Home > Building Resilience > “Always the Same, Always Different”: a Response to Ted Trainer

“Always the Same, Always Different”: a Response to Ted Trainer

June 14, 2018

The late John Peel once said of The Fall that they were “always the same, always different”. The same could be said of Ted Trainer’s critiques of Transition. He just published another one, many of the points in which he has made before, and I have already responded to here and here. But there are some elements to his latest critique which, on behalf of Transition Network, I would like to address.

Ted asserts that “the global predicament cannot be solved other than through a Transition Towns movement”. This is a claim that I suspect few in the Transition movement would make.  We are aware of, connected to and deeply appreciative of other movements, networks, local food activists, new democracy campaigns, refugee support organisations, craftivists, renewable energy co-ops, climate justice, community banking, artists and the growing range of networks working for social justice, sustainability and so on. We could not, and would not want to, do it alone.  We are a piece of the puzzle.

The theory of Transition has been articulated and rearticulated in books, blogs, films, talks. It is also an evolving movement, with national Hubs in over 40 countries, a decentralising structure, and a lot of autonomy for the creation of regional networks. It is a really interesting question for a self-organising movement whether it is actually appropriate any more for Transition Network to be the one telling people what Transition is. Having ‘a theory’ might be attractive, but we’re a global, bottom up movement – there are lots and lots of theories, and we sign post interesting ones, facilitate debates, share stories of best practice, gather together the hard-won learnings from people trying this stuff out on the ground, share their stories, which people/initiatives then pick up, or not, according to capacity and context.

Do not mistake my saying that for complacency or any diminution of purpose. I’m genuinely puzzled at how Ted arrived at some of his assumptions. He asked Transition Network to send him our latest thinking (as most of his previous writings were based almost entirely on The Transition Handbook, a book now creakingly out of date), which we did, directing him to our Essential Guide to Doing Transition, to 21 Stories of Transition and to a few key blogs from the last year or so. His post accuses The Essential Guide of not giving people concrete ideas for projects they might undertake, in spite of its subtitle being ‘Getting Transition started in your street, community, town or organisation (because Transition groups told us a guide to those first few stages would be useful), seemingly ignoring the fact that 21 Stories is packed with such ideas.

It is puzzling also that so much of his critique is based on a passage from The Power of Just Doing Stuff, published in 2013, which suggests the reader consider “just doing something, anything”. He heaps derision on this statement, repeating it several times, and also adds “the literature does not even explain why localism is important”.

Puzzled, I went back and riffled through my copy of The Power of Just Doing Stuff, and even, in case I had missed it, did a word search through the digital copy I have for the term “just doing something, anything”. I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I did find though was a pretty comprehensive section setting out why localisation (the term I prefer to ‘localism’, a term abused in the UK by a Conservative government to justify the crushing effects of austerity on local communities) is a good thing. This was followed by lots of practical stories from around the world of Transition in action, inspiring stories of very real change underway.

My problem with being on the receiving end of a lot of Ted’s criticism is that much of it feels so ungrounded and out of touch with actually trying to affect real change in the real world. To write that Transition needs to “involve the development of a consciousness whereby we feel we ‘own’ and are responsible for our town” and “we will get nowhere unless and until there is a high level of public awareness of the need to scrap growth, market domination and wealth obsession etc.”,  gives no sense of what an enormous challenge it is to actually do that. As George Monbiot has written, no-one ever “rioted for austerity”, and Ted offers no clues as to how to overcome this.

The Transition movement opens up a discussion, a way of getting involved in building community while also facing up to global challenges, with a constant thread paying attention to psychological processes, at a depth and a richness unusual for such movements. Ted’s calls for a “development of a consciousness” then fails in any way to back up how one might even start to set about doing that.

His tendency to speak in large abstracts reminds me of an observation I made of the recent #CTRLshift2018 conference in Wigan:

“It was interesting how hard it was to get some people to move away from vague generalisations like “we must reform the financial system” or “we need to transform the political system”, to something more tangible, achievable, focused. It felt like there was a default position that we often fall back into without even realising it”.

