Politicising Transition: uniting environmental and social justice through popular education

In this two-part blog, I critique the depoliticised, liberal nature of a disproportionately middle-class-led environmentalism epitomised by the Transition Network. I argue that these movements’ unwillingness to name capitalism as the social system to be overcome is both unsurprising and fundamentally problematic. I argue that this is why Naomi Klein’s latest book is so important since it does exactly this.

In the second part, I point out the limits of the Transition Network’s strategy of ‘localism and resilience’ and argue instead for the need to organise politically to challenge and win state power. I set out ways in which such encouraging social movements might develop an explicitly political dimension through the use of popular education practices.

My central argument is that, as inspiring as they are, most of these movements are classically liberal, i.e. blind (consciously or not) to the exploitative and oppressive social relations of power that really define capitalism. Unless these power relations are identified, named, and challenged, any movement, however dynamic and progressive, will unwittingly maintain the overall system.

Part One: Environmentalism + Capital = Social Injustice

I recently read ‘The Power of Just Doing Things’ by Rob Hopkins, a key figure behind the Transition Network in the UK. The Transition Network has spread from Totnes, Devon throughout the UK and far beyond. It’s an excellent book, full of both inspiring examples and invaluable practical guidance for those tired of feeling powerless in a scary world and wanting to contribute to positive, sustainable change.

Hopkins describes how, through the Transition Network, people around the world are coming together to create new ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food and energy. He also describes how the very act of co-creation rebuilds and strengthens community bonds, and restores individual and collective self-belief. In short, the pro-actively democratic and communitarian nature of the groups and the projects he describes are an inspiring antidote to the currently hegemonic system of authoritarian, environmentally destructive, and socially unjust and alienating neo-liberal capitalism. And yet, my summary of the nature of the Transition Network differs dramatically from the depoliticised frames that Hopkins himself uses. Reading his book, one might never conceive of Transition as being remotely political. This, I want to argue, is a fundamental flaw that has profound consequences.

Naturally, Hopkins talks (liberal) economics. He critiques the concept of infinite growth and the deafening ecological silence of the ‘Austerity versus the New Deal’ debate, arguing instead that this crisis is the ‘new normal’. Against this backdrop, he posits the ‘new Big Idea’ – economic organisation has to be ‘local and resilient’. Economic activity that is maximally local is environmentally far more sustainable; produces far more economic benefits for local people; and facilitates community-building. Resilience reflects the idea that such localised economic units, rather than being ‘hyper-connected’ to the globalised marketplace, should co-exist in a relationship of ‘modularity’ – co-operation, but ultimate independence. The rest of the book offers both practical and refreshingly non-prescriptive guidance and countless inspiring examples of the Big Idea in action. So far, so good.

My problem, as I say, is the absence of politics. There is not a single mention of the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’. This may be intentional: Hopkins may want to avoid seemingly divisive politically-charged vocabulary. Personally, I doubt this is unconscious. Clearly, Hopkins and the Transitions Network see a system. They just don’t want to name it. Does this matter? Very much.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, sports an unequivocal title. Though I have not read it yet, I have heard her speak about the book. She argues that since capitalism is the driver of both environmental catastrophe andsocio-economic poverty and inequality, we need to bring the struggle for environmental and social justice together within one integrated frame, behind one united movement that advocates ‘system change not climate change’. I wholeheartedly agree. We all have to recognise capital as the fundamental obstacle between us and environmental and social justice. It is vital to make this explicit because capital is a chameleon, a shapeshifter. It finds infinite ways to make itself amenable to progressive causes. I offer an example from my own neighbourhood.

Low Carbon West Oxford (LWCO) has pioneered Transition-style actions that bring people together to drastically reduce carbon-burning activities and to generate renewable energy. LCWO recently launched an attractive campaign to raise investment funds for more solar-panel installations on local buildings. On the front page of its prospectus are ringing endorsements from prominent localcapitalists including Richard Branson. Investors are offered a very healthy return: 5% per annum from the government-imposed feed-in tariff and a further 3% tax break.

Where does this money come from? I tried for an hour in vain to find research on the government’s feed-in tariff (beyond George Monbiot’s work), but I can’t help concluding, on mainly logical grounds, that it is socially regressive. The energy firms clearly don’t pay it out of profits. They pass it on. This additional cost must hit the poorest hardest because energy costs as a percentage of expenditure are higher the poorer you are. Poorer households also pay more per unit of energy because they don’t have the creditworthiness or income guarantees needed for better, longer-term deals. The feed-in tariff must also be regressive because is is disproportionately those with capital who are able to directly install or invest in installations that generate energy that feeds into the grid.

In this LCWO scheme, investors get a third of generated revenue, but the risk they take on is neglible. The government backs the feed-in tariff and also provides the tax break. This must also have another socio-economically regressive effect because it effectively offers a tax break for people with surplus capital to invest, i.e. richer people, and that tax break must be balanced by cuts in public spending elsewhere. Overall, then, we see a prime example of how the incorporation of capital into environmental projects generates socially unjust outcomes. It is great that a further third of the LWCO scheme’s generated revenue is distributed for projects in low income neighbourhoods, but this looks like a classic case of charity: the capitalist class (often via the state) takes away with one hand and gives a little back with the other. Environmentalism + capital = social injustice.

With its greater access to capital, time, space, skills, resources, and networks, the middle class dominates much of the environmental movement, including, I would suggest, the Transition Network. Like anyone, members of the middle class are keen to have their cake and eat it, i.e. contribute to renewable energy generation while enjoying bumper returns on their savings. Incidentally, another example of this cake-and-eat-it phenomenon is Fair Trade. Persuasive recent research has shown that, on average, Fair Trade workers actuallyreceive lower wages than their ‘unfair trade’ counterparts. In reality, wealthier consumers pay a premium to do little more than appease their conscience. Again, ethics + capital = social injustice.

Clearly, the neo-liberal project has been all about ‘depoliticitisation’, i.e. relentlessly attacking the working-class and putting much of economic policy into ‘independent’ technocratic hands beyond democratic control. I think that a combination of the general depoliticisation of British societyand this middle-class capital-rich environmentalism explains the absence of politics in Hopkins’ book and much of this wider liberal environmentalist movement. It is unsurprising to find far more politically conscious and explicit groups in areas with larger student and working-class populations such as Bristol and Brixton.

I finish by re-emphasising the crucial importance of Naomi Klein’s new book in this light. Please buy a copy for any middle-class environmentalist you know!

Please go on to read Part Two of this blog here…

  3 comments for “Politicising Transition: uniting environmental and social justice through popular education

  1. November 7, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Joel, this reminds me of a booklet that Paul Chatterton and others wrote a few years ago. It may be of interest: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/media/2008/05/398871.pdf There was a response from Transition: http://transitionculture.org/2008/05/15/the-rocky-road-to-a-real-transition-by-paul-chatterton-and-alice-cutler-a-review/

    • November 7, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Thanks Joss for reading and responding. Ah, there you go! No chance of originality, certainly not from me. I’ll check out the links.

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