What can any of us do in the face of planetary catastrophe?
Staring into the ecological abyss, it's easy to feel small and unimportant. Edward Abbey wrote truly, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." But it's often hard to see how any actions we might actually take, as individuals, will have any meaningful effect, whatsoever: leaving aside the pablum about small steps and each doing our part, we all know in our hearts that taking out the recycling will not do much to slow the melting of Greenland.
The best thing, the really hopeful thing, about the Transition Town movement is that it breaks the emotional isolation privatized responsibility inflicts on us, and makes us part of a group working together towards change.
1) What are Transition Towns?
Transition Towns are communities in which some citizens have gotten together to follow a twelve-step process to make their towns more resilient despite energy shortages, climate change or economic collapse. At its best, "Transition thinking" offers participants a chance to do something direct and hopeful while the storm clouds gather on the horizon.
That volatile emotional mix of fear and hope has made it the most rapidly growing dark green movement in the world. Since we first wrote about the transition towns almost four years ago, the movement has taken off, with people in perhaps as many as 250 towns now actively taking part.
Those people are mobilizing the solutions readily available to them, from farmers' markets to skills swaps. There's just no way to see it as anything other than terrific that people are coming together, recognizing the magnitude of the problems we face, and looking for paths to more resilient prosperity. (Further explorations of transition efforts can be found in the extremely interesting Transition Initiatives Primer [PDF] and in The Transition Handbook).
2) The Limits of Transition Town Approaches
Yet, ultimately, the Transition Town approach stifles its own potential impact.
The Transition movement seems saturated with what Michael Lerner called "surplus powerlessness" disguised as practicality. All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse... and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap.
Transition thinking seems obsessively focused on coordinating individual actions (like helping people barter their free time or connecting people who want to garden); even at its most ambitious, it generally focuses on building alternative systems (say, starting a local currency scheme) rather than reforming the larger systems that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations).
Part of this is the legacy of the counter-culture out of which it emerged. Part of this is that Transition Towns aim to offer a way to step out of emotional paralysis by saying "just go ahead and do something, anything." Part of it is intentional: groups spread more rapidly when the demands placed on their members are minimal. However, the approach also betrays a far darker mindset.
3) The Dark Side of Transition Thinking
The movement's founder, Rob Hopkins, talks almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly. Jennifer Gray, the founder of Transition U.S. (the American wing of the movement) told a New York Times reporter that she expects “a big population die-off." Board member Richard Heinberg says that central governments will "have to self-destruct in favor of local autonomy" and that "overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease."
That sort of casual eagerness for the death of others is appalling. Worse, the strategy implicit in this vision of transitioning -- that there can be local soft landings in the event of a global hard crash, that indeed the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level, and that perhaps collapse will solve some of our problems -- is delusional.
Collapse is not a tool for social change. It's essentially impossible to look at history and find a case where large-scale collapse has lead to anything other than lots of destruction, hunger, disease, suffering and a decline into widespread violence and warlordism. If you want to see what happens when large numbers of urban people encounter situational collapse, look at what happened in Liberia. Anyone who thinks an energy descent plan prepared by a community group future-proofs them against people like Charles Taylor has simply taken a vacation from reality.
Local efforts can't protect against the violence of a systemic breakdown. The same thing is true of public health and epidemiology, of disaster response and trauma care, of famine protection and crop insurance, and so on and so on. To plan for the collapse of large-scale systems is to plan for widespread evil and suffering; ethical planning for the collapse is impossible: post-collapse idealism is oxymoronic.
Indeed, if anything, places that are by global standards rich and well-educated need to be preparing to be bulwarks of stability in a chaotic world, to be more deeply invested in making things work for everyone.
4) What We Need Instead: Bright Green Citizens
What we need is a movement of local efforts aimed at changing things that matter at scales that matter, based on the politics of optimism. The first step in those efforts is to stop seeing the systems we depend on as out of our control. They aren't, and that we're so convinced they are is a testament to the dedication of the powers that be to shoo us away from interfering in their profits.
Cynicism, boredom and fear are their tools. They reinforce, at every opportunity, the idea that government is broken, that civic engagement is for dupes, that real rebellion involves shutting up, making money and spending it. They craft public process to sap the will of the public to engage: as Richard White writes, bureaucracies use boredom the way a skunk uses smell. They make an effort to keep us in a state of constant economic and social anxiety undermining our willingness to connect with and trust each other. Whether these tools are used consciously or unconsciously is completely beside the point -- you can apply whatever degree or lack of conspiracy theory you like: the effects are observable, and well-documented.
The great secret here is that we are more powerful than any of us usually admits. While it is true that organized greed beats unorganized democracy every time, it's also true that organized, educated, passionate democracy is the most powerful political force ever seen, and we live amidst an exploding proliferation of tools for organizing our communities, sharing our knowledge and connecting our passions.
What is more, we live in a time where transparency and collaborative insight give ad hoc groups the capacity to understand the vast, complex systems we depend on, but which the powers that be have cloaked in layers of exclusionary expertise, regulation and jargon. We are not only capable of understanding the systems around us, but of imagining and inventing their replacements, and mobilizing the constituency to make that happen.
5) Designing a Movement with a Future
Transition Town efforts are engineered, like almost all modern movements, but they're engineered to solve the wrong problems.
What would it take to design a movement that actually changed what needs to be changed? How can we design a networked movement that aims to forestall and undo catastrophe, by building bright green regions and sharing innovation?
Here are a few of the larger design challenges involved:
We don't yet know how to do all this, but we can iterate our way into it through experimentation, exploration and innovation, consciously practicing ally etiquette to link efforts across a spectrum of systems into a collaborative whole. Indeed, since the whole thing starts with vision, simply sharing our visions for what this looks like is a huge step in the right direction.
We don't need to wait for some mythical cultural awakening, either. There are more than enough of us, already. In most cities around the world, a fraction of one percent of the citizens getting energized and turning out -- using new tools to learn together, coordinate strategy and exert public pressure -- would feel like a tsunami of democracy and creative engagement.
And hidden allies can be found everywhere. Public life is full of people who want to see change, but need political cover. Change agents await activation in our government agencies, businesses, schools, political parties and media. If we can begin to engage the systems in which they've been quietly laboring at the systems level, we can expect unseen helpers in unexpected places.
It's time to make ourselves into the people who can do what's needed. To fight the powers that be, we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be, building the future we want.
To say there's a "casual eagerness for the death of others" in the Transition Town movement is inaccurate. I'm not denying the quotes, but they also misrepresent the character of those you quote. I'm sure I could find a quote of yours that misquotes you, so to speak.
TT grew up in reaction to that kind of peak oil thinking; and is popular because it rejects that kind of doomster-ism. Constructing this kind of straw man is a little bit like Elizabeth Kolbert on No Impact Man (she's better than that).
I do think it could be stronger on connecting with professional planners; and in fact they tend to catch on to and be in favor of this kind of thinking (many of them have got caught in a the boring bureaucracy, but went there in search of citizen participation at the beginning of their careers).
You would do well, however, to write a post on "casual eagerness for the death of others"-- I'm disappointed how many friends of mine and bloggers don't get that it would resemble Sarajevo and Post-Katrina, not some Arcadia.
John Michael Greer points this out often.
That is a very thought-provoking piece, Alex.
A few quibbles demonstrate the need to 'iterate our way into it'. In particular, having criticised the transition town movement for starting over rather than re-engineer what they have, you introduce 'bright green citizens' as 'what we should do *instead*' ('as well' is less of a faux pas)
But, heck, these are just things that slipped through the review phase. Definitely worth expanding on.
(Waffle mode on...)
I often find myself viewing things as a cynic (hey, my full initials are ARF!), but it's usually to hold a darkly amusing mirror up to emphasise what I think is wrong (eg: my definition of politics: the art of diverting the efforts of the many to the needs of the few). Still, I can see it does enforce the meme of 'how it's done now is broken. Give it up'. Maybe 'recycle, reuse, reduce' can be applied to processes as well as things?
Speaking of processes brings me to a point I want to make about standards: the better ones tell you *what* you should do, and leave the *how* to the implementors.
Make this more concise and eject most of the criticism of Transition Towns and you've got the beginnings of a workable manifesto.
I think what Transition Towns offers has its place. I think what you suggest has its place. There is no one solution. It'll take an ecosystem of solutions. In light of this way of seeing what's unfolding, the critique of Transition Towns comes off a tad harsh. I think a politics of optimism includes appreciating what every individual and group can contribute rather than drawing lines.
There's a lot of good beyond this in your post, particularly the suggestions. Very inspiring. We'll need to work on all levels to reform, prepare, live, and celebrate.
I have to say I'm more than a little surprised by what you've written here Alex.
I also completely agree with Jim's comments that point 3 utterly misrepresents transition thinking. Those views occasionally (sadly more and more frequently) surface, but that's nothing to do with the Transition movement and more to do with the promotion of casually bleak Lovelockian thinking by the media and others.
I think you're also far too swift to do the movement down. It's barely 4 years old. Younger than Worldchanging. Give it a chance! You haven't changed the world yet either (although you're doing a very fine job).
In my view we need what you propose AND true, local grassroots action. If all these Transition Towns springing up independently, finding appropriate solutions for their local community then come together... well then maybe the platform for these system changes that are so desperately needed might appear.
It certainly seems a viable route to breaking the cynicism that you describe.
(as you might be able to tell I'm involved in a Transition Initiative in London)
Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
Between these comments, commentary elsewhere and the back-channel messages/email I've gotten, it's pretty clear that at least two things have touched a nerve here. It's late here, but I want to respond to these two now.
The first is the section "3) The Dark Side of Transition Thinking"
I've gotten quite a lot of feedback already on this set of points (including, oddly to my mind, three different people who took exception to my phrase "Collapse is not a tool for social change.")
I want to be clear that I don't think Transitioners are a bunch of ghouls, thirsting for post-collapse blood. But I stand by the use of the quotes above to illustrate a larger point, which is that many in the movement assume that a collapse is coming, that communities can plan meaningfully to become resilient in the face of it, and that a collapse may have its positive sides.
That belief set is not uncommon in the movement; not in the literature, not in the online discussions, and not among participants I've spoken with. So I'm sorry if the quotes come off as personal attacks (they are, however, what these folks have said), but I stand by the larger characterization. There's a pretty damn dark current running through a lot of this particular crowd.
The second is that I've left a number of important design challenges -- such as innovating new ways to educate rich white people about racism and poverty, so they support the kinds of urban solutions that reverse injustice and inequality. I stand guilty as charged. It's not meant to be a comprehensive list, and I'm sure we could list a number of other important attributes of a bright green civic movement.
Feel free to add your ideas as comments, if you feel so inclined.
This post may be a welcome counterpoint to the deflated feeling I get while reading John Michael Greer, specifically this post. As Jim points out above, Greer rejects the view that collapse is a good thing, although he is convinced that it is inevitable.
I say that Alex's post above is a good counterpoint because, although the scale of the damage we've caused to the environment may mean that any action is too late, predictions that 'the future is going to be like this' should be considered with skepticism. People, movements, perhaps technologies, and especially events can change the future in ways no one can anticipate.
I agree however with many of the commenters above about Transition Towns, I also think it's an important (and young) movement that actually does operate on a systems level (albeit smaller level for now) in terms of reconfiguring how people relate to their community (local food, local currency).
On another note, about the first point in the list of design challenges (revealing systems draped in complexity), does this website about fisheries qualify as an example? Disclosure: I helped create it.
Careful so you don't fall over the media edge Alex. This is very close to bashing instead of inspiring for ratings.
After the how-to you add "We do not yet know how to do all this..." well, some people do part of it already and you point out a few good practices yourself so that really doesn't make any sense (to me ;o)).
I personally think Transition towns is a good concept and whatever some 'radicals' say (you can't get away from those) they are working for a better future, not running around trying to bring about this said collapse.
Keep inspiring and informing!
Your posts are thought provoking and inspiring. However, I must disagree with your statement describing the Transition Town crowd, "That sort of casual eagerness for the death of others is appalling." I am not involved with the Transition Town movement, but talk with those who are involved. I do not feel this doomer vibe from them at all.
I feel they want to save the world too. Instead of trying to change the national and global bureaucracies that perpetuate this ecologically unsustainable world, the Transition Town movement take action on the local level. They hope that their example will inspire others to take action. In your post, you have mentioned that the movement has inspired 250 towns to join them. I believe that even if their strategy is different from yours does not mean that it is bad one or that those who practice it have ill will.
Also, Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg are friends but have different points of view. Hopkins favors local, democratic decided solutions; Heinberg national governments to enforce solutions.
Doomerism is something that I find in some members of the Peak Oil movement, not in the Transition Town movement.
I don't see the sense of flaming the Transition Movement when instead you could have proposed how their overall striving toward low- or no-carbon, local, green, thriving communities (which I'm sure you don't disagree with) could translate to a city-level.
This piece fits into the dark-green/bright-green discussion, which I think should not be an "or" discussion but a dialogue (how much of our efforts do we put on innovating and how much on actually implementing them/taking action, how to get bright-green innovation to dark-green initiatives?).
On the other hand, in my experience, it is a fact that a lot is talked about a coming collapse in "these circles". Still, preparing for drastic change is one thing, looking forward to collapse is another.
Alex, this essay is a very interesting critique. For me, it's a bit muddled on what I see as one of the key points: TT folks (I'm not one but I've talked with them a bit) by and large disagree with you on what's possible / likely.
You seem to be saying that, because a Bright Green future is so much more desirable than some sort of Descent, we just have to figure out how to get there. Full stop.
Whereas TT seems to be saying "face it folks, we're at or past the peak of cheap energy, which will put significant and inevitable limitations on civilization." If you believe that, then I think the TT approach is shockingly optimistic.
Alex, this piece feels so divisive, out of context and in some cases simply not true. I am involved in the Transition Town movement as a trainer/facilitator and see and experience it as an extremely optimistic and realistic response to our current situation. Rob Hopkins the founder was a Permaculture Design Instructor and he and his students based their work on bringing permaculture design practices to the community scale. Have you actually done a Transition Training? Have read the materials? Have you been a part of a initiative or interviewed people who have? I am happy to talk to you about the work I've been doing in communities across California (Oakland, San Rafael, Los Angeles and Monterey County) that mostly includes strengthening existing environmental orgs, community groups, faith groups and local gov groups to work together to create resilinet networkds and develop (energy descent action plans) plans for thier local government. The movement does not discourage political action yet recognizes that it most effective on the grassroots and local scale. Please feel free to contact me to discuss kat [at] steelemoon.com
Looks to me like we need to start some conversations among local climate activists and bright green planners to get more of us on the same page. I agree that anything that smacks of selfish survivalism is not a solution for the planet. But Transition is the one model that has caught on at the local level.
Yes, Transition fills a vacuum where people who want to make a difference for the local future can at least organize and do something. I can only guess that most Transitioners are not selfish survivalists.
In any case, we need to begin providing more working and workable models for local municipalities and cities under stress. We need to get beyond thought leadership into practical action where people can plug in and know they're making a difference.
I couldn't agree more with what you have written here. When I first heard about the Transition movement, I was fascinated and kind of appalled at the same time.
I do like their focus on personal transformation, because I think that in order to create a future we want to live in, we need to become the kind of people who can create it.
But, in a larger sense, Transition feels like going back. It feels like giving up. All these years of strife and drama and we are just now starting to emerge into a truly worldcentric citizenry. How sad to go back to only caring about the folks in our towns and villages!