As anyone actually doing Transition in an actual community, urban, rural or anywhere in between will tell you, Transition isn’t always easy. I know that I certainly bear scars from some of the things I’ve been involved in: people burn out, priorities change, community politics can be very tricky, money is tight or non-existent. This stuff is no walk in the park (or community garden even). Of course people are suffering, and dying, right now as a result of the way that people, particularly the rich, live and consume – but saying “you’ve got it wrong, do it this way instead” has a pretty conspicuous and established record of complete failure so far. Ted’s analysis is all a bit academic ivory tower, with little recognition of the sweat, blood and tears (often in pretty equal measure) doing Transition, or things like it, requires.

Ted says of Transition that “there seems to be no interest in developing strategies to increase public awareness of the need for extreme, radical and rapid global transition towards localism”. Firstly, I disagree with him that Transition has ‘no interest’ in doing that. Indeed, it has been, and continues to be, one of the principle channels for spreading that particular idea around the world.

But I see no reflection in his writings of the difficulty of attempting such a task, in a world where peoples’ attention spans are in pieces, where we spend 65% of our time in front of screens, where powerful media moguls are able to influence elections, use social media to spread fake news which distorts democracy, undermines referenda and elections, where people are stressed, awash with cortisol, and feel powerless to change anything. Ted’s approach seems to fall back into the classic rational deficit model, “if people have enough information they will change their minds and change their behaviour”, an approach we now know to be pretty much discredited.

Indeed, one could ask whether it is the role of the Transition movement to do that? And is it the Transition movement’s fault if that isn’t occurring? As we’ve seen, spreading ideas at scale in that way requires an ability to shape and manage the media that is perhaps beyond this single movement, which acts more as a catalyst and real world laboratory.

He argues Transition initiatives need to be “preventing market forces from determining what happens”. Has he any idea how powerful those forces are? In some countries people are being killed or imprisoned for doing that. People who do that are being, in some places, classified as “terrorists”, their groups infiltrated by undercover police. I have always believed that one key way of doing that is by withdrawing support from those market forces by setting up alternatives, regional banks, community energy companies, new housing initiatives, key localisation infrastructure that people can invest in. That’s how we approach it in Transition.

Woman in kitchenVolunteer cook at the Transition Surplus Food Cafe in Fishguard, Wales.

His dismissal of impactful projects which often require the input of thousands of volunteer hours, hours people could be spending on other things, but which people do because they love it and they love the change they see unfolding as “nice green ventures” also troubles me.

I will now focus on four of Ted’s key points:

One: Transition has no strategic focus: “These movements are at present essentially mindless, theoryless, and deliberately so. They have nothing to say about how the things being done are going to lead to a world order that is sustainable and just” Ted writes. I disagree, and indeed I struggle to understand how Ted sees that. I would say the theory is pretty clear. Namely, that Transition is one part of the overall push for change that is needed, and its role is to support, connect and inspire communities to reimagine and rebuild the world, starting at a manageable and meaningful level of scale.

The aim is to plug as many leaks in the local economy as possible, enable resources to circulate locally as much as possible, reweave the social connections, reduce carbon emissions, put care back at the centre of how that place functions, revive local democracy, enable wealth to be invested back into the place, and to involve as many different organisations as possible in doing that. If he had actually read his copy of The Power of Just Doing Stuff he might have got that.

Ted’s critique seems to imagine that Transition is run like a Coca-Cola franchise, that Transition Network can co-ordinate an overarching strategy that all groups will follow. The joy of a self-organising approach is that we create the invitation, the set of values and principles and tools and put them out in the world, and then amplify and connect the stories that are then generated. Sure, it is frustrating if you want rapid co-ordinated change, but given that we don’t live in totalitarian China, I draw huge encouragement from the way this approach leads to amazing innovation and creativity, as Ted no doubt saw in ’21 Stories of Transition’. Along with very real impacts on the ground. It is my experience that ideas spread in unexpected ways, and I am always amazed at how Transition spreads, where it goes, who it affects and so on.

