Local government and the Transition Movement

The 12 Ingredients for Transition encourage us to "build a bridge to local government." I used to think that "building bridges" was lovely British poetic language, but recently I'm learning how that pretty phrase brings with it some fairly serious guidance.

Building a bridge across a river is quite different than trying to merge the two banks.  That pretty British poetry reminds us that Transition Initiatives need to be lead by the people, the citizens, the neighbors -- not by politicians, government, or any political party.

In the Transition Primer, (page 36-38 of Version 26 currently online) there is a nice piece on "the role of local government."  This piece gives some of what has worked/didn't work about Transition Initiatives and government.  It offers the idea that the role of local government should best be "supporting, not driving."


Here in Los Angeles our initiating group has had solid relationships with our L.A. city councilman, our California State Representative, and our U.S. Representative, plus name recognition with our State Senator's office.  We definitely have had a "supporting, not driving" relationship.  Staffers from our government officials' offices have attended the occasional one of our meetings, or our community garden opening.  They have helped us with street closing permits, listened to our position on proposed legislation, and helped out when we got in a bureaucratic pinch. 

This relationship has worked.  It has worked well.  As we have been going through the early stages of awareness-raising and group-formation in L.A., we have had support for our activities.  We have felt embraced and accepted within the community.  But these staffers and government officials weren't part of the core leadership of the budding T.I.

Certainly we educate and we enlighten, but I'm certain that the government representatives I listed don't fully comprehend peak oil or its socio-political repercussions yet.  However -- like dripping water onto a rock over time -- they've certainly been exposed to it. 

In the UK, Ed Milliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has demonstrated in his speeches (at least those reported on Hopkins' blog) that he understands the forecasted repercussions of peak oil and our need to prepare. 

We also saw a fantastic example of local government and Transition Initiative working together in "Transition Glastonbury’s Submission to Mendip District Council’s Future Planning Document."  Transition Glastonbury submitted a document that offered answers, a Plan B when the government had no fallback. 

These sample "bridges" show how T.I.s and government can work together well.  But these examples are quite different from attempting to merge the two riverbanks.  My intent in writing this piece is to explain why it doesn't work to populate your T.I. steering group with candidates for city council.  It doesn't work for your T.I. to merge events with a political party's local support group, no matter how "progressive" they might be.  T.I.s are -- by definition -- grassroots organizations, and they needfully must preserve their independence from the current political process.


Why would the Transition Network use that particular phrase "supporting, not driving"?  Why shouldn't we just get our politicians and political parties on board, get them to see the light, and have them lead us there? 

It is important to remember right here that Transition isn't "greening."  We might be able to convince our existing politicians and political parties to do a bit of greening of our current lifestyle patterns, within the current political and economic constraints.  However the Transition process and Transition understanding go far, far deeper than surface greening.  Transition understanding is that the crises we face -- peak oil + climate change + economic contraction, combined -- demand root-level rethinking and systemic change.

I can see a few reasons why the connections between a Transition Initiative and local government must be bridges, rather than attempting to merge the two banks.

1. Government can’t afford backup plans

To start out with, most of our political leaders will be like Mendip District Council: completely without a Plan B backup plan.  While they are in office, government officials have a stated job to fulfill, and that usually doesn't involve designing a total overhaul of the system. 

Even if we are successful in getting our government officials to understand the need for a systemic redesign, in this economy few governmental agencies will have budget to develop fallback plans.  Right now, they’re strapped to simply keep the existing structure in place and (somewhat) functional.

The few post-petroleum plans which have been created outside the Transition Network – including Portland, OR; San Francisco, CA; and Ventura, CA – seem to have been created by citizen task forces or university classes, on either volunteer or independent grant basis.  It is unreasonable to expect existing governmental departments to remove staffers from existing tasks to dedicate them to such projects.  And in this economic climate, they certainly won't be hiring staff to do it.  In the words of the Transition Network, “if we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late.”

Transition Initiatives offer a critically-needed public service by creating/facilitating an independently researched societal backup plan.(1)  The task is far too important to be subjected to the vagaries of government budget shortfalls, furlough, and staffing cuts.

2. Conflict of interest

Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, in her discussions of The Great Turning, emphasizes that we need to "create new structures."  Our political leaders and our political processes are deeply entrenched in the old structures; it is hard enough for them to make minor alterations to those old structures let alone create entirely new ones. 

Plus, our political representatives typically come to the job with obligations to the businesses and organizations that have gotten them there, businesses and organizations which are heavily vested in the status quo. 

Perhaps it’s easier to see with an example:  We wouldn’t ask industrial agriculture factory-style farmers and chem-ag business leaders to design an organic, diversified, locally based urban food system.  Firstly, their training, experience, and world-view would be completely mismatched for the task.  And secondly, what would motivate them to do a good, responsible, and conscientious job in designing a structure that would undermine their personal livelihoods?