I was at a meeting here in NYC in the spring where the Sierra Club presented their transition plans for the city. I asked the question, "Transition seems to take the collapse of our society as a done deal. But is it? I mean, I don't want industrial society to collapse. For all its problems its done a lot of good. Is there no hope to redeem it rather than give up on it?"
Needless to say I did not get a satisfying answer.
Transition is great in that it gives people a framework to think and do something about the massive problems we are facing. The issue with it is that it thinks way too small.
At the same time, though, Bright Green can feel far off and unattainable. Like, if I'm not a brilliant designer or engineer, what can I contribute? Your list at the end of this piece starts to answer those questions but clearly there's a lot to figure out here as well.
For my part (and on my blog) I am focused on the internal changes we need to make in order to create a new kind of future. How do we develop our capacity to value and also judge between multiple viewpoints? Why is it important to see cynicism for what it is -- a sophisticated form of lazy victimized thinking -- and how can we think in new ways? Most importantly, how do we develop the moral backbone to take responsibility for what we've created instead of simply whining about it?
It's a tall order. And I deeply appreciate your massive contribution to this discussion.
Like many others, I take exception to your portrayal of the Transition Towns movement. While I have heard similar quotes, the context in which I heard them was in asking for speculation on what someone thought the future held. If, for example, one believes that our current mode of living as a country - even as a global populace - is horrendously unsustainable, it's not too much of a stretch to speculate some sort of breakdown of the system. Climate change science does it all the time! You are right to call out any apparent eagerness for death and destruction, but I think you've seriously overstated the case - set up a straw man, as someone posted earlier.
I'm not involved in any Transition Town efforts myself, but I see them as one of many great ways that people are taking action to move towards a more democratic, empowered and sustainable future. The movement seems to take that old dictum to heart: Think globally, act locally. We all only have so much energy to contribute as individuals and often times that energy is best expended on influencing local change. For example, 12 college students could write letters to the government of Bangladesh and to Reebok demanding an end to sweatshop labor or they could put pressure on their university which contracts with Reebok. Which should they do? Maybe both, but with limited resources and energy, the more direct route seems appropriate, while keeping other options for action at hand.
I also see the Transition Towns movement as a great way for rural communities to take action. More so than in cities, small town citizens can directly interact with their neighbors and their public officials and get a critical mass of people going on the effort, profoundly changing the way a community lives, grows its food, creates its energy, conducts its business, consumes, etc.
And this is another critique I have for you, Alex. I've mentioned it elsewhere a few times, but I've never received a response. All of your posts that I have read have concentrated on urban and suburban solutions. Perhaps this is the scope of your experience, but I would suggest it's an oversight - especially since an urban bias pervades Worldchanging's otherwise great coverage. While about 70% of the US population resides in urban clusters, these areas comprise only 2% of the US land mass. That leaves a huge area that is essentially rural or wilderness, but still subject to human effect. Many rural economies are intimately tied into the management of this huge land mass, and how they conduct their resource industries has a profound impact on everyone. Moreover, cities' economies are intimately tied into these areas: rural communities generate the vast majority of the food and energy consumed by urban communities, they play host to the vast stretches of freeway, rivers, railroads, and powerlines that currently transport these vital services. They also offer much-heralded recreation opportunities to urban residents. Therefore, we can't forget the need for rural communities to be a part of this discussion.
I would love to see some posts from you or another Worldchanging writer on the rural experience and how rural areas can move towards a bright green future as well. Thanks for giving it some thought.
I doubt if you could find anyone involved in Transition Towns who disagrees with Mr. Steffen's wonderful suggestions for change, they are all lovely and would be great improvements. Indeed, a closer look at the Transition literature would reveal they are quite in line with the goals of the Transition Towns movement as well.
However, these require enough public participation and commitment to gather the momentum to "reclaim the media sphere" and "reinvent civic institutions". Change on this scale does not come quickly, and in the meantime CO2 is building, oil depletion looms, economic instability grows, and people die in the global quest to secure the remaining oil.
Transition simply says "better to learn to get along without it as much as possible", and here is how we can do that- together.
As far as "die off", I am curious how you came to the conclusion that thoughts of a scenario of tragedy and large scale human suffering can be "held" by anyone casually. I wonder if you can understand the strength it takes to feel the anguish at the likelihood of this outcome and still carry on- not just carry on but do the hard work of Transition and try to be positive at the same time. There is more heart, more grief, more courage, more integrity in the Transition movement than you know. I hope you will take the time to learn more.
My experience so far is that the Transition Movement offers the first step on the ladder to awakening to change. The majority of our global citizens are completely unaware, not only of the effects that us humans are having on the planet, or the effects of the systems that no longer serve us, but to ourselves, as the alive, powerful, capable, brilliant beings that we are. We are numbed to what is going on all around us and within us, we have become drugged, stuck in somnolent, mindless, repetitive forward motion, of which we are totally unaware. The Transition model wakes us up, to eachother, to the world around us. We can actually begin to look at things differently, from the safety of what is still known, and consider that another way is possible.
To make change happen we must first feel empowered that change is possible. I found your piece inspiring, the vision exciting, and I also agree with one of the previous posts that the grassroots movements are as vital as the big ideas in order for us all to feel, at every level, that we have a part to play in the Big Redesign.
Delightfully thoughtful piece! I must admit it came as a bit of a shock, since it ventures into the realm of sociology rather than technology. I'll completely ignore the arm-wrestling with TTs, (since I know little about them) and praise the specific challenges you outlined. Designing systems that re-engage people is an obvious first hurdle. I fervently believe this needs to happen from the grass-roots up. It will involve a lot of face-to-face soul-baring as people learn to trust each other and seek common ground. One closing remark: If you are not familiar with the writings of Arthur C. Morgan, I commend them to you. He was one of the first architects of the Tennessee Valley Authority and about as bright green as a person could be in the 1930's. In his later years he wrote much about the sociology of what makes democracy work. The best might be "The Small Community". Thanks again for your thoughtful piece.
I am a member of Hancock County Towns in Transition in Ellsworth, Maine, and I read your article with interest. One thing this work is teaching me is not to take things personally! I find Transition Town work highly satisfying and I have never even heard of the die-off you mentioned. Rob Hopkins says this is a social experiment and he does not know what the end result will be. Neither do I. But I do know that the Transition Movement has been met with open arms in our community. People want more. Is it the perfect panacea? No. But it is the perfect venue to have these important conversations among our friends and neighbors. I say be patient. Write to your senators and congress people. Talk to your town government. We are all citizens of this amazing planet and everyone I have spoken with wants the same future I do. Transition Town is about hope, positive change, and important dialogue. I say again, be patient.
I think the general consensus is that Alex rather put his foot in it when describing transition town movements and could have voiced his concerns a little more diplomatically.
The pity is that, predictably, the debate has concentrated on this slight at the expense of the much more interesting points raised in #4 and #5.
Having said that, I'm going to continue with the collapse theme for a little longer!!
Contemplating forms of collapse and re-imagining the future, it occurs to me that our visions of post-collapse societies are still rooted in nuclear armageddon scenarios where the teeming cities have been swept away in a cleansing (?) blast of radiation leaving a small set of bucolic communities to pick up the pieces (think 'The Chrysalids' ...think Alex's comments about very dark green)
This seems ironic in light of the modes of collapse we've been worried about more recently (environmental degradation) which are exacerbated by diffuse communities.
Your focus on a couple of quotes (not by Rob Hopkins who is the nearest to being able to speak for TI) then the stated principles of the Transition Initiative is strange, rather rude and extremely counter-productive.
You've got it wrong Alex. Transition has always about making the transition a "party not a protest", it's much more about finding the positives in the world we are trying to create, and working together to create it, rather than focusing on the doomsday predictions. No your stuff before commenting. I work with two transition groups in the UK and the reason we have been so successful in taking the discussion out of the "alternative" culture and into our mainstreeam and political structures has been the positivity aspect.
As a reader and fan of the Worldchanging User's Guide, and also as someone who has been very involved with a local Transition initiative in my town for about a year and a half, I was somewhat disappointed and perplexed by your critique of the Transition movement. While trying not to come off as overly defensive, I'd like challenge a few of your assertions.
First, I find your bright green / light green / dark green / gray scale to be an interesting way of looking at sustainability movements. However I think you have mischaracterized the Transition model to fit neatly into one (and only one) of these categories (dark green) where it is actually far more nuanced.
Clearly, some of the elements of Transition thinking are squarely in your "dark green" category, such as the acknowledgment of Peak Oil (petroleum becoming increasingly expensive over time) as a legitimate and (likely) impending issue to address on a community level. That's fair. However, you also imply that the Transition movement has an almost a pro-collapse mind set, and you go so far as to refer to the movement's thinking as a "sort of casual eagerness for the death of others." This characterization is misinformed and, frankly, bizarre. I challenge anybody to read Rob Hopkin's Transition Handbook (which expresses the definitive thinking of the movement) and find anything that remotely resembles this view. In fact, one will find the exact opposite. It seems that in your eagerness to shoehorn the Transition movement into one of your four categories you ended up distorting some of the fundamental principles of Transition.
Transition is a positive movement that values creating a positive vision of the future at its very core, and certainly not a limited, "post-collapse" vision as you suggest. In fact, the whole point is to make a "transition" to sustainability, or, as Joanna Macy puts it, a Great Turning. In the Transition Handbook, where the six principles that underpin the Transition model are outlined, the first principle is visioning, and much of the book and the application of the Transition model is about visioning a positive future. Ironically, the Transition movement often receives criticism from other sustainability movements for overly focusing on visioning a positive future rather than focusing solely on the direness of the situation at hand. You somehow missed this essential core element of Transition, and in your critique you even asserted that a properly designed movement (unlike Transition, apparently) would incorporate "reimagining the future," and you underline the importance for positive visioning. Interestingly, your statements, and those of Rob Hopkins about positive visioning are virtually interchangeable.
I could go on with other examples.
But perhaps your biggest mistake, in my opinion, is in how you frame the Transition model in an "either/or" position against other approaches to sustainability, when what is really optimal is to present a "both/and" position. Transition, in all my experience with the movement, never claims to have all the answers or to be the only solution. Far from it. However, it does address the bottom up, grass-roots, local community-driven piece of the essential puzzle. We need all approaches, from all sides, with all hands on deck. Your implication that participation in the Transition movement is somehow harming the larger goal is simply misinformed and does a disservice to the larger sustainability movement. I encourage you to look more deeply into the Transition model and to be more open-minded to approaches that may not fit exactly into your "bright green" category as conveniently as you would like.
Other than your inaccurate framing of the Transition movement, I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of what you write in your article. One phrase in particular stands out for me expresses the need to be "consciously practicing ally etiquette to link efforts across a spectrum of systems into a collective whole." Well said.
I am an admirer of your work and of the amazing Worldchanging User's Guide. Please keep up the good work.
me again! much of what you say "we need instead" is actually being done by Transitioners across the globe and in fact it is not 250 groups, many groups, including the one i work with, are not "official" and so the estimate of actual groups is in the early thousands. I only hope that people reading this and who are interested in Transition get engaged and realise that we're ordinary people working hard to change the areas we live in. this job gets made that much more difficult by people misrepresenting our efforts. we are just like you Alex. stop trying to pigeon hole us. we are thousands of people each with views and ideas. you should try practical action over writing about it. it's nourishing. yes we've set up seed banks but i live in a town of 150,000 people and our groups growing engagement with the local authority is creating a growing integration of policy and action. i.e. we are slowly changing our community. you can't boil the ocean all in one go but you can change the world one community at a time.
For some reason this post really pissed me off, or maybe just irritated me, or drove me to action. I’m not sure why, and I decided to let it sit for a while figuring that it would “go away”…it’s not. Then I read some of the replies and thought “everything’s been said already, what can I add”, but THEN I realized that I needed to participate because I was stewing. One of the points of the article and the replies was to participate, right?
In any case, I can’t help but think that there’s some sort of ax to grind with someone/thing in the Transition Movement. Otherwise, why pull out a few quotes that clearly illustrate one side of someone’s belief set. Seems like playing with sound bites to me. In the conclusion we hear about all these great ideas to participate and take the system back, or whatever we’re calling it, with the word “transition” used a few times and some of the points related to, if not aligned with, Transition’s mission. Personally, I do not equate people’s involvement in Transition as a tacit endorsement of a post oil apocalypse...maybe that’s the level of commitment they feel good about, that fits their beliefs and their capabilities. What’s the harm in that?
Ultimately, after reading the post I was left with the feeling that this was something of an academic exercise on who can have the most compelling mission to save the world and enlist followers. Bright Green, Dark Green, Olive Green, they’re all green, and are just more buzzwords we can use to draw distinctions and create labels.
I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode in which Bart’s followers in a war-torn future have split into two warring armies, both worshipping the same god but with different interpretations of the Bartman’s message leading to conflict.
Does it really matter whose manifesto (someone else in the comment list used that word) we adhere to if we’re ultimately interested in creating a similar future? I guess it depends upon how literal the interpretation is (see Bartman reference above).
I guess it accomplished one thing for me; I took the time to write something that may or may not contribute to the continuing dialogue about what we do next.
I was reintroduced to this quote at The Bioneers by the Bay (http://www.connectingforchange.org) conference in New Bedford, MA over the weekend. Maybe it’s overused, and it still seems appropriate:
"To build a new system, you don't compete with the old one, you build a new system that makes the old one obsolete" - Buckminster Fuller
A recent writing of mine:
"When one seriously meditates on the process of industrial collapse, they can see that after a post-collapse age of scrap runs its course and all plastics, above-ground metals and such have deteriorated beyond usefulness, the only sort of lifestyle that's sustainable in the long term is one that does not depend on ANY industrially-derived materials. That basically leaves us with materials like stone, bone, wood, hide, leaves, stems, fur, sinew, crude glass, relatively minute quantities of bog iron, bark, etc. This is something that should always be kept in mind by people in movements like Transition Towns or any other post-peak groups. All of these post-peak movements should take this information seriously and respond accordingly. Time to build our skills."
Has the writer of this article actually read "The Transition Handbook?" Based on his comments and opinions I would say no and he clearly pulls a few items out of context when discussing the Transition movement. just about EVERY major point he makes in his so-called bright green thingie is part of the Transition framework -- which is why I highly suspect he hasn't cracked the book or if he has -- he stopped at chapter three and wrote it off -- which is a shame because the optimism and hope it offers is the most comprehensive breath of fresh air and collaborative, innovative spirit and absolutely NEW paradigm in dealing with the challenges we face I've seen to date. Take a second look, read the whole book, THEN write a review.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and even the less thoughtful ones.
Clearly there are many points of agreement about what to do now, and the need to get moving in a more sustainable direction. I very much appreciate the comments and messages of folks who've said I'm reading the small steps nature of Transition Towns wrong, and that it is in practice leading people to precisely the kinds of bright green engagement I call for. I haven't seen that, either in the materials or in the discussions I've been party to, but if I do have it wrong, great. I'd love to see the TT movement become a vehicle for the kind of civic engagement I'm championing here.
But to those (both here and elsewhere) who've called this a "hit piece" (or much worse), well, you need to get out more.
A hit piece doesn't include statements like "There's just no way to see it as anything other than terrific that people are coming together, recognizing the magnitude of the problems we face, and looking for paths to more resilient prosperity." A hit piece doesn't call your solution useful and then note the parts of it that are limiting its utility. Criticism backed by argument and evidence does not a hit piece make; your responding to this piece as an attack says much, much more about Transition Towns than about the piece.
