After reading the following articles, I thought it would be in Transitioners interest to also read them. It takes some of the questions people have about the Transition model and teases them apart, giving them a framework and structure with which to talk with people. The first is a critique of the Transition Movement and the second is a response to it by Carolyn Baker (she has a website you can web search for). The third letter is a response from our own TWIG, Kate Clark. This is a long read but, I believe, well worth it. Carolyn's response has so much of Alex's article in it that if you want to save time, you could just read hers - up to you, of course. One thing I would like to add is from an email between Kate and I "...more damaging than the article may be his references to Transition as "dark". Yes, nip that one in the bud right away! Deep green yes. A lovely natural leaf green, yes." Just wanted to let you all know that there is an alternative to the 'dark green' phrase.
Enjoy the read!
Alex Steffen runs the group/website "Worldchanging," which is a Seattle-based "bright green" group. Here's a "bright green"
critique of the Transition movement.
Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?
ALEX STEFFEN, 27 OCT 09
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 greenmovement 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 interestingTransition 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:
• Finding places where a system has been draped in complexity, and revealing it in clear, beautiful, interesting ways. How things work is of inherent interest to many people. How can we reveal the workings of the systems around them in ways that help them see the usefulness of change?
• Making public life exciting where boredom has dampened people's enthusiasm, if not simply driven them completely out of civic involvement. How can we simultaneously reject needless process in favor of quick, transparent and measured decisions and enliven participation? Being part of democracy ought to feel exciting, and invigorating: we should view every part of it that's boring with deep mistrust.
• Launching a counter-attack on pervasive cynicism and finding fresh ways to call it what it is: cynicism is obedience. The very origins of the word mean "like a dog." Stripping cynicism of its rebelliousness, making it looks as entirely whipped an attitude as it is, is a huge step towards reclaiming the public realm. Indeed, I think we need to deploy our full battery of humorists, satirists and artists on looking at what part of us makes us so ready to accept the idea that all is sham and we're beaten before we start.
• Reaching out to people have been made afraid of participation, and spreading enthusiasm and a delight in civic life. How can we make civic participation more welcoming, and jam the manufactured reactionary anger that conservatives use to gum up our public processes (through tea-bagging and astroturfing)?
• Reclaiming the media sphere by supporting local journalism that actually reveals, informs and educates. How can we develop means to support reporting, writing, filmmaking and public discussion that advances our understanding of what to do, leaving behind the tired debates of the last generation?
• Reinventing or replacing the kinds of civic institutions -- the university departments, think tanks, research labs, planning agencies -- that democracies need to make informed decisions, in the wake of 40 years of work by the right wing to either destroy these institutions or overwhelm them with new, better-funded ideologically-conservative versions.
• Diffusing innovation through our local businesses and industry groups. Unsustainable business is bad business, even in the fairly short run: sound economic strategy in times like ours is to get in the business of replacing the broken systems around us. How do we build local business cultures that support transformation as the opportunity it 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 embracefuture-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.
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.
Oct 27, 2009
TRANSITION TOWNS OR BRIGHT GREEN CITIES? THE COLOR OF MOVEMENTS OR THE COLOR OF LIFE?
by Carolyn Baker
Alex Steffen’s “Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?” of October 26 presents a kind of spectrum for environmental groups, ranging from “dark green” to “light green”, that may be more about visual impairment than color-coding. That is to say that it attempts to analyze and classify the Transition movement without actually seeing what it is at all.First, when Steffen attempts to define what Transition Towns are, his emphasis is primarily on action. While it is true that action is substantial part of the movement, anyone who wishes to understand Transition must also grasp its three essential pillars: Head, Heart, and Hands. Head refers to educating ourselves regarding the realities of Peak Oil, climate change, species extinction, and myriad other challenges of the twenty-first century. Heart refers to the “Heart and Soul” aspect of Transition which relates to finding meaning and purpose amid the swirl of emotions we are certain to experience as we deepen our understanding of the challenges and their implications. Last, for a very good reason, is the Hands pillar which refers to learning new skills that will be necessary in order to survive in a post-industrial world and taking action in our communities to implement the Transition model. Without the pillars of Head and Heart, action will not be sufficiently informed and may be ineffective.
