Tuesday 5 June 2012

When the experiment fails

This is part of a series we are running on the Social Reporting Project, looking at the 74 Transition Ingredients and Tools.

I was going to write about Communicating with the Media, a nifty tool in the second section of The Transition Companion. I planned a practical exploration to the business of writing press releases and cultivating a positive relationship with local newspapers and radio. But then whilst Becoming the Media - creating the preview issue of the Transition Free Press - I stumbled upon a subject which was closer to home, nearer the bone. More urgent, I reckoned, than raising awareness of our local projects in the mainstream press.

The title of the second chapter is Deepening, and contains some of the harder aspects of Transition. The start up phase of initiatives is often exuberant and exciting. People are attracted to the buzz, full of hope and expectation. They stand up in rooms and declare what we (you) could do. Deepening is when you first hit the wall. Ideas and fancies about downshifting turn out not to be the reality of downshifting. Those big words fade in the light of day. You realise that you have to get on with the people in the room and do the work. Power struggles happen in deepening. Things don't go according to plan. People leave and let you down. You let people down. It's awkward because you don't know anyone in your fledgling initiative that well. The groups start to falter. What do you do?

Celebrating Failure is perhaps the least understood ingredient in the book. Because we live in a culture of success. No matter how we talk about losing being part of the game, it's still losing. Victors take all, stand on the podium crowned with laurels, king of the castle, biggest banker on the block. No one wants to be in the beaten team, on the bottom of the pecking order. But to be in Transition means we have to understand this win-or-lose mindset as an old order we need to transform.

Interviewing Shaun Chamberlin for the paper, he talked about the new book, The Future We Deserve, in which 100 authors write 500 words on their take of the title:

What was interesting in it was dissensus. The recognition that Nature doesn't decide by consensus on the ideal life form before it creates it. It just creates and creates and some things work and some things don’t work and I think Transition follows that “dissensus” approach - we don’t try and have a universal plan for everything. If someone wants to do something they go and do it. As Rob wrote about the punk ethic (here's three chords, now start a band): Here’s three ingredients, go and start a Transition initiative. That is that creative energy that underlies dissensus. Let some of the projects that we undertake thrive and let some of them die and don’t feel that everything we do has to succeed.

In a creative frame, you try everything. You start with the idea of communicating some key tips about the meda but then a more pressing subject comes up. So you change direction. From the creative perspective everything is material. There is no loss or failure. You carve your piece out of the mud, the clay falls to the ground, you sweep it up and use it again another time. Nothing is wasted. Everything is compost and you need that compost - those past events, meetings, open spaces, clashes, those wasted leaves, those dead heads. You need that stuff to rot down in order grow nourishing and beautiful flowers for the future.

In Deepening all the expectations of how life should be come up for examination, and it is wise to know Transition is not what you think it should be at all. But of course you don't read the manual. Your ego hits the wall, you are challenged in all directions. Most people at this stage, rather than let go of their defence systems, or their lifestyle, leave and blame Transition for not living up to their shiny idea of it. That's not the failure of Transition, it's the challenge of our society. We don't live with the messy paint box of dissensus, we live in the pure and airy ideals of the mind, and the vicious battleground of the will. I do it my way. Publish that email and be damned.

If we had heart we would realise that everything we do in Transition is to create a future that is not apocalypse, and in many ways we are blind to what this might look like. We are feeling our way ahead and "failures" are merely telling us that some paths are the ones we don't need to go down. Try again. Move your attention somewhere else.

Valuing experience

OK, so this is the theory. What about the practice? In 2009 I helped organise the second Transition East gathering in Diss and before the event interviewed 29 initiatives on the phone. I collated all the information and posted it on a regional blog. I asked everyone the same questions. How were they doing, how many people were in the initiative, what kind of town, village were they in etc? Everyone cheerfully answered the questions. Do you have any difficulties? I then asked them. There would be a hesitation and then suddenly a huge outpouring would happen. Ten minutes would turn into an hour. Up until this point no one had mentioned dificulties. We weren't sure how to handle them. But the fact is the difficulties were not "wrong". They are our experience of change, how we know what to focus on, and what not.

Today many of those initiatives do not exist. The initiative I have been in (Norwich) is a shadow of its former self. The 14 groups that began so exuberantly after our Unleashing in 2008 no longer exist. The core group disappeared. The Heart and Soul group faded away. In April the monthly bulletin was not sent out, as it had been for the last three years on the first of every month. No one noticed. Or if they did, they did not say anything.

What does this tell us? Some territories are not fertile ground for Transition. Something holds groups together and if it's missing the group will disband. At some point you realise that you need to put your time and energy into projects that feed back, and not just because you can do them or that you are expected to. You need to go with the spirit of the times, be amongst people who understand that the project matters. That communication matters. That Transition is not a hobby, a once-a-month feel good community thing, it's for real.

Some of this stuff is bitter stuff to swallow. And we don't like bitter, we like the sweet and sugary things in life, the triumphs and the happy moment. But bitter, as all medicine people will tell you, is the taste of the heart. It's what tells you what is good and not good for the system, how you grow up and take responsibility for your actions. How experience teaches us to shift out of being the haughty me-against-Them people who want to rule the universe and become fellows with all beings on the planet.

The loss of these groups told us that power struggles are not for the future, nor is old-fashioned spirituality, hierarchy of any kind, hostility or control. It taught us that you can't really co-opt the future. It doesn't belong to big business or to the institution, and it will slip out of the Empire's clutches at every turn. In Norwich we learned that our Transition Circles brought a key aspect into the fabric of Transition - personal carbon reduction. We have one circle left still meeting, but the legacy of all that great experiment lives on. It's in the comments pages of the Transiition Free Press, it's in the interview with Shaun Chamberlin. It's just taking another form, working with a new mix of people. No blame. No loss. No failure. Just celebration.

P.S. There is only one real tip I would add to the media tool in the book and it's this: journalists are people and finding the story is what we really care about.

Photos: Untitled piece by Maria Elvorith for the cover of The Future We Deserve; Banner for February edition of Transition Norwich news bulletin; Transition East Gathering 2009 at Diss; with Alexis Rowell, News Editor of Transition Free Press (photo: Sarah Nicholl)


  1. "The initiative I have been in (Norwich) is a shadow of its former self."

    It seems to me that TN has a crisis of identity. Is it supposed to be "something", or is its more natural form actually a shadow, quietly reminding people of the importance of building resilience into their lives and communities, whilst the real work is done by individuals and other organisations?
    What Should Transition Norwich Be?...

  2. Dear Simeon,

    The Transition movement is, as Rob Hopkins once said, an experiement, and every initiative has forged its own shape and style, depending on the people and the places involved.

    However working in groups is key to all of them. So the initiative exists where the groups are up and running and the projects are flourishing.

    Transition also works as a network, but it can't be *used* as a network. Each initiative has to generate its own material and its own communications. Otherwise it becomes a cypher.

    With best wishes,