Having now established the intellectual and practical antecedents of the Transition Culture movement, and the nature of TTA, in this section we explore emerging grounds of critical engagement with the movement. While we begin by outlining one of the main sources of political critique of Transition Culture, we move on to outline the potential for critical dialogue between the movement and relationally conceived accounts of urban space.
Trapese and the Political Critique of Transition
One of the most systematic critiques of the Transition Culture movement has been developed by the Trapese Collective. From a position that is anti-capitalism, anti-state and anti-hierarchy, the Trapese Collective invoked concepts of social and climate justice to analyse the Transition Culture movement (Trapese Collective 2008). Trapese ask: “a transition to where, and from what? And what models of organizing can help us along the way?” (2008:4). The central argument of The Rocky Road to a Real Transition is that “only when the rules of the game are changed can carbon dioxide concentrations and all the associated problems be truly tackled … it really isn't possible to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions” (2008:10–11). For the Trapese Collective then, “Real transition” means structural change and not just changes in individual or community behaviour. Trapese contends that in its attempts to be all-inclusive and non-confrontation the Transition Culture movement has been depoliticized, and thus lacks a realistic analysis of power. Distinguishing between environmental improvements “in place” and improvements to (global) environmental systems, Trapese claims no causal relationship between the two types of change (2008:33). It argues for recognition that there will be both creation and resistance in any “real transition”, and that the Transition Town notion of “the great re-skilling” should include education about the current economic and political system. Trapese argues that the first and most important step for Transition initiatives should be that they are both (politically) ambitious and “clear about where we want to go”.11 Yet, even by Trapese's own ontology, we argue that this step surely cannot precede people coming together as communities to determine that vision for themselves (for more on the debate between the Transition Culture movement and the Trapese Collective, see Hopkins 2009; Mason 2008; North 2009; Trainer 2009).
Transition Culture and its Spatial Politics
In this section we continue the critical analysis of Transition commenced by the Trapese Collective by exposing the conceptual geographies that appear to underpin the Transition Culture movement. In keeping with its apolitical ethos and practical orientation,12 there is little explicit discussion—formally, at least—within Transition Cultures of the types of ethical and ecologically inspired visions of the organization of space within which the movement is grounded. There is, however, an emerging body of geographical scholarship that has sought to address this lacuna. Bailey, Hopkins and Wilson (forthcoming), for example, deploy techniques of discourse analysis, in order to uncover, explore and critique the modes of spatial representation that characterize the Movement. Finding clear parallels with the spatial imaginaries of various antecedent and peer environmental groups, Bailey and colleagues excavate three key geographical rationales that inform the movement. First, and in keeping with its advocacy of relocalization, Transition Cultures promotes an ethic of spatial constraint in socio-economic life (forthcoming:4). Second, and in some sense as a palliative to the hermetic geographies of spatial constraints, the movement relies on a model of viral networks as a basis for envisioning the geographical spread of its principles to other places and communities (5). Third, Bailey and colleagues suggest that the movement has been guilty of producing a discourse of indiscriminate geographical threat in relation to peak-oil production (8). While the idea that peak oil represents either a direct or indirect threat to established ways of life in all communities in the world obviously provides an important platform on which to promote the spatial spread of the movement, as Bailey and colleagues point out, it belies the complex and highly differentiated impact that peak-oil production (and for that matter climate change) will have on different socio-economic systems and communities (8).13 In a related article, North (forthcoming) draws attention to the spatial politics that informs the varied localization movements that have in turn informed Transitional practices. According to North, the spatial politics of localization is fundamentally about the reordering of economic space.
An important part of the Transition Culture is about the re-evaluation and re-making of urban space and political communities (variously scaled). In this context, we find it surprising that greater attention has not been given to the parallels that exist between Transition Culture's approach to spatial form and relations, and those promoted by progressive urban movements. Building on critiques and fledging geographical analyses of the Transition Culture movement, then, the remainder of this section attempts to do two things. First, it draws a series of critical parallels between Transition Culture and three key interpretations of urban space and politics: Saunier's international municipalism; Bookchin's libertarian municipalism; and Massey's relational urbanism. Second, this section exposes two spatial problematics of Transition Culture, namely: its approach to relationally inspired ethics of space; and its overly optimist analysis of the possibilities that exist for the practical remaking of place in a ethical fashion.
