"How did we do that?" Transitions from one system to another can sometimes be rapid. Let's try it

The word "transition" is a big concept in our scene. It usually points to the need to profoundly shift our economic, social and energy models, in the face of environmental and planetary limits.  A transition - as you might imagine, from those beautiful butterflies above - is a profound change in form. But it best takes place organically, in a naturally developing way.

This is the ethos of the Transition Towns Network, where change towards a more sustainable way of life begins locally, with those people, resources and structures near to you. The brilliance of Transition Network is that they make their practice so copyable, and so easily mutually supportive - and thus its model and practices have spread globally.

But there's maybe a question to be raised occasionally: How long, at this town-by-town pace, will the necessary change take? As we've been worryingly sizzling under heat in the UK over the last few weeks, we've heard anecdotally (as no doubt you have) eco-anxieties being voiced. Are we too late? Can we speed up our response to climate change? 

So we're delighted to find - as things cool down - this excellent pamphlet from the STEPS organisation, written by some big thinkers on these questions, called (wittily): How Did We Do That? The Possibility of Rapid Transitions (launch page, download PDF). 

Usefully, they proceed from a basic inquiry - which is to research and then briefly tell the story of rapid transitions (and not just environmentally defined) in recent history. Their content page shows what they're covering: 

How we’ve changed

  • When volcanoes erupt: the Eyjafjallajökull explosion in Iceland, and how people adapted to when the ashes shut everything down
  • In extreme circumstances: How Rojava and Greece responded to economic and military shocks
  • When work changes: The Netherlands' 4 day week has embedded itself in the society
  • When culture shifts: How consumerism shifted, when Sao Paulo began to ban adverts
  • When new movements emerge: Transition Towns and Ecuador's Buen Vivir as inspirational exemplars

How we’ve changed the world around us

  • When homes are needed: After the Second World War, millions of houses were publicly built in the UK
  • When you need transport: Post-war highways, containerisation and electric trains were grand acts of construction
  • When you need clean energy: Costa Rica, Denmark, Germany and the UK show how quickly it can be generated
  • When the world suddenly shifts: When the Soviet Union ended, Cuba was unplugged - but responded powerfully, improving health and wellbeing

How we’ve changed the economy

  • When Banks Fail: After the Crash in 2008, the state did what it had to, to save the economy
  • When you need a new deal: Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the US around in the 30's with visionary legislation
  • When a country reinvents itself: Iceland after the financial Crash fundamentally reexamined its way of governing 
  • When industries become obsolete: it's possible to shift spending from military industry to other forms
  • When conflict calls: faced with Nazism, Britain reorganised itself with startling speed
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Each of these headlines points to a fascinatingly detailed (but handily short) articles - well worth reading up at the full document. But from all of these examples, the authors try to draw up some "rapid transition" rules:

  1. Fairness matters: Demonstrable equity matters for the public acceptability of rapid change. This is especially true if and where there is any perceived sacrifice to be made for the greater good. It is for this reason that under economic austerity policies the issue of tax avoidance and high pay shot up the political agenda.
  2. Working together works and creates new possibilities: The experience of acting collectively to solve common challenges itself creates self-reinforcing possibilities for further transformative action, often unanticipated.
  3. We’re actually good at change: New social norms can quickly take root in everything from working patterns, to transport use, attitudes surrounding prejudice, what is considered social or anti-social behaviour, and patterns of consumption in everything from food to drink, clothing, and social media.
  4. Public leadership is needed: Initial public investment in a sector or activity can leverage disproportionately larger levels of investment from other sources, and visible public sector leadership on issues can trigger broader change. For example, if government departments visibly shift to using renewable energy, public transport, ethical procurement and shorter hours, it sends a signal. More comprehensive approaches to change, embracing investment, cultural shifts, and new governance approaches, can lead to self- reinforcing change.
  5. There’s no one path: Rapid transitions can result from bottom up and top down approaches, and combinations of the two, but ensuring that top down approaches are equitable and inclusive is a key challenge.
  6. Boldness is good: In economic terms, ‘shove’ rather than ‘nudge’ approaches are more likely to achieve rapid change. The rediscovery of industrial strategy shows there is scope for enlightened leadership. Despite economic orthodoxy, there can be intervention in the market, instead of assuming all change must come from price signals.
  7. Connect actions with reasons: In making the case for change it is important to keep links between cause and effect, in order that changes do not appear inexplicable and randomly imposed. Campaigns to reduce smoking and drink driving, for example, emphasise the damage it does not just to the smoker and drinker but to their nearby loved ones and others.
  8. Inaction costs: It matters always to be clear about both the costs of inaction and the benefits of action.
  9. Pleasant surprises do happen: Change always brings with it unplanned and unexpected consequences – but it can also bring unintended benefits, such as the well-being gains of shorter working weeks and the health benefits of rationing.
  10. Agitation is necessary: Agitation in the face of overwhelming odds, and even likely failure, can be a common and necessary feature of great achievements. Movements for race and gender equality, and against colonialism and homophobia, show clearly how progressive political change from above – by governments and others – often has its roots in long fought struggles from below.
  11. Accepting boundaries triggers innovation: Setting new parameters around consumption – such as introducing safe limits on the burning of fossil fuels – can unleash innovation and reveal great, nascent adaptive capacity. Businesses, societies and whole economies adapt to new ‘rules of the game’ remarkably quickly.
  12. Value experiences, not ‘stuff’: Material consumption of ‘stuff’ in rich industrialised countries can be substituted by spending on experiential activities that benefit well-being.

Below is a video playlist of interesting speakers telling us what they think rapid transition might mean. For more, go to the book's website.