3 Nov 2009
Responding to Alex Steffen’s Critique of Transition at WorldChanging
I have been following with interest the discussions surrounding Alex Steffen’s piece at WorldChanging in which he critiques Transition. I am honoured that someone so widely respected as a writer on sustainability issues saw fit to engage in discussions around Transition , but, as a critique of Transition, it leaves a lot to be desired. It is a confusing piece in which, in spite of Alex’s protestations in the comments thread to have read everything about Transition that is out there, seems to have somewhat missed the point. I’ll go through some of Alex’s main points, but an overall reflection is that it appears to me that what Alex does is to describe Transition as something it isn’t, criticise it for being that, and then propose something to replace Transition which is actually what Transition was all along. An odd approach. Carolyn Baker has already posted an articulate response to Alex’s piece, but here’s mine.
What Transition is Not
It might be useful to start by clarifying a few beliefs and characteristics which Alex erroneously attributes to Transition.
- Transition does not focus exclusively on towns and ignore cities. Although the term ‘Transition Towns’ alliterates nicely, we now use the term Transition Initiatives (and have done so for at least 2 years), given that there are now Transition cities, islands, hamlets, streets, districts, Universities and more. In fact, many of the most fascinating Transition projects are happening in cities, projects like the Brixton Pound are one such example
- There are 239 ‘formal’ Transition initiatives… but thousands of ‘mullers’ or unofficial initiatives across the world
- Transition does not suggest that people “just go ahead and do something, anything’. It suggests a community-led design project, to consciously and creatively design for the transition away from oil dependency. Although it encourages people to get started with taking action in whatever way they feel moved to and feel passionate about, it proposes that this take place within a wider framework of being strategic, hence the concept of Energy Descent Planning being Step 12 of the 12 Step approach
- It does not suggest that “the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level”. It is stated very clearly in the Transition Handbook that we need a hierarchy of responses; we need local and national government responses, we need international agreements such as that being discussed soon in Copenhagen, but without vibrant, creative, positive local level engagement, all of those will be less well informed, slower and less inclusive. The drive can come from communities, but they can’t do it alone. I often talk about Transition as having the potential to be the lubricant that re-oils the wheels of political engagement that have, for many, become rusted to the stage of inaction
- Alex writes “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”. This is enormously patronising as well as factually incorrect, and I will explore why in what follows.
Collapse or Descent?
Much of Alex’s piece revolves around his belief that Transition is obsessed with collapse and its inevitability. Some of what Alex writes here goes beyond being factually incorrect and is actually quite deeply insulting. I find it extremely suprising to be accused of having a “casual eagerness for the death of others”. I have met no-one involved in Transition who would display such an eagerness, and I would be deeply shocked if I did. At the heart of this is the difference between the concept of energy descent and of collapse.
For me, as I have articulated in the Transition Handbook and elsewhere, the motivation for Transition is that of responding to peak oil and climate change, and to the notion of energy descent. Energy descent, as articulated originally by Howard Odum and later by David Holmgren, and given a rigorous energetic basis by Ted Trainer’s analysis in ‘Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society‘, is based on the observation that the world is passing the peak in fossil fuels, and that we need to be designing for the declining availability of both oil itself and of net energy. As I also set out in the book, there are many scenarios that then emerge as to what happens now, of which collapse is one, but the clearly stated desire of Transition is to be able to create a safe, intentional way through energy descent, avoiding collapse, shifting the focus to local economies and increased resilience, what Odum called ‘A Prosperous Way Down’.
Alex writes that I talk “almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly”. What I actually do is to stress that the passing of peak oil, the entering of the age of energy descent, could be, given the successful mobilising of what we call ‘engaged optimism’ and of communities seeing the possibilities within this rather than just the challenges, need not be dreaded. The reskilling that would accompany relocalisation, the move away from fossil fuel dependence, the rebuilding of local food networks, the rediscovery of local building materials, all have huge potential for a cultural renaissance and could, I argue, actually be the thing that revives local economies in the face of the world’s recent financial woes,and could lead to a way of life which is an improvement on the present. It is this that I work for, and I think that it will only happen if people see it as a positive and desirable future, which is why I talk about it ‘cheerfully’. I talk about it cheerfully because the potential it holds is genuinely thrilling, what we could become is exhilarating and because, it seems to me, there don’t seem to be a whole pile of more appealing options on the table.
Transition observes that most of the large-scale systems that we have, and on which we depend, are highly oil dependent and therefore vulnerable. It is therefore not a case of somehow longing for Helter Skelter, for the collapse of the evil behemoth of Western Capitalism, rather an observation that we had better get real and serious about designing something better and more appropriate to a world of energy descent. The extent to which Transition should also be preparing for impending collapse rather than a prolonged descent is one that Richard Heinberg and myself have debated and take different positions on. If the ‘dark side’ Alex writes of exists, I have yet to come across it.
It is also interesting to note that alongside Alex’s cricisism of Transition for craving collapse, there are many other critiques out there that criticise it for the opposite, for not taking collapse seriously enough, and for being naive about humanity being able to design its way out of it. Given that, as I have stated here, the intention of Transition is to design proactively for the safe and productive navigation of energy descent, I am puzzled by Alex accusing Transition of being “engineered to solve the wrong problem”.
What Transition is
As I mentioned in my opening, Alex creates what seems to me be to be a false explanation of what Transition is and then slates it, proposing instead something he sees as being more relevant and workable. This is best seen in his sentence “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”. That is exactly what Transition initiatives are doing. What they do though, is to assert that those ‘bulwarks of stability’ are based on realistic assumptions about the future. The creation of such bulwarks based on the idea of perpetual economic growth, endless availability of cheap energy, and no need to respond to climate change will not be of much use to anyone.
