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3 Nov 2009

Responding to Alex Steffen’s Critique of Transition at WorldChanging

worldchangingI 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.

Civic Engagement

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?

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


A very good critique Rob, I think the last sentence maybe shows the real challenge: “how well are we communicating what we are doing?”

That does seem to be the challenge doesn’t it. The initiatives are so broad-ranging (as they need to be) that communicating the whole spectrum of Transition is always going to be hard, and will often result in people cherry-picking what they think is missing or wrong.

Perhaps if you don’t like what you think Transition is about, maybe you should get involved and make sure your local group is heading in the right direction – and is communicating that effectively?

3 Nov 9:12am

I was puzzled too because I feel that the Transition Town movement meshes quite neatly with many aspects of the Worldchanging philosophy, especially the quote that you pull out in your last paragraph.

Next time Alex is over in the UK, you need to meet and show him what’s happening.

For readers of this blog who haven’t encountered Worldchanging before, I can strongly recommend digging through it and subscribing to it – there’s a lot of very thoughtful and interesting writing there.

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by robintransition: Just posted a response to Alex Steffen’s rather confused critique of Transition.….

Graham Burnett
3 Nov 10:24am

Also slightly puzzled that in the ‘Deep Green’ scenario concepts such as ‘Bioregionalism’, ‘Localism’ (does that mean Localisation?) and a ‘rejection of consumerism’ are lumped in with (or ‘mired’) with ‘Doomerism’ as if these are ‘bad things’????? And where does that leave presumably ‘Bright Green’ ‘entrepeneurs’ such as Ben Law who seems to me to be a marketing genius, maunfacturing all manner of products from his woodland including fencing, charcoal, furniture, shingles, yurts and clothes pegs; writing books, running a consultancy service or 2; running green building courses; charging for tours of Prickley Nut Woods and just about anything else you can think of, yet is totally grounded in his locality, with all resources being sourced bioregionally?????

Shane Hughes
3 Nov 10:36am

I’m also a great fan of the worldchanging and
found Alex’s article quite insulting and that his use of a narrow and negative lens to justify his dark theory demonstrated a limited understanding at best. I tried to offer countless real examples of how Transition was delivering the solutions he was suggesting but they didn’t penetrate.

Putting aside the factual mistakes and the inflammatory language, i think Rob and Andrew are write to ponder “how well are we communicating what we are doing?”

Alex Staffen evolves is theory slightly more here;
and although in this post titled “The revolution won’t be hand made” this time Alex doesn’t reference Transition, this is clearly a follow from his previous Dark Gren Transition theory.
My opinion is that from the inside looking out, the Transition message ticks all the boxes, is authentic and a real response to the science, speaks in a language that resonates with political targets etc….

but from the outside looking in the Transition message leaves a lot to be desired. It would be easy for anyone to pick up on the anti economic growth paradigm as a promotion of recession. A pretty hard sell as Miliband said at the conference. And that the return to knitting jumpers and riding bikes as a promotion of regression. So while the explicit message coming through the transition material and work is one of hope and a return to a much more fulfilling lifestyle we have to question weather the implicit message is one that is much less inviting.

I’ve articulated my thoughts on this in more detail on Alex post.

What i didn’t articulate was some ways to improve this. Which i thought about while walking the dog in the woods, as you do. I think we need to shift from simply providing the anti arguments for economic growth and start focusing on the pro arguments of the growth of well being and quality of life. and how systems like local currencies and timebanks become nourishing to the community rather than debt creating and resource leaching of our current economics.

I think we could shift from providing an implicitly anti modern technology (or rather almost totally promoting the very low tech end of appropriate tech) and start to integrate a greater appreciation for the fact that “sometimes” high tech is the appropriate tech. this is not to ignore the more handmade and crafted end of technology.

I think one element that Transition does well and could do more of is to look at the positives of permaculture and the potential for “abundance” both in food provision and natural habitats, an agriculture that enriches and provides full human employment a connection with nature.

These are all messages that are part of the Transition message to a greater or lesser degree but i think they’re not coming through load enough.

andrew ramponi
3 Nov 12:20pm


It seems most likely that Alex wrote some of the out of context, inaccurate and patronising critique of Transition, not because of an intellectual analysis of it’s flaws, but more through envy or jealousy at it’s success as a rapidly growing movement. After all, envy is a powerful force in creating human misjudgements!

In my opinion we aren’t facing serious problems because of fossil fuel dependency, greedy bankers or corrupt politicians. And most well intentioned communities and movements don’t end because of an inability to solve a practical or intellectual problem. It usually is down to people misjudging the power of the “toddler within”.

Still, I daresay it was worth yourself and others writing a full and detailed response to his criticisms, even though your final sense of bewilderment said it all.

For me though the piece-de-resistance was the idea that we would be better spending time trying to reform banking regulations than swapping seeds or kids clothes. I’ll look forward to the “Reforming Banking Regulations for Dummies” book for guidance before I try and make sense of that suggestion.

Jennifer Lauruol
3 Nov 12:46pm

Rob, I agree with Andrew–I think Alex is simply jealous of Transition’s success and viral success. A lot of the success is due to your own modesty, a trait he obviously doesn’t share.

Mike Grenville
3 Nov 1:29pm

Here we are moving through the stages of a new idea having skipped though being ignored, and entered the ridicule stage. Next will come active resistance before being accepted.

3 Nov 1:46pm

“For me though the piece-de-resistance was the idea that we would be better spending time trying to reform banking regulations than swapping seeds or kids clothes. I’ll look forward to the “Reforming Banking Regulations for Dummies” book for guidance before I try and make sense of that suggestion”.

Beautiful Andrew, thanks. Still giggling about that…

3 Nov 1:56pm

Interesting to note that on WorldChanging a piece has just been posted by John Thackara called ‘High Entropy? Moi?’ which is actually highly effusive about Transition and which really gets it. Have a look…

3 Nov 3:07pm

Two sentences into the original article, and I feel already strongly that it is the product of nothing more than emotional loss and confusion; a man still at the Kubler-Ross bargaining and denial stages.

The entire piece is really about his own emotional refusal, nothing more. The accusation of heartlessness in the face of human misery is a prime example: he hasn’t dealt with the fact that decline is on its way, and that there will be casualties, but seeks to accuse others of not facing the consequences he himself has not faced.

The psychological term is ‘projection’.

The ‘bright green’/’dark green’ nonsense is simply more of the same: casual, easily digested labeling designed to obviate the need for serious thought.

Marella Fyffe
3 Nov 3:34pm

Hi Rob,

I am glad that you have addressed what Alex has said,because in the last 24 hours I had to argue the case for Transition against two separate yet similar diatribes. I found that it forced me to sit down and think through where my argument was weak, or negative or lacked credence. This led me to think well if I am finding this tough going there must be a lot of people out there in the same situation. You have very succinctly, put together a useful piece that people can use again and again whenever they come up against NO, helping us all to get beyond NO. Andrew is right when he says “How well are we communicating what we are doing”? in the heartland of Totness extremely well, but the outer reaches of Transition Land many many of us are playing catch up even with all the books, online resources etc etc .
The two biggest challenges as I see for Transitioners is how to deal with NO in
an elevator style speech .

And how to talk to business/junior chamber/lions/solicitors/lawyers/accountants and so on, about permaculture design underpinning Transition in a way that we are speaking to their listening.

Keep going we are with you all the way.

