The View from the Observation Car

A guest post by Rob Elliott, food writer, traveler and co-proprietor of the green, organic, real food B&B Aspen House in picturesque rural Herefordshire, where they pride themselves on the locally produced, seasonal, organic food they serve. Rob’s books The Food Maze and How to Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow are available from Real Life Publishing. Rob also blogs on Food, Life and All That.

Around five years ago, the new social movement of Transition Towns sprang into life.  Its stated purpose was to raise awareness that human society faces two enormous challenges – peak oil and climate change.  Its vision was to create resilience at a local level in order to move from where we are now to where we need to be.

Five years on, and the Transition network has grown dramatically.

According to their website there are 382 official initiatives, with a further 458 about to fledge, across 34 countries.  There is also a growing library of Transition books.  The movement is obviously on a steeply ascending graph and it can’t be denied that it is indeed a brilliant idea.

Yet for me it still doesn’t quite hit the spot.

Having been involved with several local Transition initiatives from their inception, I observed that steering committees are quite often set up by self-motivated individuals keen to promote their own agendas, leaving other would-be Transitioners feeling disconnected and lacking in motivation.  Maybe the problems of peak oil and climate change are simply too overwhelming and remote.  None of this seems to be a problem in Totnes, Stroud, Lewes, Fife, Machynlleth and a handful of other places that have been promoting an alternative world view for decades.  But what of the others?  Perhaps many of them are only holding together because of the dedication of their hard-working steering groups.

As with any organisation, the 80/20 rule applies, with 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people – but Transition is supposed to be different.  At the very first meeting we attended, the organisers made it clear that as a ‘steering group’ their role was going to be a handholding one in the early stages, and that the responsibility for bringing the spirit of Transition into the community would soon involve everyone else in the room.

Unfortunately not so – there was no gush of egalitarianism, no devolution across the board – in fact, no apparent willingness on the part of others to take on any responsibility at all.  This shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise – most people prefer to be told what to do and have an innate fear of taking the initiative.  So those few stalwarts who set up the idea four years ago are still the people who make it happen today.  They may no longer call themselves a steering group, but that is still their role and, without them, the initiative would collapse.

Where is all that promised excitement, community spirit, optimism and desire for change ?

With nebulous concepts such as peak oil or climate change, it is difficult to focus and translate it into something personal.  Peak oil might be a serious issue, but most attendees at a Transition meeting will become defensive when required to think about their own use of oil. Where there should be excitement, instead weariness sets in amongst those who see nothing but a long hard road ahead of them.

To Sally and me, it seemed obvious that what was missing was the glue to bind everyone together.

We thought we had cracked it – food !

The global industrialized food system is arguably the biggest contributor to the peak oil/carbon emissions problem, but food involves everyone, so it has the potential to be the core of the solution.  Part of the Transition answer to the problem is to buy local food.  It is disappointing therefore that, in the Transition Companion, the real reason for this is not fully explained.

The Transition Companion doesn’t tell you which way to go or what your journey will look like, but suggests there will be  some especially good views along the way. I cannot see how this is helpful.  We don’t need a Bradshaw’s Tourist Handbook, we need to be told exactly what is going on.  We don’t need to be told about the ‘good views along the way’, we need to see the whole picture.

Quite rightly Transition highlights all the inspirational food-related projects that are increasing in number every day – the Community Supported Agriculture, the land share schemes, the community orchards, the guerrilla gardening, permaculture smallholdings and individual garden plots.  All this is effective, essential and extremely encouraging, but still alienates those who, for one reason or another, cannot get involved in these kinds of initiatives.

How useful it would be if Transition showed us how we call all make a positive contribution to the solution simply by changing the way we shop for food, by removing our custom from global to local.

In the few minutes it has taken you to read this, world population has grown by another 1500 or so. There are nearly 16 million more mouths to feed since we passed the 7-billion milestone at the end of October last year.  A large proportion of these hungry people live in China and India, the latter adding 1.5 million to its population every month.

If the global economy goes belly up sometime in the next decade, China is a country with money in the bank and will be well placed to buy up all the commodity cash crops available.  Profit-hungry global corporations are not going to supply the bankrupt West.  They will go where the money is.

Food security is as important as peak oil and climate change, and we have too little of it - if the wheels come off the global food supply system, we too risk going hungry.

Gazing from the green observation car on this branch line at all the views along the way will only distract us from the mainline express currently hurtling towards oblivion carrying all the world’s money-mad, consumer-drugged, GDP-obsessed profiteers, the drivers partying along with the passengers.

So here’s a suggestion for all those involved in Transition groups: call a new meeting and ask the question, “If there were no supermarkets, how would we feed ourselves and where would our food come from?”  Then make a list of all your local food suppliers, open the discussion and work out how you are going to use them as your only source of food.

We can build a truly resilient alternative to the flawed global food system, simply by changing the way we shop and eat.

Photo by Loco Steve via Flickr


  1. Rob, thanks for this concise and balanced view of transition. Haddenham in Transition have recently started a food group with with a similar perspective to the one expressed. This has complemented other projects such as home made in…, Thermal imaging, apple pressing etc

    I look forward to more comments from the observations car.


    • Thanks for your positive comment, Greg. I generally find it difficult to be heard by Transitioners – around here anyway! So your comments are most welcome. I am a big fan of Transition, but I believe it should be a plaform for expansive thinking, and I don’t see enough of that.

      If you are interested by the way, there is a longer version of this blog on (14/01/12) – it just expands the argument a bit more. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, or if you simply want to engage in email conversations, feel free to get in touch.

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