This is part 1 of an interview with Naresh Giangrande, co-founder of Transition Totnes and the Transition Network. Part 2 is here.
[NB – from Naresh: I did this interview before the Covid crisis took over all of our lives. It was in early March when we just starting to see something coming out of China. How amazing to see the scale of change that is possible in such a short time.]
You’re moving on now – what are you doing next?
I stopped working for the organisation 2 years ago. I’m still involved in training, and I’m now working for Gaia Education, on some of their education programmes; I’m writing about education, based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and I’m working to bring together contemplative people alongside activists, to see what they can learn from each other.
Why did you leave the Transition Network?
I guess I felt that I’d given all I had to give, and it was time for new people and new energy. There was also an element of burnout. I’d done it for 14 years, and I was aware that there were systemic changes required that until now all societies have shied away from. The scale of change required is enormous, and the responses so far don’t match. It’s an interesting question for any activist – how do they sit with those painful contradictions?
Transition has a localisation / local resilience agenda, but that hasn’t happened at a large enough scale to make a difference to the way humanity is moving. Why hasn’t it had as much influence as you would have liked?
I think there are several reasons. There has been a lot of capture of governments’ regulatory environments around the world by multinational corporations. The result is that they’re getting subsidised. The one that gets the headlines is fossil fuel production. Fossil fuel corps are subsidised to the tune of over 5 trillion dollars per year. Small, locally-based groups can’t really compete with that effectively.
Peter Haas created the term ‘technosphere’ – we’re in thrall to this huge global machine that we’ve created, and are dependent on for almost everything we need. The idea that we’re going to re-localise all that seems far-fetched – particularly if people want to use the kind of tech that we’re using right now. If we were happy to go back to the level of simplicity where we could make just about everything locally, that would be one thing – but it seems that very few people would be willing to do that – as yet. As the current crisis develops, maybe more people would be willing to do it or forced to do it.
Do you think this giant machine is going to crash?
I think it is crashing. As William Gibson said – the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Some of the more tech-reliant places will crash, others will carry on much the same. It will happen in different ways in different places. For many people in the world, the collapse has already happened. On trainings, I ask people whether, in 20 years time, their lives will be radically different or much the same. Everyone says radically different.
Most people I talk to think something bad is coming.
I don’t even put that slant on it. I feel very mixed about the kind of world my children and grandchildren are going to be living in. It will be radically different, but there will also be radical opportunity, but I’m not convinced that it’s going to be all bad. It’s the same now – we see some amazing things. That’s one of the great things about working in the Transition movement – I’ve got to meet some of the most incredible people doing amazing things with practically no resources. But yes, there are also horrible things happening.
Community often gets stronger in times of crisis. People looked back with fondness on the Second World War – when people pulled together and looked after each other. So communities might become stronger in crisis. Back to Transition – why do you think it didn’t get more media coverage?
We didn’t set out to get it, but it came to us because we were ‘tooting the peak oil horn’, and when that came and went, it undermined much of our credibility. Also, we weren’t media-hungry enough, and a lot of the stuff Transition groups do is pretty un-sexy. It’s not particularly photogenic. If you’re good at spinning a story – like Rob Hopkins is – then you can create something that people resonate with, but that’s a particular skill. So for those reasons we didn’t stay in the limelight for as long as we would have liked. That’s the nature of the media too – it consumes things, then moves on.
It’s a very good story – we need to build community resilience, because of what’s happening to the environment and what’s going to happen to fossil fuel supply. Oil hasn’t peaked, because of new discoveries – but it’s going to happen.
Yes, and early adopters – people who can see what’s coming – are at the head of a wave. They can see the absolute need to get things in place to deal with what’s coming. Take the coronavirus – I don’t think it’s an existential threat to the human race, but it could cause some big disruption. So what do we do – let’s start talking to each other for a start. Let’s ask if we have a plan if things get bad. Transition has been advocating these things.
Was / is there internal conflict? Did it do much harm do you think?
It was surprisingly conflict-free. We did hear of some Transition groups going down because of conflict, but we put a lot of effort into helping people understand group dynamics and collaboration.
Transition isn’t a top-down organisation is it – members can do what they like? How do you keep people on message while also telling them they don’t need your permission to do anything?