Transition Culture as a Species of International Municipalism
One of the clearest theoretical parallels we have discerned during our involvement with Transition Culture is that between the vision of a Transition Town and international municipalism. Pierre-Yves Saunier argues for a municipal contribution to the social sciences (Saunier 2002:518). Reviewing the idea, putatively favoured by “various late nineteenth century socialist groups building on Proudhon's ideas”, that “municipalities have an indispensable part to play in the structuring of both national and global space”, Saunier acknowledges that “this specific juxtaposition of the local and the international, postulating the municipality as the basic cell in a worldwide organization, draws our attention to the potential global significance of municipalism” (Saunier 2002:523).
Saunier lists four “universalist postulates” that have underpinned and served to promote the development of municipal connections. The first is that the future of the world is essentially an urban one. Hence, municipalities will face common political and technological problems and an exchange of experience that transcends frontiers is a meaningful activity. The second postulate is that “the municipality is the basic cell of any political structure in any human culture or civilization, “A mayor is a mayor, wherever his/her city is located” (2002:521). It is also assumed that “municipalism and municipalities are apolitical. Local government is seen as essentially technical, a pursuit of the common good with no allegiance other than to the “Municipal Party” (2002:522). The fourth postulate is that municipalities are comparable, “they belong to a shared universe of rules and values in which they can compare themselves to, or rival others” (2002:522). Some municipal connections are based upon pre-existing networks, the examples Saunier gives being the socialist international and co-operative movements.14 Presenting numerous examples from European history, Saunier states: “In every town and every country, stories and lessons drawn from experiments elsewhere became a precious resource which could help equally to subvert the status quo or strengthen it” (Saunier 2002:520, emphasis added).
Transition Culture has clear parallels with notions of municipal internationalism. In keeping with the scalar politics of municipal internationalism, Transition Cultures asserts the crucial role urban communities have in shaping their own destinies and contributing to the broader socio-ecological welfare of the planet as a whole. The second clear line of connection is that, while prioritizing urban spaces as arenas for integrated social change, self-mobilizing elements of civil society are cast as the key agents of metropolitan and global change.
It is here that the relational parallels end, however, at least at this moment in time. Currently, the Transition Culture movement is far from being an international movement. The majority of Transition Towns and Initiatives are located in Britain and Ireland with emergent movements in North America, Australia and New Zealand. So, Transition Culture is currently a predominantly Anglo-Celtic phenomenon. Notwithstanding this, the rise of the Transition Network (at a British level) and the fledgling development of the Transition Network Wales, Transition Culture appears to be positioning itself as an international movement for municipal change and exchange. The intense localism associated with Transition Culture may, however, generate problems when it comes to developing effective forms of networked municipalism.
The clearest distinction between the work of Saunier and Transition Culture, though, are their respective approaches to the urban. Whereas Saunier positions the urban scale as a crucial political bulwark against the disempowering processes of State administration and globalization, Transition Culture questions the viability of the urban scale as an arena for socio-economic change. Transition Culture conceives of existing urban spaces, along with their associated administrative structures, as reflections of the logic of geographical development that is based on a ready supply of cheap oil and indifference towards the threats of climate change. In this context, Transition Culture does not assert the political power of municipal centres to change geographical history, but rather the need to re-scale cities in order to develop sustainable socio-ecological relations. Transition Culture consequently seeks to re-scale urban space into networked communities of low-energy living of approximately 15,000 people. In this, it appears to be more a form of international localism than international municipalism. This is not an insignificant point. If Saunier's assertion that municipalities have the strategic power to collectively shape the socio-environmental relations of large aggregates of the global population is correct (arguably even at a level approaching the structural political-economic), it could serve to counter the Trapese Collective's critique of Transition Culture's approach to structural forms of power. Without the power of the municipal scale, however, it may be much more difficult for Transition Cultures to shape the structural contexts of decision-making relating to peak oil and climate change.