Two: Theory of Change: this is a tougher challenge I think. Ted asks “by what mechanism or chain of causes is developing more community gardens (yes, we’re back on the community gardens again) etc supposed to culminate someday in a society that is not run by and for the rich few, driven by market forces and geared to perpetual growth?” I did send Ted the link to the story of Liege in Belgium, but for his benefit, as he didn’t mention it, I will tell it again.

In Liege, the Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise (‘Liége Food Belt’) initiative, which emerged from Liége en Transition has, inspired by the question “what if, in a generation’s time, the majority of the food eaten in this city came from the land around this city?” started 14 co-operatives, into which local people have invested over €5 million.

Among those are two city centre shops, which are flourishing, and plans for many more. It is clear that the narrative the city tells about itself is starting to change, the Mayor telling me “8 years ago we wanted to be a Smart City, now we want to be a Transition City”, and making a lot of their land available for a new generation of young food growers. In Liége I got a taste of the answer to Ted’s question. I would invite Ted to visit the city and tell the activists there that “they have nothing to say about how the things being done are going to lead to a world order that is sustainable and just” and see how it goes down.

Bikes leaning on shop windowThe first ‘Les Petits Producteurs’ shop in Brussels, Belgium.

It does it not by going on and on about collapse, about impending “massive terminal depression”, about degrowth, it does it by telling a better story, a story where the food is better, work is more meaningful, there is more conviviality, more reciprocity, better parties, better beer, more laughter. It doesn’t wait for “high levels of public awareness of the need to scrap growth, market domination and wealth obsession etc”, it just gets on with it. But skilfully, strategically, patiently. Putting care at the heart of the organisations doing it, looking after ourselves and each other, learning the skills for working together. Transition is not like a political campaign, the step-by-step move towards a goal. It works in a different way.

People are inspired by it, get involved, and talk to their work colleagues, they share films, one might then quit her job and start a new business in a Transition vein, another might organise some friends who then stand for local government, that government then starts to bring buildings into community ownership, support the Transition group, change how the local hospital feeds itself. In other words, it isn’t predictable. The Holy Grail is when local community-led initiatives meet, and are supported by, local government, local business. You can see that happening in Barcelona, in Ghent, in Liége, in many different places, what Olivier de Schutter calls ‘The Partner State’.  It’s why the Municipalities in Transition project is creating an international Community of Practice, helping to connect many of the people and projects focusing on this important intersection. Transition can catalyse this activity, it can change the story, but it can’t do everything.

At this point, Ted might ask, quite reasonably, whether a world full of Liége-type activity in every town and city across the global North would be enough to avert a climate catastrophe. Good question.

My response would be that Transition Network strongly believes that through people taking back control of their energy, food, transport and finance we open up a space for working out how to massively reduce our impact, we create political hunger and impetus which will manifest in a variety of ways around the world, probably including some form of rationing (such as TEQs, Cap and Share, or something similar). The question of what policy that comes to meet Transition half way, what the enabling frameworks for Transition would look like, is something we have debated and explored from the outset.  And it’s an area that we would love to have the capacity and resources to explore further.

Three: “Just do something, anything”: Ted’s favourite quote from The Power of Just Doing Stuff, as we’ve seen, doesn’t actually exist. He is mistaking the invitation that people feel a sense of urgency and agency with a belief that anything anyone decides to do qualifies as useful Transition. I’ve never said that. However, in Ted’s dismissal of his made-up quote he misses something.

Ted lives in a world where either people know nothing about Transition and so aren’t doing anything, or they are mad into it and are radically transforming the world around them. It’s not like that.

People at tables in squareCommunity dialogue in the square in Zarzalejo, Spain.

For most people in the real world, they need steps in. They need small projects that give them the confidence they can affect change on their street. So, planting trees, creating a repair café, building a food garden in their street and, yes, creating a community garden, can be many people’s first steps in. They step, and find they now know more people, feel less lonely, have learnt a new skill, eaten good food, so might perhaps take a second step. When I give talks, I always stress that in spite of living in a world that only values the big impressive things, those small things are just as important as they are peoples’ ways in.

