Subtitle: Imagination taking power

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When Transition means Transition, and when it doesn’t

This piece represents a return to my roots, to the origins of the word that has defined my life and work for the last 15 years, ‘Transition’. It’s a word I have, understandably, a considerable affection for. It’s the word, I very much hope, that first comes to mind when you think of me. But recently I have seen some egregious examples of it being roundly abused, and I want to use this piece to put it back on the table, to reassert why it matters that it means something and doesn’t go the same way as, say, ‘sustainable development’.

The first was an event I went to last year in Nice in the south of France, called the ‘Transition Forum’ organised by the right wing Mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi. I had been warned in advance by local activists that I shouldn’t go because it was a greenwash event organised by a Mayor focused on expanding the airport, building homes on farm land and other indicators that perhaps his commitment to deep Transition wasn’t quite what it could have been.

It was a fascinating event to attend, and I’m glad I went. I’ve never been at an event with ‘Transition’ in its title with so many men in grey suits, and with such a dubious list of sponsors, including the aforementioned Nice Airport. When it came to my session, I set about reclaiming the ‘T’ word, and why it matters. I always take the mindset with events like this that they probably won’t be asking me back again, so I really have nothing to lose.

I talked about how the word Transition was very precious to me, and that it means that we need, in everything we do, to act as if this is a climate and ecological emergency. “We have to stop locking ourselves into commitments to use fossil fuels forever into the future”, I said. “It’s no longer appropriate to build houses that aren’t built to the highest levels of energy efficiency because you lock in those emissions for the next 60 or 70 years. It’s no longer appropriate to invest in fossil fuels, to expand airports, to lock ourselves into ways of doing things that just don’t act as if it’s an emergency”.

I talked about Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her 5 stages of grief, and how ‘Transition’ means that, unlike many businesses and governments who are stuck at the ‘bargaining stage’, thinking we can negotiate with physics, (“just one more runway, please….”) Transition means the clear, ambitious actions that come from a place of acceptance, a sober assessment of where we’re at, and a passionate and imaginative response to that.

I invited them to feel excited about the possibility of acting much much faster, to embrace that. “If the solutions that are put forward in this forum aren’t really radical”, I added, “they need a rethink”. From what I was told by people who attended more of the event than I did, radical solutions were notably by their absence. Unless we can cultivate that thrilling sense of excitement about moving forward towards something irresistible, delicious and amazing, we’ll never do this. Sadly the Mayor wasn’t there to hear me, he left just before I spoke.

The second thing to spark this post was hearing that the UK government have named the body they have set up to oversee the extraction of, as Minister Jacob Rees Mogg puts it, “get every cubic inch of gas out of the North Sea”, the North Sea Transition Authority. Their use of the word Transition here should really render them open to being sued under the Trades Descriptions Act. Moving from extracting a lot of fossil fuels to still extracting quite a lot of fossil fuels doesn’t represent a ‘Transition’, by definition it represents quite the opposite. define Transition as “movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, concept, etc., to another; change”. George Monbiot beautifully dismisses those who suggest that burning fossil fuels can be part of a transition by saying that it’s transition “in the sense that chocolate fudge cake is a transition to a low calorie diet”.

I asked the Internet what it would define as being the opposite of ‘transition’. Words it proposed include “stagnation”, “idleness”, “remission”, “standstill”. All far more appropriate words, in my opinion, to describe a policy framed around turning back to the North Sea for hydrocarbons whilst facing a vast and existential climate and ecological crisis.

The North Sea Transition Authority (even writing it makes me gag slightly) write that their role is to “regulate the exploration and development of the UK’s offshore and onshore oil and gas resources and offshore carbon storage, offshore gas storage and offshore gas unloading activities”. Yup, stick “carbon storage” in there, and that should distract people from the rest of that sentence.

Given that carbon sequestration and storage is expensive and doesn’t yet come close to working on anything like that scale, any pretence that this is part of moving us towards Net Zero (already a massively unambitious target) is like gorging yourself on everything in the fridge with a promise to wash up later while having no intention at all of actually washing up later.  Not a transition at all.

They add “we help drive North Sea energy transition, realising the significant potential of the UK Continental Shelf as a critical energy and carbon abatement resource. We hold industry to account on halving upstream emissions by 2030”. Just to be clear, that term “upstream emissions” refers to emissions from production and processing operations, making oil rigs more energy efficient, that kind of thing.

It’s like when airports claim carbon neutrality because they have electric buses and pot plants in the lobby, while not mentioning all the, er, aeroplanes taking off 24/7. Any “upstream emissions” reductions are far outstripped by the fact that, let’s not forget, they are extracting large amounts of oil and gas to burn. It’s like Sweeney Todd bigging up the organic breadcrumbs he uses in his sausages.

Of course, we don’t own the word Transition. We never copyrighted it, and nor should we, it’s used for many different things. In France the term tends to be used more generally to describe the ‘ecological Transition’ towards a sustainable future, with less of the more radical aspects set out by the Transition movement. There is a French ‘Minister of Ecological Transition’ operating within a government who seems terrified of doing anything meaningful to actually address the climate emergency.

So, to wrap up, what should we mean by ‘Transition’? For me, we should be referring about how we urgently get from where we are now to where we need to get to, to what the climate scientists tell us we need to do, not ‘net zero by 2050’, but truly zero carbon, carbon positive even, by 2030. Transition is about how we design how we could do that, what that journey would be like, how we would dream that world into being and how we would organise together to make it a reality.

Writing in ‘The Transition Companion’ in 2011, I said “the starting point for Transition is that the future with less oil, and producing less carbon emissions, could be preferable to today. Its aim is to act as a catalyst, a pulse, an invitation; to galvanise the shift towards a more localised and resilient community”. It expresses itself in many different ways, as an inner process, as people leading by example, as an approach rooted in place and circumstance, as a cultural shift, as an economic process, a storyteller, a tool for turning problems into solutions. That’s what Transition is. And the moral of this story is to never let anyone tell you otherwise.



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