Additionally, Steffen gets his numbers wrong when he speaks of “people in perhaps as many as 250 towns now actively taking part.” In fact, there are Transition initiatives in over 1500 communities globally, and about half of those are in the U.S.
As Steffen moves into addressing “the limits of Transition” he states:
“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.”
What, I ask, is “powerless” about these actions? Steffen answers from his perspective in the next paragraph when he asserts that:
“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 [my emphasis] that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations).”
On this point Steffen gets it dead right—Transition does focus on building alternative systems rather than reforming larger systems. You see, this is why the “Head” pillar of Transition is so critically important. If one does not do the research which is ubiquitous, but exquisitely compiled in Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook, then one will miss the factual information that if assimilated, will preclude any hope that “larger systems” bought and paid for by corporations and their legislative minions can alter the present suicidal trajectory of the human race.
That Steffen has not done his research is telling from this point forward in the article, attested by statements like:
“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.”
In fact, Transition does not encourage people to “just go ahead and do something, anything.” That is precisely why the Transition Handbook was written—to educate readers in what the issues actually are so that they can address them strategically and skillfully on the local level.
Then comes the really telling portion of the article where Steffen evaluates Transition as “dark thinking.” Before examining his specific misinterpretations of statements from people involved in Transition, let’s notice the disparaging word “dark.” Then let’s step back and ask the question: When people on the Titanic in the wee hours of April 14, 1912 were hysterically trying to find a way to save themselves, would it have been appropriate to call their thoughts, feelings, or actions “dark”? Obviously not because they knew they were perishing. Only individuals who do not understand that the planet and the entire earth community is perishing can talk about “dark thinking” in relation to movements like Transition. Only those who have done no or only cursory research on oil depletion, climate change, species extinction, and overpopulation—or have chosen to immerse themselves in rosier assessments of these issues—would refer to the Transition model as “dark.”
But even more amazing is Steffen’s misinterpretation of statements by individuals involved in Transition:
“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.’”
No one that I know in the Transition movement “talks cheerfully” about any of these topics. Quite the contrary. If the individuals who founded the movement and contributed to the handbook were joyously celebrating the collapse of civilization and all of the misery that it will entail, they would first of all be psychotic, and secondly, they would not have needed to create a Heart and Soul pillar in Transition to assist people in finding meaning in the midst of horror.
Only individuals who have not fully educated themselves about the state of the planet could deny that its systems are now in a profound process of collapse—a process which is exacerbating daily. The Transition movement is not arguing that collapse is a “tool for social change”, but simply that it is happening, it probably now has a life of its own, and that there’s virtually nothing that large-scale systems can do about it except to intensify the process.
Some fundamental scholarly research that I recommend to Alex Steffen would be: The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter; Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over and Peak Everything; The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler; Dmitry Orlov’s Re-Inventing Collapse; and Endgame, Vol. I and II by Derrick Jensen.
Absolutely essential documentary viewing would be “What A Way To Go: Life At The End of Empire”; “Blind Spot”, and “The Great Squeeze”.
And yes, Steffen is correct when he notes:
“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.”
Yes, yes, yes! Although, it is debatable whether Transitioners generally are “idealistic” about the collapse of large-scale systems. What is probably more accurate is that 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 of its current suicidal tendencies, as well as the catastrophic repercussions of collapse.
I must adamantly disagree with Steffen’s insistence that we need “bright green” anything on a large scale. For him, it appears that “large” is the only scale that matters because he seems not to have grasped that “large” is synonymous with empire, “large” is part of the problem, and “large” is unraveling at lightning speed. He wishes us to stop seeing these systems as “out of our control” when that is precisely what is so. The ship is taking on water faster than anyone can cope with, and it is, quite simply, sinking. As for myself, I don’t want or need a “politics of optimism” or the re-arranging of deck chairs. I want nothing less than a lifeboat, and Transition gives me the best one I’m aware of at the moment.
