I’m delighted to be able to publish this article from Luigi in which he introduces his new book Everything Gardens and Other Stories: Growing Transition Culture. This is an important book which aims to explore the phenomenon and the question of what transition is, as it relates to the Transition movement (of which Transition Consciousness forms a part, alongside Transition Culture, Transition Network and of course the many transition towns across the globe.
How to describe the moving of Transition?
Towards the end of 2013, I spent four months in Totnes, seeking to know more about Transition. Like many academics who have studied the Transition movement, I, too, came to Devon having already devoted many months to reading about it, working my way up from Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook. When I came to Totnes, therefore, I thought I had a few certainties about Transition: that it had something to do with peak oil (which provided the goal), and that it equally had something in common with permaculture (which provided the means). Now, pause for a moment.
If you have ever taken part in Transition, you might grin at the simplicity – indeed the bareness – of such a description. If words came to you, you might have been thinking: ‘but there’s so much more to it!’. In fact, as I started becoming a Transitioner myself, this reaction is what began to catch my attention, much more than any abstract schema of Transition’s supposed goals and means.
The book that came out of that experience – Everything Gardens and Other Stories: Growing Transition Culture – is my extended attempt to connect with that feeling and make it speak. And, in the process, to pick at the foundations of the mode of thinking that might have struck you as reductive, unable to really grip the textured feel of the lived experience of Transition.
Implicit in the partition between ends and means, through which I first approached Transition, is a very widespread interpretive schema that academics studying ‘social movements’ tend to resort to. When we introduce a movement, we tend to think of it as some kind of campaign: we want to know what they want, and how they’re going to achieve it. Which, in fact, might all seem well and good from the outside.
Yet, to a participant, the life of a collective will often appear much less linear than this simple description can embrace. In fact, the life of a movement is often missed when the focus is purely on its instrumental deployment to reach normatively-fixed goals. My argument, instead, is that what makes studying the social interesting is figuring out how – prior to any question of instrumentality – collective social bodies negotiate an orientation. In other words, I became interested in how Transition actually figures out how to ‘go on’ together.
If we dwell on the question, it begins to appear as something that is not so obvious. Transition has, of course, started off as a collective attempt to address peak oil. However, akin to a Russian doll, new difficulties keep emerging from inside the ones we think we have cracked open. If we had actually engaged with the sort of projects that initially found a home within Transition (from communal gardens, to CSA schemes, to community currencies and community energy companies), other challenges would have begun to surface.
As an example, I want to mention these few: activist burnout, frustration, cynicism and, more generally, the necessity of devising means to achieve our collective goals that do not alienate us in the process of working towards them. These new problems would have lied on top of us, like a deadweight, demanding concerted attempts to acknowledge and address them. This is how, I suggest, Transition might have branched beyond the solution-focused approach of permaculture, and started developing also into a culture of Inner Transition.
At the same time, as Transition would have grown a more complex architecture of cultural resources, beyond permaculture, another urgent task would have become apparent. That is, to keep it navigable across its many folds, disclosing their reciprocal continuity, despite their obvious differences. This is why, to continue with the example of Inner Transition, there was (especially in the early days) a certain sense of unease and tentativeness about it. Precisely because people engaged in other sorts of Transition practices might not (yet) have known what to make of it.
Because of this, Inner Transition has not stayed the same throughout the years, but it has changed, expanding from the ‘sharing group’ format to wider process offerings to Transition as a whole. For instance, it has found a new life as ‘effective meeting techniques’ that become accessible and understandable to others involved elsewhere within Transition. This same process of internal differentiation, of course, occurs not only in relation to Inner Transition but, more generally, in relation to Transition at large, and – in the book – I offer many more examples.
Through this discussion, however, I wanted to advance one very basic point. That we, as individual human beings, know intuitively that growing is not merely a linear process. Life often unfolds through transformations, that see us different at the other end, yet developmentally continuous with who we were before. Additionally, our periodical transformations are often elicited by the need to develop an appropriate range of responses to navigate a broader set of situations.
Intuitively, we are aware of all this. Yet, when it comes to the products of our collective endeavours, we seem to revert to an instrumental logic that we would mostly find insulting if applied to us as individual human beings (unless, perhaps, we were classically trained economists). Take the homo oeconomicus: an abstract notion of human being defined purely in instrumental terms, with a set of goals and optimising strategies to achieve them. In this case, we might readily resonate with the sense that what is absent from a picture of this sort is what makes life exciting in the first place, and where a lot of our humanity is actually found.
And, yet, it still seems possible to talk about our common sociality as if we were talking about homo oeconomicus, and look at collectives as mechanical, single-track assemblages encapsulated by an indication of means and ends. What is lost, in this picture, are the negotiations through which – collectively – we go through moments of disquiet and deliberation, and that prompt us to undertake speculative interventions in response to our common anxieties, so as to find out through them what else might need doing.
The life of a movement, just like the experience of our individual lives, is full of surprises, unexpected encounters, and choices made tentatively without a blueprint to guide us, but growing so-to-say our wings on the way. This, I think, is why the puzzlement I describe in the beginning arises, whenever Transition is given a standing primarily in instrumental terms. And this is also why, in Everything Gardens, I have tried to offer an account of Transition that dwells instead with the dilemmas through which it grows and specifies itself over time and across new situations, in ways that are never fully knowable in advance. And which challenge at its root the ossified instrumentalism that we might intuitively regard as inadequate to embrace the emergent complexity of Transition.
To find out more please see Luigi’s video introducing Everything Gardens and Other Stories: