Thursday 26 May 2011

lock on - notes towards an article on activism and transition

To take in what is happening an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect ‘the fields’ that are institutionally kept separate. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear
“No is one of the most honourable words in the English language,” said Deepak. “It needs to be reclaimed.” Deepak Rughani is a campaigner and co-director of Biofuelwatch and he's talking about the defence of natural ecosystems, an area he feels the Transition movement ignores. Without action to prevent the exploitation of the wild lands reduction of carbon emissions becomes meaningless. Without stringent protection of the pristine grasslands and rain forest in the Amazon basin the world’s rainfall patterns are dramatically disturbed and thus our ability to feed ourselves.

I’m researching a piece for the Transition newsletter about the relationship between activism and Transition and finding it’s a giant subject. Too large really for one voice and one blog. People are finding it hard to put their experiences into one pithy sentence. And when we say activism what exactly do we mean? Does this include strategic campaigning and grassroots community activism, as well as direct action and civil disobedience?

I had met Deepak at our recent meeting to discuss Nicole Foss's talk on financial deflation and the economic future where he had given an introductory overview. That’s when I noticed a shift that was happening in Transition. We had been working diligently on our community projects, building culture and infrastructure, when BAM! the world stormed right back into the room. Although we were talking about local solutions we were also debating the big global issues: civil liberties, civil disobedience. The cafe was packed. There was a buzz in the air I hadn’t felt in a long while. It brought a reality and an urgency into play that had been missing.

2011 is not 2010. It is the year when politics came back into all our lives, as we found ourselves marching against the Government's public spending cuts, watching the uprisings in the Middle East with fast-beating hearts - a time when we are being challenged to take a stand in a way that was no longer just about saying Yes
It's frustrating that (activism) is usually framed as "negative" campaigning, as it's all about making a more positive world and those positive messages are usually there but just not heard as loudly. For example the campaign "against" GM crops also pushed the alternatives of organic very heavily, campaigners "against" nuclear power sing the praises of renewables, and "anti"-incineration campaigners promote reduction of waste, effective recycling etc. Climate Camp not only highlighted problems but modeled a sustainable eco-village of thousands with its own energy production, grey water, compost loos, vegan food, democratic decision making structures etc. Far more than just opposing stuff. As I said before - holistic. (Rhizome Co-op from the Transition Network Forum on Activism and Transition
The fact is many people in Transition are also activists and campaigners and as I began speaking with some of them I realised that we don’t talk about it much. We live our lives in separate stories. In our meetings we are Transitioners and in the “outside world” we are someone else. It’s a phenomenon of our culture that Paul Kingsnorth writes about in the second issue of Dark Mountain. In Transition Norwich there are people who are activists for Greenpeace, for CND, who go on climate actions and marches, who sign petitions, who organise flash mobs, who fight for the NHS, for higher eduction, for the forests, for the libraries, who protest against Tescos, against the Northern Distributor road, who lobby politicians and councillors, who are those councillors, who are the people who speak with everyone and do not close down.

Some of us find that saying yes inevitably means saying no. Chris Hull, a founder of TN and also an active anti-Tesco campaigner (see right as Darth Vadar!) observes that being involved in local business and local food production means you will be against supermarkets by default and no matter how far you go to speak with those in power and civic office, "you get to a point where you are pulling in different directions in subtle and sometimes in subliminal ways, where the business-as-usual model is directly conflicting with Transition."

Christine Way has just returned from successfully blockading a port in Scotland to bring attention to the containers of “green” bio-mass woodchips from Brazil for conversion into electricity. A fellow founder of TN she has always maintained that both forces for change need to work together. And that just as Transition needs to keep the bigger picture in mind in all it does – those drivers of climate change, peak oil and economics – so activism needs to include the positive moves that Transition works hard to provide, and not become snared up in battling against the Establishment.

What alternatives are you providing?

One of Transition's strengths is its fluidity and I’m becoming aware of this fluidity the more I speak with everyone. You can, as a Transitioner (as I've found out) be as much at ease talking with a Tory politician as you can with a TUC shop steward, a local Green Party mayor or an anti-nuclear activist. The movement is not stuck in ideology or dogma and deliberately doesn’t fight the enemy, or struggle for power. The empire divides and conquers. Transition works within the same complex dynamics as an eco-system: within diversity In this it has a unique ability to connect and work alongside the many incentives for change that already exist.

To embrace activism as a dynamic force within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it. We need to include those dramatic actions that bring planetary dilemmas into the limelight because our consciousness is shifting towards what Jeremy Rifkind in The Empathic Civilization calls the dramaturgical and the bio-spheric. Acting within the collective consciousness of the earth. This is a radically different position from the one of control and safety most of us have adopted. And it means making moves in real life, not just in our heads. BecauseThis Is It is not longer a slogan on the workshop wall.

