Clare Power just finished her PhD looking at Transition in Australia, and wanted to share her key findings through the following letter to Transitioners. She has also kindly made her full research available, you can download it further down the page. Over to you Clare…
Dear fellow Transitioners
Firstly I’d like to honour and acknowledge your fantastic work and that of the many people who offer their time, energy, hope, skills and enthusiasm to the work of Transition and contributing to building more resilient, and vibrant local communities.
I’ve recently completed a PhD looking at Transition in the Australian context, and would like to share some of my thoughts on the movement and offer some suggestions for consideration. I framed my research within the Great Turning as conceived by Joanna Macy, and inquired into the ways in which Transition is a force in the Great Turning and whether it is transformative or replicating existing paradigms and structures. My work is informed by feminist and complexity lenses, and also my experiences as a participant in Transition in Australia since its inception. I conducted 30 interviews and 32 people completed surveys. I offer this letter as a summary of the PhD, in the spirit of collaboration and co-evolution, and in the hope that it may resonate in some ways with you.
I called the final chapter of my thesis ‘the seed doesn’t know the flower’ in reference to the active hope that informs our participation in Transition while not really knowing how our work may unfold. I’d like to extend this metaphor briefly to set the context for some of the conclusions I have drawn through the process of this PhD.
As a backyard gardener I’m learning experientially, as I’m sure many of you know, that a plant’s growing conditions will significantly affect the quality of its flower or fruit. It is not a given, for example, that from each sunflower seed a plant will grow tall and straight with its full face beaming towards the sun. It is influenced by a multiplicity of elements including the soil, the amount of sunshine, shade and water it receives, its plantly neighbours, visiting bees, insects, birds and animals, rain, wind. In other words, it is an interdependent part of a complex ecosystem.
So it is with Transition. I think that Transition Initiatives do not necessarily flower into their potential or what we hope they might become without our conscious tending and an integrated awareness of the myriad other interconnected elements in our communities – and beyond. I suggest that this tending of the Transition seed could be enhanced through valuing the ‘integrity of process’ and being mindful of incorporating an ‘ethics of care’ in our Transition practice. This suggestion is motivated through observing that many Transition participants conveyed an ecological worldview through their interview and survey responses. However, in many ways this embodied understanding of interconnectedness does not seem to be realised in our practices in Transition. This is particularly apparent in the incidence of burnout among Transitioners, which I suggest is indicative of the need to contemplate whether we are valuing the importance of our processes as much as our actions, and caring for ourselves and each other while we care for the planet.
If we are too outcome focused then I am concerned that we will replicate aspects of the dominant paradigm that perpetuate some of the very things we wish to change. We engage in dualistic thinking when we privilege action over process, or doing over being, or outer over inner Transition. As such we can unintentionally, I think, marginalise those aspects of ourselves, our practice and our community that in their unity could actually enhance the transformative potential of Transition. Dualistic thinking reinforces a ‘power-over’ mentality that inherently rejects plurality and therefore a lived sense of connectedness within our communities. Such dualistic thinking does not serve us in addressing issues related to power, gender, social justice and inclusion and diversity which are inextricably linked to deep sustaining change but not explicitly discussed much in Transition. This is expressed in Alice Walker’s words ‘Look closely at the present you are constructing: it should look like the future you are dreaming’.
I found the three dimensions of the Great Turning to be a useful way of considering different aspects of Transition, and I bring them in here as a way of framing the points I’d like to make. Joanna Macy proposes that the three dimensions: holding actions (activism), analysis of causes and creation of alternatives, and a shift in consciousness are interlinked, mutually interdependent aspects necessary for a shift to a life sustaining society.
An aspect of Holding actions, or activism expressed by many Transitioners is that they prefer to see their work in Transition as apolitical. I understand this inclination, particularly where political is understood in terms of party politics. However, I wonder whether by not acknowledging that working for change is in itself an inherently political act that we preclude explicit discussions and explorations about social change and how it occurs. The degree of change that Transition is engaged in catalysing, I suggest, is tantamount to a paradigm shift, which could be seen as deeply political. Yet there seems to be a concern that acknowledging that our work is political in this sense will discourage broad-based participation. Rather than attempting to be all things to all people, perhaps our Initiatives might benefit from robust conversation about the nature of change and how that might inform our approaches.
This leads to the second dimension of the Great Turning which is described as analysis of structural causes and creation of alternatives. Transition excels in many ways in the creation of alternative structures and practices; however, it is also critical to consider the underlying causes of the need for alternatives. This is where the integrity of process is very important. If we perceive, for example, that power imbalances, gender issues and lack of social justice are inherent in the current paradigm then it is important to consider how we understand and confront these in the communities we are intent on building so that we don’t reproduce them. If we are focused on projects we want to achieve and yet in the process we are not aware of social justice implications or how we are addressing inclusion and diversity then whose interests are we serving? If in our meetings and decision making processes we are not alert to the potential to perpetuate patterns of domination or marginalisation then what are we really changing?
