The evolution from dependence to localised self-reliance.

The Transition movement was founded in Totnes, Devon, in 2006, and over three hundred communities around the world have joined to date.T24 The movement is part of a convergence of thinking towards the principle that, if areas and communities are to be prepared for the shocks of energy, climate, economics and society, it will not be government and regulatory agencies that do it. It will be something they do for themselves. Transition, lean thinking, the Big Society and others are, from their different starting points, pointing towards the same critical principle of presence.T25 Here are some of its properties:

1. The shared ethic. There is no presumption that the people’s ethical standards and judgment are lower than the government’s, or that only the government has the competence to implement them.

2. The shared incentive. The incentive drawn on to bring about creative and sustained commitment to a difficult task is not the usual manipulation with carrots and sticks—payments and penalties—but a sense of common purpose: individual and collective interests are aligned; individual contributions and insights make a difference; the exceptional becomes feasible.

3. Place. Solutions will be at the level of the detailed circumstances of particular places. They will depend on the efficiencies and reciprocities made available on the small scale.

4. Local resources. The money available from the state will be severely limited and may be close to zero, so the only solutions available to communities will be those that they can put into effect and sustain for themselves.

5. Community. The enabling agency for the transformation.

6. Trust. A key enabling condition for the transformation.

Transition’s pioneers are starting on the long, and maybe impossible, road towards what the catastrophe experts know and recommend as “deconcentration”—building local competence and self-reliance, implicitly recognising (as the analyst Charles Perrow describes it) “the inevitable failure of organisations, public and private, to protect us from disasters and [the need for] minimising the scale of our vulnerable targets”.T26

And their members are getting to know each other. The importance of this—so obvious that it has been overlooked—is beginning to be recognised, and it is central to the idea of the checklist. The checklist is a professional routine which has been long established in aviation, and has been advancing in the field of medicine on approximately the same timescale as the Transition movement itself. The first item on the list—one of its key innovations—is: get to know each other before trying to work together. That is, aircrews and operating theatre teams get to know each other’s names and roles, and any special concerns that anyone has about the task ahead, switching on—“activating”—their presence as members of the team. Studies of what this means have been done at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. The summary of their findings is dry:

People who don’t know one another’s names don’t work together nearly as well as those who do . . . When nurses were given a chance to say their names and mention concerns at the beginning of a case, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions. The researchers called it an “activation phenomenon”. Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility.T27

Transition is a more profound idea than it is sometimes taken to be. Several local groups that consider themselves to be part of the Transition movement have chosen to forego the usual “Transition Town x” moniker and instead call themselves “Sustainable x”. But it is not, in its essence, about the familiar protocols of environmental protection and sustainability. On the contrary, the change of direction represented by the Transition movement is as profound as any intentional change experienced by a civilisation:

Starting point: the government promises to care for the people, relying on the money raised by taxation in the formal economy, but becomes less and less able to fulfil its promise as its infrastructures and control systems become more elaborate, and the income flows provided by the economy fall.

Transition point: the people make no promises, but incrementally work out how to care for themselves and each other, relying on informal reciprocities and on the efficiency dividend that becomes available at the small scale—from a retreating infrastructure and advancing elegance.

Now, the Transition movement is what its members worldwide think it is; Lean Logic’s slant on the matter interprets it as more-or-less indistinguishable from a pathway to the Lean Economy, and if Transitioners disagree with this and argue that the movement is (for instance) about building resilient local responses to peak oil and climate change, and setting an example of how to cut the carbon, there is no reason to disagree with that. There is the reality of distributed ownership here: Transition/Sustainable towns that are doing dazzling things in a practical way have an authority which Lean Logic—which only writes and talks about them—cannot claim.

And yet, there is a convergence. The brewing industry is well advanced in its wonderful transition—from a locked-in structure of giant authoritarian brewers with marketing budgets, to space for independent local brewers with talent and passion. Organic growers and farmers’ markets are decentralising food production and building on local experiment, widely shared. Some governments are beginning to get it, although they have the same disadvantage as company managements that suddenly announce that from now on workers are going to be allowed to think for themselves: not everyone believes them or knows what they are talking about, and they may not, themselves, have quite understood what they are saying.

But the tide is flowing. The direction is mapped, very simply, in the little hexagons of the Wheel of Life. We do not need to agree on which particular straw it will be that breaks the camel’s back, but there is little to disagree with in the observation that the complicated, centralised, energy-intensive, materials-intensive, money-intensive, taut, infrastructure-heavy, feedback-blind model of society and economy on which we rely is in trouble from many directions. Transition, a wide awake, small-scale, modular network of responses to that, is one of the hexagons of recovery-elastic resilience towards which talent and passion are being drawn.T28


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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