Saturday, 14 November 2009

Transition Troubleshooting

The Troubles We Have to Shoot

There comes a point when you realise - Transition is hard work. The Handbook makes it sound like a breeze. Doors are supposed to be open when they are shut. You’re supposed to be positive and you feel downhearted. People are telling you the movement is too radical, not radical enough, not inclusive, too middle class. Your inbox has 101 emails. The press don’t return your calls. You NEVER want to put on an event again. Nobody turned up to the screening. Your family doesn’t want to hear one more thing about Local Food or Peak Oil (even your cat has turned against you – so what happened to all those nice radiators that used to be on, huh?)

Somehow however you know that you can’t just give Transition up. Peak oil and climate change are not going to go away, whether you are part of the movement or not, and nothing out there quite captures the zeitgeist and makes such sense as Transition culture. Tell me, you say to yourself, What are you planning to do with your one wild and precious life? Before you know it you are heading off to another core/communications/transport/food meeting.

This document came out of one such meeting and one such moment when the Transition East Support Group met in Norwich just as autumn arrived, and I was beginning to think resilience was a modern version of the stiff upper lip. It started when Josiah admitted as we began our shared meal that his dish of perfectly gleaned beefsteak fungus was in fact quite inedible and we didn’t have to be polite about it. We all roared with laughter. Afterwards we sat in a circle and went round introducing ourselves as is customary in our meetings, saying how Transition was going in our respective initiatives. Nigel from Woodbridge spoke first.

“I would say it had a negative effect,” he reported calmly.

Several small gasps were unleashed into the room. Negative? We’re supposed to be positive, aren’t we? Part of this uplifting, fantastic, power-of-now, power-of-community Great Reskilling of Humanity, aren’t we? Before we knew it everyone was admitting that things weren’t going quite as smoothly as the Handbook suggested they might be. None of us wanted to indulge or offload the bad news (most of us having joined Transition as a welcome relief from the doom-laden anti-everything activist stance taken by most environmental groups). However we didn’t want to do a jolly Transition marketing spin on our experiences either.

One of the key facts about Transition is that we have to face the very real realities of the triple crunch and the radical changes these will effect on our lives. Not just in the way we go shopping but in the way we think and feel and perceive the world. Another fact is that we can’t do this on our own. We can’t go forward unless we learn how to work and communicate as a group. And those groups are tricky things to negotiate. By its very nature Transition is a process (“A verb not a noun,” said Nigel) , and even though we would like it to be plain sailing, sometimes you have to weather the storm and go through stuff.

Shortly after our meeting Josiah sent round Rob Hopkins’ post on Transition Culture from September 22. It was from the initiative in Oxford that had stalled. All of us recognised the situations that were recorded so frankly. It seemed like we had simultaneously reached a turning point. We had come so far and now we had to start inventing ways of dealing with our common difficulties. Transition Troubleshooting was born.

Transition Troubleshooting aims to take the form of a freestyle workshop that can address any issues people would like to look at: Head issues, Heart issues and Hands issues (practical things like funding, publicity, how to run events, running a community allotment, a community blog etc). It’s a chance to share our experiences and give each other a hand and voice things out loud that might not get said otherwise. In preparing for the Gathering many initiatives shared their difficulties that ranged from unhelpful and antagonistic Town and Parish Councils to lack of success with publicity and events.
Some of these were practical questions which we could help each other with:

· how to find funding, what are its advantages and disadvantages
· who to ask about public liability insurance, entertainment licences etc.
· what kind of official status (charity, public company) works best for Transition?
· What is the most effective way we can publicise through the media?
· What is the best way to deal with officialdom?

Other difficulties are the kinds of things that are easy to admit to oneself but hard to articulate with people you don’t know that well. Transition challenges the status quo and old ways of doing things. We have to work co-operatively and we’re used to running things our way as individuals. Control and power issues often arise within groups. It might be rosy at the beginning but then the storm hits the rigging. Sometimes people use Transition as a way to further outside agendas or to tick boxes. This can create unrest (not of the blessed kind) and sometimes tips the boat rather than the point.

Of all the difficulties spoken by far the greatest number were those that occurred within the core and theme groups: people losing interest, walking off in a huff, groups dissolving, initiatives stalling. (“You are not on your own” was a line I found myself repeating several times in the course of speaking to everyone involved).

What helps is that we create real working relationships with one another and that our meetings are warm and friendly. It’s not easy to know how to speak to people you don’t live or work or have lifetime experiences in common with. Meeting in people’s houses and sharing food often encourages this, rather than draughty church halls or noisy public places. It is an art to create the kind of flexible communication that is neither too stiff and committee-like - which inhibits free speech and creativity, nor too relaxed and social - which results in nothing being discussed in a structured way or at any depth.

