Musing on Transition Towns

SUBHEAD: Ted Trainer's response to the recent discussions and critiques of the Transition movement. By Ted Trainer on 29 Spetmeber 2009 in Transition Culture - [Editor's Note: This is a portion of the original article runs over 3600 words. To see the whole article click on the link above.]

image above: A physical scale model at Ted Trainer's place demonstrating Pre-Peal Oil a suburban English town. From

... There are two basic positions one can take on the global situation. The first, which most people hold, is that some version of consumer-capitalist society can be made viable, i.e., that this society can be reformed so that it does not cause problems like greenhouse and poverty but it still provides affluence and runs on market forces, competition, production for profit, and economic growth, etc. etc.

The second position is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed; that you cannot have a sustainable and just world unless you scrap many of the fundamental structures of this society and build radically different systems. In my very firm view the second position is right, and I make no apology for asserting this strongly, but that doesn’t mean I go around telling people they are stupid if they don’t agree.

It follows that I am very keen to see the Transition Towns movement not be merely for reforming, taming, humanizing consumer-capitalist society. I worry that there is a high probability the movement will only be about reforms within the system. Thus I wrote the critique in the hope that it would influence people in the movement to think carefully about their goals and vision, and in the hope that they would be persuaded to agree with me about what the goals should be. My concern derives from the fact that almost all initiatives for “environmentally sustainable development” have not challenged the fundamental premises of growth and affluence society. (For instance Australia’s peak environmental agency doesn’t see any sustainability problem with economic growth; its CEO has scolded me for thinking it does.)

Rob, please remember that my paper was addressed to people centrally involved in the movement with the intention of stimulating discussion of goals and visions. It was not addressed to townspeople, with whom one would obviously avoid the use of words like “anarchism” and “capitalism”, and one would try to introduce these themes in mild and inoffensive ways as perspectives to be considered. Let me restate some elements from the paper indicating the reasons for my “extreme” view of the situation. (For more detail on the case for this perspective see here. It is quite possible for instance to develop a highly localized food supply without making much if any difference to an overall economy that allows market forces and profit to determine what is done, ignores the most urgent needs, has unemployment and homelessness, imports hardware and clothes from the Third World, requires support of dictatorships in poor countries, and grows all the time.

There is in other words a big difference between just making your town more resilient and doing that as a step in a process which you can show is designed to eventually fix the world.

Re Anarchism - Rob thinks there’s room for debate about whether Anarchism is the form of government we have to endorse. I have argued in some detail that the situation we are heading into, essentially involving intense global resource scarcity, will determine that viable communities will have to be small, self governing and highly participatory. Big centralized states cannot run a satisfactory society that must be localized and must have very low resource use. Such communities will not work well, or at all, unless they are driven by aware, conscientious, responsible, skilled, empowered and happy citizens. So this is not a matter of preference; whether we like it or not the form of “government” will have to be Anarchist. I think this is delightful, but that’s not important. What Rob has to work out is whether I’m right in thinking that there will be no choice about this.

Of course as Rob says one has to be careful in using terms like “Anarchist” because that would put most people off, but technically it is the right one for the form of government I am referring to here. It’s important to keep goals distinct from processes. My concern is to get people who are central in the movement to think about questions like goals, anarchism and reformism, but that does not mean I am saying we have to go around town shouting that we are for Anarchism.

I think it is admirable the way the Transition Towns literature tries to avoid prescribing. Rob’s politeness is a great asset for the movement. But that does not mean there is no place for “leadership”, in the sense of putting forward and arguing for ideas about what to do. The main problem I have with the Transition Town literature is that it gives almost no guidance as to what to do to make the town “resilient”. It gives a great deal of advice about how to proceed, how to organise a local movement, but people inspired to join the movement will find almost no information or suggestions as to what to try to build or set up, what to do first, what to avoid…and why these steps will have what effects on town self-sufficiency or resilience. The strategy just seems to be to encourage anyone to do anything they like and we’ll see where that takes us. What I am pleading for here is planning, for the formation of priorities, and monitoring so we can get clearer about what works, what is more difficult than we thought, and what not to do. People from new towns eager to get into the movement need to be given as much guidance as much as possible about goals and sub-goals, what to start trying to do.

