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Fine Tuning the Great Transition

Why we made The Crisis of Civilization and what's next for Transition 

 By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

If ever there was a time when the Transition movement was ideally positioned for take-off, it’s now. The popular appetite for radical change is there – of that, there can be no doubt. It’s no coincidence that the Occupy movement in the US, UK and Western Europe snowballed since early 2011, hot on the heels of the Arab Spring revolts that shook the Middle East and North Africa from December 2010.

The eruption of mass public outrage across East and West took most of us by complete surprise – in much the same way that mainstream neoliberal economists never saw the 2008 global financial crisis coming. But the trends were there. Shortly before the Arab Spring, my book, A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, was published. My book is the first serious attempt to bring together the seemingly disparate crises of climate change, energy depletion, food scarcity, economic meltdown, terrorism, warfare, and state-militarisation, into a single framework of analysis. My holistic approach critiques the self-negating trajectory of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, charts the probable demise of industrial civilization in its current form over the next few decades, and suggests a series of fundamental radical political, economic, cultural, ideological and ethical changes that communities need to explore to achieve a transition to more sustainable, equitable and participatory structures. 

Unlike most mainstream economists, I had predicted the global financial crash, triggered by the collapse of the housing markets, in 2006. In my book, I’d also warned that our inability to understand the inherent interconnections and systemic context of contemporary crises would not only inhibit our capacity to respond to them effectively; but further would, therefore, lead inevitably to ill-conceived, short-sighted responses based on violence to control symptoms of crisis convergence, in order to maintain business-as-usual.

Suffice to say, my argument would hardly make fun, bedtime reading. So when film-maker Dean Puckett offered to help me promote my book on youtube, after bumping into him at a democracy rally in St. James Park, I was rather chuffed. Dean and I had known about and respected one another’s work for some years, and I was excited that he was keen to help me get the word out after he’d heard me speak at the rally.

We arranged a date, and Dean came round my flat with his camera to interview me for what we both thought would be a cool little clip I could use on my blog or website. He sat opposite me in my little office, flicking through my book and asking me questions as he went. In the end, we conversed for nearly five hours. “Maybe we could make a series of clips, then”, ventured Dean as he left my flat.

About a week or so later, Dean called me up and told me how he’d experimented with splicing footage of our interview with old archive film footage from the 40s, 50s, and 60s – mostly social engineering films by corporations and government celebrating the supposed brilliance of industrial capitalism – to illustrate my thesis.

 A 15 minute film about Meat Carving from which
a 6 second shot for the opening sequence was taken.

 He’d also asked artist Lucca Benney to create an animation to represent one of the core themes of the book, leading to an eye-popping hand-drawn cartoon of the Unlimited Growth Monster.

“Nafeez”, I remember Dean telling me. “I think this could be a feature film.” I was obviously thrilled. A film of my book? It’s any author’s dream come true.

 imageThe process of working with Dean and Lucca on a shoe-string budget to make the film was enlightening and exhilarating. For nearly a year, we worked to find ways to translate my ideas about civilizational crisis and the necessity of a radical transition to post-carbon societies into the format of a documentary feature film. It was an exercise in breaking down what in the book presents itself as a rigorous, complex and interdisciplinary argument drawing on hundreds of academic and industry sources, and articulating a sophisticated holistic theoretical framework; into an accessible one hour twenty minute narrative, chock full of startling stock footage imagery, modern newsreel, and colourful animations.

 What is the Crisis of Civilization? Crowd funding video explaining how the film was put together.

The message of the film, like the book, is ultimately simple. If we are going to overcome the convergence of civilizational crises we are now facing, we need to address the fundamental fragmentation in our approaches, and take a much broader, holistic view. But this needs to be done not just in a purely epistemological sense to do with the way we pursue knowledge – requiring joined-up and systemic thinking; but also in a practical sense, related to the way we do policymaking, and perhaps more importantly, activism.

Currently, we are simply not talking to each other. Our economists, politicians, agricultural experts, ecologists, business leaders, artists, and activists operate largely in self-contained silos – we rarely communicate across and between disciplinary boundaries, and even less do we actually actively coordinate our efforts. This fragmentation afflicts not just the way we pursue knowledge, it also characterises the way we devise policy, and accordingly, the way our societies end up functioning. As activists, then, there is a dire need for us to ensure that we counter this by making our activism holistic.

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening. While the Transition Town movement has made leaps and bounds, there is much ground yet to cover. To date, the movement remains overwhelmingly white and middle class. Although the vision of a new more sustainable and equitable society, one would think, would be attractive to a wide and increasingly disillusioned citizenry, the transition movement has nevertheless for the most part failed to reach out to and cement the involvement of the very groups who are suffering most within the current system: within the North, ethnic minorities, young people and those living in relative poverty; within the wider global political economy, the countries of the South, particular the poorest and most populous regions in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and parts of South America.

