On Transition (!)

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I have just returned from the first Transition US National Gathering and then a subsequent Leadership Retreat and I have Transition on my mind. Despite the demands of my work life and a multi-year home restoration project that gets delayed a tiny bit more with every word I put down, I’m going to try to write a series about Transition over the next couple of months.

My primary impression leaving the main conference and the retreat was the extraordinary quality of the people I met and came to know. I witnessed levels of thoughtfulness, compassion, creativity, commitment and, most of all, astounding examples of emotional intelligence that I rarely see in any other facets of my life. True, people are on their best behavior when in a Transition setting (in the way they aren’t at academic conferences or staff meetings, as one example); but this only suggests to me that Transition brings out the best in people and that we would be wise to look to the ethos of engagement that it inspires.

I am equally impressed with the leadership of the movement, both the small paid staff and directors and the regional leaders (and to be a regional leader, there is no test beyond a willingness to commit and engage). Although I will suggest in this series that the Transition Movement needs to rethink itself in ways more radical (to the root) than it may recognize, this is not a problem of leadership, even if it may be a problem for leadership and everyone else who cares.

Before going any further, I need to be absolutely clear that these are my opinions, concerns, and beliefs. Some people, I know, share some of them, but the majority may (or may not) see me as completely off-base. I hope that they will respond to what I say if they read any of this. I do not speak on behalf of the organization, but on behalf of my own love and concern for it. These may be the rantings of a lunatic - I’ll let you decide for yourself.

The main problem, as I see, it is the difficulty of engaging enough people in long-term Transition projects and local initiatives to create a critical mass large and active enough to get our story and models out there with the force and consistency they deserve. There is, I believe, a considerable drop-off from the deeply and fully committed cohort, many of whom were present at the conference, on the one hand, and the necessary (but small in number) “mass” of substantially committed people who have a primary identification with the Transition Movement, on the other.  If I may be pardoned the metaphor, it is as if we have bishops and cardinals aplenty, and some monks, and nuns, but hardly anyone else willing to show up once a week, attend committee meetings, rehearse with the choir, maintain the facility, host the potlucks, teach Sunday school, and give what they can when the hat is passed. It is not so much that the pews are empty (for with that image the metaphor of Transition involvement entirely breaks down), but that it has failed to become a mini-mass movement in a way hopefully forecasted by The Transition Handbook - the sort of movement that might provide (and share widely) a legitimate alternative to perilous practices of industrial society. This is not to fault the many people who have engaged with Transition a few times or for a few years before drifting away. Transition did not provide what they wanted and needed. And that is where my concern lies.

One of the chief arguments against this focus on the organization itself is that although Transition Initiatives have a habit of dissolving or going into hibernation, a lot of invaluable transitioning nevertheless keeps happening - some of it inspired by a Transition moment in the sun, some inspired by entirely other organizations or experiences. This is certainly true in Milwaukee, which is full of transitioners - the vibrant food movement with its farmers and chefs and farmers’ markets, the victory gardeners and front-yard permaculturalists, the local and sustainable businesses, the study groups, the healers and the healing groups, the dancers, singers, foragers, and tree-worshipers.

So why do we need an official Transition Movement? Maybe it was meant to light the sky like a flare in the dark and then fade away leaving only the inspiring retinal afterimages. Maybe the movement doesn’t need an organization. Maybe it isn’t really a movement at all?

Perhaps. But here’s why I think we need Transition as an organization: Transition brings together all sorts of transitional, sustainable, and resilient acts into a unified movement with a definable identity – or at least it might. Transition with a capital T is what might provide a narrative and a set of unifying principles to all sorts of isolated acts that may help us power-down or build local resilience, and in so doing might also multiply their significance. More important in my mind, Transition is one of the few organizations (outside a few underfunded think-tanks) that tells the truth about climate, energy, and our ecology, while at the same time connecting these truths to issues of social justice, economic inequality, a peace movement, and an understanding of complex international geo-politics, while at the same time yet again, rolling up its sleeves and building things.

Its message, in short, is that we need to power-down, rather than maintain our current way of life by plugging into an alternative power source while hoping for some new and magical levels of efficiency that are more or less mathematically and thermodynamically impossible. It is the truth-telling organization that can remind those engaged in social justice, healing, or the protection of nature that unless we stop consuming at our current rate, any other kind of progress is temporary at best. It is the truth-telling organization that can show, not just by charts and graphs but by models for a new culture, the interconnection between economic displacement and our changing climate, between inner turmoil and a colonial mindset, between our cultural traumas and our addictive consumerism.