I will also note that there have been two main, vehement critiques of my criticism:
1) that Transition Towns are about hope, not collapse, and that by focusing on the totally incidental notion of collapse, I'm hurting the movement;
2) that collapse is imminent and will be good and Transition Towns are the only approach to building something good in the ruins (that my statement that collapse is not a tool for social change is hurting the movement, in essence)...
Well, you can't have it both ways.
The quotes I use came from casual reading (I didn't go looking for them), and weren't hard to find. They're not unique, not used out of context, but used precisely in the context they were intended. And, yes, I have read the materials. I completely stand by my assessment that there's a dark streak in Transition Towns, and would be happy to write in more detail about the particulars, if people really demand that I defend that: it won't be pretty for the TT movement, though. The four paragraphs above in which I'm talking about collapse and the movement's relationship to it are pretty damn measured and understanding given the subject matter and the stances taken. The movement's leaders have *repeatedly* taken and allowed morally questionable stances on the collapse of civilization; *that's* the problem, not my quoting them.
And frankly, Transition Town participants can't both wink and nod at people who are clearly supportive of the notion of collapse, who do speak casually of "die-offs" and who hold other unsavory beliefs (in my view) -- and even repeat those beliefs back from the leadership -- and then accuse me of doing wrong by drawing that thread out and pointing to it as what I believe to be a contributor to the major shortcoming of the Transition Town movement, which is its lack of focus on major systems and insuring stability.
So, if you want to discuss how to engage in bright green civic advocacy, great. If you want to explore salient aspects of the Transition Town movement I may have missed, great. If you want to talk about collapse, and the fear of collapse, and how we work through that, great.
But if you want to question my integrity, call this essay a hit piece, suggest that the only way I could hold my opinions is that I haven't done my research, or call me names, well, then it's time for you to turn the mirror on yourself, because what you're showing the world is not what you're claiming to be.
This piece is spot on. Despite all the comments to the contrary.
Movements that assume the eventual collapse of society are not really doing anything to help the functioning or healing of society. That energy/enthusiasm is much more needed solving the problems we all share now, rather than the hypothetical problems we might face if we don't solve the problems of today.
It seems Carolyn Baker, of the Transition movement adamantly agrees with what I consider to be Alex Steffen's main point: that you can't plan very well about how to structure life after things get insane.
But there's a western flaw that may be part of both arguments about individual actions. The actions of one community or one individual are usually useless. Usually, but not always. In major chaos situations, a majority of people are destroyed by the chaos (thus the word 'major'), but a small number might and probably will go on into the future, i.e., survive. The more groups and individuals that are doing something to plan or help in any way at all, the more the chance of there being present some of the good ideas and skills that will build a better world from the chaos.
It's just like any kind of activism, for those of us who've been doing it long term: Even though your chance of accomplishing much is small, and most people who try will be irrelevant or squashed, we have to do it anyway. Why? Not just out of compulsion, but because then there's that chance, slim though it may be, of having an effect.
"The more groups and individuals that are doing something to plan or help in any way at all, the more the chance of there being present some of the good ideas and skills that will build a better world from the chaos."
I completely disagree.
Once you're over the Rubicon of collapse, history suggests that there is no control except violence at large scales, and warlords very rarely are good shepherds of the future.
I don't think post-collapse planning can be done, or means anything when it's attempted.
Given the concept of peak oil then I can see four different pathways of belief (not considering the need to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions):
1: that we are not close to a peak of affordable oil
2: that if we are then we can come up with technological solutions (including biofuels) to replace reducing oil production, in a way that doesn't impact global food production
3: that if we can't come up with sufficient technological solutions then we can socially engineer behavior change to rapidly reduce demand for oil
4: else we have to figure out how to manage an energy descent scenario
I'd be interested in knowing what combination of the above belief set you hold to Alex?
As the Rolling Stones quite correctly once said 'You Can't Always Get What You Want'. It is always prudent to have some kind of plan for the worst case scenario. Denying that the worst case is a possibility will lead to the worst possible outcome if that is indeed the scenario we find unfolding.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Like many of the other commenters, I really don't see the "dark side" of the Transition Towns movement -- certainly not a pathological joy in someone else's misery. Facing reality doesn't imply reveling in it.
From an equally facile, darker green perspective, one could see bright green behavior as just the easy way out. Do bright greens desperately cling to a familiar path of technology and human invention since it is least disruptive to what we have grown accustomed to. Just clean up the current path and keep on slogging. Never mind that most of our technological innovation is needed to remedy the consequences or earlier innovations.
On a less facile note, what seems to distinguish the various shades of green is the degree of faith we have in human capacity. Where bright greens might be feeling up to the task, I offer the following antidote from E. O. Wilson:
Scientists are unprepared to manage a declining biosphere. To illustrate, consider the following mission they might be given. The last remnant of a rain forest is about to be cut over. Environmentalists are stymied. The contracts have been signed, and local landowners and politicians are intransigent. In a final desperate move, a team of biologists is scrambled in an attempt to preserve the biodiversity by extraordinary means. Their assignment is the following: collect samples of all the species of organisms quickly, before the cutting starts; maintain the species in zoos, gardens and laboratory cultures or else deep-freeze samples of the tissues in liquid nitrogen, and finally, establish the procedure by which the entire community can be reassembled on empty ground at a later date, when social and economic conditions have improved. The biologists cannot accomplish this task, not if thousands of them came with a billion-dollar budget. They cannot even imagine how to do it. In the forest patch live legions of species: perhaps 300 birds, 500 butterflies, 200 ants, 50,000 beetles, 1,000 trees, 5,000 fungi, tens of thousands of bacteria and so on down a long roster of major groups. Each species occupies a precise niche, demanding a certain place, an exact microclimate, particular nutrients and temperature and humidity cycles with specified timing to trigger phases of the life cycle. Many, perhaps most, of the species are locked in symbioses with other species; they cannot survive and reproduce unless arrayed with their partners in the correct idiosyncratic configurations. Even if the biologists pulled off the taxonomic equivalent of the Manhattan Project, sorting and preserving cultures of all the species, they could not then put the community back together again. It would be like unscrambling an egg with a pair of spoons. The biology of the microorganisms needed to reanimate the soil would be mostly unknown. The pollinators of most of the flowers and the correct timing of their appearance could only be guessed. The "assembly rules," the sequence in which species must be allowed to colonize in order to coexist indefinitely, would remain in the realm of theory.
In its neglect of the rest of life, exemptionalism fails definitively. To move ahead as though scientific and entrepreneurial genius will solve each crisis that arises implies that the declining biosphere can be similarly manipulated. But the world is too complicated to be turned into a garden. There is no biological homeostat that can be worked by humanity; to believe otherwise is to risk reducing a large part of Earth to a wasteland. The environmentalist vision, prudential and less exuberant than exemptionalism, is closer to reality. It sees humanity entering a bottleneck unique in history, constricted by population and economic pressures. In order to pass through to the other side, within perhaps 50 to 100 years, more science and entrepreneurship will have to be devoted to stabilizing the global environment. That can be accomplished, according to expert consensus, only by halting population growth and devising a wiser use of resources than has been accomplished to date. And wise use for the living world in particular means preserving the surviving ecosystems, micromanaging them only enough to save the biodiversity they contain, until such time as they can be understood and employed in the fullest sense for human benefit.
I dabbled in Transition for a little while but quickly became disillusioned for exactly the reasons you describe.
When I retweeted this article, a buddy on Twitter warned "Nonconstructive conflict on solution side limits network strength. Solidarity smart, no shortage of humans: nonzerosumgame", and I think that raises a good question.
It's clear that a focus on marginal backyard farming is not going to go far toward the massive reorganization of society that is needed. The question raised by this article is whether it does substantial damage. Should we be okay with the most idealistic and dedicated people focusing on a shabby sort of localism, because it offers some solace and some community? Or should we be concerned over the zero-sum game of attention being drawn away from the really big tasks of reinventing, well, everything, at scale?
It's a hard one. For me, thinking about the problem at scale and casting about for something to do about it is obviously the right thing to do. But then I'm a geophysicist. Most people, even those who see the great outlines of the problem, can't really begin to get a handle on the stocks and lows, the major risks and the minor ones, the tradeoffs and triages we will have to face.
I agree that there is something scary and off-putting about Transition, especially its accommodation to the paranoid survivalist streak in America. I also understand that many people just see a perfectly innocent revival of the hippie philosophy, and maybe Transition is that too.
So in the end, I just decided to put my attentions elsewhere, and not express my concerns. Had I done so, they would be very similar to yours. That said, I'm not entirely sure it was worth saying. I guess you pick your battles, and becoming too much like Totnes Town is hardly the biggest threat we are facing, you know?
This post is the first time I've heard anything, any where about "dark side" of Transition Towns.
At least with the local transition town, there is a fairly open discussion about the many scenarios that we are facing, some are bad.
I think something that might be going on is confusion about discussion of scenarios and making predictions?
"becoming too much like Totnes Town is hardly the biggest threat we are facing, you know?"
Totally agree. I don't think TT are bad, per se, just that the focal length is wrong and the collapse stuff taken to extremes of rhetoric is unhelpful and unethical.
So here's the gauntlet! you could write an article on each of the "design challenges" that you pose and how on a local level Transition is delivering practical action and real change on each. My real thoughts are that you've shot yourself in the foot by having an aspiration and then shunning people that take that from words to action.
Alex you suggested that your perspective is "measured", i would use the term "restrained". You may have restrained from using other "darker" examples but this doesn't make it measured. You have to see Transition as a community of people with a community of perspectives. It would be east but wrong to judge a nation by the words and actions of a few. I've been to countless events including the last TT annual conference and other than Richard Heinberg it is difficult to find anyone of the 400 people there that have the notion of collapse as a front runner in the decisions drivers.
Finally, to dismiss local level community action in the way you have done in this article is bizarre. It's the same as dismissing individual action. As individuals we change our lives, as community groups we are changing our communities. It's important to operate on levels that you can influence, be it your street, your settlement or neighborhood, so that you can see real change. BUT, big BUT, DO not underestimate the impact when loads of community groups become active in an area. They start to shift the centre of gravity on public opinion. Ed Milliband, the UK Secretary for Energy and Climate Change gave this exact wording to the work of Transitioners up and down the country when he launched one of the most radical cliamte policies in the western world, aptly named the "Low Carbon Transition Plan". He also indicates in this interview http://transitionculture.org/2009/07/27/ed-miliband-muses-on-his-experience-as-a-keynote-listener-at-the-transition-network-conference/ that the naming of the plan as a Transition plan is no coincidence. The idea being that with out this shift in gravity of public opinion such a radical policy would never have been possible. Which in turn enables the UK to demand radical policies at Cop15 from a stand point of walking our talk.
We now have numerous examples where networks of Transition communities are starting to have influence over larger political or organisational spheres (e.g. The county of Somerset bidding to be the first official Transition authority or Scotland National government being the first to have a paid employee dedicated to bring Transition forward in Scotland). Transition is also starting to influence big organisations. In the UK the Nstional Trust is one of the top three land owners in the country and has contracted Transition Consulting to work with them on advisory basis. This level of engagement is not possible on a DARK message. This is all very much down to the rather infecteous positivity that is the solutions based transition way.
i beg you to learn more about Transition!!!
In your suggestions for what 'needs to be done' it seems that you are maybe just looking at the same issues as the Transition Town movement, but from a different angle. You talk about change starting from the 'big'; they talk about change starting from the 'small'. Ultimately however it is about the same thing - restructuring a complex society so that it can become sustainable in the long term.
Obviously both approaches are needed. I don't think the 'top-down' restructuring can work unless there is a 'grassroots' level of restructuring of people's actual living arrangements. Whether the 'bottom-up' approach can ultimately be successful without some society-wide restructuring is something I'm not sure.
Alex, i can't recommend enough that you watch this quick video introducing Transition http://www.vimeo.com/4678220
You'll notice that the negative outcomes of oil shortage and climate change are covered in less than 5% of the video. This potentially a good indication of the true ratio. The vast majority of Transition is focused on the positive and inspirational solution based process.
I recall an eschatological taxonomy created by another bright green-er. My suggestion would be to add a range of points below his Class 0, a range that includes the current status of ~10 million climate refugees.
With this range of scenarios, we wouldn’t need references to “the Rubicon of collapse.”
History is full of Constant Battles. Yes. And localized instances of overshoot. Yet diverse interpretations are possible. JR McNeill: “The historical record suggests that with well-organized states, the probability of warfare arising from drought-induced water shortage is low.”
Climate change demands global, systemic, worldchanging actions. Yes. But climate change is also a wicked problem. Diverse thinkers like Mike Hulme, Elinor Ostrom and Dale Jamieson urge effort on clumsy solutions. TT is one such clumsy solution.
Alex, thanks for the critical thinking, which is always appropriate, even about a progessive movement like the TTs.
I've been involved in initiating one, and would not agree that it comes out of the counter-culture per se. Rob Hopkins is too young to have been involved in that (as I was). Rather Rob and Transition come out of permaculture, which is culture-creative. Also Transition doesn't turn its back on trying to change the larger system, as you suggest; in fact it highly recommends people run for public office and tries to work with government entities on all levels --some of their grant money comes from governments. I would agree, however, that Transition is light on what I would call "industrial" permaculture --the positive meaning of industry being the knowledge of how to make things, such as earth-moving machines or the internet. Industry has a deservedly bad name as the destroyer of ecologies; but industry can be reimagined in an eco-friendly way that puts the means of production directly into the hands of those local well-educated people you mention, entirely sidestepping the corporatocracy, which has no heart. Please google Open Source Ecology to see what Marcin Jakubowski is imagining and actually doing on the ground. He is proving that localized production by passionate stakeholders of all those technologies we need and love not only can be done now, but can actually out-compete globalized "slave-based" production! He calls the toolset he is developing for communities "post-scarcity." I think it is that scarcity mentality that you quite rightly object to in your piece. I think this is what turns a lot of people off Transition; but scarcity isn't necessary. Yes, we can grow our own food locally and live lightly on the earth; but we don't have to go backwards and become primitivists. We can keep and employ all we have learned collectively and simply organize things differently --globally intelligent and collaborative and locally empowered. There's a geeky, Yellow Meme emerging out there which values excellence, creativity and collaboration, viewing money as merely one of the means to the end of making incredibly cool stuff. And making it with ones's beloved teammates on one's beloved planet.
The act of creating desired results needs a structure comprising 4 key elements:
- a clear, compelling vision of the desired result
- an accurate, objective (emotionally neutral) assessment of the current state of the result,
- the ability to hold vision and reality in mind simultaneously, and to generate the creative tension that arises out of the gap between them, and
- action that accounts for reality but is primarily driven by the vision of the result.
Bright green clearly is visionary, and dark green is mostly judgmental (rather than descriptive) about reality.
What we need is a way of thinking/doing that is driven by vision, yet grounded in accurate, objective reality and focused on action/learning that moves us from where we are to where we want to be.
Naturally, this cannot be a static, linear planning system, as current reality is dynamic, always changing. So this structure needs to be able to account for that change, and -- within the possibility space, the container for creating set up by creative tension -- enable us to make up the path as we go.
The TT approach has all these elements, but they are not yet connected within a dynamic structure that generates creative tension, at least on paper. On paper, TT is a linear structure, following 12 steps.
But in reality (at least in my experience) people do make up the path as they go, inventing, experimenting, prototyping and learning.
I think TT would benefit from a more sophisticated, yet still simple such as the one I describe above. As might WorldChanging.