You don’t. The first videos on YouTube about Transition were made by a group in New Zealand that we’d never heard of. They’d found out about us and started doing things under the Transition banner. Nobody can really presume to speak for the Transition movement. I can say what I see, what I’m experiencing – but so can everyone else. People would often ask ‘what’s Transition’s take on this?’ – but who has that authority? Nobody. It’s one of the most interesting things about Transition – it’s probably the first self-organising international movement. And we didn’t think about how to do that – it just happened.
Did you find it difficult to raise money?
Yes. There are often not the local markets that would support Transition work, and as I said, there are huge subsidies for the fossil fuel economy, which props up a lot of undesirable, damaging farming practices, for instance. But I’ve seen groups like community-supported agriculture raise money because they had a sound business idea that could create a return, and most people investing in those sorts of things weren’t looking for huge returns, they just wanted a reasonable return and to know that their money was doing something good.
Do you think there’s much of a role for alternative currencies? The Totnes pound didn’t work – and I wondered if you’ve come across mutual credit, and the kinds of things we’re doing at the Open Credit Network?
Yeah – I’ve been talking with Tony Greenham, and I’m aware of what they’re doing with the South-West Bank – co-operative banking systems are evolving. But I think that local currencies that are tied to the national currencies in the way that the Totnes Pound was are of limited value. But if there’s an alternative, and you can get enough business to business trade going within it, and you can get credit, that could make a big difference. And it has to be really easy to use and convenient. Paying with a card is hard to beat.
At least local currencies, and crypto, showed that there can be alternatives.
It just created another set of beliefs – an alternative to the belief that there’s anything that actually backs a five pound note, which isn’t true. And people went ‘wow’ about that for a while. When I gave talks, and mentioned that we’d started printing money in Totnes, suddenly everyone perked up.
Lots more people now understand where money comes from, and how banks create it. 10 years ago, very few people knew about it, but a lot of people do now.
That’s got to be a good thing.
But I guess the convertibility of local currencies tied them to the current, debt-based money system. Mutual credit isn’t. Do you know about Sardex, in Sardinia? It’s a mutual credit scheme with 50 million euros per year turnover. I think there’s huge potential.
I believe there is. It happened in Argentina too, when the national currency became virtually unusable.
What do you think would be the best ways to approach local Transition groups about mutual credit?
It’s not my area of expertise. Rather than just speculate, I think I’ll leave that one.
What are the best ways to finance re-localisation or to engage with local and national politicians – and do you think they’ll be responsive, or they’re too much under the sway of corporations?
It always surprised me how much interest national politicians took in the Transition movement. They’re so caught up in the mega-system, it’s difficult for them to engage with local economics. But we’ve had interest from Gordon Brown, Theresa May, and others – but I don’t think they could do very much. Theresa May was part of a group that started Transition Maidenhead.
People I’ve interviewed tend to find government more of a hindrance than a help – expensive licences, subsidies for larger farmers or businesses but not smaller ones, and allowing corporations to avoid paying tax, whereas they clamp down on small businesses.
I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think a group of small businesses got together in a town in Wales to use the ‘Dutch Sandwich’ tool to avoid taxes, saying that if it was good enough for corporations, it should be good enough for small businesses. It gets back to the level paying field.
What could next big movement learn from TN – whether it’s XR or the Credit Commons (global mutual credit)?
To trust that there are lots of people out there who will respond, and come along with you, and will do incredible things. Trust that that will happen. Enable learning. I think we could have done more of that. Peer-to-peer learning is important. In many cases, Transition groups just cut and pasted successful initiatives from elsewhere.
What sort of things?
For example, local energy co-ops, and food projects like land share, CSA schemes, veg box schemes.
That sounds important – so that every community doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel.
That’s right. Local currencies is another example. Some things became ‘hot’. I’ve heard food called the ‘gateway drug’ to Transition, because everybody eats, and everybody’s interested in food. Plus things like Maker Cafes / Makerspaces address things like social exclusion and loneliness. But talking about lessons learned, we have to pay attention, and ask how do we make that step from finding the cracks in society to the mainstream. I was just at a trade show called FutureBuild, and when I look at some of their material, they’re using the language of ‘emergency’, and this is mainstream. The keynote speech was given by someone from XR. So this is entering the mainstream really quickly, but the mainstream is unable to respond, because they don’t understand the emergency, and their supply chains and product lines are so unsustainable, which is sad. But people are becoming more aware.
