The green political movement and the transition movement could be said to share broadly the same objectives, but could the transition movement stand a better chance of changing people’s mindsets? Two transition activists from North London discuss their work.
Alexis Rowell & Sarah Nicholl are founder members of Transition Belsize and members of the Green Party of England & Wales.
The Transition Town movement, like the Green Party, is primarily about visioning a better future, one where fossil fuels are not a danger to life on earth, where economics is not based on offshore gambling and pyramid schemes, where every member of society is valued. For the Green Party, action takes the form of policies, conferences, leaflets, media messages, votes in ballot boxes and changes in laws. For the Transition movement, it’s about going back to the basics in our local communities and trying to dream up a different future to the scary one that’s coming towards us like a bullet train. That’s the key – can we imagine a world, a village, a town, a neighbourhood, a society we’d rather live in? If we can imagine it, then we can build it, step by step.
The intellectual underpinnings of the Transition movement are climate change, peak oil (or the inevitable depletion of natural resources) and the fragility and unfairness of the financial and economic system. Recognise those issues? They sound very much like the sort of things that Green Party policies around the world are attempting to resolve.
Transitioners focus on the local, little steps we can make as communities to change the world. Local currencies are part of the Transition movement. So are community renewables companies. And groups that help residents to draught proof their homes. Allotments and community nut orchards are part of Transition. Jam making, sewing, foraging, reuse projects – these are all part of Transition. Frankly anything which builds community resilience, which prepares a community for the massive shocks which are coming, but which does it actively and joyously – that’s Transition.
Resilience is the ability of a system to absorb change and still function. In most communities in the past – a generation or two ago – we still had the basic skills needed for life such as growing and preserving food, making clothes, building with local materials. We used to create the cake locally and import the icing. Now we import the cake and the icing.
Everyone is included in Transition, which can make for challenging meetings. But in a successful transition project every skill is valuable because there’s so much happening. We need good listeners, gardeners, people who like to make and fix everything, good parties, discussions, energy engineers, inspiring art and music, builders, planners, project managers and much more besides. The Transiton mentality is – don’t wait for governments or businesses or anyone – get on with it. If there isn’t a project working in the area you are passionate about, create one!
The toolkit of Transition is permaculture, which is all about learning to live with the natural world rather in opposition to it. Permaculture is about watching and reflecting before acting. It’s about trying to replicate the sort of cycles you find in nature, where no irreplaceable inputs like fossil fuels are used, and no waste is created. It’s a way of thinking and being as well as a way of doing which minimises our impact on the earth.
Look around the world and lots of people are doing Transition or permaculture without calling it that. And some people – particularly indigenous cultures in tune with their natural environment – have been doing it for years. For at the heart of Transition is a sense that we’re out of kilter with the natural world, that we’ve lost sight of our place as part of nature, that we think we can control and plunder nature rather than work with it.
That’s where permaculture comes in. Biomimicry is permaculture. Moving away from linear systems that use fossil fuel energy and create waste – that’s permaculture. Learning to respect nature rather than plunder it – that’s permaculture.
Belsize Park, an upmarket urban village in north London, is not an obvious place to launch a permaculture revolution. But at the same time it’s absolutely the right starting point because so many of our ecological problems come from excessive consumption by the better off in society.
When Transition Belsize started one of our first projects was to create a food growing site in the car park of the local Premier Inn Hotel. It took a year and several hotel managers, but eventually we were allowed to build raised beds. A group of Transitioners who live in the surrounding streets came together to create a food growing space using permaculture principles. The aim was to inspire residents, hotel staff and guests to grow food and think about sustainability.
We had planned to do a raised bed building workshop with a carpenter but at the appointed hour the heavens opened and he got stuck on a roof mending someone’s leaks. So two of us tried to make a raised bed out of old pallets using first principles ie none! Five hours later we were very wet, had sore arms from pulling out and banging in rusty old nails, and had built just one slightly rickety looking bed. Not very permaculture!
The next day some feminine intuition was applied to the problem. Where it had taken two men five hours to build one bed it now took a matter of minutes for one woman to design the energy out of the process and another few minutes for four women to build a bed. We men could only look on in wonder!
Next we needed compost, which the North London Waste Authority kindly provided for free – five tonnes of it! The hotel loaned us two parking spaces for the compost delivery – “as long as it doesn’t smell and you move it in two days,” said the manager. It did smell. And five tonnes is a lot of compost. We couldn’t use it all so the call went out across the neighbourhood – “come and get some free compost – please!” We were panicking but fortunately the good burghers of Belsize came to our rescue and the excess compost melted away.