Libertarian Municipalism: Revealing the Neglected “Other”
In working actively on the development of a Transition Town we have become aware of the intellectual succour that the Transition Culture movement takes from another vision of the role that municipalities can play in the emergence of more empowering political futures. In Remaking Society, Murray Bookchin argues for the urban as an ethical domain able to accommodate difference. According to Bookchin, cities are a way of life for democracies, “not simply a technique for managing society, and that they should be constructed along ethical and rational lines that meet certain ideals of justice and the good life” (1989:180). In many ways Bookchin's libertarian municipalism deploys a similar scalar vision and politics to Transition Culture. Bookchin advocates a scale of effective democratic participation based on Aristotle's conceptualization of the polis as “large enough so that its citizens could meet most of their material needs, yet not so large that they were unable to gain a familiarity with each other and make policy decisions in open, face-to face discourse” (Bookchin 1989:180).
For Bookchin, libertarian municipalism is a manifestation of social anarchism, which he vigorously differentiates from lifestyle anarchism (see Bookchin 1996).15 Bookchin rejects individualism as a means towards social change, fearing it will lead to reactionary coalitions rather than revolutionary communitarianism. Reporting from COP15 in Copenhagen, Ben Brangwyn, a member of the Transition Network Board of Trustees, echoes Bookchin's social anarchism when he states: “If we wait for the politicians, it'll be too little too late; if we do it as individuals, it'll be too little; but if we do it as communities, it might just be enough, just in time” (Brangwyn 2009). While acknowledging the importance of certain forms of national and international policies and government structures in addressing the complexities of peak oil and climate change, the open democratic style, non-hierarchical form, and flexible institutional structures associated with Transition Culture prefigures eco-anarchist visions of new forms of urban life. As noted by the Trapese Collective, however, Transition Culture currently fails to problematize either the disempowering processes of the state or associated scales of government. Moreover, the relational imperative to accommodate—as opposed to incorporate—“the other”, argued for by Bookchin, is missing in both the practical conception of a “Transition Community” in place, and also in any formal conception of global transition itself. The point of distinction we will return to is that the Transition Culture movement fails to make relational space for the distant other, space that could accommodate the economic necessity of international trade for the well-being of that other, for example.
Transition Culture and the Relational Problematic
While the spatial ambiguities of Transition Culture are suggested in the work of Saunier and Bookchin, it is Massey's path-breaking analysis of relational space that casts them in sharpest contrast. Noting a disjunction between places seen as the product of global flows and a politics that remains territorialized, Massey highlights a “jarring” of geographical imaginations. She identifies “the need to build a ‘local’ politics that thinks beyond the local”, arguing:
against localism but for a politics of place … a politics of place beyond place … If the reproduction of life in a place, from its most spectacular manifestation to its daily mundanities, is dependent upon poverty, say, or the denial of human rights elsewhere, then should (or how should) a “local” politics confront this? (Massey 2007:15).
According to Massey, then, a relational ethics of place is inherently political because it leads us to ask why a place is like it is and how it could be different: questions that can lead to a critique of those who have historically controlled and shaped that place (Massey et al 2009).
