The Transition Towns Movement; its huge significance, and a friendly criticism

by Ted Trainer

The only way the alarming global sustainability and justice problems can be solved is via a Transition Towns movement of some kind. At present the rapidly growing movement is inspiring, but there is an urgent need for critical thought about vision, goals, and means. There is a serious risk that without this it will not make a significant contribution to solving our problems.

The Transition Towns movement began only about 2006 and is growing rapidly. It emerged in the UK mainly in response to the realisation that the coming of “peak oil” is likely to leave towns in a desperate situation, and therefore that it is very important that they strive to develop local economic self sufficiency.

What many people within the movement might not know is that for decades some of us in the “deep green” camp have been arguing that the key element in a sustainable and just world has to be small, highly self sufficient, localised economies under local cooperative control. (See my Abandon Affluence, published in 1985, and The Conserver Society, 1995.) It is therefore immensely encouraging to find that this kind of initiative is not only underway but booming. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that if this planet makes it through the next 50 years to sustainable and just ways it will be via some kind of Transition Towns process. (This is the core argument in my last book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World.)

However I also want to argue that there are some very important issues the movement must think carefully about or it could actually come to little or nothing of any social significance. Indeed in my view if it remains on its present path it will not make a significant contribution to the achievement of a sustainable and just world. This will probably strike transitioners as a surprising and offensive comment, but please consider the following case.

Everything depends on how one sees the state of the planet, and the solution. In my view most people do not understand the nature and magnitude of the situation, including most green people. Consequently they are working for goals which cannot solve the problems. It is of the utmost importance that good green people and transitioners think carefully about the perspective summarised below.

Where we are, and the way out.

For decades some of us have been arguing that the many alarming global problems now crowding in and threatening to destroy us are so big and serious that they cannot be solved within or by consumer-capitalist society. The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust. There is no possibility of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc. These rates of consumption are generating the numerous alarming global problems now threatening our survival. They are already 5-10 times the rates which would be necessary to provide present rich-world living standards to the 9 billion people expected by 2050. Most people have no idea of the magnitude of the overshoot, of how far we are beyond a sustainable levels of resource use and environmental impact.

But although present rich world rates of resource use, production “wealth generation etc.” are grossly unsustainable, the supreme goal in consumer-capitalist society is to raise them as fast as possible and without limit. If all expected 9 billion rose to the “living standards” we in Australia would have by 2050 at present growth rates, then total world economic output would be more than 20 times as great as it is now! These sorts of multiples totally rule out any hope that technical advance could sustain growth and affluence society.

ln addition there is the huge problem of global economic injustice. Our way of life in rich countries would not be possible if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources, via an extremely unjust global economy, and thereby condemning most of the world’s people to deprivation.

Given this analysis of our situation it is not possible to solve the problems without transition to a very different kind of society, one not based on globalisation, market forces, the profit motive, centralisation, representative democracy, or competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness. Above all it must be a zero-growth economy, with a far lower GDP than at present, and most difficult of all, it cannot be an affluent society…and it cannot be driven by desire to gain.

I refer to this alternative as The Simpler Way. Its core principles must be

• Far simpler material living standards

• High levels of self-sufficiency within households, national and especially neighbourhoods and towns, with relatively little travel, transport or trade. There must be mostly small, local economies in which most of the things we need are produced by local labour from local resources.

• Basically cooperative and participatory local systems,

• A quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production and consumption than at present, and a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons. There must be no economic growth at all. There must be mostly small local economies, under our control via participatory systems, and run to meet needs not to make profits (although I think we could have markets and many private firms.)

• Most problematic, a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.

Some of the elements within The Simpler Way are:– participatory democracy via town assemblies – neighbourhood workshops – many suburban roads dug up and planted with “edible landscapes” providing free fruit, nuts etc – being able to get to decentralised workplaces by bicycle or on foot — voluntary community working bees and committees — many productive commons in the town (fruit, timber, bamboo, herbs…) — having to work for money only one or two days a week — no unemployment — living among many artists and crafts people — strong and caring community — citizen assemblies making many of the important development and administration decisions — much production via hobbies and crafts, small farms and family enterprises.

