Beginning the transition where we live: Ideas on first steps that might be taken.


                                                        Ted Trainer



Whether the transition to post consumer-capitalist society is achieved will depend essentially on the extent to which we can bring about an enormous change in the outlook and values of ordinary people. Governments, corporations and elites will not help with this; the conventional world-view condemns them to trying to keep greed and growth society going.  In any case the required changes cannot be made from the top.  The Simpler Way can only be made to work in communities where conscientious, energetic and socially responsible citizens are determined to come together to cooperatively run those communities, focused on enabling all to meet their needs and to enjoy a high quality of life in sustainable ways. 

This means that the first thing we should be trying to do here and now is to help people see that competitive consumer-capitalist society has to be scrapped, that affluent lifestyles and economic growth are impossible for all and are a recipe for global catastrophe...and that they are not desirable anyway.  We need people to come to understand that the keys to a good society and a good life for all are to do with living within cooperative and self sufficient local economies, focused on non-material goals and satisfactions.  Thus the value change must be huge, away from the individualistic, competitive acquisitiveness and “getting” that has driven Western culture for hundreds of years, to finding fulfilment in contributing to the public good and to the satisfaction of others and in arts, making things, growing things, and personal and social development ... to a culture of “giving” and nurturing. 

This is not just a wish list; these elements must be there in abundance or the new communities required in the coming era of irremediable scarcity will not work. These communities must involve everyone in thinking about what the town needs, participating in the discussion, planning, decision making and implementing, via informal conversations, committees, town meetings and working bees.  Unless there is strong desire to contribute and think about what’s best for the town the right decisions will not be made and the required work will not be done.  If there is desire to get richer and own more property than others etc., the crucial cooperative, nurturing processes will not take place.  Obviously the required motivation can only be based on general commitment to clear and powerful ideas and values that contradict those dominant in consumer-capitalist society. So the task for us here and now is to try to spread the new ideas and values.

One of the most impressive illustrations of this kind of social organisation was given by the achievements of the Spanish Anarchists in the 1930s.  About eight million people were involved in the cooperative self government of large areas, without states or bureaucrats, but via committees of ordinary people in which everyone participated in decision making.  They even established hospitals and universities.  However none of this would have been possible had there not been decades of previous education and thinking in terms of Anarchist ways, building on the cooperative traditions of the peasant village.   They were quite aware of the crucial importance of the ideas and values in the minds and hearts of people in general.

Thus the key to transition is the development of these understandings and desires in ordinary people...people who at present have never heard of them and are likely to see them as contradicting everything they believe in. It would be a serious mistake for us to put scarce energy into badgering government to make the necessary changes, or trying to take state this stage.

Not only is it impossible for governments to run our new communities for us, they could not develop the required ideas, skills, desires.  These can only be developed by people bumbling their way to running their local economies because they see the need and because they want to take control of their fate and organise their local resources to meet local needs.  (This is why the standard Marxist transition theory is probably of no help to us in this revolution; it might have made sense where the task was for a vanguard to take control from the ruling class and then run the same industrialised society to provide affluence for all, while the masses slowly came to see the desirability of the new ways. See the critique in TRANSITION THEORY, long version.).  

Thus at this very early stage the focal problem for people who want us to transition to some kind of Simpler Way is, what can we do to contributed to the consciousness-changing process, here and now in the towns and suburbs where we live? 

The following thoughts are to do with the things we might do as fairly isolated individuals and families with limited time and resources, in suburbs and towns that have at present no interest in simpler ways. These are mostly small initiatives that might begin to acquaint some of the people around us with the radically different ideas we want them to eventually hold. The aim is to introduce these ideas, a little, now and then, to reinforce them from time to time, to nag away, in order to slowly add to the level of understanding and acceptance of our ideas within people in your area.  We would be planting seeds that might come to something as times become more difficult.  The hope is that eventually we will have built up enough interest in our locality to enable likeminded people to come together to start taking action.  Obviously that can’t happen unless and until enough awareness and concern has been built, and the following ideas are to do with things we might be able to do that will move us closer to that day.