We're all in this together. And different approaches will draw from other approaches. Synthesis will occur and new (hopefully better) approaches will evolve.
We, in the sustainability movement, do not want to do what much of the Left has done -- bicker over which approach is the right one, and spend most of our time and energy spinning abstract arguments to defend our positions.
We need to support each other, learn from each other, improve our various approaches and, when possible and appropriate, coordinate same to stretch for higher levels of effectiveness. Shane gives a good example of this above when he relates how the UK TT Movement's success moved the nations government to implement strong climate change action steps, and a carbon transition plan.
Good stuff, Shane! And, Alex, thanks for all your good work, and for making this forum possible.
I think you need to read a bit more about Transition Alex. Transition is not about a lot of Ph.D.s learning to can tomatoes. Transition is looking square in the face of climate change, peak oil, and the future they bring, and figuring out how to plan for that future with joy, with eyes wide open.
I think a lot of what you’ve proposed in your “Bright Green is Better” essay is Transition thinking. Building bridges to local government, getting engaged with business and government process, writing energy descent plans with community input, understanding local resource systems, using wikis, organizing the engaged participation of local communities, supporting local businesses, creating new institutions – these are all Transition ideas. Or maybe they are all part of our hive-mind collective rational ideas. At any rate, you falsely accuse Transition of evolving out of a base of death and fear.
For me the most powerful tool is those energy descent plans that Transition proposes for all neighborhoods, cities, and state and federal governments to develop. Our traditional planning process still assumes business as usual, with unlimited natural and financial resources, and few externalities. Transition dumps plans on their heads, and begins with the bright world only we can collectively imagine into being.
Alex, I have to agree with most everyone on #3. They may be quotes, but your editorializing (yes, that is your job) gives an inaccurate perception. Peak oil is such a huge concept, it is beyond most peoples scope of vision. Everyone gets the car stops, most get the trucks delivering food stops, but few seem to take both of these and consider just what that means...really means. I am part of a Transition Town group and I saw some faces of people who made these connections at our last meeting. Each of us "awakens" in our own time, in our own manner, with our own opinion. The strength in TTs is that if each town does a small thing, it becomes a big thing. If each one of us said today, "I will not buy disposable plastic bottles anymore!"...what would tomorrow bring? Try it, stop buying disposable plastic water bottles. You reading this, I am talking to YOU. I have not purchased a case of water bottles in 2 years!
This article does a good job at demonstating the possibilities and the opportunities, however, it also does a good job at being a little negative and a little sacrastic too. Individuals bring innovation and a TT is an individual in a crowd of cities and towns.
Ah, the innocence of youth, to think we can still avoid collapse ;-).
I once thought the way you do Alex but no more. Here is what I wrote to some colleagues recently:
"Not too long ago I thought I could bring sustainability to the business community but the truth is that I just didn't understand all the forces at work.
I didn't understand the inertia in the system...or even how colossal the system really is.
I didn't understand that the drive for profit would mean businesses would never willingly accept the end of growth.
I didn't understand that politicians must create growth to keep unemployment down and thus civil unrest too (and to get re-elected).
I didn't understand how money was made and the fraud that is the fractional reserve banking system (yes, I'm reading 'The Case Against the Fed;' can you tell?).
I could go on but won't. I was frustrated and sad, especially to see nature so plundered as the machine grinds on.
I'm still sad but I'm no longer frustrated. I'm actually at peace. While I was working with a new instructor who is helping me create the Facing Collapse with Freedom and Power course, I saw that the place I had got to is that instead of relating to the world from 'it shouldn't be that way' I now relate to it as 'that's just how it is.' Saying it should be different is like complaining that a football field should be 80 or 90 yards instead of 100. A football field is 100 yards, not a yard less or a yard more and that's just how it is.
I formally retired the game I was playing just over two years ago. The game I was playing used to be "create a sustainable human presence on the planet." It was fun playing that game but I no longer think it can be won without going through collapse first, which most definitely was not included in my vision of me winning my game!
So I'm playing a different game now. I'm not quite able to articulate it. All the sustainability games that I consider end in collapse so it won't be in that realm, I'm pretty sure. It might be as simple as 'Enjoy my stay on earth having fun with good people as we fight the good fight.'
I'll let you know as soon as I know."
In my view, you haven't done enough research to see that what the collapsists see.
You will if you stop ignoring the warning signs that are all around us.
I suspect that practitioners of TT exhibit a wide range of optimism for the future: from masked apocaphilia to gritted determination. We have certainly a wide range of responses!
Andre's remarks demonstrate precisely what Alex was referring to when he was talking about 'the dark side of the Town Transition movement'. Andre has given up the struggle. He is resigned to it and is at peace with his decision. As an individual response, I respect it and appreciate his sharing his reasons with us.
As a movement, though, don't you think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy to limit the vision of what is achievable to... surviving collapse?
As it turns out, I wrote a piece on this recently: using Peter Gabriel's song 'Don't Give Up' and the movie 'Nosferatu' (the Herzog version) as analogies for 'bright' and 'dark' outlooks for the future. The former can be seen as an anthem to endurance, whereas the latter contains a disturbing scene of what 'giving up' means (city folk indulging in a hopeless, drunken bacchanalia as society collapses and the vampire's plague claims them).
Personally, I do not consider the latter to be an option.
By all means plan for collapse. Aim to avoid it as well, though!
Alex: "Once you're over the Rubicon of collapse, history suggests that there is no control except violence at large scales, and warlords very rarely are good shepherds of the future."
"It's essentially impossible to look at history and find a case where large-scale collapse has lead to anything other than lots of destruction, hunger, disease, suffering and a decline into widespread violence and warlordism. "
Correct for many collapses, such as the Mayan.
Incorrect for all historical collapses, see "After Collapse" edited by Schwartz and Nichols (2006). The presence of networked forms of governance mitigated the collapse in Bronze Age Syria for example. Also see Tainter (1988) "The collapse of complex socities". The historical record actually shows that living conditions improved for some people, post collapse.
Its important to distinguish between Hollywood versions of collapse where its all warlords, and roving gangs all of sudden; and the slow, evolutionary, economising process of many collapses. Most people think of collapse as a sudden event when everything changes, "the Rubicon" but this isn't borne out.
You might also want to check out "Sustainability or Collapse" edited by Costanza, Graumlich and Steffen (2007)
and Greers article http://www.xs4all.nl/~wtv/powerdown/greer.htm
I define collapse as "the reduction in relative size and/or influence of hierarchical forms in a society" by this definition we've been collapsing for a few decades now...
As our collapse continues its important to remember that it won't unfold as a universal story in all places, but with huge variation. "Bright Green cities" may be possible in some places and I support your calls for civic engagement to make it happen. But its unlikely to be the only story.
On the ethical points regarding die-off.
There's a distinction between accepting that we do not have the power to prevent it and the "casual eagerness for the death of others ". The collapsnik/dark green perspective is that we do not have the power to prevent this, therefore not acting to prevent something impossible but working to support things within our power is an ethical position.
Instead of debating their ethics, you should debate whether it is possible to prevent die-off. You seem to be assuming it is. (personally, I have no strong positions on this, perhaps because it quite horrible to contemplate)
On another theme:
Alex spoke of 'Reaching out to people have been made afraid of participation, and spreading enthusiasm and a delight in civic life'
I rather feel, however, that a lot of the discussion so far has smacked of 'the manufactured reactionary anger that conservatives use to gum up our public processes'
(sorry if that smarts: I fully expect the reaction to *that* comment is going to separate the shades of green present here into the dark, the bright, and the scaly!)
People (mea culpa) do seem to have become fixated on the 'Transition is/is not Dark' debate at the expense of the harder, but much more interesting and open question 'what might a bright green movement look like?'
Since a number of people have come to see the discussion in terms of a 'bright vs dark' dichotomy, let me rephrase the original question in what I hope is an inclusive manner:
'What can we do to transcend Transition?'
JR McNeill: “The historical record suggests that with well-organized states, the probability of warfare arising from drought-induced water shortage is low.”
Yes. There are clear steps we could take to organize resilience for all of humanity in the face of the coming crises.
"For me the most powerful tool is those energy descent plans that Transition proposes for all neighborhoods, cities, and state and federal governments to develop. Our traditional planning process still assumes business as usual, with unlimited natural and financial resources, and few externalities."
I, too, think such planning is useful. I just think that when we engage on these issues, we should engage with the largest leverage we posses (which for essentially everyone reading this means a lot more than small steps), done with as much insight and innovation as we can grasp, aimed at the biggest systems we can reach. Anything less is an abdication of responsibility.
"Instead of debating their ethics, you should debate whether it is possible to prevent die-off. You seem to be assuming it is."
I am certain that it is possible.
"it it won't unfold as a universal story in all places, but with huge variation."
That I agree with.
'What can we do to transcend Transition?'
'What can we do to transcend Transition?'
My criticism, as ever is this need to create binary choices - either transition towns or bright green civic engagement...Yet, what I understand of Transition Towns - is included in much of your push towards making civic life sexy again...
I think it may simply be that the people attracted to Transition Town framing and the people attracted to the Bright Green frame are distinct primarily in their degree of technological engagement and optimism. The geekier you are, the more involved in bleeding edge innovation, the less likely you see things are bleakly as SOME of the Transition Town or OilDrum folks.
Need we divide those that see a big change coming agressively - I think that's more like a marketing move than a movement building gesture! If your optimistic vision as not been sufficiently appreciated in the midst of a daily tsunami of bad news... Well that's just another day in the ever balkanized world of online commentary...
There will be bright green cities and there will be bountiful bio-regions - because that's what all of us good people are working towards!
I have one foot in three camps..and that makes three feet, so I will leave it there.
there's seems to be two discussions going on here! one is about accepting collapse and the other is about Transition. Because people are discussing the collapse issue it seem to be in some way justifying Alex understanding that Transition is a movement that embraces collapse. THAT IS TOTALLY WRONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i implore you to separate the discussions those advocating a dark perspective are not advocating the Transition way. The transition way is routed in real people creating a VISION for the future that is so inspiring that you can't help but want to dedicate your days in creating it. READ AND WATCH THE MATERIAL. LEARN. GO AND CREATE A VISION OF HOW YOU WANT YOUR COMMUNITY TO BE AND THEN TAKE THE STEPS, BE EMPOWERED< MAKE IT HAPPEN. Do not think that some people on this list and withing transition our willing to talk about collapse or beleive in collapse that this is any way the Transition way. Make the distinction.
One last thing the dark/light thing is generally more related to personal psychological disposition, though has been claimed that the pessimist has a more accurate gauge of the world and his place relatively in it. So perhaps the TT folks simply address, their personal realm and their perceived power in it. While the can do tinkering ninjas and pirates of the web from ten weeks into the future, are by their nature disposed to see the world as just another project. Maybe?
No need to make enemies of each other.
First principal of Transition; http://transitionus.org/initiatives/7-principles
1. Positive Visioning
Transition Initiatives are based on a dedication to the creation of tangible, clearly expressed and practical visions of the community in question beyond its present‐day dependence on fossil fuel. Our primary focus is not campaigning against things, but rather on creating positive, empowering possibilities and opportunities. The generation of new stories and myths are central to this visioning work."
That's not second principal or the last, it's the first and most important. Moreover, the vast majority of the Transition work and other principals act as mechanisms delvering to deliver the first principal.
People on this list (i.e. hyperlocavore - liz mclellan on 30 Oct 09) should stop putting Alex's misguided dark green """thoughts""" on to Trantion. when you say "One last thing the dark/light thing is generally more related to personal psychological disposition, though has been claimed that the pessimist has a more accurate gauge of the world"
Transition as pessimists is Alex's view and some poeple within the 10's of thousands of trasitioner's view not a Transition view per se. You should learn about transition not accept one Alex's perspective.
Alex, in your theory the most important point of a "Bright Green City" is;
"Above all else, reimagining the future. Since we can't build what we can't imagine, and visions of the future dominate our ability to understand the present, how can we embrace future-making tools to redefine the possible in our communities? Because the powers that be have one gigantic weakness: they offer us no future, none at all, and every time we shift the debate to be about where we're going, we win."
This is most of all exactly what transition is about. LEARN!! AAARRRRGGGG, sorry but hope you understand that this is a bit frustrating.
This is one of the misconception that undermines every other in your article. If you're interested we could look at all of the flaws in your article in detail if you like, at another point.
Opening sentences of the "about us" page of the TransitionNetwork website;
The mission of our embryonic charity is:
* to inspire
* to encourage
* to network
* to support and
* to train
i could direct you 10's if not 100's of pages of web text that embeds the transition theory at forefront of community groups on the ground and work on the ground as about engaging as communities in positive ways around a self generated vision of the world we want to live in. But most of all this is my experience.........
STOP BRANDING TRANSITION WITH ALEX"S NEGATIVE DARK ASSOCIATIONS.
It's hardly suprising that some people within Transition discuss candidly collapse. Your readers also discuss collapse BUT don't brand a Transition as "DARK" as it is fundamentally visionary process. I say it again, Transition is a real life community that embodies your understanding of BRIGHT GREEN better than any functioning community that i have seen BUT it also has a real diversity of perspectives including dark ones.
@ Michael Tobis - I have a lot of engineer/geek friends who think this way. That we need to "all turn our focus towards" X sort of solution, usually the type favored by that particular persons specialty. I am one of those advocates of 'shabby localism, back yard gardens and some sense of community.' How funny you shouldn't favor those things. How predictable that you would find a need to diminish the approach. My attention and focus will never be on engineering, nanotech or biotech solutions - for I am never going to be an engineer, nano or bio technician. I am a convener, a gardener, an artist, a relationship and community maker, a baker, a chef and a musician. I will be busy making my world a place WORTH living in...And I wishing you Godspeed on all of your projects and solutions.
I really don't understand certain people's need to divide, divide, divide. It usually seems to be in an attempt to convince oneself that one is in fact, important. That their years of training were for...something! Well of course, they were.
We are all here.
There is work for everyone to do.
Ha Shane - Well I see your point but, as a pessimist attracted to TT as the most optimistic movement I can be personally involved in...I am attracted to it, because it is framed at the scale that I can affect I believe.
And you are right - all sorts of people with all sorts of dispositions are involved. :D
"I am certain that it is [preventable]"
Well, exactly. I'd say that Heinberg and Hopkins are not certain that popuation reduction is preventable and therefore by being honest about this and working toward achieving what's possible, they have taken an ethical position.
Mind, that if you're going to argue that it is preventable then a *technically* possible scenario (a la Lester Brown) won't be good enough. If it's to happen on a large-scale you'll need to include how diverse actors put aside their own short-term self-interest for a long term common good. Many people don't do this bit. Or to quote Karl Popper
"...The Democratic...fairy tale is the superstition that enough people of good will may be persuaded by rational argument to take planned action."
On urban collapse.
Indeed Liberia (or Rwanda) are examples of how bad *parts* of the world can get. However, I think you're projecting the Hollywood universal collapse story onto all the world. You could have chosen Detroit or New Orleans as examples of urban collapse (more relevant to your readers most of who I assume live in industrialised countries)
Have these places 'collapsed' by many metrics?: Yes
Do these places have a crime problem?: Yes
Are there still inspiring 'green' projects coming out of them?: Yes (grownindetroit.tv)
Are they still mostly functional cities?: Yes
Can they still recover some of there former status?: Yes
Ran Prieur's essay on the "Slow Crash" is a classic
Some folks are mentioning distinguishing collapse from TT and I think that's a poor place to draw the distinction. One of the weaknesses of TT, in my view, is that the people involved are not planning enough for collapse, which to anyone that understands how our monetary system works, is inevitable (paper currencies cannot expand forever on a finite planet — all bubbles pop).