Modern/high technologies and mass production can be used extensively where appropriate, including IT. The Simpler Way will free many more resources for purposes such as medical research than are devoted to these at present, because most of the present vast quantity of unnecessary production will be phased out.

Because we will be highly dependent on our local ecosystems and on our social cohesion, e.g., for most water and food, and for effective committees and working bees, all will have a strong incentive to focus on what is best for the town, rather than on what is best for themselves as competing individuals. Cooperation and conscientiousness will therefore tend to be automatically rewarded, whereas in consumer society competitive individualism is required and rewarded.

What we will have done is build a new economy, Economy B, underneath the old one. Economy B will give the people in our suburb, town or region the power to produce the basic goods and services we need not to thrive as the old economy increasingly fails to deliver. The old economy could collapse and we would still be able to provide for ourselves from our local resources and enterprises and systems and town assemblies etc.

Advocates of the Simpler Way believe that its many benefits and sources of satisfaction would provide a much higher quality of life than most people experience in consumer society.
It must be emphasised that The Simpler Way is not optional. If our global situation is as outlined above then a sustainable and just society in the coming era of scarcity has to be some kind of Simpler Way.

Reform vs radical system replacement.

In my view few green people or transitioners clearly grasp the magnitude and nature of the predicament we are in. As I try to detail in the Transition book, this society cannot be fixed; the problems are too big, the overshoot is too great, the problems are directly caused by fundamental structures and systems within consumer-capitalist society (such as the growth commitment.) If you understand and accept the above “limits” case, then you have no choice but to agree that the goal has to be replacing consumer-capitalist society.

Many nice polite and respectable green people do not like this. It sounds too extreme, reckless, exaggerated…and naive…and radical. Well indeed, radical it is, but if you don’t like it you should go back to the limits case and show that/where it is mistaken. Like many people I have spend decades on the case and it seems to us that limits case is overwhelmingly convincing and that the only responsible position to take is to accept that we have to try to get to a very different kind of society, one which enables a good quality of life for all on a very small fraction of the present Australian per capita resource consumption.

Unfortunately this confronts nice respectable green people with the distasteful issue of “reform vs revolution”. As I see it, the limits case shows without any room for doubt that we cannot possibly hope to solve the big global problems by reforming consumer-capitalist society. Some of its elements are obviously unquestionably valuable, but some of its basic economic, political, social and cultural elements just have to be scrapped and replaced.

Consider again,
• Sustainability requires shifting to very low levels of per capita consumption in an economy that has no growth, and this is totally impossible in the present economic system.
• Therefore a good society cannot be an affluent society and it cannot be driven by obsession with gain. This flatly contradicts the culture of consumer society.
• An economy that focuses on need, rights, justice, especially with respect to the Third World, and ecological sustainability cannot possibly be driven by market forces. Market forces totally ignore needs, rights, justice etc., because they only allocate scarce things to those who can pay most for them. At the very least the market must be heavily regulated and consigned to a quite minor role.
• The conditions of severe scarcity we are entering leave no choice but to shift to mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies run by participatory procedures, which contradicts present centralised and globalised political and economic paradigms.
• The more the market is allowed to determine what happens the more that social cohesion, community, collectivism and solidarity are driven out.
• The basic values driving a good society cannot be individualistic, competitive acquisitiveness.

The implications for action? Clarifying goals.

If the task is as big as this, then we have to ask ourselves what do we have to do in order to eventually achieve such huge and radical changes? The answer goes far beyond the “level 1” things that green/transition people are doing now, such as setting up community gardens, food co-ops, recycling centres, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, Permaculture groups, skill banks, home-craft courses, commons, volunteering, downshifting, etc. Yes all these are the kinds of institutions and practices we will have in the new sustainable and just world so it is understandable that many people within the Eco-village, Transition Towns and green movements assume that if we just work at establishing more and more of these things then in time this will have created the new society. I think this is a serious mistake.

