Transition and activism
By Ed Mitchell 31st May 2011
Charlotte Du Cann from Transition Norwich and Bungay and editor of the soon to come ‘Social Reporting’ pilot agreed to investigate the issues around ‘Transition and activism’ and write us an article. She sees it as a working document, designed to inspire conversation, and it’s certainly done that. You can read her original article on Transition Norwich’s website, and Rob Hopkins has also written a response on Transition Culture, and there’s a great discussion thread on the topic in the forums.
This is a working document. It’s part of ongoing conversation that’s happening in Transition right now, one that has only really just begun. It’s a radical conversation because we are trained by our civilisation to think and work in separate “fields” and not make connections when we speak to one another. To talk within the narrow confines of the room and the present moment. rather than engage with the full breadth of our physical experiences, through time, in relationship with the living, breathing world outside the door. It’s a vital discourse because we’ll be speaking not only within the deep frame of change, but also of liberation.
To take in what is happening, an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect ‘the fields’ that are institutionally kept separate. (John Berger, Hold Everything Dear)
“No is one of the most honourable words in the English language,” said Deepak. “It needs to be reclaimed.” Deepak Rughani is a campaigner and co-director of Biofuelwatch and he’s talking about the defence of natural ecosystems, an area he feels the Transition movement ignores. Without action to prevent the exploitation of the wild lands reduction of carbon emissions becomes redundant. Without stringent protection of the pristine grasslands and rainforest in the Amazon basin the world’s rainfall patterns are dramatically disturbed and thus our ability to feed ourselves.
I’m researching for an article on the relationship between activism and Transition and finding it’s a giant subject. Too large really for one voice and one blog. People are finding it hard to put their experiences into one pithy sentence. And when we say activism what exactly do we mean? Does this include strategic campaigning and grassroots community activism, as well as direct action and civil disobedience?
I had met Deepak at a recent Transition Norwich meeting to discuss Nicole Foss’s talk on financial deflation and our economic future where he had given an introductory overview. That’s when I noticed a shift that was happening in Transition. We had been working diligently on our community projects, building culture and infrastructure, when BAM! the world stormed right back into the room. Although we were talking about local solutions that night we were also debating the big global issues: civil liberties, civil disobedience. The café was packed. There was a buzz in the air I hadn’t felt in a long while. It brought a reality and urgency into play that had been missing.
2011 is not 2010.
It is the year when politics came back into all our lives, as we found ourselves marching against the Government’s public spending cuts, watching the uprisings in the Middle East with fast-beating hearts – a time when we are being challenged to take a stand in a way that was no longer just about saying Yes.
It’s frustrating that (activism) is 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 modelled a sustainable eco-village of thousands with its 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. (Rhizome Co-op from the Transition Network Forum on Activism and Transition
The fact is many people in Transition are also activists and campaigners and as I began speaking with some of them I realised that we don’t talk about it much. We live our lives in separate stories. In our meetings we are Transitioners and in the “outside world” we are someone else. It’s a phenomenon of our culture that Paul Kingsnorth writes about in the second issue of Dark Mountain. In Transition Norwich there are people who are activists for Greenpeace, for CND, who go on climate actions and marches, who sign petitions, who organise flash mobs, who fight for the NHS, for students, for the forests, for the libraries, who protest against Tescos, against the Northern Distributor road, who lobby politicians and councillors, who are those councillors, who are the people who speak with everyone and do not close down.
Some of us find that saying Yes inevitably means saying No. Chris Hull, a founder of Transition Norwich and also an active anti-Tesco campaigner observes that being involved in local business and local food production means you will be against supermarkets by default and no matter how far you go to speak with those in power and civic office,
“you get to a point where you are pulling in different directions in subtle and sometimes in subliminal ways, where the business-as-usual model is directly conflicting with Transition.”
