The Ballerina and the Bull toward Transition

Dr Richard Nunes is a lecturer in the School of Real Estate and Planning at Henley Business School. His interest lies in innovation systems, industry restructuring and its implications for local and regional economic development. His current work includes community efforts to replicate sustainability transition initiatives, and policy efforts to scale-up ‘grassroots innovations’ into more systemic approaches to sustainable development.

In ‘My Hometown’, from his 1985 Born in the USA album, Bruce Springsteen takes a nostalgic look at his hometown of Freehold Borough, New Jersey, at the economic tensions of a working class community. Nearly three decades later, in ‘Death to My Hometown’, off his Wrecking Ball album out next week, Springsteen’s ‘angry patriotism’ over the financial crisis, a corrupt Wall Street and growing income inequality is combined with a sense of defiance and hope – “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got….Bring on your wrecking ball”.

This verse from the ‘Wrecking Ball’ track recounts the recent demolition of the Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey) – an analogy to the economic and social blow of the global financial crisis. In a Paris press conference last month, at the Théâtre Marigny, Springsteen claims that “previous to Occupy Wall Street, there was no push back at all”, saying this was outrageous: “a basic theft that struck at the heart of what America was about, a complete disregard for the American sense of history and community.”

However, the decampment and exodus of Occupy LSX (London) from St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this week is not a sign of a movement gone or forgotten. As former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral  Dr. Giles Fraser, who resigned in protest at plans to forcibly evict Occupy protesters, states: “You cannot evict an idea.” There is an element of truth to this assertion. Indeed on the day of Occupy LSX’s eviction from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral by legal mandate, more than 60 Occupy groups and 30 environmental, food and corporate accountability organisations united in more than 100 events across the globe on February 27, 2012 in Occupy Our Food Supply – a global day of action to end corporate exploitation of food supply systems. Among the many Occupy groups and participating organisations were Occupy LSX and Reclaim the Fields UK.

‘Occupy’ has created a space for dialogue. It has been populated by individuals, organisations and movements including the Transition (Town) Network – a transnational grassroots social movement that seeks to deal with climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy (‘peak oil’) through individual behavioural change and collective action. The Transition Movement has its origins in a small English town (Totnes, Devon) six years prior to Occupy Wall Street (Zuccotti Park, NYC) on September 17, 2011. After his visit to the Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, found that “what Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space. It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing”.  Is it is an angle from which local Transition groups can take forward their efforts to make communities more resilient?

Erik Curren, for the Post Carbon Institute, acutely questions: “How should people in the Transition Movement wear the mask of Occupy?”  The debate on how to engage the Occupy movement is clear: Occupy and the Transition Movement are two faces of the same coin of socio-economic and environmental ‘spatial justice’. Peak oil and climate change are a threat to just forms of economic development, and economic reforms alone are partial at best without a transition from fossil fuels to more resilient, lower carbon systems. But Occupy reminds Transitioners that peak oil and climate change cannot be addressed adequately without democracy and fairness within economic systems.

To what extent and under which conditions can the Transition Movement contribute to the mitigation of high unemployment and hunger in cities of the global north and south alongside its efforts to address climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy? Answers to this question raise a number of concerns regarding the ‘scale-up’ of community-based social innovation and enterprise for gradual radical transformation. All things considered, the Janus faces of Occupy Transition are underpinned by the energy of mutual defiance and hope, and creativity as in Occupy Our Food Supply – embodied in community initiatives such as Transition Heathrow. From ‘Transition Town’ to ‘Hometown’ the Ballerina is to the Bull (in the iconic image of Occupy) as Bruce Springsteen is to the Wrecking Ball. “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got….Bring on your wrecking ball”.

For introductory notes on new pilot research on Community Planning and Transition go to:

3 thoughts on “The Ballerina and the Bull toward Transition

  1. Really enjoyable piece, thanks for sharing it Richard. Some of what you describe puts me in mind of the discussion had at the recent AAG Conference around Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ and its continuing resonance, and also the work of geographers such as Doreen Massey whose work on the political potential of space seems more pertinent than ever…

  2. Like Emma I agree that the key point in all of this discussion is the ‘space’ in our cities that is being occupied. The space where any citizens can claim the right to speak, the space where citizens demand the right to access any part of their city.