Firstly these things are easily accommodated within consumer-capitalist society without threatening it, as the lifestyle choices and hobby interests of a relatively few people. They will appeal to only that minority of people potentially interested in composting or organic food or Permaculture etc. Larger numbers will not come to them unless they understand why they should, that is unless they accept the world view summarised above, and therefore see that we have to do these things if we are to save the planet. Just establishing more community gardens and recycling centres does little or nothing to increase that understanding.

Secondly, the most crucial changes required for sustainability are not in are not in the “level 1” list above that transitioners are focused on. The most crucial changes are things like getting rid of growth and preventing the market from determining our fate and developing local participatory democracy…”level 2” changes. Creating more commons and Permaculture groups and farmer’s markets makes little and probably no contribution to these massive, radical changes in the basic structures of society.

If we confine ourselves to level 1 goals, and succeed wildly, we will end up with lots of commons, Permaculture gardens, farmers markets, etc.,…in the much the same old consumer-capitalist society, in which most people who never would be very interested in Permaculture etc. remain enthusiastic consumers. Pursuing level 1 goals will do nothing to help people in general realise that we have to also do things like get rid of growth, i.e., to also achieve the very different level 2 goals.

This is not to say anything yet about how to get the level 2 goals on the agenda. Working that out is the core task we activists have. Maybe we should not introduce the idea of level 2 goals early, maybe we should just plunge into getting the gardens up and running and then start talking about the eventual structural changes. Some Transitioners have criticised me for expecting too much too soon, expecting people to respond to a call for revolution, and expecting hard-working and worn-out activists within the movement to achieve impossible goals. My point here is about ultimate goals, not how or when we can work on or achieve them. All that will take us time to sort out via trial and error. My point is that if we do not see the level 2 set of goals as the crucial ones we have to get too eventually, then we are actually largely wasting our time…because no matter how many nice gardens we establish that will make no significant contribution to a satisfactory world unless in time we take up and achieve the level 2 goals.

Hence, “Just do something – anything.”

It is entirely understandable and to be expected that at present the Transition Towns movement is not in general motivated by the clear and explicit goal of replacing the core institutions of consumer-capitalist society. It is predominantly out reforms to and within this society. Its implicit rationale is that it is sufficient to create more community gardens, recycling centres, skill banks, cycle paths, seed sharing, poultry coops, etc. (Some people within the movement say or think they are working for change from consumer-capitalist society but my point is that in fact the things they are doing will not contribute to that and will only bring about changes within it.)

Thus this rationale assumes that it is in order to do anything green. Just go ahead and set up a community garden here, a nut tree plantation there, and in time it will all add towards the eventual achievement of a satisfactory society. As Steffan has said “…just go ahead and do something, anything… All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse… and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap.” (

However if your goal was to build the kind of society that I’ve argued we must have if we are to solve global problems of sustainability and justice, you would very definitely not think it was sufficient or appropriate just to encourage a thousand flowers to bloom. You would think very carefully about what projects were most likely at this point in time to contribute to that goal. I am not at all sure what the answer is (although I suggest one below and detail the case in The Transition…) but trying to find the answer is of the utmost importance. What the Transition Towns now most urgently lacks and needs is some kind of general practical strategy…guidance as to what to actually do here and now, grounded on reasons why these are likely to be the best things to put energy into. (See further below.)

Thus the insufficiency of resilience.

From the perspective I’ve outlined, making your town “more resilient” is far from a sufficient goal. That could involve little more than building a haven of safety in a world of oil scarcity…a haven within a wider society that remains obsessed with growth, markets, exploiting the Third World, and using mobile phones made with Tantalum from the Congo.

