Transition Culture

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20 Nov 2008

Responding to Greer’s Thoughts on ‘Premature Triumphalism’

It was good to read John Michael Greer’s recent post about the Transition movement, entitled Premature Triumphalism, because as a long admirer of Greer’s work, I was looking forward to hearing his take on the subject.  His piece is based on hearing a talk on Transition at the recent Community Solutions conference, and he raises some important points, most of which I have to say I agree with entirely and find his analysis very insightful.  I want to start my response to his piece by drawing your (and his) attention to what I think is the most important thing on the Transition Network’s website, the Cheerful Disclaimer.

The Cheerful Disclaimer!

Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this:

* if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
* if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
* but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

Everything that you read on this site is the result of real work undertaken in the real world with community engagement at its heart. There’s not an ivory tower in sight, no professors in musty oak-panelled studies churning out erudite papers, no slavish adherence to a model carved in stone.

This site, just like the transition model, is brought to you by people who are actively engaged in transition in a community. People who are learning by doing – and learning all the time. People who understand that we can’t sit back and wait for someone else to do the work. People like you, perhaps…

These are times in which many many people feel bewildered, lost and really rather scared.  Anything that appears to offer a successful way through can generate a wide range of responses.  We deal with this all the time at the Transition Network.  For many people, coming across Transition, especially for those that have undergone their peak oil ‘dark night of the soul’, discovering Transition can be like falling in love.  In the first throes of a love affair, everything about our new partner is wonderful.  They are the most beautiful, funny, gorgeous, sexy, witty person we have ever met.  Over time of course, things become less heady, and although things calm down and become more realistic, it doesn’t mean that we no longer care for them or that that person isn’t right for us.

Likewise with Transition, many people encounter the model, the tools, the Network, and enter what we might call ‘Super Exuberance Mode’, where they feel they have found the One Thing That Will Save Us.  Over time, this then calms down, and they become more realistic and grounded, but although that early stage is a powerful experience for many, it also has its inherent dangers.  What is happening in the US now is that Transition is starting to spread in various places, helped by the publication of Transition Handbook there, the formation of Transition US, set up to support and enable its spread, and by some early adopters who are generating some good media coverage.  What is vital though, as Greer observes, is that it remains grounded, and expectations aren’t created that are entirely unrealistic.

What actually is this Transition thing?  It is a Purpose and a set of principles, a 12 Step model people use, a Network of people around the world, many practical projects some of which have worked and some of which haven’t, and the Cheerful Disclaimer.  That’s it.   Beyond that, it is an invitation to get involved, to input and to help shape this approach.  I often liken Transition to being a huge, and vitally important social research project.  Those tools and principles continually evolve through a constant series of iterations.

It started with the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan which went around the world, generating a lot of enthusiasm as well some constructive feedback.  That then shaped the way Transition Town Totnes happened in its early stages, as well as the experience of some of the early adopters like Lewes, Penwith and Stroud.  The feedback from that led into the writing of the Transition Primer, the free pdf. guide to starting an initiative.  That is a continually revised guide, now in its 26th version.  The feedback from the places doing trying out the suggestions in the Primer led to the writing of the Transition Handbook.  The feedback from the Handbook is now being collated in the collaborative rewriting of the Handbook, and also in the Transition Movie, out next Spring, which is being filmed by those out there doing it.  This way of working is, for me, the Cheerful Disclaimer in practice.  We don’t know how to do this, but the more of us that are doing it, the better and clearer idea we will get.

Although at Transition Network we have some suggested templates for presentations, we don’t dictate what people will use to give talks about Transition.  They speak from their experience, their passion, their enthusiasm.  As a result, some people will be more in Super Exuberance Mode than others.  We discussed today trying to ensure that anyone giving a talk about Transition include the Cheerful Disclaimer somewhere in that.  Hopefully people will take that on.  There is, however, a fine line, a careful balance, between communicating inspiration and enthusiasm, and generating the kind of headshaking and ‘blistering comments’ Greer picked up at the back of the hall.