For a long time we have been able to be the audience to history, to live our lives theoretically. We can watch the world on our screens and shut out its inconvenient truth at the click of a switch. But now history is coming into our streets and into our lives and we need to know how to act, or support those who act on our behalf. If we cheer for those bold protesters in Tahrir Square, in Wisconsin, for the thousands of campaign groups that Paul Hawken wrote about in Blessed Unrest, we need also to cheer for those who occupy Fortnum and Masons and the Royal Bank of Scotland, who protest against the corporations who threaten those fragile eco-systems on which we depend. The people who climb nuclear power stations and coal smokestacks and oil rigs to bring attention to the crucial debate about energy and the citizen journalists that write and blog about them.

In the current forum on the Transition Network you can find Ghandi's famous quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world to illustrate the positive-only nature of Transition. Many people have fled environmentalism and activism and joined initiatives because they felt to say only NO was an exhausting and often deeply negative experience. Many decided to turn their backs on any overtly political activity, even to forget they had once taken part.

However in this desire to get away from the bad stuff we forget that Ghandi was an activist par excellence and encouraged people to put their bodies before the brute force of Empire. And went to prison for it more than once. We forget that The Guardian newspaper was created when the media of the day failed to report the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in which 60,000 peaceful protesters were attacked by the army. We live in a society that is the end result of thousands of civil uprisings and direct actions: thousands of people whose names we do not know who have put themselves on the line. Understandably we would rather be working steadily on our energy descent action plans over the next 2o years and shifting happily towards a low carbon way of life.

But 2011 is not 2010. And Transition is changing its tempo. We’re not in the slow movement right now. We have to see that the strength of Transition initiatives lies in its secure root within communities, in its network of communications and that these provide a stable base for changes in the way single-issue actions, existing as they do on the edge of society, over a short time, do not. We have to see equally that our ability to think in many disciplines at once, which we have practiced over these years, puts us at an advantage, gives us an ability to resist splitting into polarity, the kind of polarity that causes the violence and hatred that activism and protests can descend into.

The recent riots in Bristol were right in the middle of Transition Montpelier's neighbourhood. They focused around the new Tesco, although there was a lot more to it. A local campaigning group (No Tesco in Stokes Croft) had been peacefully protesting against the supermarket for well over a year.

The riots weren't really about the Tesco, but it became 'the story' that the media hung their hats on. They began when the police raided a squat across the road on an unfounded suspicion at rush hour on Maundy Thursday. They then stayed there for hours, winding everyone up, and everyone got very over-excited and it ended up in a big punch up. Tesco was only involved when the police mysteriously retreated, and left an unlocked police car outside the un-loved store at 1 am, after hours of street punch ups. Unsurprisingly, the crowd, left to their own aggravated devices, smashed up the car and then laid into the store. Then the police came back and the fighting continued.

The campaigning group had nothing to do with the riots, and everyone was saddened by the riots.The campaigning group became involved in the media storm that followed the riots; they were bombarded with calls and emails from journalists, and tried to present a balanced response under a huge amount of pressure.Some of the stories painted un-favourable pictures about the campaigning group, as you might imagine! A few local papers used the story as a
way to stir controversy.

Transition Montpelier had supported the peaceful protest from the beginning, as we weren't that keen on Tesco, and the campaigning group had always been suggesting positive alternatives to it.They still are - food hubs are underway, local cafes and more. And they are our friends and neighbours. We did have discussions about whether we should support the campaign as we're not a 'campaigning organisation', and agreed to share news and so forth about the campaign.

The riots, unsurprisingly, scared a lot of residents. The stories in the media, particularly the negative ones about the campaign, made a few of the residents feel that the campaign was negative and causally related to the riots. Transition Montpelier's support of the campaign was therefore seen in not a great light by these folks. Naturally, we don't know how many people it is, but didn't feel great about it all. It's all very complicated! We continue to support the campaign group and local food groups. (Ed Mitchell, Transition Montpelier)
Being rooted in neighbourhood, in place, people and plants, is what Transition Heathrow discovered after running a successful campaign against the third runway at Heathrow. When they began to grow plants in a deserted greenhouse in the once-threatened village of Sipson with the explicit support of most of the locals, the local MP and a spokesman for the local police. Here's a spokesman from the highly active initiative that has brought a fresh burst of energy into the movement
Before the Transition Heathrow project had even begun, one of our initial key aims was to combine climate activism with local community initiatives by adding a more radical edge to the Transition Towns movement. The co-founders of Transition Heathrow all had a background of taking direct action with anti airport expansion group Plane Stupid and so we had experienced the massive success and impact that direct action had on framing the debate around aviation in the UK. It was off the back of Plane Stupid's successful work around the third runway at Heathrow that Transition Heathrow was born. Although everyone in the movement against the 3rd runway was extremely proud that the runway was cancelled, as individuals we wanted to go beyond putting our bodies on the line for a day, to a way of creating change that lasts way longer than front page headlines in newspapers the day after an action. This is where the transition movement comes in and has a big part to play.