It is important, at this point, to appreciate the varied nature of what counts as a relational ethics of place, and the associated diversity that exists in the types of ethical practise that are associated with its realization. At a very simple level a relational ethic of place can be understood as an attempt to assess the virtue of a place in relation to other places. This relational assessment can take three broad forms: an evaluation of the moral acceptability of the actions of a community in relation to the social norms and practices of other places; a discussion of the unobligated sense of responsibility that a place may feel for aiding distant places/people with who they have no direct connection (this is what Dobson has referred to as the Good Samaritan model of geographical care for a common humanity (2003: 28)); and a calibration of the moral obligations that derive from the actual impacts the decisions and actions of one place have on another (for a useful overview in this context, see Allen 2003; Amin 2004; Massey 2005). These different, but often co-existent, modalities of relational ethical assessment can obviously lead to very different forms of place-building practices. Fostering an unobligated sense of care can, for example, be connected with local place-building practices that support multi-ethnic, class and religious interaction at a local scale. Through the instigation of forums of interchange, more open decision-making processes, and public spaces that promote social interaction, it is possible to envisage urban place-building practices that generate a sense of empathy for the proximate others that can be used to build cultures of care for distant strangers (see Amin 2006:1015–1017 and the broader operation of Sanctuary Cities). On the other hand, supporting more obligation-based forms of relational ethics may promote direct cultural exchanges with affected distant communities and deeper local understandings of the nature of a place's trade relations, investment decisions, and environmental impacts (see Malpass et al 2007 on fairtrade urbanism).
It is our contention that despite being clearly influenced by relationally conceived visions of space, there is a cleavage between Transition Culture and what we have described as directly obligated geographical care. This cleavage is a tension grounded upon politico-ethical responses to notions of spatial dependence. For Massey, and many other theorists of relational space, recognition of the interdependencies that exist between different places is a pre-requisite to developing a new ethics of place (Massey 2007:13). For Massey then a relational politics of space consequently involves recognition of the fact that places depend on other places, people, and environments for their daily reproduction. The ethics of place that flows from such a perspective is based upon a critical assessment of the nature of the relations that sustain these dependencies and the effects that they have on other places. Such a relational ethics of place thus involves an assessment of whether the relations that enable a town or city to function are fair or exploitative, and sustainable or unsustainable for the other places that constitute these relations. The politics of relational space arise from such an ethical perspective to the extent that it challenges a town or city to reformulate and reconsider injustices that may be perpetrated within its socio-environmental footprints.
Transition Culture conceptualizes spatial dependencies in very different ways. Spatial dependency is approached within Transition Towns in two main forms. Firstly, and in a local setting, Transition Culture seeks to address the ways in which places have themselves become dependent on the spatial forms of the petropolis (from suburbs to mega-distribution hubs; from the in-between cities of road intersections to the out-of-town mall and edge community): emphasizing how the internal organization and logic of urban communities (including the morning commute, the trip to the supermarket shop, schooling, and health) assumes affordable fuel use. Second, and at a broader spatial scale, the Transition Culture movement seeks to study and articulate spatial interdependencies between places (trade, energy transfers, migration). In constructing inventories of spatial relations, however, the Transition Movement's primary goal is not to use these relations as a basis for ethical reflection and reform. Instead Transition Culture constructs a moral geography within which the very “necessity” of spatial relations is itself approached as an ethical question. The preferred ethical response to a distant socio-economic relation is thus not one of reform (in perhaps the nature of trade relations, the distribution of environmental harm, or the exerting of political influence), but of disconnection. While it is clear that relational views of space may at times suggest the severing of harmful place relations (particularly in relation to the financing of military actions, the support of slavery, or the destruction of pristine wilderness sites), it is also apparent that such geographical perspectives value relations of dependence, and their recognition, as a productive terrain of future ethical reflection, empathy building, and political action (Dobson 2003). While it is also clear that Transition Culture does not wish, nor believe it possible, to sever all the spatial relations that constitute a place, it does seek a strategic dislocation of a vast array of dependencies as an ethical priority.
While the disjuncture between a relational and Transitional ethics of space have, at times, made our involvement in the Transition Movement difficult, we have come to see them as a productive context for discussing the nature of relational space and the ethical practices with which it is associated. At one level, this analysis is concerned with the relative ethical value we give to the absence and presence of spatial relations in a world of peak oil and climate change. At another level, it is also about the ways we consider the ethics of territorial approaches to spatial practice. In this context, it is clear that, while territorial conceptualizations of space often promote a degree of moral abstention at the border's edge, the territorial aspects of Transition Culture appear to be about developing more and varied registers of responsibility in and for place not less.