Whenever I speak about Transition, I stress that we don’t know if this will work, that it is a collaborative adventure, an ongoing, long term experiment.  Actually, a lot of people come up afterwards and say that they felt that was the most inspiring aspect of the talk.  ‘Premature triumphalism’ should be avoided at all costs, and certainly we emphasise that again and again through the Transition Training, and through all the output from the Network.

I have no idea, never having been there, of the US context for all this.  There is fascinating work going on, translating Transition into a range of cultural contexts.  We now have full translations of the Primer in Dutch and Japanese, and partial translations into French, German, Spanish, Italian and Hungarian, translated by the initiating groups in those countries themselves.  The Handbook is now published in German and shortly in Italian.  Yet beyond the language issues, there are the cultural issues of how this model adapts.  The best people to work out how Transition works in the myriad of communities on a wide range of scales across the US are the inhabitants of those communities themselves.  This is the model that is working in other places, New Zealand being an especially good example of this.  It may be that being more effusive about it works better there (had Obama, rather than saying ‘yes we can’, said ‘well we might be able to, I have no idea, but I get a sense that we probably could if we work on this together and then kinda share our experiences’ he may not have got so far).

It feels vital to me that Transition doesn’t repeat some of the things that the permaculture movement has got wrong.  As my recent post about chicken greenhouses showed, one of the things permaculture has been really poor at (in my opinion) is on researching itself.  Enthusiastic teachers went around the world teaching tools and techniques, yet with no-one following up behind studying if these things actually worked.  I am trying to get hold of an electronic copy of a brilliant analysis of the Australian Permaculture movement by Russ Grayson which holds many important lessons for Transition, which I will post here when I do.  Being honest and open about what works and what doesn’t is vital.

With regards to Greer’s other point, that there is no point visioning the future because we have no idea what it will be like, I disagree.  Of course we don’t know for sure, but the point is that we need to start planning for life beyond oil now, indeed Bob Hirsch might argue (if he wasn’t warning us all to stop talking about peak oil in case we depress the chances of the revival of economic growth) that we should have started this planning 20 years ago.  In doing that planning, it strikes me that that needs to be based on realistic assumptions about the future, rather than the assumed line rising from left to right on the graphs of most business and development planners (more houses, cars, jobs, growth, energy).

With my background in permaculture design, I approach the transitioning of my town, the cutting of carbon emissions and the building of resilience, in the same way I would approach a garden design.  First there is an observation phase, a taking stock, of assessing what the resources are that we have to work with.  Then there is an evaluation of that, which leads into the design stage.  Why these stages matter is that then when we come to action, to implemenation, we know we are directing our energies in the most productive way.  We know we are applying our limited energy and resources in the way that has the most leverage. Starting with a vision ensures that we know where we are aiming for, that the first steps we take are the most skillful and the most appropriate, rather than dashing around doing things that in the moment feel right, yet which lack any strategic underpinning.

No-one in Transition would ever say that the Energy Descent Plan they produce is the hard and fast plan for the next 20 years.  In the same way that in permaculture design, the implementation of our plan is followed by an ongoing process of ‘tweaking’, of continual revision, so that the plan remains contemporary and relevant, our EDAPs are always work-in-progress. In the process of creating the Totnes Energy Descent Plan, it is striking that although the Plan is based on a vision of the town in 20 years, the majority of practical actions tend to cluster in the first 5 years. What is key, to return to Greer’s point, is that EDAPs look at possibilities, rather than probabilities.  It is a key difference, and one that will be stressed in the forthcoming ‘Transition Timeline’ report, coming soon from Transition Network.

Greer concludes his piece by saying “all this is welcome, but I’m still reminded of the old shopman’s rule that you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you are ready to name at least three ways it can be abused and at least three situations where it’s the wrong tool for the job”.  I think at this stage, as I hope I have set out, that across the Transition network, we can now name many more than three for both of these.  The ethic of collaborative exploration and openness to failure embodied in the Transition model means that this is a powerful, exhilarating and timely approach, not because it is fully formed, inherently wonderful and guaranteed to suceed, but precisely because it wears its heart on its sleeve, is honest about what works and what it doesn’t, and because it thrives on the journey of figuring out what successful pathways down the energy mountain will look like in practice.  For me, the not knowing is what makes this all fun, and it is the potential of the cultural, social and economic renaissance that could arise from our getting this right that propels me out of bed every morning.