Planting the beds was huge fun if a little chaotic. People brought seedlings they’d been growing at home and stuck them in wherever they could find a space. In year two we vowed to do a better job of rotating the four main types of vegetables – brassicas, legumes, alliums, root & fruit crops – through our four main beds!
With the beds in and planted our thoughts turned to water. On day one, when we’d been doing our permaculture base map, we’d noticed a nearby wall with a ledge on one side of it that seemed like a good place to collect rainwater. So we rigged up some guttering and some water butts. It took a couple of attempts to get the guttering pointing downwards towards the butts but it’s all valuable learning and hopefully we won’t need to use mains water any more.
We also put in two wormeries so that we could recycle our own food waste and generate compost. Our secondary aim was to persuade the head chef of the hotel restaurant’s to bring us their food waste. In a sense this site is a Trojan Horse for us – we want to involve the hotel staff more and more in what we’re doing so that they feel a sense of ownership, so that their staff can learn about food growing, and so that the management keep moving down the road towards genuine sustainability in their operations.
With the beds all planted and abundant we invited the local media, the Camden Council’s Cabinet Member for Sustainability and staff from the hotel to a Grand Launch. Even the Premier Inn regional boss came along and was impressed by what he saw – and tasted! By then, six weeks after the launch of the site, we were able to provide salad, beans, peas and strawberries. Hopefully one day they’ll allow us to expand our food growing into actual car parking spaces. Or maybe we’ll just be able to take them over when the cars stop coming because fuel is too expensive!
Now we’re thinking about planting espalier fruit trees along the walls in the autumn and organising food growing and permaculture workshops on the site. It’s been an amazing experience – partly because we surprised ourselves by how much food we were able to grow, but mostly because of the bonds it has created between people and because it has already inspired so many people.
The beauty of Transition is that anyone can do it anywhere. There are no barriers to entry. Transition starts when you start the process of change. The actions are upbeat and positive. The reflections are realistic.
And there is another key aspect to Transition – the psychology of change. The Transition we need is both Inner and Outer. The challenges we face are not just caused by a mistake in our technologies but are also a direct result of our world view and belief system. The impact of the information about the state of our planet can generate fear and grief – which may underlie the state of denial that many people are caught in. Psychological theories, such as addictions models or models for behavioural change, can help us understand what is really happening and avoid unconscious processes sabotaging change.
It’s not just about making jam or lining your curtains. The philosophy of “small steps, big change” is fundamentally dishonest. Telling people that changing light bulbs, recycling and driving smaller cars is the solution causes a state called “Cognitive Dissonance” –a trance where you have been given an answer, but know that it is not going to solve the problem you’ve just been given. In the Transition movement we aim to face up to the big problems at the same time as taking local action in the here and now.
We understand that the messages in our media are contradictory. In the UK, the BBC has spent much of the last decade trying to turn manmade climate change into a debate between scientists and pseudo-scientists. More than any other key institution in Britain, the BBC has wasted valuable time confusing the public, time that could have been spent working on solutions to climate change. Our aim is to tell people the truth and trust they will find their own appropriate response. There is now a project in the Transition movement – Transition Free Press (www.transitionfreepress.org) – to talk about the world, and to the world, through a transition lens.
We believe that Transition is a truly radical proposition dressed up in innocent clothes. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means stepping out of the rat race, saying no to the conventional social and economic system, cocking a snook at Westminster and the City of London. Community resilience is a new type of politics bordering on anarchy. Yet it looks so innocent.
After five years of Transition we almost never use supermarkets, we no longer fly, we no longer own a car, we walk and cycle as much as possible, we enjoy growing a lot of our food, we work for ourselves, we earn very little but we need far less money, we appreciate slow travel, slow food, slow everything.
If you’re having fun, doing something useful and building community, then you’re doing Transition. But if you’re truly on the path of Transition, then you’re also on a journey to a different place, one which rejects the values of the ‘growth at all costs’ globalised economy while sharing sustainable ideas across national boundaries, one which rejects 21st century financial capitalism in favour of a greener, fairer, more sustainable way of life. In the end, it’s working towards exactly the same goal as the Green Party. It’s just a different way of getting there.