As for the charge that the Transition movement is cynical, my experience has been quite the opposite. If one defines cynical as: “distrusting or disparaging the motives of others; showing contempt for accepted standards of morality by one’s actions; bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic”, Transition eludes this definition. Researching the current state of the planet in terms of energy, environment, an economics renders any thinking human being wary and cautious regarding larger systems—their integrity, their motives, and their long-term future. However, caution is not synonymous with cynicism.
Steffen refers to the etymology of the word “cynic” as related to “dog” in the sense that to be cynical is to be obedient. More specifically, however, the connection between “cynic” and “dog” actually originated in Ancient Greece when philosophers compared the cynic with the dog who continually gnawed on a the same bone, over and over. In that connotation, the behavior of the cynic is similar to the definition of insanity which is essentially doing the same thing over and over again getting the same results, but each time expecting a different outcome. In my experience this is much more descriptive of the behavior of the larger systems that Steffen purports are necessary for change, and light years removed from anything I’ve witnessed in the mission or behavior of the Transition movement.
Clearly, Steffen has an aversion to all things dark, but had he read the Transition Handbook, he would have encountered a remarkable optimism and positive vision, yet an optimism tempered by the realities of the research to which the handbook directs the reader and which seems to have eluded him.
I could not do justice to Transition if I did not interject the one aspect of it that has not yet been discussed in my response to Steffen, namely, the Heart and Soul pillar. While he observes Transition as falsely optimistic, his “bright green cities” vision is a chimera—an engineered extension of empire, highly unlikely in the face of all the realities he has chosen to overlook: energy depletion, climate change, and global economic meltdown. Since the beginning of human history, the wisdom of ancient traditions has reiterated that life is not always as it seems. That which appears dazzling is not always desirable, and that which appears dark is not always wisely averted. Sometimes that which we fear most is our redemption. The greatest minds of human history: Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Jung, Einstein—to name a few, were not repelled by dark realities, but rather embraced them, however reluctantly, as conduits to deeper truth and more exquisite creativity.
Spin it as we will, the human race is precariously poised on the cliff’s edge, hanging by its fingernails. Our challenge is not to try to prevent the collapse of the larger systems, but to respond with resilience and self-sufficiency and to ask the kinds of questions that wisdom traditions and the greatest minds in human history have always asked: Why is this happening? What meaning can I and my community find in this unfolding of events? What do I and my loved ones and my community need to do to prepare? And perhaps most importantly, what is my purpose in being here at this time? What have I come here to do? What can I contribute?
These are questions I address in my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. A “dark” book? Only if one insists that the dire condition of the planet and its inhabitants precludes opportunity to do what Steffen asks of us when he says, “It’s time to make ourselves into the people who can do what’s needed.”
How we perceive the condition of our world determines whether we experience ourselves as passengers on the Titanic or on a luxury cruise ship that is having intermittent propeller problems. It’s much more about the color of life than the color of movements.
CAROLYN BAKER, Ph.D., was an adjunct professor of history and psychology for 11 years and a psychotherapist in private practice for 17 years. Her latest book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse, is unique in its offering of emotional and spiritual tools for preparing for living in a post-industrial world. Her other books include: Coming Out From Christian Fundamentalism: Affirming Sensuality, Social Justice, and The Sacred (2007), U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You (2006) and The Journey of Forgiveness (2000). All may be purchased at her site, Speaking Truth to Power. She is available for speaking engagements and author events and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FROM KATE CLARK:
A short response to Alex Steffen's article about the Transition movement. I doubt if you could find anyone involved in Transition Towns who disagrees with Mr. Steffen's wonderful suggestions for change, they are all indeed 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.
Transition Whatcom Initiating Group