What was most appealing about the transition model for us is that it is about the direct action of everyday life. We all know that governments and corporations are failing us when it comes to environmental issues and so clearly we need to take matters into our own hands. This is why transitioners “just do it themselves.” So when we wanted to plant stuff - we did some guerrilla gardening. And when we wanted a site we
squatted some abandoned land and brought it back into use. When we wanted to support the BA cabin crew strikes we took part in a solidarity bike ride through terminal 5.
Whatever we're doing it seems to be working. What was encouraging about the shocking police raid of our community market garden Grow Heathrow was the recognition that we are clearly getting to those who hold the power. A revolution disguised by gardening perhaps. Bring it on! (Joe Ryle, Transition Heathrow).
It takes a lot of courage to take direct action, to cross the line, to look the public and the policeman in the eye as you challenge the status quo. Even in small ways. The first time I took part in an action was a simple thing: we were a group defending a patch of green land in Oxford against developers and rode in a barge up the canal to paint the builder’s hoardings with our loud protest. But my hands were shaking as I wrote William Blake’s lines on the wall:

Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire.

That day something changed utterly within me. I had taken a step that a whole lifetime of well-behaved conditioning had tried to prevent. We all have those preventions in place inside. Our cultural conditioning keeps our minds compartmentalised, our emotions trained to seek security at all costs, to appear to be moral and upstanding citizens at all times. We have to see that without talking about our actions, without coming out about our radical nature, without sharing our private thoughts about the future, all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers, without connecting with all the land sovereignty movements that now exist around the world, Transition does not have the strength or wit or daring to challenge the dominant worldview. It runs the risk of becoming stifled by the tyranny of what Blake called "the polite society", by conventional good behaviours and small talk, and fragmenting as has happened in some initiatives. We are in danger of living in a never-never land of allotments and spiritual cliches. Thinking about the change we want to see as a result, rather than the being change that is the (often messy) process.

Not all activists who are also Transitioners agree with this premise however. In Lewes in Sussex there are
currently two projects running alongside each other: the construction of the UK's first community-owned 98kW solar power station, and the occupation of three acres of green land near the centre of town. The first is seen as a Transition project and the second is not. Superficially unrelated but in fact close in aim (localisation of production), the two activities have many people involved in common including councillors, Transition members and residents:
This is quite hard for most people to grasp in my experience. Long- term strategic planning and R&D are understood in terms of industry but not in terms of cultural and social change which mostly comes about through single-issue campaigns resulting in pieces of legislation which can also unfortunately be reversed. Transition is a design framework for cultural change which does not require changes in the law.

Which is not to say that designers can't also be campaigners and vice versa. Many initiatives have convergent aims but differ in methodology. These range across political, philosophical, economic, social and psychospiritual pursuits. So for example someone who protests in London against tax evasion can also be setting up a local food group in her home town and developing personal effectiveness and empowerment. She's engaging in activism, transition and transformation! While these categories overlap and provide mutual positive reinforcement, they preserve functionality best by remaining distinct (Dirk Campbell, Transition Lewes).
This is a working document. It's an ongoing conversation that's happening in Transition at the moment, one that has only really just begun. It’s a radical conversation because we are trained by our civilization to think and work in separate “fields” and not make connections when we speak to one another. To talk within the narrow confines of the room and the present moment. rather than engage with the full breadth of our physical experiences, through time, in relationship with the living, breathing world outside the door. It’s a vital discourse because we’ll be speaking not only within the deep frame of change, but also of liberation.

So I’ll end this (rather long!) inquiry with a review of a documentary that brings home the kind of courage and energy and risks many people take on our behalf to to free the world from its “mind-forged manacles". It’s a grassroots film that like Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change is a story told from the people who take part - the actors in this bio-spheric drama some call evolution. It’s not Hollywood, it’s not the BBC but it is what is happening right now in a town near you. Lock on.

Just Do It reviewed by Adrienne Campbell (Transition Lewes)

Just Do It is a new documentary film that follows the lives of several environmental activists over a year of civil disbedience and direct action.

Watching the various actions, I started to feel involved and even concerned for some of the young people as they put their bodies in the way for the sake of what they believed in. Although I'm a dyed in the wool transitoner, I've done a little playful, lawful activism on the side, and was inspired and emboldened.

I recommend this film to transition groups who might want to attract a younger audience and who also might wish to explore the wide, largely unexplored zone of playful activism, which sits beween normal behaviour and unlawful behaviour. Of course, Transition isn't about campaigning or activism but there is significant overlap and perhaps attitudes and skills to be learned.