The Transition model is underpinned by important values and principles – often implicit and embodied rather than presented as demands.  By evoking these intrinsic values and helping people get in touch with their longing for a more caring, connected way of living, we find we can have some confidence that there will be positive impacts even when we can’t predict what they will be.

Four: Needs: Ted suggests that Transition groups should start their work by asking “What are our most urgent needs in this town?”, founded on the rather patronising assumption that that isn’t what they do already. Come to Totnes. There are now 2 projects, either explicitly Transition or with historic roots in Transition that will shortly be building over 100 truly affordable homes for local needs. And creating jobs. And Caring Town Totnes is developing replicable models for approaching how the community provides care in more imaginative ways. Over £90,000 now invested in the creation of almost 30 new Transition-related enterprises through the annual Local Entrepreneur Forum.

The point is here that in any community, very few people, I suspect, would share Ted’s perception of what those needs are (imminent collapse, “the phasing out of most heavy industry, radical restructuring of national economies, global degrowth etc”). It is far more skillful, in my opinion, to work, in the real world, with meeting the needs communities perceive themselves as having in a way that can also move Transition forward.

So, to conclude, it is my sense that the theory of what Transition is is implicit in the actions of thousands of groups. Those groups are, to return to the title of this piece, always different, always the same – rooted in Transition thinking, but very much a creation of the local place and its culture. Transition Network does not seek to design and implement a strategy to govern the activity of those groups, but works alongside others to develop and collate useful tools and resources, to offer training, to support the sharing of learning and experiences and to build international collaboration.

There are some important edges being explored right now and there’s definitely scope for us to get better at understanding and describing the impacts and potential of this fascinating work.  But we see this as an exercise in working skilfully with emergence and complexity, rather than seeking to come up with the answers and persuading others to follow our lead.

At the local level, it is the experience of Transition Network that people understand what they are doing and why it matters, and are doing what they can with relatively little resource and capacity. Transition is out there, around the world, with its sleeves rolled up, doing real projects with real people, taking the flak, building the relationships, creating amazing things, having those important conversations.

A few years ago, an Italian researcher called Luigi Russi came to Totnes. He stayed here for a year, got involved in everything, was at every event and meeting, putting out chairs, cleaning tea cups. In the research he produced, ‘Everything Gardens’, he argued that Transition ought not be talked about as a movement, but as a moving. It’s adaptation, its ‘multi-dimensionality’, its increasing diversification, playfulness, creativity and openness to new ideas, influences and practices, are the heart of what Transition is about, rather than the models published at different times which represent little more than snapshots representing one person’s interpretation of how things looked at that particular moment. As he put it:

“The perception that prompts my inquiry into Transition is not so much that it can be a set of strategies to address peak oil and climate change. Instead, it is that Transition – what Transition is – moves. And this movement is what this book tries to provide an account of”

Transition is not a neat and tidy model in an academic paper, it is an evolving, breathing, laughing, crying, delightful invitation to people to reimagine and rebuild the world. It is not an approach that takes linear routes, rather it inoculates a culture with possibilities, in a way that is unpredictable. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Urban food garden

1000 Bxl en Transition’s food garden in the centre of their street. Brussels.

Ted’s piece, in essence, consists of him voicing his unhappiness that the Transition movement has failed to meet the entirely unachievable goals he seems to have set for it. The fact that after 12 years of supporting and catalysing a movement now active in 50 countries, Transition Network has failed to bring about “a basic social pattern involving mostly small, highly self sufficient and self governing and collectivist communities that maximise use of local resources to meet local needs … and which are content with very frugal material lifestyles” is something that disappoints Ted greatly. I think perhaps he needs to set more realistic expectations.

Ted entitled his piece ‘The Transition Towns Movement … going where?’ Where Ted and Transition Network differ is that he needs to know the answer to that question, whereas we have a lot of trust in the people in this movement that it will continue for a long time to delight, surprise and enchant, and so enable us to face up to the massive changes we need to make by inviting us into working with each other to reveal the enormous potential of our lives and the remarkable opportunities of our times.

Originally posted at Transition Network.