Transition Money

Transition Money

Last month I was one of forty or so attendees of the Transition 'Peak Money' day. It was a fascinating collection of people, from theorists to activists, and a potent opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing us all as the glaring errors at the heart of mainstream economics take their toll. This post is far more personal reflection than report, as Rob Hopkins has already done a great job on that front. The key theme that seemed to run throughout the day, then, was 'collapse'. Sadly, I was an hour late to the event, but the first sessions I witnessed were reports from Transitioners in Portugal, Ireland and Greece on the 'front line' impacts of the economic crunch. The talk was of collapse having already happened for many families and communities there, with statistics quoted including an 89% increase in Greek unemployment in three years, and Irish suicides having doubled since 2007. They pulled no punches. Most of us were left grey and shaken as the harsh realities of the crisis were relayed. For me, a defining memory of the day was watching the alternative economists listening to this - people who have spent decades warning of these outcomes and trying to head them off - their heads shaking sadly with lips pursed, hands involuntarily coming to their faces in dismay as their Cassandra curse unfolds. Of course, the statistics were not new to them, but hearing these stories in person somehow always brings a heavier human impact. Watching that impact reflected in their expressions felt almost inappropriate, yet doubly powerful.
Transition Money
After a break, the next session was about some of the Transition projects working to address these issues, from local currencies to the new REconomy project. The disconnect was palpable. Could we really feel that the Transition movement's responses were adequate in the face of the suffering being inflicted by the crisis? Would speaking of local currencies feel sufficient in comforting the family of the pensioner who shot himself in front of the Greek Parliament last month after his pension was cut to nothing (described by Greeks not as suicide, but as 'financial murder')? Over lunch I discussed this with Peter Lipman, Chair of the Transition Network. He pointed out that much the same could be asked of Transition responses to peak oil and climate change - would a local energy project, say, match up to the devastation felt by a Bangladeshi flooded out of their homeland? Yet, on reflection, there does seem to be something different about the crisis of the financial economy - it isn't as directly rooted in physical reality. There is something immutable about the amount of fossil fuel available to the world, and overwhelming physical inertia in the inexorably increasing levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The economic crisis, on the other hand, seems to be perhaps more wholly a crisis of narrative. It is primarily cultural inertia and entrenched sociopolitical influence that prevents us from rapidly changing the course of events, not hard physics. Richard Avedon - Transition Money This makes it a particularly exciting area for Transition to engage with, alongside the likes of Occupy, UK Uncut etc. For all the vested interests and political power around our current economic system, it seems at least theoretically possible that popular movements could actually change the fundaments of this crisis with speed. Yet personally, when writing The Transition Timeline, economics was probably the section I found most difficult. How to even get to grips with a topic where no-one seems able to agree on even the basics - where, for example, some argue that difficult times call for belt-tightening, while others advise greater spending..? It was the late David Fleming who helped me find bedrock, explaining that underneath all the jargon and mystery, economics is fundamentally the discussion of who should work at what and for how long, and of how society's resources should be distributed. He also noted that these are topics that we could reasonably expect most people to be interested in, and that we might thus start to wonder who framed the terms of the discussion in such a way that the majority lost interest, leaving profoundly misconceived systems in place to drain the true wealth that supports all our lives...? The fact that, for many, discussions of economics have appeared uninteresting and confusing is probably itself an important insight - one that points to a great deception. Those who shape the flows of money, labour and resources in our society have managed to convince us that the whole topic that shapes most people's waking hours is, of all things, boring. House on fire - Transition Money Which is why the accusations of parasitism and hypocrisy levelled at the Occupy movement in particular are so laughable. It is true that the Occupations only exist because of the popular support that supplies them with food, shelter etc (and even with Occupiers!). But to claim that those resources are provided from the largesse of free-market capitalism is ridiculous. It is the dominant economic system that is the parasite, depending as it does entirely on the one economic system with a proven long-term track record of success. Not capitalism. Not communism. Nature. People could originally build themselves a home, drink water that fell and flowed freely and source food directly for themselves, just like the other animals. Now, all the land is owned, the water is polluted and almost all sources of these essentials of life require money. Capitalism has not created the resources we require - it has co-opted them in order to sell back to us what was once truly free. If people choose to support each other in order to create a space to protest this and explore alternatives, then for the 1% to accuse them of parasitism is the height of hypocrisy. Climate economy - Transition Money The Transition approach to money, of course, has a far less oppositional energy than Occupy, seeking to bring together all elements of society in order to address our collective crises. This can be frustrating - meaning that initiatives sometimes move only at the speed of their least radical members - but it is essential to any collective transitional approach that wishes to avoid top-down enforcement. It is a truism to note that a society can only voluntarily change as fast