I wholeheartedly agree with TT's visioning process because if people can't see where they are going their actions won't be powerful or aligned with each other.
However, in my experience of being a peak oil educator, most people, Transitioners included, are mostly incapable of dealing with the concept of collapse — so they push it away and pretend it doesn't exist. True, many people don't yet see that our economy *must* implode and is in fact in the early stages of it now, but many do and still find it difficult to be with collapse. I see it all the time.
Can people be in action transitioning while planning for collapse at the same time? I think so. I can do it and many others are doing it. But like all new ideas first we have to introduce people to the concept of collapse so that they can move through whatever emotional stages they need to as quickly as possible. Once they have accepted where these railway tracks are bringing us, then they can properly and productively plan for the future. Much of what Transitioners are doing is excellent — it's just not nearly enough for the future I see coming at us.
Alex, TT members and adherents see trouble and feel a need to join together to help reorganize local communities and change the business as usual approach to being citizens. This represents a lot of willingly collaborative human energy.
What would you suggest these same people do right now in place of their TT involvement?
And is it somehow not good that groups of people are organizing around some principles to drive change in local governance and planning?
Thanks for a variety of interesting responses.
Simon, "I'd say that Heinberg and Hopkins are not certain that popuation reduction is preventable and therefore by being honest about this and working toward achieving what's possible, they have taken an ethical position."
-Well, honesty is better than dishonesty, yes. I'm still not sure that acquiescing in the holocausts to come if we don't successfully change course is ethical, even if you think your chances of success are negligible, and especially not when you're someone (like everyone reading this site) who has the power to exert significant pressure for change.
That said, I take your point.
Shane, MAKING YOUR POINTS IN CAPS doesn't make them stronger. Nor does saying "learn." I've done far more research on TT than most journalists ever will, and based on that research (and the conversations I've had with participants), I think Transition's not just tangentially dark, it's fundamentally dark green and overly concerned with collapse and lifeboat thinking, often to a degree I find unethical. Frankly some of the responses to this piece have absolutely confirmed that for me... For instance, this: "I want nothing less than a lifeboat, and Transition gives me the best one..." http://bit.ly/4pAks1
It may not be everyone involved in TT, or even every TT effort, and it may mean different things to different people, but collapse thinking is right there front and center in a lot of the discussion: repeated vehement denials won't change that.
...and you repeatedly saying it is true won't make it true.
there are strands of truth in what you say but your analysis is blunt to the point that it misses the point.
Do you disagree that an oil based currency is at risk of collapse?
Do you agree that our fragile climate is at risk of creating catastrophes?
The fact that these are discussed in Transition isn't a justification of your dark theory. There is rightly so the full spectrum of optimism, pessimism and realism within such a large Transition community as there is within my very being but the vast majority of the work (and the principals of Transition) is engaged around creating a positive vision of the communities we want to live and working together to deliver the vision and i know that from experience not research.
Let's talk about 'The Upside of Down' by Thomas Homer Dixon.
Complex systems will unwind their levels of complexity when their energy supply diminishes. In the realm of civilization this can happen in two ways, either with consciousness, or without. The second option is far uglier than the first. The first requires collaboration, the second conflict. Now we are going to see some degree of unwinding of complexity. I can't see any way to avoid it, within a world with a population of 6+ billion people where we are, according to the Global Footprint Network, already using the equivalent of 1.3 planets. Any bright green vision of the future has to be based upon a recognition that the future has to be simpler.
How can we maximize global wellbeing whilst minimizing material and energy flows.
I would rather get to that future in as conscious a way as possible. Transition provides one positive vision for that reduced complexity.
If we pretend that increased system complexity will get us where we need to go then we fall into the system dynamics trap called 'Shifting the Burden'. By not wanting to consider decreasing system complexity voluntarily you increase the likelihood that the complexity will decrease of it's own accord.
Venturing into systems thinking through the lens of energy supply is heading into a world of complexity.
"the future has to be simpler"
I disagree. The future may have to be many things: simpler is overly simplistic. I think the future may well involve a lot more complexity participated in by a lot more people.
Alex, i've just posted a body of examples to demonstrate that "front and center" in real transition work is vision based solutions and real people changing their community but it got held up in your spam filter.
My central point is that, Please don’t undermine and dismiss the hard work and dedication of thousands and thousands of people because of the comments of a few. I'm convinced that if you looked deeper you will find that it is worth addressing the balance of your opinion from dark but with oodles of brightness.
Alex, you quoted above (Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Oct 09) the following sentence in an attempt to justify your opinion that "Transition's not just tangentially dark, it's fundamentally dark green"
The sentence is
"For instance, this: "I want nothing less than a lifeboat, and Transition gives me the best one..." http://bit.ly/4pAks1"
This is a very good demonstration of how you've chosen to take individual opinions and use it to brandish your negative dark perspective on an entire community. Note the word "I" in the quote you've used. The commentator is clearly talking of here personal (singular) opinion. But you ignored the constant points in the same article that refer to the Transition way such as;
"Transition Handbook.... a remarkable optimism and positive vision, yet an optimism tempered by the realities of the research"
"most people who are involved in Transition hold a vision of what is possible and are working to that end; at the same time, however, most understand the momentous, formidable consequences of humanity’s continuation"
a much more real, truthful and balanced perspective of Transition. Your continued dedication to exploiting individual opinions to demonstrate the validity of your point, smacks of an inability to admit your own mistakes.
i'm not saying there's no darkness, i'm just saying you've misunderstood the balance.
Does this sound reasonable? or will you spend more time grappling for individual opinions that proof your point?
if you want to talk about fundamentals, don't look to individual opinions
See totally positive and solutions driven sessions at the last conference http://www.sendspace.com/folder/tkxsad
or Go to transition TV http://ttv.posterous.com/ and see the positive / inspirational content
or read the transition principals http://transitionus.org/ and see that they’re positive vision based
or Go to anyone of the 100’s of small / real community groups websites and get a feel for their motivations and message http://transitiontowns.org/TransitionNetwork/TransitionCommunities
i'm posting the links one by one because the spam filter
or Read the transition handbook and see the vastly positive weighting http://www.appropedia.org/The_Transition_Handbook_-_free_edit_version (or ever write the content of the book on the wiki) just an example of community lead solutions. the handbook will be written by the community from here on...
or Watch any number of transition films and understand the solutions based focus http://video.google.co.uk/videosearch?q=%22transition+towns%22&hl=en&emb=0&aq=f#
take a deeper look and you will find that front and centre is positive, practical action, solutions, visions, community, learning from elders, supporting each other, the inner transition, hope, inspiration and a true feeling that if we work together we might just be able to do enough in time to make the world we really want. This is front and centre and you vehemently denying it wont change that but it will unfairly judge thousands and make our work that much more difficult.
Please don’t undermine and dismiss the hard work and dedication of thousands and thousands of people because of the comments of a few.
The major flaw in Tad's Upside of Down (an excellent book) is that it treats energy supply overly simplistically. Energy supply is only one input into the system: intelligence, design, social mores, technological progress -- all play a role.
I believe we are already past, or soon to pass, peak oil. That doesn't mean that "simple" is on its way in the sense that I take many to mean it. A low-energy economy may in fact be extremely information-rich and complex in its operation.
Complexity and energy use are not the same thing.
Simplicity and energy frugality are not the same thing.
And Shane, posting multiple comments one after another is disrespectful to the discussion. Please aim for concision.
You're not going to convince me (or others, I imagine) by repeating the same points. If you have a lot of examples to share, I suggest gathering those ideas in a blog post and sharing the link.
That said, thanks for your passion. We disagree, but you're obviously coming from a place of real engagement, and I respect that.
Personally, I really liked this piece and it articulated some doubts that I've had for a while. I can think of a lot more to say but for now, I'll just make a couple of points:
"Transition is a positive movement that values creating a positive vision of the future at its very core, and certainly not a limited, "post-collapse" vision as you suggest. In fact, the whole point is to make a "transition" to sustainability, or, as Joanna Macy puts it, a Great Turning."
With that being said, why does this positive vision of the future (at least from the advocates of transitioning that I've mostly seen or heard from) almost invariably look like an 18th century English village? This sometimes leaves me wondering if maybe the issue of dealing with energy depletion is being conflated with a different agenda that states, whether implicitly or explicitly, that we would be better off living that way-even though a lot of people fled from that at the earliest possible opportunity.
Second series of points:
I'm not quite sure how many people could really be reached by the transition towns approach for several reasons. One is that I often feel that by feeding people who might desperately want change back into trying to change towns that would never really listen to them no matter what they did or said, or try and learn from elders that would prefer that their youngers dropped off the face of the earth or whose habits might be even worse instead, this is something of a disillusionary approach.
Another point is that I'm not quite sure how many people even have the resources or skills in the general population. I looked into a transition town project before, but the requirements for getting in were so steep that I doubt that a lot of people would have even had a chance at getting in. If this is generalized as an issue, then transition towns seem to be more than a bit 'self-selecting' when the real issue (as I'll get to a bit later) is what would do the most good for the most people in our current situation.
I'm @mtobis referenced buddy on twitter above - @gl33p - search back for "nonzerosum" if curious. I'm also only online right now cuz' I'm sick and can't go do my Halloween party :.(
Before that message to @mtobis I had read the post and pointed out to he and @alexsteffen something to the effect that it seemed to exaggerate rather than illuminate differences.
On reflection I think it illuminates but may distort by shining a light on the negative and using some rhetoric that further darkens various dark statements that folks have made. You somewhat faintly praise Transition, then you more or less say it is one with the bathwater and should be tossed in favor of a new baby. You haven't made that case compellingly here.
However - you then move on to a very important argument - one that probably virtually all actively involved in things go-local and get-simple would at least passively support, and many if not most quite actively so. I share with the post that I'm not accepting the awful is inevitable, that such acceptance is selfish at best, and that future coolness is not forever denied us if we just take over the machinery we already inhabit, and I think that some people are accepting the worst and should not be.
I also think that virtually everything you seek to do is compatible with what is, from that point of view, a smart hedging strategy being pursued by Transition folks. They aren't going to suck all the air out of the room and they are going to suck a lot of smart capable people into it. Those people will read this post someday. As you point out there are _so many_ people we have yet to mobilize in any direction other than subservience to cynicism. We should certainly argue, argument is good - then we each advocate for what we think will do the most good - and lets be sure go talk to those not yet mobilized at least 10 times as much as we argue with each other.
Alex - I'm glad you wrote the post, I think it's a valuable one and I hope and look forward to refinement of the arguments within including a more articulate case against Transition if that's what's called for. If it is going to doom us all by succeeding, I _want_ to understand that - but right now I see mostly aligned vectors.
Sorry if I ran on... Happy Halloween Y'all :)
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Transition movement. I can see from the comments that similar thoughts may have been held by others. For that reason alone, your willingness to voice them can be seen as valuable feedback, regardless of whether we all share your experience.
To me, feedback offers evidence that further thought, exploration, or clarity is still necessary regarding a given topic; including the opportunity to experience points of view I may have not yet encountered that can broaden my perception of available options. As with any good Permaculture design, the Transition Movement needs to ensure that we develop feedback loops that capture diverse feedback from multiple time frames.
But the main reason I'm writing is because a unique aspect of the Transition Movement hasn't yet been mentioned in either your article or the comments. The Transition Movement is a whole-systems approach to designing our future that asks more questions, at this point, than it attempts to answer. It acknowledges the wisdom of listening, observing, and using Permaculture Principles as we learn to see through whole-systems eyes.
Since we all grew up in an object-oriented world, this is easier said than done, and we are all learning as we go. Thus the Transition Movement offers the joy of active and creative experimentation in collaboration with diverse voices and ways of thinking/seeing.
As a Transition Trainer and one of the initiators of Transition Town Ashland (Oregon), I experience the Transition Movement as less a solution and more a framework or approach to becoming more aware of the field of the possible in the context of our increasingly complex world.
The shift to seeing through whole-systems eyes is a challenging, humbling, and exciting personal journey that requires a willingness to be open, to constantly question underlying assumptions, and to explore one’s learning edges. It takes me out of my “comfort zone” and into my learning/exploration zone; and for that reason it is also lots of fun.
I encourage all who are reading this blog to explore a whole-systems approach to designing our future, regardless of what name you choose to call it. Let’s learn from and with each other.
The boilerplate message of the article seems to be that "the strategy implicit in this vision of transitioning -- that there can be local soft landings in the event of a global hard crash, that indeed the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level, and that perhaps collapse will solve some of our problems -- is delusional."
What I think is delusional is denying the fact that we are NOW witnessing the Collapse, have been part of the Collapse for some time. If we fail to co-create a graceful descent and concurrently promote the peaceful disassembling of the Empire, we will continue on our current "decline into widespread violence and warlordism."... Read more
but that's coming from a not-to-bright (mottled?) green
Andre Angelantoni wrote:
"I'm still sad but I'm no longer frustrated. I'm actually at peace. While I was working with a new instructor who is helping me create the Facing Collapse with Freedom and Power course, I saw that the place I had got to is that instead of relating to the world from 'it shouldn't be that way' I now relate to it as 'that's just how it is.'"
When I think about the way history would have looked if everyone had always thought like you do now (instead of tragically, most people thinking that way) I consider that one of the best and most passionate arguments against your kind of thinking possible-and largely why it fills me with nearly boundless utter revulsion:
"I used to be angry at segregation but instead of relating to the world from 'it shouldn't be that way' I now relate to it as 'that's just how it is.'"
"I used to be angry at environmental destruction but instead of relating to the world from 'it shouldn't be that way' I now relate to it as 'that's just how it is.'"
in my view, collapse is unavoidable and I had been resisting it I imagine in a similar way to how someone resists a terminal diagnosis from the doctor.
However, just because I think we're going to experience collapse and that I've accepted that doesn't mean I'm giving up — quite the opposite. I now feel freer to take actions that I think are appropriate to the future that is (very) likely coming at us. Before I lost energy wondering if what I was doing was going to make a difference. Now I know: it wasn't and a different set of actions are going to be required.
Planning for collapse does not mean giving up. Maybe it does to you but it does not to me. To me it means, "Get your butt in gear because now you're planning for something different."
Every person I've spoken to who is in the place I am now went through the stage of thinking we'd get out of this mess if only we all worked together and tried real hard. We were poorly informed — it just took some time for us to see that.
After looking at the problem extensively, I've concluded that the only thing that will stop economic growth on the planet is when the resources start running out. It won't be everyone driving hybrid cars or electric vehicles or whatever "fix" is the favorite of the day (fusion, energy from space, fuel cells, biofuels, sustainable growth, wait another week there will be another one).
What's required is a *systemic change* in which we purposefully start contracting and there is simply no way that the existing system will willingly allow that to happen, never mind cause it to happen on its own volition.
Imagine a business leader going to his or her shareholders and saying, "We must shrink instead of grow! Sorry about your investment, I know you wanted it to grow so that you could retire but golly the planet just can't take it any more."
Having trouble imagining it? Of course you are. It will never happen. CEO's are selected to grow companies, not shrink them. And politicians must grow the economy because the population is growing. And the Fed must keep growing the economy or it collapses (c.f. September 2008).
Almost everywhere one looks the system requires growth...and growth will stop only when it's forced to.
