What Transition gets Right- and What it Gets Wrong

First off, sorry for the long pause in postings- since arriving home for the summer, I’ve found myself gifted with a list of various farm projects and chores my parents haven’t been able to do themselves, so I’ve actually been busier than I was during the semester.

With that out of the way, today I will be discussing the Transition Towns movement (sometimes just referred to as Transition). Transition is a social movement that sprung into existence out of the permaculture movement in response to the threats posed by peak oil, climate change, and, in some flavors of it, the general economic and financial disruption that presumably would accompany the first two.  Its proposed response is to downscale significantly: return the economy to a more local form, heavily localize food production, and greatly reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions (via reduction or elimination of car travel within the community, more things made locally and by hand, and strong promotion of energy conservation).  Supporters also claim that this will lead to better quality of life through a stronger sense of community, so a lot of what I mentioned in my previous essay on localism    holds true for Transition.  There is also a lot of emphasis on building resilience, both physical (for communities) and psychological (for individuals).

What Transition Gets Right

As a movement, Transition has proven to be surprisingly popular (although nowadays I think 350.org may be overshadowing it).  In some respects, this isn’t surprising- Transition presents a very bleak picture of what the future might hold, and then offers a solution based on immediate, practical action anyone can take.   In a world beset by seemingly intractable and ever-growing environmental crises, it’s refreshing to find a movement that says “Hey, you actually *can* do something about all of this.”

It’s this self-reliant “can-do” spirit, along with its decentralized and local focus, that gives Transition its value- it is one of the few movements that I know of that are actually encouraging participants to take a direct hand in the management and well-being of their community, and hopefully help run things a more sustainable manner. The emphasis on resilience and community support is also encouraging- if we do end up making a turn for the decentralized, we’re going to need to radically overhaul how we, say, grow food, for example, and it’s good that there are people already working in that direction.  As a result, some very important societal and economic foundations may end up being laid by Transition.

With all that said, I’ve never been 1oo% comfortable with the movement, and below will try to articulate why.

What Transition Gets Wrong

Well, at least, in my opinion, anyway.  My concerns basically fit into three categories.

1. The New Age influence is kind of annoying.   This is probably my most minor concern, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.  Transition Initiatives are encouraging to include an “Inner Transition” component- basically, how to help people adjust to the envisioned post-Transition future. This is sometimes referred to as the “Heart” of Transition, as opposed to the “Hands”, which presumably focus on more practical and worldly matters.  Some of this involves actually psychology, but a lot of it comes off as kind of fuzzy feelgood navel-gazing- there’s lots of talk about deepening one’s connection with nature and with others, the spiritual, and “Visioning”.  I suspect a lot of this is the result of Transition coming out of a very New-Agey area in England; it’s also worth noting that a lot of the New Age stuff is toned down considerably in some Transition Initiatives (at least, the one near where I am hasn’t said much about it).  In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor complaint, but it works to make Transition irritatingly vague and empty-sounding at times.

2. The influence of Peak Oil.  Peak oil, in simple terms, refers to the fact that oil is finite resource, and at some point will start get scarcer.  This is not disputed by anyone except some of the most fringe “abiotic oil” proponents.  However, there is a faction within the environmentalist and sustainability movement that has grown very alarmed about the fact, and in some cases, is convinced that we’re going to basically start running out of oil any day now (notable writers of this persuasion include James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg (though I think he may have mellowed out a bit), and Transition founder Rob Hopkins).  Peak Oil enthusiasts (for lack of a better term) frequently point out that a frighteningly large portion of material goods and service in our everyday lives are at least partially dependent on hydrocarbons; many go on to speculate that industrial civilization as we know it isn’t possible without them, and that there’s nothing that could possible replace the utility of oil. Personally, I suspect a lot of the latter is mostly a reaction against the Julian Simon school of Cornucopianism which asserts that there are always substitutes, but I digress.

The problem with this is twofold, in my opinion.  First off, while, yes, oil is definitely a finite resource, and we will run out, probably sooner than we’d like, that’s not necessarily the real problem we’re facing.  We know we have plenty of hydrocarbons left- as Bill McKibben pointed out, we have at least five times the amount of carbon we can emit safely.  It doesn’t really matter if we get to the point that we’re seriously running out of fossil fuels, because the climate will have been totally fubared anyway.

Of course, you may be wondering why this makes a difference- one way or another, we’re going to have to start using less fossil fuels, possibly a lot less. Wouldn’t Transition still be relevant?