    This ‘space’ has a long history. The Ancient Greeks called it the ‘polis’ or more accurately, the ‘politia’. The political domain, or the public domain, the domain of culture, theatre and art, the place where a ‘civilised’ community would gather. This gathering was called the ‘ecclesia’ of citizens. They distinguished it from the ‘economia’, or economy, literally ‘the management of the household’, which was the space where we managed our daily needs, provided ourselves housing, food, clothing etc. Having separate spaces was important because different rules applied in each space. The economy was governed, they argued, by the rules of nature, the survival of the fittest. When their basic needs were satisfied, though, they could be free and those rules need no longer apply. This is what we mean by man conquering nature and it is also why their was so much discussion in Classical Greece about how to build a good city (read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s The Politics’ for good summaries).

    So the political domain/ public domain was populated only by free citizens, people who were free of economic obligations and responsibilities, people who stood as equals and therefore allowed each citizen the opportunity not just to speak but to be heard. A democratic city is one where the citizens are equal and everyone is heard, not one where we forfeit our rights by voting every few years. This is why communities must be small and scaling-up is not as important as suggested. More complex needs or rarer skills can be satisfied by collaboration between local communities.

    The Jewish tradition focused not just on the separate space but also on a separate time. They called it the ‘Sabbath’. One day in seven that was not governed by ‘economy’ but was focused instead on community.

    The last time Europe experienced a anything remotely like our current global economy was during the peak of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was a trading empire, linked by roads that were guarded by soldiers to ensure trade would continue. The Pax Romana was established in 27BC. About 60 years later a revolution occurred that would change human history. The poor and the disenchanted started gathering in local communities, they adopted the Greek ideas and called themselves the ‘ecclesia’ of citizens. They adopted the Jewish idea of the ‘Sabbath’ but chose a different day to differentiate themselves from other Jews and so that their ideas would appeal to all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike because we are all one human family. They ensured their space and time was seen as sacred, separate from the economy, a place for community development, where individuals focused not on themselves but on others and how each could help others in their community.

    In 1945 the United Nations was established and has been referred to as the Pax Americana the modern day equivalent of the Pax Romana, where the world is guarded to ensure that trade continues. Unfortunately the information super-highways cannot be guarded in the same way as the Roman highways.

    It has been just over 60 years since the Pax Americana was established…

  3. Dear Richard,

    a very interesting piece – especially as I am a Springsteen fan! The comments to your blog posting are entirely salient to the present world situation, and it is good to be reminded that Transition is not new, in the sense of the establishment of “ecclesia” in response to the Pax Romana. If there has been an effective Pax Universalis since the end of WWII, of a global world economy, which is failing due to failing resources, especially crude oil, or will do so shortly, the Transition might be seen as a community-led response.

    Seriously, I think that transitioning Reading will be no mean undertaking. The “successful” T-towns – that is to say, where an Energy Descent Plan, which is core to the philosophy and business of Transition – are those with populations of < 10,000, out in the sticks somewhere.

    In Reading, we have a population of around 250,000, and are highly dependent on London to bring money into the town. An almost equal number of workers commute out of Reading daily (mostly to London) and from the surrounds, many from London, to do jobs in Reading for which these is insufficient local skills-base.

    Reading remains a town – as in the name of the football club – but is the size of many cities. Therefore, our problems/challenges are quite different from say, Totnes, Lewes, Dunbar, Lampeter, Kinsale etc. where at least a plan has been devised. Even there, however, putting the plan into practice to become effectively "oil-free" over a period of 20 years, is another matter.

    Meanwhile, we are working on devising an EDAP for Reading.

    I am forwarding the links to other members of the TT Reading group.



    (Professor) Christopher James Rhodes.
    Author of new novel, a black-comedy:
    "University Shambles"
    Nominated for Brit Writers' Awards 2011: Published Writer of the Year.

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