Categories: General

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

19 Comments

Steve Atkins
20 Nov 2:33pm

Hi Rob… I think you’ll find it’s spelt… discliamor!…eg:

http://www.transitiontowndorchester.org/whatistransition.html#Anchor_new4

andrew ramponi
20 Nov 2:42pm

Rob

You do a great job of conveying the sense of excitement, and the potential of joy through the unexpected reward that can come from exploring and experimenting.

It does seem that in the endless quest for safety and certainty we’ve inadvertaintly built our own prison walls. Thankfully, there’s still a way out through the door.

Also it seems to me that, along the lines of the precautionary principle, “don’t know” is better than “uh-oh”!

John Michael Greer
20 Nov 4:23pm

Many thanks for a thoughtful and constructive response. The attitude expressed in the Cheerful Disclaimer is exactly what I’d hope to see in all projects for a world after peak oil; you’re right that it doesn’t make a good political sound bite, but it seems to me that getting out of sound bite territory as fast as possible is one of the essential tasks of any social change project worth the name.

The question of the value of what you’ve called visioning the future touches on some exceptionally complex issues, and probably deserves a great deal more discussion than it’s received so far. Equally, though, there’s a place — and indeed a necessity — for many different approaches as we confront the crisis of the industrial world, and I suspect both your visionary model and my more plodding approach have their places. Until the transition process belongs to the history books, all bets are open.

Marcin Gerwin
20 Nov 6:26pm

To address the challenges of peak-oil and climate change actions at personal, community and government level are important. But the community actions, such as Transition Initiatives, are especially important, because they create the sense of “community”, the social ties that are lost in the consumer society. Even if there was no looming peak-oil crisis, in what world would we choose to live in? The one where there are no social ties or the one where your neighbors are
our friends? Would we choose the shopping-mall lifestyle with a SUV for everyone or living close to nature?

The process of creating a positive vision is very important. We need to know where we are heading – our direction must be clear. And as I see it, direction of the Transition Initiatives is clear. If you hold a golden coin in your hand there’s no need to start checking “well, maybe this coin is made of copper, after all. I think I can see some
rust here and there”. Gold is gold, OK, Rob? :) When Neo from the Matrix wants to jump from one building to another, he just jumps.

The Andean Quechua and Amazonian Shuar shamans teach that the world is as we dream it. People have dreamed about material wealth, so now rivers are polluted and forests are being destroyed. But as shaman Manco pointed out in conversation with John Perkins: “All you have to do is to change the dream, and everything else will change along with it. (…) We need to change to an Earth-honoring dream.”

Albert Bates
20 Nov 11:30pm

Quite eloquent. In open process there is always a risk (including unrealistic expectation), but the upside holds a far greater potential to succeed (not least in unforeseen ways) than something constrained by a predetermined design. Well done.

Rob Weston
20 Nov 11:54pm

Interesting phenomenon here for me personally: three people whose work I admire a great deal are: Gregory Bateson, John Michael Greer and Rob Hopkins. Seems Mr Greer was reading a lot of Bateson’s ‘Conscious Purpose vs Nature’ stuff on that flight (!) to the Peak Oil conference, as well as the double bind material he mentions explicitly. My (ever ongoing) reading of Bateson currently suggests that his main concern was that our conscious (usually misguidedly ‘self-interested’) short-arc purposiveness in the face of an infinitely complex meta-systemic reality tends to fuck up said reality (ie Nature). Bateson’s Ghost (not to mention his daughter) seems to be telling us that a sense of the sacred – ie wisdom – involves (indeed IS) a beyond-conscious awareness of the fact of large-system circuitry. Being supra-conscious I sense that perhaps this awareness doesn’t fall under Bateson’s conscious purpose definition and is, further, part of our feeling our ways towards solutions or improvements. I have always (well, for over twenty years) felt that permaculture has this wisdom. More recently I have increasingly felt that the Transition approach articulates and activates permacultural wisdom better than Bill Mollison (bless him) ever did. Keep it up, you guys – very much including rigorous criticisms and other evolutionary adjustments – I’m sure Bateson’s Shade is happy under this tree :)

Anthony Climpson
21 Nov 11:15am

Hi Rob,

It was really good to meet/briefly chat the other day down here in the forest….. already looking forward to next time.

