Naresh Giangrande, co-founder of Transition Network, on the future of local economies

Naresh Giangrande, co-founder of Transition Network: the future for local economies

This is an interview with Naresh Giangrande, co-founder of Transition Totnes and the Transition Network.

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.

Highlights

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

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