Researching the Transition Town Movement

Researching the Transition Town Movement

In early 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Tim Gorringe, Emeritus Professor of Theological Studies at the University of Exeter, to discuss his work on an AHRC funded research project on the values which underpin constructive social change, focussing on the Transition Town Movement. This project was accredited through the Global Uncertainties Programme.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me how you ended up working on The Role of Values in Responding to Major Social Change: Christian Churches and the Transition Town Movement?

Professor Tim Gorringe: My research focuses on the ways in which humans build dwellings, the structures of their communities, and the topic of sustainability. For example, the immediate precursor to my work on the Transition Movement for Churches was a project on the built environment which resulted in two books. As it became clear to me that building communities which covered places with tarmac for transport was placing a tremendous burden on the environment, I became interested in the relationship between cities and their hinterland. Then, in 2008, the transition movement started, and I became a member of Transition Exeter.  At the time the research councils were interested in the area of values and I proposed looking at the values which underpinned both neoliberal orthodoxy and the Transition Town  Movement.   I was the lead investigator, and I was joined by a political geographer as a second investigator and two research postdocs – one from geography, and one from theology.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Transition Town Movement, for readers who might be unfamiliar with it?

The Transition Town Movement was started in Ireland in 2008 by a man named Rob Hopkins, and for four or five years, it was a big phenomenon. The movement was focused on trying to envisage a low carbon future, taking permaculture as a key model. The movement’s aim was to try to get communities to make as small of demands on the energy grid as possible, to provide for themselves locally, and to work locally where possible. It promoted the use of walking and cycling instead of the use of cars, for example, envisaging a transition from a car-based, supermarket-based society to a local, cycling-based, permaculture-based community where your food comes from a hinterland of maybe 10 or 12 miles. At one point, there were transition groups virtually everywhere. Many are still going now, but in recent years a lot of the energy from the transition town movement has instead shifted to Extinction Rebellion (XR), and most of the more activist members have gone to XR.

What were the key themes and outputs that emerged from your work studying this Transition Town Movement?

Several outputs emerged from this project. This included an article on geographies of transition, in which geography colleague Professor Stewart Barr and his postdoc Dr Justin Pollard sought to build a narrative about environmental activism during the age of ‘Peak Oil’ in the UK, the US and Canada. I also wrote two books. In one of those books, The Transition Movement for Churches, research assistant Dr Rosie Beckham and I tried to argue that transition towns are a natural place for Christian congregations to gravitate, because they are about community and care of creation. There is a thing called the eco-church movement, which is about trying to get churches to cut their carbon footprint, and for those involved in that movement getting involved with the transition town movement was a kind of obvious next step. What we saw, however, was that while a lot of individual Christians did get involved with this movement, there were very few church councils who got involved with transition as a community.

I also wrote a longer book, The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, which reflected on the language we use about values, and how our values inform our political, social, economic, and farming practices. So, politically, I argue for federations of smaller units as opposed to the nation-state; for citizen assemblies and sortition as opposed to representative democracy; for strong regulation of capital and a guiding ethos of cooperation and creation care in relation to the economy; for an understanding of money based on our mutual indebtedness; and for smallscale and organic farming as opposed to industrial agriculture. I argue that the myriad peoples’ organizations around the word, of which the Transition Movement is one,  represent changes in this direction which might herald a new, more socially just and sustainable future.

Do you think your findings can shed any insight onto the challenges surrounding mainstream environmental policy efforts today, such as ongoing conversations around green recovery?

The problem with green recovery is that it means lots of different things to different people. I think my work can contribute to discussion about alternative economies, but there is a problem about how you make a dent in current neoliberal orthodoxies. There are lots of people sketching alternatives to the status quo, but they are not getting a lot of traction. There are similar problems in the political space – there are a lot of people who are extremely skeptical about the use of elections as the basis for democracy, and we are seeing interest in grassroots efforts to develop an alternative way of doing things through citizen assemblies, but there is often an attempt by the establishment to take these new ideas and control it.

What do you think the main impact of your work has been?

I mean, I do not know if it has had any impact at all. In any society at any given time, there are always currents of thought which are moving, and which eventually give rise to social, political, and economic change. I am just one of the straws in the wind for all those people who are looking for an alternative system. The question that we all face is whether things can change fast enough for us to avoid ecological disaster.