Transition Townspeople,  We Need To Think About Transition.

(Just Doing Stuff Is Far From Enough!)

Ted Trainer


The Transition Towns movement, and related initiatives such as Eco-village, Permaculture and Voluntary Simplicity movements, are taking the first steps that must be taken if we are to solve global sustainability and justice problems.  But I want to argue that unless they (eventually) undertake significant change in their focus and goals they will fail to make a significant contribution.   Transitioners seem to assume that if they continue to establish more community gardens etc. in time this will fairly automatically result in the emergence of a satisfactory society, and so they need not concern themselves with the distasteful realm of radical politics, fundamental structural change, confronting capitalism, and "revolution".  I think this is quite mistaken.  The path the Transition Towns and related movements are presently on will lead only to a grossly and increasingly unsustainable and unjust consumer society -- containing a lot of community gardens etc.

Global problems cannot be solved unless there is extreme, rapid and unprecedented structural change, away from some of the most fundamental institutions, ideas, practices and values in Western culture, especially from the commitment to economic growth, freedom for market forces, corporate power, competitive individualism and, most problematic of all, affluent lifestyles. It is a far bigger task than just getting rid of capitalism.

The Transition Towns movement has to move to a central concern with this diabolically wicked set of problems few enjoy thinking about.  Unless it arrives at a sound theoretical analysis of radical transition, and viable practical strategies for dealing with these issues, it will not end up having made much difference to our fate.

About as little as ten years ago the Transition Towns movement burst onto the scene, led by towns in the UK such as Totnes and effectively reported on and inspired by the accounts from Rob Hopkins.  A glance at the website will reveal a remarkable amount of activity, projects and enthusiasm, mainly focused on concern to build local economies, community gardens, cooperative agencies, community recycling, skill banks, local small firms, working bees etc.  The underlying world view stresses the unsustainability of the globalised, energy-intensive, supermarket-dominated consumer way.

For many years before the Transition Towns movement emerged I have argued that if the planet is to be saved then it can only be via a movement of this kind. (My Abandon Affluence, was published in1985.)  It has therefore been immensely encouraging and important that over the last decade or so the Transition Towns movement has taken off so remarkably.  However I want to elaborate on a discussion I circulated about three years ago, arguing that unless the movement changes its present goals, not abandon any but add to them and change focus, it will end up having had little or no global significance.  Not surprisingly, I have found that Transitioners don't like this message, and I can still see no concern within the movement with the issues I raised.  Here is another attempt to get them to take these questions seriously.  It is also hoped that it will encourage more radically minded activists to join the movement; this is the core strategy argued for in my recent book on transition (Trainer, 2010.)

I will begin with some lesser issues and then raise the main one.

The insufficiency of resilience.

In my firm view even most green and left people fail to grasp the seriousness and the implications of the global situation.  They fail to recognise a) that rich countries have resource and ecological impact rates that are utterly unsustainable and cannot possibly be spread to all people, b) if a sustainable and just world is to be achieved these rates must be cut by something like 90%, c) that cannot be done unless we scrap a growth economy, reduce GDP to a small fraction of present levels, stop market forces from determining our fate, radically restructure the geography of settlements, replace or at least heavily control the market system, switch almost entirely from representative democracy to participatory democracy, and, above all, abandon affluence.  The biggest change is not scrapping capitalism, astronomically difficult as that would be, it is the cultural revolution whereby the competitive, acquisitive, individualism that has driven Western culture for 250 years has to be contradicted.  In The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (Trainer, 2010) I detail reasons why these changes are non-negotiable.  The degree of overshoot evident in consumer society is so great that it is not possible to conceive of sustainable and just societies other than in terms of some kind of radically Simpler Way.

If you think this is exaggerating just consider the "footprint" figures we are all familiar with.  If we lose no more productive land, the amount available in 2050 will be about 0.8 ha per person.   The Australian use of it now is 8 ha per person -- so we are about 10 times over the level that would be possible for all -- and we are obsessed with continual, limitless growth in output, consumption and GDP.  If in 2050 everyone is to live as we expect to in consumer societies we will need to harvest the resources of something like another 20 planet earths.

This is just basic "limits to growth" analysis, now heavily documented by decades of hard science, but few face up to what it means. From this "limits" perspective, making your town "more resilient" is far from a sufficient goal.  That could involve little more than building a haven of safety in a world of petroleum scarcity -- a haven within a wider society that remains obsessed with growth, markets, exploiting the Third World, and using mobile phones made with Tantalum from the Congo.  By the way, for every job you create by producing locally, a job somewhere else that used to produce the imported item is eliminated.  Clearly the goal has to be change to a system which does not create problems such as unemployment.