I invite you to embrace collapse...it feels icky at first but that feeling eventually goes away.
Yeah, Andre, with respect, when you say
"in my view, collapse is unavoidable and I had been resisting it I imagine in a similar way to how someone resists a terminal diagnosis from the doctor."
I can't help but think that is one of the most unethical stances it is possible to take in our current world.
I don't have time to run through the argument here now -- it's made a number of times elsewhere on this site -- but we know that collapse is not inevitable, that the consequences we face come on a spectrum (from mild climate commitment we have now to total scorched-Earth game-over ruin) and that how boldly we act will determine how bad it gets, and that it won't be evenly distributed. All of which sums up to say that the more effort we put into stabilizing places and systems and fighting the causes of destruction, the better off billions of people and vast numbers of places will be over the coming centuries.
In the face of that reality, your stance is ethically bankrupt. Sorry, sounds like you're a good person, coming from an understandable place, but there it is.
Thanks, I do happen to think I'm a good person as are you.
I'm not going to argue the ethics of my stance. That's just a rathole because the context one uses determines whether something is ethical or not. (Is killing someone bad? Most people say 'no' if it's part of a war. Lots of other examples.)
Instead of arguing ethics, we should discuss what works.
Trying to stop the machine from growing hasn't worked and in all likelihood won't work. Said another way, although it's *possible* that we will get the entire world economic system to start contracting on its own (and somehow doing that without causing a credit crisis and the stock markets from collapsing), the probability of it is vanishingly small. So small that it's a chance that isn't worth spending time on, in my view (I understand that you think the possibility is higher than I do).
So, again in my view, I'm providing a vital service to wake people up so that they stop thinking the future is going to be anything like the past. It's not. Forty years ago the Limits to Growth people showed that we are heading for a crash. The decade it all starts to happen is the one coming up, and they didn't even include oil in their scenarios!
Telling people that they have more time to prepare for fundamental changes than they really do just doesn't work. It gives people false hope and robs them of the time they need and they will be caught unprepared and then we'll really have a mess on our hands.
How many of the millions of currently unemployed people would have liked to know that the economy was going to tank and that they should have changed their spending patterns and living arrangement? Maybe all of them?
Telling them that the economy is in all probability going to crash and that they need to start training themselves to become resilient people *does* work.
"Telling people that they have more time to prepare for fundamental changes than they really do just doesn't work. It gives people false hope and robs them of the time they need and they will be caught unprepared and then we'll really have a mess on our hands.
How many of the millions of currently unemployed people would have liked to know that the economy was going to tank and that they should have changed their spending patterns and living arrangement? Maybe all of them?
Telling them that the economy is in all probability going to crash and that they need to start training themselves to become resilient people *does* work."
No, this doesn't work. You haven't been destroying false hope as much as you've been busy destroying *all* hope. Most of the reactions of people that I've encountered indoctrinated along your lines fall into one of the following categories:
1) Completely dropping out (which meant that they had the resources to do so, and just means that the hammer falls harder on everyone that's left).
2) Total stunned helplessness.
3) Useless and generalized misanthropic loathing.
4) Verbally chasing down anyone that might propose anything that might help anyone else, or just running down everyone in general.
Embrace collapse? Absolutely not. If I wanted to embrace death, I'd go chew on some oleander or find a toaster to drop in the bath, and if I wanted that kind of abuse, I'd return to Christianity.
Harris, I can assure you that the people who have taken my courses are far from any of the four categories you've laid out. The category you missed is:
5. People who have the emotional maturity to deal with what's coming and roll up their sleeves instead of despairing.
Besides, from the way you are writing I think you and I have a very different idea of what comes after collapse. I think there will be trade and communities and local food production and more. It sounds like you think there will be zombies everywhere.
Orlov points out that although much didn't work during the Soviet collapse, a lot did. It will be similar here while we reorganize. And we will reorganize. We're a pretty resilient species.
Harris, one more thing...I think Chris Martenson makes a valuable distinction between "a problem" and "a predicament."
A problem, he says, has a solution. A predicament has no solution. One must adapt when faced with a predicament.
Here are some of the predicaments I see:
Oil will decline, no getting around that. The economy will decline with it, no getting around that, either ($147 oil was a warning). We have another degree of temperature rise in the pipeline. No way around that. We've used up all the high grade ores. That's a fact. We have so many aquifers close to depletion we're going to have severe water stress. On and on. All these require adaptation.
It seems that you think we have problems (and thus there are solutions) and I think we are in a predicament.
I once thought the same thing as you. After much research spurred by wanting to learn about peak oil I no longer think there is a solution in the way most people think. You still think there is.
That's fine by me. It's your life. Part of what I've come to terms with is that most people will be surprised as things fall apart.
Thanks for the conversation and good luck.
"Harris, I can assure you that the people who have taken my courses are far from any of the four categories you've laid out. The category you missed is:
5. People who have the emotional maturity to deal with what's coming and roll up their sleeves instead of despairing."
I omitted that because it seems to be the smallest category from what I've seen. This is a selection of responses to an article where you were interviewed concerning a lot of these kinds of issues:
"Yeah, all we have to do is quit our jobs, move to transition towns, figure out how to make candles from beef tallow and grow our own produce--and wait for the millions of starving city dwellers and suburbanite couch potatoes to come pouring out of the cities a exurbs and into our fields once it becomes too expensive to truck food anywhere.
Even if a critical mass of people suddenly woke up, realized that the end of oi is upon us, and decided to quit their current jobs, move out of the cities, and form sustainable towns and villages again, it simply wouldn't be possible. Big agri-business owns most of the rural lands that were once owned by the family farms that once sustained those tiny farm villages of the nineteenth century.
There's no getting off the ride now--not fast enough to prevent utter economic and social collapse. Only 3% of Americans actually work on farms at this point in our history; most people don't even know how to grow food in hobby gardens, much less work large fields with plow horses. Most people don't know how to hunt or fish and we've poisoned the water and paved over the habitats of what used to be called game back in the days when people routinely supplemented their diets with hunted animals. A soft landing is simply not possible.
Wish it were. i really would rather not have to kill my neighbors before they kill me. "
"Willits, CA, a transition town, already has plans to blow the bridges and the 101 to thwart just such a mass migration.
Can you imagine if the uppers who want to survive start buyin' up Willits before the mass stampede? The locals would blow some nuts."
"And what can the average person do?
If you own a house... and then nothing else is mentioned. So, only the middlings who haven't been kicked out in foreclosure get to be part of the survivability.
Here's how we at the bottom see things going:
• The owning class will be scared shitless the more things grind down. How do they react now when they're scared? Send poor people to war, relocate them by force, anything to "stabilize" "the element"... meaning us at the bottom. Two of the housekeepers down the street told me at yesterday's morning coffee on "my" lawn (I just rent it from an owning-class lady) that they were told by their "employers" that they were to work without pay "for now". They were told, "Things are tough right now, but you'll keep working for us, right? It'll be like job security for you." Um, yeah and it's called slavery, classholes. We're pretty confident it'll make a HUGE comeback once the owning class gets spooked enough.
• There'll be ecological migrancy and forced relocations (of you know who: poor people). The camps exist, Ahnold's people let it slip to the LA Times and Sacto Bee that they have plans for this during extreme water crises they're anticipating. Think Katrina on crack.
• If you rent, forget staying put. Landlords will evict people first thing. You won't be allowed to stay. Period. Get a backpack and learn how to pack and use it. Prepare to lose all the rest of your material possessions. You'll be forced to abandon them.
• You won't be making your own candles or growing your own food, but you may be doing so for the owning-class, most likely for no pay... "it'll be like job security." (The housekeeper ladies thought those notions were hilarious: "How're you gonna do that stuff when you're in a camp or walking a road north?"
• Expect "security" a.k.a. "police supervision" at the behest of the owning-class and community "business leaders." They want us under control, ready to be moved out of their way.
Coffee with the housecleaning crew tomorrow. We'll come up with some more for ya.
Bottom Line: If you own, if you're upper middling and above, you'll survive & still be around using the happy-happy skills the article's subjects advocate.
The rest of us down below... think feudal, medieval, think slavery. That's where we're headed. "
"Besides, from the way you are writing I think you and I have a very different idea of what comes after collapse. I think there will be trade and communities and local food production and more. It sounds like you think there will be zombies everywhere."
No, because zombies are supernatural and hence do not exist. What I think will happen, if the environmentalist movement does not grow past you and those who think like you in order to address the problems at a level where Alex Steffen is exactly right to say that they should be dealt with, is instead a nigh-unfathomable disaster. Even beyond the suffering that collapse would directly cause, it would empower every single reactionary demagogue imaginable to blame their favored victims for it-and in the United States I seriously think this would mean genocide against minorities and non-Christians. Furthermore, as far as the environment is concerned (since I'm guessing that you're white and the above is just another 'way the world works' that you're willing to accept) it also practically guarantees the worst case scenarios. Desperate people trying to keep their babies from freezing to death aren't going to care whether their coal is clean or dirty as long as they can burn it and keep their rooms above freezing. This guarantees cooking the atmosphere.
Great post Alex:- as someone just finishing a Masters in Urban Planning, this is exactly the sort of question I ask myself often.
I would tend to agree that the Transition Towns movement, (and the Permaculture variant that's a strong overlap here in Australia), have both good and dark sides. At their best they help us get out of fixed industrial ways of thinking to really appreciate and understand how human systems could learn from and be more in tune with nature. But as you point out, their dark-side is a cult-like aspect: yes, not as doomerist as the likes of "The Oil Drum", but still involving an implied willingness to look after only one's own community and accept the loss of millions of lives globally :- and also accept the loss of what you might call "civilisation". You know, those specialised aspects of our culture that only come about when tens of thousands of people live and work together: orchestras, art galleries, universities, botanical gardens, fireworks displays, big sporting events, ethnic clubs, niche hobby groups, the list goes on. Sure, there are a lot of bad aspects of our civilisation: but I'm unwilling to turn my back on all of it.
Peter Newman wrote a very thoughtful critique of this in his book Resilient Cities, probably more cogently than I have. He also argued that the two can come together: a Bright Green, highly urbanised City cooperating with large pockets of permaculture/transition towns (which he advocates our sprawling suburbs evolving into). That's kind of the perspective I now gravitate towards.
One more point from an urban planning point of view: a big challenge in building Bright Green cities might be working out how to combine the idea of more democractic and open planning processes, while re-engaging with appropriate technical expertise and the grand visions that drove urban planning originally. This is spurred by recent articles I've read suggesting in the rush to criticise the freeway-building technocrat planners in the 1970s and inject ideas of alternative & minority perspectives (postmodernism), we may have inadvertendly thrown out the baby (good rigourous quantitative systems analysis) with the bathwater (technocratic arrogance), and it's time to rethink this.
Anyway, thanks again for the inspiring call to arms!
Fascinating thread. You might like to see a response to your piece, which I just posted on Transition Culture. http://transitionculture.org/2009/11/03/responding-to-alex-steffens-critique-of-transition-at-worldchanging/
With very best wishes
Make friends with a local organic farmer or two.
I encourage people here to read that response.
I wish I had time at the moment to write a detailed response to your response, because you bring up some good points, we clearly misunderstand each other on some others, and in some other places I think, um... well, you're wrong.
Unfortunately, we're slammed here with elections, two big talks next week and the lead up to COP-15, so there's no time to do another long essay justice.
So instead, I'll issue an invitation: let's debate each other next year.
Not about whether or not Transition is this or that, or Worldchanging is this or that (that would bore everyone involved), but about what the kind of future the world needs and how best to get there. Because I don't think we totally agree, and I think our points of disagreement might be topics others would find interesting to hear discussed, perhaps even illuminating to their own searches for solutions.
I'll even come meet you in UK.
We can't turn back time we need to adapt. Take a look at this article The Great Transition: http://www.scribd.com/doc/21656220/The-Great-Transition-Navigating-Social-Economic-Ecological-Change-in-Turbulent-Times
debate is so last century. good spectator sport which i'd find very interesting but again it's underpinned with the either/or winner/loser theory that your promoting.
we get this wrong we're all losers. it's not a competition its all about working out how best to work together.
Your problem is that you've defined collapse in a circular manner. You have decided 'collapse' means a cultural moment in which it is impossible for any foresight to achieve anything, but you simply haven't demonstrated as much; then you have decried those who expect to achieve something in a decline situation only because you have decided that is impossible.
You have assumed it. Fine if you want to assume it -- but to claim that those who with the ability to feed and clothe themselves in the absence of supermarkets aren't better off for their forward thinking when supermarkets are closing is ludicrous, and to call them 'unethical' verges on the hysterical.
I urge you to think! Many died in the Great Depression; would those who saw it coming have been better off for a little planning? Of course they would; you know it perfectly well.
The truth is, decline is coming, with many vicious moments yes, but life will go on. You are in the position of accusing people of not critiquing autumn strongly enough and thus failing to prevent winter, when winter (whilst not in any as pleasant as spring or summer) is not only unpreventable perfectly dealable with by people of courage. What is not possible is perpetual summer!
Urgently recommended reading: "The Long Descent", Greer.
Background: I've been a Worldchanging reader for years, and have even given the book as a gift to others.
After pondering over this essay for a bit in the week since I first read it, I'm increasingly disappointed. Alex, your offer to fly over the pond to debate Rob when you instead had an opportunity to apologize for some of the senseless things you wrote is a real disappointment.
In an effort to conserve mental resources, I'm going to focus on those who are working cooperatively on the problems we all face rather than those stabbing each other in the backs. See ya WC.
"You are in the position of accusing people of not critiquing autumn strongly enough and thus failing to prevent winter, when winter (whilst not in any as pleasant as spring or summer) is not only unpreventable perfectly dealable with by people of courage"
Well, we clearly disagree, either in our terms or in our take on the facts. I don't think that "die-off" is at all inevitable. I think if it happens, it will have been chosen. I think making that choice is wrong.
Also, if you're one of the handful of TT supporters who keep posting personal and offensive comments, we're just going to keep deleting them, so you might as well stop now.
Totally happy to let you have your say on substance. If you make it personal about me or my team or other readers, we'll delete you. Show respect and you're welcome to participate.
"I don't think that "die-off" is at all inevitable. I think if it happens, it will have been chosen."
Where's the meat there?
I could stand to hear more direct reasoning, less finger-wagging. (Perhaps you could link to the relevant posts?)
The point you make about a spectrum of likelihoods depending on actions is correct: you don't give any idea, though, how even the strongest action would be bound to obviate die-off or collapse. You seem to have a cast-iron guarantee -- how?
Even if we leave 'die-off' alone, world wars and depressions are easier to survive if you can feed and clothe yourself, something many areas of the world already have difficulty with in a world where wealth levels are decreasing. World wars and depressions have dogged the oil-rich twentieth century; oil is drying up.
TT's focus on doing what the vast majority of households did a century ago (having a hand in feeding and clothing themselves) is neither a parochial drop in the ocean nor a betrayal of humanity, both of which it is bizarrely accused of here; it's a recognition of distinct possibilities.
Your view on 'collapse' and 'die-off' -- that to speak of them is to perjure one's principles -- is very interesting in a post mentioning 'ecological abyss' and 'planetary catastrophe'! The unprecedented new leadership you are jockeying for will lead better by considering the unsavory; observe history on that one.
Again: 'collapse' for you means game over *automatically*, even though there is already very good evidence to the contrary posted in this thread. But activism means catastrophe automatically avoided, with no evidence posted.
