Thursday, June 9, 2011


This critique is being published with the authors permission with intent to begin a very important conversation about our current economic crises and the role that the Transition Town movement can play through its own transition in priorities and focus.  The critique was originally posted on Paul Raskin's Great Transition Initiative private participants space and we would like to thank Ted Trainer for allowing us to reprint it here so that the movement can benefit from 'an elders friendly criticism'.  

...and an Elders Friendly Criticism
by Ted Trainer


“The only way the alarming global sustainability and justice problems can be solved is via a Transition Towns movement of some kind.  At present the rapidly growing movement is inspiring, but there is an urgent need for critical thought about vision, goals, and means.  There is a serious risk that without this it will not make a significant contribution to solving our problems.”

The Transition Towns movement began around the year 2006 and is growing rapidly.  It emerged in the UK mainly in response to the realization that the coming of “peak oil” is likely to leave towns in a desperate situation, and therefore that it is very important that they strive to develop local economic self sufficiency.

For decades some of us in the “deep green” camp have been arguing that the key element in a sustainable and just world has to be small, highly self sufficient localized economies under local cooperative control.  (See Abandon Affluence, published in 1985, and The Conserver Society, 1995.)

It is therefore immensely encouraging to find that this kind of initiative is not only underway but booming.  If this planet makes it through the next 50 years to sustainable and just ways it will be via some kind of Transition Towns process.  (This is the core argument in my last book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World.)

However, there are some very important issues the movement must think carefully about or it could actually come to little or nothing of any social significance. 

Indeed, if it remains on its present path it will not make a significant contribution to the achievement of a sustainable and just world.  This will probably strike transitioners as a surprising and perhaps offensive comment, but please consider the following...

Everything depends on how one sees the state of the planet, and the solution.  Many people do not understand the nature and magnitude of the situation, including many green people.  Consequently they are working for goals which cannot solve the problems.

Where we are, and the way out.

For decades many have been arguing that the many alarming global problems now crowding in and threatening to destroy us are so big and serious that they cannot be solved within or by consumer-capitalist society.  The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust. There is no possibility of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc.  These rates of consumption are generating the numerous alarming global problems now threatening our survival.  

ln addition there is the huge problem of global economic injustice.  Our way of life in rich countries would not be possible if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources, via an extremely unjust global economy, and thereby condemning most of the world’s people to deprivation.


The Implications for Action?  Clarifying Goals

When faced with a task of the magnitude that we are currently faced with we have to ask ourselves what do we have to do in order to eventually achieve such huge and radical changes.

The answer goes far beyond the “level 1” things that green/transition people are doing now, such as setting up community gardens, food co-ops, recycling centres, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, Permaculture groups, skill banks, home-craft courses, commons, volunteering, downshifting, etc. 

Yes all these are the kinds of institutions and practices we will have in the new sustainable and just world so it is understandable that many people within the EcoVillage, Transition Towns and ‘green’ movements assume that if we just work at establishing more and more of these things then in time this will have created the new society.  This is a serious mistake.

Firstly these things are easily accommodated within consumer-capitalist society without threatening it, as the lifestyle choices and hobby interests of a relatively few people.  They will appeal to only that minority of people potentially interested in composting or organic food or Permaculture etc.  Larger numbers will not come to them unless they understand why they should.

Secondly, the most crucial changes required for sustainability are not in the “level 1” list above that transitioners are focused on.   The most crucial changes are things like getting rid of growth and preventing the market from determining our fate and developing local participatory democracy...”level 2” changes. 

Creating more commons and Permaculture groups and farmer’s markets makes little and probably no contribution to these massive, radical changes in the basic structures of society.

If we confine ourselves to level 1 goals, and succeed wildly, we will end up with lots of commons, Permaculture gardens, farmers markets, etc., - .in the same old consumer-capitalist society, in which most people who never would be very interested in Permaculture etc. remain enthusiastic consumers. 

Some Transitioners have fears or criticisms around goals that seem to be expecting too much too soon, expecting people to respond to a call for revolution, and expecting hard-working and worn-out activists within the movement to achieve impossible goals. 

If we do not see the level 2 set of goals as the crucial ones we have to focus on, then we are actually largely wasting our time...because no matter how many nice gardens we establish we will make no significant contribution to a satisfactory world unless in time we take up and achieve the level 2 goals.


The insufficiency of resilience
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 oil 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. 

If you want to protest that you are not just building a haven, that you see yourself as working for the kind of society that would defuse world problems, then again you need to consider that you won’t achieve that unless your vision and goals shift to way beyond building compost heaps and recycling groups and that you need to be able to develop strategies and explain how the things you are doing are supposed to lead to the achievement of the big/radical system changes that are needed.

The Lack of Guidance

A major deficiency in the current Transition Towns movement literature is the lack of information on what to do. 

The website, the Handbook and especially the 12 Steps document are valuable, but they are predominantly about the procedure for organising the movement and it is remarkably difficult to find clear guidance as to what the sub-goals of the movement are, the actual structures and systems and projects that we should all be trying to undertake if our towns are to achieve transition or resilience. 

What we desperately need to know is what things should we start trying to set up, what should we avoid, what should come first. 

Especially important is that we need to be able to see the causal links, to understand why setting up this venture will have the effect of creating greater town resilience. 