Some of these ideas can be implemented by individuals but it would obviously be best to work with a few friends.

Note that the ultimate goal is the town or suburb taking control of its own fate, through collective citizen discussion, planning, decision and action, to build and run a primarily cooperative local economy which is as self-sufficient as possible.


Things we might try doing.

                 Drop the key ideas into casual conversation whenever possible. 

We should draw attention to, raise, drag in and go on about simpler way themes as much as possible.  A few words in passing can be enough to lodge an idea, e.g., that the problem we are discussing can’t be solved in a society driven by growth and greed, that there are better ways...  Watch for opportunities to briefly refer to our themes, to plant and reinforce ideas, especially in casual conversation. Let people know that we are not just expressing our own ideas but that large campaigns such as the Transition Towns and Global Eco-village Movements have been working for these goals for many years ... have a look at this and this website.

Be prepared with written material that can reinforce the point if people show an interest, or tell them you will get a link to them tomorrow.  Again this lets them know that these are not just your thoughts but that many are thinking this way now. Develop a stock of good summary outlines and arguments to be able to give or send to people who show an interest, or with whom you get into an argument. (The Simpler Way website is intended to provide such material, in varying detail; e.g., short and long accounts.)  Develop good short statements to trot out in situations where you only have a few seconds to make a point.

The best general line of discussion/argument is probably one that picks up on the personal and family discontents and problems people have in the consumer rat race, as distinct from more distant social/global issues like greenhouse, resource scarcity, poverty, Third World deprivation, global peace and conflict, and the functioning of our empire. For instance...

The concern would always be to link these themes to the big general limits issue if possible... these problems people are feeling are being caused by a socio-economic and cultural system that is fundamentally flawed and we have to eventually replace it, or the problems will not be solved. If possible we also try to point out that the socio-economic system we have is the basic cause of those more distant problems such as ecological destruction and the poverty of most people on earth... because all that producing and consuming is depleting resources, destroying the environment and depriving most of the world’s people of their fair share.  We can’t solve any of these problems unless we develop a society that is not about growth and greed.

Organise small scale events.

Set up an event such as an evening dinner discussion, barbeque or picnic, to which people are invited to discuss some of these issues.

Letter box to announce a public meeting, on for instance what can we do to improve our suburb, or what can we do for youth around here, what is likely to happen to our town or neighbourhood in coming years.

Organise a table and display boards at the shopping centre on a Saturday morning.  Behind the table set up a large map of the suburb completely redesigned to be sustainable, with most streets dug up and replaced by gardens...with big signs.  This map could be a centrepiece for many activities, e.g., school visits.  Even better would be a multi-piece diorama representing the suburb now and how we could remake its geography. 

The map could have overlays indicating how the new geography would include energy sources, animals, industries, materials sources, etc. One of these could represent social relations with many people presently separate and isolated, youth with no contribution to make, etc., and another board might indicate how elaborate community here could be, e.g., via the working bees. Another board might point to the huge amount of resources we have in our suburb that are being wasted, most obviously the time spent watching TV for “leisure”...and what that could be producing via working bees.  A core theme might be, look at all the exciting things we ordinary people could be doing to develop and run a great community here.

People would be stunned ... is the Council going to rezone us?! So we would be able to explain why movements around the world are now thinking that this is the direction we must eventually move in to solve our big global problems.

            Doorknock “research”

Announce that you are from a group investigating the “progress” of the suburb etc.  Ask people how they see the issues, with a view to getting clearer about their thinking, informing them about our project, getting names to email and invite...Later this approach can unearth resources we can start using...someone has a spare shed, a truck or tools they would lend, spare time.  Especially important will be using this approach to list skills that can be drawn on, including people willing to teach knitting, recipes, crafts, gardening, grafting... We can test ideas...what do they think of the idea of organising working bees to improve the neighbourhood.

It can be important to distinguish between people’s thoughts on social issues “out there”, and on their own situation.  There is a tendency for people to express considerable concern about their society, e.g., drugs, kids, homeless people, but to say that they themselves are doing OK.  Admitting to having problems or an unsatisfactory life can seem like admitting failure, so the best format could be “What do you think people around here would say about...”