If you want to protest that you are not just building a haven, that you see yourself as working for the kind of society that would defuse world problems, then again my first point is that you won’t achieve that unless your vision and goals shift to way beyond building compost heaps and recycling groups, and my second is that you need to be able to explain how the things you are doing are supposed to lead to the achievement of the big/radical system changes.

The problem of affluence.

If there is one thing that is responsible for the potentially fatal state of the planet it is the taken for granted, never-thought-about obsession with affluent living standards. Rich world per capita rates of production and consumption are probably ten times higher than the resources of the planet could provide for all. The first principle of a sustainable and just society must be the willingness to live very simply in terms of resource use. This does not imply hardship or deprivation; it is about being content with what is sufficient for a good quality of life.

The biggest problem blocking the achievement of a sustainable society is the fact that just about everyone is fiercely determined to have the highest “living standards” possible and to increase them all the time, without limit. Until this worldview is reversed we cannot possibly begin to make any progress on the global problems it directly causes. The task is astronomically difficult, probably impossible. Governments, economists, educational institutions the media and publics will not even think about any challenge to wealth, property or getting as rich as possible.

This issue does not appear to be on the TransitionTowns agenda. The goal seems to be to make the town safe from the coming storm but to go on living in it in typical rich world affluent ways, when those ways can’t continue without an unsustainable and unjust global economy. Again, resilience is not enough.

The lack of guidance.

So I am arguing that a major deficiency in the current Transition Towns movement literature is the lack of information on what to do. The website, the Handbook and especially the 12 Steps document are valuable, but they are predominantly about the procedure for organising the movement and it is remarkably difficult to find clear guidance as to what the sub-goals of the movement are, the actual structures and systems and projects that we should be trying to undertake if our town is to achieve transition or resilience. What we desperately need to know is what things should we start trying to set up, what should we avoid, what should come first. Especially important is that we need to be able to see the causal links, to understand why setting up this venture will have the effect of creating greater town resilience. But unfortunately people coming to the movement eager to get started will find almost no guidance in the current literature as to what to actually try to do, let alone anything like a suggested plan of action with steps and do’s and don’ts and clear explanation of why specific projects will have desirable effects.

The advice and suggestions you do find in the literature are almost entirely about how to establish the movement (e.g., “Awareness raising”, “Form subgroups”, “Build a bridge to local government”), as distinct from how your movement can establish things that will actually, obviously make the town more resilient. There is some reference to possibilities, such as set up community supported agriculture schemes, but we are told little more than that we should establish committees to look into what might be done in areas such as energy, food, education and health.

The lack is most evident in The Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, which does little more than repeat the process ideas in the 12 steps documents and contains virtually no information or projects to do with energy technology or strategies. It lists some possibilities, such as exploring insulation and the possibility of local energy generation, and reducing the need for transport, but again there is no advice as to what precisely can or might be set up to achieve these goals. We need much more than this; we need to know how and why a particular project will make the town more resilient, and we need to know what projects we should start with, what the difficulties and costs might be, etc. And we need to know what projects to avoid because they are too difficult yet or not high priorities, etc. Just being told “Create an energy descent plan” (Step 12) doesn’t help much when what we need to know what such a plan might include and what would constitute a good plan or one likely to achieve things.

I worry that the many now rushing into Transition Towns initiatives all around the world will do all sorts of good things, which will not turn out to have made much difference to the crucial issues. At least one group has folded apparently because of confusion over what to do. If people become disenchanted the movement could be set back seriously. More worrying is the possibility that we will blow our only chance. As I see our situation this movement is our only hope for global salvation so it is extremely important that it becomes seen to be achieving important things. If it fizzles we will have immense difficulty getting something like it off the ground again.

I think the explanation here is partly that the authors of these documents and the “leaders” of the movement are very anxious to avoid imposing their views. They seem to see their role as facilitating the movement, spreading information, enabling people to communicate and share, publicising and encouraging the spread of the movement. The style and tone of the documents is admirably polite and quite unlikely to offend anyone’s sensibilities or ideology. This is an attractive feature of the discourse and the publications.

