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The Role of Values in Responding to Major Social Change: Christian Churches and the Transition Town Movement

This AHRC-funded project, directed by Professor Tim Gorringe and Dr Stewart Barr (Geography), focused on the value assumptions that underlie the Transition Town movement, comparing these with the Christian tradition and asking what each can learn from the other.

The Transition Movement, which began in this country in 2005 having first been developed in Kinsale, attempts to build communities where energy descent (learning to live without cheap oil) will not be a threat but a promise, leading to a richer, less destructive and more cooperative pattern of life. Its primary appeal is to permaculture, which provides, in the words of its founder, Rob Hopkins, its 'ethics and philosophy', but Transition groups have also developed 'Heart and Soul' or 'Inner Transition' groups, which look for the cultural resources to sustain a peaceful and positive future after peak oil, and appeal to a wide range of resources including Buddhist spirituality, ecopsychology, self-help, addiction therapy, and the spirituality of earth based religions.

In a famous book, The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull argued that the Ik people of Uganda disintegrated socially and culturally after they were expelled from their traditional lands to make way for a national park and under the pressure of two years of famine. He claimed they abandoned childcare and that all sorts of anti-social behaviour proliferated. These claims were later contested but the possibility of social breakdown of one form or another is obvious, and Jared Diamond has documented many of these in his book Collapse.

Our society has learned to take cheap energy, and therefore cheap food and rapid transport anywhere, for granted. To judge by the indignation that petrol price rises spark these things are now taken as a basic human right. What will happen when peak oil, the end of cheap energy, makes this impossible? The difficulties caused by this will be augmented by the damage caused by climate change, which may well happen much faster than experts have predicted. Could Western cultures collapse into violence and anarchy? Could there be a scramble for resources based on force?

Our research sought to clarify the spiritual and value assumptions underlying transitioning, to compare them with those of the Christian tradition, and to see what each can learn from the other.  We sought to understand how Christian spirituality differs from that to which the Transition Movement appeals, and to see in what ways, if at all, Christianity can contribute to a peaceful transition to a low energy society.

The research raised questions about the most fundamental construals of the nature of Christianity, including the ideas of salvation, sin and grace, and the work of God in the world. How do classical Christian ideas relate to the ideas of healing splits in consciousness, between mind and body, self and others, self and nature, community and nature? Do such understandings propose new ways of thinking about sin and salvation? Does the extent of secularisation in Britain mean that the Church’s response is largely irrelevant?

Our research assistant, Justin Pollard, worked with with local Transition groups, and sought to understand their approach to social change, and the values which sustain them. In addition to scholarly articles on Church and resource depletion, Dr Rosemary Beckham produced a popular publication which made Transition accessible to Christian groups. Professor Tim Gorringe analysed the literature and to responded to it theologically. We hope that our publications are useful not simply to the Transition movement but also make a contribution to a more resilient, co-operative and peaceful future for society as a whole.