Building community is not a neutral undertaking; it is beset with challenges and power dynamics and yet there seems to be a void in Transition dialogue and literature regarding these complexities. I suggest that critical community development, with its history of seeking to address power inequalities and issues of social justice as well as research and analysis about inclusion and diversity, is potentially a great resource for Transition in Australia. This could be an example of the Permaculture principle of the fertility of the edges where two eco-systems or in this case knowledge bases meet. Permaculture also offers an incredibly rich edge of possibilities and knowledge and yet it seems to be under-utilised in a systemic way by Transition Initiatives in Australia.
In forming alliances with such knowledge bases, and drawing on the wisdom of their own experiences, perhaps Transition Initiatives could more fully support learning and creativity as a way of enlivening the Transition network in Australia. Unfortunately, although there are some regional Transition convergences, we do not really have any forums that enable us to engage nationally and to intentionally share knowledge among Initiatives. For example, the successful adaption and implementation in the Australian context of Transition streets by Transition Newcastle could be widely shared in a timely way if our Australian network were somehow activated.
Such knowledge and experience sharing is linked to the third dimension of the Great Turning: a shift in consciousness. Joanna Macy describes this dimension as a cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening to the interrelatedness of life on the planet which, she points out, has long been known by indigenous traditions. Interestingly, none of the research participants discussed learning from or working with Aboriginal people or communities which suggests that the silence about ‘indigenous knowledges’ in Australia is reflected in Transition. Chris Sarra argues the need for high expectation relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Transition has the potential to be a forum for supporting such relationships and learning about our local contexts – foods, seasons, stories, skills and experiences from Aboriginal people. As well as local knowledge there are profound offerings from Aboriginal people that we have not acknowledged in Transition in Australia.
For example, David Mowaaljarlai, senior Lawman of the Ngarinyin people of the west Kimberley describes a gift that he says Aboriginal people have been blocked, for so long, from giving. He explains ‘it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself’. Pattern thinking is implicit in Permaculture and the design of Transition and what a rich gift for us to receive if we open to dialogue and understanding of this in our own country. Another gift which Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann of the Ngangiwumirr language group describes is the concept of Dadirri. She explains it as ‘inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for’. In our quests to work for change, I wonder how often we pause to deeply listen to ourselves, to each other, to our communities and to other wisdom bases.
Another aspect of a shift in consciousness is the way that we have not fully integrated the principle of ‘inner and outer Transition’. Instead Inner Transition has tended to be marginalised as the province of people interested in ‘inner stuff’, many of whom are women, and then a gender binary is played out that reinforces the dualistic thinking I referred to earlier. Where Inner Transition is seen, explicitly or implicitly, as women’s business then it is situated on the lower rung of the male/female; outer/inner and action/process binaries. This raises the question of whether Transition is replicating gendered patterns of responsibility and if so, isn’t this a matter for discussion in Transition Initiatives?
These concerns about the marginalisation of Inner Transition and resistance to the terms Heart and soul of Transition or Inner Transition, have led me to contemplate whether the concept of ‘an ethics of care’ might be more applicable. I see ‘ethics of care’ as aligned with the Permaculture principles of care for the earth, for people and fair share, and it might be a means for integrating the principles of Inner Transition in a way that allows them to permeate the movement as a whole, rather than being the responsibility of a few people. An ethics of care can be understood as a unifying concept that is aware of power relations and therefore challenges dualistic thinking. It can include inner worlds, relationship building and group processes as well as being inherent in our actions, projects and outcomes.
In many ways, through its network structure, whole of community approach and emphasis on positive visioning Transition is re-imagining life-sustaining paradigms and structures. The outcomes of our work are uncertain, but the way we approach Transition in each moment will contribute to the quality and nature of the outcomes. Charlene Spretnak says ‘making only isolated changes here and there is not going to be enough to avoid full-scale catastrophe unless we master a different way of thinking about being humans on this earth that is more closely grounded in the actual interrelated nature of life’. If we want our work to be sustainable as well as transformative perhaps this is more likely through embracing the importance of the integrity of process, underpinned by an ethics of care and through co-evolving with knowledge bases that are aligned with patterns of inter-relationship and a transformative orientation such as Aboriginal knowledges, Permaculture and critical community development.
I hope these comments are thought provoking and contribute to some vibrant discussion.