6 Feb 2009
A Response to Kathy McMahon at Peak Oil Blues
It has been fascinating to read a series of three articles at PeakOilBlues.com looking at the arrival of Transition in the US. You can read the article, entitled “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Transition Was In” here (parts 1, 2 and 3). Apart from having a fantastic title that I really wish I had thought of, the piece also raises some key questions needing contemplation as Transition continues to spread vigorously across the US. I wanted to take the opportunity to address some of Kathy’s points in this post.
One of her key concerns is that the Transition model is a UK-originated one that is somehow oblivious to the fact that in being transplanted in the US (and elsewhere) it is moving into a very different culture than the one from whence it originated. She presents many ways in which the UK and the US are culturally different (a kind of extended “you say ‘tom-ah-toe’, I say ‘toh-may-do’ observation) although some of those aren’t quite correct; elections here aren’t publicly funded, petrol prices here reflect Government taxation rather than a lack of attachment to driving, and for many people, cars are not seen as ‘an expensive luxury’, but rather as an essential fact of life, due to many years of government planning creating urban layouts which create car dependency, a model imported, ironically, from the US. Jeremy Clarkson is, after all, a British creation.
Clearly how Transition is translated into these new cultural settings is a key consideration. No-one has ever said that it will somehow simply slot in, exactly as it operates in the UK, into the US context. That would be absurd. My comment, which Kathy cites, that “I have no idea, never having been there, of the US context for all this…” is an honest assessment of this. I make no pretence of having redesigned the Transition model for a US audience, that’s not my task, rather that is the work of those involved in those communities.
Essential reading in relation to this discussion is the Transition Network’s ‘Who We Are and What We Do’ document, which can be downloaded here. It sets out the organisation’s thinking as to how it structures itself and how it is designed for expansion beyind these shores. The idea is that there is a common Purpose and set of principles which define Transition, and how it is then practiced or applied is completely open to interpretation by the individual initiatives.
Sophy Banks and Naresh Giangrande of Transition Training who recently were in the US running trainings and setting up a pool of trainers, absolutely with the awareness that they would be then developing US-specific trainings. This worked very well, and there is now a pool of trainers there who will be doing much of this work. There has never been a question of somehow trying to shove a North American round peg into a resolutely English Transition square hole. This is one of the key tasks of the Transition Us organisation, and I’m sure they will add their comments to this important discussion.
The interest in Transition has come from people in the US, and growth in interest in the idea has taken us somewhat by surprise. I think the ‘Who We Are’ document addresses most of Kathy’s concerns on this, and indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects is how Transition has created a loose framework which can then be tried out, adapted and owned in Japan, the US, Brazil and, from a recent email contact, even Ulan Bator in Mongolia. What it will look like there is all part of the process, and is one of the things that is most fascinating about it. Cultural translation, both in terms of language and also in practice, will be vital. It would be interesting to hear the thoughts on this of some of the newly-trained US trainers or those involved in initiatives there. One of the comments I’ve heard is from people wondering about how the humour in Transition translates, and this will be interesting to observe.
In terms of the issues raised in the third piece about survivalists, I think that Kathy’s concerns here boil down to an issue of definition. In my original “Why the Survivalists Have Got It Wrong” post, I wasn’t criticising the skills, the ability to grow food, repair things and so on. That would be ridiculous. What I mean when I use the word ‘survivalist’, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that in part my understanding of the word arises from living in a country where there aren’t actually very many survivalists, is people with a mindset that argues that when faced with peak oil as a challenge, the best response is one that puts self and family above others, to turn one’s back on community and to reject the idea that this challenge necessitates a return to community rather than a flight for it.
I accept that the definition of survivalist that arises from Kathy’s definition of the word also includes lots of practical people who practice emergency preparedness and who learn, refine and pass on key skills, and those were not the kinds of people I was referring to. What troubled me with Zachary’s original piece and what prompted me to write the post was the his assertion that it was an entirely moral position to prioritise self and to flee from communities as a response to peak oil, whereas for me, Transition is about rebuilding community, redoubling one’s efforts to become embedded in those communities, learn to create more networks and useful relationships within them.
For me, both in the post and in the Handbook, I use the term ‘survivalist’ in that context, so it feels as though many of your concerns with my use of the term really boil down to issues of definition. I do not intend to ‘mock’ anyone, rather to use gentle humour to try and stress my point that a response to peak oil which is about running away from society doesn’t feel to me like a justifiable, compassionate or, ultimately, practical one. I must also make the point that my piece about survivalists on this website was my own thinking, rather than some kind of formal Transition Network position. I write all kinds of stuff on here, it isn’t necessarily to be read as somehow a formal position for the entire network. It is certainly not the case that my “prejudice against survivalists is now officially part of the TI perspective”. I think the issues raised in Kathy’s pieces are key considerations as Transition grows in the US. It will be interesting to hear other peoples’ thoughts on this.
To conclude, Transition is a loose set of principles and tools, which will look different wherever they are applied. How it will end up working in the US, what extra tools will be added, what will be dropped, how it will best communicate itself and so on, will be as fascinating to observe in the US as it will everywhere else. This is, after all, part of what is so fascinating about these extraordinary times, and the urgent and deep work gathering pace around the world. As Hazel Henderson put it, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste”, and it is this upswelling of inventiveness and creativity that is so fascinating to observe and to be a part of.