This strange failure is, however, no accident. It is symptomatic of the very fragmented and self-centric approach that characterises the structure of industrial civilization today. We in the movement have failed to ensure that the Transition Town phenomenon moves beyond Western-centrism, to think concretely about the way in which the structure of our high-consuming Western economies is linked, indelibly, to massive violence and repression in far-flung parts of the globe. As such, we haven’t recognised the extent to which civilizational transition is not simply about local efforts to re-skill, grow food, produce energy, and so on (all of which are obviously essential); but also about challenging, resisting and transforming the repressive structures of state-power in all its forms. A holistic transition movement must be capable of linking up our activism across different sectors – from opposing the unconstrained power of the banks; to resisting the state’s reactionary encroachment on our civil liberties in the name of ‘security’.


Sequence from The Crisis of Civilization about the Civil Contingencies Act in the UK

We must resist state violence in foreign theatres justified in the context of the ‘War on Terror’ but clearly motivated to dominate fast depleting strategic energy resources and direct actions to reclaim public access to the Global Commons, consisting of the earth’s vast water, land and mineral resources currently dominated by the “1 per cent.”

The 1% own all of the land, so what are we going to do about it? video

To the extent that we haven’t yet managed to join-up our activism under the overall umbrella of pushing for a transition to an alternative vision of better societies, our activism, like the problems we are trying to address, remains disjointed and unfocused. That is why, ultimately, young and disadvantaged people in both East and West – who potentially stand to benefit the most from such a transition – cannot yet see the relevance of the Transition Town movement for them.

Equally, if the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring do not ground themselves in a deep understanding of the wider systemic context of the problems we are now facing, and the corresponding need for a holistic joined-up approach to dealing with these problems (not just in terms of lobbying defunct and corrupt states for change, but in terms of building new, alternative structures now, from the ground up) – then they will fail. These social movements need to draw from the amazing strides the Transition Town movement has already made, as well as its deeper insights into the fundamental origins of the challenges we all now face, in order to revitalise activism so that it becomes more than just single-issue oriented. The task, now, is to plant the seeds of the new, post-carbon civilization, right here, right now, within the dying shell of old industrial social forms. Occupy, Spring, and Transition need to not just talk to each other. They need to become one.

 We made this film as a tool which could help people get a better handle on the systemic interconnections between multiple, converging crises, and the urgent need for civilizational transition; but more importantly, to help activists and transitioners already somewhat aware of these issues to communicate them more effectively, powerfully and positively to a wider audience. The idea was to give people a solid framework with which to both understand everything that’s going wrong in the world, and thus recognise the necessity of radical systemic transformation in order for us to survive and perhaps even prosper in the twenty-first century.

 Trailer for Crisis of Civilisaition

We hope that we’ve succeeded, We have been running a fantasic and eye opening community screenings intuitive since October and on 14th March we’re proud to announce that we’re giving this film to you, for free online and available to purchase on DVD with loads of extras in Bio degradable/ recycled pakaging , to run with and show to your friends, families, colleagues, communities, elected and unelected representatives. Aware. Alert. Alive!

 Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (Pluto/Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). He is the writer and narrator of the documentary film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011)


Patrick Chalmers's picture

I like

What a fantastic project - I look forward to watching the film online and screening it too. Your thinking seems directly relevant to what I am trying to push for myself with regard to journalism that focuses on real democracy, working from the ground up. The idea, which I describe in more detail in Fraudcast News (a paperback, ebook or free PDF), is to create local groups of citizen reporters to scrutinise power where they live and to link up with similar groups elsewhere around the world, forming a virtual global news agency. It would be good to talk.

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

thank you!

Dear Dean and Nafeez,

Thank you both for a great post. Really looking forward to seeing the fim. It looks ace.

Totally agree with you about joining up the dots and getting out of silo mentality. Though quite of lot of linking up does go on at ground level in Transition initiatives that you might not see. In the initiatives I am in we have connections with Occupy, Greenpeace, Stop the War, wildlife trusts, local councils, the Green Party, anti-cuts organisations, union reps, climate activists, gm activisits, biofuel activists, all kinds of ngos and co-ops. Our ages ranges are between 20 and 70 and cross the political spectrum. The "white middle class" label is often used against Transitioners and it can have a nullifying effect i.e you are worthless and don't count unless you are from a background that is neither of these things. Our hardest task is breaking out of in these old structures and working together in groups:

The fact is most people in Transition are as disenfranchised, broke and subject to the triple crunch as everyone else. And I think we have to start there. Whoever we are. Keep the door open and keep making contact with the communities we are in. I don't think we have "failed" to include young people, more that Transition projects/meetings are not necessarily what you want to do on a Saturday night when you are 17.

