeze collective are arguing for. Whilst we clearly see the benefits of the transition town movement and act upon these principles every day - we still recognise the need to oppose high carbon developments for example. Be it the 3rd runway, or GM crops as Rhizome mentioned above.

You can't build a sustainable resilient community when that community is being threatened with demolition. Likewise you can't build a sustainable resilient community if all the local jobs have been cut by the government. I guess this is why groups are joining with UK uncut protests, the resistance against tesco in bristol and the climate camp in Brighton.

I think this is the beginning of the crossover between the two (activism&transition) and for me this is really exciting. This breaks new ground and opens up new space which is different to the politics of the so called "old guard greenies".

Also just a thought to add in. The word activist simply means someone who is actively doing something about an issue. Surely this could be someone in a transition town group?

Liz Day's picture

This is a really interesting

This is a really interesting and important subject. Earlier in my life I was heavily involved as an activist on a number of issues - in the 1990s, on Jubilee 2000, the international debt campaign, and then later in the Stop the War campaign. I became dissillusioned with the activist world after attending a Stop the War demo in London - witnessing a good number of people venting their hatred and blame on politicians with a level of vitriol that I found deeply disturbing. It made me realise with clarity that that sort of anger and hate was not helping anything - but only adding to the problem.

That's not by any means the whole story - there are many peaceful people of goodwill involved in activism, and doing extremely important work. But my experience has led me to the conviction that the energy with which we do activitism is crucially important - motivation is everything. It can too easily turn into a repository for all our personal hatreds and wounds and unfulfilled desires. When we start to get in the business of condemning people - even our so-called enemys, that's when we become part of the problem. Genuine non-violent revolution happens when we can recognise and appeal to the humanity of our opponents, and trust in their innate goodness. Think of the 20th century icons of peaceful resistance - Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi. It's also about, as Joanna Macy would say, recognising that we're all connected, even those we judge as different and even opposite to us.

For me, becoming aware of all this lead me to pull out of activism, wanting to move on to something different. When Transition came along, it immediately clicked with me - it felt like such a breath of fresh air. Having been involved for some time now, I'm convinced that part of what's so important and groundbreaking about Transition is that it's coming from a different level of consciousness than your average activist group - though of course there are crossovers too. The crucial difference is that Transition is about being FOR something, rather than focussing all that precious life energy on being AGAINST something. The key motivator is a positive vision of what we're moving towards.

In Joanna Macy's map of the three-sided triangle of change, there's

1. Creating alternatives (local currencies, eco-housing, farm share schemes, etc etc)

2. Shift in consciousness - deepening insight about our planet and the place of human beings in the cosmos, and increased understanding of what needs to change, ie. the nature of the Industrial Growth System and what's unsustainable about it.

3. Holding actions in defence of life - lobbying, campaigning, etc.

Transition is strong on (1) - creating a positive model of community development and localisation. It also does a fair bit of (2) - especially, but not only, through the Heart & Soul / Inner Transition groups. Should Transition stay squarely in these arenas, or is in enevitable that there will be a crossover into (3)? 

Of course Transition will self-organise in whatever way the energy flows, and I guess we need to trust that. But, if it's enevitable (and I think it probably is) we might want to give some thought to the questions

How do we do politics in a way that's cooperative rather than adversarial?

How can we be mindful of the energy behind our activism and ensure as far as possible that it's coming from a place of compassion and honest movitation? 

How we can safeguard what is precious and unique and important about the Transition approach to date? 



Doly Garcia's picture

"Being *against* something

"Being *against* something gets inches in print in the commercial media, being *for* something is seldom as interesting for them."

I don't think that's true at all. Media are interested in new stories, of any variety. And something they particularly love is success stories, and those are built around being for something.

If some people find it easy to get inches in print saying that the Transition movement is cute but unrealistic, maybe that's because many Transition initiatives are cute but unrealistic. Something that's always bothered me from most people involved in the green movement is that they simply cannot contemplate the possibility that the criticism they get may actually be deserved, that it's not so much to do with all those evil powerful enemies, but because what they're doing is just not so great.

I sometimes suspect that what drives a lot of people to protests is that it gives them an easy target for their anger. It's a lot harder to admit that the world is such a screwed place not because there's evil out there, but because ordinary normal people just aren't so wonderful. They're just normal people prone to tribal preferences and stupid mistakes. And some of those normal people happen to be making decisions at corporations. The enemy is not really out there. The enemy is us. I suppose that should be the idea behind a Heart & Soul group, except that the Heart & Soul groups that I know of aren't about that at all, but much more about reinforcing the idea that "we are the good guys".


Duncan Lithgow's picture

I only want to add one thing

I only want to add one thing to this discussion, that is reputation.

