So, picture the scene. There I was, standing on a Totnes street corner with a film crew from Germany with whom I had been spending the afternoon filming a piece about the new Totnes Pound and local food strategies. We were taking a break from filming when a woman came up and asked them what they were filming. “We’re filming a piece about Transition Town”, they said. “Huh”, she said. “Let me tell you about Transition”. “Uh oh”, I thought, “here we go”.
“Have you heard of the Merchant Venturers in Bristol?”, she asked. Blank looks from my German friends. “Well you need to look into that, in order to see who’s really behind Transition Town”, she continued, getting into her stride. “You need to look into the organisations behind it all. It’s vast. You see that land over there?” she said, pointing down South Street behind her to the extensive rolling green hills beyond. “Transition are going to build all over that. Cover it in concrete. That’s what they’re all about – construction”. Having imparted her revelation, she departed, leaving us all to take in this new, and clearly impeccably researched, conspiracy theory about Transition.
It joins a long queue of similarly groundless and ridiculous conspiracy theories on the subject. Here’s just a few of my favourites that have emerged from the conspiracy blogosphere over the years. Foster Gamble, maker of the dire conspiracy film ‘Thrive’ wrote:
“A key to understanding Transition Towns is recognizing that the organization was founded and operated out of the United Kingdom as a creation of the British Fabian Socialist Society. Transition Initiatives require local communities to conform to “Energy Descent Action Plans”. The same people who are imposing this Plan are the ones suppressing “new energy technologies” — technologies that obsolete the notions that energy is scarce and that using it has to be intrinsically polluting”.
To give him his due, when challenged on this he did apologise on the “British Fabian Socialist Society” point, albeit with the caveat “If in fact I am wrong about your Transition Towns endeavor involving coercive socialism, I will be thrilled and more than happy to apologize for the misrepresentation and correct it here”. Unfortunately in millionaire Gamble’s case, one man’s “coercive socialism”, is another man’s “economy in which people pay taxes”.
A website called ‘Common Purpose Exposed’ states that Julia Middleton, from an organisation called ‘Common Purpose’:
“Addressed the first TT conference on the subject of eugenics although you will find no evidence of this on their current website”.
I was there, and I can tell you there was no workshop on Eugenics (defined by the World English Dictionary as “the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp. by selective breeding”). Can any readers who have been to a Transition Network conference imagine that? “Hmm, Workshop session two, let’s see … Inner Transition, Community energy companies, local food systems, eugenics…” I mean, come on. And note how the fact that there is no reference on our website to something that didn’t happen is presented as evidence that it therefore must have done. Welcome to conspiracy logic world.
A fantastically badly researched article by Susanne Posel set out the “dangers that Transition Towns impose on our sovereignty and individuality” as:
• They refocus town planning and infrastructure on implementation of Agenda 21
• They appear to be grassroots operations
• They promote the Peak Oil mythology as an energy scare-tactic
• They support SmarthGrowth which is code for Agenda 21
• They aspire to control framing (by which I assume she means farming?), disburse ability to farm, and pressure governmental policies on farming that reflect Agenda 21
• Use the hoax of man-made climate change as the purpose for imposing policy control by building cities that are designed to reduce carbon emissions
• Securitize local food stores, businesses, healthcare and fuel
• Ensure SmarthGrowth controls all citizens ability to acquire any needs for human survival
• Create internal advocacies that band together to purvey Transition Town propaganda to elected officials and local governments
By working on the ground level, Transition Towns can over take states and nations quicker than funneling through the bureaucracy of national governments.
She also writes:
“Through manipulative training courses and propaganda films, Transition Towns are beginning to take root as a fake grassroots effort that poses great danger to our individuality and personal sovereignty”.
In the hands of those inclined towards conspiracy theories, the internet is a dangerous tool. Posel’s article has been reposted as gospel in many places, including, perhaps not surprisingly, David Icke’s site. No additional evidence or research is required. It’s what people like Posel and other conspiracy theorists proudly refer to as “research”, but which really seems to consist of Googling other conspiracy theory websites to find things that back up your theory.
A guy called Dean Philpot posted a video on YouTube, now sadly taken down, which argued that Transition is a scam designed to “take our land away”. He also posted this fascinating flow diagram showing how Transition is in fact part of a system that can be traced to the CIA and the Trilateral Commission among others (unfortunately this is the only version I can find online and it’s very low resolution, the original in the video was brilliant).
So what is a conspiracy theory? According to Daniel Pipes, a conspiracy theory is simply a conspiracy that never happened, that it is “the nonexistent version of a conspiracy”. Richard Hofstadter writes that the problem with them “is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force of historical events”.
In other words, if Transition gains any sort of traction or success, it must be because powerful forces have allowed it to, indeed have decided that that must be the case, or indeed have actually most likely designed, created and resourced it in the first place. Conspiracy theorist Ian R Crane used to enjoy, without providing any supporting evidence, referring to “Rob Hopkins and his paymasters”. The very existence of Transition can be seen as confirmation of dark actors behind the scenes, with everyone’s motives open to question.
David Aaronovitch, in Voodoo Histories. The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history, defines conspiracy theories as:
“The attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add: the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another”.
That hits the nail on the head for me. “The attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another”. Although it is far more likely that Transition is actually what it presents itself as, i.e. a group of well-motivated people in a community trying to change it for the better, the far more covert and complicated argument is presented as being more logical. The conflating of two facts: that the town has a successful Transition initiative, and that the land around the town is under pressure from developers, is again seeking a far more complex explanation where the simpler one would make far more sense.
As Aaronovitch adds:
“Conspiracists are always winners. Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself”.
So for example, when I challenged, in a comment thread, the assertion that Transition Network hosted workshops on eugenics, the fact that I had bothered to try and correct it was seen as evidence that we must have “something to hide”.
For me, conspiracy theories often represent what happens when people feel so disempowered, disinterested or bewildered by politics that it becomes easier to make up their own. It’s a world where things don’t just happen, they are all part of a carefully planned and meticulously rolled-out masterplan. Yet any time spent with anyone actually involved in politics will tell you that much of it is chaos, generally responsive rather than proactive.
Do bad things happen because neoliberal capitalism is doomed to eat itself to death and corrupt most of what it touches, and is fighting for the dwindling resources on a finite planet, or, perhaps, because the Moon is an artificial space station built by an ancient alien race which controls our thought patterns and keeps us enslaved (David Icke’s latest theory)? Tough call.
Our friend in Totnes (whose community contains a fair few people who share such views) has managed to turn her sense of bewilderment as to how the world works, how decisions that affect her are made, into a theory for which no evidence whatsoever is required, yet which feels entirely watertight and compelling. Any attempts to challenge it would, most likely, be taken as confirmation that her understanding is the correct one.
Yet holding such a world view is awesomely disempowering. No point doing anything. No point trying to make change happen. No point trying to get involved in local politics, or working for local charities. No need to do anything. And that, in itself, combined with a worldview with its own internal logic, provides a comfort blanket in confusing times. It just happens to be a rather dangerous and toxic one.
I’ll leave the last word to Aaronovitch, who puts it beautifully:
“Conspiracy theories are theories that, among other things, offend my understanding of how things happen by positing as a norm how they do not happen”.