Transition Towns, Individualism, Collectivism and Environmental Progression


Elijah Pryor reports on the success of Totnes’ “transition towns” scheme.

The Transition Towns movement, brought into the spotlight by Hopkins and Giangrande in 2005, bears a resemblance to Howard’s notion of ‘garden cities’. The movement argues that a mix of bottom-up/top-down action and localisation of the economy is vital for the prevention of unparalleled intensification of carbon dioxide levels and community destruction. Furthermore, the requirement for individuals to act collectively is important; therefore there are associated benefits for both individuals and the community as a whole. The ‘Transition Network’ aims to build communities that have very little or no reliance on crude oil.

The ‘Transition Network’ aims to build communities that have very little or no reliance on crude oil.

However, Transition Towns isn’t a Socialist concept in its purest of form; it uses localised Capitalism, for all its benefits, to heal what Marx believed was an “Irreparable rift” between society and nature. Moreover, the Transition Towns movement is part of the New-Environmentalism movement, in which solutions to climate change is sought by the encouragement of “…environmental specialists, communities, individuals, business and government to work together to identify measures that address environmental problems” at a local level. In addition, this notion of community engagement by individuals in society is supported by J. S. Mill, who also argued that bottom-up action could inspire a “multiplication of units” of successful grass-root groups, involving small businesses and cooperatives, to influence the overall state of a country. This view is in opposition to the older Environmentalism movement which sees any processes of capitalism as problematic rather than part of a possible solution. It can therefore be safe to assume that the Transition Towns Network is a more socially and environmentally aware form of Localism. It allows for local ‘democratic participation’ and this, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not only leads to a greater degree of social integration within communities but an improvement of an individual’s understanding of how all institutions and organisation is connected. As Mill states: “a democratic constitution… confined to central government, not only is not political freedom, but often creates a spirit of precisely the reverse”.  Overall, the Transition Movement highlights how individual and the collective action are strongly connected, that an individual or a collective must secure the help of the other to promote its intended goal.

Since 2006, Totnes has been one of the most widely known and successful models of the Transition Towns movement. It helps protect Totnes from social, environmental and economic deprivation through its numerous projects; environmentally, the movement has helped reduce the household rates of families and individuals, on average by £570 annually, whilst reducing their annual carbon footprint by 1.3 tonnes. Furthermore, to put it into perspective, the average CO2 expelled per household was 8.5 tonnes per annum in 2010, a change such as that in Totnes, all over the United Kingdom, would be considerably beneficial to both carbon reduction targets and an individuals’ finance. More to the point, Transition Totnes has promoted housing for local people, with little cost to the environment, through using more ecologically viable resources to construct housing and installing heating/sewerage systems that have little detrimental effect on the environment. Furthermore, the greater insulation of the housing in Totnes has promoted the overall health of those citizens residing in eco-houses, including a reduction in the prevalence of respiratory illness such as chronic pulmonary obstructive disease. Additionally, residents enjoy sizeable gardens for food cultivation, but for those who are unable to ‘grow their own’ can still use ‘garden-share’ schemes that are set up to help promote a sense of cooperation towards a goal of local, seasonal and healthy food supply for the town’s residents.

Since 2006, Totnes has been one of the most widely known and successful models of the Transition Towns movement.

Furthermore, research published in 2011 shows that the Transition Totnes movement has bettered the “mental health” of individuals, and improved social aptness. Furthermore, it is claimed that these “Local Food Economies” not only help to heal the wounds of intensive farming (which contributes to 14% of the earth’s CO2 emissions) but also improve our natural capital of biodiversity, soil and water. Transition Totnes also provoked the establishment of new environmental and local preservation action groups; TRESOC (Totnes Renewable Energy Society), although autonomous of the Transition movement, shares the aims of renewable energy provision for Totnes. What’s more, TRESOC are not only responsible for the increased use in solar energy throughout the town, with its unique collaboration with solar panel businesses, but they are also planning the introduction of biomass energy sourcing and wood-fuelled heating systems. Furthermore, a report into renewable sources of energy by Cornwall Council explains that it is both financially and environmentally beneficial, to the surrounding environment, to source energy from biomass. However, research suggests that there is still a failure, in that low income households are unable to participate in changing to renewable energy. What is more, the Transition movement can be criticised for being more aimed towards middle-income households as opposed to low-income ones, who are usually left ignored.

The Transition Towns movement has only existed in Totnes for 7 years (never mind the other transition towns that are even younger). Give it another 7 and the Transition Towns movement could have doubled or tripled their positive results in localities. Although Transition Totnes has not yet done enough to promote an equal involvement of low-income households, the popularity and success of the Transition Towns Network is clearly exemplified through its 500+ town initiatives in the United Kingdom, 300+ global initiatives and its network is set to grow both domestically and globally. The movement has enthused locals across the country and promotes both the well-being of the environment and of the people (as individuals and as a collective). It seeks to heal the relationship between the public and the land, not abuse it. Howard’s dream of ‘garden-cities’ is being played out by Transition Towns, Rousseau’s notion of equality and liberty existing together is gaining support and there has certainly been developments in the self-sustainable model of urban planning with hopefully more to come.

Elijah Pryor is a student at the University of Brighton and President of the University Political Society. He is an admirer of Libertarian/Marxist literature and a supporter of political decentralisation (in the Marxist sense).


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