The reputation of TT is mostly out of our TTs hands. Being *against* something gets inches in print in the commercial media, being *for* something is seldom as interesting for them. And everything we in TT are for is also against someone else's interests. Local farmers markets are a force against Tesco, local power generation is a force against the coal, oil and nuclear industries. Those groups have a lot of power and money and it would be a mistake for TTs to forget or underestimate the power structures we're up against. It's easy for the head of BP to get inches in print saying that TT is cute but unrealistic.

I'm sure you get the picture and others from an activist background are bound to be making sure these power structure issues don't get forgotten. Don't need me for that.

However I think there is a strong argument to be made for keeping TT at a distance to protest movements. TT needs to be a space which people who are not involved in 'activism against / protest against' to feel safe in and feel attracted to.

I feel there's a lot I'm leaving unsaid here, I hope some of it comes through. I just really need to get back to my day job now. Bye

(disclaimer: I am not currently involved in a TT initiative)

Kath Manning's picture

Activists are an individual

Activists are an individual or group active in promoting change, so in that sense all Transition is activism.

However, I think the question here is really 'What campaigns should Transition groups get involved in?'

My view of Transition is that it is inspiring and empowering the whole community to realise a vision of a more sustainable future. So whether you campaign on something depends on whether it fits with that community-led vision.

Eg if your Transition Group has raised awareness in the community and the community is keen to have allotments, then protest against council plans to close allotments fits in.

If awareness raising has identified a community vision for food that does not include supermarkets, and supermarkets are impeding that vision then campaigning on that issue is legitimate in my eyes. But if some members of your group object to supermarkets per se, but there is not yet a viable alternative to meet the needs of the wider community or abolishing supermarkets is not part of the community's plan, I would argue that campaigning for supermarket closure is just using the Transition movement as a vehicle for the views of a small section of the community and I am against that.

(PS Simon, I would disagree that your view that Transition is about 'finding people who want to make stuff happen, and making it happen' is grossly at odds with the the views of the rest of the steering group.)

Ed Mitchell's picture

There are good points in here

There are good points in here for thought, which I'm going to play back - for my concentration if nothing else - hope you don't mind (and I may be wrong!).

Matthew, I hope we will be discussing this in a room - at Sunrise Festival in June and at the Transition Conference in July... :)

  1. Terms and references: there no one understanding of the terms Activist, Protester, Campaigner (and probably 'Transitioner'). Perhaps there is an umbrella term 'Activist' which has behavioural patterns: protester, campaigner, ?...transitioner,... ? (I'm not sure a transitioner isn't a protester too, perhaps I'm trying to define a group of behaviour patterns as 'Transitioner'?
  2. Activities: 'activists' take part in constructive life choices and activities in their day to day lives which mean taking more control over how they want their life to be, and 'being the change'. They could also be taking part in more 'campaign-y' activities, resisting things they feel are not going so well around them. These two patterns are holistic at the individual level (I have heard that planting a potato is a 'direct action' which makes me chuckle every time I plant a potato).
  3. Balance of 'activist' activities in Transition: in the 'organisational' context of Transition, which is necessarily defined by boundaries marked out by a group as part of their group forming phases, 'protesting' and 'campaiging' may be controversial for some groups as 'Transition' is an alternative to those patterns (which are well catered for elsewhere)
  4. Engaging individuals with limited energy: individuals have only limited time for activist activities, so Transition is 'competing' for individuals' time and energy with other activist groups. From this perspective, having clear boundaries is vital to have the right people involved
  5. Our worldviews: I've heard it said that our language and our behaviours and our worldviews can be spirals in which we, as individuals, live in self-fulfilling loops (saw this today: "Through our assumptions and choice of method we largely create the world we later discover" (Cooperrider & Srivastra)). In this context, 'protesters/campaigners' can see everything around them through that lens, including Transition, which can divert 'Transition'
  6. External assumptions about Activism: Activism, when viewed from outside, may be seen as 'protest/campaigning' when it's much more than that!


Rhizome Co-op's picture

Ah, the joys of the internet.

Ah, the joys of the internet. If we were sat together in a room I'd hope we would be understanding each other more clearly. The written word is open to so much interpretation.

I've been trying to gently challenge the belief that activists/protesters (whatever we choose to call them) only do one sort of thing and it's somnehow incompatible with transition work. "There's 'them' and there's 'us'". I care about this stuff because transition needs to build community to succeed, and if we make assumptions about each other, and fail to value and appreciate the differences we won't build communities, or at least not one's that last. However I'm clearly not doing so very effectively

How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?