The ultimate objective has to be living in ways that are sustainable and just for all the world's people.  This is a task of shifting to new systems, not just to new personal lifestyles. These systems will be resilient, but that will not be their essential or defining characteristic.

At present the movement appears not to be driven by awareness of or concern about the Third World.  Its concerns are primarily to do with the environment, energy, community, localism and lifestyle.  These concerns could be remedied while the overarching system remained as grossly unjust as the present global economy is.  An idyllic Transition Town could still be benefiting from the massive, routine and easily ignored flows of resource and labour wealth from Third World mines, plantations and sweat shops.  No Transition Town at present could survive without these flows because so much of what they consume is delivered to us by the normal operation of the global market system, (plus a little help from the CIA and the marines from time to time, making sure that regimes willing to allow "market forces" to determine who gets the resources remain in place.)  Resilience is not enough; the goals must include getting to a world in which such systems have been swept away, and that is not possible unless at some stage such a goal becomes focal.

            The failure to focus on simplicity.

By far the most important implication of this failure to grasp what the limits analysis means is that a sustainable and just way of life that all the world's people could have would involve lifestyles and levels of (non-renewable) resource consumption that are a minute fraction of present rich world levels. There is almost no sign in current Transition Town literature that this implication has been attended to. There are references to the desirability of avoiding the wastefulness of consumer society but the projects being undertaken, and the web discussion makes almost no reference to the need to focus on radical simplicity.  People are proceeding as if something like a modest version of their present lifestyles is compatible with sustainability. 

The fundamental concerns in The Simpler Way project (TSW, 2011) are firstly to get across the fact that the big global problems now threatening our survival cannot be solved unless, among other things, present rich-world levels of commercial production and consumption are cut to the region of 10% of their present levels, and to show that there are arrangements whereby this could be done -- while raising the quality of life. 

The key to cutting present rates is not primarily effort to reduce personal consumption.  It lies in designing local settlements to provide for us from frugal use of local resources as much as is reasonably possible.  For instance leisure and entertainment needs should  be met mainly by community concerts, dances, discussion groups, talks, art and craft groups, dinner parties, and events organised by the leisure committee such as mystery adventure tours. 

These frugal, local, cooperative systems cannot come into existence unless communities take control of their collective fate via participatory town government focused on the meeting of community needs.  That is utterly incompatible with control by market forces or distant governments (although a place might be retained for both.)   However the present movement is not giving much if any attention to the need for such huge system change. It is proceeding as if something like modest, scaled-back rich world ways are acceptable.

The lack of guidance.

One of the main concerns in my initial critique of the movement was about the surprising lack of guidance.  The literature, websites and newsletters tell us almost nothing about what to try to do to make our town resilient.  There is a great deal of advice and manuals and indeed now training focused on how to form and run a Transition Group, but almost nothing on what on earth it should then do.  For instance the original12 Steps document spells out the procedure for organising a Transition Towns group, including steps such as "Awareness raising", "Form subgroups", and "Build a bridge to local government".  (The list is on p. 79 of Hopkins, 2011.)

No guidance is given on what actual structures and systems and projects we should be trying to get going if our town is to achieve transition or resilience.  Any group setting out to make its town more resilient cannot sensibly begin without firstly being fairly clear about what resilient means, i.e., what the goal is, and secondly without some idea about what to do, what steps are likely to lead to achievement of the goal, what to do first, what not to do, what has been found to work best, what has been found to be difficult. 

Three years later this situation has not changed.  The now much larger literature, websites, publications and chat exchanges are made up almost entirely of a) reports on things being done and b) suggestions and advice on procedure for forming a group.  In fact there are now courses and trainers of trainees organised to assist with group formation.

A more recent example is found on p. 77 of The Transition Companion where seven principles of transition are given.  These are, positive visioning, help people access more information and trust them to make good decisions, enable inclusion openness, sharing and openness, build resilience, inner and outer transition subsidiarity; self-organistion and decision making at the appropriate level. The book goes on about such things for almost all of its c. 300 pages, but gives no ideas or suggestions or guidance on what this now well-oiled machinery might be applied to actually doing.  Yet the back cover promises us, "These examples show how much can be achieved when people harness energy and imagination to create projects that will make their communities more resilient."

When reference is made to possible specific goals, such as setting up schemes for food gardens, community supported agriculture, education and health etc., we are told little more than that we should establish committees to look into what might be done, e.g., "Create an energy descent plan."