Christine Way has just returned from blockading a port in Scotland to bring attention to the containers of “green” bio-mass woodchips arriving from Brazil for conversion into electricity. A fellow founder of TN she has always maintained that both forces for change need to work together. And that just as Transition needs to keep the bigger picture in mind in all it does – those drivers of climate change, peak oil and economics – so activism needs to include the positive moves that Transition works hard to provide, and not become snared up in battling against the Establishment.
What alternatives are you providing?
One of Transition’s strengths is its fluidity and I’m becoming aware of this fluidity the more I speak with everyone. You can, as a Transitioner, be as at ease (as I have found) talking with a Tory politician as you can a TUC shop steward, a Green Party mayor or an anti-nuclear activist. It’s not stuck in ideology or dogma and deliberately doesn’t fight the enemy or struggle for power. The empire divides and conquers. Transition works within the same complex dynamics as an eco-system: within diversity. In this it has a unique ability to connect and work alongside the many forces for change that already exist. To embrace activism as a dynamic within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it. We need to include those actions that bring planetary dilemmas into the limelight, because our consciousness is shifting towards what Jeremy Rifkind in The Empathic Civilisation calls the dramaturgical and the bio-spheric. Acting within the collective consciousness of the earth. This is a radically different position from the one of control and safety most of us have adopted. And it means making moves in real life, not just in our heads. Because This Is It is no longer a slogan on the workshop wall.
For a long time we have been able to be the audience to history, to live our lives theoretically. We can watch the world on our screens like the Wizard of Oz and shut out its inconvenient truths at the click of a switch. But now history is coming into our streets and into our lives and we need to know how to act, or support those who act on our behalf. If we cheer for those bold protesters in Tahrir Square, in Wisconsin, for the thousands of campaign groups that Paul Hawken wrote about in Blessed Unrest, we need also to cheer for those who occupy Fortnum and Mason and the Royal Bank of Scotland, who protest against the corporations who threaten those fragile eco-systems on which we depend. The people who climb nuclear power stations and coal smoke stacks and oil rigs to bring attention to the crucial debate about energy and the citizen journalists that write and blog about them.
In the current forum on the Transition Network you can find the famous quote by Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world” to illustrate the positive-only nature of Transition. Many people have fled environmentalism and activism and joined initiatives because they felt to say only NO was an exhausting and often deeply negative experience. Many decided to turn their back on any overtly political activity, even to deny they had once taken part.
However in this desire to get away from the bad stuff we forget that Ghandi was an activist par excellence and encouraged people to put their bodies before the brute force of Empire. And went to prison for it several times. We forget that The Guardian newspaper was created because the London-based media of the day failed to report the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in which 60,000 peaceful protesters were attacked by the army. We live in a society that is the end result of thousands of civil uprisings and direct actions: thousands of people whose names we do not know who have put themselves on the line. Understandably we would rather be working steadily on our energy descent action plans over the next 2o years and shifting happily towards a low carbon way of life.
But 2011 is not 2010. And Transition is changing its tempo. We’re not in the slow movement right now. We have to see that the strength of Transition initiatives lies in their secure root within communities, in its network of communications and that these provide a stable base for changes in the way single-issue actions, existing as they do on the edge of society, over a short time, do not. We have to see equally that our ability to think in many disciplines at once, which we have practiced over these years, puts us at an advantage, gives us an ability to resist splitting into polarity, the kind of polarity that causes the violence and hatred that activism and protests can descend into.
At the edge
The recent riots in Bristol were right in the middle of Transition Montpelier’s neighbourhood. They focused around the new Tesco, although there was a lot more to it. A local campaigning group had been peacefully protesting against the Tesco for well over a year.
The group (No Tesco in Stokes Croft) had nothing to do with the riots, and everyone was saddened by the riots. The campaigning group became involved in the media storm that followed and were bombarded with calls and emails from journalists, and tried to present a balanced response under a huge amount of pressure. Some of the stories painted un-favourable pictures about the campaigning group, as you might imagine! A few local papers used the story as a way to stir controversy.
