Transition Towns as Resilience Pioneers

Dr. John Barry has just published an original and challenging new book called The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Contrained WorldJohn was leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland for six years, and now is a Reader in Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland. Here’s the blurb of his new book:

Going against both the naive techno-optimism of ‘greening business as usual’ and a resurgent ‘catastrophism’ within green thinking and politics, The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability offers an analysis of the causes of unsustainability and diminished human flourishing. It makes a case for seeing that it is profound and deepening unsustainability and growing injustice that characterizes the modern world. The books locates the causes of unsustainability in dominant capitalist modes of production, debt-based consumerism, and the imperative for orthodox economic growth. The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability offers a trenchant critique of the dominant neoclassical economic groupthink, which the book argues must be seen not as some value-neutral form of ‘expert knowledge’ but as a thoroughly ideological ‘common sense’ that has corrupted and limited creative ways of thinking about and through our current predicament. It offers a green political economic alternative which replaces economic growth with economic security, and views economic growth as having done its work in the minority, affluent world, which should now focus on human flourishing and lowering socio-economic equality and fostering solidarity as part of that new re-orientation of public policy. Complementing this green political economy, the book outlines and develops an account of ‘green republicanism’, which represents an innovative and original contribution to debates on the political responses to the crises and opportunities of global unsustainability. The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability draws widely from a range of disciplines and thinkers to produce a highly relevant, timely, and provocatively original statement on the human predicament in the twenty-first century. 

John has kindly given me permission to publish a short extract from this new book. The extract I have chosen is called, “Transition Towns as Resilience Pioneers” (pp.104-108, minus footnotes).


John Barry

In this section I wish to draw attention to and dwell on an aspect of the Transition movement related to the notion of those involved in them as pioneers and indeed the movement as a whole being best thought of as a form of pioneering. The word ‘pioneer’ is derived from the old French peonier, meaning ‘foot soldier’, so it is rather appropriate to view those involved in the Transition movement as ‘foot soldiers’ for new ways of living (while also touching upon the wartime mobilization narrative with which the Transition movement is sometimes associated). A pioneer is one who goes before others, leads and prepares the way for others to follow, and this is a perfect description of the Transition movement as it pioneers new ways of thinking and living. As Sharon Astyk notes, ‘We talk a good game about wanting a better world for the next generation, but we aren’t living our lives as though we love our own kids, much less anyone else’s. It seems to me that the only way to give the next generation a decent shot at life is for those of us who care most about them to take things into our own hands and prepare for the changes ahead’ (Astyk, 2008: 7; emphasis added).

She is explicit in recognizing the pioneering aspects of low-energy and low- carbon living, suggesting that ‘instead of everyone picking up and moving to a farm, or building some new society, what we need is a ‘Little House in the Suburbs’ model—a way of making what we already have usable in a much lower-energy and—emissions world’ (Astyk, 2008: 147). Of course there are other groups and movements which can also be viewed as pioneers both now and historically, so it’s not that somehow the Transition movement is unique in being pioneers. In particular, apart from the long-standing commitment to a less consumerist society within Green political parties and elements of the environmental movement, we should also highlight how the voluntary simplicity movement (Alexander, 2011) can also be seen as anticipating aspects of the Transition movement, and has much to contribute to it. However, what I am interested in here is interpreting and understanding Transition initiatives as pioneers and also the extent to which people and communities involved in them identify and see themselves as pioneers.

Pioneer is a more preferable term to the more common one of ‘social entrepreneur’ which is another interpretative frame for understanding innovative forms of social mobilization and activity. For example, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, states that, ‘Social entrepreneurship can further be defined as any action that displays three key characteristics: sociality, innovation, and market orientation’ (Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, 2009). Equally the descriptive term ‘innovation’, like ‘entrepreneur’ comes with baggage which is biased towards viewing it as a social activity which integrates with or does not challenge conventional economic progress and a ‘business as usual’ and techno-centric approach. At the same time, however, ‘pioneer’ as a concept is not completely free of this conventional economic connotation. Pioneers can also have a more economic/instrumental understanding in the sense of ‘pioneers’ as ‘first movers’ in the emerging markets for green energy, waste, and other forms of ecological infrastructure and production to capture competitive advantage—one of the dominant discourses of ‘cleantech’ and the ecological modernization of the economy as in the Green New Deal (Barry, 2009a –GND articles; Mayoh, 2009). And, of course, pioneers share many of the same character traits as entrepreneurs— risk-taking, experimentation, creativity, and as will be outlined below, courage to strike out in new directions, challenge conventional wisdom and structures, and revise previously strongly held or well-established views. But in the sense used here, pioneers are those whose vision and activism are potentially much more radical than the ‘social entrepreneurship’ concept (Parkin, 2010).