This is all really helpful stuff which we can all use with each other and our local communities in getting our stones rolling.

Whilst I think I understand John’s comment on political sound bites…… responses such as yours do give us the simple observations that can so easily be shared ( another phrase for sound bites ) to help harness the collective energy/enthusiasm which drives the transition adventure at a local level.

Anyway, good stuff, when I’ve got a bit more time I’ll try and be a bit more helpful with something for your new book!!

Our first big Hub event last Saturday went well with locality and subject groups being formed as we’d hoped

Greenpa
21 Nov 4:35pm

Eh. Sorry, but Greer has failed to intelligently critique the Transition Movement. Rob, your response to him shows more intrinsic intelligence than his criticisms do. And more “due diligence.”

Basically, all his concerns are already raised, considered, and dealt with by Transitioneers. And he underestimated it all- and didn’t bother to find out.

I’m also not inclined to pay much attention to armchair types expressing “reservations” about those involved- up to and over their eyebrows – in DOING. Does Greer do anything- besides write? I honestly don’t know.

Brixtonian
21 Nov 9:03pm

Must admit, at the Brixton Unleashing (there’s something so kinky about that word – always makes me smile ..) I found the various mentions that ‘we are creating history’ exactly what Greer means by premature triumphalism. And while I’m about it, we were in Brixton … the fact that so few black people were in the audience was a re-creation of history that makes me feels very cynical.

Sonya
21 Nov 9:50pm

Over the time we’ve been transitioning here on the Sunshine Coast we’ve learnt many, many things. But most relevant to this is;

Never set a date/year/timeframe for any set oil/petrol price increases – if it doesn’t happen as you say, you’re ideas are quickly dismissed. Explain how it’s not that clear cut.

Clearly communicate that this is a flexible, adaptive plan/project model that needs to be constantly reviewed (Creatively use & respond to change – as David Holmgren encourages us to do), good ideas built on and celebrated, not so good ideas either turfed out completely or shelved for review in the future. If you’re in a cul de sac, back out and get back on the open road.

Having spent two years full time on this – and having come from a govt background in emergency services and management and strategic planning – it’s the best we’ve got.

I be very interested to see what the naysayers are proposing as a strategy for individual, community, business, industry, education, and governmental change on this scale.

If they’ve got something better, then let’s hear it. Till then, it’s onward and upward applying this in our daily lives, in our communities, in our regions and learning (quickly) as we go – then telling others about what we’ve learned.

Onward and upward,
Sonya
Transition Sunshine Coast Australia.

Sonya
21 Nov 10:05pm

And… re permaculture’s role in this. I did my PDC and my teacher training with Robin Clayfield and CERT IV qualifications in Oct 2006 after many years reading about it and studying it. In August that year I also heard David Holmgren speak about regional sustainability in an energy descent future.

For me, and this is only me personal observations, the PDC covered permaculture (and all its lessons and principles in energy efficiencies and sustainable systems design) in the landscape, except of course Chapter 14 in the Designer’s Manual which touches on alternative nations.

After the PDC I wanted to spend a two week block studying David Holmgren’s text as it applies to the social, economic and supply and production systems of our region. This is how we came up with writing our energy descent action planning course – with the EDAP (as mentioned by David in his talk) as the final product.

Here on the Sunshine Coast we’ve excelled in permaculture food production. We have three very active pc groups and Crystal Waters village nearby.

Nambour – my nearest town – was the site of the world’s first pc community group in 1974, started by Max Lindegger. Geoff Lawton started our biggest group – permaculture noosa.

