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Transition Towns: Contested Spaces and the Debate between the 'Local' and the 'Global'

By Chris James - posted Friday, 10 July 2009

The trend towards depoliticised discourses is moving rapidly across the world and is serving to deepen a growing conservatism and/or a return to a more traditional way of life. These discourses usually come with a mandate that advocates change via methods of non-confrontation, sometimes referred to as mediation.Here social advocates seek to avoid all forms of politics and political dissent. Instead, they focus on community based solutions to social change. The new social movement called Transition Towns is one such movement using this framework and it is gaining immense popularity in Australia. There are now roughly twenty Transition Towns across the nation

Transition Towns and the "Third Way"

When the depoliticised discourses first arrived from the West's new wave of "Third Way" social theorists they were highly criticised for sidestepping important social issues but gradually - and as a result of increased public violence and strong opposition to governments - these discourses have found acceptance within local authorities, bureaucracies and the pro-localisation community movements.


At the centre of the current wave of economic localisation are two urgent socio-political problems, peak oil and climate change. The debate underpins the way we have used the world's resources creating harmful emissions that cause global warming. This in turn has been blamed for drought, land degradation and unpredictable weather patterns, all of which have had a devastating human, political and financial cost.

The situation has lead to a rethink on economic globalisation. It is now being argued that globalisation, the new communications technologies and cheap commodities are based on a "spatial fix" for restoring capitalism's growth potential by shifting labour from high to low cost locations. Added to this, the world must now confront the reality that the global system is currently unsustainable.

Undoubtedly, the debate on climate change and peak oil has put the political forces into disarray and this has been exacerbated by an economic collapse. With this in mind, localisation appears as an easy option to the big problems because it doesn"t tamper with the State's economic agendas or the expansion of big business, even though some of these businesses are the major polluters contributing to climate change. Rob Hopkins, a key advocate of localisation and founder of the UK Transition Towns argues that the demise of cheap oil could have a more catastrophic affect on the climate because people might choose to switch to high emission alternatives like coal.

Further, the expansion of biofuels will inevitably lead to a lack of food production and food shortages. Hitherto, the Transition Towns movement gives focus to localised "permaculture" and food security. Hopkins also argues, a financial crisis caused by peak oil might mean that climate change is put aside in favour of more economic growth. We have already seen this happening in Australia, Europe and the US where climate change priorities have been downgraded. These scenarios can be avoided argues Hopkins by mobilising communities to follow an energy descent plan outlined in The Transition Handbook. To this end economic localisation is positioned as directly opposed to globalisation and is thus supported by the existing anti-globalisation movement, which is notoriously associated with violent political protests.

The Debate

Both sides of the debate have convincing arguments. On the one hand, we are said to be facing a catastrophic downturn in fossil fuels and other raw resources, which can only be ameliorated by dismantling all the high energy facilities and reverting to a pre-globalised world. On the other hand new technologies not yet constructed are claimed to be able to fix the problems. Neither of these options can offer much comfort.

Moreover, while the science is pretty conclusive on climate change we do not know exactly when the oil will peak. We could already be experiencing it as prices go up and down. These are political issues that will impact on industry, agriculture, forestry and all forms of trade. Travel will be impacted as well as many of our commodities and services, some of which cannot be relocated and/or community based. Certainly, we can reduce emissions by consuming closer to home where possible but we should not expect this to have more than a minuscule affect on what is a major global political problem.


The Realities

Many Transition Towns advocates try to convince us that climate change and peak oil will herald the end of neo-liberalism and global capital. They argue that this is a good thing because it will facilitate the opportunity to re-fashion the world around a simple (and in some cases spiritual) agrarian lifestyle. It is never easy to restore well-being out of a crisis and a lot of people can get hurt in the process.

To see localisation as both necessary and desirable is a top down approach because while the elites might survive such a crisis the poor will not. Further, to suggest that a post-industrialised world would be superior to globalisation and all that implies is a political statement about what constitutes a good life. We have been here before in the struggles of post-colonialism where the Western definition of a "good life" did not suit all. It certainly did not suit the oppressed.

Transition Towns aims to make communities resilient to climate change and peak oil but many Transition Towns members understand the meaning of "resilience" to be total self-sufficiency. To this end the Transition Towns movement is open to contest.

If, alternatively we define "localisation" and "resilience" as striking a balance between the local and the global, this is a different proposition. If redirecting our attention on the local can help to educate the masses towards environmental consciousness and creating diverse communities then there is an argument for reconnecting at a local level. There must be checks and balances to ensure that communities do not end up as communal autarkies. Transition Towns must not be a means of separating communities out from other groups within the social. It should not be used to promote depoliticisation as good and direct political activism as bad. Rather, Transition Towns needs to be viewed as an opportunity to create sustainable, equitable spaces where people can interact and responsibly protest both locally and globally.

The Future

There is a lot of appeal in working at a non-confrontational level but what happens when a gross injustice occurs? What happens when the small community steps fail to make an impact on greedy corporations who continue to pollute and/or harvest every scrap of coal, oil or forest available? Will the Transition Movement find its political voice? Or will it collapse under the weight of its own non-confrontation discourse? Conflict cannot be avoided. Conflict needs to be addressed at the source at which conflict occurs in order to find workable solutions. Conflict need not be violent and it has brought gains as well as pains to politics and social change.

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About the Author

Dr Chris James is an artist, writer, researcher and psychotherapist. She lives on a property in regional Victoria and lectures on psychotherapeutic communities and eco-development. Her web site is

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