Sharon Astyk
3 Nov 3:39pm

I admit, I’m surprised and disappointed that Alex Steffan didn’t do a more serious analysis of Transition – it doesn’t look as though he even did the very basic journalistic research you’d expect, and went straight to a hit piece. I’m an admirer of Steffan’s, although we disagree on many subjects, and I’d have thought better of him.

I will say that at this point, I think part of the problem is that Transition looks very different in the US than it does in the UK – that doesn’t explain his attacks entirely, but I do think that thus far, US Transition looks a lot more like affluent people having seed swaps than not. My hope is that with time, things start looking more productive – but I’m still left with the larger question of how well Transition will work in places where Rob isn’t around to carry the banner – how much charismatic leadership is at the root of things.

As for Dark Green/Bright Green, that’s a fairly creative way of redrawing the doomer/techno-optimist analysis, but other than asserting that Dark Green won’t work, I don’t see the analytic heavy lifting needed to make that case in Steffan’s work.

Look, I’ve been a sometimes critic of Transition myself, but this was a hit piece, rather than one of Steffan’s more thoughtful analyses, and deserves to be treated that way.

Sharon Astyk
3 Nov 4:31pm

Two further observations. First, I think what is valuable in Steffan’s critique is the observation that Transition seems to be investing a lot of energy in replacing existing infrastructure rather than using what’s already there. In some measures, this confers resilience, since some existing infrastructure is clearly not viable in a lower-energy use future. But that’s not always the case. I do think that pushing local Transition responses to make full use of extant resources – not just food resources, but democratic and social ones – will be a key to whether it is fully successful.

The other criticism I’d make is your defense of Transition as more “bright green” than dark green – I don’t think that holds water. Transition may be an optimistic movement, but it is also a movement that holds localisation and low energy life at its center, and this is one of its virtues. Alex Steffan is right about optimism, but wrong about the viability of a high technology renewable energy society, at least on a large scale. At best what he seem to offer is a panacea for the rich world – some of you can still have what you had.

The merits of Transition are that they don’t share this thinking – the future is for everyone, and at the center of our predicament is the need of the Global North to abandon its terrible affluence. Transition is wise enough to recognize this, and while you needn’t accept Steffan’s language, I think trying to ally yourselves with the idea of Bright Green is a bad one – the global game of chicken in which everyone aspires to the same affluence manifestly ends in disaster. There is no need for you to apologize for not wanting to join that club.

Sharon Astyk

André Angelantoni
3 Nov 5:23pm

There is so much that is good in Transition it really is too bad that Alex got so many important details wrong.

And of course anyone working with the public knows that the number of people who understand what one is doing is really quite small. The remainder get the details wrong, mistake the intent and so on. Continuous communication is really the only thing that can keep the education going, as Rob is doing here with his response.

The other thing working with the public teaches a person is that there are *always* going to be people who think one is doing too little of (insert favorite topic here) or too much of (insert favorite topic here). So ultimately one should do what one thinks is the best (after taking in all points of view, of course) and keep going, just like Transition is doing.

I happen to be on the side of “planning more for collapse” because I see it as inescapable but from first-hand experience I also recognize that most people can’t handle that topic. So the Transition movement keeps a cheery face — as I think it should — and I provide through my courses the kind of content for the sort of people who have moved to acceptance of collapse and are ready to get busy building whatever comes next.

I’ve attended Transition introductions here in the US and they do spend all of five minutes talking about collapse. In my presentations, like the one in Colorado a few weeks back, I spend much more time so that I “burst the protective bubble” people naturally have to bad news in our culture.

When I attended a peak oil presentation in 2005, the presenter failed to get through my bubble and I left thinking, “What an interesting topic. Hmm, what should I make for dinner tomorrow night?” I understand other cultures don’t have such a strong protective bubble, like the Russians, but I have only a few Russian friends with which to test this.

Many (most?) people won’t accept collapse before it happens and will likely resist it even afterwards. What kind of mental support should be made available to that group? Do we let them drink themselves to death as Orlov described what middle-aged Russian men did during their collapse? Or do we get ready much like a disaster planner does who knows that after the earthquake there will be great needs? I think the latter but that approach does not in any way preclude what Transition is currently doing. It’s a big world and there is room for many approaches, each will attract different people.

The area I think I can help the most is in creating resilient individuals and families. While Transition does do some of that, its emphasis is not that. For instance, after one year of Transition, how many members of a particular group have a fully stocked pantry and are actively learning a new skill? How many have made plans for staying sheltered and making sure they can pay property taxes? How many are actively capturing some of the wealth they may have created over the decades and are turning it into real goods that will help during and after the transition?

In my experience, not many at all (roughly 50% of my courses are filled with people involved in TT). But these people will have attended many meetings discussing Energy Descent and doing community resource mapping. Valuable work to be sure but not much help if they don’t have the basics of food and shelter and income handled. We will have a lot of homeless, unemployed Transitioners soon the way things are going. Even worse, when this happens to the local TT leadership, then the initiative in that area will be set back greatly.

So, when all is said and done, together we will create the system that moves us through Transition, likely with more than a few bumps, and each group will help in the way it knows best.

-André Angelantoni

3 Nov 5:41pm

1) I have saved your article for more than the information. I collect brilliant examples of critical thinking. It’s a small collection. Thank you.

2) I was horrified by Alex comment that some people too “smart” to concern themselves with food and children [seed saving and kids clothing swap]. I have an appropriately mature response to that: I was in Mensa for 12 years. I am a teacher and a subsistence farmer. Nyah, nyah, nyah.

Jason Bradford
3 Nov 6:34pm

My experience in Willits CA was that people either “got it” or despised our early version of transition. We thought a lot about the messaging, but in all likelihood people saw “who” was involved and not what they were saying or doing. The small town atmosphere allowed pre-existing stereotypes to dominate. The traditional political and environmental activists had a hard time breaking free from the past (at least in others eyes) and so the movement wasn’t taken seriously across the board.

Emotional responses are obviously irrational and cruel. This is going on right now in Willits, where the city council has voted to destroy a permaculture garden that was installed on public land adjacent to my home.

It is blatant pettiness and rather shocking since I am such a nice fellow and can’t remember ever getting into any personal arguments with the 3 men who now dominate the city council.

I just share this to warn folks that if somebody like Alex who you’d think was on “our side” can write material like this, just imagine what the quiet old conservatives (i.e., as in resistant to change) are thinking? I can see now that they didn’t say much, but underneath the surface they simmered and once they regained power they lashed out in the meanest of ways.

[…] – Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Towns, responds to Alex’s piece. In a nutshell, Hopkins says his response is that, ” …it appears to me that what Alex […]

Cliff Figallo
3 Nov 7:18pm

Nicely stated, Rob.

Transition must hold fast to the principle that it’s not all about the technology. What needs to change just as much is our sense of community and willingness to collaborate.

Transition is a pragmatic movement, but it also contains a strong element of reclaiming responsibility for the commons. This is about self-governance and changing the priorities of politics.

Strong communications between and among transition initiatives is crucial, and such a network needs to be non-sectarian. A community shouldn’t have to be certified “T.I.” to be in on the conversation about best local practices. We all need to learn on the fast track and here we have this wonderful tool for collective learning.