But unfortunately people coming to the movement eager to get started will find almost no guidance in the current literature as to what to actually try to do, let alone anything like a suggested plan of action with steps and do’s and don’ts and clear explanation of why specific projects will have desirable effects.

The advice and suggestions you do find in the literature are almost entirely about how to establish the movement (e.g., “Awareness raising”, “Form subgroups”, “Build a bridge to local government”), as distinct from how your movement can establish things that will actually, obviously make the town more resilient. 

There is some reference to possibilities, such as set up community supported agriculture schemes, but we are told little more than that we should establish committees to look into what might be done in areas such as energy, food, education and health.

The lack is most evident in The Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, which does little more than repeat the process ideas in 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 and the possibility of 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 what projects we should start with, 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.

Just being told “Create an energy descent plan” (Step 12) doesn’t help much when what we need to know what such a plan might include.

There exists a possibility that many now rushing into Transition Towns initiatives all around the world will do all sorts of good things, which will not turn out to have made much difference to the crucial economic issue. 

At least one group has folded apparently because of confusion over what to do.  If people become disenchanted the movement could be set back seriously.  

A possible explanation here is partly that the authors of these documents and the “leaders” of the movement are very anxious to avoid imposing their views.  They seem to see their role as facilitating the movement, spreading information, enabling people to communicate and share, publicising and encouraging the spread of the movement. 

The style and tone of the documents is admirably polite and quite unlikely to offend anyone’s sensibilities or ideology.  This is an attractive feature of the discourse and the publications. 

They would also probably say that at this stage no one knows what works best.  True, but we need ideas about what might work and what the priorities should be and why. 

We need to develop online mechanisms for feeding information that some groups have accumulated from experience that now surely indicates more effective directions to take within a context that allows healthy digestion and making it available to others who are new to the movement or outside of it still.

As this lack of guidance seems to reflect the view of the world that the movement’s “leaders” hold.   Perhaps some of them privately believe in a need for radical system change but they proceed as if it is appropriate and sufficient to facilitate the heavily reformist nature of the movement, indicating that they subscribe to the assumption that if people just set up a seed bank here and a recycling centre there, somehow it will all result in revolution someday.

What then should the Level 2 goals and strategy be?  What should we do?

The supreme goal should be building a new local economy, and running it.

The focal concern of the movement should not be energy and its coming scarcity.  Yes all that sets the scene and the imperative, but the solution is not primarily to do with energy. 

It is to do with developing town economic self-sufficiency.  The supreme need is for us to build a radically new economy within and around our town, and then for us to run it to meet our needs.  

It is not oil that sets your greatest insecurity; it is the global economy - it doesn’t need your town. 

  • It will relocate your jobs where profits are greatest. 
  • It can flip into recession overnight and dump you and billions of others into unemployment and poverty. 
  • It will only deliver to you whatever benefits trickle down from the ventures which maximise corporate profits. 
  • It loots the Third World to stock your supermarket shelves. 
  • It has condemned many in your town to idleness, in the form of unemployment and wasted time and resources that could be being devoted to meeting urgent needs there. 
ln a time of scarcity it will not look after you. You will only escape that fate if you build a radically new economy in your region, and run it cooperatively to provide for the people who live there. 

Establish Economy B!

What we need to build is a new economy, Economy B, underneath the old one

Economy B will give the people in our suburb, town, or region the power to produce the basic goods and services we need not to thrive as the old economy increasingly fails to deliver.  The old economy could collapse and we would still be able to provide for ourselves from our local resources and enterprises and systems and town assemblies etc.

We ordinary people in our towns and suburbs eventually have to establish our own local Economy B, take control of it and relegate the market to a very minor role, identify local needs and work out how to meet them, get rid of unemployment, work out how to cut town imports, etc. …and grope towards the practices which enable us to collectively self-govern the town to serve the welfare of all. 

In other words we have to deliberately come together to create alternatives to consumer-capitalist ways in our town. 

This requires thinking about goals that are at an utterly different level to just initiating some good green practices within present society. 

It requires coming together to organize and run our own collective economic and political and infrastructure systems. 

The town must ask itself what are we going to get together to do to solve our problems; what arrangements and institutions do we need to set up to make sure everyone around here is provided for? 

This kind of thinking is rarely encountered in current green or Transition movements, which typically politely focuses only on innovations within the old/existing economy. 

The Transition Towns movement will come to nothing of great significance if it does not eventually set itself to build ‘B’ economies. 

Either your town will get control of its own affairs and organise local productive capacity to provide for you, or it will remain within and dependent on the mainstream economy.

Building an Economy B, a new local economy enabling the people who live in the town to guarantee the provision of basic necessities by applying their labour, land and skills to local resources - all under our control – becomes the primary focus of Transition. 

The old economy A can then drop dead and we will still be able to provide for ourselves.  This kind of vision and goal is not evident in the TT literature and reports, let alone central.  There is no concept of setting out to eventually run the town economy for the benefit of the people via participatory means.  


The Transition Towns movement is characterized by a remarkable level of enthusiasm and energy.  This seems to reflect a long pent up disenchantment with consumer-capitalist society and a desire for something better.  There is a powerful case that the only way out of the alarming global predicament we are in has to be via a Transition Towns movement of some kind.  To our great good fortune one has burst on the scene.   

Coming next –  The Transition Town Local Economy B Handbook