As a communications network the movement has a unifying and stabilizing force, rather than a disruptive or challenging one, and can have very beneficial effects when it is combined with activism (cf. Transition Heathrow). I think we need each other.

Wishing you the best for your DVD launch on March 14. Thank you for letting us see your film for free.


Trevor Bending's picture

Crisis of Civilisation and Transition Movement

Having seen the film and had the opportunity to speak to Dean and Lucca (but unfortunately not Nafeez) at Transition Brentford last Saturday, I would like to endorse Charlotte's comments.  Transition Initiatives are to be found in Brasil, India and many other developing countries and those who support transitions in the UK are certainly not exclusively white and middle class.  More significantly, the Transition Movement has succeeded in motivating support right across the political spectrum - from 'left-wing activists' to 'right-wing conservatives' to those who have no time for conventional politics and from the unemployed and 'off-grid' alternative life-stylers to business leaders.

For me, it is now vital to read Nafeez's book but whilst the film succeeds brilliantly in bringing the message to a much wider audience than those who will be prepared to buy and read a substantial and academic text, it is not a film that will appeal to as wide an audience as Transitions have reached. Whilst I enjoyed the film, and would have been quite prepared to listen to Nafeez for 1hr, 20 minutes without the entertaining visual simulation, it did occur to me that IF you were NOT already sympathetic to the message then even with the 'visuals' it might appear over-polemical and even tedious.

I believe that the 'Occupy' movement has been truly inspiring and hopefully will have a great role to play in the 'great transition', but it clearly does not appeal to the above-mentioned 'right-wing conservatives'.  Indeed, the general response, thanks to biassed and under reporting by the media, including the BBC, has tended to be negative with 'Occupy' often dismissed as either the 'great unwashed' or 'spoilt rich kids' - perceptions which are quite unjustified but nonetheless there.

I therefore fundamentally disagree with Nafeez's suggestion regarding Occupy, Spring, and Transition that "They need to become one". (I assume 'Spring' refers to the 'Arab Spring' and 'Democracia Real'?). They certainly need to talk to each other however and perhaps more than that with over-lapping memberships and sometimes joint activities.

Further, whilst 'Transitions' cannot but be 'political', it has succeeded by not being 'Political'.  Similarly, the Occupy movement (in the UK and USA at least) is much more overtly 'Political' but, despite some press misreporting to the contrary, has not been following any 'party line'. 'Occupy' and the 99% declarations in the US are trying to find an alternative to what they see as our failed, party based, 'representative democracy' system.  Failed because it has been hi-jacked, even more in the US, by money, lobbyists and the '0.1%' who are greedy for even more power and money than they already have.  In Spain, 'Los indignados' and 'Democracia Real' recognise there is not much to choose between the outgoing socialist PSOE government and the recently elected conservative PP (Partido Popular) if they are going to pursue similar policies dictated by the IMF, and US dominated World Bank and World Trade Organisation following the 'neo-liberal' 'monetarist' mindset which has led to the present crisis. (A mindset which is implicit in much of the archive footage from the 50's and 60's chosen for the film but which became crystallised politically by 'Reagonomics', Thatcherism (and, I think, by 'New Labour' and Brown)).

The 'spiritual' dimension of the 'great transition' explicit in Joanna Macy's work and 'Systemic Thinking' is also basic to both 'Transitions' and 'Occupy' who have spoken of "A compassionate (r) evolution". Most Britons (of whatever age, class, culture, ethnicity or background) do not want another Civil War or even a 'bloody revolution'. I suspect that in the long run, most WILL prefer some measure of 'representative democracy' rather than 'participatory democracy' but perhaps that is a matter of balance and detail.  We need 'Occupy' and 'Real Democracy' to promote, pioneer and experiment with alternative politics and 'Transitions' and other green initiatives to promote sustainability and local resilience.

We do not need any of these movements to be hi-jacked by an also failed left-wing agenda.  It is hardly surprising that those who support 'progressive' politics and left-wing parties are more likely to be involved in these intitiatives but both Occupy and especially 'Transitions', like 'Democracia Real' in Spain will succeed to the extent that they appeal to the 99.9% and can educate for a more intelligent economics of the kind we can derive from the New Economics Foundation, Green Economics, perhaps Henry George and neo-Keynsianism. Let's be 'reformists', even if revolutionary, and recognise that it is 'neo-liberal capitalism' (ie. monetarism, Thatcherism and Reagonomics, 'free-marketism') that has failed, not free enterprise, entrepreneurship/risk-taking, regulated markets or social democracy. (Never mind if some Americans call you a communist anyway, 40% voted for Obama and he struggles to do his best).