3 Nov 8:05pm

sharon astyk and i had a fight about a similar issue last year (how households and towns in the NE US should handle the possibly crippling heat oil shock of winter 08/09) — so i was surprised to read her saying here pretty much what i thought to.

i really hope this exchange continues. you UK folks, YOU DON’T KNOW how deeply gonzo the US is now — an argument that pits deeply-invested obama fans against believers in a hyperinflationary rapture in 2012, with ‘CSI: american idol edition’ caught in the crossfire. that’s only sort of joking….

the green party here lives in the shadow of ralph nader, a ‘consumer advocate’… thousands of local economies are principally funded by land development, hence “housing bubble”… etc….

this exchange now falls on few ears but alex’s particular concerns of scalability and mass impact — without becoming empty marketing — need thorough thinking through.

what i’d like to see come out of this is an integration because it’s likely what alex wants is a combination of existing UK politics, transition UK, cybertopia, and the kind of breathtaking trillion-scale industrial spectacle that only a country that builds millions of cars a year can put together.

Well done!

I said over there that we have a tendency, especially writers in a political context, to cave to the either/or way of thinking. We force thinking into a binary frame. It seemed to me Alex felt a need to create an opposite picture of his view to rail at, with referring very consistently to what I know about Transition. Much of what he said “we need” – I had read in Transition pieces…

I do think that the Transition folks are not as aware of some of the bleeding edge innovation and science that is going on, and so, don’t pin their hopes on specific things like local fabrication, nanotech or biotech coming to the rescue.

I also get the sense, and Alex if you are here, please let me know if I am wrong, that Alex is more used to thinking and giving talks than organizing a diverse set of people (with different politics) in a very local context. Being an organizer isn’t about giving a brilliant idea to the masses and then having them agree it’s a brilliant idea – and get right down to working. It’s a very tough slog in most cases to get a bunch of humans working in the same direction! Building true community engagement is really really tough time consuming work.

I think Rob and company have a fantastic template for any activist group to build a deeply engaged community, from the bottom up. That is not to be dismissed or sneezed at…or frankly, insulted in the way Alex took a lot of time to do.

There is also no acknowledgment that there were many ‘bright’ and not so green thinkers with extremely big plans that came before, who brought us unlivable – dead spaces, crushing much beauty along the way.

3 Nov 11:59pm

‘How well are we communicating…’? is a very worthwhile question.
See an analysis of the the transition initiative at Sandpoint, Ohio:
How to make social change work better.

On the issue of doom and gloom: it’s been going strong since at least Hesiod and the ancient Greek idea of a Golden Age (in the past, of course), and it’s not going to end any time soon. So is the past better than the future, or is it the other way round? See The decline and fall of declining and falling.

4 Nov 12:00am

Whoops. That should have been:
How to make social change work better.

Shane Hughes
4 Nov 8:58am

Sharon mentioned that Transition is very different in the US. I’d wondered if this was the case. Transition is fundamentally a framework or a vessel for local people to fill with content. It is possible for a nation (not necessarily the US) to create content around Transition that is, well, not very Transition. It brings me back to the MOU discussion on Transition Culture

in the early days there was examples or and a fear of potential groups that would use the Transition name for stuff that was distinctly different. I think there’s a similar risk for a widespread distortion. Rob won’t always be there to explain the background.

The MOU discussion, for me, centered around the idea of how to balance maintaining the integrity of the transition ideas, making sure that the positive based message of Transition is communicated, whilst letting it go where it wants locally

There was a lot of discussion around using the Lewes principals as guidance on a national level. I think that a broad set of principals, perhaps those in the handbook, could be included not just on a national level but also on the local level and especially as part of the official status of local groups. My thinking is that the “message” is often buried within pages of text in a MOU or the Handbook. This message can be lost and if boiled down to non prescriptive guiding principals can be a real resource replicating successes we’ve had but without limiting local projects.

Shane Hughes
4 Nov 11:21am

i’m not sure i’ve articulated this too well.
when Rob asks “how well are we communicating what we are doing?”

i think this is relevant on all levels internally as well as externally. Locally to me someone set up Transition (village name) as an extension of their long term feud with politicians and land owners. this followed with an intellectual discussion about what Transition is and isn’t. I regularly have to try to describe what transition is and is doing to community members but this is invariably tainted by my slant.

anyway i think that there needs to be simplified and clear Transition message that is integrated at all levels. this will help strengthen how we communicate what were doing.

Graham Burnett
4 Nov 11:44am

Hmm interesting point, I recently came across a thread on another forum I frequent where the poster was looking for advice as her town is apparently ‘competing’ against 2 other towns for Transition status, which they will need to ‘beat’ if they are to recieve ‘funding’ from TT… The thread is here

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neda Soltan, AlexSteffen, cfigallo, Steve Monteith, Randy Richmond and others. Randy Richmond said: RT @abundantsink Rob Hopkins responds to Alex Steffen’s Critique of Transition at WorldChanging @transitiontown […]

Shane Hughes
4 Nov 3:38pm

Alex has kind of responded to Rob’s response here;
via an invite to a future debate

Myrto Ashe
4 Nov 10:18pm

I have had an interesting time reading Alex Steffen’s piece, Rob’s piece, Carolyn’s piece and the comments.

I see Transition as a way to move ahead with a creative response when we don’t in fact agree whether Collapse is inevitable. We have a shared understanding that Climate Change, Peak Oil, and “the way things are set up” mean that our present reality will not be sustained.

Do we need to define “Collapse” before we can decide whether Transitioneers can work together with “bright greenists”?

Is TT hitting a wall, when it encounters meaningful opposition at WorldChanging? Could that be because its message is fundamentally subversive (the end of economic growth spells the end of capitalism (motherhood and apple pie)…)?

Are there too few people of the mindset that it is beneficial to alter one’s lifestyle to build community, to have a hands-on approach to basic needs (food, water, shelter, heat), and to understand our impact on nature? Perhaps.

Living in Boulder, I know a ton of people who are “concerned” about the environment, but don’t want to change their lifestyle. They don’t see the positive side of it. They don’t believe too many other people do either. In which case they see TT as failing to become an influential movement. Understandably, they are attracted to the arguments that the GDP can grow through ways that don’t require natural resources, because they get the part about resource depletion.

I suspect that here in Boulder, the TT movement has hit a bit of a wall in the high-tech, BAU-valuing side of this town. It’s a different wall than the one Jason Bradford describes above, but just as effective.

The criticism of Transition is that it takes away (does not plan for) the options for increased (or even continued) convenience, prosperity and creature comforts. Steffen seems to argue that accepting the inevitability of Collapse is in itself an unethical stance (the thread debating Andre Angelantoni is troubling – Does “accepting” something that has not yet entirely happened make it inevitable?).

I realize these comments are disjointed, and will try to articulate something better in the Transition US website blog.

This debate strikes me as very important.

Myrto Ashe
4 Nov 10:22pm

Oh, and I wish there was the option of subthreads on this blog – seems essential to having a discussion, as opposed to short monologues.