Here are some of the difficulties mentioned during the in-depth phone conversations I had with the people in Transition East initiatives and that we might be able to look at and address on November 14:-

Individual Effects of Transition

- overwork (40 hours regular work, plus Transition work) – balancing two worlds at once, whilst bringing another world into being
- Feeling on one’s own as core organiser
- Pressures for time and work (especially when everyone in the core group is in full-time work and with children)
- Exhaustion
- Feeling you haven’t achieved anything

- Overload of negative feelings to deal with after meetings
- Cognitive dissonance

- So easy to get dispirited and say sod it

- Zero energy return on energy invested

- Struggling with time and money

Working in Groups

- too few active members, too little willingness in planning stage, people limited to helping or attending events (once organized) and making comments
- Restricted to a small group of doers within initiative
- working with enthusiastic volunteers without necessary expertise, leading to bull-in-china shop situations
- trying to get people involved and engaged at any level, having to persuade to do
- Lack of steering group
- Lack of people to commit to anything
- Lack of warmth in human relationships in meetings; lack of fellow feeling
- Shooting off with mega-projects to rule the world and not having enough volunteers
- Fall out within groups - people participating and drifting away, booms and busts of energy
- Slowness and reluctance of group to engage in projects and events, leading to frustration
- Steering group in-fighting, not dealing with the conflict
- Storming within some groups, leading to fall out (especially within Heart and Soul)
- Not enough awareness within core group about what we are doing and need to do, that Transition is a process, something we are doing, not just a label we can stick on ourselves (i.e. Transition Town)
- Resistance to visioning and other Transition techniques to do with inner work
- Lack of realisation of the profound changes we are going to experience
- Danger of dwindling (numbers in group), theme groups dwindling
- Unsure how to proceed with new people once the groups are up and running (not same energy as when at their initiating creative stage)
- Different levels of understanding about the process of Transition within the core group, some of whom are sceptical and concerned that Transition is too radical and will put people off.
- Not seeing how to evolve, not having the energy to evolve
- Not enjoying meetings at all
- Talking too much and no action
- Too much fixed and conventional thinking in group, affiliations with outside institutions (church, university, councils etc) leading to people pushing their own agendas, often unconsciously
- Tendency to rush analysis which could derail the whole thing


- Towns without any grassroots infrastructure


- Difficulty with events without proper booking system or team (one person running around all the time) and being dependent on people turning up
- No way of properly measuring and valuing the activities (beyond our own sense of personal integrity and purpose)
- Not sufficient people working for events, key people working too hard
- Exhaustion, too many events at once

Working with local government

- Old School Town Council – negative, badly-disposed towards anything environmental. Fall out suffered in group after clashes with council, leading to loss of confidence and depression.
- Parish Councils too parochial (!), lacking in leadership, not structured for social enterprise, antagonistic regarding publicity
- Struggle to find suitable official status e.g. charity. company etc.

Working with Public

- Conflict of interest when working with local business and Transition (wanting to encourage business outside of town)
- Initial interest not maintained after event (example of planting a community woodland with 150 people turning up, but only 6 people afterwards continued to manage the wood)
- Apathy within village
- Low response from public in spite of publicity, leading to loss of enthusiasm and common Transition feeling of zero return on energy invested
- Lack of engaged relationship with public
- Climate change deniers and the Daily Telegraph (!)
- Not good at catching people’s energy at events and capitalising on them
- Not seeming to make any impression
- Getting people involved

Publicity and Communications

- Lack of press attention beyond notices and reports of events. “They don’t tell the story.”
- Organisation of publicity
- Information overload and too many emails, leading to difficulties in group
- Lack of awareness in googlegroup discussions, leading to negative feedback and misunderstandings

About us
The Transition East Support Group are a small group of Transitioners from East Anglia (mostly Suffolk and Norfolk). We’re not a closed group and welcome anyone from the region who would like to take part. Obviously for geographical (and peak oil) reasons we are limited by the distances we can travel to meet each other. It is for that reason, following a recent googlegroup discussion about exactly what East means in terms of territory, that Matt Walker of Transition Dereham has suggested we organise ourselves into four regional sub-groups (see under Dereham).

Our main function so far is to report on our own initiatives’ activities in the interest of regional coherence, communication and networking. We have also worked to assist Transition Diss in the running of this second TE gathering. We meet in each other’s houses and also work closely with the Transition East website.

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