The lack is most evident in The Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, which does little more than repeat the group forming process ideas from the 12 steps documents and contains virtually no information or projects to do with energy technology or strategies.  It lists some possibilities, such as exploring insulation, the scope for  local energy generation, and reducing the need for transport, but again there is no advice as to what precisely can or might be set up to achieve these goals.  We need much more than this; we need to know how and why a particular project will make the town more resilient, and we need to know what projects we should start with, how best to go about them, what the difficulties and costs might be, etc.  And we need to know what projects to avoid because they are too difficult yet or not high priorities, etc.  

I worry that the many now rushing into Transition Towns initiatives all around the world will do all sorts of good things -- but things which will not turn out to have made much difference to the crucial global issues.  It is not surprising therefore to hear about groups that have folded apparently because of confusion over what to do.  A group in Portugal formed, then said " -- but now we don't know what to do." (Hopkins, 2013.)  If people become disenchanted the movement could be set back seriously.  More worrying is the possibility that we will blow our only chance.  As I see our situation this movement is undoubtedly our only hope for global salvation so it is extremely important that it is seen to be achieving important things.  If it fizzles we will have immense difficulty getting something like it off the ground again.

 "Just doing stuff" is far from enough.

I now want to take up what seems to me to be the major and potentially fatal fault within the movement.  The above lack of guidance issue derives from a fundamental although largely implicit and unrecognised theory of transition/revolution, which in my view is utterly mistaken.   We could label it "the theory of automatic revolution".

The basic procedural or strategic idea underlying the movement is that if we just do more and more things like develop community gardens, skill banks and commons i.e., build more of the things we want to see in a sustainable society, then in time we will have built such a society.  We don't have to get involved in distasteful political action fighting against the system, or talk in terms like "capitalism", "radical" or "revolution". 

This is quite mistaken because the kinds of things being done now are far from sufficient.  The society we want cannot come into existence unless changes of a very different kind are also made, including changes away from an economy driven by market forces, profit and growth, and to one in which we can make sure scarce resources are devoted to meeting needs and not to what's most profitable.  That means change to a society which collectively makes the basic investment and distribution decisions (not necessarily all of them), and does not leave them to private corporations competing to maximise their wealth. 

In addition the severe scarcity of resources means that a satisfactory world cannot be achieved unless we in rich countries not only abandon growth but go way down to the small fraction of present per capita levels of consumption that would be our global fair share.  This means phasing out most industry, and rationally organising the allocation of scarce resources and productive capacity to meeting needs. 

These things cannot possibly be done without the most massive commitment at national and other levels to rational collective planning and implementation.  They cannot be done unless states take control of regional and national level economic restructuring.  For instance as decisions were being made to phase various industries down or out there would have to be coordinated action to assist huge numbers of people into socially desirable industries located through all regions to enable all to earn the small amount of export income they need to enable importing from outside their own region.  Vast numbers of new towns would need to be established as the bloated resource-wasting cities are phased down. Nothing we do in our town economies can make these changes (apart from increasing the demand for them to be made.)

This means that a satisfactory society cannot be achieved without the biggest revolution in about five hundred years, scrapping some of the most fundamental principles, institutions and procedures of present society.  It cannot be achieved without the total abandonment of the neo-liberal doctrine that it is best to leave as much as possible to market forces, but it will require far more than that.  The point is that these goals and changes are at a level way above that of the things being done in Transition Towns today.

Obviously nothing remotely like this can ever take place unless there is overwhelming demand for it among people in general. The many who are obscenely rich and powerful will resist strenuously. Whether you like the language or not, this is about the mother of all class wars. (I proceed on the possibly naive assumption that nevertheless it can be a non-violent transition.)  The restructuring cannot occur unless people in general come to be very discontented with present macro systems and are fiercely determined to get rid of them, and unless they strongly believe that there is a satisfactory alternative in the form of localism, self-sufficiency, collectivism and frugality.

It is clear that Transition Towns people don't want to discuss this issue.  I know there are people within the movement who share these ultimate goals but they do not seem to think it is important to ask how the things they are doing now are supposed to contribute significantly to the achievement of those gigantic global structural changes.  The movement is not informed by any strategic vision that deals with level 2, and there is no sign of any interest in the question. 

Large numbers of people on the Left believe the movement cannot make a significant difference to the global situation and that it is little more than a self-indulgent feel-good, waste of time.  That is not my view, but I do not think people within the movement are in a good position to argue that the Left is wrong.  At least Transitioners should be concerned to be working from a transition theory that includes causal connections between what they are doing now and the eventual achievement of a satisfactory world.