Susan Butler
4 Nov 11:48pm

What Alex was expressing are some very common responses to the Transition message here in the US. The word “descent” immediately conjures up fears of scarcity; while the word “localization” brings up fears of isolation, provincialism, maybe a bit of claustrophobia. There is a perceived sort of noir tone in Transition’s message in its primary emphasis on peak oil and climate crisis –the imperative to face up to these scary realities. Here in the Land of Plenty that’s a hard sell. The optimistic part has a hard time overcoming this fear thing. There’s also an associated cultural milieu, not specific to Transition per se, but related culturally, which holds a moralistic sort of “hair shirt” ethic of being responsible for one’s carbon footprint, for example the wrongness of getting on a flight to Portugal for vacation, or of using up so much energy as to take a bath instead of a shower. This sort of thinking is really unpopular here. I think the communication part of Transition has some excellent opportunities for improvement. Dust-ups of this kind with Alex’s critique are quite a useful evolutionary stimulus. National cultural differences are important. For example, I’ve noticed the progressive Brit community seems almost panicky about climate change, for very good reasons of course; but this is less so in the States. We are far behind in consciousness about this, and mostly not too eager to catch up. Some suggestions: Instead of energy descent, how about the democratization of energy resources? Instead of localization, how about decentralization? After all scale is maybe the major issue. Isn’t it the centralization of money, power and industry which has brought us to our present predicament?
The Transition message, and Permaculture’s too, seems to me a bit light on the industry thing, sort of implying that we’ll have to go back to weaving baskets and such. The “earth care” and the “people care” messages are loud and clear, but not so much the perhaps more politically radical “fair share” part of the permie ethic. Industry has a terrible rep as the destroyer of ecologies, rightly so; but small scale industry via appropriate-(dare I even say the word “high”?) -tech, can offer eco-restorative, decentralized production of anything we want. So we don’t have to lose our social inheritance of high level intellectual inquiry and creativity, which it sounded like was one of Alex’s concerns. And we can still leave polluting, centralized, wealth-disparity-creating industry behind as we design a new type of world. Check out Open Source Ecology to discover a global community collaborating on the invention of small-scale fabrication capabilities using locally available materials. The goal is a radical democratization of industry which has immense, wonderfully positive cultural implications.

Jennifer Lauruol
5 Nov 12:48am

As an American living for many years in the UK, I feel frustrated at many Americans’ unwillingness to ‘get it’ about voluntary simplicity. No, it’s never going to be easy to ‘sell’, but some how, guys, you’re gonna have to learn to use less than 25% of the world’s resources. Just deal with it!

André Angelantoni
5 Nov 1:26am

Jennifer, we *are* a bit thickheaded on that point, aren’t we?

It would have been better to have started sooner but simplicity is now being forced up on us. See Frontline’s latest piece ‘Close to Home’ to see how simplicity is inescapable for people in the U.S. (as is cohousing, it seems):

As for other points raised, we should be ok, I think, with people like Alex never ‘getting it’ until it’s so obvious that a five year-old could see that we are heading toward a dramatically less rich and less complex civilization.

Sometimes it truly is possible to see something that another can’t see yet, for whatever reason, especially if one has delved into areas the other hasn’t. For instance, Alex seems not to understand that the global credit contraction we’re experiencing is taking away much of the room to maneuver he thinks is still possible.

Here is another example. I don’t concern myself much any more with climate change legislation. It’s not that climate change is no longer a problem. Far from it. I don’t bother because peak oil and the consequent contraction of the world economy are going to do a better job of lowering our emissions than any climate change legislation with any chance of passing would ever hope to do. Any legislation passed now will soon be seen as irrelevant or will be removed by a backlash from people who think it crazy to make energy more expensive while there is 50% unemployment.

On some level, this is a numbers game. Only three out of ten people are going to get that contraction/transition/collapse are happening now. Only one out of ten will actually do something about it (maybe less) until sufficient outside forces “wake them up,” like their house being foreclosed on. As far as I can tell, there is only a small opportunity to change this ratio significantly. For example, I get pretty much zero traction with this message when I deliver it to people in Silicon Valley. If you all have bumped into the “technology will save us” response, consider that Silicon Valley is its temple.

In the meantime, my view is very pragmatic: we should keep finding the people who are open to listening and ready to roll up their sleeves. If someone (like Harris on the WorldChange comments) doesn’t get it after the case is made, just move along to someone else. There’s simply no time to spend on people whose feet are nailed to the floor when there are *other* people who would get to work if only they knew what is being created — and what is at stake.

Perhaps something might come of Alex and Rob speaking together, but I doubt it. I’ve met too many people now who just won’t get it until the world changes around them and he sounds like one of them (along with that Harris fellow). Nice people with an honorable commitment, but not yet connected to how much the Earth is now on automatic.

5 Nov 1:49am

Andre, one good thing about Alex’s post is that I heard of you through it. We should all keep talking even if we don’t get it.

Another difference is that most Americans identify deeply with road trips, big sky and the open road. Small town life is to a certain degree celebrated, but above that we celebrate moving, mobility and recreating oneself…as needed.

When Europeans rail against that, they should note that their big sky wandering relatives – left for the open space of America. It’s deeper than selfishness, rovers are genetic. 😀

So perhaps the Transition framework is going to be a much more uphill venture here. America is very different, and you won’t understand really how much, unless you try to drive across it. I don’t mean to romanticize it – but car culture is deeply part of our story.

André Angelantoni
5 Nov 2:58am

Jason, I’m very happy to continue the conversation, with one notice and one request.

The notice is that, though part of the Transition movement, I have no official position with the Transition Town organization and thusdo not speak for them. My views certainly are not universal within the Transition movement, either.

The request I’m about to make acknowledges that it takes a significant amount of background reading in areas as diverse as geology and economics to come to the conclusion I’ve arrived at. I have recently released a video whose aim is to decrease the amount of time required for someone to learn the most important elements of the Transition story and I request that you watch it before we continue. This will give us both a solid foundation from which to explore together.


Virtually every assertion I make in the video is backed up by notes below the video players that will give you more background and technical detail should you want it. I wanted to keep the narrative as “clean” as possible while still covering the necessary ground.

Once you have watched that, please send back the areas in which you don’t think I’ve made the case.

Thank you for your willingness to engage in this conversation.


André Angelantoni
5 Nov 2:59am

whoops, please remove the extra colon in the url.

5 Nov 7:48am

interesting piece from you Rob and Alex. I wonder if Alex talked with anyone involved and experienced in Transition about his piece before publishing. Such a collaborative effort would help him go deeper then his own opinions based on reading and not engagement.

Nevertheless Alex thanks for the interest, keep the discussion alive and please use collaboration with informed others to understand the complexity of Transition to churn out some constructive criticism we well need doing our work.

John Mason
5 Nov 8:30am

Interesting comments from all, and I concur with Andre about the usefulness of developing an in-depth understanding of the issues – as a geologist myself, the resources bit of the equation was not too difficult, but I have had to learn an awful lot of economics to get the full picture!

Everywhere I look, there are people of the mindset that you and Liz refer to, and this is perhaps unsurprising when one considers that western-style consumerism is as powerful a thing as any of the mainstream religions. One view, that might well be valid, is that denial of the issues at hand is similar to denial of death, something Monbiot explores in his blog this week:

(…When people are confronted with images or words or questions that remind them of death they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it and increasing their striving for self-esteem…..)

Now, I would say that, for people whose lives have been built on the perpetual growth consumerist paradigm, the very notion that it is coming to an end may well cause reaction in a similar manner. This is a plausible explanation for some of the difficulties experienced in getting the Transition message across: a key feature of people involved in Transition is that we have somehow managed to accept that the party will not go on and on and are willing to attempt to tackle this.

If the research that Monbiot describes is correct in its findings, then it follows that what Andre says:

“In the meantime, my view is very pragmatic: we should keep finding the people who are open to listening and ready to roll up their sleeves. If someone doesn’t get it after the case is made, just move along to someone else. There’s simply no time to spend on people whose feet are nailed to the floor when there are *other* people who would get to work if only they knew what is being created — and what is at stake.”

is an accurate assesssment of the best way forward.

