Home | Friday 26th September 2008 | Issue 648
LOST IN TRANSITION
As global capitalism and its failing markets threaten to fall around our ears, it must be worth imagining what a different way of doing things might look like. And working towards it.
That’s what the Transition Towns (TT) supporters want to do. TT's are a 'think global act local' strategy for fighting climate change first put forward by an permaculture academic, Rob Hopkins, in 2005/6 in Kinsale, Ireland. It was first exported to the UK in Totnes, Devon - and converts have been eagerly promoting the idea ever since.
And the message seems to be getting through. In the past couple of years the concept (and the leafleting) has been spreading around the country, nay, the world, with over a 100 communities signed up from all over the UK as well as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, the US and most recently, Japan.
The movement has also been hitting the headlines here in the UK recently, with just the other week a small town a few miles down the road from SchNEWS towers, Lewes, proudly launching it’s own currency to much media fanfare.
With such an emergent new force for social change, you’d think we might have mentioned it in SchNEWS before – it’s obviously long overdue for us to put the boot in, er we mean, provide an unbiased and dispassionate rational analysis of the whole shebang.
So what’s the big idea? Transition Towns (TT) make a good case for the need to change. They recognise the pressing threats of climate change and peak oil (OK, well, the end of super-abundant cheap oil we can agree on, at least - see SchNEWS 644). This means that the globalised, air-mile, oil-driven nonsense needs to stop and more locally based, lower carbon living solutions are needed. The question is, how are we going to get there? But they are not calling for major reform or revolution – the clue is in the name, folks! - they are looking for an ordered gradual switch over – a transition. The way they propose this should come about is a somewhat tortuous affair, with the resultant danger that the eco-system or global economic system (or both) may collapse in the meantime.
To start the process of your whole town, or city, being designated a ‘TT’, all that is needed is a small group of well-meaning committed do-gooders, usually PR friendly middle-class types, to form a Transition Group. This group then works on publicising themselves, arranging film showings, printing leaflets and networking.
Once momentum has been sufficiently built, the group can then hold a great ‘public unleashing’ where the plan goes ‘live’. As well as a wave of talks, trades and skills workshops and green-inspired local projects such as tree planting and small permaculture schemes, the main plank of the plan involves gradually formulating a Local Energy Descent Plan’ (LEDP), to map out how the local community might one day become more self sufficient, less oil dependant and much greener. If enough local businesses, people and councillors go along with it, or palatable parts of it, the town can officially adopt the mantle of a ‘Transition Town’ and brand itself accordingly.
Measures suggested include the laudable aims of reducing the reliance on multinational corporations for food and goods production, improving energy use and efficiency, increasing recycling, reducing car dependency and a host of other lefty-green objectives. It’s a ‘big tent’ which allows it to scoop up the efforts of a range of social change groups under one large banner.
So what’s the problem? Whilst it’s hard to be too disparaging – these are all people with the best intentions, attempting to actually take some sort of action as opposed to sitting idly by and waiting for the big collapse - and some change for the good is obviously better than none, there are some flaws in the thinking.
Firstly, TT acknowledge that they have no desire to do away with all the trappings of capitalist society – merely reduce local dependence on it, gradually. They avoid taking on the political roots of all the problems and concentrate on symptoms. A key aim is to get the local council on board. Which many have been surprisingly willing to do...up to a point. Local government itself is charged by central government with working out how to roll out various greenish initiatives, such as to minimise energy needs and increase recycling levels for example, and the LEDP overlaps to some degree with many of their own blueprints for the future – as long as it’s controlled and the results leave the status quo as little changed as possible, with power flowing upwards, private money still in charge of all those recycling facilities and a capitalistic model still underpinning the local economy.
So the council can now use the TT brand wagon to increase uptake of these plans on a wave of public enthusiasm, whilst simultaneously seeming uber green and championing the local over the national. Put this way, its easy to see why many a town hall bigwig are talking up the scheme.
Which explains why Lewes council are so behind the latest big venture in the TT vision of the future – launching local currencies. As people previously used to get hanged for such impertinence as starting yer own money, there must be a catch. And there is.
The Lewes Pound (LP) was unveiled last week with a windfall of media coverage. As global financial markets have been taking a beating, perhaps this was a model for the brave new world? Er, not really. Because it isn’t actually a currency at all. It’s actually an ingenious scheme using existing book token legislation. It involves effectively buying a certain amount of sterling (in Lewes’ case, £10,000) and then issuing vouchers to the equivalent value, accepted in local shops signing up the scheme.
Which many local shops in Lewes were of course only too happy to do – a welcome free boost to trade as consumers voluntarily pledge to spend their cash with them. Who wouldn’t?
The idea is that the LP will increase interest in spending more cash locally, which in theory keeps more of the profit generated circulating locally, as opposed to being syphoned out of the community and into the pockets of global institutions (like Tesco, for example) and their shareholders.
Which is great, surely. Well yes, except that the vouchers are redeemable back into cash any time you, or a business-owner wishes - presumably for going shopping at Tesco or making more import deals with third-world tat suppliers.
And one of the stated aims of the year long test project is to get national chains accepting them – which seems a rather strange measure of success and contradicts the whole stated purpose.
Money already spent in local shops will continue circulating with little effect on the outside world. While OK for PR and raising public awareness of the explotation by global corporations, it's not achieving more than affecting a few better-off people’s spending habits.
In any event, in Lewes, the big launch has not really gone as planned. Whilst there was massive interest and local flag-waving parochial support for the LP, the well-meaning urging of the TT organisers to keep circulating the vouchers and not change them back into cash has not exactly been heeded.
All the LP notes ‘sold out’ in hours... only to be hoarded and swiftly offered on Ebay for up to £40 for one Lewes Pound as the local populace immediately capitalised on the opportunity to indulge in some rampant currency speculation!
They reasoned that as there is a limited supply of individually numbered LP’s, they will in the future be highly collectable - and there have been no shortage of over-the-odds buyers, leaving the whole scheme looking somewhat farcical.
The TT group – having considered but eventually rejected the idea of selling LPs itself for £10 each in order to lesson the black marketeering, have now pledged to print up some more stock - although whether they’ll ever be able to afford to devalue the LP enough to out-bankroll the speculators remains to be seen!
As does the overall effect of the Transition Towns movement itself. Whilst we broadly support many of its stated objectives, we cannot see how failing to plan for the much more radical reform of society needs will really work. Attempting to push the existing power structures into implementing some of the required measures will only ever lead to partial change and speaks mainly to people who want things more or less as they are, only slightly greener.
...But we could be wrong! To judge for yourself (and don’t let us put you off working for more localisation and all things green!)
* The Trapese collective’s in depth critique of the Transition Movement is available at www.sparror.cubecinema.com/stuffit/trapese