Happy news year everyone! Transition Free Press is all about responding to the social and ecological storms that now confront us and if you haven’t read our winter edition yet there are some great stories in its pages about people who are using their ingenuity, skill, intelligence and good-heartedness to forge the kinds of enterprises and networks that help us do just that:
One of these stories is how the Transition movement gives people a chance to encounter and forge a new narrative and sense of identity. At a recent meeting about the upcoming book on Transitional arts practice, Playing for Time, contributors discussed how tramline arguments (for and against) and old cultural stories keep us trapped in very limited ways of being in the world. Whole portions of ourselves, especially those parts configured to work creatively in groups, are not given a chance to be acted out. As a result many possibilities for the future are not seen or made manifest.
One of my favourite pieces in our current issue is in the Talkback section. It originated in a conversation about Transition and communications with researcher and communications designer, Chris Thornton when he visited the UK this autumn. Talkback is the opinion section of the paper where writers can air their views and philosophies: where there is space and time to reflect on the bigger picture. This piece sits alongside Brett Scott on Permacultural Finance and Zoe Wangler on the Ecological Land Co-op.
BTW If you would like to order copies of TFP4 for your initiative, business or next Transition event, do get in touch with Mark Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org). Charlotte Du Cann
by Chris Thornton
As I was preparing my proposal for PhD research on communication and sustainability, I came across the first of two unsettling clarifications. In a 2002 Dutch designer Jan Van Toorn, crystalized the impacts of industrial and communication design on society: “Design,” he says, “has become an efficient, world-wide instrument for the colonisation of being.” It takes little more than a trip to the shops or some TV channel-hopping to grasp this; that the nature of being in the world is subsumed into corporate strategy. It implies that we are a symptom of the scale and reach of industrialised storytelling, conditioning what is meaningful and what we aspire to be in our lives; it tells us that the modern act of consumption has become inexorably tied to identity.
As a designer and educator I remain in a minority of my field who share concern about this issue and its social and ecological effects. Communication design is a practice of storytelling, but similar to other manufactured outputs, advertising and media narratives create ‘externalities’ that our industry fails to recognise. Through persistent appeals to our extrinsic values for power, wealth, image and status we have become highly individualised by a shift to our sense of self. Psychologically, this shift insulates us from one another and the natural world.
Through it we have largely forgotten the experience of collective empowerment and our place in a wider bio-social ecology. But, in reading about the Transition Network last year, I was struck by a second clarification: it seemed Transition was attempting something unprecedented in the environmental movement. In its model for localisation, social resilience and collective action, Transition deliberately creates space for people to reconfigure their sense of self. In very practical ways it offers opportunities to grow and celebrate new personal narratives that encompass human and non-human others. Forming identity is thought to be, in part, an ongoing process of self-narration, so I became interested in how Transition might affect this. I wondered what we designers can learn from Transition to develop communications that genuinely support sustainability, instead of co-opting it into increasing swathes of greenwash?
The research resulting from this spans four Transition communities across the UK and South Australia where I now live. These include Transition Towns Lewes and Leicester, selected for their well-established projects and likely socio-cultural differences; and Transition Adelaide Hills and Transition Gawler in South Australia, both younger groups with their own geographical and social challenges. Using interviews, observations and my own participation I am examining the personal, social and contextual stories that motivate sustainable behaviour. The narrative accounts so far have been telling and I have begun to see some poignant indicators of why Transition succeeds, and where it may need to adapt.
One of the clearest examples of success, and the one most likely to influence self-perception, is the act of ‘doing’. In the majority of narratives shared so far, engagement in practical activities seems highly significant to furthering personal commitment to change. Theory surrounding this suggests that human freedom is recovered by reclaiming the potential of being as act. Action reminds us of our innate potential for choice and making real the things we value. In acting for Transition, people may find increased agency and self-determination. Furthermore, where action is socialised or collaborative, the sense of connection and responsibility to others encourages it to continue. It can ease commitment to change and stimulate intrinsic cultural values that transcend self-interest. This may be particularly important to young people where participation in personal and collective action may be critical to liberating identity from systematised corporate influences.
Other conversations have highlighted that Transition may need to significantly deepen its reach through other language forms in the arts, design, literature, music and performance to present it as visual as well as social culture. There is potential for applying Transition philosophy to serious creative output publicly. In the same way that permaculture relates as much to people as it does to land, Transition is as much about communication as it is about practice. Given time and critical effort it has the capacity to reshape our narrative ecology and provide new space for human authenticity amid the milieu of marketing and media noise. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Chris Thornton is a lecturer in Communication Design and a PhD candidate with the Zero Waste SA Research Centre for Sustainable Design and Behaviour at the University of South Australia.
Images: Transition Willesden wassail by Jonathan Goldberg from TFP4 welcome; Transition Leicester CSA from TFP1