When I started out with Transition in 2007, I was convinced that if people understood the basics of the problem, then it would be job done and whole communities, not just certain sectors, would pull together before the problems started. Two and a half at times frustrating years later, I realise just how naive that sentiment was, and the quote I pasted from the Monbiot blog above is as good an explanation as any I have come across!

I guess the message I have had from this is to crack on with Transition projects open to anybody who wants to get involved (and there are many), and so far as the rest of the population goes, let them come when they are ready!

Cheers – John

I wonder too – Alex talks about this ‘turning away’ from working on bringing bright green paradigms and projects to life – I assume in contrast to what Rob called ‘reskilling’ – gathering cultural capital back and adding low carbon skills to our personal and local skill sets.

I am a reasonably bright person, but I am not an engineer or scientist. By focusing on Transition I am not robbing the world of a critical engineering or scientific break through. I am an community builder, gardener, writer, musician, thinker… and though I am reskilling with those low carbon skills, I don’t think I was on a trajectory to be the sort of bright green worker Alex talks about. It wasn’t in the cards ever! But maybe I mistake what Alex thinks a person like me would be turning away from if I focus on building local resilience and using my skills in web work to help others do the same.

I don’t mean to personalize this at all. I just mean that to the best of my ability I am still working towards the bright and the green…I just use myself as an example.

This whole conversation reminds me of a conversation many years ago with a friend. We were talking about language preservation and specifically Gaelic. He thought we shouldn’t ‘waste resource’ on it. Well that ‘resource’ is not wasted so long as Gaelic spoken…it’s also not a zero sum game – That person may or may not be a contributor in other realms. So it seems weird to me that ‘the resource’ could be somehow reallocated. Also – he never understood the idea that entire cognitive maps and knowledge unique to each language group – is often only available to speakers of that language, thinking of ethnobotany here. So a language is very much like a genome.

Another piece that I thought was very useful in the TT frame was the addiction and death part… I started understanding climate slowly about 15 years ago…letting that sink in took a very long time, making real changes even longer. Such a small number seem even close to really accepting JUST the climate situation. Overwhelmed with the depression/recession as they are…And any indication to many people that there’s no real reason to worry – we will innovate our way out of it, seems to me to short circuit the process of getting to the “we have to do things differently” part of the process.

Our hesitance is rooted in knowledge of past promises of a shiney bright chome and jet fuel future…Our current problems stemmed from how we envisioned the future way back when – and we were quite innocent as we are know in trying to work through viable happy green scenarios.

5 Nov 1:42pm

Andre — wrong end of the stick, sorry! I was on your side in the debate to start with, but didn’t happen to know of your existence.

Shane Hughes
5 Nov 2:02pm

i think the distinction between those who get it and want to roll up their sleeves and those who don’t get it and want to cling on to the western religion is a good one. The latter is still in the majority but the work of the small proportion of Transitioners can influence the masses by shifting the “center of gravity” of public opinion.

5 Nov 2:58pm

Running the risk of getting thoroughly attacked by loads of Transition fans, I am going to suggest that Alex Stephen just might have some raised some valid ideas in his post. Nevertheless I agree that he was quite patronizing and insulting. He also does misrepresents Transition’s attitude towards collapse (in my experience). He does not really understand the process, the movement building, the learning and the work that is happening towards systemic change that is taking place as a result of the movement.

On the other hand, Rob suggests that Transition needs to ask itself if it has a communication problem. I think communication is a problem and has leads to misunderstandings such as is the case with some of Alex’s critique. But I would also suggest that there are more issues at hand that are often raised as a critique of Transition but rarely dealt with by the movement in a serious fashion. These issues leave the movement open to critiques such as Alex’s – and also keeps Transition from engaging many other people working at social/political transformation. Here is my brief summary of the main problems, framed as suggestions.

I would like to see Transition evolve to a culture that encourages more critical self analysis and a little less cult-like allegiance to Rob & the handbook. There are several points within Alex’s critique that could inform our work. He definitely could have been more diplomatic – but Transition can come across as quite doctrinaire because of a lack of debate within the movement on important ideas. I become very frustrated with my colleague at TTBrixton quoting from the handbook when we were discussing issues as if ‘well the handbooks says it so it must be true!’

I would like to see the movement engage with other political struggles. Although many individual Transitioners are actively attempting to bring these struggles into their local initiatives the movement is often seen as apolitical. I understand that this is seen as a good starting point to engage new people, but without solidarity with other issues Transition appears to be elitist and survivalist for a relatively privileged few. This also effects our ability to engage with diverse audiences. Diversity needs to happen – but the culture of Transition means it is still not happening.

I would like to see Transitioners create more robust governance and decision making processes and organizations to engage with change on all levels – personal, community, bio-regional, national and global. We cannot build systems/organizations that will offer any kind of ability to weather difficult times ahead by expecting a few over worked Transition volunteers to rebuild community infrastructure as a full time volunteers. We need to engage with people as local people but also as workers in their professional lives taking the transition ethos into working environments to make the change happen in a sustainable fashion on a personal level.

5 Nov 3:47pm

Rob asks, “How well are we communicating what we are doing?” It appears from the outside that most people in Transition come from the ‘green’ movement or hold ‘green’ humanistic communitarian values. It seems to be a given that being involved in a Transition Initiative means having green values, and that any effective response to climate change and peak oil can only be based on these values. This then leads to futile discussions about whether Transition is bright green or dark green. It can also lead to the assumption that people who don’t ‘get’ Transition (or climate change) have a problem because they aren’t green enough, or too stupid As Rob put it in his response to Ted Trainer’s criticisms, “This kind of thinking has really been encapsulated for me in the film title, “The Age of Stupid” and its ‘Not Stupid’ campaign”.

Perhaps the problem is not that people aren’t green enough but that Transition is too green? What about the people who don’t have green values? How can Transition effectively communicate with religious believers (of various faiths), businesses from small to large, subsistence farmers in developing countries? Or is the message by greens for greens? For example, is it assumed within Transition that in the future there is no place for any kind of capitalism? Or is it that we need a different kind of capitalism?

5 Nov 3:54pm

“For example, is it assumed within Transition that in the future there is no place for any kind of capitalism? Or is it that we need a different kind of capitalism?”

We need to keep refining it certainly. Greer’s latest is on that:

But that’s a by-road. In the case of Steffen it is just simple emotional blindness. His site is based on the idea that collapse is avoidable, therefore collapse may not be mentioned, and those who mention it are unethical.

No reasoning is given for this, because there can be no good reasoning — it is simple faith. He is one of the many who still have faith in the ability of progress to solve literally every problem facing humanity; the more responsible TT attitude of trying to *alleviate* the inevitable difficulties crosses an *emotional* line that he does not want to cross.

André Angelantoni
5 Nov 5:44pm

@Jason, sorry, I went back to Alex’s post and saw that I got your view wrong :-)

@John, since I think it’s pretty much impossible to get a disparate group of people in different countries of the world to align on what TT should represent (“capitalism or no capitalism? sustainable or not sustainable? emergency planning or just social transformation?”), I actually think the approach Rob et al are taking is just fine. They have sparked a reason to work together (call it collapse or just a lower-energy lifestyle) and a basic framework for organizing people.

And there does seem to be a willingness to steer the ship as new ideas come up, even if that doesn’t always show up on a local level. Jody witnessed people “doing it by the book” and thought that might come from TT but I think she bumped into a facet of human being more than of TT — that when a book is present some of us seem to relate to it like “the word.” (Sound familiar?) I have had to catch myself when I want to ascribe something to TT by asking, “Did I just bump into a human thing or a TT thing?” More often than not I decide I’ve bumped into a human thing.

