Sophy Banks on an alternative to including inequality in the Transition Network purpose statement
By Catrina Pickering 22nd September 2011
Proposed purpose statement: “Transition Network supports community-led responses to climate change, inequality and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness.”
Who proposed this and why
By Sophy Banks, Transition Town Totnes Inner Transition, Co-Founder Transition Training
It’s clear to me that inequality stands on its own merits as a core driving issue for change in our society. Whether you look through a lens of ethical living, of well being for all, of collective resilience or of risk, inequality is bad, causes misery for everyone rich and poor, and puts us all at risk of more division, greater conflict, more violence. What follows are some of the arguments that I haven’t heard outlined elsewhere, which may be secondary to the above.
The early framing for Transition stated peak oil and climate change as twin drivers for Transition. This was the orthodoxy in the first book, the Transition Companion. The greatest impact – on me, and as I saw on many others – was the information about peak oil, providing a new and different kind of wake up call. With the book, talks and events focusing on these as the “context” for Transition we attracted a particular audience and membership, predominantly white and middle class and educated.
Transition set out to be a movement that included “Head, heart and hands” in its approach. In the solutions I would say it manages this. Yet it’s interesting that the context issues – which put out the first call to action – don’t have anything to say to our hearts beyond a kind of secondary sense of caring for the planet. Both are technical energy issues and tend to provoke discussions about technology, although their wider impacts of course are felt by humans as well as the natural world.
In the two day Introduction to Transition training (now called Transition: Launch) we included ecological limits and fair shares as part of the session on context from the first course in 2007. I wanted there to be something that spoke to participant’s sense both of caring and morality – our capacity to be moved by information about people who live in the waste stream of the industrial growth society – whether literally on the rubbish tips, I also wanted something that would pre-empt the “it’s a population issue” argument by showing the vast difference in impact – that an average American uses something like 10 times as much energy as an average person living in China and 20 times that of an average African. And to consider the morality of a society that lives well beyond its own means using up an irreplaceable legacy from the past, the healthy ecosystems that we will not pass on to our children as we degrade them, and where richer countries use up the soil, minerals, people power, forests and energy output of poorer countries – in exchange for servicing debt, for weapons, for what else?
I believe it’s vital to include something in the call to action that speaks to the caring side of us – otherwise you have a movement that is rooted in technical problems rather than social, relational ones and you will tend to get technical people designing technical solutions where everything we do in Transition needs people skills – patience, the ability to find common ground with people who are different, to negotiate differences in priority, language, world view.
A second piece of the picture that I haven’t seen clearly set out is what happens to tolerance of differences in wealth as we tip over the peak oil curve. Part of the message to the poor which the current western growth paradigm offers is “one day you, or your children will be rich”. This is absolutely rooted in the American Dream, and in the promise of capitalism. In wealthy countries at least there are years where most people get to be a bit better off this promise keeps quiet a lot of the rage at the increasing differences that are a lived reality for most people.
But as we pass peak oil, as other resources become increasingly scarce or expensive, and growth becomes limited and then – inevitably – moves to contraction – this message will become increasingly exposed as the lie that it is. The material wealth of a few depends on the exploitation of many. Future generations will not share in the move from poor to rich in the way that previous and current adult generations have. There are two ways down the curve of energy supply and material production. The rich live with a smaller and smaller share of energy which translates to material and financial wealth – to share more and more – evening out wealth differentials. Or the rich use their power to hold onto their lifestyles increasingly at the expense of the poor. If an average middle class person in the UK uses the energy that would require around 40 human beings working full time to generate it our choice could be starkly stated as reducing material wealth for the rich, or slavery for the poor. This is what we need to have our leaders explaining right now, so that the large number of genuinely caring wealthy people can start figuring out how they will respond to this choice.
Of course the opportunity in all this is that the reduction in wealth differentials will – ultimately – make us all happier, however unlikely that seems from this side of the experience. The change process will involve a lot of personal and collective turmoil, loss of identity and dreams, and shifts in social structures. The alternative to the rich engaging willingly in this process is much much more stark.
My preference for the mission statement is that it doesn’t name any particular issues as the drivers for Transition, because inevitably there will be a competition about what is most important. I would prefer a general statement about the “challenges of our time”, and that the detail of our vision or strategy includes how we will address inequality as one of the key issues – as one of basic ethics, because of the enormous risks associated with failing to do so and because of its potential to greatly increase well being and happiness for all.