Saturday, December 12, 2009

Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?

by Alex Steffen, 27 Oct 09
What can any of us do in the face of planetary catastrophe?

Staring into the ecological abyss, it's easy to feel small and unimportant. Edward Abbey wrote truly, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." But it's often hard to see how any actions we might actually take, as individuals, will have any meaningful effect, whatsoever: leaving aside the pablum about small steps and each doing our part, we all know in our hearts that taking out the recycling will not do much to slow the melting of Greenland.

The best thing, the really hopeful thing, about the Transition Town movement is that it breaks the emotional isolation privatized responsibility inflicts on us, and makes us part of a group working together towards change.

1) What are Transition Towns?

Transition Towns are communities in which some citizens have gotten together to follow a twelve-step process to make their towns more resilient despite energy shortages, climate change or economic collapse. At its best, "Transition thinking" offers participants a chance to do something direct and hopeful while the storm clouds gather on the horizon.

That volatile emotional mix of fear and hope has made it the most rapidly growing dark green movement in the world. Since we first wrote about the transition towns almost four years ago, the movement has taken off, with people in perhaps as many as 250 towns now actively taking part.

Those people are mobilizing the solutions readily available to them, from farmers' markets to skills swaps. 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. (Further explorations of transition efforts can be found in the extremely interesting Transition Initiatives Primer [PDF] and in The Transition Handbook).

2) The Limits of Transition Town Approaches

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.

Transition thinking seems obsessively focused on coordinating individual actions (like helping people barter their free time or connecting people who want to garden); even at its most ambitious, it generally focuses on building alternative systems (say, starting a local currency scheme) rather than reforming the larger systems that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations).
Part of this is the legacy of the counter-culture out of which it emerged. Part of this is that Transition Towns aim to offer a way to step out of emotional paralysis by saying "just go ahead and do something, anything." Part of it is intentional: groups spread more rapidly when the demands placed on their members are minimal. However, the approach also betrays a far darker mindset.

3) The Dark Side of Transition Thinking

The movement's founder, Rob Hopkins, talks almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly. Jennifer Gray, the founder of Transition U.S. (the American wing of the movement) told a New York Times reporter that she expects “a big population die-off." Board member Richard Heinberg says that central governments will "have to self-destruct in favor of local autonomy" and that "overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease."

That sort of casual eagerness for the death of others is appalling. 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 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 Liberia. 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.

Local efforts can't protect against the violence of a systemic breakdown. The same thing is true of public health and epidemiology, of disaster response and trauma care, of famine protection and crop insurance, and so on and so on. To plan for the collapse of large-scale systems is to plan for widespread evil and suffering; ethical planning for the collapse is impossible: post-collapse idealism is oxymoronic.

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.

4) What We Need Instead: Bright Green Citizens

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. The first step in those efforts is to stop seeing the systems we depend on as out of our control. They aren't, and that we're so convinced they are is a testament to the dedication of the powers that be to shoo us away from interfering in their profits.

Cynicism, boredom and fear are their tools. They reinforce, at every opportunity, the idea that government is broken, that civic engagement is for dupes, that real rebellion involves shutting up, making money and spending it. They craft public process to sap the will of the public to engage: as Richard White writes, bureaucracies use boredom the way a skunk uses smell. They make an effort to keep us in a state of constant economic and social anxiety undermining our willingness to connect with and trust each other. Whether these tools are used consciously or unconsciously is completely beside the point -- you can apply whatever degree or lack of conspiracy theory you like: the effects are observable, and well-documented.

The great secret here is that we are more powerful than any of us usually admits. 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.

What is more, we live in a time where transparency and collaborative insight give ad hoc groups the capacity to understand the vast, complex systems we depend on, but which the powers that be have cloaked in layers of exclusionary expertise, regulation and jargon. We are not only capable of understanding the systems around us, but of imagining and inventing their replacements, and mobilizing the constituency to make that happen.

5) Designing a Movement with a Future
Transition Town efforts are engineered, like almost all modern movements, but they're engineered to solve the wrong problems.
What would it take to design a movement that actually changed what needs to be changed? How can we design a networked movement that aims to forestall and undo catastrophe, by building bright green regions and sharing innovation?
Here are a few of the larger design challenges involved:
  • Finding places where a system has been draped in complexity, and revealing it in clear, beautiful, interesting ways. How things work is of inherent interest to many people. How can we reveal the workings of the systems around them in ways that help them see the usefulness of change?
  • Making public life exciting where boredom has dampened people's enthusiasm, if not simply driven them completely out of civic involvement. How can we simultaneously reject needless process in favor of quick, transparent and measured decisions and enliven participation? Being part of democracy ought to feel exciting, and invigorating: we should view every part of it that's boring with deep mistrust.
  • Launching a counter-attack on pervasive cynicism and finding fresh ways to call it what it is: cynicism is obedience. The very origins of the word mean "like a dog." Stripping cynicism of its rebelliousness, making it looks as entirely whipped an attitude as it is, is a huge step towards reclaiming the public realm. Indeed, I think we need to deploy our full battery of humorists, satirists and artists on looking at what part of us makes us so ready to accept the idea that all is sham and we're beaten before we start.
  • Reaching out to people have been made afraid of participation, and spreading enthusiasm and a delight in civic life. How can we make civic participation more welcoming, and jam the manufactured reactionary anger that conservatives use to gum up our public processes (through tea-bagging and astroturfing)?
  • Reclaiming the media sphere by supporting local journalism that actually reveals, informs and educates. How can we develop means to support reporting, writing, filmmaking and public discussion that advances our understanding of what to do, leaving behind the tired debates of the last generation?
  • Reinventing or replacing the kinds of civic institutions -- the university departments, think tanks, research labs, planning agencies -- that democracies need to make informed decisions, in the wake of 40 years of work by the right wing to either destroy these institutions or overwhelm them with new, better-funded ideologically-conservative versions.
  • Diffusing innovation through our local businesses and industry groups. Unsustainable business is bad business, even in the fairly short run: sound economic strategy in times like ours is to get in the business of replacing the broken systems around us. How do we build local business cultures that support transformation as the opportunity it is?
  • 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.
We don't yet know how to do all this, but we can iterate our way into it through experimentation, exploration and innovation, consciously practicing ally etiquette to link efforts across a spectrum of systems into a collaborative whole. Indeed, since the whole thing starts with vision, simply sharing our visions for what this looks like is a huge step in the right direction.

We don't need to wait for some mythical cultural awakening, either. There are more than enough of us, already. In most cities around the world, a fraction of one percent of the citizens getting energized and turning out -- using new tools to learn together, coordinate strategy and exert public pressure -- would feel like a tsunami of democracy and creative engagement.

And hidden allies can be found everywhere. Public life is full of people who want to see change, but need political cover. Change agents await activation in our government agencies, businesses, schools, political parties and media. If we can begin to engage the systems in which they've been quietly laboring at the systems level, we can expect unseen helpers in unexpected places.

It's time to make ourselves into the people who can do what's needed. To fight the powers that be, we need to see ourselves as the powers that will be, building the future we want.