What I *wouldn’t* like to see is any weakening of the basic premise that collapse has begun (we’ve come down the first stair step in my Early Staircase Model) and will accelerate. I think it’s pretty unlikely TT will do this but still worth mentioning for we saw the group Zero Population Growth morph into “Population Connection,” for instance.

I do believe I understand where Alex is coming from in one important sense and I want to relate it here in hope of showing people the futility of spending much time working with Alex to have him see what we see. Sure, keep the conversation going a little because some cross pollination is always good but Alex will likely never give up his view that collapse is avoidable until it actually happens. The reason why is exactly what Jason just mentioned about not wanting to cross his emotional line. Here is how I came to the view I have first-hand.

I moved to California in 1999 to create a startup company. I raised an initial angel round then I went to the market looking for my first round in April 2000. You might recall that was the month the tech bubble started to burst.

Over the subsequent months, I kept up the money hunt even though it got harder and harder even to get in to see people. I was bleeding money. What kept me going was the belief that there was a chance — however small — that I could find an investor who believed in the vision and wanted to risk some capital.

The whole process stopped not because I threw in the towel but because I ran out of money. And right up to the moment it became clear for me that I didn’t have the cash to pay the employees beyond the next paycheck, I saw it as my duty to play full out until the buzzer went off. There was no way in the world I was going to stop until I was forced to stop.

Looking back with some more business maturity, were I to do it over I would not have spent every dime of my and my angels’ money. I would have noticed earlier that the trend was going a certain way and that the possibility of it going differently given the market and my company’s idea was so small as to be not worth risking the additional capital.

I believe Alex is in exactly the same place I was. His identity is wrapped up with the work he as done for the past five years as one of the leading people whose job is to head off collapse. He expects himself and is likely expected by his team, his funders and the public at large to keep going until the very end.

It will take a transformative moment for him to change the course he is on. The trouble is that when in a space like I was (and he likely is now) the mind tends to push away opportunities for those transformative moments. The hold his vision for the future has on him is so strong it actually filters out opposing and valid counter-evidence.

I’ve recognized the space Alex is in with many, many people, particularly in the climate change community. Their identity is bound up with stopping climate change and they simply will not entertain the possibility that there won’t be business as usual around to allow their well crafted plans to reduce CO2 emissions to operate. They will happily talk of CO2 wedge reductions and plug-in cars forever if you let them.

So, by all means, spend *some* time engaged in a conversation with Alex and other people like him but let’s not for a moment expect that they will see what we see. Have the conversation and then move on to someone else. There are millions of people in each of our respective countries — lots of them will find that the message of TT makes perfect sense and are ready to get down to work.

The others will simply not allow the message to alter their identity until their identity finds itself naked in a new world.

Linda Buzzell
5 Nov 6:52pm

I wonder if it would be possible to pull together a small group of folks within the Transition movement who made it their business to track cutting-edge technological innovations that would be useful during energy descent. If they discover any exciting possibilities which might be compatible with Transition efforts, this info can be shared with the rest of us.

This small research group could include people from all over the world, using a simple online communication method for discussion.

This would add additional tools and possibilities to our tool-box and protect us from the criticism that we will only consider using low-tech, local solutions.

Shane Hughes
5 Nov 9:16pm

was it Martin Luther King who blew wide open the campaign for rights for black Americans, when he re-framed the approach as civil rights instead of black rights? i.e. all the American peoples rights where being infringed. I think we have a similar issue of having to re-frame the approach in a way that takes it out of the green ghetto. It’s up to us to re-present the problems and solutions so that people realise that we’re all on the same side.

A problem runs through these last few comments…

Jody characterizes some as responding in a ‘cult like fashion’ another Shane characterizes others as ‘clinging’… I have less of a problem with the title of The Age of Stupid – because it aims at everyone…

A very basic communication problem all political people have is characterizing those that see the world differently (6 billion people will all see things in a subjective way based on their personal experience and their personality (coping mechanisms, MYERS Briggs type etc…)

Now I don’t mean you can’t call someone out for something – but when you are trying to build a movement – at all times you are working to convince that person to see things your way, framing them as idiotic, clinging, blind, fear based, duped, etc etc etc… IS NOT going to get you where you need to go….THAT is a communication problem of the people here.

Humans react in very predictable ways to chaos, to change, to threat, to lack of information… that should be part of everyone’s understanding of how real change happens. The people you are talking about are people you want as allies in the long run. Treat them as such.

I have to disagree with Andre – and object to both sides spending an awful lot of time playing Dr Freud to people who disagree with them. I did it to a certain degree…but only to say let’s not make cartoons of each other.

I understand Alex, and consider myself a bright green in many ways because I am familiar with the thinking in nanotech and biotech… There are game changing possibilities. Most people in TT stuff, really don’t have a grasp of the potentials in either field. I am dubious of the market bringing really transformative tech (too many embedded oppositional interests.) I think of the power of Microsoft andhow it was used to crush innovation in operating systems. We do not in the main use the best of the best operating systems, that’s capitalism.

But I do understand that there are two camps and the TT people do not in the main entertain advances or problem solving possibilities of either nano or biotech or simply redesign. I don’t think it’s ‘grasping at straws’ to do so.

Of course techies and scientists have a bias towards solving problems and defining problems in new ways. The do believe any problem is solvable. (Not commenting on whether this is rational.) People who are more grounded in the humanities have a much more bleak picture of humanity – because our focus has always been on human folly and frailty, through study of history,lit and psychology. Because I have a foot in both camps I honestly flip flop between bright and dark green…Which I have demonstated in this thread.

Am I wrong here?

[…] A Critique of Transition at WorldChanging that seems to have somewhat missed the point is provoking much debate and detailed response by Rob Hopkins… […]

André Angelantoni
5 Nov 11:14pm

Hi, Liz.

Dismiss or disagree with my comment re: the psychology behind how humans operate, not a problem to me. Naturally, I think it’s a valid point to consider and other people might find value out of it even if you don’t.

Regarding your other point, I think the technical advances you and others might be aware of just don’t matter as much as you think they do. I’m well aware of them, myself, as an avid reader of and a moderate gadget guy who also has a great deal of experience in high tech.

We are undergoing the largest credit contraction ever experienced by any civilization. During this period, many, many, technologies will never see the light of day and others currently being produced will stop being produced as the world trade system breaks down. I saw this in small form as the tech bubble burst. A lot of my friends had companies that died from starvation. Unless you have had conversation after conversation with colleagues in which they simply kept saying, “There’s no investment money and sales are terrible. We’re shutting down,” you may not understand how incredibly dependent on money bringing new technology to market is.

Products will either never make it into product form, which is already a big leap from the lab bench, or if they make it into product form the companies will be faced with a society that is rapidly becoming poorer and can’t afford their products. The economic balloon that created the largest number of middle class people ever was filled by a one-time endowment of fossil fuels. The balloon is now shrinking (popping?).

Right now it takes some imagination to look five years into the future and continue in one’s mind the trends that are making themselves visible now. But five years from now, as we are surrounded by a dramatically poorer society, the number of people who will will even entertain the notion that technology will somehow allow us to live the way we do now will be much smaller.

