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Transition towns: future or failure?

Devon in the UK was world's first Transition Town. Picture by Bernard Blanc.
Devon in the UK was world’s first Transition Town. Picture by Bernard Blanc.

In 2011, Transition Town Totnes won the Ashden Green Award for its attempts to slow down climate change. “Town of the future”, wrote the Guardian, referring to the community in the UK. Is this label just; can local initiatives make a global change, or is Transition doomed to fail?

Even though Transition Initiatives are small-scale, their popularity certainly isn’t. In times of increasing concerns over the environment and decreasing faith in governments’ ability to fight it, it seems no surprise that local initiatives to counteract environmental damage are on the rise. One of the most prevalent examples can be found in the Transition Network, which consists of a wide range of community-led activities around the globe that all share one hallmark: their goal is to reduce greenhouse gasses and to prepare for the post-carbon era. Since the foundation of the first Transition Town in 2005, Totnes, no less than 476 similar initiatives were taken in all continents, as is shown by the Transition map.
What characterizes Transition Initiatives is their bottom-up organization, explains Fiona Ward, Project Manager of Transition Town Totnes, to the Guardian. “It starts with someone coming to the office or ringing us to tell us that they want to start a project. They are the ones who then actually go and recruit all their neighbors. We don’t go out and knock on people’s doors, they are the ones who do it.”

As a result of such bottom-up organization, strategies for a more sustainable lifestyle and economy differ widely. Initiatives range from the use of renewable energy sources – the Scottish Island of Eigg create 90% of its electricity through renewable resources – to the creation of local currencies as an alternative to the Sterling, such as the Bristol Pound. The aim is to increase local trade. After all, when long-distance transport of commodities is avoided, CO2-emision can be reduced. And thus, the mayor of Bristol is entirely paid in Bristol Pounds. At present, six cities in the UK have followed Bristol’s footsteps. Together, they have an estimated circulation that equals 54.2 billion Sterling, according to The Transition Network website. For a grassroots movement, the Transition movement has grown and sustained relatively well.

When enthusiasm fades
Yet it is not all roses in the Transition Garden, as is shown by a recent study by Giuseppe Feola and Richard Nunes from the University of Reading. Even though Transition Initiatives are usually presented in terms of their potential, creativity and originality, both internal and external difficulties make their effectiveness unsure. “One of the key challenges for Transition Initiatives has been around group governance. Because of the diversity of the movement there are often conflicts. You cannot think of it as having consensus all the time – there can be frictions with competing agendas”, explains Nunes. This is mostly because the Transition approach is not one-dimensional and clear-cut, but rather involves a wide scope of activities, from food production to political activities. To find an approach that the group as a whole supports is often no easy task.
Disagreements can be hard to deal with, tells Charlotte Du Cann, editor-in-chief of the Transition Free Press. “The start-up phase of initiatives is often exuberant and exciting. People are attracted to the buzz, full of hope and expectation. But at some point ideas and fancies turn out not to be the reality. Those big words fade in the light of day. You realise that you have to get on with other people. Power struggles happen and things don’t go according to plan”, she writes in her blog. As a result, drop-outs are no exception. This is especially problematic because of a lack of funding, causing the organization’s almost exclusive reliance on volunteers who are only bound to the project by their own dedication. When the participants lose their enthusiasm, trust and confidence, projects risk failure. “The sense of defeat or powerlessness can be a big struggle”, says Du Cann. Yet, this willingness to ‘fail’ is a natural part of the experimental learning process in this new kind of movement.
On top of that, there are socio-cultural factors that decrease the likelihood that a Transition Initiative survives when the initial enthusiasm fades. It is for instance hard to truly get rid of conventional ideas, explains Du Cann. “We have been educated our entire lives to think in a certain way. Changing your entire attitude – because that is what it comes down to – is very hard, because there are so many things that you take for granted without even realizing it. And even if you are aware of the cultural presumptions that you have, it takes courage to fight ideas that are generally accepted.” Individualism is another culturally achieved attitude that hinders the initiatives, adds Du Cann. “We are used to think about our own success, but that is not how collective initiatives work.”

Localism: strength or weakness?
Even when Transition Towns manage to deal with struggles of internal organization, motivation and attitude, their future survival is not self-evident. The people that get involved in Transition in the first place, are usually people of a certain age, tell Feola and Nunes. “There’s a lot of volunteer work there and older people tend to have more time on their hands.” The question is whether younger people will take over the Initiatives when the current generation retires.
Ideally, different generations should be involved simultaneously, as the study suggests, because each age group brings different advantages. Feola says: “Older people have more time – which is in fact a key factor of success – but younger generations are more accustomed to social media and therefore facilitate communication and online networking. They are possibly also more creative.” He continues: “Initiatives in diverse communities are more successful, because they have access to more resources and can build that critical mass that is necessary.”
By referring to the critical mass, Feola touches upon another issue faced by Transition Initiatives: their small-scale, local focus may open up for new ways of thinking, but it also decreases their overall influence on a global scale and thus their ability to make a change. As a result, the opinions on cooperation with governments differ. Whereas Du Cann beliefs the local focus to be a strength – because “the only way to change the status quo is by working around conventional political structures” – Feola and Nunes emphasize the potential of up-scaling through cooperation with existing institutions.

Transition of tomorrow
The viewpoints on cooperation may differ, but one thing is sure: expansion is considered necessary by the members of the Transition Network. According to the Network’s website, 76% of the initiative-takers consider problems in “attracting wider interest” as their biggest obstacle. Yet, expansion may not be easy to achieve. Feola: “There is the risk that there is a ceiling, in a sense. The base of people that participate in this type of movement and initiative is limited.” Moreover, urbanization may be an impediment, as Feola and Nunes found that urban Initiatives tend to be less successful than their rural counterparts. “That might be due to the greater dynamics of moving in and out of cities. People identify less with the place and are less motivated.” In a rapidly urbanizing world, the future success of Transition depends at least partly on the movement’s ability to make Urban Initiatives work – and there are plans afoot to do so.
With so many factors of influence or limitation, the success of Transition Initiatives is not obvious. Yet, even though Transition Initiatives frequently face struggles and failure, the topic is often avoided. “We live in a success culture. Failure is something we don’t like to talk about,” explains Du Cann. “But failure is a natural part of trying something new. It is not about having the solution ready, it is about finding one.”

By Nele Goutier and Viral Shah

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