The world launch of the film, which was funded through crowdsourcing, at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in June will be followed by showings at local cinemas. If your transition group would like to encourage your local cinema to show it, please contact the film makers from the informative website here

Holding the banner at The Wave, 2009 (Mark Watson); protest banner, Greenpeace USA; Writing on the Wall, Bristol (Ed Mitchell); Poster from Grow Heathrow; ZAD (Zone a Defendre) demonstration, France; South East climate camp, St Anne's School, Lewes.


  1. Activism and Transition are just two different things - we need both, not either or. We just need to be clear when we are doing what so as to be most effective. Otherwise it could become our own personal trip and not for the larger aims.

    We need direct activists to stand in front of things, we need Transitioners to build community and to plant things, and quiet background people to plug away within the system getting the rules changed and we need meditators to shift consciousness.

    These address the three points that Joanna Macy says we need to do to assist the Great Turning: 1) resist destruction of the environment (direct action) 2) explore new ways of living (Transition) 3) change of consciousness (meditation and Inner Transition)

    All these things that we are doing is part of the other super power, the coming age, as Paul Hawken has pointed out. If we all do what we are passionate about it all adds up.

  2. I think there is a lot of very ineffective environmental campaigning going on, so good you are having this discussion.

    When you note 'the risk of becoming stifled by the tyranny of what Blake called "the polite society", by conventional good behaviours and small talk, and fragmenting as has happened in some initiatives. We are in danger of living in a never-never land of allotments and spiritual cliches. Thinking about the change we want to see as a result, rather than the being change that is the (often messy) process.' I applaud your sentiments.

    The economics fundamentals need changing yet a lot of people are still not getting to grips with this, even though the wonderful Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her serious development of green economics.

    Do take a look at Aidesep, they need a lot more support and we can learn from them, really inspiring

    I despair a little bit about the environmental movement here but I am inspired by determined, strategic people getting things done like Aidesep.

    Transition towns is a good project but its a project that needs to keep rethinking how to change advice is look at Ostrom and Aidesep for some radicals who win.

  3. It is sometimes hard to think beyond the methods of trying to bring about change that many of us have been involved with in the past. There are sound reasons for Transition’s alternative approach.

    Change on the scale we need to see will have to come from a larger segment of the population than has ever been moved by confrontational activist acts. The confrontational approach may win some battles, but it seems unlikely to in the war.

    Perhaps we need to let go of the war model and the “us vs. them” approach. We’re all in this together. At the very least, we need something else to work alongside that approach.

    In the very early days of Transition Whatcom (at our first public meeting, actually), we were asked very directly by a member of a local deep green organization: “What is OK and what is not OK under the umbrella of Transition Whatcom? I really want to know if having people who are aligned with the resistance movement is going to help or hurt Transition Whatcom.”

    Our response was to develop a guideline paper that answered this question and would also serve as a more general set of guidelines. The paper we wrote was built on an attempt to balance the Transition principles of Positive Visioning with the Principle of Inclusion and Openness.

    The Transition Whatcom Guidelines Paper:

  4. Great work and a really interesting piece. Shame they still only got a fragment of the Bristol story right... sorry, tangent approaching

    The anti Tescos story always had two threds, one was a nice middle class lobbying campaign that unfortunately lied to its participants at it's biggest rally, the other was a squatter led campaign- 500 locals turned up to resist the baliffs when Tesco came to take control of the property from those who'd squatted it with the specific political aim of both expanding the public social spaces of Stokes Croft and resisting Tescos.

    The riots were about Tescos, AND attacks on squatters, and local residents from St Pauls and other neighbourhoods who were pissed off with ongoing police intimidation. Tescos wasn't an afterthought target, agitation to break it had been building all week since it opened, there'd been vigils and busking performances pretty much continuously. And while rioting may have scared some, it's also the biggest source of civic pride I've seen in the area since I've moved here, not just amongst politicos, but among pretty much everyone in Werburghs and Laurence Hill at least.

  5. Charlotte, I always thought activism meant all of it - actively working for change, whether that's through a campaign against something, or organising a film show, or developing a demonstration permaculture garden. Perhaps that's because of my previous involvement in the women's liberation movement, where organising a women's dance was seen as activism just as much as campaigning (for example) to protect pro-choice laws. The common theme was activity for change, for the better.
    We can't do very much without people committing to action - and we can't pretend otherwise. Not everyone loves meetings, or street demonstrations, or leafleting (or understanding global capitalism, or using the word radical for that matter); Transition wants to encourage as wide a group of people to work on what they do get satisfaction from. But I am uneasy at the idea that we 'put people off' if we do what we personally enjoy and believe is a good way to move forward. And that surely has to include saying no quite loudly sometimes?

  6. Much food for thought.
    I am writing a series about alternatives to "resistance activism"... FYI