Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Reflections on the Narrative of Transition

Last weekend Transition Network held an online event called the Day of Transition Practice. As part of it, I was asked to give a short talk about the narrative of Transition, and how it’s changed over time. So here is an edited version of the video I made of that talk (I was travelling and couldn’t do it live) and also the full written version (some of the best bits were taken out so it fit with the timings of the Day). Enjoy.

I’m Rob, I’m one of the founders of this thing called Transition, and it’s a joy to see it celebrated so fulsomely as it is today. I’ve been asked to speak a bit about narratives and the narrative of Transition. It’s a subject that’s very close to my heart.

I’ve been given a few questions to shape what I’m going to say, the first one of which is what did Transition mean at the start, what was its narrative back then? That takes us back to 2006 in Totnes in deepest darkest Devon when a group of us kicked off something that we called Transition Town. At that point, the narrative was about climate change and peak oil, the idea that we were close to the peak in the world’s oil production. We imagined Transition as, as Richard Heinberg put it, “more like a party than a protest march”. It was a search for solutions at the local scale, a process rooted in place. Transition would look the same, and yet very different everywhere it emerged. And it very rapidly began to emerge in many different places.

We imagined it as a self-organising process which was free to join, there was no annual membership fee or anything, the idea was just that you would share your stories back into this network. It became an international network of narrative. I loved that. For years my role was to watch that network, to scan it for interesting stories and to share them, in blogs, films, books. It was so thrilling to see the dazzling diversity of the stories that emerged, from community farms to local currency projects, from community energy initiatives to new community wellbeing initiatives.

The narrative the world was seeing was, as one person called it, ‘hope with its sleeves rolled up’. It grew quickly into a void as no-one else was really doing that at the time. As one of the movement’s main storytellers, I was always looking for different elements in that narrative: who were the people? Why did they start it? Who did they meet? What were the unexpected serendipities that made it happen? What were the standout quotes that made it a story other people would share, that would, even before we used the term, ‘go viral’.

I remember speaking to a guy in Liege in Belgium who had just raised €2.5m to start a cooperative vineyard. I asked him how did he do that? I mean, what made him think that such a thing would actually happen? He looked at me puzzled, shrugged his shoulders, and said “it’s Belgium, people like wine, people have some money, don’t be afraid”. It’s those details I would always be looking out for. The bits that made the story relatable, the bits that, most importantly, meant people could think “I could do that”.

I often talk about a drawing from a punk magazine in 1977, which showed how to play 3 chords on the guitar and then said “here are 3 chords, now form a band”. I looked for stories with a similar narrative. I also came to realise that I didn’t need the 20 minutes of slides at the start of my talks about how terrible everything is. When I showed those people leaned away from me, when I started telling stories of people doing something about it, they leant towards me. We are a storytelling creature and we should never forget that… let’s create a movement that people lean towards…

The narrative of Transition has changed over the years. Luigi Russi in his book ‘Everything Gardens’, a study of Transition in Totnes, wrote that academics like to think of Transition as a movement, as a fixed thing that can be studied under a microscope. But the most interesting thing about it, he said, is the Transition ‘moving’, the way it changes, adapts, absorbs new influences and ideas. That’s a key part of the narrative too. Every few years we threw it up in the air to re-explain what it is and what it looks like. I love that refusal to believe that any of this is carved in stone, it’s a living, breathing experiment that learns from itself.

In terms of how it has evolved since, I think the narrative now speaks far more clearly about social justice, diversity and inclusion, something we didn’t speak of enough at the start. Part of the narrative has always been that how we do things matters as much as what we do. The narrative of Transition Network as an organisation that fundamentally reorganised itself along the principles of holacracy is a powerful one.

Another part of the narrative became a focus on social enterprise, on turning the Transition enterprise into community businesses that own land and buildings and businesses for the community benefit. A recognition that this needs to provide livelihoods and employment for many people. As someone who visits a lot of places and speaks at a lot of events, I have come to see how vitally important that Transition narrative is. For people to be able to point to the potential of bottom up activism and to tell stories about it, brings something vitally important to discussions that can otherwise get lost in conversations about policy and finance. The stories we tell are vitally needed.