Well, yes and no.  The work that Transition is doing will certainly still be helpful.  However, the ideological baggage that comes with Peak Oil (something which I might address in a future post)- that we’re nearing an inevitable collapse, with our only choice being to return to a mostly agrarian, quasi-pre-modern society, with the twist that this will somehow end up being a Good Thing (despite, as Alex Steffen points out in his critique of Transition Towns, societal collapses rarely result in positive social change) isn’t really adding much to the movement. Additionally, I feel that the mental energy wasted on deliberating on why fossil fuels are going to run out sooner than everyone thinks and why nothing can possibly save us could probably be put to better use.

3. Transition doesn’t go far enough.  This one might be a bit surprising, since Transition seems to be a fairly progressive movement, but in some ways, it’s really not.  The efforts that most Transition Initiatives make are usually not terribly revolutionary- community gardens, seed swaps, clothing exchanges, etc.  In the face of the crises that Transition presents, their responses seem rather muted, especially since supporters will occasionally make Transition out to be the only realistic solution.  If things are going to be that bad, why aren’t we teaching people how to, say, cultivate antibiotic-producing fungi in their basement, instead of (or at least, in addition to) teaching them how to grow medicinal herbs?  My general feeling is if you’re going to focus on resilience and self-reliance, go the whole way.  If industrial civilization comes to a halt, it will take way more than a community garden, some solar panels, and a tool library to survive. In this sense, an interesting comparison to Transition is Open Source Ecology, which despite coming from a very different ideological background, actually is advocating going the whole way and being almost totally self-reliant -they are even hoping at some point to be able to extract their own aluminum from the soil.

Transition also seems to have definite past-oriented vibe, as well.  This actually isn’t that surprising, given that the underlying assumption seems to be that our grandparents’ (or great grandparents’) way of life didn’t require much in the way of fossil fuels, so that’s probably what the future will look like.  And, indeed, that’s not necessarily an unsafe bet- their way of life was less energy intensive, and probably did have a lower carbon footprint. But, to me, it’s almost too safe a bet- what we’re ostensibly responding to is not like any crises our great grandparents faced, and I don’t know if the solutions of their time will be entirely adequate to handle them.

An interesting comparison that really illustrates this focus is contrasting Transition with Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero concept.  Despite Steffen’s criticism of Transition, his own designs share many of the same features- walkable communities, local or regional food production, collaborative consumption, and an over all focus on significantly reducing energy use.  However, the overall tone and focus of the approaches is quite different- whereas Transition sees its solutions to possible future disturbances in terms of resilience and survival, Carbon Zero emphasizes innovation and creativity.  Transition favors the rural, Carbon Zero the urban. Transition has “reskilling“, Carbon Zero has “upskilling“.  Granted, it is likely that the future will require, for example, both upskilling and reskilling, and there is probably significant overlap between the two (although it doesn’t help Transition’s case that their list of suggested skills includes dubious trades such as biodynamic farming and “indigenous healing wisdom”- another example of the New Age influence); my personal suspicion is that we’ll ultimately see a fusion of the two- maybe something like this.

So, I guess you could say my largest issue isn’t that Transition is too radical, it’s that it’s not radical enough.

To be fair, if Transition had started out as audacious or as demanding as Open Source Ecology, it’s possible it would have never become as popular as it has.  And Transition members will typically admit that Transition is still evolving, and sometimes doesn’t live up to its potential.

For example, after I confessed that I had been kind of underwhelmed by Transition to a member of Transition Palouse during an Earth Day event I attended, she actually agreed with me, saying that most Transition Initiatives focus purely on food security, and after achieving that, just kind of stop; furthermore, that their initiative had several projects going on, including getting more options and infrastructure available for non-automobile transportation, and one member (who is an architect) was working on seeing if the local soil could be used for building ultra-low cost cob housing.

This, along with Transition’s own Cheerful Disclaimer that the whole thing is ultimately an experiment and is not guaranteed to work as advertised leads me to believe Transition may still have the potential to do good, and to play a nontrivial role in making our society more sustainable.  But I suspect that will only be the case if its members are willing to fully let it evolve and change as need be, and, if necessary, to perhaps let go of some of the dogma that it grew out of.

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About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
This entry was posted in Criticism, Environmentalism, local, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What Transition gets Right- and What it Gets Wrong

  1. Pingback: The Crux of the Matter | Planetary Habitability Starts at Home

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