Transition Montpelier had supported the peaceful protest from the beginning, as we weren’t that keen on Tesco, and the campaigning group had always been suggesting positive alternatives to it. And they are our friends and neighbours. We did have discussions about whether we should support the campaign as we’re not a ‘campaigning organisation’, and agreed to share news and so forth about the campaign.
The riots, unsurprisingly, scared a lot of residents. The stories in the media, particularly the negative ones about the campaign, made a few of the residents feel that the campaign was negative and causally related to the riots. Transition Montpelier’s support of the campaign was therefore seen in not a great light by these folks. Naturally, we don’t know how many people it is, but didn’t feel great about it all. It’s all *very* complicated! (Ed Mitchell, Transition Montpelier)
Being rooted in neighbourhood, in place, people and plants, is what Transition Heathrow discovered after running a successful campaign against the third runway at Heathrow. When they began to grow plants in a deserted greenhouse in the once-threatened village of Sipton with explicit support of most of the locals, the local MP and a spokesman for the local police. Here’s a spokesman from the highly active initiative that has brought a fresh burst of energy into the movement:
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 guerrilla 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!
(Joe Ryle, Transition Heathrow)
It takes a lot of courage to take direct action, to cross the line, to look the public and the policeman in the eye as you challenge the status quo. Even in small ways. The first time I took part in an action was a simple thing: we were a group defending a patch of green land in Oxford against developers and rode in a barge up the canal to paint the builder’s hoardings with our loud protest. But my hands were shaking as I wrote William Blake’s lines on the wall:
Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire.
That day something changed utterly within me. I had taken a step that a whole lifetime of conditioning had tried to prevent. We all have those preventions in place inside. Our cultural conditioning keeps our minds compartmentalised, our emotions trained to seek security at all costs, to appear as moral and upstanding citizens at all times.
We have to see that without talking about our past and present activism, without coming out about our radical nature, without sharing our private thoughts about the future, all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers, without connecting with all the land sovereignty movements that now exist around the world, Transition does not have the strength or wit or daring to challenge the dominant worldview.
It runs the risk of becoming stifled by the tyranny of what Blake called “the polite society”, by conventional good behaviour and small talk, as indeed has happened in some initiatives. We are in danger of losing ourselves in a never-never land of ideas and spiritual cliches and not having the energy to manifest our visions into physical reality. Thinking about the change we want to see as a result, rather than being the change that is the (often messy) process.
Not all activists who are also Transitioners agree with this premise however.
“Activism and Transition are just two different things – we need both, not either or. We just need to be clear when we are doing what so as to be most effective. Otherwise it could become our own personal trip and not for the larger aims.
We need direct activists to stand in front of things, we need Transitioners to build community and to plant things, and quiet background people to plug away within the system getting the rules changed and we need meditators to shift consciousness. All these things that we are doing is part of the other super power, the coming age, as Paul Hawken has pointed out. If we all do what we are passionate about it all adds up” (Mike Grenville, Transition Forest Row).
In nearby Lewes there are currently two projects running alongside one another: the construction of the UK’s first community-owned 98kW solar power station, and the occupation of three acres of green land near the centre of town. The first is seen as a Transition project and the second is not. Superficially unrelated but in fact close in aim (localisation of production), the two activities have many people involved in common including councillors, Transition members and residents:
Should activism form part of Transition? In the general sense, yes. Every change to society has begun with a challenge to accepted norms and Transition is no exception. In the particular sense, no. Transition is not a campaigning movement but a set of design tools. If it is mistaken for a campaigning movement, it will be judged on its short-term goals instead of its long-term strategies.
This is quite hard for most people to grasp in my experience. Long- term strategic planning and R&D are understood in terms of industry but not in terms of cultural and social change which mostly comes about through single-issue campaigns resulting in pieces of legislation which can also unfortunately be reversed. Transition is a design framework for cultural change which does not require changes in the law.