Simon, I hope you'll forgive me using this as an example. If what you were saying were accurate, I would agree. What I've been failing to convey (and my apologies for that) is that except that many people who might use the word 'activist' about themselves have simultaneously been doing both - taking action 'against' whilst also being involved in groups and movements that enable so there's no adaptation needed....

And Doly, I'm sorry to have provoked such frustration.Yes it's true that I personally tend to see much of my activity as 'activism', and if you don't like that - fair enough. But that activity includes a wide spectrum of things including personal lifestyle choices such as being vegan, working in local schools to create wildlife and veg gardens, growing my own, delivering training to both transition and non-transition groups and as well as the more 'political' activity such as co-organising and taking part in nonviolent direct action. I'm sure there's stuff on that list that you'd see as fitting well within the boundaries of transition (at least I hope so), so why does it feel like we're in conflict?

It seems that there are some barriers between the transition and activist communities (its frustrating using these terms because they're not distinct and separate). I hope Ed's post and any follow up help to dissolve what I see as artificial boundaries and help us work past stereotypes and assumptions so that we can work together regardless of how we perceive ourselves

Doly Garcia's picture

Rhizome above is a good

Rhizome above is a good example of what I said: in the mind of an activist, everything a green group does is activism and relates to that. This particular line is especially telling: "But there aren't always others out there, or not enough of 'em anyway." The campaigning is the important bit. The problem is that some people just don't like that mindset.

I have to say, as somebody who has always disliked campaigning, I found that if campaigners feel there is a scarcity of people wanting to do that, that's nothing compared with the scarcity of people wanting to do things themselves. And as soon as you get a group going to build local resilience, that immediately attracts a lot of campaigners that say: "But if you believe in all this, why don't you come to this or that?" The answer should be: "Because the time I use in campaigning isn't used in building resilience locally in this or that way." In reality, most people aren't very strongly pro or anti campaigning, so they are swayed by whoever offers the most tempting package. And it usually the campaigner package is the most tempting, because it offers like-minded company and entertaining activities at a very low price: just be another one in this march, just put your signature there, just do this very little bit. Things like growing an allotment or organizing a local Energy Fair are way, way more work intensive, and a lot of the work isn't as much fun, no matter how you try to make it fun.

That's why I believe there is a desperate need for a space where campaigning is restricted, because if there isn't that space, the tendency is that too much of the energy goes into campaigning and not enough into building local resilience. And those that dislike campaigning and would never join a campaigning group would find they have nowhere to go.


Simon Oliver's picture

Perhaps I am conflating

Perhaps I am conflating 'activist' with 'protester'

The latter is certainly defined by what they are against, as all the examples demonstrate. It's a rare protest that is trying to get something positive done.

There are of course many 'activists' who are not involved in opposing this, that or the other. They can probably be characterised as 'charity workers' although this is probably overly specific.

Nevertheless, I am not all that interested in pigeonholes. I am interested in the overlap and disparity between the mindset of those who want to create a vision of the future and work towards it, and those who see what others are trying to do and work to prevent it. This is, I believe, the dichotomy we are debating, labels notwithstanding. How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?

Rhizome Co-op's picture

Nice to see a debate

Nice to see a debate happening. A few responses:

Activism, as I see it, is about stopping other people from doing stuff.

Simon, you're definitely not alone in that view, but all I can say is that I don't know any activists that define their activism in only that way. I've been kicking around activist circles for over 20 years now and I just don't see that definition holding water except outside of 'activist' circles looking in. That's just one part of what self-defined activists do alongside a whole host of other activities as I mentioned in my earlier comment. It's also frustrating that it's usually framed as "negative" campaigning as it's all about making a more positive world and those positive messages are usually there but just not heard as loudly. For example the campaign "against" GM crops also pushed the alternatives of organic very heavily, campaigners "against" nuclear power sing the praises of renewables, and "anti"-incineration campaigners promote reduction of waste, effective recycling etc. Climate Camp not only highlighted problems but modeled a sustainable eco-village of thousands with it's own energy production, grey water, compost loos, vegan food, democratic decision making structures etc. Far more than just opposing stuff. As I said before - holistic

I'm not arguing that transition groups 'should' be activists in this sense if they don't want to be. Transition has a niche and it may well be wise to carry on occupying that specific ground and leave overt campaigning to others. But there aren't always others out there, or not enough of 'em anyway.

I would hate to see us ignore issues such as incineration, the resurgence of GM, expansion of nuclear power because we've bought into a distinction between "activism" and "transition" that only exists because we allow it to exist. This distinction is theoretical, but the impact of the technologies will be very tangible locally, nationally and internationally.....