In terms of what Transition means in 2024, well, I have my own particular take on this, as anyone who follows my work will know. I feel like as well as what I have already mentioned, one of the great strengths of Transition is that it is a movement rooted in the imagination, and in the cultivation of longing. It encourages people to vision the future they long for and to then make it happen. As the great prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba puts it, “we must imagine while we build, always both”.

Often people doing work around the radical imagination and positive futurism are criticised for somehow being outside of reality, for dreaming rather than doing. For me, there are so many stories from across the Transition movement that show that that is simply not true. Indeed that it is the dreaming, the futures work, if done well, that creates the magnetic force in front of us, the whirlpool that drags us towards it. The new North Star.

The book I am currently writing is about time. What does it look like when, as activists, we take an approach to time that is more ‘temporally fluid’, where we feel more comfortable bringing the past and the future into the work we do, work that can be helping people to step out of the present and into the future, helping people connect to the past, creating pop up tomorrows in the present so people can experience what the future could be. In that sense, and based on what I’m writing about, I wonder if we might suggest that the narrative of Transition now includes a belief that its core purpose is the nurturing and cultivation of longing?

For me, that’s when storytelling comes into its own. How can we use what we have already created to support us in telling a story that helps people to really step into and imagine the future? Political theorist Mary Brown recently wrote “only a compelling vision of a less frightening and insecure future will recruit anyone to a progressive or revolutionary alternative future—or rouse apolitical citizens for the project of making that future. This vision must be seductive and exciting, and it must be embodied in seductive and exciting leadership and movements, hopefully oriented by an ethic of responsibility”.

I love this idea of Transition becoming more seductive. The stories we, as a movement, can tell of what people can do when they come together are so seductive. In the context of the book I’m writing now, I wonder if we might also see Transition groups as time travel researchers in their communities? They are working hard to develop the time portals that allow people to step out of 2024 as it is currently, and into how 2030 could be if we did everything we could possibly have done. It’s powerful and important work. I often say Totnes is the Cape Canaveral of time travel, and your place can be too.

I take so much inspiration for this work from women activists of colour, people like Black Quantum Futurism and artists like Camille Turner, who proudly describe themselves as time travellers, and who bring a playfulness to time that I find so inspiring. So perhaps the narrative of Transition over these 18 years (yes it really has been that long…!) has moved from being about creating catalysts for local resilience to being Time Travel Agencies, who through the work they do, and how they tell stories about what they’ve already done and the potential futures it makes more credible, more within touching distance.

In his film ‘Space is the Place’, the great jazz musician and ‘everyday utopian’ Sun Ra ran something called the Outer Space Employment Agency. Perhaps the future narrative of Transition is more playful, better connected to local artists, still rooted in enabling, and supporting, the creation of new local economies and infrastructures, but better realising that what we are building is a kind of scaffolding for the dreams and hopes of the people where we live, that we are creating the opportunities for people to rehearse new ways of doing things, all the while telling the stories of where all of this could take us, in a way that is both irresistible and delicious. That would be a fine bit of Transition narrative telling.

I also wonder if, in the way that back in 2006 we framed Transition as being a response to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change, we might actually reframe it in 2024 as being a response to the twin challenges of climate change and the rise of fascism, not something any of us anticipated back in 2006. Fascism thrives on pointing to the future, filling it with terrifying visions, and then offering to protect you from that future. It feeds off hopelessness. It is the very opposite of optimism.

When I gave a talk in France last year in Pontivy, one of the audience reflected that the previous year he had heard a talk, in the same space, by a woman who, at 95 years old, was one of the last surviving members of the French Resistance. She was asked if there was anything that all the people she knew in the French Resistance had in common. He answer was that “they were all optimists”. When we need optimists we really need them, and we really need them now.

The failure by progressive politicians to fill the future with positive and hopeful visions of the future has, in part, contributed to the rise of the far right that we’re seeing around the world. Helping people to time travel to better futures, and to name them and celebrate them in the present is vital work for these times.

I think that must be my 8 minutes done, so I will take my leave of you. I hope today is amazing, inspirational, and a lot of fun. I’m just going to fire up my Time Machine here, lovingly created by our time travel research here, and pop off on one of my regular time travel adventures to 2030. As a regular visitor, I have to say you’re going to love it. It’s amazing. See you!



Start the discussion

© Rob Hopkins 2017-2024