as it is ready to. For me, a big part of the beauty of Transition is that it brings together two groups of people with very different motivations - those who are working to make this society more sustainable, and those who are working to build an alternative to catch people when this society collapses. There are many things that these folk disagree on, but in Transition they seem to find the ability to enthusiastically collaborate on a great diversity of projects while they chew over those thorny disagreements. My personal perception is that the first group may be shrinking - Derrick Jensen loves to ask who believes that our society will "undergo a voluntary transition to a sustainable way of living", and claims that no-one ever raises their hand - but a gradual improvement towards sustainability is certainly still a widespread ambition. What the Transition Money day got me pondering was whether Transition might be able to repeat the trick and team up another pair of very different viewpoints: those who are justifiably scared of collapse and its implications for themselves, their families and communities, and those who say they would welcome collapse, or even seek to hasten it, due to the damage that the current system is doing (e.g. around 50,000 species going extinct a year as we cause this planet's sixth great mass extinction). Sergey Ryzhov Robin - Transition Money
"We’ll be down to half the species of plants and animals by the end of the century if we keep at this rate" ~ E.O. Wilson
I suspect that these two perspectives can indeed work together, and the reports from Transition communities around Europe seemed to bear this out. Those who want to hasten collapse by attacking existing infrastructures seem to me to be clearly outside the Transition ethos, but there are other ways to hasten collapse. One is to work together to build alternatives. The more people flock to new alternative economies, the faster the old way loses the credibility which increasingly seems to be the only thing holding it up. As Buckminster Fuller put it, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete". In combination with means of propagating the new models, this can be a powerful principle. So for me, the most inspiring part of the day was meeting Filipa Pimentel of Portalegre em Transição (Portugal), who reported on just that process taking place there, with the gift economy expanding rapidly in response to many people's inability to access money. She outlined three principles developed in her local Transition initiative:
  • They never turn anyone away due to lack of money (and facilitate schemes like ingredient swaps to help people support themselves in other ways).
  • They never ask for (or accept) funding - they simply ask authorities and supporters to share access to their resources. They would never pay for a venue, on principle.
  • Any financial resources they do come by will never be used to maintain existing models - if these can't survive without money, let them fall. Instead those resources are used to build capacity for the gift economy.
Having been tested and found useful, these principles are rapidly being taken up by other initiatives. This strikes me as an appropriate style of local response, having grown directly out of local needs and now being communicated to other communities in the nation and around the world (Filipa also now co-ordinates networking between the national Transition hubs).
Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson - Transition Money
Meanwhile, another topic discussed on the day was an important and complementary shift in the political narrative, outlined in a recent interview with the President of Iceland, one of the few countries to refuse to bail out their banks. His full discussion of the reasons and dilemmas behind this decision is fascinating, but most striking was his comment that:
"The lesson from this is: if you want your economy to excel in the 21st century, for the IT, information-based high-tech sectors, a big banking sector, even a very successful banking system, is bad news for your economy"
It is intriguing to reflect on a culture which, faced with the classic argument of the financial sector: "We are the wealth creators, and if you tax us heavily, we will simply go elsewhere", would respond, "Ok, bye then". When banks currently receive vastly far more in subsidies (without even considering bailouts) than they pay in tax, it surely shouldn't be such an outlandish suggestion. Hopefully the below 50 second video clip (and the comments on YouTube!) might be seen as an indicator that the tide of public opinion is turning that way..
However, while Iceland managed to hold fast to the decision of its President that:
"Europe is and should be more about democracy than about financial markets ... it was, in the end, clear that I had to choose democracy"
we here in England surely face a greater battle if we want to follow in their footsteps, with London sitting as perhaps the heart of the great global financial parasite, which has grown fat and powerful. As Molly Scott Cato reminded us at last month's event, Britain was the origin of both the industrial revolution and the financial revolution, and the cultural stories these birthed thus probably run deeper here than anywhere else. This is likely to shape our culture's response as the worst begins to, quite literally, hit home (remember that in the UK, 94% of public service cuts and 88% of benefits cuts are reportedly yet to come). We can see the significance of this already. Filipa reported that in Portugal people are tending to see the collapse of the financial economy as a 'return to normal' - learning to depend on each other again. Yet Phoebe Bright relayed that in Ireland the majority are refusing to countenance that this is anything more than a blip before things get back to a much younger view of 'normality' - being able to rely on money to meet our needs. The responses adopted differ accordingly. To me, it was this clash of perspectives that was the take away message of the event. Transitioning Money must mean building both narratives and economic structures that empower people to step away from the crumbling mainstream and learn to trust in each other again, instead of in money. Portugal appears to be one place that is leading the way.
Titanic iceberg economy - Transition Money
The Intergalactic Health & Safety Inspectorate