So the next task is to work out how to get beyond the early adopters, the cultural creatives. XR are asking those kinds of questions, which is great.
- There has been a lot of capture of governments’ regulatory environments around the world by multinational corporations. The result is that they’re getting subsidised. The one that gets the headlines is fossil fuel production. Fossil fuel corps are subsidised to the tune of over 5 trillion dollars per year. Small, locally-based groups can’t really compete with that effectively.
- The idea that we’re going to re-localise all that seems far-fetched – particularly if people want to use the kind of tech that we’re using right now. If we were happy to go back to the level of simplicity where we could make just about everything locally, that would be one thing – but it seems that very few people would be willing to do that – as yet. As the current crisis develops, maybe more people would be willing to do it or forced to do it.
- Early adopters – people who can see what’s coming – are at the head of a wave. They can see the absolute need to get things in place to deal with what’s coming. Take the coronavirus – I don’t think it’s an existential threat to the human race, but it could cause some big disruption. So what do we do – let’s start talking to each other for a start. Let’s ask if we have a plan if things get bad. Transition has been advocating these things.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1annbeirneanimalwhisperert May 3rd, 2020
I would suggest politicians showing interest in TT has nothing to do with interest, they wouldn’t find any need to implement anything to do with this, they were just checking out how well it was working and rubbing thier hands together with glee when it wasn’t, they are too intrenched in thier rich lifestyles and their off shore money accounts, most of them have more money they than they could ever spend and this goes for all rich people but they are OCD do they stop making money no they carry on robbing the poor to satisfy thier own cravings for more and more money sad but true.
2Steve Gwynne May 3rd, 2020
The think the problem for any ecological/environmental group is how to address the inherent unsustainability of large cities. It is cities that represent the global ecological challenge with the needs of city based populations constituting the most prolific level of ecological degradation imaginable as a result of much needed imports from other national and global regions.
Within the context of mega cities and their hard wired need for import dependancies (which are predominately fulfilled by corporations) the creation of localised economies within big cities presents an overwhelming challenge since most city based economic transactions are solely reliant on nonlocalised economic activity.
In this respect, mega cities in particular represent what might be considered an ecological aberration and are as a result an ecological niche that predominantly represents ecological redundancy especially within the context of the trophic pyramid.
The inherent unsustainability of mega cities are why they are historically prone to collapse which is compensated for by inverting the trophic 10% rule.
(According to the ten percent rule, only 10% of the total energy entering a particular trophic level is available for transfer to the next trophic level and the rest of the energy is utilized and wasted by the organisms for their metabolic activities at each trophic level).
By this I mean cities contrive to invert the trophic pyramid and so rather than accept that secondary consumer cities are limited by the primary producing bottom level upon which they ecologically rely, they instead impose their demands on to the primary producer level which more often than not violates the 10% rule whether it is due to overconsumption or overpopulation.
This inversion is in my opinion the basis of anthropocentrism and why cities in particular are prone to anthropocentrism and are so deeply reliant on ecocidal import dependancies. As such, cities are the primary problem and this is where our attention needs to be in order to reimagine our cities within the trophic pyramid 10% rule.
This probably means population control and management, greening up grey infrastructure using nature based solutions, utilising reduced impact synthetic foods stuff and materials including hydrogen technologies to power public transit systems, making better use of human sewerage for phosphorus and biogas, vertical farming, community sharing enterprises, etc etc.
Therefore, if low impact localised economies are to take root in cities then they will probably need to intersect with these more forward thinking economic initiatives whether it be localised fertility and reproduction management through citizens advice clinics, sex management therapy, localised ecosystem service enterprises, localised synthetic food labs, localised transportation technology research hubs, localised sewerage treatment plants, localised vertical farms and localised smallholding allotments and of course localised mutual credit services.
3Grandfather Michael May 4th, 2020
The drive for a human evolutionary step forward has intensified even without many of us realizing it. That is evidenced in the UK Independent newspaper’s analysis that people don’t want to go back to normal. I don’t for one moment pretend to know even some of the key elements.