As already suggested, one of the many features or traits of a pioneer is courage. In the Transition movement it is clear that it takes courage to accept, embrace and internalize the implications of peak oil and climate change. It also takes courage to criticize the status quo and seek to create change, as the history of struggle for political and social change tells us. A key virtue or character trait of the pioneer is courage and it is, at least in terms of the argument developed here, significant that courage is one of the classical and enduring cardinal virtues. As Van Wensveen points out, ‘Courage is needed to shake familiar, but unsustainable habits and to challenge ecologically harmful practices, in institutions and structures of power. Moreover, courage is needed to venture into the unknown, to make new beginnings. Without courage, one would not have the ability to persist with good habits such as frugality and temperance in a world that is likely to welcome such habits with mockery and threats’ (2000: 131; emphasis added). She goes on to suggest that there is a link between courage and vulnerability, in a manner directly compatible with my own account of vulnerability in the previous chapter:

True courage must somehow involve the ability to embrace fear. . . . This again requires a basic personal attitude, namely vulnerability. People who both accept their existential vulnerability and can make themselves vulnerable (i.e. open) will have the ability to experience fear without panic. This will enable them to respond to dangerous situations with maturity and without harmful side effects. . . . Vulnerability in the context of an ecological world view implies the ability to face our creaturely limits, especially death, and to accept our dependence on the web of life. (2000: 138–9)

For Hopkins, this element of personal courage is central to the transition to a low energy, sustainable post-peak oil society. As he puts it, ‘understanding that the scale of this transition requires particular inner resources, not just an abstract intellectual understanding’ (Hopkins, 2008a: 79), and fully acknowledges that to accept the inevitability of the transition to a life beyond cheap oil and a climate-changed world requires considerable courage and fortitude. Holding such a disposition is doubly demanding in the context of the majority of one’s fellow citizens and the dominant culture more generally, either being indifferent, ignorant, or explicitly rejecting any argument about the coming of the end of our current high-energy unsustainable lifestyles and its associated socio-economic infrastructure. Hence the explicit concern within the Transition movement, as indicated above, with the psychological and emotional dimensions of change, both at the collective and individual levels.

The notion of a pioneer also conveys a sense of identifying and venturing into new horizons of possibility and new frontiers of creativity, whether this is in thinking or doing. For example, Richard Heinberg, one of the main thinkers in the ‘peak oil’ movement, in suggesting the creation of ‘Post-Carbon Out- posts’ (Heinberg, 2007: 235) implicitly or explicitly evokes the image of the American West as a frontier in which ‘empty lands/wilderness’ are broken up with scattered outposts of a different type of society. In the Transition movement the ‘empty lands/wilderness’ is the dominant Western consumer and high-energy way of life (conventional civilization) and the outposts are low/post-carbon experiments and local initiatives. But the analogy still stands whether pioneer outposts are viewed in terms of actual experiments in post- carbon ways of life, or in cultivating modes of thinking and analysis which challenge the dominant cultural and economic narrative. Objectives such as food and energy self-reliance and security, which are central to the Transition vision, resonate with a fairly traditional ‘pioneer mentality’ of people venturing into new lands and without the infrastructure of society, or a national or globalised economy, and who had to support and fend for themselves. The transition vision of a local economy progressively decoupling from the long supply chains of energy, materials, and commodities of the globalized economy does herald a clearly more self-reliant economic and social vision.

Transition Towns exemplify the cultivation of new ‘sustainability’ subjectivities and characters in integrating reflection and action across intellectual, emotional, and practical dimensions of the self. The Transition movement’s focus on ‘head, hand, and heart’ denotes its character-building potentialities. The cultivation of ecological virtue can be measured to the extent it allows the integration of thinking, feeling and action. In the Transition movement case this is geared towards or woven into the recreation of community at its foundation, as the baseline from which collective and local resilience can be created and sustained. The cultivation of ‘earthiness’ in Van Wensveen’s terminology is most evident in the Transition process, a sense of creating identities linked to the earth (either directly through practices such as food growing or land management or indirectly through heightened awareness of human dependence on the earth) but in a resolutely non-romantic sense. As Van Wensveen points out ‘earthy’ people ‘are not romantic dreamers. They will get their hands dirty to do what needs to be done…And they are not perfectionists either…in order to balance their great love of life with the constant messiness of life, earthy people need a sense of humor’ (2000: 34–5; emphasis added). This non-perfectionist element is worth stressing, since one of the central features of the Transition movement, in part drawing on its permacultural roots or inspiration, is its resolute pragmatism, of not being tied down to ideological issues and political debate but simply ‘getting things done that need doing’. This non-perfectionism is also worth stressing since it helps underscore the ‘concrete utopian’ characterization of the Transition movement, in that, in guarding against the ‘perfect becoming the enemy of the good’, the Transition perspective is wary of Duncombe’s uncompromising and unrealizable ‘unconditional impossible demand’ while still remaining a ‘political dream’ (Duncombe, 2007) and form of grounded hope for a realizable but different way of living.

This was an excerpt from John Barry’s The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Contrained World.

2 Responses to “Transition Towns as Resilience Pioneers”

  1. […] It is doubly hard to argue the great transition from out-dated industrial economies to sustainable, viable, prosperous ones, that we all must undertake, will be possible without great leadership. The role of courage in this transition is articulated beautifully here. […]

  2. A great book for our times and it will take brave leadership to lead humanity back into the light!

  3. maria says:

    Good reading so far and made want to read the full book. This Paragraph stayed in my mind “A key virtue or character trait of the pioneer is courage and it is, at least in terms of the argument developed here, significant that courage is one of the classical and enduring cardinal virtues.”

  4. […] Transition Towns as Resilience Pioneers […]

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