Yet, here it’s seen in the community mainly as food production – or worse still as companion planting or mulching!

Using the term ‘transition towns’ we are applying those exact same principles in David’s text and the seven domains of action (expanded to be the sectors of our edap) and people are very accepting of it. They don’t have those pre-conceived attitudes to pc.

Some people have even come up to us afterwards and said we should do a permaculture course, cause it’s the same thing. (We both teach PDCs – my partner in this project has been for more than 20 years and has co-taught with Bill and also was instrumental in the accredited permaculture training programs – I’m just learning from her)

I see TTs as an important part of this third wave of environmentalism we are experiencing, but taking it beyond only environment to the social and structural (both hard and soft infrastructure) of our entire societies.

I’ve gone right back to Permaculture One – on the first page of that – published in 1978 – it says that permaculture has a much wider impact – as a solution to (among other things) our fast-depleting energy.

We’re working with David Holmgren reporting back what we are doing and how we are utilising his text to do this.

Transition Towns = best thing since sliced bread!

S

Greenpa
23 Nov 3:14pm

Brixtonian- well, but step back just a tad. YOU were participating- and the premature aspects were visible to you; and so was the dearth of racial diversity.

Those were good things for you to be noticing. I’ll bet my shirt you were not the only one noticing and thinking. That’s good.

So is the joy and spirit of being involved in something very cool- and new- and possibly historical. I don’t see any reason to throw cold water on the spirit, when so many people involved are already saying, in quieter moments, “yes, but…”

YOU are the reason Greer is mistaken. This is not a blind religious movement you have here, but one that is trying to keep an open mind- on everything.

Why would anyone want to smack a child, that has just achieved something good, cool, and skillful, and say “Don’t be so happy! You’re not as smart as you think you are!” (The subtext there, is, you’re not as smart as am. – which I hear from Greer a lot.)

Let the child dance.

Greenpa
23 Nov 3:17pm

woops. sorry about the weird italics; I tried to be fancy and put in an italic I; and wound up losing the I and changing everything downstream.

Deborah
23 Nov 9:19pm

Well having read both Greers article and Rob’s responses, I agree with Greer that we have to avoid this premature triumphalism, very important. However I also agree with several of the posters here that the transition movement is the best of the available options to date. What it has done for me is got me out of stunned mullet mode and given me a chance to feel hope again. That hope has led to a feeling of safety that very few people feel in our current ‘buy your way out of everything’ culture. Having worked with children for a lot of my working life, they need to feel safety like the rest of us, before they able to interact with others and to learn. If helping us all to feel hope is the ONLY thing the transition movement does then that in itself is worthwhile. However I feel that the potential of this approach is far more wide ranging. I have in the last month joined a steering group of a new transition town and since then have influenced others to think about starting the same thing in their own towns. We are two weeks away from our fist film showing and discussion to spread the idea. I have no idea where we are going beyond inviting people to consider the ideas but feel convinced that the bottom up approach has got to prove more useful than the top down approach of the last 100 plus years.

Let the people dance!

Bart Anderson
23 Nov 11:12pm

I tried to post a comment with links to Russ Grayson’s permaculture articles, but it doesn’t seem to have been accepted.

Bart
Energy Bulletin

Michael Brownlee
24 Nov 3:45am

Dear Rob,

Well, I do say unapologetically that even though it’s still early, I am increasingly convinced that Transition may be the fastest growing, most inspiring, and most significant social change movement we’ve ever seen. But I don’t say this lightly, and I’m not a wide-eyed idealist. I’ve been around long enough and involved in enough social change work to have something to say about this. For that matter, I’ve been in the gnarly trenches of relocalization going on four years, and after witnessing the new life that Transition is bringing to these efforts, I am deeply impressed.

I know better than to ever make the claim that Transition will succeed. After all, no one has ever relocalized a community before (which of course implies that no one really knows how to do this). But there are very hopeful signs we can point to that Transition is beginning to work in many communities. Besides, Transition is well-grounded, underpinned by an understanding, principles, ethics and methodologies that (as far as I can tell) have never been brought together before. The model is flexible, responsive, adaptive, creative, both broad and deep, replicable, downright brilliant, and highly contagious. Most importantly, people are responding. Transition is attracting extraordinary people, calling them forth in most heartening ways. More than anything else, this gives me a degree of confidence that this has a chance of working.