The cornucopians and ‘bright greens’ have, in my view, a very poor grasp of the following key macro trends — if they have even heard of them (not an unfair jibe; my colleagues in the climate change community have no idea what the first two items below are, and the third one they may say they understand but not really):
* the export land model (net oil imports decreasing faster even than top line production decreases)
* the decline of net energy
* the fundamental flaw in the fractional reserve banking system
* contracting credit and the debt overhang
* the increasing burden of supporting more and more unemployed people as time goes on, sapping the economy

But my underlying point is that the technologists make a fundamental mistake: they think technology is independent of energy and the economy and that somehow their whizbang inventions, because they are so good and so needed, will automatically get funded and move into the market at least at the rate needed to maintain this way of life.

The technologist who were also business people were disabused of this notion as the the tech bubble burst. The technologists who have never run a business, likely the ones who write breathlessly that we can extract as much uranium from seawater as we want (or other similar nonsense) often simply do not have the necessary *business* background to make informed projections. Sure, listen to them for what they say about technology, but when they start venturing into economics, ask them how they have modified their views based on the first three bullet points above. If they say, “huh?” politely smile and go talk to someone who has a full grasp of these key trends. The reality out there is that not many people know about these trends much less have incorporated them into their thinking.

I saw this first hand: no money, no new technologies. To me, it’s really that simple.


Thank you for the reality check! Like climate change and peak oil – accepting the full force of the downturn is subject to a denial process. You and I share the same POV on this – I personally have a disposition which habitually seeks the silver lining.

I grew up in a house raised by a well developed market apocalyptic. Dad was an institutional broker. He had been predicting this process for decades. In January, he tried to kill himself, because despite the fact that he saw it coming, it devastated him to be correct. He survived the attempt, only to die of pancreatic cancer a few months later, penniless.

It has always been a struggle for me to get out of bed because of this surrounding darkness, so on a personal level my bright outlook – is more of a personal survival strategy – to keep my own head so to speak.

But yes. I am right there with you.

I didn’t mean to dismiss you in particular with regard to looking into the minds of others… I just want to make people aware of the problems of using it as a strategy to convince another. More often then not it’s a way to raise a wall between you and the person you wish to convince – even if you are spot on!

Mike Grenville
5 Nov 11:53pm

Like André I have been there and got several ‘dot com’ T-shirts….

Anyone who has done the rounds of Venture Capitalists and listened to demands for short term ROI (return on investment) and the punitive terms offered will know the truth of your comments about the relationship between investment, markets and technology.

Hey Mike – Me too – grew up 10 miles north of Silicon Valley, had my first computer in 89, been on the web since before there were pictures…making a quilt from all the swag shirts :D.

And Andre – I did make the point about operating systems and Microsoft – to shorthand the argument you’ve made here… But shortened it far too much apparently!

Linda Buzzell
6 Nov 2:05am

If anyone is interested in the psychological stages people go through when they wake up to peak oil, economic instability and climate change, here’s a link to “The Waking Up Syndrome,”
an essay that appeared in Issue #66 January February 2008 of HopeDance magazine:

The essay is also part of Sierra Club Books new anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind which has essays by Joanna Macy and Richard Heinberg, among many others.

John Mason
6 Nov 6:01am

Quoting Shane:

“was it Martin Luther King who blew wide open the campaign for rights for black Americans, when he re-framed the approach as civil rights instead of black rights? i.e. all the American peoples rights where being infringed. I think we have a similar issue of having to re-frame the approach in a way that takes it out of the green ghetto. It’s up to us to re-present the problems and solutions so that people realise that we’re all on the same side.”

That’s very true indeed, and well put – now the tricky bit – how do we do it? How do we achieve what would, if successful, apparently be the greatest paradigm-shift of humanity in 150 years?

I’m up at half-past four in the morning again simply because I was fed up of lying in bed worrying about just that when I should have been fast asleep!

To dip into the Microsoft analogy-world again, it does sometimes seem as though we are computers running on a different operating-system whilst the majority are running and communicating on Windows, so that they cannot even recognise any datafiles we produce, let alone begin to read them!

Is not one of the key problems that we have in communicating these issues simply this: that corporate consumer-capitalism works so effectively (when unconstrained by irritations such as resource-depletion) because it involves a near-total decoupling of the individual’s lifestyle with the natural world and its inherent physical properties? Once that is achieved, you have a consuming unit that takes a lot for granted, and expects stuff to be available regardless of the consequences elsewhere on the planet. Any perceived threat to that is then reacted to as an attempt to erode that most precious thing of all, “freedom of choice”. Green activists in the UK are often portrayed as people attempting to do just that, hence the “they want us to wear hair-shirts and go back to living in caves” type accusations that they often face.

Having said which, the “roll up your sleeves and get on with it” approach is still something that most people can relate to, and it acts as a bridge between people of many different political persuasions/levels of environmental consciousness. Just as well really, since as pointed out above, a lot of the techo-fixes some people like to posit for oil depletion are almost without exception la-la-land!

Cheers – John

Re-framing the discussion is an interesting challenge. I find myself talking to people about the “Energy Crunch” rather than “Peak Oil” as everyone can relate to that, following last year’s petrol price peak. I don’t tend to find any resistance to that, and discussions can quite quickly, and easily, progress to “and it’s only going to get worse”.

I also find that in spreading the “eco” message here we focus much more on the personal $$$ savings that there are to be made, rather than getting into the debate on Climate Change.

Both of those seem to reach people no matter what side of the political spectrum they are on.

Shane Hughes
6 Nov 10:18am

I believe the re-framed argument is one of exchanging economic growth with the growth of quality of life (of all beings). On first view it’s exchanging one positive for another positive rather than the limits to growth or no growth/recession argument which is a very negative exchange in the mainstream view.

All of the rest of the arguments embed into this new frame. There’s a great deal of people that believe that money and materials equates to quality of life but that’s the cultural story that we need to break or snap out of. There’s enough evidence out there that money doesn’t equal happiness and this notion is supported across all demographics. Even my Daily Mail reading dad agrees with this argument i.e. this is not a green argument, it’s one that once the cultural story has shifted, we can all buy into and work towards the new story with a passion.

i know this means competing with the capitalist corporate machines but at the end of the day that’s run by humans and these ideas all ready have strong holds at all levels of the corporate world and are permeating deeper and being given urgency by the current PO CC imperative.

I have faith that this is an argument that could put the majority of society on the same side. I can’t imagine that everyone agreed with the civil rights movement but it’s just about getting the critical mass.

I also like that it’s simple. a quick and easy phase; “replacing economic growth with the growth of quality of life (of all beings)” sums up a potential global shift to a resilient and vibrant planet. the reality is far more complex but it’s kind of like the 10:10 campaign, it needs that simple hook to penetrate a new believe or idea into the masses.

Les O'Donnell
6 Nov 11:02am

Both sides of the debate are right – there is no ‘wrong’. Once convinced of the need for action, people at all levels of society can perform according to their individual skills & knowledge. I for one never saw the Transition movement as ‘knitting & cycling’. We are all well aware of the need to draw on support from politicians, scientists, engineers, gardeners, and farmers, etc. Good debate – but how much effort have we collectively spent in effectively agreeing with one another when we could be educating others?

6 Nov 2:06pm

@LizM “The people you are talking about are people you want as allies in the long run. Treat them as such.”

I am for one. To point out the truth is to help someone; if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. But often, if you keep doing it, they ‘see reason’ — then they say, “Thankyou for the reality check.”

To truly mourn makes us far stronger than to smile — and deny. What Steffen is saying is, “I will not allow you to recognize the truth, nor mourn, nor act according to the reality.”