The rebuilding of resilience, as discussed in my recent article in Resurgence, is the aim of Transition initiatives. Within resilience is the idea of modularity, that rather than the highly networked systems of today, what is needed is for communities, settlements and nations to have more, in effect, surge breakers, in the form of local food systems, local energy generation and more robust local economies, to enable them to better withstand shocks.
Alex’s list of what should replace Transition is in fact, a list of what Transition initiatives are already doing, and of the thinking that underpins their work. This is especially evident in his final suggestion;
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.
As numerous commenters below Alex’s list have pointed out, reimagining the future is one of the key elements of Transition, as set out in ‘Who We Are and What We Do’, as well as in pretty much every written piece on Transition ever produced. Personally speaking, I think the work Transition initiatives do around this, and the tools they are developing are exceptional. If Alex has any better ones, I’m sure they would be only too eager to get their hands on them to try them out as well.
Alex stresses that what distinguishes his ‘Bright Green’ approach from Transition is that Transition is somehow mired in inconsequential local noodlings and obsessing about collapse, and thereby neglects to seek engagement in the political process. He argues that we need an ‘organised, educated, passionate democracy’ capable of overcoming the ‘pervasive cynicism’ which currently inhibits action. Here again, there is a misunderstanding as to what Transition groups are actually doing out there. Many are engaging with their local governments, some Transitioners even standing for election. Transition Stroud has been very actively involved with their local Council, to the extent that the former deputy head of the Council said that “if Transition Stroud didn’t exist, we’d have had to make them up”, or words to that effect.
Across the UK, Councils are seeing local Transition initiatives as a key part of engaging communities in action around climate change, and the Scottish Government is funding Transition Scotland Support, seeing the value of their work. Alexis Rowell, a Councillor in Camden in London, is currently writing “Local Communities and Local Councils: working together to make things happen”, due out next March, which is explicitly about how people involved in Transition can better engage with the political process. Working with institutions is also the work of Transition Training and Consulting, and also with the emerging Transition Universities work, seeking to draw the principles of resilience and carbon reduction into institutions.
Alex writes that “we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be”. Of course. I struggle to imagine that anyone involved in Transition would disagree. Transition is not about rejecting political engagement, or blanking existing structures, of somehow longing for collapse in order to sweep away all that is unwholesome and corrupt. We argue that we are all in the same boat, facing the same challenges, and that a large part of our work is to take engagement in the kind of community-wide planning process that we need to a far deeper level than the green movement has thus far managed. This is exactly what Transition groups are currently doing.
Some Final Thoughts… ‘Bright Green’ or ‘Dark Green’?
The discussion thread that follows Alex’s piece is very interesting, with many people from Transition initiatives writing to state that Transition, as it is described in Alex’s piece, is not the Transition that they know and that they dedicate their time to. Some readers may be puzzled by the ‘bright green’ reference in the title. Delving a bit deeper on his website, it seems that he has come to his analysis of Transition bearing his model for defining environmental initiatives as ‘bright green’, ‘deep green’, ‘light green’ and grey’, what he calls the ‘new environmental spectrum’ (for more detail as to what those mean, click here). In brief, ‘bright green’ asserts that no-one will want to give up current luxuries, and that the only way to move to sustainability is to harness prosperity, wellbeing and entrepreneurial zeal, whereas dark green is mired in doomerism, localism, bioregionalism, and a rejection of consumerism.
I think this spectrum is unhelpful. Of course there is always a range of views on green thinking, which is well documented in the sustainability literature. However, my sense is that Transition does not fit neatly into the “mostly judgemental” Deep Green category in which Alex places it, indeed having as much in common with his ‘Bright Green’ approach. Transition is about bringing insights and observations from the ‘deep green’ into the ‘bright green’ (although I think this classification is clumsy), arguing that the rebuilding of local economies is not about a retreat into survivalism (regular readers will know the regular kickings I get from survivalist commenters), but is actually the only practical (in the context of energy descent) way of realising the kind of entrepreneurial zeal he is so keen on. As I said in the TED talk I gave this year;
Then there is response that suggests that technology will come riding to our rescue, one, I would observe, is rather prevalent at these TED Talks. The idea that we can invent our way out of a profound economic and energy crisis, that the move to a knowledge economy can allow us to neatly sidestep the very real energy constraints we are facing. The idea that we will discover some extraordinary new source of energy that will sweep aside any concerns about energy security. That we can make a seamless step across onto renewables. It is perhaps because we have shown such great creativity all the way up the mountain, that we assume we can do the same thing all the way down again.
However, the real world is not Second Life. We cannot create new land, new energy systems at the click of a mouse. We live in a world of very real constraints. As we sit on our laptops exchanging ‘free’ ideas with each other, collaboratively building new ideas and concepts, there are still people in China mining coal to power the servers our web access relies on, processing the materials for our new devices, and the breakfast we eat before we start work has been sourced from great distances, with a huge energy and carbon debt, and usually at the expense of the resilient local food systems we have so effectively devalued and discarded over the past 40 years. While we can be astonishingly inventive and brilliant about this, we also live in a very real world with very real demands and constraints.
Rather than toss Transition into a corner, Alex could do better to consider how the values of entrepreneurship, increased wellbeing and business acumen which he espouses (as does Transition) would best be harnessed in an energy descent context. He might find, by so doing, that a great deal of creative thinking has already emerged from the Transition movement. Alex writes that “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”. Absolutely. I sat at the end of reading Alex’s piece feeling somewhat puzzled and bewildered. Isn’t that exactly what we’ve been doing for the last 4 years? Perhaps if he manages to miss what Transition is about in such a way, his piece bats the challenge back to Transition; how well are we communicating what we are doing?