While it’s true that we have no assurance Transition will ultimately succeed in the U.S., we’re going to give it our all here anyway. I see no downside risk to wholeheartedly placing all our local bets on Transition and attempting to engage entire communities in the process. But I do agree it’s important to include your Cheerful Disclaimer, and we will consistently do so henceforth.

It’s actually a bit more than a social experiment we’re involved in here. This is for keeps. We don’t have the luxury of blithely mucking around or sitting on the sidelines in the hopes that something better will come along. Our communities are directly in the path of a global tsunami (the combined local impacts of peak oil, climate change, and resulting economic instability), and we’ve got to quickly rise to the occasion and get ourselves to higher ground—together.

Preparing our communities for the coming challenges and opportunities is a high stakes endeavor, and there is considerable urgency. We’ve made a profound commitment to Transition here, not because it’s “the answer” but because it surely seems to be way ahead of whatever might be in second place.

As you freely acknowledge, we might yet fail in all this. And if we do, we will at least know that we have given ourselves, withholding nothing, to what we considered was both most important and most urgent. The learning that will come from our experience will likely be useful to others who will subsequently inherit these challenges and opportunities.

Gratefully,

Michael Brownlee
Transition Boulder County (Colorado, USA)

Bob Thorp
25 Nov 12:11am

Hey transitionistas – in the real world as soon as the plan is printed it is already obselete. So it goes. And nothing succeeds as planned. But I’m reminded of the story of a group of friends who went for a stroll in to the hills. The sun shone, birds sang, they enjoyed one anothers company and talked away as they wound their way deeper into the mountains. As time wore on the sky darkened and snow began to fall in gentle flurries. Soon a biting blizzard covered their tracks and hid the land. They took shelter, huddled together and waited but the snow grew deeper and they grew cold and hungry. They began to fret and search their pockets and packs for food – when a shout went up that a map had been found! The group rallied and were galvanised into action and within a few short hours they were out of the storm and soon entering a friendly wayside inn. They ordered drinks and vitals and told the landlord their story, showing him the map. The inn keeper looked at the map and exclaimed “I’m pleased you found safety and your way here but this is not a map of this area.”

So it goes………

Sonya
25 Nov 7:10am

I think if we can stay true to the underlying heart and soul of the Transition Town culture, if we understand and follow permaculture ethics and principles, if we let it go where it needs to go, if we talk to each other, and really importantly if we actually try this out in our communities and see what really works. Make it manifest and see what happens.

We also need to ensure we make it relevant to our own unique communities, and make changes if we need to (- we’ve had to do that here as Australia is a very different country to the UK), keep an eye on the big picture of reducing energy dependence.

I’m reminded of a comment Richard Heinberg made in the Permaculture magazine.

“(they – Transition Towns) are like test tube experiments for what the rest of society is going to have to do. … very soon every town, every city in the world is going to be faced with the need for making the same kinds of choices. So having at least a few communities that have undertaken the process voluntarily and proactively, and that have tested out the options and found ways of doing this successfully, is going to be very important. These towns will show the way for the rest of us.”

Permaculture Magazine interview Spring 2007

This comment is in the front of our EDAP which will soon be presented to local and state govt.

Sonya

Leanne Daharja Veitch
27 Nov 8:31pm

I don’t know whether Transition will succeed. No-one does. But as Rob points out, sitting on our behinds and doing nothing will achieve precisely…nothing.

I found Greer’s article interesting and insightful, and posted it to my own fledgling Transition group’s email list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/transitiondunedin/) as I felt it was worth a mention. I’m thinking I will post Rob’s positive and intelligent response as well.

If we are to act as responsible adults taking charge of our futures, it makes sense to try out any tools for transition and adaptation that seem logical and that are available. Transition Towns offers a series of what I believe are very good, adaptable tools, and a template that seems to be working.