Organise an “Alternatives tour.” 

We work on making various items illustrative of alternative ways, within some of our houses or back yards.  At Fred’s place we might make a mud brick dog kennel and an earth oven, and put together a set of impressive pictures of earth building.  At Mary’s place we might build the chicken and rabbit pen, compost heap and gardens, and elaborate boards explaining the scope for urban food production and nutrient recycling and footprint reduction.  Alice might have room for the diorama of the new suburban geography.  Tom’s garage workshop might be able to illustrate the joys making things with hand tools, via the sturdy furniture and toys on show.  Pat has a pantry stocked with preserves from her garden and that of friends and neighbours, enabling her to detail the monetary savings and the footprint implications.

We do not need much on the ground to be able to put on a very interesting and informative tour. That dog kennel and pictures enables us to drive home the enormous benefits of earth building; we don’t need to have a whole house to do that.  So these items are the pretexts, the illustrative devices we use to explain in detail far beyond them.  We stack each site with lots of display boards, and we work out a sequence that will best present our world view convincingly. We have handouts. Including further information and illustrative examples.

We organise walking tours around these sites, followed by a picnic.  We get local teachers to bring their classes.  We develop and improve our presentation all the time, and before long we are hosting visits from other suburbs, and making electronic versions of the tour available.

We door knock to find people who could help elaborate the tour, especially older people with skills like such as to bake a dinner, knit, grow things, graft, produce fish, and do various arts and crafts, and who might have tools, bits of machinery, sheds, relics that we can add to the tour.  Does anyone have a lemon or peach tree that produces too much for them, and that we could use to illustrate the power of “gleaning”... We invite them to join the venture.

            Piggy-backing public issues

When a suitable issue comes to be focal in the local press for instance, we weigh in with commentary from our perspective.  When the council proposed building a car park on that vacant lot, write a letter to the local paper suggesting why a community orchard would make more sense.  When the issue is high on the public agenda it is more likely that a letter on it from our angle will be published.  Watch for pegs to hang our case on.

Sniping”, picking off likely converts.     

If you see someone in an influential position, a columnist or talk-back radio personality, who might be persuaded to our view, work on him/her over time.  Form a sub-group to frame an approach, organise letters of phone calls, and deal with responses.

           Make contact with schools and teachers

Look at the curriculum to find points where we can suggest material from our perspective.  Offer speakers (e.g., some older people who can take in knitting, baked cakes, hand-made sippers and toys...).  Invite the teacher to bring the class on our tour.

            The community garden.

Possibly the most effective activities are those that can be based at the community garden. That’s where the diorama showing how the neighbourhood could be reconstructed can be set up and where lots of display boards can be located, and where there can be people eager to explain our perspective to visitors. The garden can be a a powerful “educational “device. At present their purposes are limited to enabling gardening and few are being used to introduce people to need for transition.

 Some important points to keep in mind:

It all adds up, although you probably can’t see this happening.  Every time a Simpler Way message is delivered it reinforces the theme in someone’s mind, or someone is hearing it for the first time.  This is how the Berlin Wall was brought down! Extreme and surprising changes are usually the result of a long process of slowly accumulating rethinking and desire for change, which can be invisible until the last minute when it reaches a critical level everything suddenly flips over. 

Thus we must be patient and not expect to see much if anything for our efforts, but be consoled by the probability that the discussion we had with the butcher this morning has added to the accumulating climate of opinion. The concern must be to just keep plodding away, seeing little for our efforts but knowing that we are contributing the crucial level of understanding and opinion, without which nothing can be achieved.

Ideally, the little group we form to start doing these things eventually grows to become the Community Development Co-operative, which in time builds and runs our suburb’s new Needs Driven Economy.

We urgently need, and will probably soon have some way of coordinating and keeping in touch as we plod away at the task.  We need to be able to share ideas on what seems to work, what to not put scarce time into, and to make new information available to each other.  We need to have a sense of being in a team.