Why Occupy has taken off (and a response from Transition)

Transition Towns UK

Energy Bulletin

Why do you think Occupy has been more effective at mobilizing participation and discussion than peak oil or Transition? Their ‘message’ is not so dissimilar but it has connected.

The Occupy movement, unlike the peak oil/climate/Transition movement (?) is a bottom-up not a top-down approach. That appeals to the younger people and many of the older ones as well. What they are doing is not coming in the form of ‘delivered wisdom’ from the ‘experts in the field’ with their laundry list of what we ‘must’ do.

From what I can tell there is a lot of debate/discussion going on all the time about what to do and how to do it. It seems that the ‘leaderless’ or open classroom idea where everyone is a teacher and a learner is a very powerful concept that actually makes our younger people enthusiastic players. For the first time in ages (or forever for some of them) they feel they have the right to speak AND be heard with respect. It is ok to question other points of view, everyone is encouraged to do so.

For comparison I submit that one reason the local food projects are getting a lot of popular support and interest is that to some extent they are site-specific in a way and they lend themselves to customization in another location.

On the other hand, as has already been noted a few times here at Energy Bulletin, there is a hint of elite-ism and follow the manual in the order presented (there will be a test at the end) about the Transition approach. And, the people leading and teaching resemble the education hierarchy so many of the young people are tired of … they are considered to be receptacles to be filled, not active participants in any sort of planning/implementation of the program. Put another way, there seems to be very little flex in the Transition model and more than a hint of religious fervor. That works for a lot of the older people (and it seems to me that there are very few under 30-year-olds in the Transition groups) in part because we are conditioned to take the advice of the professors and scientists as gospel. (At least some of us are, me not so much)

I think part of why the young people are in the forefront on this is:

  1. they have the energy … not an unimportant thing
  2. they have fewer demands on their time, although there are quite a few retired people involved for the same reason
  3. they see the root problem…it’s the money/power, silly
  4. they know that nothing can be done about energy or climate or anything else until the financial playing field is leveled and there is room to move again.

So to that extent you are correct … the economic problems are immediate and in some cases life threatening. Those problems must be addressed NOW.

Sort of like the old joke: When you are up to your a** in alligators it is hard to remember that the initial objective was to drain the swamp.

A Transition participant’s response to Luane Todd
Participant, Transition Sebastopol
Training Coordinator, Transition US
Energy Bulletin

It has been interesting to observe so many commentators dispensing advice to the participants of the Occupy movement, telling them what they should or should not be doing. I have also seen this happening with Transition: activist pundits, one after another, issuing proclamations about how the Transition movement is too much this, or not enough that. The latest of these critiques can be found in Luane Todd’s recently published article on Energy Bulletin on November 23, titled, Why Occupy has Taken Off. In her article, Ms Todd excoriates the Transition movement for not being as successful as the Occupy movement in attracting younger participants, and she charges Transition with being hierarchical, top-down, inflexible, and even — of all things — religious.

While I agree with much of Ms Todd’s assessment about why the Occupy Movement is so attractive, and why it particularly speaks to a new generation of activists with its refreshing, non-hierarchical style, I was astounded by her bleak and inaccurate characterizations of the Transition movement. I do not know what personal experience Ms Todd has had with the Transition movement, but it has obviously not been very positive, nor has it given her an accurate view of what the Transition movement is all about. I am not invalidating her experience — which evidently must have been unfortunate — but I feel I must correct her mischaracterizations of the Transition movement as a whole.

First, let me express how thrilled I am, as Ms Todd also appears to be, about the spectacular rise of the Occupy movement and how it has so brilliantly and powerfully focused our national conversation on economic inequality, as well as on a suite of other critically important issues. I share this excitement with thousands of people who are active in the Transition movement, many of whom are also deeply involved with on-the-ground Occupy actions in communities all across the US (offering teach-ins and information about community-building events, or simply standing in solidarity). It is also thrilling to witness how this new paradigm of non-hierarchical activism is emerging on such a wide scale, and how it is being driven by a new generation of activist-citizens who have discarded the vestiges of dysfunctional organizational dynamics that have hampered so many previous movements. It’s a glorious new day.

As for the Transition movement, the most common criticism has been that it is too unstructured; that it doesn’t provide enough specific details about how to “do” Transition in a given community. That is because Transition leaves it up to local Transition Initiatives to decide how best to adopt the Transition model and principles for their communities. This hands-off, distributed-autonomy approach is a core element of the Transition model.

It is appropriate to compare Transition with Permaculture, which has principles and not rules. So let us immediately dispense with the notion that Transition has any sort of “laundry list of what we ‘must’ do”. What the Transition movement does provide, in the form of several handbooks (The Transition HandbookThe Transition Companion, and others), online resources, optional training courses, webinars, sharing forums, etc., isaccess to resources and methodologies that local Transition Initiatives can consider adopting, but only if they would be helpful.

Anyone who is familiar with the Transition model knows that Transition offers a list of potential “ingredients” to use, as well as some principles that articulate the ethos of the movement, such as inclusion, and the idea that decision-making needs to happen at appropriately local levels—which means the movement is structured to be bottom-up, not top-down. When a Transition Initiative has grown to include multiple working groups, then the decisions in that Initiative are made by a core team consisting of representatives from each of those working groups. Embedded in the Transition ethos is the conviction that the most powerful levers of the movement are not in the possession of some small group of “leaders” who make decisions for the entire movement (this simply does not exist), but rather are in the hands of the active participants of local Transition working groups. The local-level participants are the drivers of the entire movement. Does this sound top-down?

Regional Transition hubs are not created from on high by a group of self-selected leaders; rather, they coalesce naturally from clusters of existing active local Transition Initiatives who come together to create learning and sharing networks that are — once again — driven by local Initiatives.

At the national level, Transition US, the national hub organization of the Transition movement, consists of a small staff of dedicated people whose sole function is to offer support and resources to citizen-activists around the US who are forming and growing Transition Initiatives in their local communities. As one of those staff persons, I came into the position by co-founding and working hard within my local Transition Initiative for the last three years, helping it grow it to the point where it now has twelve active working groups.

Transition is a manifested form of social permaculture, with an organizational structure that can best be described as a do-ocracy: those who do the work get to make the decisions. There is no hierarchy anywhere in sight. For the many tens of thousands of us who are actually doing Transition work in over one hundred communities across the US (along with many hundreds of Transition Initiatives elsewhere in the world), we know from our direct experience that Transition is a post-hierarchical movement, as is Occupy.

Working together, the Occupy movement, the Transition movement, and other new-paradigm movements can hospice the old, hierarchical models that no longer serve us, and midwife the emergence of a more sustainable, equitable, and sane form of society. Part of the old thinking we can do without is the tendency to cast everything as an either/or choice—a false dilemma. Here we have an excellent opportunity to take a more positive both/and approach. Let’s not create divisions where they need not be. Our communities and our planet will be better served if we build each other up.