Transition towns: Sustainment or Sustaining the Unsustainable?

Jan 2012 Transition towns: Sustainment or Sustaining the Unsustainable?

The concept of Transition Towns emerged in 2005, developed by Rob Hopkins alongside a group of students; the concept has been adapted in the years since. There are numerous Transition ‘Towns’ (many of them are communities of varying sizes, not always towns) particularly in the UK but also worldwide. The theory behind the Transition movement is that it is necessary to plan for and be able to weather the impacts that the “energy shocks” [1] which peak oil is expected to cause. The Transition movement believes that this needs to be done collectively, creatively and immediately. While the Transition movement is often seen as positive action in the face of the challenges of peak oil it is rarely investigated or critiqued to a level that a project of its kind needs. With transition town numbers growing worldwide the question must be asked; can and do transition towns sustain or does the movement sustain the unsustainable? This very brief paper attempts to begin considering the answer.

A major issue with the Transition movement is the idea that, while still an issue, climate change should fall into line behind peak oil as reason to take action. This is justified by a belief that peak oil can engage people more effectively than climate change. As a redirective practitioner being confronted with the statement “people perceive themselves as being inherently more affected by rises in the price of key commodity [sic] such as liquid fuels than by changes to the climate.”[2] leads me not to conclude that I should focus on the issue that the public is more able to accept. Instead it invites a challenge, how is it possible to redesign people’s attitudes towards an issue that is going to have increasing and continuing impact on humanity for many years to come? This leads to another criticism of the Transition movement, that there is no desire to change the ontology of people or stimulate new readings of the world, for example through design, in order to assist them in ‘transitioning’. Instead their transition is expected to happen through the six very lose principles of visioning, inclusion, awareness-raising, resilience, psychological insight and credible and appropriate solutions. This all fits the image that the Transition movement is an apolitical[3] movement, a position that seems incredibly naive in the face of the challenges that climate change and peak oil present. As Paulo Freire writes,

“An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.” [4]

Without recognising that politics is vital in order to transform reality the Transition movement deprives its words of action and its actions of thought, preventing praxis. By not defining a political stance and through developing a movement that forms around what “many different people have in common”[5] the Transition movement not only fails to recognise the limits of democracy it also falls into pluralism. While plurality is a structural necessity of human existence pluralism is immobilising, it “paralyses any ability to say and do anything beyond the pragmatic.”[6] Leading to serious questions on how effective the Transition movement can be at preparing for the impacts of climate change and peak oil.

It is however important to recognise that there are communities in existence who do not conform to the Transition model and have instead established their own. Todmorden, in the Pennines, has over the past few years established a community growing program called Incredible Edible Todmorden.  Through taking action, initially illegally through planting crops in public spaces such as in roadside verges, which led to conflict and then to open conversation IET has established a way of addressing the impacts of climate change on a level that includes the whole town. The local schools are all involved in growing and this forms a component within their curriculums. The newly built Health Centre is surrounded by fruit trees and the local social housing and old people’s homes are all involved suggesting that IET is successfully reaching out to all of society, not only the middle classes. Pi Studio, a redirective design agency working with IET, believes that this has been a great start in getting locals to understand the necessity of community and the importance of taking direct action in the face of unstable futures. Of course this is only a starting point but Todmorden appears to be successfully changing the local ontology and it will be interesting to see how new actions such as their Lost Arts training centres progress. The difference it seems between IET and the Transition movement is that IET seems much more aware of the importance of being political and the acceptance that this may sometimes lead to conflict. Their focus on education, not just of the young but of their entire community, has been important not only in the success of IET but also in terms of enabling a community to understand the impacts of climate change. Of course IET continues to develop and expand, aquaponics and every egg matters are two more recent introductions, and it will be interesting to continue a critique of their progress.

Finally, while taking action to reduce the impacts of climate change and to enable communities to understand what these impacts might be is important, it is just as necessary for those behind these actions to question the validity of them. Are the actions enabling real change that provides pathways towards a future or are they merely sustaining the unsustainable?

[1]Transition Handbook’, Chapter 10: The Transition Concept, free edition, accessed November 2011

[2]Transition Handbook’, Chapter 1: Peak Oil and Climate Change – The two great oversights of our times, free edition, accessed November 2011

[3] Chatterton, P and Cutler, A (2008) ‘The Rocky Road to Transition: The Transition Towns movement and what it means for social change’ pp.4 (accessed 23rd January 2012)

[4] Freire, Paulo ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’

[5] Chatterton, P and Cutler, A (2008) ‘The Rocky Road to Transition: The Transition Towns movement and what it means for social change’ pp.4 (accessed 23rd January 2012)

[6] Fry, T (2011) Design as Politics pp.151


  1. I agree with this critique which centralises political consciousness. The really critical leap is to recognise the political nature of establishing sustainability values, relationships and institutions.

    My research on money has led me to believe that we will have to dispense with monetary values, relationships and institutions to establish sustainability ( This position leaves us free to pursue local collective sustainability and direct democracy based on use value assessments of what we produce, how and for whom.

  2. Ayran /

    to paraphrase Immanuel Kant:

    Consciousness without action is rather useless
    Action without consciousness is often detrimental

  3. I also like the theme. I have personally practiced sustain-ability and reduced my footprint by 80%. I’m now ready to work with others to form an organization that helps individuals improve the quality of their lives — and reduce their footprints.

    I’ve been inspired by the writing of Tony Fry and hope to get him involved. From an organizational standpoint, I am a fan of something being labeled the teal-evolutionary organization. See for more.

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