I repeatedly get the “ah yes” signals from many contributors working on this “what’s going on?” and its not about conspiracy theories. At 85, having lived through the London blitz of W.W. 2 and now under virus isolation, there are interestingly relevant factors.
World War 2…. Emergency measures imposed by government to help the war effort; nighttime blackout; women working on jobs they wouldn’t have chosen; food rationing; children evacuated from family homes to live in safe parts of U.K.
It demonstrated ability for government to limit choice partly through fear partly out of safety and security to achieve survival. This against the backdrop of fear with the actual nightly bombing.
World pandemic 2020…. Emergency isolation of population by national governments; massive support physically and emotionally for health workers; government imposition of work priorities; limiting freedom of movement;
Again demonstrating ability of government to limit choice partly through fear, out of safety to achieve survival. All against a daily media dose of numbers of deaths.
The human mind at basic level will always operate out of fear. It’s flight or fight. Perhaps its in Elon Musk’s mind when he backs more space travel.
So is another approach possible? Is it realistically attainable? I suggest there is, and it is through an evolution of us as a species toward a holistic way of thinking and actions, inclusive and more respectful of all life forms rather than the man the hunter gatherer from Neolithic period of anthropocentrism. What is nature teaching us by using a micro organism to stop planes, cars, indulgent food lifestyles etc.? Im assuming we accept we are part of nature. But do we recognize she is a living entity?
When we are born, we don’t have a gun in our hand. We are loved and supported most often. What grinds us down in our early years to become the job seeker, the obsessive hunter gather? Survival becomes distorted.
A few years back there was a voice that said “live simply that others may simply live”. Clearly one major hurdle is total global population which is on the path of unsustainability. Do we resort to war to reduce the 7.8 billion? The hunter gatherer again. All the time this repeats itself under the cloak of democracy or a ‘free” world. Rubbish! We’ve failed again to realize our lesson and evolve.
The evolutionary journey will be mapped by our willingness to make change ,…..at individual person level, …. At community group level… at national level…. And at panglobal level. Have we found sufficient tools to do the job? Certainly the global brain of human collective consciousness has internet so where else do we look for the key?
A cautionary tale… when we founder members of the Old Hall community began to deal with Babergh Council building regs. In 1974, at the first meeting we were asked “who is in charge?” Our instantaneous reply was “We all are”. This was met with total disbelief by the council rep. But after an uncomfortable questioning, we stood our position and finally the council discussion took place with acceptance on our terms.
4naresh May 4th, 2020
I did this interview before the Covid crisis took over all of our lives. It was in early March when we just starting to see something coming out of China. How amazing to see the scale of change that is possible in such a short time. I am amazed each and every day. Thank you for you comments.
Grandfather Michael; I do think the blitz is an interesting comparison, and we have been hearing about the war on Covid- because we understand this language and this metaphor. But to my mind it is deeply unhelpful. Charles Eisenstein did a very good exploration of this.
Steve Gwynne- i agree that cities are a problem , and i view them as an artifact of the fossil fuel age. We have had mnay debates and ideas about cities, and the Transition movement over the years. And why Transition didn’t take off in cities as much as rural areas. And i think its because we don’t want to see the inherent sustainability of cities, because it is a huge problem, and one that is not easy to solve.
5Grandfather Michael May 7th, 2020
Naresh, there are indeed interesting comparisons with the W.W. 2 times. The common enemy was quickly perceived and additionally to those engaged directly with the war “machine” the movement called Dig for Victory began. The allotment to grow your own food quickly emerged, I knew how to grow Parsnips at 7 years old for example.
But what has swamped us now seems to be a level of fear spoken and written from a media that creates a toxic environment of confusion, mistrust and conspiracy. This is why a positive bottom up movement like Transition Towns I hoped would make quicker progress than it has.
Surely theres got to be a way forward on this level to avoid the competitive “hunter gatherer” which does not befit the homo sapiens sapiens achievement (Sapiens meaning wisdom). Bee and ant colonies appear to achieve their objectives with only 1 queen… purely for reproduction purposes so no hierarchy or ego of the mind to impede.
Some of the intentional human communities are now well over 50 years old, is there something we can learn from them? And begin a new chapter in positive human social order?