Considering collapse hasn't dampened the TT spirit nor prevented them getting considerable traction in government here in the UK -- that is why you are writing about them. Admitting the possibility of decline and serious hardship arising from this moment in history seems to stir people to action, and why not? Cynicism, boredom and fear have hardly paralyzed TT, which has gradually earned even the grudging admiration of doomier critics through its sheer dynamism; through *success*.
(Engagement in political process, visioning forward, innovating through business, in fact more or less everything else you mention, are examples of things TT is rather good at already, and getting constantly better at as well.)
The fact that a person doesn't think a mere change to a lighter grade of eco-green can *automatically and without question* rejig massive wealth, fuel and food imbalances to the point where no crisis, decline or collapse is possible doesn't make them traitors to humanity. It is a rather responsible approach to being a reasonable human being in a difficult time.
To talk about decline and collapse is not cynical: these things happen. To say, when they might not be avoidable, that we should not consider them because nothing can be done in their event -- that *is* cynical. They are not unsavory predilections but distinct possibilities that humanity has survived before.
I would like a little more elaboration on this:
"There are clear steps we could take to organize resilience for all of humanity in the face of the coming crises."
No-one is going to leave alone a good plan. But a 'politics of optimism' will not be sufficient.
What are the coming crises, if not problems of food and fuel and clothes and all the basics of life? We can add climate change; we won't clean up those problems by smiling in a lighter shade of green. What it actually will take, in your view, I haven't yet heard. We didn't solve them even with ever-increasing oil -- never to consider or plan for the idea that we are in for a rather unpleasant time of them with decreasing oil, and plan accordingly, would be negligent.
You are 'certain' die-off is preventable on a planet that cannot support more than a third of our current population sustainably, but you don't give any details about what *makes* you certain, and you accuse those who think differently of immorality and of having *chosen* a future which they merely see as a distinct and unpleasant realistic possibility.
The ringing rhetorical question: "Yes, how can we transcend transition?" you leave unanswered.
Urgently recommended reading: "The Long Descent", Greer.
And no, I'm not a spammer. Sad that people think descending to that level will help anything.
This discussion is both fascinating and quite sad. I am disappointed that Transitioner / TTers cannot engage with the critique in a way that might allow the movement to learn something. I was active for several years within the first TT in London and support the movement but definitely see many of the problems with the approach. Many of Alex's criticisms need to be taken seriously if we want to have any real impact on a systems level response to the challenges we face.
On the other hand, I am disappointed that Alex insists on polarizing the positions and am not surprised that many TTers have reacted defensively. A good critique but I do think this article and some comments are overly personal, emphatic and negative. The tone is a little patronizing. It just not true that Rob is gleeful about collapse and describing the TT position as 'unethical' just not fair. Taking a frightening threat like ecological / social / economic collapse seriously is a hard and pretty miserable confrontation. We want to avoid collapse - but the longer we spend denying it as a possibility the more likely it becomes. Calling TTers 'unethical' for this position is like saying people who buy fire extinguishers are 'unethical' for thinking about and taking precautions against a their house burning down. In fact, ethics are the motivating factor here - it would be far more easier for many of us not to bother.
TTers might not all have come up with the best way to building resilience into their local spaces but many of them are attempting to face up to some pretty daunting ecological and social crises and are actively working on designing solutions. Like Neal said, none of us knows what will happen or what will work - we need lots of people experimenting. By learning from the people who get it right we can ideally all develop workable transition strategies.
I would also not think that a debate is the way to go here. Shane is right, a debate is too adversarial and this topic does not need a winner. It does beg further exploration. If I were Rob I would consider a discussion. The left is always great at dividing its allies and uniting it enemies - and this seems to be happening in this thread. This tendency leaves us all vulnerable to the truly ignorant, authoritarian and corrupt - who are the real threat. Please let us try and focus a bit more on the common ground. I for one would love to see these two movements (World Changing and Transition Towns) learn a little more about each other and grow stronger from the encounter.
Where's the meat? You're on a site with 10,500+ articles about how to avoid collapse, create sustainable prosperity and leave a better future! There are literally hundreds of pieces on this very set of subjects around collapse etc.
(And no, I don't find the "evidence" presented in the arguments that collapse is a good thing at all strong or compelling.)
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Much to mull there. (Thanks in general to all the people who've put forward smart, level-headed opinions. Lots of interesting perspectives.)
"it would be far more easier for many of us not to bother. "
too true, and important to remember.
Some of these questions are simply ones of scale and distance. I think the only thing that really matters is changing systems. Some others here see smaller-scale actions as means to that end or powerful in themselves, culturally. I think we can disagree in civil tones about that, and no harm done.
Some of these are questions of stance towards uncertainty and acting in the face of really scary stuff. I thought Rob's response had some good points about moving through thinking about collapse to something more positive.
I still find the distinction between collapse is possible and collapse is inevitable to be completely non-trivial. We could go on debating it, but it's pretty clear the discussion is not changing many minds.
Indeed, I'm pretty disappointed in the responses from many comments (including the deleted offensive ones), via email/msgs, in other blogs, etc. which has been a remarkably consistent mix of denying that collapse is any important part of TT thinking and condemning me for saying that life after collapse is not something that can be planned for or even intelligently discussed. Obviously, there's some real tension there.
I think the movement needs to have a serious look in the mirror about what collapse would mean, what disengagement from global systems would mean to the most vulnerable, what is realistic in post-collapse planning and what isn't, and whether or not having such a thread in the movement contributes to bring more people together to engage in positive action or not. I think that, thanks to my position, I have a far more privileged access to the current thinking on collapse than most, and I don't think people who talk about die-offs as any part of a successful transition to sustainability have a very firm grasp of the reality of what they're saying, the vast suffering they're calling inevitable or the massive planetary impacts billions of desperate people would create. I simply don't think anything like the civilization we know can withstand that, and if you're talking about something great that happens after the breakdown of civilization, well... we're just not even having the same conversation then.
I need to note that in almost twenty years of doing this, I have rarely had the kind of bile directed at me that I've gotten this week from some TT people around this question of collapse. That makes me think, even more than I did a week ago, that something is seriously off in an important part of TT's relationship to the future.
So, to those of good intent who I've offended through the way I've put forward my argument, I apologize.
But I stand by the meaning of what I wrote here. Look at the hold dark green, even apocalyptic thinking has on the movement. Consider scale and systems and whether the points of engagement are the best ones.
I am saddened to hear that you have had unpleasant emails as a result of this thread. It goes without saying that I don't condone such things, reasoned debate and good manners has long been a key feature of Transition in my experience. I am surprised to hear that you have received such emails.
With regards to a debate, I am torn. Certainly I don't think your flying to the UK to debate responses to climate change with me would really reflect well on either Bright Green thinking or on Transition. I no longer fly, and your coming here would be, at least in climate terms, somewhat counterproductive.
Perhaps some kind of online discussion would be useful, or an exchange of emails (like I did with Richard Heinberg). However, I have always found the traditional debate format to be rather grueling and to nobody's benefit. Let's discuss....
With regards to your saying you got unpleasant emails following this, you should check out some of the ones I got after a piece I wrote about survivalism!! http://transitionculture.org/2006/09/04/why-the-survivalists-have-got-it-wrong/ . This is part of why I avoid internet chat rooms like the plague, there is something about the anonymity of these forums,and comment threads, that makes people feel they can be abusive in a way that they would never be face to face. For all the wonders of the web, has it led to an increase in civility? I wonder....
With best wishes
The vast majority of the planet would see no relevant distinction between you. In the words of Canned Heat- 'Lets work together' on this one! You both recognise change is needed which is what we need to impress on people. Perhaps what you could do is instead of debate, come up with a statement or jointly written piece that you both agree on and then post it up for delectation by us change hungry hordes?
"You're on a site with 10,500+ articles about how to avoid collapse, create sustainable prosperity and leave a better future! There are literally hundreds of pieces on this very set of subjects around collapse etc."
... sure, and I have plenty more techniques of my own. My question is: where are you getting your cast-iron guarantee that applying all these techniques *must* avoid collapse or decline or die-off, so obviously and completely that merely *mentioning* a likelihood of them is a mortal sin?
*That's* the part you haven't explained; it appears only as a faith. You say: "I'm sure it is avoidable" -- what is your reasoning please? Why not spell it out here and now, since this is the real point at issue? And an important one.
"And no, I don't find the "evidence" presented in the arguments that collapse is a good thing at all strong or compelling."
Not one of my arguments suggested 'collapse is a good thing'. What I suggest is that 'decline' is more than likely, and moments of collapse and die-off all too possible, in the future, and that talking and thinking about these is neither unreasonable, nor unethical, nor unproductive.
I never referenced any posts in this thread saying 'collapse was a good thing'; only those (especially Simon Tegg's) which demonstrate *evidentially* that decline or collapse do not need to be "game over".
Such a 'game over' powerlessness in the face of societal difficulty would be your choice; history doesn't sanction that choice with the weight you assume.
This is my first time to the Worldchanging site, and it's great. I was brought here by the Treehugger article about this blog, and having read it, I must comment on a pitfall that I see so often in discussions about the future, especially the future according to the eco set.
There is such a tendency to downplay others' creative processes as a way to clarify your own ideas. As soon as you finish outlining the reasons why the Transition movements' efforts are misguided and won't work, you then outline very general, ethereal points about what will work.
Reality is messy. There is no such thing in reality as "Making public life exciting where boredom has dampened people's enthusiasm", that is not an action but a guiding sentiment.
I feel like you can implore us to shed our cynicism and believe in our power and that of our community without bashing on people who are trying to do that same stuff.
Michael Tobis writes "It's clear that a focus on marginal backyard farming is not going to go far toward the massive reorganization of society that is needed." I think he has it exactly backwards.
Perhaps he's still thinking in traditional industrial terms: big is always better; small is weak and inconsequential.
Backyard farming and community gardens can play an increasingly essential role in local food security. In combination with local farms, orchards, ranches and farmers markets, they become a viable alternative system to our current fossil-fueled and toxic industrial food system.
It's so easy for us to diminish or minimize the impact of seemingly small, non-industrial, local activities, but I believe we've been seeing things upside down. The local food movement is a trickle-up revolution, profoundly subversive in its effects, which ripple up and out from the seemingly trivial home veggie patch to the White House kitchen garden.
Why do you think local food advocate Michael Pollan is now being attacked by industrial ag? He's a truly dangerous man from their point of view.
Seemingly humble and inconsequential local grassroots change and community-building activities are incredibly smart and powerful ways of moving the larger systems towards greater resilience and sustainability.
In our small city we now have almost 20 Neighborhood Exchanges (www.sbfoodnotlawns.org) where neighbors meet once a month to exchange food they grow and any other surpluses they have. The idea is catching on like wildfire because people love the opportunity of meeting their neighbors and sharing food. People are talking about who grows what and should I put in a plum tree if no one else has one. Sounds trivial, but it's the beginning of quite serious cooperative action.
In our disjointed Western industrial/corporate societies where we know faceless internet "buddies" better than the people next door, we have longed for this kind of primal connection for decades. Give us the opportunity, and we jump on it.
I'm sure that those readers who are experienced in community organizing understand the power of these simple neighborhood movements popping up all over this country and many others. It's what Paul Hawken described in "Blessed Unrest" -- a huge global movement in the making.
Read my posts and you'll see it's not my style but Alex, you, in my opinion, should consider the example you're setting.
Your article says things like;
"Rob Hopkins, talks almost cheerfully about…… globalization crashing suddenly"
or for others you affirm that they have a;
"casual eagerness for the death".
I'd find that pretty personal and insulting!!
To justify your point you use a journalistic twists by quoting people articulating a belief that collapse is likely or inevitable. Not one of the quotes used has a tone of glee or cheerfulness but you’ve added that inflammatory and sinister element.
There are people on this thread and key transitioners who cold-heartedly suggest that "die off" would be a good thing. It’s the humans are a virus mentality and there's too many of us, BLAH BLAH BLAH. That type of negative thinking sometime invades the minds of the best of us, I’m sure. That doesn't put this type of thinking "front and centre" in Transition. In fact i would say that it is as much embedded within your readership or within the mainstream.
So the insult is then spread wider when you imposed the “cheerful” and “eagerness” elements on Transitioners in a very generic way. Those dark transitioners!!!! mmmmm, not happy. In order to promote your bright theory you created a dark and bright simplistic caricature and by which you most certainly offended me and others.
In a follow on article on this site you had a heavy focus on impending catastrophe. Which you use to justify your theory of large scale systemic change = good v’s small community led changes = bad. (By the way, for someone advocating we get more complex, there’s an element of irony in the blunt lack of sensitivity in your theories).
When reading said article and its catastrophe driven nature
(see here http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/010691.html)
i felt that this added an air of hypocrasy so i joked/said that this focus on catastrophe was a little "dark". To which you responded;
"aware of consequences doesn't equal dark."
Yes!!! We agree. There is a big difference between being aware of consequences and cheerful a eagerness to them and i think you should look long and hard at the way you want people to receive your message if you’re willing to impose a message on thousands of people. Don’t get me wrong I think there’s a lot we should be learning from this discussion but I’m now debating the tone you’ve set.
Fact; Transition is rooted in being "aware of consequences" not a joy or eagerness of them.
Fact; This actually takes up a really small amount of our activity on the ground. Our work load split is very much solutions focused. I provided an abundance of evidence of this above. EVIDENCE. If you'd like to pose evidence to the contrary, i'd be eager to see it.
The fact that you don't see value in small and localised solutions is a completely different argument. I wish you hadn't presented it in the way you have. I think most Transitioners see value in large and systemic change and see our work as providing the mandate for those level changes to happen. I think what has been interesting about your articles is that you’ve posed the challenge that we Transitioners should be more than providing the mandate, we should also proactively and creatively engage in making systemic change happen. Now that’s a positive outcome, which I’d like to focus on, and it would be much easier to do so had you not used an inflammatory approach.
First, thanks for the kinds words.
In terms of a debate, mulling options. Maybe something innovative... perhaps we ought to talk on the phone? can you dm me on twitter at @alexsteffen or email @ alex@worldchanging ?
Sort of a side note: In terms of travel, you say,
"Certainly I don't think your flying to the UK to debate responses to climate change with me would really reflect well on either Bright Green thinking or on Transition. I no longer fly, and your coming here would be, at least in climate terms, somewhat counterproductive."
Well, I disagree. I think not flying when there's an opportunity that out-weighs the carbon cost (off-setting's benefits or lack thereof aside) is a false economy. I think we need to be clear about the difference between useful/generative uses of energy and superfluous ones. The planet is far better served by energy use to good result than energy avoidance to no result, when those are the two options (often they aren't).
If our conversation induced even 100 people to shift something they were doing strongly for the better, it'd probably be well worth my personal use of jet fuel. And, frankly, I think a lot of people are interested in these topics and trying to figure them out. Could do real good. So I wouldn't blink to incorporate this into a Europe trip.
This is worth a read on this topic:
I see less benefit in jet setting for the purpose of 'debate'- when it could be done as a skype discusson. There's an app for that.
I share the dismay expressed about the format. Back to that binary thing.
Directed here from John Robb's blog. This essay sure caused some serious ripples....
Just wanted to say that debate format is terrible. Informal discussion is eminently superior, putting forth ideas and responses and working towards understanding together (though not necessarily in agreement). The inherently adversarial nature of debates I think serves to polarize the positions rather than find common ground or work through questions in a substantive manner. Observe the Noam Chomsky-Alan Dershowitz debates regarding the Israel-Palestine issue; they just end up talking past each other without any resolution of the fundamental issues. Not productive.