In this way our present-day politicians' hands are tied; they cannot possibly create the magnitude of change that current circumstances demand.

3. Differences at the foundation

Thom Hartmann, in The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, gives us an idea of the magnitude of change that will be required.  He reminds us of the Older Culture view, the tribal culture, of which Native Americans are an example.  These cultures held a different notion of the place where humans stand in the order of creation:  We are part of the world.  It is our destiny to cooperate with the rest of creation.  This is what it will take to achieve a sustainable society.

According to Hartmann, tribal or Older Cultures have five primary traits: 
•    political independence,
•    egalitarian structure,
•    they get their resources from renewable local sources,
•    they have a unique sense of their own identity, and
•    they respect the identity of other tribes. 

Hartmann contrasts this with the structure and nature of Younger Culture city/states:  political dominance, hierarchical/clear authority structures, get their resources through trade and conquest, absorb other cultures into their own identity, genocidal warfare against others. 

Hartmann points out that the Older Culture was in place for more than 10,000 years of human history before our current Younger Culture came through and wiped out much of Older Culture, yet the Younger Culture hasn't been all that successful, hitting "peak" within a comparatively short span of time.

Our government is inextricably the Younger Culture: Political dominance, hierarchical and clear authority structures, trade and conquest, and homogenization of cultures are what defines it. 

We can't simply pick and choose and expect to attain a sustainable society.  We cannot select "get resources from renewable sources" from the Older Culture list, while retaining political dominance, hierarchical structure, and conquest from the Younger Culture paradigm.  It’s going to take much greater fundamental change. 

That is why, as we create new structures for the Great Turning of society, the road forward won't be lead by existing government or political parties.  It must be lead grassroots, by the people.

4. We need a safety net

A sidebar quote at page 141 of the Transition Handbook reminds us that Transition Initiatives are creating "a shadow economic, social and even technological structure." Transition Initiatives are weaving together the safety net that will be ready and waiting as the existing system fails. 

This is another portion of the “End of Suburbia moment”:  embracing the understanding that during this Transition to a more sustainable human lifestyle, during this time of energy descent, during this economic decline and upheaval, much of the existing Younger Culture will eventually crumble away to make way for the next era.

As we develop resilience, we prepare our local communities and neighborhoods for this inevitable crumbling.  As we research and draft EDAPs (Energy Descent Action Plans), we’re assembling the fibers and weaving together the cords that will become the safety net.  As we publish those EDAPs we are letting others take security in the knowledge that the safety net exists.  As we begin to implement the ideas of the EDAP; we begin to create the shadow economic and social structure that will become the culture of the new era.

The trapeze artist doesn’t carry the safety net in her back pocket.  She doesn’t tie it to her body.  It isn’t part of her, nor integrated into her polished routine.  It’s separate and distinct, out of the spotlight, ready to catch her when she falls.

To be a functional safety net, the shadow structure woven by our T.I.s must develop independently from and parallel to the mainstream system.  This is the ultimate reason why our T.I.s cannot be lead by today's politicians or government.


Hopkins explains to us why green tech/green growth cannot be the path of the future and why energy descent is the only possible path forward. (Transition Handbook Chapter 2)   Thom Hartmann's work explains why continued use of a Younger Culture city/state model is similarly doomed.  Our only possible path forward is to embrace more of the attributes, the paradigms, and understanding which have worked very long-term for humanity. 

If you've been through a Training for Transition, you were probably shown org chart diagrams of the evolving structure of Transition Town Totnes.  It is a bit unusual in this day of nonprofits structured pyramid-style like corporations: TTT has a decidedly circular rather than hierarchical structure.  As I read Hartmann's characteristics of the tribal culture, I realized these characteristics are integrated into what Hopkins et al are encouraging us to build. 

In a variety of ways -- from open space events, to "let it go where it needs to go", to cultivating the collective creativity, to the criteria which require a steering group of 5 or more rather than the boundless energy of a single individual -- our Transition Initiatives are being coaxed toward a method of organizing people which is much more like Hartmann's tribal/Older Culture description than the city/state one.  Why?  Because this Older Culture model is the way of long-term stability and survival.

As we journey deeper into the Transition era, the road forward will be lead by people who gather in tribe-like formats: in grassroots neighborhood circles and in open space gatherings, rediscovering their unique sense of their own identity. It will be lead by people who are politically independent of the corporate powers (corporations which grew out of the city/state and have now eclipsed it, yet continue to perpetuate its core assumptions).  It will be lead by people gathering in steering groups with the group's demise designed from the outset, groups designed with rotating and egalitarian leadership. 

The road forward will be lead by people who work together in collective creativity, invested in this work because they are bound together by a mutual desire for survival and for much more:  a life which is better than the present.  It will be lead by people who are thinking (and acting) in terms of the lifespans of their children, their children's children, and seven generations beyond.

People like you.



(1) regarding facilitation vs. creation of that societal backup plan, see the concept of "supplying the thread" here.

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