It could be that none of us knows the right answers to these questions at this stage, but we should be thinking hard about what are probably the best initial goals and priorities, and forming and making available more confident experience-based strategies as soon as experience accumulates. For instance, my guess is that trying to produce local energy should not be a top priority in the early stages (it’s too difficult to make a significant difference), but that forming co-operative gardens and workshops and little firms (bakeries, fish tanks, poultry…) enabling unemployed people to immediately become productive, is a very desirable early step, especially as it gets us started on building a new economy under our control…but let’s debate this, and grope towards a (loose, indicative, non-prescriptive) plan of action that will help the many towns now flocking to the Transition idea to get off to an effective start.

At present it is disturbing that the many towns racing to join the movement will find little or no information on what to actually develop or build in the town to make it more resilient. Unless we can give this guidance I think it is likely that there will be a lot of confused thrashing around that does not achieve much, followed by disenchantment the waste of an extremely important opportunity.

image above: Ted Trainer showing scale model of Transition Town transformation by permaculture. From

The currency issue - Finally, it is very important that careful critical thought be given to the role of local currencies. (My attempt to nut this out is here) Unfortunately most of the schemes I know about are in my view next to worthless, because there is no rationale showing how they are supposed to have desirable social effects. It is extremely important to introduce a money system that will give the town the power to build or organise desirable effects.

It is easy to see how LETS or Time Dollars results in good effects. Both enable people with no jobs or money to engage in work, trade, meeting needs and mutually beneficial economic activity. But in systems where for instance the new notes are bought using old notes, as seems to be the case with Berkshares, that’s just substituting one kind of money for another with no apparent significant benefits in terms of better community economic structures.

So, ask those proposing a new currency how will using it increase the production of needed things aground here, how will it get dumped people into jobs and livelihoods, how will it make this town more self-sufficient, how will it give us more power to determine the development of this town? If clear and convincing answers can’t be given to questions like this then what’s the point? Yes printing and selling a novel note might be an effective publicity device, and might raise money from tourists, but those are not important outcomes compared with for instance eliminating unemployment in the town, which is what the scheme I outline at the above site is centrally aimed at doing. Its core is as follows.

We set up cooperative productive ventures such as gardens and bakeries and record “work” time contributions. These entitle people to a proportion of the produce corresponding to their input. Whether the payments are in the form of a note or just a record they are a new form of money. If I earn this money in the garden I can spend it on bread from that co-op. Thus we have created a new economy. The money has been a device helping to connect idle people (and others) to available but unused productive capacity. You can see how the system has very desirable social effects, but the creation of the money is not the important part – setting up the cooperative firms is. It is then important to develop economic interactions between our new economy and the old one, e.g., by using the new money to pay for meals from its restaurants, which can spend the money paying for vegetables and labour from us in the new cooperative economic sector.

Conclusions - My main point is that it is important for us to discuss desirable goals. I don’t think our attitude should be to just facilitate the Transition Towns phenomenon. I am arguing that we should try to move it in directions that will maximize the chance of transition from consumer-capitalist society. It will not inevitably do that. In fact I think it is more likely to become an alternative path enabling some to live somewhat more sustainably within consumer-capitalist society. I am not assuming I or we can influence it, maybe we can’t have any effect at all, but I am arguing that it is important to try.

Whether or not you agree will depend on your view of the global situation, and you might not share mine. But I believe we are very likely to see catastrophic global breakdown before long so it is of the utmost importance to try to push/lead/persuade the Transition movement in the direction one believes has to be taken if disaster is to be avoided. If we ever make it to a sustainable and just world it will have been via a Transition Towns process of some kind. It is extremely encouraging that a potentially miraculous movement has emerged and therefore it is very important to try to ensure that it is a means to achieving the big global structural changes required.

see also: Ea O Ka Aina: PEak Oil in Transiton 9/24/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Brixton Pound introduced 9/16/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Disaster Transitionism 6/29/09 Island Breath: Rocky Road to Real Transition 4/19/08 Island Breath: The Waking Up Syndrome 4/19/08

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