Another part of the explanation is the fact that no one can give confident guidance about what to do at this early stage. But that just means we urgently need intense discussion about what to do. Some people bring experience from previous community development ventures and by now some Transition Towns groups will have accumulated experience re what can be done, what works best, what to avoid, etc. We urgently need some mechanism or forum for feeding these ideas and experiences in, digesting it and making it available to others. This is the stuff a really valuable TT Handbook would focus on.

However I also think that this lack of guidance reflects the view of the world that the movements “leaders” hold. I know some privately believe in the need for radical system change as I have argued here, but they proceed as if it is appropriate and sufficient to facilitate the heavily reformist nature of the movement, which indicates that they subscribe to the assumption that if people just set up a seed bank here and a recycling centre there, somehow it will all result in revolution someday. I have explained why I think this is a serious mistake.

This does not mean I want those most able to influence the movement to impose an ideology. I have been accused of attempting to hijack the movement to my agenda when most of its participants don’t want to go that way. What I am saying needs to be much more effectively facilitated is keen discussion of the issues to do with goals and strategy which I have raised above, and of course I am hoping that people would be come to agree that the views I have argued here are persuasive.

What then should the sub-goals be? What should we do? Establish Economy B!

If the global vision sketched above is valid then we ordinary people in our towns and suburbs eventually have to establish our own local Economy B, take control of it and relegate the market to a very minor role, identify local needs and work out how to meet them, get rid of unemployment, work out how to cut town imports, etc. …and grope towards the practices which enable us to collectively self-govern the town to serve the welfare of all. In other words we have to deliberately come together to create alternatives to consumer-capitalist ways in our town. This requires thinking about goals that are at an utterly different level to just initiating some good green practices within present society. It requires coming together to organise and run our own collective economic and political and infrastructure systems. The town must ask itself what are we going to get together to do to solve our problems; what arrangements and institutions do we need to set up to make sure everyone around here is provided for? This kind of stroppy thinking is rarely encountered in current green or transition movements, which typically politely focus only on innovations within the old/existing economy.

The Transition…attempts to derive a detailed answer to these questions. Following is a summary of the main implications. Again they derive from an analysis of the global situation which concludes that the problems cannot be solved without huge and radical structural change. If you don’t agree on that then you will probably not think we need to go as far as I urge below, and you will probably see reforms within consumer-capitalist society as sufficient.

The supreme goal should be building a new local economy, and running it.

I don’t think the focal concern of the movement should be energy and its coming scarcity. Yes all that sets the scene and the imperative, but the solution is not primarily to do with energy. It is to do with developing town economic self-sufficiency. The supreme need is for us to build a radically new economy within and around our town, and then for us to run it to meet our needs.

It is not oil that sets your greatest insecurity; it is the global economy. lt doesn’t need your town. It will relocate your jobs where profits are greatest. It can flip into recession overnight and dump you and billions of others into unemployment and poverty. It will only deliver to you whatever benefits trickle down from the ventures which maximise corporate profits. It loots the Third World to stock your supermarket shelves. It has condemned many in your town to idleness, in the form of unemployment and wasted time and resources that could be being devoted to meeting urgent needs there. ln the coming time of scarcity it will not look after you. You will only escape that fate if you build a radically new economy in your region, and run it cooperatively to provide for the people who live there.

All this flatly contradicts the conventional economy. We have to build a local economy, not a national or globalised economy, an economy designed to meet needs not to maximise profits, an economy under participatory social control and not driven by corporate profit, and one guided by rational planning as distinct from leaving everything to the market. (As I see it there could still be private, small firms, and a role for market forces, and the last thing we want is everything run by the state.) This is the antithesis of capitalism, markets, profit motivation and corporate control. Nothing could be more revolutionary. If we don’t plunge into building such an economy we will probably not survive in the coming age of scarcity. The Transition Towns movement will come to nothing of great significance if it does not eventually set itself to build such economies. Either your town will get control of its own affairs and organise local productive capacity to provide for you, or it will remain within and dependent on the mainstream economy.