Now regarding the substance of this thread-
Alex, you seem to feel that the only way to move forward with the many ecological and resource issues we face is through large scale systemic redesign. While I'll leave the issue of scale and focus for you and Bob to work out, I do want to propose some potential kinks in that assumption (note- I don't necessarily endorse these positions, but do think they're important to consider).
These large scale systemic social reorganization you speak of would presumably be coordinated by central governments of some kind, yes? Probably international in scale? From a political standpoint, I have two food-for-thought responses.
First is, does our system have the capacity to overcome the entrenched interests that resist substantive change? For example, energy industry lobbyists recently said on-record that they were "inspired" by the insurance industry's success at killing real substantive health care reform. I shouldn't even need to mention the bank bailouts and financial reform. Many people will say that the current system is fundamentally structured to protect large powerful economic interests. In light of this, the actions of small people on a local level may be all we have; at the very least it gives people hope and purpose.
Second, huge segments of the American political Right consider all attempts at large-scale social reorganization for environmental reasons to be synonymous with communism and tyranny. It's been my experience with this political-culture that talk of regulation and large centrally-directed changes only results in reactionary vehemence, but talk about planting gardens and becoming regionally resilient actually gains considerable traction. If you want to affect any large changes, these people are going to need to go along with it, and you ignore them at your peril.
I thought this was a relevant quote:
"...The Democratic...fairy tale is the superstition that enough people of good will may be persuaded by rational argument to take planned action."
Remember, these are the people that just got Van Jones ousted as the Green Jobs Czar. Not that he was a pillar of sustainability, but the point remains: Right-wing one, sustainability zero.
Final Note - I don't see what the big hullabaloo is. The engineers will design amazing futuristic machines and processes, the political activists will pressure the institutions for policy change, tinkerers like Open Source Ecology will design practical solutions, and regular Joes and Janes will plant gardens and (hopefully) consume more consciously.
Some stuff will work, others won't; some will be more pessimistic and some will be optimistic. Many flavors and whatnot. Such is the nature of uncertain times, large problems and diverse free societies.
Not sure if polemics are all that useful in the end, especially if they result in fragmentation and factionalism.
Collaborate where appropriate, and let-be where agendas differ; as a great philosopher once said- "Let them go forth and birth a thousand different nations..." or something like that ;)
I was really delighted to find this discussion.
I do think that the Transition Town movement has now arrived at a point where it makes sense to ask some searching questions about upsides and downsides; links to democracy, and the implications for wider social movements around climate change, economic transformation and sustainable development more generally.
I've often worried that an excessive focus on the local has the potential to create a sort of warm cocoon of community spirit that holds back good activist energies from being put into the kinds of progressive systemic changes that could accompany a (non-catastrophic) shift to resilience.
Building social capital around the challenge of adapting to climate change at local level is wonderful. I can readily buy into that. But I don't necessarily (as an ordinary citizen) want simultaneously to buy into all the peak oil jargon (and dark doommongering) with which the Transition Town movement is associated - wittingly or otherwise.
I'm very proud to have Brixton Pounds in my purse (I live in London) and love the idea of mapping fruit trees in my neighbourhood and creating workable energy descent plans. But I don't want any of that to distract me from some of the bigger systemic challenges: reform of international trade and finance and company law; decision-making in the United Nations... (and so on). Rather, we need the bonds that are forged through local activism to make these tasks psychologically manageable and to reinforce the links to what we're trying to achieve on the ground. But we also need to find ways to make sure that we arrive at social movements that are properly joined up, from the local to the global.
On another note - I'm about to start work on a project to develop visions for the future of democracy in the face of climate change. There are rich pickings in these exchanges, and much food for thought, for which I'm grateful.
The impression I get from reading this is that Alex has not fully grasped the implications of peak oil. It's not really surprising. I think a lot of people don't really understand energy and in particular the different forms of energy and their uses.
I would respectfully suggest that Alex does a good bit of reading and reflecting on peak oil before writing articles like the one above, which comes across to me as misinformed.
Alex: " ... the major shortcoming of the Transition Town movement, which is its lack of focus on major systems and insuring stability."
There are several ways a system can be stable or unstable. A boat or raft staying upright while going through rapids is one kind of stability. Refusing to go through the unstable rapids and staying ashore is another. Most folks in the Transition Movement don't think we can avoid going through the rapids, but they do want to keep the boat from going down. That is, they want to have the maximum human and planetary well-being under rather dire and very unstable conditions. Peak oil (and natural gas, etc.) isn't something chosen or celebrated by the Transition Movement, it's a profound crisis demanding a profound transformation.
We don't have the choice of business as usual, if that's the stability you want.
The transition movement is by name & principle about the 'transition' toward a low-energy future. Not a straight out 'collapse'. The acquiescence to a 'die-off' within a probable collapse is a sore reminder that we are all but small pieces of this puzzle who cannot easily stop shit things like the illegal diamond mining in congo or something like that. People are & have been 'dieing-off' for endless-capitalism since we started to rule by force & take by royal decree. Being aware, & acknowledging our complicity is not the same as condoning it. I'm sure Richard Heinberg would echo my statements.
AND NO the transition movement is not already resolved to the collapse & die off scenarios. They are about, again, 'transiting' ourselves from where we are towards a creative, positive response to the twin predicaments of peak oil (& other resources) & to climate change. It's helping a communitiy to see the steps it can take. Look @ the desciption on the website. In the context of a community, they aim to address this BIG question:
"for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"
Critising this will not aid much. Other than strengthen the resolve that 'transitioners' are doing the right thing. I suggest a Permacuture Design Certificate or a Transition workshop is attended by all here to solidify yr own position in this mess.
It should be noted also that most transition town groups involve many members of local government & state departments, these people are becoming the 'fizz that bubbles to the top' so to speak, bringing the activities & actions of the transition groups relevance to attention of the governing powers from inside the 'brew' (brewocracy(I can never spell it)). Often this bring support back to the group in more members (= a stronger plan) or funding (= better projects & activities).
The trasition movement is responsible currently for many of the best examples that you list in the closing of your article.
The other word not properly understood or referenced here is RESILIENCE. This is about being agile, adaptable & not resisting change. The idea the transition movement is about stability is wrong. It's about creating communties that can respond to the changes as they happen & act as a 'net'; to be flexible enough to not lose their inter-connections when shocked by something from outside & to be strong enough to support each other & more weight or pressure when it's applied.
This is resilience!
It doesn't happen easily in the individual but within a community it's possible. I tell folks dreaming of 'self-sufficiency' to give that idea away & focus on 'community sufficiency' this is more achievable & longer-lasting & has more onward & outward affects.
There is much stubborn opposition to the planning work that transition networks do even with the local government onside. There exists a point where you need to act however you can & to not act is tantamount to agreeing that we should let there be a 'die-off'. So I'd say the transition network is a bright green town of individuals thinking global & acting local. It's 1 of many great responses that are all gathering momentum. Keep the ball rolling.
It seems I've echoed Bob Hopkins response in many ways. I've not heard of this site before & dont know your particular bent on 'sustainability'. But I've been practicing many things that 'transitioners' advocate in my own personal way for a while now & it seems that has created a NEED in me to affect the other layers responsible for the ways of the world I live in.
So from my experience, it's the alternative path I've taken for betterment of the planet & humanity in my daily life that has naturally led to wanting to become an urban planner so I can become effective @ other layers wider than I first thought I could influence. In the last year I've been interviewed on the statewide radio & in the local papers. I'm not doing this for ego-massage, though if you were standing on the outside looking @ me, others could be forgiven for thinking as such (perhaps while simultaneous reflecting on their own inaction!) Who knows? Maybe you have the 'bright green' eyes of jealousy.
Being an obvious figure of trust gives you the unenviable position of having to really KNOW what your saying. OR risk losing cred with those that are inspired to act by you. The movement you are part of building will never look the way you want simply because you have only a part to play in it.
Constuctive criticism is most welcomed by most folks involved in this movement as we are generally giving & respectful people. Also 'dont knock it till u try it is another' moto that fits with this situation. Have you actually designed & applied an 'Energy decline plan' (or similar) to your life & interactions.
Showing you're serious about your perspective is best done with an actual display (unless yr perspective is about abstract intellectualisations!). I dont mean typing something on the net, I mean, trying veganism, a locavorian diet, riding a bike to buy yr food from a local grower or becoming a shareholder activist for example. That in essence is the driver behind the transition movement. It seems to be working better than first intended!!
We are all still trying to enjoy life while all this shit goes on & it seems like the transition movement is embodying that we must remain positive & see possibilites if we are going to retain our effectiveness & not burn-out emotionally/physically.
Stay charged & inspired amigo.
My comments are directed to the use of the language of “dark green” verses “bright green” as used in this piece to describe the TT movement as a “…most rapidly growing dark green movement”…. I object to language that refers to people associated with green movements in this judgmental, discriminatory way. I conclude my comments by referencing an article you published 2 Oct 09 which praised Resilience as a model that could inform World Changing’s strategic agenda. This is relevant since TT initiatives are based upon Resilience thinking. We need to build bridges not burn them and I propose a constructive dialogue.
So what’s wrong with your use of color hierarchies to discriminate between valid and invalid green movements? I guess I want to know who gets to decide what is bright and what is dark or what is deep and what is not, and by what authority? How does this discriminating language help the green movement be come more inclusive and less polarized so it can become more effective, building critical mass instead of building a divided class structure of good green and bad green? Using shades of green to attack less desirable efforts transforms the green bus we are all trying to navigate in into one that has certain shades of passengers that sit up front and other shades of passengers that have to sit in the back. This type of system has no place in a movement that needs to be based on inclusiveness to be effective and engage all of the stakeholders that are still missing from our bus. When shades of color are used to attack one group in reference to another, the underlying motivation can always be traced to fear.
Alex states the following about the TT movement: “That volatile emotional mix of fear and hope has made it the most rapidly growing dark green movement in the world”. If Alex objects to the premise of fear based movements, I would like to ask Alex to make his own arguments about TT stand alone without the use of fear-based language. I am part of the TT movement in Seattle and I embrace Alex’s recommendations for creating a bright green future”; its not “either or” its “and”. Let’s not divide. Lets unify. Lets leave color hierarchies in the past and not apply a flawed system to our own movement. Its inspiring to promote a bright green future but not at the expense of some very dedicated and responsible people that are relegated to the dark green ghetto.
Alex, from the Resilience perspective as published on your site by NICOLE-ANNE BOYER, 2 OCT 09 entitled: Jamming in the Flux: Insights for a Worldchanger's Strategic Agenda, the article states, “This framework (the resilience perspective) puts the work of Worldchanging in perspective and may help us think about our strategic agenda more clearly”. The concepts of resilience embraced in this article are the same concepts that support Transition Town Initiatives and thinking. I recommend that we revisit your 27 Oct 09 article in light of the introduction of Transition Town thinking that is coming to Seattle soon so that we can better understand how to identify our common goals.
Alex, the only reason I'm reading your blog is because I stumbled across an article about green architecture in the mainstream media which referenced the Transition Towns initiative. For the last fifteen days I've been reading more and more, and have so far watched three of the films they recommend and one more they've not yet mentioned. Because of their work, there is hope for those who have seen that over twenty years of campaigning for national and international change has only brought us closer to global destruction... there is hope because through local change we bring something back into the control of ordinary people, and through doing that we reinvigorate the dialogue at higher levels and make those politicians sit up and take notice.
So unfortunately I disagree with your rather dismal and over-negative portrayal of the Transition Towns movement. If there's negativity it's because the destruction of life as we know it probably is just a tad negative. I'm unconvinced telling people they're about to become "bright green citizens" is really going to achieve the magnitude of change required to redirect the path we're on with gathering momentum.
In short, when you've created a movement - not just "10,000 articles", not just a best-selling book, or a "top 15 website" - when you've successfully engaged hundreds of communities around the world to step up to the challenge of real change in their daily lives, then in my opinion you will have the remit to post a critique of an initiative that has done the same; not before.
Victoria's right Alex. The TT guy's resume blows yours away. There's gotta be a better target for your disdain than this movement. Surely there's alot of redundancy of purpose in your goals.
Alex, I admire your passion for right action, and your willingness to take heat for what you believe to be right. We genuinely need people like you who are firm enough in their convictions to stand in the fire and hold strongly to points of view that others may not understand. This is a genuine service to the community.
That said, there are points in your argument that simply don't follow. The principle one, it seems to me, is where you say, "That sort of casual eagerness for the death of others is appalling." There is not the slightest evidence, in either the quotes you offer from TI leaders, or elsewhere in their writings (that I know of) to justify labeling their stance as "casual eagerness". They are reporting, it seems clear, their expectations or predictions, and frankly those expectations are not unreasonable, neither is it unreasonable to state them. Your attribution of "eagerness" seems to be based on the fact that they are willing to state their expectations so bluntly, and that would seem to be a misattribution based on your own issues. I think that you slandered the TI leaders, and I think that you owe them an apology.
And - I agree with a lot of the points that you make about TI. I think, like you, that their idea that local communities can survive general collapse is delusional - and made more delusional by the fact that they make no preparations at all for what we might term "collapse resilience." I have tried to introduce conversation about how TI Ottawa (of which I am a member) might prepare for temporary loss of social order, for instance - and no one is interested. They say quite explicitly that it would dampen their enthusiasm for the movement to consider such dark scenarios, and make the movement less attractive to those considering joining. In other words, they are defending delusion over reality quite explicitly, for emotional and marketing reasons.
To end, I encourage you to keep pointing to where you see errors in our process towards best future outcomes, but keep yourself in integrity by owning up where you make those personal errors that we all inevitably do from time to time.
No, Victoria's wrong. The only qualification that one needs to offer a critique of anything is a good handle on the truth. If something contains errors, then pointing them out is a service (whether or not one's gift is received, or appreciated).
Perhaps it's churlish to point out that by Victoria's own criterion, she doesn't have the right to criticize you, either, Alex, not (presumably) being able to match your own achievements. But of course, by mine she does.
Reading over my own previous post (above), I realize that I left out an important caveat. Since one can never be sure that one has a good handle on what is objectively (rather than just subjectively) true, then the only real qualification one needs to criticise another's ideas or behaviour is that one have carefully considered what is right and true, and one is willing to discover that one is wrong. In this environment, we all become truth seekers, holding what is real, i.e., the penetration of delusion, to be of more value, more attractive than ego.
The "transition town" rhetoric was doomed on day one due to inclusion of the "peaker" drivel about "oil scarcity". Oil is plentiful and that's the main problem: Oil shale and tar sand and offshore drilling can find plenty of it to burn, and "scarcity" talk will drive up the price and investment in those methods. However, burning even what's known to be out there will raise atmospheric CO2 to 1400ppm, according to the UK Chief Scientist. Thus, "peak oil" is only an issue to those who think climate change is not occurring or is not/barely affected by human acts. In other words, only climate denialists could care about "peak oil" or "energy scarcity" as such. The problem is not a lack of supply, but the emissions: As with large scale wood burning, as with coal and as with nuclear. But morons and sociopaths default to supply-side ideas as we see repeatedly in the "energy problem as a power generation problem" confusion.
By allowing inconsistent axioms into its core rationale, Transition Towns was a doomed rhetoric bound to simply reinforce all unpleasant dystopic assumptions. There was no rational scenario it had in common amongst all its advocates, indeed that was part of its strength. One only had to share the gloom, not any particular belief.