Which is not to say that designers can’t also be campaigners and vice versa. Many initiatives have convergent aims but differ in methodology. These range across political, philosophical, economic, social and psychospiritual pursuits. So for example someone who protests in London against tax evasion can also be setting up a local food group in her home town and developing personal effectiveness and empowerment. She’s engaging in activism, transition and transformation! While these categories overlap and provide mutual positive reinforcement, they preserve functionality best by remaining distinct.(Dirk Campbell, Transition Lewes)
Likewise, from Ben Brangwyn’s perspective it’s about seeing Transition as part of the response, not all of it:
A question that’s come up regularly is “What’s the difference between Transition and what’s traditionally known as ‘activism’?”. The most effective (and quick) response I’ve found is to use an example. A quick health warning – this explanation works for the UK, and may need adapting for other cultural circumstances.
Let’s say a multinational supermarket is applying for planning permission to build a store in your town. You understand enough about the economic dynamics of this proposal to realise it’s going to suck wealth and resources out of your community and impoverish local food producers. Perhaps you also feel that this has been going on long enough and you’ve decided to act.
There are three principal responses. You can:
1. Talk to your local policitians and alert them to the dangers. You can do this a) through the normal gov’t channels, b) via placards, c) by getting a petition from local people, d) other creative communications campaigns
2. Get in the way of the machines. You can do this by a) squatting the land, b) blocking the machines with your body
3. Create, from the bottom up, a locally owned, locally administered food system that renders the supermarket superfluous to requirements.
Some people are drawn to one in particular, or sometimes a combination. Transition is principally about #3, recognising that all three are essential. For example, Transition activism as per #3 would never have prevented the UK’s now cancelled forest selloff. Nor would have kicked out Bechtel when they tried to take over the municipal water supply in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_Cochabamba_protests).
So, just to be clear, Transition is just one crucial component in a mix of people-powered activism, all of which is needed if we’re to move away from our high carbon, low resilience lives and systems.
Going back to the supermarket example, Transition is also about understanding that the supermarkets are not only currently an essential part of our food systems but also can’t continue ‘business as usual’ in a carbon constrained world. There will be a transition from one to the other and that could go either way – it could be that Tesco owns most of the agricultural hinterland for your community and creates a food monopoly. Or it could mean that food webs, local producers, locally-owned urban patchwork farming take over a much higher proportion of the food supply locally.
Transition is also powered by positive visions. When I cycle past a supermarket, I consciously reimagine the scene looking very different. In my head, I see the carpark all dug up and given over to food production. The supermarket building itself has been converted to an undercover local market, housing local growers and suppliers. It has a section where the local repairers are taking in broken items and refurbishing them. Round the back there are bike maintenance courses going on. Where the fruit section used to be there’s now a social enterprise workshop taking place. It has stopped being a ‘supermarket’ and has become a ‘super marketplace’.
To make that happen, we’ll need all three modes of response and maybe more.
So I’ll end this (rather long!) inquiry with a review of a documentary that brings home the kind of courage and energy and risks many people take on to free the world from its “mind-forged manacles”. It’s a grassroots film, a story told by the actors who take part in this bio-spheric drama some call evolution. It’s not Hollywood, it’s not the BBC, but it is what is happening right now in a town near you. Lock on.
Just Do It reviewed by Adrienne Campbell (Transition Lewes)
Just Do It is a new documentary film that follows the lives of several environmental activists over a year of civil disbedience and direct action. It will be released into cinemas on July 15th.
Watching the various actions, I started to feel involved and even concerned for some of the young people as they put their bodies in the way for the sake of what they believed in. Although I’m a dyed in the wool transitoner, I’ve done a little playful, lawful activism on the side, and was inspired and emboldened.
I recommend this film to transition groups who might want to attract a younger audience and who also might wish to explore the wide, largely unexplored zone of playful activism, which sits beween normal behaviour and unlawful behaviour. Of course, Transition isn’t about campaigning or activism but there is significant overlap and perhaps attitudes and skills to be learned.
skThe world launch of the film, which was funded through crowdsourcing, at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in June will be followed by showings at local cinemas. If your transition group would like to encourage your local cinema to show it, please contact the film makers from the informative website here