In other words, the goal here is to build Economy B, a new local economy enabling the people who live in the town to guarantee the provision of basic necessities by applying their labour, land and skills to local resources…all under our control. The old economy A can then drop dead and we will still be able to provide for ourselves. This kind of vision and goal is not evident in the TT literature and reports I have read, let alone central. There is no concept of setting out to eventually run the town economy for the benefit of the people via participatory means.

Just consider unemployment briefly. It is outrageous that people can be dumped into the misery of unemployment, because labour is treated as a commodity that can be left idle like bricks when no employer it. Unemployment is only found in barbaric societies. A satisfactory society provides for its members. It is very easily eliminated, if that’s what a society wants to do.

Why on earth hasn’t your town established cooperatives that would enable unemployed people to grow and make many of the things they need? Don’t wait for the Council to do it; just form a group get started. This would be one of the main sub-goals I would try to get my local transition towns movement to do… mainly because it is a crucial early step to creating and controlling our own local economy. (See further below)

The need for coordination, priorities and planning – by a Community Development Co-op.

We must somehow set up mechanisms which enable us to work out and operate an overall/integrated plan. It will not be ideal if we proclaim the importance of resilience and town self-sufficiency and then all run off as individuals to set up a bakery here and a garden there. It is important that there should be continual discussion about what the town needs to set up to achieve its goals, what should be done first, what is feasible, how we might proceed to get the first and the main things done, what are the most important ventures to set up, how our scarce resources should best be deployed (e.g., what are the top priorities for the working bees to do, for our banks to fund…)? Of course individual initiatives are to be encouraged but much more important are likely to be bigger projects requiring whole-town effort. This does not imply a vast and detailed plan, nor indeed a confident one, but it is a plea for an attempt to think out goals, priorities and integration, to be improved over time.

This means that from the early stages we should set up some kind of Community Development Cooperative, a process whereby we can come together often to discuss and think about the town plan and our progress, towards having a coordinated and unified approach that will then help us decide on sub-goals and priorities, and especially on the purposes to which the early working bees will be put. Obviously this would not need to be elaborate or prescriptive and would not mean people would be discouraged from pursuing ventures other than those endorsed by the CDC.