The Intergalactic Health & Safety Inspectorate

The brilliant cartoonist Marc Roberts (whose work will be familiar to regular Dark Optimism readers) got in touch with the Transition Network last year offering to produce a strip exploring the Transition concept. The time has come for the results to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public! In Marc's own words, "they will be loosely exploring some of the Holmgren and Chamberlin scenarios through my usual combination of toilet humour and sarcasm". He does himself a disservice - for me, it's a real honour to see my work used by someone whose talents I have long admired and enjoyed. Two cartoons will be released each week. This post will be updated with the new cartoons as they are released, and they will also go out on Rob Hopkins' Transition Culture site and on a Transition Network blog. The first four (+ a special message from the Inspectorate) are below. Hope you enjoy them!

Mon 7 Feb

Marc Roberts 01-GortKlaatu
(click to expand each strip)
Marc Roberts 02-ForArmed
Letter to Earthlings from the Intergalactic Heath & Safety Inspectorate To whom it may concern, Your planet has been selected for an extended audit by the Intergalactic Health & Safety Inspectorate, a worker-owned cooperative originating from a distant galaxy. My colleague Gort and I have much work ahead and we will need to communicate our progress to you. Our studies of your culture indicate that your pictures paint a thousand words, so we will be using cartoons to convey our message. We've therefore randomly selected an earthling to chronicle our adventures and given him special cartooning powers. He is working from a safe house deep in the discombobulation matrix and when our work here is done, we'll endeavour to return him to Manchester with most of his main parts intact. So from now on, our adventures - starting below - will come to you in this medium. And don't be alarmed if you see us on your doorstep, we may be making housecalls in your area shortly... Yours intergalactically, Klaatu - Primitive Species Specialist, Dept of Planetary Remediation - Intergalactic Health & Safety Inspectorate, Upsilon Andromedae Sector

Fri 11 Feb

Marc Roberts 03-Door2door

Marc Roberts 04-Provider

Mon 14 Feb

Marc Roberts 05-PeakAll

Marc Roberts 06-Orders

Fri 18 Feb

Marc Roberts 07-Timemachine

Marc Roberts 08-TooMuchTv

Mon 21 Feb

Marc Roberts 09-Probably

Marc Roberts 10-Malaria

Mon 28 Feb

Marc Roberts 12-NextDoor

Marc Roberts 11-Local

Mon 7 Mar

Marc Roberts 13-Ransom

Marc Roberts 13-FraughtandSnafu

Mon 14 Mar

Marc Roberts 14-Rats

Marc Roberts 15-Bushmeat

Mon 28 Mar

Marc Roberts 16-Jetpack

Marc Roberts 17-BadBack

Mon 4 Apr

Marc Roberts 18-Eyes

Marc Roberts 19-Shoes

Mon 11 Apr

Marc Roberts 20-Loyalty

Marc Roberts 21-Exhale

Mon 25 Apr

Marc Roberts 22-Tazer

Marc Roberts 23-FacePaint

Mon 9 May

Marc Roberts 24-Throw

Marc Roberts 25-Fish

Mon 30 May

Marc Roberts 26-Unwanted

Marc Roberts 27-Biomass

Marc Roberts 28-Spy

Marc Roberts 29-Drama

Marc Roberts 30-Disney

Marc Roberts 31-Health and Safety

This is as far as Marc Roberts has drawn this story for now! Drop him a positive comment here if you'd like to see more!

Edit - Sun 4 Dec:

