Transition: a yuppie substitute for activism?

shopping mall

Can doing Transition be just another upscale distraction, like an evening at the mall? Photo: daniel.knott via Flickr.

The exchange below took place between DM, an anti-nuclear activist in Vermont, and Steve Chase, a professor at Antioch University in Keene, NH and co-founder of a local Transition Group. We’ve published an excerpt from Steve’s response.

Is Transition US just a sort of yuppie substitute for taking serious political action on, say, the Yankee G.E. nuke plant in Vernon, VT and the 100+ such plants that are scattered across our country? In a few words, are you simply DIVERTING US, with cutsie-pie, from doing serious and adult things?
— DM in Vermont

Something that draws in many of the movement’s participants, including me, is that the Transition organizing model promotes an innovative and inspiring strategy for change — and at a local scale that many people see as the most workable for themselves.

Most Transition movement leaders and many participants are wise enough to know that concerned citizens will ultimately need to encourage the development of creative international treaties, and more daring national, state, and local public policies that promote a large-scale transition towards economic relocalization and energy descent. Yet, the movement also believes that the levers for this kind of change are not immediately available to grassroots activists.

As Richard Heinberg states in his foreword to Rob Hopkins’s Transition Handbook, “On the whole, national governments are slow to understand and act on this imperative, as there are too many interests vested in maintaining the status quo.”

While not at all discounting the vital role of elections, lobbying, and the conventional issue campaigning of the mainstream environmental movement — or even the nonviolent direct action approach of somewhat more militant groups — the strategic emphasis promoted by Transition movement leaders and participants is on organizing local, community-based, self-help projects and alternative institutions that are fun, energizing, relevant, and are likely to engage many new people as active citizens.

This strategic approach might be what you are most worried about–because you see it as a distraction from the kind of issue campaigning you think is most needed now. Is that true?

Planting potatoes and pushing petitions

If so, I would ask you to remember one thing and to consider another.

First, please remember that many Transition activists do actively engage in elections, lobbying, issue campaigns, and some — like myself — even engage in and support nonviolent direct action. We are not diverted. We are just adding another tool to our activist tool box by doing Transition organizing.

Second, I also encourage you to consider the Transition movement’s main strategic orientation–which is essentially what Gandhi called the “constructive program” — as a supplement rather than a distraction or a diversion from other types of activism. I personally think that any successful movement for fundamental social change will require a local-level constructive program of education and action like that focused on by Transition initiatives, as well as elections, lobbying, issue campaigning, opposition to certain types of development and technologies, and nonviolent direct action.

Different movements, organizations, and networks might focus on one or two of these types of tactics and not others for various reasons, but all of these approaches to change are likely needed. If we can agree on that, then we have tons of common ground — we are just focusing our primary strategic energies in different needed areas.

Might you possibly agree with this?

— Steve Chase

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