Following is an indication of the kind of projects that I think a CDC would try to take up (although obviously it would take a long time to get far with many of these.)
• Identify the unmet needs of the town, and the unused productive capacities of the town, and bring them together. Set up the many simple cooperatives enabling all the unemployed, homeless, bored, retired, people to get into the community gardens etc. that would enable them to start producing many of the basic things they need. Can we set up co-ops to run a bakery, bike repair shop, home help service, insulating operation, clothes making and repairing operation…. Especially important are the cooperatives to organise leisure resources, the concerts, picnics, dances, festivals? Can we organise a market day?
One of the worst contradictions in the present economy is that it dumps many people into unemployment, boredom, homelessness, “retirement”, mental illness and depression – and in the US, watching 4+ hours of TV every day. These are huge productive capacities left idle and wasted. The CDC can pounce on these resources and harness them and enable dumped people to start producing to meet some of their on needs. To do this is to have begun to set up Economy B. We simply record contributions and these entitle people to proportionate shares of the output. (This is to have initiated our own new currency; see below.)
This mechanism puts us in a position to eventually get rid of unemployment – to make sure all who want work and “incomes” and livelihoods can have them (not necessarily in normal, waged jobs.). It is absurd and annoying that governments, (and the people in your neighbourhood) tolerate people suffering depression and boredom when we could so easily set up the cooperatives that would enable them to produce things they need and enjoy purpose and solidarity.
• Help existing small firms to move to activities the town needs, setting up little firms and farms and markets. Establish a town bank to finance these ventures, making sure no one goes bankrupt and no one is left without a livelihood.
• Organise Business Incubators; the voluntary panels of experts and advisers on gardening, small business, arts etc., so that we can get new ventures up and running well.
• Organise the working bees to plant and maintain the community orchards and other commons, build the premises for the bee keeper…and organise the committees to run the concerts and look after old people…
• Research what the town is importing, and the scope for local firms or new co-ops to start substituting local products.
• Decide what things will emphatically not be left for market forces to determine – such as unemployment, what firms we will have, whether fast food outlets will be patronised if they set up. We will not let market forces deprive anyone of a livelihood; if we have too many bakeries we will work out how to redeploy the resources of one of them. The town gets together to decide what it needs, and to establish these things regardless of what market forces and the profit motive would have done. This does not mean we set out to control everything; we just try to control the crucial things, and there should still be plenty of scope for freedom and private ventures.
• Stress the importance of reducing consumption, living more simply, making, growing, repairing, old things… The less we consume in the town the less we must produce or import. Remember, the world can’t consume at anything like the rate rich countries average. As well as explaining the importance of reducing consumption the CDC must stress alternative satisfactions and develop these (e.g., the concerts, festivals, crafts…) It can also develop recipes for cheap but nutritious meals, teaching craft and gardening skills, preserving etc. The household economy should be upheld as the centre of our lives and the main source of life satisfaction, more important than career.
• Work towards the procedures for making good town decisions about these developments, the referenda, consensus processes, town meetings.
• Throughout all these activities recognise that our primary concern is to raise consciousness regarding the nature, functioning and unacceptability of consumer-capitalist society and the existence of better ways. The main goal is not to establish more gardens; it is to help people in the town to realise that we have to build Economy B if the planet is to be saved.


The Transition Towns movement is characterised by a remarkable level of enthusiasm and energy. This seems to reflect a long pent up disenchantment with consumer-capitalist society and a desire for something better. There is a powerful case that the only way out of the alarming global predicament we are in has to be via a Transition Towns movement of some kind. To our great good fortune one has burst on the scene. But I worry that it could very easily fail to make a significant difference. My argument has been that it will fail if it turns out to have been merely a reformist project, because reforms can’t solve the problems. It is very important that people working for the movement should think carefully about what the global situation is and how it can be solved. I have sketched here a perspective on these questions which indicates the reasons for us attempting to orient the movement to striving for a radically different kind of society, and which implies the kinds of immediate strategies we should proiritise.

Appendix: The introduction of local currencies.
Although the introduction of our own local currency is very important there is much confusion about this and often proposed schemes would not have desirable effects. There is a tendency to proceed as if just creating a local currency would do wonders, without any thinking through of how it is supposed to work. lt will not have desirable effects unless it is carefully designed to do so. I have serious concerns about the currency schemes being adopted by the Transition Towns movement and I do not think the initiatives I am aware of are going to make significant contributions to the achievement of town resilience. It is not evident that they are based on a rationale that makes sense and enables one to see why they will have desirable effects.

It is most important that we are able to see precisely what general effect the form of currency we have opted for is going to have; we must be able to explain why we are implementing it in view of the beneficial effects it designed to have. As I see it, the main purpose in introducing a currency is to contribute to getting the unused productive capacity of the town into action, i.e., stimulating/enabling increase in output to meet needs. (Another purpose is to avoid the interest charges when normal money is borrowed, but this can’t be done unless the new money is to be used to pay for inputs available in the town; it can’t pay for imported cement for instance.)

Following is the strategy that I think is most valuable. Consider again what happens in the above scenario, when our CDC sets up a community garden and invites people to come and work in it. When time contributions are recorded with the intention of sharing produce later in proportion to contributions, these slips of paper function like an IOU or “promissory note” (although that’s not what they are.). They can be used to “buy” garden produce when it becomes available. They are a form of money which enables everyone to keep track of how much work, producing and providing they have done and how great a claim they therefore have on what’s been produced. The extremely important point about the design and use of this currency is that it helps in getting those idle people into producing to meet some of their own needs. Obviously the introduction of the currency was not the most important element in the process; organising the “firm” was the key factor. Also obvious is the way the currency works; you can see what its desirable effects are. So just introducing a currency of some kind does not necessarily have any desirable effect and it is crucial to do it in a way that you know will have definite and valuable effects.