Even the best transition town or eco-village can achieve only a very low level of self-sufficiency or resilience.  It still needs to import many things it uses.  The best of them still need wire netting and polypipe and boots and radios and phones, and these have to come from distant factories, and from a bad economic system that keeps most of the world's people in unacceptable conditions. If the price of oil escalates and the global economy goes down, Totness will go down too. A satisfactory society is not possible unless and until the distant systems that provide these things are satisfactory.  Just building more compost heaps or LETSystems or skill banks etc. in your town will do nothing to make those systems satisfactory. 

The things being done within the Transition Towns and related movements are no threat to the grossly unsatisfactory national and global economic and political systems we have to replace.  They are easily accommodated within those systems.  I argue at length that it is crucial that these things go on being done, because they are starting to build some of the elements of the desirable new society, they are the beginning of the revolution, and they provide the most effective arenas and mechanisms for spreading awareness and enthusiasm.  But it is also crucial that thought should be given to how these things can lead to concern with the eventual achievement of the second level goals.

I think there is a strong and understandable antipathy among many people concerned with sustainability to get involved in political issues, let alone with anything that sounds radical.  Many regard politics as sordid, conflict-ridden, and ineffective anyway, and prefer to avoid that scene and just get on with good green works.  It is tempting and comforting for them to believe that these efforts will all somehow eventually automatically add up to having built a good society. 

I do not know how or when it would be best to get the level two issues on the agenda. It is possible that they should remain a minor concern for a long time yet, while these movements attract people who would be put off by any reference to radical system change.  But it would seem important that we should at least be thinking about how to get them onto the agenda for discussion as soon as we can.

The implicit "automatic revolution" theory is evident all through the TT literature, web activity and projects on the ground. The title of the recent publication The Power of Just Doing Stuff says it all.  Some time ago Will Steffan put it well: " -- just go ahead and do something, anything... All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse... and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap."  (

Unless we (eventually) move on from this beginning point to explicitly embrace the extremely big, difficult and unpleasant level two goals, as long term objectives, and start thinking about how to achieve them, these movements will make no significant contribution to saving the planet.  They will remain as fringe preoccupations of those who like gardening, swapping, planting commons etc., in a society in which most people are not interested in these things and either wish to or are forced to go on working and consuming voraciously.

            What then is to be done?

Following is a brief indication of the approach I am hoping to persuade transitioners to adopt.  It does not involve a big or disruptive change of from their present activities; it is mainly about attempting to connect these to the presently neglected goals.

Obviously the task is to gradually increase awareness of the need for to the big system changes, and commitment to making them, somehow, eventually. I encourage global activists to join Transition Towns, Voluntary Simplicity, Downshifting, Permaculture and related movements primarily in order to try to persuade people to this world view.  In my view there is no better place to work at this task than among groups already firmly committed to the necessary level 1 goals.

As I see it there is a very important sub-goal that marks an early turning point on the road, a first step towards a completely different and genuinely revolutionary path.   This is communities and citizens, not officials, beginning to take collective control of their own community affairs and fate.  At present towns and suburbs have almost no say in their fate and do not demand any.  The government and the corporations and "market forces" rule them and determine what happens to them. If corporate head office decides to shut the branch plant, too bad you are all unemployed.  The turning point is when a few ordinary people, not councils or government agencies, start getting together and saying, "We have a problem here.  There are many unemployed (or old or young) people around here with nothing to do, deteriorating day by day.  Let us get together to apply what resources we have to doing something about the problem."  This is almost never done; it is taken for granted that government, officials, police or social workers are there to identify and deal with problems. That's not our responsibility. If we are troubled by a problem then at most we ask the government to deal with it.

In many cases there will be severe limits to what we can do, but a great deal can be done to solve or significantly reduce the most urgent problems such as unemployment, depression, homelessness, aged care, loneliness, struggling single parents, alienated youth, drug addiction, petty crime, domestic violence, alcoholism, ugly landscapes and physically and mentally unhealthy people.  There are vast resources in every neighbourhood presently usually totally unharnessed, such as the twenty plus hours a week the average person watches trivia on TV or a computer screen!   The most abundant and the most important resource we have is not land or capital, it is unused "labour", i.e., time, skills, willingness, empathy, care.  This resource needs to be geared towards the vision of us running our town.  Chapter 13 in The Transition -- details the central role that a cooperative community garden and workshop can play in initiating the move towards this outcome, especially regarding unemployment.  (An inspiring related example is the Californian The Homeless Garden Project, 2014.)

It must be stressed that this kind of initiative is revolutionary in the extreme.  It flatly contradicts and spurns some of the basic principles of the mainstream economy, political system and culture. 

      What determines what is done are local needs, not business profit maximisation, or government action. 