Although it has not managed to cross the racial divide - something that leadership is painfully and actively aware of - Transitions principles of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share situate it in a place where it can begin meaningful work on white privilege while it renews the invitation to those who, I believe, will never feel invited to the table of the Sierra Club or 350.org or the Nature Conservancy - the sort of traditional environmentalism that has white privilege written into its DNA. Not only does Transition understand the recent rise of nationalism, moreover, it might provide concrete ways of building institutions of acceptance and understanding in our very neighborhoods. The yard-signs and protests are a start, but Transition is committed to building concrete alternatives that are at once practical yet tethered to a very unique kind of whole-system thinking. It is to this message and its practical manifestation that I am most committed.

One of my main suggestions, in light of my perceptions of Transition’s problems as well as its importance will strike many as heresy itself and as an affront to many of the stated principles of Transition and Permaculture. But I nevertheless want to offer-up the proposition that Transition should remake itself closer to the model of a political party or a church (or temple or mosque). [i] I hope that by the end of this series, this proposal will either make more sense or that it will have been revised into something more palatable to those who might have a visceral reaction to this suggestion at the outset.

I’m going to leave off here for now, though with some parting thoughts about the concept of a “movement,” a concept whose assumptions are quite different than those found in political parties and communities of love and faith. A movement, as historian Richard J. Evans suggests, implies “dynamism and unceasing forward motion.” “It also more than... [hints] at an ultimate goal, an absolute object to work towards that was grander and more final” than the goals either of a political party or a faith-based community. A movement transcends politics and culture and has an implied teleology. [ii] If this teleology remains unrealized, the movement might be deemed a failure.

There was a time in which the Transition Movement maintained this sort of grand and final goal. Now, it seems to me, the credibility of this goal has either been lost, or has been suspended on a timeline far longer than the brief one necessary to incite the urgent goal-based commitment upon which many Transition initiatives were born and then floundered. A political party, in contrast, provides identity, holds space (over the long haul), and articulates interests in a way that Transition might, especially if we consider the holding of space and the promoting of interests in a rather figurative way that is at least partially removed from the crude struggles of politics.

Likewise, in some ways, is what I am perhaps misleadingly referring to as a “church” – a community that is focused on love, support, and spiritual nurture, that is committed to acts of kindness and love, and that bears witness and mourns on one day, and celebrates on the next. Such a “church” may aspire to bring about a vast cultural change, but its being-in-the-world makes complete sense even if it does not precipitate this change. Transition as a church doesn’t need to “succeed” in order to be successful and fulfill its mission. It thrives in static and dynamic historical moments, alike, with or without progress towards its goals. It provides us vulnerable, frightened, and flawed human beings with some of what we need to survive great and uncontrollable changes. [iii] As the great literary critic Kenneth Burke once said of poetry, Transition might also provide “equipment for living.”

I hope that readers will keep in mind that I am at this point using the concepts of political party and church mainly as metaphors and that I am offering them as possibilities for discussion rather than dogmatic conclusions that I am working towards. In my next installment, either way, I will put on my critical thinking cap and perform a difficult analysis of the narrative that the Transition Movement has been using in order to define itself as a movement, with all the qualities of a movement that Evans describes.

Endnotes

[i] Part, but not all, of my reasoning comes from this: that work, church, and politics are three of the things that many, many people identify with and attend regularly and attentively. Religion, moreover, is one of the few forces behind any voluntary relinquishment of consumption or privilege (which isn’t to say that it does this reliably). Transition has worked valiantly at work, and should continue to do so. But many of us will need a great deal of time and assistance to meaningfully untether ourselves from the growth economy. Thanks also to Vicki Robins for her forceful articulation of this. See also, my http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-09-06/earth-church-2.

[ii] Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), p. 173.  Don’t read anything into the fact that this is drawn from a history of the Third Reich. It was just the most accessible (i.e. I could find the right page) definition of a movement from books I’ve recently read.

[iii] Shaun Chamberlain’s excellent talk at the Transition Conference (webcast from England) poignantly makes a point similar to this.