(2009-10-30) Steffen Transition Town Critique

Alex Steffen challenges the Transition Town meme. There's just no way to see it as anything other than terrific that people are coming together, recognizing the magnitude of the problems we face, and looking for paths to more resilient prosperity... Yet, ultimately, the Transition Town approach stifles its own potential impact. The Transition movement seems saturated with what Michael Lerner called "surplus powerlessness" disguised as practicality. All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse... and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap... Even at its most ambitious, it generally focuses on building alternative systems (say, starting a local currency (LETS) scheme) rather than reforming the larger systems that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual Credit Union or rewriting banking regulations)... Worse, the strategy implicit in this vision of transitioning - that there can be local soft landings in the event of a global hard crash, that indeed the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level, and that perhaps collapse will solve some of our problems - is delusional. Collapse is not a tool for social change. It's essentially impossible to look at history and find a case where large-scale collapse (Collapse Of Complex Societies) has lead to anything other than lots of destruction, hunger, disease, suffering and a decline into widespread violence and warlordism. If you want to see what happens when large numbers of urban people encounter situational collapse, look at what happened in Liber Ia. Anyone who thinks an energy descent plan prepared by a community group future-proofs them against people like Charles Taylor has simply taken a vacation from reality... What we need is a movement of local efforts aimed at changing things that matter at scales that matter... While it is true that organized greed beats unorganized democracy every time, it's also true that organized, educated, passionate democracy is the most powerful political force ever seen, and we live amidst an exploding proliferation of tools for organizing our communities, sharing our knowledge and connecting our passions... To fight the Powers That Be, we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be, building the future we want.

RobHopkins responds - At the heart of this is the difference between the concept of Energy Descent and of collapse... 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 "RenewableEnergy 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... 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... 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.

In Alex's thread, he posts many responses to commenters. After RobHopkins linked to his own-blog's response (see previous paragraph), Alex responded: I wish I had time at the moment to write a detailed response to your response, because you bring up some good points, we clearly misunderstand each other on some others, and in some other places I think, um... well, you're wrong. Unfortunately, we're slammed here with elections, two big talks next week and the lead up to COP-15, so there's no time to do another long essay justice. So instead, I'll issue an invitation: let's debate each other next year. There's further discussion about flying to discuss Climate Change, and the inherent problems in a De Bate format.

Carolyn Baker has a separate response. ...the factual information that if assimilated, will preclude any hope that "larger systems" bought and paid for by corporations and their legislative minions can alter the present suicidal trajectory of the human race... I must adamantly disagree with Steffen's insistence that we need "bright green" anything on a large scale. For him, it appears that "large" is the only scale that matters because he seems not to have grasped that "large" is synonymous with empire (BigWorld), "large" is part of the problem, and "large" is unraveling at lightning speed. He wishes us to stop seeing these systems as "out of our control" when that is precisely what is so.


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