At a later stage we can use our currency to start trading with firms in the old economy. We can find restaurants for instance willing to sell us meals which we can pay for with our money. They will accept payment in our money if they can then spend that money buying vegetables and labour from us in Economy B. But note that the normal shops in the town cannot accept our money and we in Economy B cannot buy from them, unless there is something we can sell to them. They can’t sell things to us, accepting our money, unless they can use that money. Nothing significant can be achieved unless people acquire the capacity to produce and sell things that others want. So the crucial task here for the Community Development co-op is to look for things we in Economy B might sell to the normal firms in the town.

Councils can facilitate this process, for example by accepting our new money in part payment of their rates—but again only if there is something they can spend the money on, that is, goods and services they need that we in Economy B can provide. Therefore the CDC must look for these possibilities.
Sometimes it makes sense for a council to issue a currency to enable use of local resources, especially labour, to build an infrastructure without having to borrow and pay interest to external banks. This can only be done for those inputs that are available locally. If for instance the cement for the swimming pool has to be imported then it will have to be paid for in national currency, but it would be a mistake to borrow normal money to pay the workers if they are available in the town. They can be paid in specially printed new money with which they are able to pay (part of) their rates. Note however that the council then has the problem of what to do with these payments. If it burns them the council has actually paid for the pool via reduced normal money rate income, and will have to reduce services to the town accordingly. Better to keep the money perpetually in use within a new Economy B, so those workers and the council can go on providing things to each other.

Now consider some ways of introducing a new currency that will not have desirable effects.

What would happen if the council or a charity just gave a lot of new money to poor people, and got some shops to agree to accept it as payment for goods they sell? The recipients would soon spend it…and be without jobs and poor again. The shops would hold lots of new money…but not be able to spend it buying anything they need. (They could use it to buy from each other, but would have no need to do this, because they were already able to buy the few things they needed from each other using normal money.) Again if things are not to gum up it must be possible for the shopkeepers in the old economy to use their new money purchasing something from those poor people, and that’s not possible unless they can produce things within a new Economy B.

Sometimes the arrangement is for people to buy new notes using normal money. This is just substituting, and achieves nothing for the town economy. What’s the point of people who would previouisly used dollars now buying using “eco”s they have bought with old dollars? Again there is no effect of bringing unused productive capacity into action.

What about the argument that local currencies encourage local purchasing because they can’t be spent outside the town? This reveals confusion. Anyone who understands the importance of buying local will do so as much as they can, regardless of what currency they have. Anyone who doesn’t will buy what’s cheapest, which is typically an imported item. Obviously what matters here is getting people to understand why it’s important to buy local; just issuing a local currency will make no significant difference.

Similarly, currencies which depreciate with time miss the point and are unnecessary. Anyone who understands the situation does not need to be penalised for holding new money and not spending it. In any case it’s wrong-headed to set out to encourage spending; people should buy as little as they can, and any economy in which you feel an obligation to spend to make work for someone else is not an acceptable economy. In a sensible economy there is only enough work, producing and spending and use of money as is necessary to ensure all have sufficient for a good quality of life.

Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. His main interests have been global problems, sustainability issues, radical critiques of the economy, alternative social forms and the transition to them. He has written numerous books and articles on these topics, including The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed, 1995, Saving the Environment; What It Will Take, Sydney, University of N.S.W Press, 1998, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society, Springer, 2007, and The Transition to a Sustainable and Just Society, Envirobook, 2010. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney, and a website for use by critical global educators,
Social Work, University of NSW, Kensington 2052.

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