Transition movement: current successes, future prospects
No 35, Posted by fw, July 23, 2010
“My research has focused on the present. However, while Transition has been ‘successful’ in expanding its network, looking to the future it remains to be seen how the ‘Transition Coalition’ will hold onto ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ members, whilst implementing meaningful reformist action. Further, Transition as a networking social movement has been good at absorbing self-organizing groups and people, raising awareness of Transition; how it retains a core brand and set of principles in the long term is again questionable.” Johnathan Balls, Transition Towns: Local Networking for Global Sustainability?
The above passage is the concluding paragraph of a University of Cambridge undergraduate’s 54-page dissertation on the Transition movement. What follows is a bare-bones, non-critical outline of the author’s research question, methodology, selected key findings, future prospects and concluding comment. I have omitted the author’s three-page summary overview of Transition’s origins, the Transition model, and the conceptual and theoretical literature review that underpin the framework and foundations of his conceptual analysis.
Balls’ Research Question
Given that the political and social importance attached to sustainability in the last twenty years has not been matched with widespread success in implementing sustainability in practice, and that the last three years have seen an extraordinary growth in the number of Initiatives joining the Transition Network:
“Why has the Transition Model been so successful in both the number and diversity of communities in which Initiatives have been established?“
Balls’ research followed a three-pronged methodology:
- An initial and ongoing grounding of the Transition Model within its theoretical and contextual framework, most notably in the fields of: environmentalism; localism and sustainability; social movements, networking and governance; as well as other models of sustainability;
- An analysis of Transition Initiative websites, literature and online forums to ensure representation across all Initiatives at a broad comparative level, covering information on an Initiatives’ progress towards Transition goals, the people involved, and networking; and
- In-depth, semi-structured interviews with members of twenty-two Transition Initiatives to probe their structure, practice, ideas and goal-related progress. (There were 37 interview questions in all, organized in three groups: The Town (10); Networking (16); and Transition Plan (11))
The interview sample was based upon reaching a mix of Initiatives in terms of population size, urban to rural, and recent to well-established. The selection method involved contacting the first ten official Transition Initiatives, every following tenth one, and any Initiative that was an outlier in geographic or socio-economic terms.
A follow-up email was sent to Initiatives that did not respond to an initial message. In all cases, Balls contacted people involved in the core team, who in most cases had been engaged from the outset. Overall, twenty-four interviews were conducted with representatives from twenty-two Initiatives. In addition, Balls had face-to-face interviews with Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition, and Ben Brangwyn, head of the Transition Network. Anonymity was provided to any interviewee who wanted it.
Selected Key Findings
- Key to an Transition Initiative’s success is having a core team of motivated, energetic and skilled individuals. Transition Initiatives that lost core team members struggled to continue.
- Personal networks were crucial to people becoming involved with Transition and for the formation of new Initiatives.
- Encouraging people to take central determining roles in defining an Initiative’s meaning, goals, practices and projects inspires initial participation.
- Particularities of place — e.g., geographic location and economic and social factors — do NOT prevent a core group from establishing an Initiative.
- However, over the longer term, place does matter. Some communities turn out to be better suited to Transition. For example, Initiatives are more likely to take root in smaller towns or city neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community identity and social cohesion. Places with a history of past social activism can be fertile breeding grounds for Transition Initiatives.
- Transition’s promotion of localized sustainability taps into a groundswell of public opinion, facilitating the mobilization of a grassroots base.
- Participation in an Initiative by locals in the community is typically in the range of 5% to 10% of those who are on mailings lists. (Gaining majority participation within communities is rare).
- While Transition networks are multi-form, changing, and locally specific, in general, networking is of three types: 1) inter-networking between two Initiatives or their sub-groups; 2) between a sub-group and an outside organization; and 3) between an Initiative and a local council, businesses, and other kinds of local bodies such as religious, food, and women’s groups.
- All Initiatives in the research sample were engaged in networking on a regional or local level, facilitating sharing of knowledge, information, experience, and resources.
- Initiatives not actively engaged in networking experienced difficulties in maintaining long-term momentum and energy.
- The Internet, an indispensable networking tool, is underutilized.
- The ideology and theory of localism was, and is, a key condition for a majority of people’s initial and continued involvement in the Transition Movement.
- The majority of interviewees believed it inevitable that societies and economies would need to relocalize, that is transition to the local production of food, energy and goods, and the local development of currency, governance and culture in response to the environmental, social, political and economic impacts of global over-reliance on cheap energy.
- The Transition model was seen by all as a viable and workable model and pathway to sustainability.
- While Transition theory proclaims a radical message, in practice, Initiatives are developing ideas and projects that are quite “mainstream”; for example, community gardens, renewal energy, recycling, awareness raising and community participation.
- The Transition model has successfully merged radical and mainstream views and practice, creating a ‘brand’ image that attracts a broad base of grassroots participation and support and worldwide adoption.
- Comparing the Transition model with two other sustainability models — top-down governmental and small community grassroots approaches — while top-down models are networking and have institutional and resource capacity, they rarely have extensive grassroots support. And local community models may be successful individually but they have not gained the capacity networking benefits.
- The democratic and inclusive organizational structure of Transition is crucial to its success in bringing new Initiatives and diverse people under a single framework.
- Transition’s readily recognizable brand is perceived to come without negative baggage commonly associated with many environmental organizations.
- A winning formula, a track record of success, and extensive networking connections flattens the learning curve for new Initiatives; they can hit the ground running.
- Beyond adhering to Transition’s core principles, vision and values, Initiatives are encouraged to structure and organize their activities independently, adapting to local conditions. Indeed, few follow the twelve steps closely, and almost none have considered an Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) to date.
- Balls conceptualizes Transition as a ‘discourse coalition’, that is, as bringing together people from diverse interest areas around a single symbolic focusing discourse. For Transition, the central discursive repertoire is focused on climate change and peak oil, resilience and localization.
- Transition Initiatives engage in extensive and diverse forms of networking, including: correspondence and consultation with local councils around environmental issues and community development plans; recycling and food policy; specific funding projects; links with community organizations; exchanges with local businesses, and links with national organizations.
- The most successful Initiatives have carved out authoritative spaces with local environmental governance, sometimes with opportunity for policy making.
- The ‘mainstream’ and ‘respectable’ national brand that Transition promotes is key to individual Initiatives’ success in forming links with local government.
Transition’s Future Prospects?
Balls considers some longer-term questions surrounding the Transition Movement:
- Given its self-organizing principle, how well will Transition be able to maintain a coherent set of principles and a stable brand as its movement grows?
- Capacity issues were raised in all Balls’ interviews as a key limiting factor: its absolute reliance on volunteers; lack of time and resources, failure to engage more than a minority of the local population; and participant burn-out.
- Failure to continue to grow its grassroots support and to build its strategic alliances could negatively impact an Initiative’s ability to drive forward meaningful projects, which, in turn, could spiral downward, out of control, into a negative feedback loop.
- While there has been some success by some Initiatives in the area of local food, local currencies, local shopping and awareness raising, these have been limited and tied to funding, institutional support, and having the right people with the essential skills.
I used Balls’ concluding comment as my opening quote.