Been reading up on and reflecting on the Transition Town movement, a worthy cause garnering a good amount of publicity. And my unease has grown, particularly after perusing the upcoming offerings of the TT conference in Devon. Now why would I be uneasy about something so obviously “right-on-the-money” as transitioning to a saner way of living? Actually, that part of Transition Towns suits me just fine. I am behind anything and everything practical a small town can do to become more resilient. That ol’ uneasy feeling is provoked by the “movement” part of the Transition movement.

Let’s take a quick peek at the model itself. Wikipedia defines a social movement as “as a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on others, consisting of:

  • Campaigns: a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims of target authorities;
  • Repertoire: employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering; and
  • WUNC displays: participants’ concerted public representation of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitments on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies.”

So here we have it in a nutshell. A movement focuses on and feeds energy to “them” – the same people and institutions that are the problem. Like Sisyphus, it rolls a boulder uphill, trying to fight or influence the system monolith. It wastes energy on symbolic displays. It pleads like a powerless child with the parent state. And quite inauspiciously, it tells the authorities who and where the opposition is, making it convenient for them to send out their cadres of anti-movement saboteurs.

As though this were not bad enough, there is also the problem of inner cooptation. Consider the following flow chart (thanks to Wikimedia Commons):

Of the five possible outcomes, only one is good. The odds of failure, cooptation, mainstreaming, or repression loom large. But the zinger is what happens before that: bureaucratization. The movementniks take over and begin to build fiefdoms and careers via volunteer and paid services to the movement, grantsmanship and institutional alliances. Once that happens, surely cooptation or mainstreaming isn’t too far off for those movements which “succeed.”

Eventually, enjoyable mutual aid groups succumb to being managed by movement planners who set the goals and point out the path for others to follow and then look for ways to “mobilize” and “agitprop” the rest of us to march to their tune. And there is the lure of grand schemes, overarching conceptualizations and endlessly complex studies. In the Transition Town movement, for example, some have taken to creating GIS-guided “foodshed maps” of a an area while working out local food resilience. They are pretty, but is such an effort well spent? Or is it just another attempt at feeding off a movement trough?

For those who want to transition in small towns, why not just convene Open Space and get going? Do it yourself with others. DIYWO.

To paraphrase the immortal Blazing Saddles, we don’t need no stinkin’ movements. 😉 We need 10,000 DIYWO conspiracies!