I'd like to finish by echoing some of the thoughts from the comments above:

it's about people getting together to implement solutions with their own hands and skills, as opposed to asking somebody else to solve the problems for them.

change how communities are run from the inside

Another danger is that we assume activism means nationally co-coordinated campaigns aimed at politicians. That's true of some campaigning organisations, but there's a healthy activist scene out there that's about just what you're talking about - people making change for themselves.


Doly Garcia's picture

I was going to link to a

I was going to link to a comment I posted on one of the patterns, but it looks like they've been taken down. Hope it goes up again soon, it was about the most useful thing this site has ever had. Also, where else would I post my warnings to all initiatives about how not to do things?

Anyway, I put a comment a while ago explaining the rough agreement in Transition Brighton & Hove on the issue of campaigning. The agreement was that campaigning was allowed under the following conditions:

(1) It was completely non-political, not supporting any particular political party

(2) It was about a local issue, not national or international

(3) It was for something, rather than against something

Participating in national consultations was also allowed. And if somebody wanted to do any of the things that weren't allowed under a Transition banner, they were of course allowed to do it under other banners.

Did it work? I think it did to a certain extent. Problem is, when you are dealing with people that come from an activist background, their assumption is that what they are doing is fundamentally right, and they keep insisting on doing things their way and believing that Transition is fundamentally a campaigning group, simply because in their mind every green community group is a campaigning group. And people who don't particularly believe in campaigning tend not to join green groups, in the belief that green groups are all about campaigning. So it's a vicious circle, really.

Maybe part of the problem is that Transition has made the same mistake as most campaigning groups, defining itself by what it isn't more often than saying what it is. Instead of saying that Transition is non-campaigning, it may be more useful to say it's about people getting together to implement solutions with their own hands and skills, as opposed to asking somebody else to solve the problems for them.


Simon Oliver's picture

My approach (which I should

My approach (which I should point out appears to be at odds with the rest of the steering group) is that the transition movement is about finding people who want to make stuff happen, and making it happen. Activism, as I see it, is about stopping other people from doing stuff.

There is a place for both, and individuals can certainly participate in both. But the overriding message of transition events is showing people how they can shape their own community.

Take the so-called riot in Bristol. This was, apparently, started by a massive pre-emptive attack by the police on a squat opposite the peaceful protests, on the pretext that they had been told someone on the roof had a petrol bomb. The protesters were immediately seen as an enemy and corralled by reportedly brutal police tactics, and a few locals in a deprived and free-wheeling area of the city responded with some stone-throwing.

From this incident I draw the following conclusions - if you want your town to develop greater oil-free resilience, sustainably and peacefully, concentrate on offering an alternative to business as usual that is more attractive on every level. If you do this there will be no room in the community for things that need to be protested against.

I would also like to say that I think transition movements should avoid mainstream political involvement until they have the grassroots support to sway elections and change how communities are run from the inside. Getting involved before that distracts from the priorities of raising awareness and developing a common vision.

Rick Holland's picture

Perhaps I have misunderstood

Perhaps I have misunderstood where Transition groups should sit on this issue, but I will use a very local example to me to describe how I see it.

Hertfordshire County Council is procuring an energy from waste incinerator plant using PFI credits.  In response, a number of protest groups have formed around Herts.  Transition Groups in the affected locations have decided individually whether or not to openly or discretely align themselves with these anti-incineration campaign groups.

My view is that if Transition Groups do not agree with energy from waste incineration, then they should be 110% transparently supporting/campaigning for the better alternatives; i.e reduction, reuse and recycling.  They should not be diverting their efforts into negative campaigning against incineration, as it distracts attention away from the fact that not enough is being done to support the viable alternatives.

In my view, incineration is not the issue.  The lack of sufficient support for  reduction, reuse and recycling is.

This principle is quite easy to transfer to other examples.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi

Rhizome Co-op's picture

What I find most interesting

What I find most interesting about this discussion is that there can be an assumption of 'otherness' between transitioners and activists. I'm an activist, I'm also involved in transition, if only peripherally, and I know loads of others in the same situation. For many people who self-identify as activists one part of their activism is 'building the alternatives'. It's why people involved in organisations such as Earth First! who are into full-on direct action are also very involved in the creation of social centres, housing and worker co-ops, low-impact communities, permaculture and much more. It's a holistic approach to activism.

Personally I see transition work as a form of activism, which I define as something like "being active for change in the world" (and I'd also include 'in the self' as part of that). I think, long term, it's hard to do one without the other. Can you spend your waking hours campaigning on an issue whilst simultaneously ignoring the connections to a personal, local, community level? Can you be involved in transition and watch whilst another road is built through a nearby site of special scientific interest or seeing another GM test crop planted, without feeling some ambivalence.

I'm glad this conversation's happening, although wary of framing it in an "either/or" way...