There is no such thing as bright green and dark green. As Andre says, bright greens are cornucopians. Cornucopians are wrong. That’s the end of the story.

Reality is a good thing.

6 Nov 2:47pm

andre is wrong that bright greens are cornucopians. andre is a lot of different wrongs in one powerpoint apocalypse presentation with bullet points and everything.

bright greenish people aren’t planning on having this world on a diet of 5% — they are cutting back considerably — but not to the victorian era.

if you don’t think that’s possible but you do think you have a magic spell that protects you from horrors then we better go out and find SOMEONE rational because none of us is.

André Angelantoni
6 Nov 5:24pm

Before this error is repeated some more, allow me to correct it. I do not call the bright greens cornucopians. The actual line is:

“The cornucopians and ‘bright greens’ have, in my view, a very poor grasp of the following key macro trends…”

I haven’t studied the ‘bright green’ idea in depth but I suspect they are somewhere between the ‘mad max’ line and the cleantech stability line in the four scenarios graph (which is actually Holgrem’s graph, of course) — exactly where TT’s are.

The difference is that TT’s generally understand the bullet points I wrote about above (net energy decline, export land model, the fatal flaw in fractional banking, etc.) whereas the bright greens, it seems, either don’t know about those forces or ignore them. (Again, I haven’t studied bright greens in depth, so I’m open to being corrected here.)

The funny thing is It doesn’t seem to matter to many of my colleagues in the sustainability/cleantech/climate change fields that the first big warning of peak oil ($147 oil) has helped cause historically high unemployment and a credit crunch — precisely what peak oil educators have been saying would happen for years. They simply keep talking about their pet ideas and technologies assuming there will be a recovery and that they just need to bide their time.

John Mason
6 Nov 5:56pm

Indeed, Andre, there is a difference! You CAN have cornucopians and green-tech fans saying pretty much similar things at times, precisely because they tend to stay within their spheres of interest in research terms a lot too much.

However… having obviously looked into the other parameters you mention over the years (and I’m sure many of us have), I still think there is hope: the big thing to do is to get projects rolling out that BAU accolytes within our communities find as appealing as TT-types like us – Shane and Andrew made some valuable points regarding such things above. Find that comon ground and find it ASAP! The intimate relationship between economics and resources that creates processes like demand-destruction is something that will buy quite a bit of time IMO. We must try to use that time as sagely as possible!

Cheers – John

André Angelantoni
6 Nov 7:51pm

Hi, John.

Well, I agree with you if the projects are very local, very practical and don’t require a lot of capital because when this current market rally ends (any day now), we are going to see another pulse of people laid off and without resources. Here in the U.S. local governments are broke as are most state governments. Soon the tax hikes are going to start (might have already).

I’m of the view that most of the time for medium-term planning is now in the past. People need to get very serious about how they are going to keep a roof over their head and food coming in the door. A good thing to do now while one has money is stock the pantry as though one is living 200 years ago and a long winter is coming. A friend in Utah told me two weeks ago that the Mormons, who are famous for their “two years of food in the pantry” rule, are frantically stocking up. This is a very, very good plan. Having food in the house will give people some breathing room as they work on other items.

In fact, I think it’s a very good idea if TT were to issue a “Stock Up Sunday” event of some sort. Get every TT community to organize one before the end of the year. Send suggested items, plus instructions on how to store food well and safely for a long time.

At this point, that would be MUCH, MUCH more valuable than a meeting to discuss an energy descent plan (which will never be enacted because the money won’t be there) or to map community resources.

John I understand your commitment to collaboration but time is now very short. I think it’s madness considering the precipice we are on to continue talking with folks like Alex and trying to create something together. Here in the U.S. we are on the brink of 20% unemployment (officially — we’re already there according to, whose numbers I trust more). It’s probably the same in the U.K.

If everyone reading this doesn’t have a full pantry and plans in place to bring in other people to help pay the rent or mortgage, they are just a job-loss away from the abyss. At that point it won’t matter how many visioning meetings they’ve gone to — they will be too busy looking for housing.

There is, in my view, much less time than most TT’s think to become personally resilient. Make the next TT meeting about how to get one’s own house in order before the end of the year (food and finances).


Ruth Wallsgrove
7 Nov 1:35am

Alex Steffen probably believes it’s immoral to believe collapse is likely, because that seems to be giving into pessimism. My instant reaction to some posts here is also in the realm of morals – I would say many people outside the US (and of course inside as well) feel it’s immoral to focus on personal survival, and immoral to believe that technology will save us.

Of course I also think there is no evidence anyone can hole themselves up and survive, and plenty of evidence that blind faith in technology is partly the problem, not the solution. But this isn’t just about ‘facts’.

I keep a store of tins and fresh water for emergencies like bushfires or blackouts, and read the New Scientist technology section every week, but I believe the only moral thing for me to do is what I can to help build communities who can work together on how to survive and what technology they can sustain. I know I am unlikely to be persuaded otherwise by ‘evidence’.

It intrigues me to see certain value differences I’ve experienced before when studying and living in the US coming out pretty much the same in Transition discussion. (Of course there are some other interesting differences around values in Transition…)

PS I don’t believe I come from the ‘green community’ as it happens, but I have noticed the problem of being seen as just a greenie (hippie mark 2?) appears to bother some American Transitioners more than here in Australia, for example. I grew up believing it does matter how you present ideas – that things are readable, for example – but you do have to speak from your values if you want to communicate effectively.

Worrying obsessively about how to speak to someone who doesn’t agree with you can be quite crippling, and in previous activist life it seemed often to go with self-doubt. At least I always wonder what someone is really expressing when they suggest we shouldn’t look so (fill in the box) green/ left/ feminist/ queer….

To be a bit more constructive, those who don’t feel so green, etc, can do their part by spending time talking with people they feel won’t listen to radicals. It truly will take all sorts to transform the world. – warm wishes, Ruth

Dave Dann
7 Nov 11:59am

I must admit that I previously had no idea what ‘bright-greens’ and ‘dark-greens’ were – how ignorant am I! This discussion is all very interesting but my feeling at the moment is that we are geeting nowhere because there is little unity of purpose amongst people and little chance of establishing it. It seems to me that we should be on a sort ‘war footing’ to deal with our problems. The most useful role of central government would be to start a general debate about how we are going to live in the future, with the hope of trying to achieve as much consensus and common purpose as possible. Instead we have a totally head-in-the-sand, ‘business as usual’ approach with even (this is the UK) a continuing concern to finance people and projects can cannot pay their way.

John Mason
7 Nov 8:33pm

The heads are well-down, Dave!

But not every one!

Cheers – john

Jan Hendrik Rufer
9 Nov 3:25pm

Obviously there is not a shared vision.
So i am not surprised that there is de-vision.

Have a nice day!


David Eggleton
14 Nov 6:09am

Everyone is invited: I pledge to serve as a steadily strengthening force for whole places and whole people. I will learn what is known about them and I will share what I discover about them. I will again and again introduce myself and this service to people I don’t know. Thus, I will acquaint myself with my community and it with itself. I will witness and celebrate healing and I will know I am living.

[…] I was particularly pleased that The Transition Handbook (by Rob Hopkins) won the vote for the first round of the newly formed Hyperlocavore Book Club, because I was fascinated by the Bright Green vs. Transition Towns discussion that has been going on throughout the last month.  (The key posts are Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities? posted at Worldchanging, and the response written by Rob Hopkins himself: Responding to Alex Steffen’s Critique of Transition at Worldchanging.) […]