      Communities collectively take action; the situation is not left to individual's seeking to maximise their self- interest.

      The goals have nothing to do with making money or maximising wealth; they are to do with maximising moral, justice, ecological and social values -- with maximising the public good and the collective quality of life.  The conventional economy rules out all considerations but monetary costs and benefits to individuals and corporations.

      In other words market forces are not allowed to determine what happens. 

      We make sure that the collective welfare, the public good, equity, social justice, the situation of the most disadvantaged, are the things that drive policy, development and action. We reject the vicious myth that things work out best for all if individuals are freed to maximise their wealth.

      Communities are making decisions through procedures that include everyone affected.  We are replacing representative democracy with participatory democracy. People are doing it, not officials.  We are governing ourselves; we are not being governed. That is, we are scrapping centralised, authoritarian and repressive systems of government, and replacing them with participatory and cooperative systems.

      We are replacing an economy and culture driven by getting with one driven by giving, care and the desire to see all flourish.

      The myth of efficiency is dumped. What matters is effectiveness; whether we can meet the need, not how "efficiently" we do it. If we can make our own money-less entertainment and provide money-less company for old people who cares if some corporation could do it more "efficiently"?

These are values, principles and procedures which contradict head on those of competitive, individualistic consumer-capitalist society.  The coming scarcity will force us towards them. People will realise that the conventional economy is not going to provide for them, especially as governments shift resources away from low income groups in their effort to "get the economy going again" so communities will see that they must do what they can to provide for themselves cooperatively.

Before long the limits to this will become evident. People will realise that they need hardware, grain, dairy products, and many basic industrial items from outside the town, and that regional supply of these kinds of items cannot be enabled unless present state and national government policies are scrapped. Regions cannot be restructured to contain many small farms and factories producing basic necessities without a great deal of regulation, subsidising, tax adjustment, rational allocation of national resources, and government investment.  To do this will contradict globalisation and neoliberal doctrine. Above all the local cannot develop unless national resources and priorities, including trade, investment and financial policies, are shifted from their present subservience to the national and global levels.  Governments would have to stop resources flowing heavily into exporting and the associated infrastructure development, and divert many of these to enabling those local small factories.  Heavy regulation of finance would be needed, to make sure capital goes into the local purposes and not into whatever high profit ventures most suit international capital.

These things obviously will not be done unless great pressure for them accumulates from the grass roots.  Thus the coming scarcity will help to generate the conditions, especially the mass consciousness, that will push and in time force governments to do what we want.

But, needless to say all this, if it happens, will generate huge conundrums and conflicts.  It is about governments being pushed to almost totally reverse the thinking, values and behaviour that have driven them to date. Governments will squirm to accommodate the pressure from below with the squeals of refusal from the transnational elites and their well-paid servants, especially the economists who will denounce our demands as economic vandalism.  The outcome will depend on how good a job we sustainability educators have done.  Remember, throughout we will have been working hard at level 1 to help people see that the revolution will eventually come to these difficult level 2 issues, and that we won't get through unless we have built a sufficient level of determination to achieve radical system change.

All this is discussed in The Transition --  in terms of the development of an Economy B, within or under the conventional mainstream economy, whereby we gradually build up our capacity to deal with problems and needs through collective, non-market citizen action. 

Note that this is also our "educational" strategy, the way we can best increase among local people awareness of the global situation, the fact that existing systems will not provide for us and the need to build our own local alternatives. By joining Transition Towns initiatives Simpler Way activists will be in the best possible position to help people see that in time we will need to move up to the big and difficult system  change goals. 

In this first stage of the revolution our concern is not to fight capitalism directly, but to start taking control away from capitalism.  We will work to kill it off, not by confronting it in mortal combat, but by beginning to refuse to let it determine our fate any more.  At the core of The Simpler Way view of the transition process is the belief that a great deal of "educational" or consciousness raising effort will have to be put into getting green and other people to see the need to shift to radically different ways, and that the best way to do this work here and now is to join in the compost making -- with a view to explaining how it must be linked to the enormous and radical system change required.

Hopkins, R., (2013), The Power of Just Doing Stuff.

Hopkins, R., (2011), The Transition Companion: Making your Community More Resilient, London, Greenbooks.

Hopkins, R, (2009), The Transition Handbook, London, Chelsea Green.

Smith, R., (2011), "Green capitalism; – The god that failed", Real World Economics Review, 56,11th March, p. 122 – 145.

The Homeless Garden Project, 2014.

Trainer,T., (2010), The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Sydney, Envirbook.

Trainer, T., The case against the market.

Trainer, T., Saving the environment ; What it will take

TSW, (2011), The Simpler Way website,