Marc Roberts Bonus Pic - Occupy
Applied Philosophy

Applied Philosophy

Below the cut is the text of my latest article for the highly-recommended Resurgence magazine. They asked me to tell the story of my own personal journey thus far, and how I ended up doing what I do. Thanks to Resurgence for permission to reproduce it here (and on my articles page). ---
Applied Philosophy Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. ---
For me, there was a definite moment when my environmental awakening began in earnest. I was studying philosophy at the University of York a decade ago when, out of the blue, I received an email from my father alerting me that “a long-term survey of oil and gas resources shows that demand for oil will exceed the maximum possible supply by 2010 and the oil price will sky-rocket”. This was followed by his (enduringly plausible) outline of the likely consequences – economic collapse, mass starvation and war. I took a deep breath. My initial reaction, like that of so many in their ‘peak oil moment’, was one of shock, rapidly followed by disbelief. I wondered how there could be near-universal silence on this issue if it truly had such vast implications, and tried to assure myself that ‘they’ would surely find some solution. Nonetheless, I resolved to look into it, partly in the hope of reassuring my father. Needless to say, what I learned wasn’t particularly reassuring. As my studies came to an end, I quickly found myself with some appropriately philosophical questions to answer. The familiar post-university concerns of finding a way to earn some money, enjoying myself and caring for friends and family had to be balanced with two added factors – a sense that a ‘sound career path’ might not prove so sound in a civilisation that might be heading for the buffers, and an understanding that the world desperately needed all hands on deck if it was to have a future at all. My attempts to discuss all this with my peers met with limited success. They reminded me that many people, both in our culture and around the world, are struggling to get by, and that I would need all the time I had just to look after myself and my family. Some suggested that I should be wary of having my life derailed by all this environmentalist rubbish, which had predicted ‘the end of the world’ so often before. Others argued sadly that we must accept that it is simply human nature to go on being short-sighted and environmentally destructive. But that just sounded like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The many inspiring historical examples of human selflessness, wisdom and foresight must, if nothing else, show that we have a choice in these matters. Indeed, it seemed to me that those of us fortunate enough to have the time, education and mental health to perceive and face the circumstances of our world have a responsibility to act. If many others cannot, that is all the more reason why we must. As Paul Hawken has since put it, maybe we are the world’s immune system. And where would any of us be if our own immune system got distracted seeking its personal fortune, say, or pursuing hedonistic diversions? But while this musing was all very fine sitting in my university common room, how could I apply it to my life? My degree had failed to provide a helpful module on such ‘Applied Philosophy’ so, like everyone else, I had to make it up as I went along. Time for another deep breath. I did find one useful touchstone, a quote from the American theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Wonderful stuff, but to ‘come alive’ I also needed to stay alive, so when a job offer came on the very day my bank account hit empty, I decided to take it, working as an administrator at a project for marginalised groups where I had previously volunteered. Over the next few years I worked my way up to a position I loved – managing the project’s learning centre – paid off my student debts, and spent much of my spare time learning more about the state of our world. Unfortunately, these investigations led to a growing sense that ultimately there wasn’t much point in helping people to reintegrate with society if that society itself really was running off a cliff. I realised this job was no longer helping me to come alive. I felt called to something else, but what? I didn’t know, but I left the job anyway, and spent my time reading everything I could get my hands on regarding peak oil and climate change, attending events and asking questions. Where could I best put my energies to create a peaceful, creative, resilient and diverse world? I slowly came to see that those common room discussions about human nature were touching on just one of a wide set of cultural stories that shape and define our perception of the world. That, despite its severity and urgency, ‘Peak Climate’ is just a symptom, a product of the ways of thinking we value, respect and adopt. And that it is at this level that radical change is both necessary and assured. Of course, many have discussed the need for a rapid paradigm shift – the Age of Aquarius, the Great Turning – but I was still struggling to find my role in supporting and shaping it. The resolution came when I found myself at Schumacher College in 2006, where I studied for a fortnight and felt more intensely alive than I had in a long time. This was surely a good sign, and here I had my first encounter with the fledgling Transition movement, which even at that early stage recognised the innate importance of stories and visions in building thriving, resilient communities. Over the last few years I have become ever more involved with this work, and 2009 saw the publication of my first book, The Transition Timeline, which grew out of requests from Transition communities to flesh out what a realistic, positive vision for our future might look like, and for more input on the major challenges we are likely to face as we try to create it. This allowed me to explore my fear that the Transition movement may struggle to match up to the scale of these challenges, and I also found that the process shifted my own perspective. Whereas I probably started out trying to resolve all of the world’s problems single-handedly (and demanded the same of such initiatives), I have since noticed that the people and projects I respect most aren’t those who’ve tried to do everything, but those who have done the thing that they love rather brilliantly. In so doing they have, sometimes quite by accident, contributed to shifting the stories on which cultures are built. So now I see myself not only as part of a team in my local Transition Town, but as part of a global movement to which we all lend our passions. Transition may not single-handedly 'save the world', but those who are trying to do so are certainly glad of its contribution, which seems a decent test of whether it is a worthwhile project. As my book has made its way into the world, I have found myself invited to speak and write for local groups, parliaments and everything in between, and it is good to feel that I am contributing. Yet somewhere in my soul I can feel my next move gestating. At some important level, I feel called again to re-examine my role in the world. It is time for another deep breath.